George Harrison, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Prudence Farrow, and how ’60s pop music and Hollywood spread Transcendental Meditation to a new audience.
When Prudence Farrow heard that John Lennon had written a song about her, she was deeply worried.
“The thing about John was that he really was a genius,” said Farrow in a phone interview from her home in Florida. “He was just so quick. He really saw people’s faults as well as the good things. So, if he thought he could, he would nail you—in a hilarious way. All I could think about was ‘I wish they had never done this song.’”
The song—”Dear Prudence”—ended up being the second track on the seminal Beatles double album, known as The White Album.
Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet a 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?
Farrow felt tremendous relief when she finally heard it during a family gathering in November 1968 at their home in the famed Dakota Building in Manhattan, New York (coincidentally, the site of Lennon’s residence and eventual murder in 1980).
“It’s a beautiful song,” she said. “For me, it’s the only song [on The White Album that truly captures the flavor of Rishikesh, India”
How Prudence Farrow Met John Lennon and the Maharishi
In January 1968, Farrow left with her famous older sister Mia to join Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on a first-class trip to his ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India. Mia was nursing wounds from her recent divorce from Frank Sinatra. Nineteen-year-old Prudence was fulfilling a dream to study Transcendental Meditation with her guru—a miracle she had prayed for a year prior during a pilgrimage to Lordes, France.
But there would be a slew of other famous guests studying with the Maharishi at the same time, most notably, The Beatles, aka The Fab Four.
Just how did this fated meeting of Hollywood elite, rockstars, and Western seekers come together on the banks of the Ganges in the winter of 1968 in search of spiritual awakening?
A Guru with a PR Plan
“[Maharishi Mahesh Yogi] was not only a great spiritual master, but a fantastic businessman as well,” said Susan Shumsky, the Maharishi’s personal assistant for 20 years and author of the book The Maharishi and Me: Seeking Enlightenment with the Beatles’ Guru.
“He was very good at convincing people to help him in various ways. And he did it through love. He was an incredibly loving person.”
His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, known in the West as the “the giggling guru,” due to his penchant for spontaneous laughter, made his first trip to the United States in 1959, and he would complete 13 world tours by 1971. His mission was to spread the practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM), a type of mantra meditation passed on to him from his guru Swami Brahmananda Saraswati. He believed that the simplicity of the practice was particularly suited to the Western mind, and that through daily practice, 20 minutes twice a day, practitioners could achieve pure bliss consciousness, allowing them to live their lives from a place of love instead of from the prison of their unconscious minds.
“The Maharishi wanted to create world peace,” said Shumsky. “That was his main goal. He wanted to prevent World War III.”
This message of love resonated particularly powerfully amidst the backdrop of the turbulent ’60s where the Vietnam War was killing tens of thousands of young American men, a spate of high-profile assassinations and violent protests rocked the evening news, and the specter of nuclear annihilation spurred by the development of the Atomic Bomb and a Cold War with the Soviet Union frightened a nation.
Remembering this era, Prudence Farrow said “We didn’t go inside as a culture… the reasons that the world had used for war—they didn’t work. So, we had to find a way to survive inside our minds.” She added, “The Beatles were enormously influential…. they became a voice for that movement.”
If the Beatles were a voice for this new “inner” revolution of consciousness, their undisputed leader was the the youngest and “quietest” member of the band: lead guitarist, George Harrison.
The “Quiet Beatle” Finds Ravi Shankar, Psychedelics, Then Transcendental Meditation
George Harrison was born in Liverpool, England, on February 24, 1943, in the final years of World War II. The catastrophic effects of the war were obvious in the burned out buildings dotted throughout this bustling port city, the second most bombed city in England outside of London. The youngest of four, Harrison was raised in a Catholic working class family, in a modest four-room house with no electricity and a toilet in the yard.
When he joined The Beatles (then known as The Quarrymen) in 1958 at his schoolmate Paul McCartney’s invitation, Harrison was only 15 years old. The band’s meteoric rise to fame and unprecedented success is the stuff of legend now, but it’s easy to underestimate the immense creative output of The Beatles, who recorded 12 studio albums and 22 singles, starred in 5 feature films, and charted 17 number one hits during their prolific 8-year career, from 1962-1970. The group’s extraordinary fame prompted John Lennon to claim that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” To this day, The Beatles have sold more albums than any other artist on the planet.
See more Did You Know Beatle George Harrison Was a Yogi?
The Beatles began experimenting with psychedelics in the mid-’60s and integrated their experiences into their music. In Martin Scorsese’s 2011 documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World (featuring previously recorded interviews with Harrison), Harrison describes his first time dropping acid in 1965, and how he had visions of yogis of the Himalayas. “I don’t know why,” he said. “I’d never thought about them for the rest of my life, but suddenly this thought was in the back of my consciousness.”
