TIL NIRVANA EXPRESS
by Mick Brown (Hurst Editors: £25, 400 pp)
It’s all the Beatles’ fault. Anyone who has endured someone’s hazy account of “ending up” in India can blame John, Paul, George and Ringo.
In the summer of 1967, when the group was studying meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the foothills of the Himalayas, they made spiritual tourism deeply groovy. But, as Brown explains in The Nirvana Express, the Fab Four were only the latest in a long line of Western figures to fall under the spell of holy men from the East.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, these schools of thought, often loosely linked to Hinduism and Buddhism, captivated Europeans and Americans seeking a discreet alternative to the more garish dictates of Christian fundamentalists and bling -bling of Catholicism. George Harrison was just one of many seduced by the idea that “every soul is potentially divine.”
In the summer of 1967, when the group was studying meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the foothills of the Himalayas, they made spiritual tourism deeply groovy.
In a lively account, delivered with wit and warmth, Brown shows how Eastern mysticism went from suspect to venerable, then back to subject of skepticism. Along the way, it introduces a cast of scandalous characters – movie stars, novelists, heiresses and heretics – and shows how appeasing swamis and dubious charlatans left their mark on Western mores.
It all started with the Victorian love of learning. In 1879, Sir Edwin Arnold published The Light of Asia, a poetic imagining of the Buddha’s life that aroused the curiosity of some Eastern colonialists and adventurous spirits at home.
By the early 20th century, Indian philosophy had become fashionable. Sir Edwin Lutyens, the most famous architect of the Edwardian era, was not a fan. His wife, Emily, embraced Theosophy – which combined world religions in the style of Avengers Assemble – and became an ardent admirer of Krishna, the mild-mannered 16-year-old son of an Indian employee who had been chosen for the chance like his improbable Messiah.
While Lady Emily devoted herself to the boy, poor Edwin spent periods working in India, where he saw little beauty beneath the poverty.
Emily wrote to him to tell him that he was no longer welcome in her room and, subsequently, made less than spiritual overtures to Krishna. These in turn were repulsed.
Others were less easily influenced. The famous occultist Aleister Crowley – nicknamed “the wickedest man in the world” – found Eastern spiritualism far too passive. But the gurus continued to attach themselves to celebrities and socialites to gain traction and funds. In the 1930s, Meher Baba, a spiritual teacher with an eye on Hollywood, sought, unsuccessfully, to gain the patronage of Greta Garbo.
As Brown notes, Indian spirituality became mainstream in the 1960s, when the Beatles became fans. The saga of the world’s most famous band and the Maharishi – nicknamed the “Laughing Guru” for his mischievous humor – is a story of curiosity and disappointment.
In 1967, the group went to the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane to hear the guru speak (George’s wife, Pattie Boyd, recalled that “they seemed to do everything as a group; if one of them did something, they would all like to do it). ‘). The next day, the four musicians decamped to a teachers’ training school in Bangor, north Wales, where the Maharishi taught transcendental meditation. The retirement was cut short, however, when the band learned of the death of their beloved manager Brian Epstein.
In a lively account, delivered with wit and warmth, Brown shows how Eastern mysticism went from suspect to venerable, then back to subject of skepticism.
The Beatles then studied with the guru in India, in an ashram overlooking the Ganges. Mia Farrow, raw after her separation from Frank Sinatra, joined them with her sister Prudence (Lennon wrote “Dear Prudence” in her honor).
A gifted salesman, the Maharishi quickly dubbed himself “the Beatles’ spiritual teacher.”
Less famous disciples, Brown writes, were required to bring “six fresh flowers, two pieces of fruit, a clean white handkerchief, and a financial donation.”
It didn’t take long for cracks to appear.
Ringo didn’t like the food and went home early. The rest of the group followed suit when rumors swirled that the Maharishi made passes at Mia Farrow.
“We thought there was more to him than there was,” Paul McCartney noted. Lennon was more candid, recalling how stunned the Beatles were to learn of Epstein’s death and the Maharishi’s response when they told him of Epstein’s death. “And he was kind of like, ‘Oh, forget it, be happy’ – fucking idiot.”
There is a touch of Yes Minister among certain gurus
Only George kept the faith, maintaining a lifelong interest in Eastern religions. But the Beatles’ Indian stay created incredible music: more than half of the White Album was written at the ashram.
Perhaps the most complex of Indian godmen was Bhagwan Rajneesh, Brown suggests. Gordon Gekko of the swami scene, Rajneesh looked both to the sky and to the bottom line, building an empire in the 1970s and 1980s that included an Oregon town – which he renamed Rajneeshpuram – and the most largest collection of Rolls-Royces in the world. In 1976, actor Terence Stamp arrived at Rajneesh’s Indian base in Pune and immediately recognized another artist, comparing him to Orson Welles.
Stamp moved into the ashram: “I had a new name, I wore orange, I was studying tantric sex. It wasn’t uninteresting!
Rajneesh’s American business, which attracted thousands of visitors, collapsed in the mid-1980s, following reports of violent therapy sessions, sex scandals and a litany of crimes: his followers were convicted of bioterrorism attacks, arson and attempted murder. Their leader was arrested, fined and deported to India.
Brown shows how the vague wisdom of the gurus was both their strength and their weakness (there is a touch of Yes Minister in some of their opaque statements). Yet the influence of these mystics continues today. “Yoga classes are now held in church halls,” observes Brown. “Meditation has been stripped of its spiritual connotations and renamed “mindfulness.” »
In his previous book, Tearing Down The Wall Of Sound: The Rise And Fall Of Phil Spector, Brown revealed how a musical icon became a murderer. There are other fallen idols here.
A pattern of pure belief is formed, frozen by the greed and instability of gurus and believers. Brown illustrates the subjective reality of the spiritual highs with an amusing story about American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
In 1948, Ginsberg, whose mystical journey included Buddhism, mescaline and LSD, claimed to have been visited by God while reading a poem by William Blake in his New York apartment.
“Overwhelmed by the need to share the good news,” Brown writes, “Ginsberg crawled through the window to the fire escape and knocked on the window of the apartment next door, occupied by two girls. The window opened: “I saw God!” Ginsberg shouted excitedly.
“The window slammed shut. “Oh,” Ginsberg later lamented, “what stories I could have told them if they had let me in!” ‘