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India

In the Footsteps of The Beatles to Rishikesh, India

Highlights of my 'Beatles Ashram' visit in Rishikesh, India.............................................Ramdas A. Iyer

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It was a grey and rainy day when friend Mark Riesenberg and I crossed the long suspension footbridge, Ram Jhula, hanging nearly 200 feet above the Ganges into the wonderful valley of Rishikesh, early last month. The river Ganga, both a spiritual and life giving resource had finally descended here to make its journey through the plains of India, after traveling from the glaciated peaks of the Himalayan ranges.
I had met Mark in my gym in New Jersey over a decade ago and soon came to realize the spiritual depth of this man though raised Jewish was more Hindu than most. Soon he became my meditation guru and who better to learn the techniques than from a master who was a student of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi himself, the founder of Transcendental Meditation( TM) institutes, whose ashram we were visiting. After graduating college in the 60s during the thick of the hippie movement, Mark chose to become a meditation teacher and worked for many years as one for the TM institute in the NY/NJ area.
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I had promised Mark that someday I would escort him to the real India and in 2016 accompanied by his daughter Kate, we embarked on a spiritual journey visiting Varanasi, Haridwar, Rishikesh and Bodh Gaya. We were treated to some amazing experiences including the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Haridwar ( over 100 million bathe in the Ganges during this month long worship of the river), meditations twice a day along the Ganges, uplifting moments under the Bodhi tree where Buddha achieved his enlightenment 2500 years ago in Gaya. One of the unplanned highlights was a visit to the Maharishi's much vaunted ashram in Rishikesh; a musical and spiritual retreat for the Beatles in 1968. Mark always remarked that the Maharishi had told him to visit India with an Indian in order grasp the full impact of the experience. The Maharishi's wish had indeed come true.
The Beatles first met the Maharishi in London in August 1967 and then attended a seminar in Bangor, Wales. They had planned to attend the entire ten-day session, but their stay was cut short by the death of their manager, Brian Epstein. Wanting to learn more, they kept in contact with the Maharishi and made arrangements to spend time with him at his teaching centre located near Rishikesh, in "the Valley of the Saints" at the foothills of the Himalayas.
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Along with their wives, girlfriends, assistants and numerous reporters, the Beatles arrived in India in February 1968 and joined the group of 60 people who were training to be TM teachers, including musicians Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and flautist Paul Horn. While there, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Harrison wrote many songs and Ringo Starr finished writing his first. Eighteen of those songs were recorded for The Beatles ("the White Album"), two songs appeared on the Abbey Road album, and others were used for various solo projects.
According to McCartney, the Maharishi "was great to us when Brian Epstein( their manager) died" and Cynthia Lennon wrote "it was as though, with Brian gone, the four needed someone new to give them direction and the Maharishi was in the right place at the right time." Curious to learn more, the Beatles made plans to spend time at the "Maharishi's training center" in India in 1968.
A quick brief here on the Maharishi(meaning Great seer) is apropos. Mahesh studied physics at Allahabad University and earned a degree in 1942. In 1941, he became an administrative secretary to the great philosopher and Vedanta scholar and Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math, Swami Brahmananda Saraswati( respectfully called Guru Dev) and took a new name, Bal Brahmachari Mahesh. The Maharishi recalls how it took about two and a half years to attune himself to the thinking of Brahmananda Saraswati and to gain "a very genuine feeling of complete oneness". Eventually he gained trust and became Guru Dev's "personal secretary" and "favored pupil". He was trusted to take care of the bulk of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati's correspondence without direction, and was also sent out to give public speeches on Vedic (scriptural) themes.
Although Brahmachari Mahesh was a close disciple, he could not be the Shankaracharya's spiritual successor because he was not of the Brahmin caste. The Shankaracharya, at the end of his life, charged him with the responsibility of travelling and teaching meditation to the masses. Thus began the TM movement.
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As Mark and I walked through the town along the many ashrams, coffee shops and Ayurveda Clinics, Mark with his characteristic smile quipped " This is a perfect home for a Hippie" . The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram was a bit way out of town, a 20 minute walk along the high river bank where the jungle starts engulfing the narrowing pathway. The Ashram today is inside the Rajaji Tiger Reserve and National Park. Until recently, one had to scale a small fence to get inside but recently access to the site is allowed with an entrance ticket. As we walked into the overgrown vegetation onto the small stone pathway we came suddenly we treated to a unique sight of multiple meditation pods that lined it on either side. The place was quiet, extremely peaceful except for an occasion chirp from the birds amidst the sound of flowing water. Lennon-McCartney song" Mother Nature's Son" written in this location rang in my mind:
"Born a poor young country boy, Mother Nature's son
All day long I'm sitting singing songs for everyone

