I was ten years old when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a little known Indian teacher who had founded the “Spiritual Rejuvenation Movement” back in 1959, gave a retreat in Bangor, Wales. That retreat, with its usual attendees from the metaphysical sub-sub-culture, would have gone completely unnoticed by the rest of the world were it not for the surprising attendance of four very influential people: John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
The Beatles had already been setting trends in fashion, music, haircut, and lifestyle since the early 1960’s. When they grew their hair longer into the “mop cut,” it became the signature of the Beat generation in 1962. When they started to experiment with psychedelics, it took only a few months for many others to do the same, and it spawned the summer of love in 1967.
So when the Beatles went off to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, first in Wales and then in Rishikesh, India, the number of people learning transcendental meditation went from a few hundred to millions within a year. When the Beatles went to India they were joined by Donovan, Mia Farrow, and a handful of other cultural icons. The Beatles got disillusioned with Maharishi within a year. Their song “Sexy Sadie” on The White Album ridicules their ex teacher. George quickly hooked up with Swami Prabhupada Bhaktivedanta, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, and developed a devotion to Krishna which was unbroken until he died. Swami Muktananda set up shop in South Fallsberg, New York, and also drew in a torrent of celebrities. Werner Erhard created EST. By the early 1970’s, the question on everyone’s lips had shifted from “what’s a guru?” to “who’s your guru?” It seemed like everyone young and hip enough had a spiritual teacher they were following, and there were literally hundreds to choose from.
Many of those teachers were from India, Tibet, Japan, or China, and came from traditions where business and spirituality had no common ground. In the early 1970’s, however, many of them developed huge organizations, quite commonly with assets in the millions, and generally with a burgeoning feudal structure, not dissimilar from the very Catholic Church many of them had only recently shunned.
The attraction to having a teacher at that time was extremely clear. Many of us were born in the years following the second world war. Our parents were obviously confused about many things: gender roles, how to raise children, the purpose of being alive, to name just a few. They were, for the most part, adrift and unhappy. The religious traditions in which we grew up: Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism, seemed to offer only the possibility that we could become like the generation that had reared us. So an India teacher, promising the giddy heights of enlightenment, appearing to be completely relaxed and confident, with an unambiguous and strong position around sexuality, money, and how to look after your body, often with a strict regimen of practices to follow, made life simple and easy. Back in the 70’s, everyone thought their guru was The Way, and that Nirvana and Utopia were just a few years of meditation away. (more…)