The Beatles’ Spiritual Consciousness

Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th Anniversary

June 1, 1967, the “Summer of Love”, The Beatles released Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album was a revolution in music, art and spirit. Sgt. Peppers cover art featured four Indian spiritual masters, among other iconic people and the Beatles themselves. (On May 26, 2017, a new documentary film will be released to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Peppers. The album will be reissued with outtakes of original recording studio moments and 34 previously unreleased recordings.)

The appearance of these spiritual masters on Sgt. Peppers album cover was a beacon set there by The Beatles lead guitarist, George Harrison, to shine light into the meaning of life.

Paul McCartney pitched the idea of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, as another persona of a band. “It would free us,” McCartney said, from the confines of The Beatles they were expected to be.

The lyrics spoke to freedom, an inner freedom, in the song “Within You Without You” where George sings, “Try to realize it’s all within yourself…When you’ve seen beyond yourself — then you may find, peace of mind, is waiting there.”

“He felt his role was to bring this light that otherwise people wouldn’t know about.”Peter Max

The Beatles mania brought them material success early in life. John Lennon and George Harrison explained in an interview how receiving so much money and fame changed their focus. “By having the money, we found that money wasn’t it,” George Harrison said “That thing [that’s still missing] is what religion is trying to give people.”

In 1966, the year before Sgt. Peppers release, George Harrison had traveled to India. “Ravi and the sitar was kind of an excuse to find this spiritual connection.”

“While I was in India with Ravi, I kept saying, ‘I want to know about the yogis of the Himalayas’…he and his brother, Raju, gave me…Autobiography of a Yogi. It was an Indian copy — English text, but from India. I looked at the cover and Yogananda just zapped me with his eyes, and that was it – it was all over!

“Then I read the book — and it gave me goose bumps. With some things you read you think, ‘Well, I’m not sure about that.’ But with Autobiography of a Yogi I was totally convinced about every word in the book; somehow his pureness and his heart just flowed out of it.”

As he read Autobiography of a Yogi and traveled in India, the lives and spiritual message of “these masters living in the Himalayas who were hundreds of years old, levitating yogis and saints,” were revealed to him in poetic detail.

George was awestruck by Yogananda’s insistence on direct experience of the divine and navigating one’s own spiritual path. A relief from the Western edict to “just believe,” George described his reaction in an interview: “I thought ‘Fantastic! At last, someone who makes some sense.’ So I wanted to go deeper and deeper into that.”

This excerpt of the documentary short film, The Spark, describes the inspiration of The Autobiography for The Beatles.

In January 1967, George brought what he had learned, and how his soul had been moved, into the Sgt. Peppers cover with artist Peter Max. The photos, he would explain in later years, were “clues to the spiritual aspect of me.”

Joshua M. Greene writes in Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Mystical Journey of George Harrison:

“In January 1967 George sat in the sound room…working with the other Beatles on [the] album, wishing it were done…“I’d give up everything if I could be a monk walking from one side of India to the other,” he told artist Peter Max.

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“George told me that [the Sgt. Pepper cover] was where he deposited his first clue. A lot of people aren’t even aware that there’s a photo of Yogananda in there. That was the first of his clues…He felt his role was to bring this light that otherwise people wouldn’t know about, and he was hoping that one day the clues would blossom into something.”

“Try to realize it’s all within yourself…When you’ve seen beyond yourself — then you may find, peace of mind, is waiting there.”George Harrison, "Within You Without You"

The lineage of spiritual teachers that inspired George, and Yogananda describes in his book, includes Jesus Christ, Babaji-Krishna, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Swami Sri Yukteswar. Except for Jesus, all of them are given at least a chapter in Autography of a Yogi, and are featured on the Sgt. Peppers album cover, along with Yogananda.

  • We find Paramhansa Yogananda on the Sgt. Peppers cover in the upper right corner below Bob Dylan. Born Mukunda Lal Ghosh, his title of “Paramhanasa,” meaning “highest swan”, was given to denote his spiritual achievement of “premavatar”, incarnation of divine love.

  • In the upper left corner of the Sgt. Peppers grouping of faces, we see the Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri. His penetrating mind and the depth of his spiritual perceptions earned Sri Yukteswar the title “gyanavatar”, incarnation of wisdom. Sri Yukteswar was Yogananda’s guru and trained him to bring yoga to the West.

The documentary short film, The Spark, shows how Yogananda came to the United States in 1920, knowing no one, and sparked a spiritual revolution of yoga and meditation, speaking to audiences that packed the largest halls in America. He lived the rest of his life in the US, speaking and teaching until the moment of his death in 1952.

  • In the third row from the top, to the left of Lewis Carroll, we see the half-closed eyes of Lahiri Mahasaya peeking out at us. Lahiri Mahasaya of Beneras, India worked as an accountant, supporting a wife and small family. He was also a fully enlightened yoga master, the guru of Sri Yuktewar and Yogananda’s parents, and earned the title “yogavatar”, or incarnation of yoga.