Sit beside a mountain stream, see her waters rise
Listen to the pretty sound of music as she flies

Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo

Find me in my field of grass, Mother Nature's son
Swaying daises sing a lazy song beneath the sun

Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo
Yeah yeah yeah

Mm mm mm mm mm mm mm
Mm mm mm, ooh ooh ooh
Mm mm mm mm mm mm mm
Mm mm mm mm, wah wah wah

Wah, Mother Nature's son ".

Mindy Poder, executive editor of Travel Age West captures the scene inside the ashram well in her 2014 article.
" While the Ganges River may be a pilgrimage site for Hindus, “The Beatles Ashram” is something of a Mecca to many Fab Four fans. That’s what I explain to Ramesh Chawla, a local guide and native from nearby Haridwar, who has trouble understanding why I would want to visit a closed, decaying ashram. Somehow, in spite of its blazing importance to Western pop culture, the place where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught Transcendental Meditation to his famous followers in the 1960s has been left to rot. There, overlooking the Ganges River, they grew beards, donned Indian-style cotton pajama pants and tunics, meditated in private caves and attended lectures and discussions on their meditations. Following years of extraordinary success and the sudden passing of their manager Brian Epstein, the Fab Four were seeking peace of mind. They were hoping to expand their minds as well.
“Oh, it was pretty exciting, you know,” said Ringo Starr in an interview for “The Beatles Anthology” documentary. “We were in this really spiritual place, and we were meditating a lot, having seminars by Maharishi. It was pretty far out.”
Their time in Rishikesh turned out to be one of the most prolific periods of their career. They wrote most of the double album, “The Beatles” (more popularly referred to as “The White Album”), as well as songs that would later appear on “Abbey Road.” Many songs, such as “Dear Prudence,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” and “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and Monkey,” make direct references to what the band learned and saw while in India.
“I remember having a great meditation, one of the best I ever had,” recounted McCartney in the biography “Many Years From Now” by Barry Miles. “It was a pleasant afternoon, in the shade of these big tropical trees on the flat roof of this bungalow. It appeared to me that I was like a feather over a ... warm-air pipe. I was just suspended by this hot air, which was something to do with the meditation. And it was a very, very blissful feeling … And I thought, ‘Well, hell, that’s great, I couldn’t buy that anywhere.’ That was the most pleasant, the most relaxed I ever got, for a few minutes I really felt so light, so floating, so complete.”.
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The guide, Ramesh Chawla, referred in Mindy Poder's article incidentally turned out to be our guide too. He was a great 'guyde' and can be seen with us in a photo shot inside the Maharishi's bungalow . Each of the 86 meditation pods had a private room, toilet and a winding staircase that leads to a meditation grotto under the foliage. The scene was very surreal and looked like a scene from "Lost" as mentioned in Poder's article. Two wonderful gentlemen, from New Zealand and lovers of the Beatles emerged from the thicket and were glad to see us since they were completely lost. We walked and chatted away into the late evening with much energy and excitement.
It is said that it was Paul and George who had the most benefits from this trip. Ringo left in a week while Lennon was very restless during his stay. Mia and Prudence Farrow were a part of the Beatles entourage. Prudence was supposed to be a serious meditator, spending hours a day deep in meditation. She became so serious about her meditation that she "turned into a near recluse" and "rarely came out" of the cottage she was living in. John Lennon was asked to "contact her and make sure she came out more often to socialize". As a result, Lennon wrote the song "Dear Prudence". In the song Lennon asks Farrow to "open up your eyes" and "see the sunny skies" reminding her that she is "part of everything". The song was said to be "a simple plea to a friend to 'snap out of it'".
" Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It's beautiful and so are you
Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, open up your eyes
Dear Prudence, see the sunny skies
The wind is low, the birds will sing
That you are part of everything
Dear Prudence, won't you open up your eyes?
Look around round
Look around round round
Look around
Dear Prudence, let me see you smile
Dear Prudence, like a little child
The clouds will be a daisy chain
So let me see you smile again
Dear Prudence, won't you let me see you smile?
Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It's beautiful and so are you................ "

