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Working Class Mystic: George Harrison Gets Krishna Consciousness

by Gary Tillery:  A changed George Harrison returned to England from India in 1968.


Apple employee Tony King, who knew him well and had been at Klaus Voormann’s house the night Harrison began writing “Within You without You,” saw the difference. “When I first met George in 1963, he was Mr Fun, Mr Stay Out All Night. Then all of a sudden, he found LSD and Indian religion and he became very serious. Things went from rather jolly weekends, where we’d have steak and kidney pie and sit around giggling, to these rather serious weekends where everyone walked around blissed out and talked about the meaning of the universe.” Pattie wrote that, even though she and George had come back from Rishikesh “renewed and refreshed,” she was aware of a change in him. “He had become very intense in India: the experience seemed to have answered some of the nagging questions he had had about his life but it had taken some of the lightness out of his soul.” Harrison continued to meditate and to chant, but now in an obsessive way. At times he seemed to find peace; at other times the sessions left him withdrawn and depressed. His moodiness came to affect her, to the point where she admitted feeling “almost suicidal.” During his visits to India, he had become fascinated by Krishna. Known as “the dark one,” the god was easily distinguished by being shown with blue skin. He was often depicted in the company of a retinue of Gopis—lovely maidens who tended to his needs—charming them by playing his flute. Adding to the weight of Pattie’s despair, George said openly that he felt a desire to become such a figure himself—a spiritual being surrounded by women.

Despite his spiritual hunger, the temptations of a rock star were still too much to resist. He had affairs with other women, and he became less guarded about them with Pattie. He invited a French girl who had just broken up with Eric Clapton to stay at their house. Pattie soon sensed that the relationship was more than just friendly. When she confronted George about it, he dismissed it as her imagination. Angry, she went to London to stay with friends. Six days passed before George called to tell her that the French girl had left. Meanwhile, the Beatles began work on their next album, which was titled The Beatles but came to be known as The White Album. Rishikesh had inspired them all. John, Paul, and George had come up with dozens of song ideas—even Ringo had one in mind. In the third week of May 1968, they went to work. They met first at Harrison’s house to tape twenty-three demo recordings, then moved into the studio on May 30 and worked on the album intermittently through October 17. They had such an abundance of new material that, against the advice of George Martin, they decided to release a double album.

Besides taking far more time to record than any other Beatles album, The Beatles was notable for other reasons. George, accustomed to having two or at most three songs on any LP, contributed four. John, who had left Cynthia and become attached to Yoko Ono, broke an unwritten code by bringing her into the studio while they worked. Also, for the first time, the Beatles had a guest star on one of their records—Eric Clapton, whom George invited to play lead guitar for the classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” In the song’s lyrics, Harrison’s new perspective on the world comes through clearly. “I look at you all,” he begins, addressing the countless millions who will hear his voice, and laments the tragedy of “the love there that’s sleeping” — the latent love unexpressed by people who are distracted. He sees in the cluttered floor, which “needs sweeping,” a symbol of their cluttered vision. The misdirected people he sees are “controlled,” “bought and sold,” unable to unfold the love inside. However, the world keeps turning. Surely we will learn from our mistakes—won’t we? The ponderous cadence, the sorrowful voice, and the anguish of the guitar suggest that the answer is no. George, now feeling enlightened to the way things really are, sees all through the eyes of a melancholy prophet.

The isolation he felt was about to be partly alleviated by his encounter with like-minded souls. On a cold December day in 1968, a crowd waited outside the Apple building, hoping as always for a glimpse of one or more of the most famous entertainers in the world. In their midst stood a strange American in a high-necked Eastern-style robe with a head shaved except for a topknot known as a shikha. Yoko Ono arrived in a Rolls-Royce. As a doorman hurried to open her door she noticed the singular figure. “You must be one of George’s,” she said. “Come on in.” The man followed her and was directed to a lounge where some fifty people waited for various reasons. The Beatles were involved in a meeting. When it broke up, the other three left the building, but George came and opened the lounge door. As soon as he spotted the man with the shaved head, he crossed the room and came straight up to him as though he knew him. “Hare Krishna,” he said in greeting. “Where have you been? I’ve been waiting to meet you.”

The surprised devotee of Krishna introduced himself as Syamasundara Das, a disciple of Swami Prabhupada. George recognized the latter as the man whose recording of Hindu chants had so captivated him two years before. He mentioned how he and John Lennon had started to chant after hearing the album and had spent hour after hour doing so while sailing among the Greek islands. While touring India with Ravi Shankar in late 1966, George had encountered Krishna devotees chanting in public and had happily joined in with them, and ever since he had been keen on meeting some of their Western counterparts.

Harrison said that what he was most interested in knowing was, out of all the deities in the Hindu pantheon, why Krishna? Why single him out for worship rather than Shiva, Brahma, Ganesh, or another god? Syamasundara replied that, according to the beliefs of his group, Krishna was God’s original personal form, the source from which all the others came. He was the one who merited the most veneration. Intrigued, Harrison invited the devotee to come out to his home in Esher that weekend.

In the rich scent of sandalwood incense, the twenty-three-year-old Syamasundara told George and Pattie his story. He had been a Fulbright scholar turned professional skier, yet he felt spiritually hollow. Like the protagonist of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, he found himself keeping an eye on the forests of the Northwest from a watchtower, passing the time by reading about Eastern mysticism. Then, on a visit to Haight-Ashbury, he went to a branch of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and heard Swami Prabhupada lecturing about the Bhagavad Gita and the value of chanting. His life changed.