    Lahiri Mahasaya was the “father of Kriya Yoga,” the spiritual meditation practice that, by all indications, George Harrison practiced through his adult life.

  • The guru of Lahiri, Babaji-Krishna, the “Mahavatar” meaning “great avatar”, is found in the second row to the right of writer William S. Burroughs.

    “Like Lahiri, Babaji’s image is partly hidden on the cover. This is perhaps appropriate,” wrote Richard Salva, author of Soul Journey from Lincoln to Lindbergh, “for Babaji’s powerful, sublime influence wafts over an unknowing world without fanfare — secret and sacred, like the reclusive master himself.”

“I remember I was in medical school when they came to India and it was in every newspaper all over the world – it was really an overnight awareness that people didn’t have before.”Deepak Chopra

George Harrison used his life opportunities–his sphere of influence–to Be the Change he wanted to see in the world.

Placing images of these saints on the cover of what became one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (Rolling Stone), injected the concept of a spiritual life into a generation searching for meaning in life. Spiritual teacher, “guru” came into the Western lexicon as people sought to understand this ground-breaking album. When the Fab Four arrived at the Maharishi ashram in Rishikesh, India, the words “Beatles” and “guru” became closely joined.

“I remember I was in medical school when they came to India and it was in every newspaper all over the world – it was really an overnight awareness that people didn’t have before,” remembered Deepak Chopra.

“As the lead guitarist of the world’s biggest rock band and a prolific song writer, the Beatles’ George Harrison’s greatest legacy may be the way his decades-long spiritual quest shaped the ways the West looks at God, gurus and life…” wrote Steve Rabey in “How George Harrison changed the way we believe,” National Catholic Reporter, 2011.

Over 30 million people are said to have read Autobiography of a Yogi. Philip Goldberg, author of American Veda, talks about The Beatles, Yogananda and the impact of his seminal book for many spiritual leaders at the 70th anniversary celebration of Autobiography of Yogi, sponsored by Ananda at the Bodhi Tree LIVE studio in Hollywood.

George Harrison investigated several paths of Eastern spirituality. George encouraged The Beatles to learn meditation, for which training was not readily available in 1966. The year after Sgts Peppers album debut, The Beatles traveled to Rishikesh, in northern India, where they participated in an advanced Transcendental Meditation (TM) training session at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Some say he read the iChing as he wrote “My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

The Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, died at 32 when they were in India. Loosing their mate and the “5th Beatle” so young was spiritually moving for the band. (A tribute concert to Epstein will help celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Peppers album.)

“I give [Autobiography of a Yogi] out constantly to people. When people need re-grooving, I say read this, because it cuts to the heart of every religion.”G.H.

By many indications, George Harrison’s spiritual path came full circle to the Kriya Yogis he first discovered with Ravi Shankar in the Autobiography of a Yogi, becoming a disciple of Yogananda and practicing Kriya Yoga meditation until his death in 2001.

A Yogananda prayer—“May Thy love shine forever on the sanctuary of my devotion. And may I be able to awaken Thy love in all hearts”—speaks to how George devoted his life.

Awakening love and opening hearts became George Harrison’s mission, expressed through his music and life. Listen to While My Guitar Gently Weeps: “I look at you all and I see the love that lays there sleeping….I don’t know why nobody told you how to unfold your love.”

In a letter to his mother, George wrote “Don’t think I’ve gone off my rocker…I now love you and everyone more than ever.”

As with his music, George turned every meeting into an opportunity to share Autobiography of a Yogi and Yogananda’s teachings. He regularly kept a stack of the books in his home and carried copies in his suitcase, so that he could hand them out for free.

“I give it out constantly to people,” he said, “When people need re-grooving, I say read this, because it cuts to the heart of every religion.”

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“I wanted to show that ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Hare Krishna’ are quite the same thing.”G.H.

A number of photographs show George wearing a pin with the photograph of Mahavatar Babaji, including during his 1974 meeting with President Ford, where he gave Ford a similar pin along with a copy of Yogananda’s Autobiography.

George Harrison brought spiritual energy and inspiration into his music. In 1970, he released “My Sweet Lord,” based on the 200-year old gospel classic “Oh Happy Day.” George starts the choral line with the word “Hallelujah” as the refrain and then changes to “Hare Krishna”, demonstrating the universality of the Divine spirit.

“I wanted to show that ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Hare Krishna’ are quite the same thing,” he told a friend. “The word ‘Hare’ calls upon the energy of the Lord.  If you chant the mantra enough, you build up an identification with God. God’s all happiness, all bliss, and by chanting His names we connect with Him.”

“Down through the ages, there has always been the spiritual path. It’s been passed on – it always will be – and if anybody ever wants it in any age, it’s always there.”G.H.

“At that time”, George later explained, “nobody was committed to that type of music in the pop world. There was, I felt, a real need for that…So I thought, ‘Just do it.’ Nobody else is, and I’m sick of all these young people just boogying around, wasting their lives, you know.”