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My friend Mark was so excited to visit Maharishi's bungalow- once a wonderful abode with fine detailing and sweeping views of the Ganges below. Mark had always maintained that the Yogi was a very special person with great penchant for of design and organization. This was evident from the layout of the ashram. Later as we walked into the huge meditation/ lecture hall, Mark remembered his lectures in Switzerland in similar halls were Maharishi used to be seated in front of 400 plus devotees who listened to his speeches on Vedanta. One of the idealistic views of the Maharishi was that World Peace could be achieved through inner peace attained through meditation. While a great utopian concept, it was unfortunately a failed attempt at changing the world. At least someone tried and many of us are still on that path.

Just two years ago, Canadian artist Pan Trinity Das set out to revitalize the former meditation hall of the ashram. Das was joined by volunteers from around the world — artists and fans alike. According to the group, the project was closed down after two weeks by park authorities. But with just black, red and white paint, the group created what is now called Beatles Cathedral Gallery. As I view the art that fills the hall, it’s clear that this group tapped into the same creative energy that inspired The Beatles during their stay. We were lucky to photograph this beautiful place and present it here even as the light on that rainy evening was fading rapidly.
On one giant wall, there is a painting of John, Paul, George and Ringo in pop-art style, with each of their faces half-obstructed by shadow. Other pop-art portraits fill the hall, including that of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on an empty stage on the opposite wall. It feels like a visual representation of what the guru-teacher relationship might have been like, as imagined by fans solving the puzzle themselves. Snippets of classic Beatles lyrics written at this very location twirl around the paintings. They fill the silent hall with song. What was even more beautiful was a 'Peace" symbol made completely out of fallen leaves.
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It was indeed a reminder of an amazing counter culture age so enriched by the music of the Beatles and the spiritually uplifting message of the Yogi.
With joy in our hearts we left this beautiful ashram, though in a state a decay it still had the spirit of a great philosopher and the imprint of four great musicians. Jai Gurudev!.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Credits:
Wikipedia (245 references)Travel Age Media, The Story of the Maharishi (published 1976), William Jefferson,Photographs of the Beatles in Rishikesh by Paul Saltzman, Mark Riesenberg

PHOTO GALLERY

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 11:55 Archived in India Tagged india himalayas john beatles george rishikesh paul lennon mia starr ringo harrison yogi mccartney tm maharishi mahesh farrow Comments (11)

Life, Death and Salvation along the Water's Edge: India

Experiences along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India

sunny 95 °F

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The ancient city of Varanasi (Kasi) has been the ultimate pilgrimage spot for Hindus for ages. Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. These few lines by Mark Twain say it all: "Benares( a British corruption of Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together". Hindus believe that dying along the Ganges in Kasi would enable the soul to attain Moksha (liberation) from the cycle of birth and re-birth. The river Ganges according to Hindu mythology flows from the hair of Lord Shiva seated in the Himalayas.
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Born a Hindu, I have always had a special place for Kasi( Varanasi )in my heart. Growing up in a traditional Brahmin family, I often heard of tales about men and women leaving their family lives to spend the reminder of their life in Kasi seeking spirituality, self-reflection, meditation and atonement. Like a visit to Mecca most Hindus would like to bathe in its waters at least once in their lifetime.

My short trip to Kasi in 1998 was interesting but not eventful due to heavy rains that submerged most of the bathing Ghats( steps leading to the river). Coincidently on the day I was being rowed along the river banks where cremations were conducted, my mother’s only sister passed away, and I was thinking of her!. In 2011 I set out seek out the “real” Kasi where learned men once wandered in their loin cloths, where devotees by the thousands traveled for miles to bathe in the sacred waters of the Dashwamedh Ghat, to watch the burning pyres of the Manikarnika Ghats or simply revel in the joy and reverie of pilgrims enjoying themselves in the holy city. As a traveler I was trying to see through my mind’s eye the concept of Kasi, a land of spirituality. Those with no knowledge of its history will only witness a dirty and polluted river city with hordes of people.

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Early western visitors to this place were so fascinated that they waxed eloquent for many years about the greatness of India. George Harrison did his bit too!. India like the rest of the world is changing fast, leaving behind age old traditions, facing corruption and seeking a more material existence. In this scenario I am attempting here to focus on three important events experienced during my three day stay that were amazing and thought provoking.

