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.

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit