A painted Sadhu, a man who renounced his possessions to live a life of poverty, stops me for a conversation in hope of receiving money. I stop because I am drawn to watch the wild monkey that he befriended who is politely sitting next to him without grabbing anything. He tells me about his relatives in Buffalo, and their prosperity, how they got a green card, and why he prefers his possession-less life. Over the course of several days I hear much from the simplest locals about their connections to the US or Australia. Rather than isolated figures who do not know of the wider world, now even those in exotic locations are on some of the new routes of globalization.
Rishikesh is one of those off-beat globalization hubs as the world’s capital of Yoga and most of those who currently teach Yoga seek to spend time in the city perfecting the craft. Hence, the recent return of elements of Hindu devotional practice into American Yoga. Rishikesh in the Indian state Uttarakhand, about 45 minutes by plane north of Delhi, located in the foothills of the Himalayas. The name Rishikesh is loosely applied to an association of five distinct sections encompassing not only the town but also hamlets and settlements on both sides of the river Ganges. Three of the sections are for tourists, one is the old ashram hub and there are also several parts on the mountainside itself beyond city lines.
Rishikesh is home to the 133 year old Kailash Ashram dedicated to the traditional Vedantic Studies. Prominent personalities such as Swami Vivekananda, Swami Rama Tirtha and Swami Shivananda have studied in this institution.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s, aspiring swamis practiced their attainments in this isolated spot, north of well-known holy city of Haridwar. In the 1940’s they start the modern Yoga movements. In 1934, Swami Asuri Kapila established the the Ramana Ashram and the International School of Yoga in Montevideo, Uruguay. Swami Asuri Kapila wrote to his friend, Swami Sivananda (Rishikesh, India), to promote the organization of yoga all over the World, and proposed the creation of the International Yoga Federation. In 1947, Swami Sivananda established the World Sadhus Federation and in 1948 following the example founded the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy, to train yoga teachers and swamis.
These Swami are important because they took their traditional ascetic education and created a Modern Hinduism in the 1940’s to 1970’s. They took out the superstition, the anti-scientific, and any remaining polytheism. They created in their own words a scientific form of body control along with breath techniques and mind enhancement. Yoga was no longer an ascesis to reach beyond rather an ideal form of integrated life. They taught Yoga as a psychology and fitness, leaving out the Brahmin Hinduism and even leaving out the tadtional commentaries on the Yoga Sutra.
Swami Shivananda and his student Swami Vishnu-Devananda set up camps, modeled like summer camp, in the Laurentians outside of Montreal and another in the Bahamas. George Harrison discovered the latter while filming HELP! and the rest is history.
The town Rishikesh becomes internationally known when in February 1968, the Beatles traveled to Rishikesh, India to attend an advanced Transcendental Meditation (TM) training session at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Pilgrimage to the former Beatles ashram, now decaying as part of a natural park, is the leading tourist attraction here. (If you never read the story, it is good tale. Below are parts of the wiki version.)
Along with their wives, girlfriends, assistants and numerous reporters, the Beatles arrived in India in February 1968, and joined the group of 60 people who were training to be TM teachers including musicians Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and flautist Paul Horn. While there, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison wrote many songs and Ringo Starr wrote his first. Eighteen of those songs were recorded for The Beatles (the White Album), two songs appeared on the Abbey Road album, and others were used for various solo projects.
Starr and his wife left on 1 March, after a ten-day stay; the McCartneys left after one month due to other commitments; while John Lennon and George Harrison stayed about six weeks and left abruptly following financial disagreements and rumors of inappropriate behavior by the Maharishi.
Also there at the same time were Mia Farrow (who had recently divorced Frank Sinatra), her sister Prudence and brother John, Donovan, Gyp “Gypsy Dave” Mills, Mike Love, jazz flautist Paul Horn, journalist Lewis H. Lapham, film-maker Paul Saltzman, socialite Nancy Cooke de Herrera, actors Tom Simcox and Jerry Stovin, and dozens of other, all Europeans or Americans. Lennon, who had thought of bringing Yoko Ono, decided against it.
Lennon was respectful of the Maharishi but not in awe of him. At their first meeting Donovan remembers that the Maharishi was “amiable but non-talkative” and during an awkward silence Lennon walked across the room and patted the Maharishi on the head, saying, “There’s a good little guru” while the room erupted in laughter. Maharishi canceled the formal lectures for a time and told students to meditate as long as possible. One student meditated for 42 straight hours, and Pattie Boyd once meditated for seven hours
Donovan taught Lennon a guitar finger-picking technique that he passed on to Harrison. The technique was subsequently implemented by Lennon on the Beatles’ songs “Julia” and “Dear Prudence”. The latter was composed by Lennon to lure Prudence Farrow out of her intense meditation.
Both Lennon and McCartney often spent time composing rather than meditating, and even Starr wrote a song, “Don’t Pass Me By”, which was his first solo composition. The group violated the ashrams rules by doing much LSD and Hash. One evening, when the moon was full, the Maharishi arranged for everyone to cruise on the Ganges in two barges. The trip started with the chanting of Vedas by two pandits, but soon the musicians brought out their instruments. The Beatles sang Donovan’s songs, while Love and Donovan sang Beatles’ songs, and Horn played flute.
Lennon wrote the song “Maharishi”, which was later renamed “Sexy Sadie” because Harrison advised Lennon that was potentially libelous. Lennon said on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, “We believe in meditation, but not the Maharishi and his scene”, and, “We made a mistake. He’s human like the rest of us”. Lennon went on to say: “I don’t know what level he’s on but we had a nice holiday in India and came back rested.”
Philip Goldberg, in his book American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoa and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West, wrote that the Beatles’ trip to Rishikesh, “may have been the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness”. Despite their temporary rejection of the Maharishi, they generated wider interest in Transcendental Meditation, which encouraged the study of Eastern spirituality in Western popular culture. - read more here
Today in Rishikesh
I was in Rishikesh last week to make connection with the Swamis who signed the Hindu-Jewish dialogue document.(more on that in few months)
Currently, it is a wonderful vacation town. It is as if Rhinebeck, Woodstock, and New Hope-were all combined into a bigger town and everything is inexpensive so that you are staying at least a week or two. The town is surrounded by the beautiful foothills of the Himalayans. They have western style bakeries and coffee shops for a croissant and a French Press coffee. And coming from Varanasi, it is not that religious of a town in the tourist parts since meat and alcohol are served just over the town line. The tourist parts have more of a new age and Buddhist feel than Hinduism, and they offer river rafting, bungee jumping, and motorbike tours. A full hour massage with a trained masseuse is $8:50 and you can pick your style of message or special needs.
Following the path of the Beatles there are two paths in his town: the Yogic OR the hanging out writing poetry and playing music.
Yoga is everywhere here. Every hotel has classes in asanas, the yoga postures. Some also offer meditation, pranayamas (breathing styles). Now Yoga is currently not about the ascetic training of the body, rather 40 positions combined with meditation, breathing and some Vedanta-Advaitan non-duality. Some go full time to Ashrams, other try a one week intro course and then sign up for a two week teacher’s training program. Some go to high priced Yoga training in exclusive spas.
The book stores have the new age best sellers like Eckhart Tolle, all the American yoga books, and books about Buddhism. These attendees at the yoga training workshops will go back to the home towns and teach Yoga.
What about those who are there for the music, drugs, and poetry? That will be covered in the next post on the Israelis in town.