My sister Ranee, brother-in-law Dave and I were staying at a wonderful haveli( nobleman’s home) on the banks of the Asi Ghats. This hotel, Ganges View, is very well known amongst the literati where small classic music concerts are common place daily . While we were enjoying the broad river view from our second floor terrace, there was a commotion and there arrived a man with a flowing beard , penetrating eyes and wearing the handloom outfit of a cultured man. He was followed by an entourage of bureaucrats, policemen and the like trying to appease him. Later that evening I stopped the gentleman as he was passing by and inquired about all the fuss over him. It turned out that he was 80 years old, was an IAS( elite Indian Administrative Service) officer from the Uttar Pradesh cadre, a former Cabinet secretary and “Minister” at the Indian High Commission in London. He mentioned that he was visiting with his family to do the annual rites for his parents who lived and died by the river Ganges for over 50 years. He continued that he was from a well to do Brahmin family from South India and after he had graduated from college and the IAS his parents decided that their only son was in a good station in life and they removed themselves from the material world and retired to an ashram, where they meditated, studied and did charitable work until mother Ganges took them into their fold. What makes it more interesting is that this gentleman’s one son is the Editor of a major US weekly magazine and an ex NYU professor, his American wife a contributor to Wall Street Journal and the other son is the Editor of India’s oldest National Newspaper,both educated in Oxford University, were all there with their families. He was also thankful that he served India when corruption was not an issue and politics did not prevent progress. It is a great story of an illustrous family connected deeply to Varanasi and the river ganges.

The second experience was absolutely surreal. We were walking along a quiet section of Asi Ghat at night . The Ghats are very busy during the day with pilgrims and vendors but at night it quiets down only with an occasional stray dog barking, or a small group of elders discussing the rotten state of politics or a group of young men laughing and lollygagging. Near the river bank in a dark obscure corner we saw a man sitting in the lotus position completely covered from head to toe in white cloth with a clean copper bowl of Ganges water next to him. We observed him for some time and realized that he was in deep meditation. I later read that “Covering the whole body above the crown chakra( skull) activates, what the yogis call the sarasu and it is from here that the soul is said to descend into the child at birth or leave when cremated.. Sarasu is also a huge energy field. By covering the head, the energy is retained to help the inner fire build.”
We were completely blown by this sight. One needs to be there to understand the gravity of the moment and not being an Indian did not deter Dave from appreciating the moment. The next morning I was up by 5:30 AM ,a time of intense activity amongst the ritualists and the purists along the banks of the river and there I saw the same slender figure in white cloth saying his morning prayers under the Peepal tree to Lord Siva. (see the picture of a slender figure doing Puja under a tree)

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The last experience that I am about to write was one of extreme sadness and raised the question of belief over propriety. It was around 11:00 Am as we approached Dashwamedh Ghat after a long walk along the 80 or so bathing Ghats on the river bank. The sun was shining bright and the temperature was hovering around 95 F. Close to the water the activities were numerous: pilgrims performing ritual dips, families taking a plunge fully clothed, local children playing, an occasional dog or monkey trying to grab some food offerings to the river, Brahmin priests conducting family prayers, barbers shaving heads of pilgrims who have vowed that as a sacrifice to Ganga. Amidst all these activities was a very old man, quite infirm, curled up on the steps writhing gently with very little sound coming out of him. Each lap of a wave would briefly inundate him with water. I realized that he was dying and was left there to die. We were distraught and did not know what to do and ended up inquiring about his condition to a nearby vendor of religious articles. He mentioned that many poor people leave their very old and infirm to die here since they have no money to cremate them and hope that the river will consume him . While we were shocked, all the activities around him were going on as though nothing happened. Full of guilt we walked away so as not to interfere with this cruel form of euthanasia. Filled with curiosity we came back an hour later to realize that he was not there anymore. We only hoped that one of the many volunteer /NGO took care of him. I searched the web for articles similar to what we had seen and found none.

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The water’s edge of Varanasi, where Buddha preached and Tulsi Das composed the Hindu epic Ramayana is still a place filled with wonderment; of life, of meditation, of sacrifices, of learning and the corruption of the body and its aftermath. It brings out emotions of love, sympathy, empathy, devotion, agony ,grief and misery.

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 14:15 Archived in India Tagged ganges varanasi ganga kasi beneras Comments (4)

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