“He was always looking for the truth, and always looking for peace of mind,” said a friend about George Harrison in the documentary film by Martin Scorsese, George Harrison: Living in a Material World.

The film shows how The Beatles found some awakening in acid trips, but also the limitation of it. George describes his disappointment in the drug culture, and how he changed direction after he visited Haight-Ashbury:  “I stopped taking [drugs]. That’s where I really went for the meditation.”

“With our love, we could save the world.”G.H.

George brought the Divine spirit full force into his life and music. One Yogananda devotee told a story of how Sri Daya Mata, leader of the organization Yogananda originally founded to disseminate his teachings, helped the devotee recognize how any song—“My Sweet Lord”—could be impregnated with thoughts of love for God, can become a doorway to Heaven and become a spiritualized song or chant.

“My Sweet Lord” was George Harrison’s biggest solo hit. Then came “Give Me Love” in which he pleads to God “Help me cope with this heavy load, trying to touch and reach you, with heart and soul…OMMMM My Lord…Please take hold of my hand, that I might understand you.”

Recorded with Ravi Shankar, George Harrison considered “Chants of India” was one of his most important works, because for George it gave listeners a chance to “listen to something that has its roots in the transcendental, beyond intellect. If you let yourself be free, it can have a positive effect.”

Also with his friend Ravi, George Harrison produced the first-ever large scale benefit concert, The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Supergroup musicians–Harrison, fellow ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and the band Badfinger, plus Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan–performed for an audience of 40,000. The benefit concert and best-selling album raised international awareness and an estimated $12 million for relief efforts for refugees from war-related genocide. George Harrison’s pioneering efforts inspired many humanitarian projects, most notably Live Aid.

“I stopped taking [drugs]. That’s where I really went for the meditation.”G.H.

In 1974, George released his album Dark Horse. The cover features a prominent image of Babaji floating in the sky. “Whenever anyone utters with reverence the name of Babaji, that devotee attracts an instant spiritual blessing,” promised Lahiri Mahasaya in Autobiography of a Yogi.

“Each soul is potentially divine,” George explained at a press conference in 1974, “the goal is to manifest the divinity…The Lord, or God, has got a million names, whatever you want to call him, it doesn’t matter as long as you call him…Jesus is on the mainline, tell him what you want.”

Wearing a pin with Babaji’s likeness (a drawing described and commissioned by Yogananda, since no photograph exists), may have been for George like wearing a cross:  a symbol of his devotion; a silent, reverent prayer, perhaps; and a reminder that God was near.

George Harrison was irreverent and always creative in how he asked us to open our minds. After befriending the crew of Monty Python, Harrison mortgaged his house to create the production company HandMade Films and produce their Christ-figure comedy Monty Python’s Life of Brian. He even spoofs himself in this My Sweet Lord Pirate Song.

While he was a superstar musician, inducted into the Rock-in-Roll Hall of Fame and as an individual and with The Beatles, George Harrison did not let his ego drive his self-image.

“Nothing I can say about George speaks louder than his music. Knowing how reluctant he was to talk about himself led me to illustrate his years mostly in pictures. His life was fascinating not entirely by chance. He worked hard, was curious and energetic. He plunged into the heart of people, places and things he encountered, the good and bad,” wrote his widow, Olivia Harrison in her biography of his life, George Harrison: Living in the Material World.

“He transcended the distractions of success and fame to maintain a one-pointed focus upon his goal of spiritual awakening.”Olivia Harrison

“Life to him was a quest for deeper meaning and everything was important to him but nothing really mattered. His particular way of embracing and dismissing life’s joys and disasters was completely disarming. He could let go as easily as I held on. ‘Be here now’ was repeated so often we actually did begin to live in the moment.”

His son Dhani said, “My earliest memory of my dad is probably…in a garden covered in dirt…I think that’s what I thought he did for the first seven years of my life…I came home one day from school after being chased by kids singing ‘Yellow Submarine’, and I didn’t understand why. It just seemed surreal; why are they singing that song to me? I came home and freaked out at my day:  ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were in The Beatles?’ And he said, ‘Oh, sorry. Probably should have told you that.’”

As Olivia Harrison, put it, George Harrison “transcended the distractions of success and fame to maintain a one-pointed focus upon his goal of spiritual awakening.” She wrote after his death from cancer at only 58, “He often said ‘Everything else can wait but the search for God cannot wait, and love one another.’”

George commented on his own life and spiritual path this way: “People say I’m The Beatle who changed the most. But really that’s what I see life is about. The point is unless you’re God-conscious, then you have to change because it’s a waste of time. …the whole thing is to change and try and make everything better and better.”

“Each soul is potentially divine…the goal is to manifest the divinity.”G.H.

George Harrison lived his life to Be the Change he wanted to see in the world. Like George, you can learn to meditate, open your heart, and be a creative force for peace and harmony in the world, too.

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