George, dealing with the anxiety-inducing relations between the Beatles and the crumbling of the Apple venture, was fascinated. He knew very well how meditation and chanting had sustained him during distressing times. He was also impressed by the devotee’s buoyant spirit. He asked how the ISKCON members viewed death. Syamasundara explained that devotion to Krishna would be repaid by release from further births and a return to Krishna in his cosmic form. The essential requirement was to keep Lord Krishna in mind at all times, and reciting the Hare Krishna mantra made that a simple task.

Syamasundara said that his guru had sent him to England to organize a branch of the Krishna Consciousness movement. Indian residents had provided some aid, one example being the beaten-up pickup truck he had driven to Esher. The small group had set up a makeshift temple in London, which he invited George to visit.

The London branch of the Krishna Consciousness movement consisted of five adults and one infant living in a chilly warehouse. The devotees had transformed one wall of the loft into an altar. Upon arriving, Harrison saw several photographs of men in robes nestled amid burning incense and lighted candles. Near them were two eight-inch brass statues with garlands draped around their necks, the female with a hand outstretched and the male holding a flute. They represented Radha-Krishna, the dual nature of Krishna. George had seen much larger versions of them in India. There was also a small painting of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a sixteenth-century holy man who had originated the custom of chanting in the open air. The devotees said that in San Francisco they had decided one day to step outside their temple and chant outdoors. When Prabhupada found out, he encouraged them to continue, remarking that they must have been inspired by Lord Chaitanya.

George found in the group a fellowship he had been craving. When they pulled out some instruments, he played a harmonium and sang the Hare Krishna mantra with them. When they finished and bent down in homage to the altar, he joined them. Later they all ate Indian food together. Needing to leave for a recording session, he told them with great feeling, “I’m inspired here.” He invited the group to come and visit him in Esher, and they would become regular visitors to his home.

Harrison considered writing some songs in praise of Krishna and mentioned it to the group. They communicated this to Swami Prabhupada, who at once saw the value of linking up with the Beatles and encouraged them to release such songs. The group also suggested that the Beatles record the Hare Krishna mantra, knowing the effect it would have on youth. George instead recommended that the London devotees record the song themselves, and the Beatles would release it on their Apple label. This they did in the summer of 1969, with George playing organ and bass. The song reached the Top Twenty in Britain and received wide airplay around the world.

John Lennon shared George’s fascination with the Krishna Consciousness group. When he recorded “Give Peace a Chance” in his Montreal bedroom in May 1969, Canadian devotees were in attendance. Upon moving into his seventy-two-acre Tittenhurst Park estate that summer, he invited the British chapter to live with him while their London temple was refurbished. When Swami Prabhupada came to England in September for his first visit, John invited him to stay in one of the guesthouses on his property.

George, John, and Yoko Ono engaged in a lengthy recorded discussion with Prabhupada at the recital hall at Tittenhurst, which came to be known as “the Temple.” Among other topics, they talked about the search for a true guru, the power of mantras, various translations of the Bhagavad Gita, and disciplic succession.

Prabhupada had been working on a book about Krishna, intended to serve as a reference text for the organization. He wanted to have it published, but lacked the funds. Knowing that Syamasundara had a good relationship with George and that it would be a minor outlay for someone with Harrison’s wealth, he asked his disciple to make the request. Syamasundara resisted, afraid of jeopardizing his budding friendship. He explained to his guru that the main reason he had good relations with George was that he never asked for anything. He waited until George offered. But Prabhupada considered the book essential to what he was trying to achieve. He insisted. When Syamasundara asked how much was needed, Prabhupada responded that it would take nineteen thousand dollars. Stunned, Syamasundara tried again to emphasize that it was not a good idea. But his guru refused to accept his counsel. “Yes, yes it is. You’ll see. Krishna will help you.”

The next day, Syamasundara accompanied Harrison and a renowned sculptor, David Wynne, to select a slab of marble for the altar of the new ISKCON temple. George had offered to pay. The disciple fretted all day about his guru’s request. How could he impose on Harrison when he was already being so generous? He kept waiting for a favorable moment to bring up the delicate subject. Late in the afternoon, as the sky grew overcast, they went to Wynne’s house for dinner. Afterward the disciple realized that George would be leaving soon to return to Esher. The moment had come. He had no alternative but to make the request.

He summoned his courage and told Harrison straightforwardly that Swami Prabhupada had instructed him to ask if George would donate money for a project. Exactly as he feared, Harrison’s face “got increasingly grimmer and grimmer.” As he described the book on Krishna and explained the purpose, “I could see this whole thing passing through his face thinking, Oh man, they are just another one of these groups. Here it comes.”

He recalled that when he finished his appeal and paused, the room went quiet. Harrison “fixed me with this really belligerent stare.” Just then, with no warning, every light went out. “And BWAM! This bolt of lightning hit the house. . . . The whole house shook. The sound and the light were simultaneous.” For a long while they sat in tense silence, unable to see. When the lights came on again, Syamasundara glanced uneasily at Harrison. He was surprised to see a big grin.

“Well,” George asked, “how much is it then?” Syamasundara told him. George laughed. “Well, what can I do after that?”

He not only paid for publication of the book, he wrote an introductory note.

Awaken Consciousness

Source: AWAKEN


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