1965 would be the same year the group was introduced to the music of Indian classical music legend Ravi Shankar while hanging out with David Crosby of The Byrds in Los Angeles. Harrison finally met Shankar a year later when he was touring England, and he began taking sitar lessons from the master, who simultaneously fed Harrison’s interest in Hindu tradition and spirituality.
“Ravi and the sitar were kinda like an excuse trying to find this spiritual connection,” said Harrison in Living in the Material World. “I had read stuff by various holy men and swamis and mystics and I went around and looked for them. Ravi and his brother gave me a lot of books by some wise men. One of the books was by a Swami Vivikenanda, who said ‘If there is a God, you must see him. And if there is a soul, we must perceive it, otherwise it’s better not to believe. It’s better to be an outspoken atheist than a hypocrite.’”
Ravi Shankar, who would have turned 100 this past April and is being celebrated in a series of concerts featuring his musician daughters Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones, as well as George Harrison’s son Dhani Harrison, was a dear friend and mentor to Harrison until his death from lung cancer in 2001.
Shankar’s second wife Sukanya Rajan recounted their unusual relationship in a phone call from her San Diego home, “He [Ravi Shankar] was so close to George. He was like a son, a friend, a disciple, all in one, a very unique friendship.”
In this quest for deeper meaning, Harrison and the rest of The Beatles traded LSD and other mind-altering substances for meditation. Harrison’s wife at the time, the model Pattie Boyd, read about Transcendental Meditation in the newspaper in 1967 and attended a seminar about the practice. When Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was visiting London later that year, Harrison and the entire band went to a lecture and were so entranced that they dropped everything to leave the following day for a 10-day spiritual conference in Bangor, Wales, to learn TM for themselves. Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful also joined.
The Maharishi personally invited the entire band and their wives to his compound in Rishikesh, India, in February 1968 to become TM instructors.
Life at the Ashram
“Rishikesh was like arriving on another planet,” said Prudence Farrow. “For centuries, this was the place where people would come to meditate and gain enlightenment.” Rishikesh had earned its moniker as “the birthplace of yoga” thanks to the hundreds of ashrams, temples, and flocks of seekers that arrive from all over the world to learn meditation and yoga at its source and bathe in the holy Ganges River that flows through town.
Because Farrow was traveling with her famous sister, Mia, the two of them were housed in a special private block or “puri” on the Maharishi’s ashram. “I felt really cheated,” she said. “It was a celebrity thing. I wanted to be like the other people.” John Lennon and George Harrison, who were joining the course two weeks late, were placed in this same block (the remaining Beatles would only stay for a few weeks and were not taking the training course). The Maharishi assigned Farrow to be their “course buddy” and to catch them up to speed when they arrived.
But, instead of sharing notes about the Maharishi’s lectures, the trio traded stories about why they were there. “John kept saying, ‘I’m here because of George,” she said. “George was the real McCoy. He was a real seeker. He was what he was whether he was a Beatle or not. He was a musician. That was his destiny. He had no choice. And he was pure because of that.”
Despite the Maharishi’s recommendations to meditate for at least eight hours each day, music was everywhere. Along with the Beatles, Mike Love, singer/songwriter from the Beach Boys, and the Scottish singer/songwriter Donovan Leitch, were also there. Without outside distractions, the Beatles were even more productive than usual, reportedly writing 48 songs while in India, most of which appeared on The White Album, with a few appearing on Abbey Road.
“John would sit out on the patio and pluck out things all the time,” Farrow said. But, she quickly became fully absorbed in her practice, sometimes not leaving her quarters for days. “I had already made a decision that this was all that mattered to me. I didn’t know where I was going and I didn’t think Maharishi would even ever think of me as a teacher because I became so crazy.” Her sister didn’t understand her devotion. “Mia had no idea what I was talking about. My mind was completely blown and she was like ‘what is the matter with you?”
In an interview given in 1980 shortly before his death, Lennon recounted the story behind the song “Dear Prudence.” “[Prudence] had been locked in for three weeks and was trying to reach God quicker than anybody else.” But, Farrow believes that, like Harrison, Lennon recognized her singular dedication to expanding consciousness. “I was like George, dedicating my life to this thing that most people couldn’t even feel or know that existed. And there’s a certain purity to that.”
Still Dreaming of World Peace
By the time Maharishi died in 2008, he reportedly trained 40,000 Transcendental Meditation teachers who taught the practice to over 5 million people.
“I absolutely believe that Maharishi changed the world,” said his longtime assistant Shumsky. “He brought about a world at peace, compared to where it was…and his motive was not only to create world peace, but his motive with individuals was to uplift them and help them be all they can be, to help them develop their full potential.”
At 72, Prudence Farrow only just recently retired from teaching TM after over 50 years. “One of things that he [Maharishi] started us doing was meditating in these large groups to put out peace into the collective consciousness,” said Farrow. “And so from my perspective, you are our children and grandchildren, and great grandchildren… whenever I’m around yoga people now, I feel so responsible for all of you… you’re the future of this revolution in the West. It started with us, but you will take it further and really establish it in Western culture.”