Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: Spiritual leader who introduced millions, including the Beatles, to transcendental meditation

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was best known as the Beatles' spiritual adviser. During 1967 and 1968, his influence over the Beatles, as well as other western musicians, was at its peak and although their time with him was short, it had a marked impact on their lives and their music: we would not, for example, have the "White Album" without it.

Despite his diminutive presence, his gentle voice and his benign, cross-legged appearance, the Maharishi became a controversial figure and there is still debate over whether he was a well-meaning sage or a charlatan. Whatever the truth, he introduced the West to transcendental meditation. According to his teaching, stress could be reduced by daily meditation. He said, "The philosophy of life is this: Life is not a struggle, not a tension . . . Life is bliss. It is eternal wisdom, eternal existence."

The Maharishi was born Mahesh Prasad Varma, the son of a tax official, in Jabalpur, central India in 1917. In 1942, he graduated from the University of Allahabad with a degree in Physics. Whilst in college and for many years thereafter, he studied Sanskrit under Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, a Hindu leader known as Guru Dev ("divine teacher"). Following his death in 1953, Varma retreated into the Himalayas for meditation and reflection.

When he emerged in 1955, he devoted himself to popularising his master's form of meditation, which was derived from the Hindu teaching of Advaita Vedanta. He adopted the name Maharishi, which means "great soul", and he rebranded the philosophy as "transcendental meditation". TM calmed the spirit and the Maharishi hoped that it would bring peace to the world. It is not far removed from John Lennon's "All You Need Is Love", written before he met the Maharishi. The Beatles' song "Across the Universe" pays thanks to Guru Dev.

In 1959, the Maharishi founded the International Meditation Society, with bases in London and then San Francisco, and set about recruiting members. He established his headquarters in Switzerland (moving to Amsterdam in 1990) and at its height the movement had more than two million followers worldwide, including 90,000 in the UK. His followers either paid a subscription or tithed part of their earnings, and as a result the society became rich, with the Maharishi running his own helicopter.

In February 1967, George Harrison's wife, Pattie, became intrigued after attending a lecture on TM at Caxton Hall in London. She informed her husband, who was developing his own interest in Indian culture. He had played a sitar on Rubber Soul (1965) and had gone to India in September 1966 to study the instrument with Ravi Shankar.

The Maharishi's visit to the UK coincided with the Summer of Love. Indian robes and music had become very fashionable. The Maharishi himself issued a recording of his teachings and acted as executive producer on the album Cosmic Consciousness by one of his pupils, the flautist Paul Horn.

In June 1967, the Beatles released Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which included a spiritual track by George Harrison, "Within You Without You". On 24 August, the four Beatles heard the Maharishi speak at the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane. After the lecture, they requested a private audience and he told them, "The kingdom of heaven is like electricity. You don't see it. It is within you." The Maharishi invited the Beatles to a course on TM that weekend at University College, Bangor.

Despite having the top-selling album at the time and the number one slot with "All You Need is Love", they had no engagements and agreed to attend. They also asked along their manager, Brian Epstein, but he had other plans. The train journey to Bangor, with the Beatles appropriately attired, turned the event into a media circus. The Maharishi told the group, "You have created a magic air through your names. You have now got to use that magic influence on the generation who look up to you."

On Sunday 27 August, Epstein died in London, probably the result of an accidental overdose, although it could have been suicide. The Maharishi comforted the Beatles and told them to think positively. This led to a strange press conference, which did not accord with public thinking on the tragedy of Epstein's death.

In February 1968, the Maharishi invited the Beatles to spend three months at his ashram in Rishikesh, about 150 miles from Delhi. With commendable seriousness, the Beatles wanted to explore their spiritual growth, but the press was unwilling, or unprepared, to understand the Maharishi's teaching, TM and Eastern philosophies. The Maharishi had a tendency to laugh merrily, so he became known as "The Giggling Guru" and Private Eye began to refer to him as "Veririchi Lotsamoney Yogi Bear". Ringo's uncle had advised him to be careful ("He's after your money, lad") and Ringo himself spoke for the common man when he described the compound as being "like Butlins". The Beatles were lampooned for subscribing to what was held to be nonsense.

Daily meditation certainly helped the group, particularly John Lennon, who came off drugs completely. The three song-writing Beatles became prolific, and some of their output related to what they were being taught – for example, Paul McCartney's "Mother Nature's Son". However, Lennon's "Revolution" is evidence that he had not wholly accepted the Maharishi's teaching: a daily meditation session designed to eradicate ego could only appeal to him for so long.

Ringo hated the diet, and his wife, Maureen, hated the mosquitoes, so they came home early; Paul and his girlfriend, Jane Asher, left after 10 weeks. John had invited their friend the inventor Alexis Mardas (Magic Alex). For some reason (possibly jealousy), Mardas disliked the hold that the Maharishi was having on the Beatles and believed him too concerned with worldly things for a spiritual man. Why, he asked, did the Maharishi have an accountant by his side?

"The temptation for the Maharishi to use the Beatles for publicity purposes was something of which they themselves were acutely aware," says the Beatles' biographer Mark Lewisohn:

They generally abhorred people capitalising on them, so quite quickly – when the Maharishi began talking about having the Beatles appear in a film to promote the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, and perhaps touring with him – they found themselves having to order the holy man to cool it, a task that must have challenged their generally limited powers of tact.

Instead, the Maharishi instigated an American tour of rock venues with the Beach Boys, something Paul McCartney had very clearly told him not to do, and it was an unqualified disaster. It's fair to say that question-marks about the Maharishi's motives were raised during this period.

How the Beatles came to break with the Maharishi is a matter for conjecture. The actress Mia Farrow was on the compound, recovering from the break-up of her marriage to Frank Sinatra, and she had her sister Prudence with her. It is possible that the Maharishi made advances to Prudence, but whatever the circumstances, both John and George told the Maharishi that they were returning home. "Why?" he asked. John, seeing an opportunity to rework an old joke, said, "If you're so cosmic, then you'll know." John went on to mock the guru in song, calling him "Sexy Sadie": "Sexy Sadie, what have you done, You made a fool of everyone."

It could be argued that the visit to India created disharmony rather than harmony for the Beatles, but there were many other factors causing tension within the band, including John Lennon's love for the Japanese artist Yoko Ono, who could be seen as an alternative spiritual leader for him.

The Maharishi never received the earnings he had anticipated from the Beatles, but he maintained his celebrity following in the 1970s. He established TM centres around the world, several in the UK and America, and established a university in Fairfield, Iowa.

In later years, he developed an interest in yogic flying which led to a political offshoot, the Natural Law Party. George Harrison and Ringo Starr both appeared at a concert for the party just before the general election in 1992 and Paul McCartney reunited his friendship with the Maharishi on a visit to the Netherlands. Harrison, who practised meditation until his death in 2001, commented, "The Maharishi was fantastic and I admire him for being able, in spite of the ridicule, to keep on going." Starr said, "I feel so blessed I met the Maharishi – he gave me a mantra that no one can take away, and I still use it."

In 2007, the Maharishi prepared for death by retiring to concentrate on silence and study the texts which had first inspired his teaching.

Spencer Leigh

Mahesh Prasad Varma (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi), spiritual leader: born Jabalpur, India 12 January 1917; died Vlodrop, The Netherlands 5 February 2008.

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