The surprising release of a new single by Beady Eye (in support of the relief effort in Japan) provides an opportunity to explore the relationship between Hinduism, The Vedanta and rock music (with a slight detour into jazz). A cover of the Beatles song Across The Universe (see below), written by John Lennon and appearing on their final Let It Be (1970) album, it contains the phrase Jai Guru Deva Om, a term of veneration, meaning “I bow to the great teacher of truth”, used by followers of their then guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in honour of his guru (the eponymous Guru Dev).
It is considered necessary, in order to learn the higher spiritual truths, to be guided by a teacher who can communicate them from direct experience. The Beatles had met the Maharishi (at the suggestion of George's then wife Patti), in 1967, when he gave a talk at a hotel in London, and then subsequently joined him on retreats in Bangor, Wales and Rishikesh in India, to practice his technique of Transcendental Meditation.
The song was probably written in 1968 and first appeared on the compilation album No One's Gonna Change Our World (1969), in aid of the World Wildlife Fund. It is typical of western interpretations of Indian mysticism in that it sounds trippy - trippiness, like psychedelia, is a term that suggest the expansion of consciousness resulting from the use of LSD and Mescaline, in the main, and also strong Marijuana and the best Hashish.
It was a central cultural strand among many (others included co-operative anarchism, laissez fair enterprise, sexual liberation and artistic experimentation) that influenced the hippy movement of the time. It's chief value was thought to be its philosophical perspective, and perhaps more pertinently, its consciousness expanding techniques that required no drug intake. There is a scene in the Woodstock (1970) movie that records the seminal rock festival of the previous year, where a group of American hippies sit in a field and are instructed by another in an extreme method of yoga, that he informs them, will help them to experience a drugless high (see clip below).
It's chief value was thought to be its philosophical perspective, and perhaps more pertinently, its consciousness expanding techniques that required no drug intake.
As usual with this sort of approach, the point is missed entirely and a foreign, exotic culture is appropriated for its apparent usefulness in providing a euphoric thrill for disaffected middle class kids. But many in the counter-culture took up its study and practice with the longer term dedication required to understand its perspectival insights, with several rock musicians playing a leading role. The best known is perhaps George Harrison, the one Beatle who embraced Hinduism fully, providing finance for the Hare Krishna sect to establish their main centre in the UK, learning to play the sitar with the devout Hindu and master musician Ravi Shankar, and making several records that incorporated Vedantic chants as a central feature.
The Vedanta constitutes the philosophical core of Hinduism and presents of a view of life radically different from both the secular atheistic outlook popular among urban westerners and mainstream western religious beliefs of all kinds - which usually posit an external god figure who creates us, lets us go bad and is available to rescue us if we turn to him (sort of). Essentially proposing that the universe is itself conscious, and that universal consciousness is the underlying reality that we are all a part of, chanting is one of several methods used to directly access that reality (meditation, physical postures and exercises, prayer and contemplation are others).
The purpose, for example, of the Hare Krishna chant in Harrison's number one hit My Sweet Lord (see below), or the extended chants in the concluding part of his song Brainwashed (see also below - the chanting starts at 3.56min and is worth cutting directly to) is to re-focus the mind on its root cause. Hare and Krishna are terms for the universal consciousness. By repeating them and contemplating their meaning, the limited mind, that is clouded by the materiality of the world, can be clarified and the truth understood as a direct experience.
The mind is limited because the material world, made up of energy that emerges from the basis – pure consciousness - creates forms that though they are not actually separated from the basis, are experienced as such due to their dynamic, moving nature. The universe is seen as both moving and still, the two aspects held in balance, with the still essence – the conscious aspect – an infinite and therefore boundless and greater reality than the ever-changing dynamic materiality. Once the mind is clarified fully and the deeper reality directly encountered, all that is sought in limited life is realised. Boundless love, total peace, complete harmony, absolute knowledge are all found when the reality is realised. They are terms that refer to the reality.
As well as visiting Maharishi in Rishikesh, George Harrison also stayed at the ashram (community) of Ravi Shankar's guru Sathya Sai Baba (see below) and appears to have lived according to his beliefs until his death in 2001. Other rock stars of the time who found gurus were Pete Townshend of The Who, who was a follower of Meher Baba, Carlos Santana a follower of Sri Chinmoy, and in more modern times Boy George has studied with the Hare Krishna sect in London.
It is interesting to hear Liam Gallagher chant the Guru Dev mantra in the Beady Eye single. His former drummer in Oasis, Zac Starkey, is Ringo Starr’s son, but grew up with his mother’s second husband Isaac Tigrett, the founder of the Hard Rock Cafe restaurant chain, who is a devout follower of Sathya Sai Baba. Also his friend Johnny Marr, formerly of The Smiths, is an avowed fan of the guitarist John Mclaughlin and his work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Mclaughlin was also a follower of Sri Chinmoy, and made a devotional record with Carlos Santana that included an interpretation of the jazz track Acknowledgement from the John Coltrane album Love Supreme.
Coltrane was also influenced by the Vedanta and much of his later music explicitly attempted to express the underlying reality of universal consciousness. His wife Alice Coltrane became a follower of Swami Shivananda and started her own ashram in the USA and composed her music in the same mode as her late husband. I'm not sure if Liam is intentionally trying to invoke the ultimate truth in the single, but he will probably not be a total stranger to the concepts.
Brainwashed, George Harrison:
Sathya Sai Baba, Ravi Shankar and George Harrison:
The Happy Rishikesh Song, Beatles:
Across the Universe, Beady Eye:
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