The Maharishi: When the Beatles' spiritual guru came to monocultural New Zealand

by Redmer Yska / 29 September, 2018
All aboard the “love” train: John Lennon, the Maharishi, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney. Photo/Getty Images

All aboard the “love” train: John Lennon, the Maharishi, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Maharishi spiritual guru new zealand

When the Maharishi popped in for a flying visit, it was hard to predict the influence this Indian guru would wield. 

Oprah says it makes her feel “1000% better”. Fellow A-listers Hugh Jackman and Russell Brand insist transcendental meditation helps them cope with their fabulous lives.

Closer to home, athletes such as Allison Roe and a few former All Blacks praise the calming technique famously endorsed by the Beatles. Half a century ago this year, the Fab Four flew to the Himalayan foothills – garlands around their necks – renouncing drugs in favour of the Maharishi’s flavour of spiritual meditation.

But it was a different story in 1962 when TM’s founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, flew in as part of a world tour.

The spectacle of a confident and articulate Indian religious teacher in far flung, monocultural mid-century New Zealand raised a few hackles. The guru’s long matted hair and beard, white robes and lotus position probably didn’t help.

Billboards in the main centres promoted him as the man teaching the world “the secret path to relaxation”. His lecture in the Wellington Town Hall drew a small crowd keen to hear more about “his deep method of meditation by which anyone may gain heightened efficiency of thought and actions and release from tension and anxiety”.

Nor did it help that money was involved. Tabloid Truth took exception to meditators having to pay, then as now, the equivalent of a week’s wages for a mantra – a word or sound – whose repetition is the basis of the technique.

Its reporter sought an interview with “the bearded man from the Himalayas, cloaked in white, sitting cross-legged on a chair in a Wellington office”. The reporter seemed taken aback at being told to leave his winkle-pickers at the door: “I sat shoeless,” he wrote. “It was the way the ‘master’ wanted it.”

At the time, the Maharishi was in his forties, having spent years following his religious teacher, Guru Dev. He’d incorporated some of his guru’s techniques in TM, launched from Madras in 1958.

Marianne Faithfull and boyfriend Mick Jagger before going on a 1967 Love Pilgrimage in Wales. Photo/Getty Images

Marianne Faithfull and boyfriend Mick Jagger before going on a 1967 Love Pilgrimage in Wales. Photo/Getty Images

He spent the subsequent decade criss-crossing the globe, spreading the word that meditation could soothe a world fretting about imminent nuclear attack.

The Maharishi’s understanding of the value of publicity meant he was always happy to chat to journalists. But his audience with Truth in the capital ended badly. After pressing the guru on the focus on money, the reporter was ushered out.

“He pierced me with a look as sharp as a quaint oriental dagger and asked did I or did I not want to be initiated? He pressed a bell on the arm of his chair and an assistant popped up like a geni.”

Yet the Maharishi’s timing was good in a decade in which Flower Power and LSD were about to unfold. By 1968, the Beatles were paying homage, famously jetting out to his ashram in Rishikesh, India, along with their wives and girlfriends.

Their Himalayan retreat ended in tears. Ringo fled after 10 days, and suggestions the guru acted inappropriately towards women saw John Lennon mock him in the song Sexy Sadie (“you made a fool of everyone”). The original title, Maharishi, was reportedly changed to avoid legal action.

Yet the Rishikesh “retreat” was productive musically. Between band members, a total of 18 songs emerged, many of which appeared on The White Album. A lack of electricity at the ashram forced Lennon and Paul McCartney to become more adept on acoustic guitar. The results showed in such songs as Julia, Blackbird and Mother Nature’s Son.

Fellow band member George Harrison later apologised for Lennon’s rudeness, performing concerts on behalf of the Natural Law Party, a Maharishi-linked political movement. The Maharishi died in 2008, believed to be 90. Western attitudes towards Indian spirituality would never be the same.

The Maharishi’s legacy lives on in New Zealand: a local branch of the Natural Law Party has continued to field parliamentary candidates here since the 1990s. It urges the teaching of TM to both prison inmates and prison officers as a way to reduce – even eliminate – crime.

This article was first published in the September 22, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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