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West meets East

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Forty five years ago, the Beatles were settling into the ashram of their new guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in Rishikesh, India. The news coverage was nonstop and global, as it had been six months earlier when the lads first met Maharishi and became public advocates for his Transcendental Meditation technique.

It would have been easy at the time to dismiss the media frenzy as just another pop culture craze. But reporters knew this was different. Why would four young, bright, fun-loving youngsters, wealthy beyond imagining, able to go anywhere and do anything, choose to hunker down in an austere, vegetarian, non-air-conditioned compound in the Himalayan foothills and spend large chunks of time each day with their eyes closed? What is this meditation thing? What could a backward, impoverished country, only two decades removed from imperial rule, have to offer people who seemed to have everything a human being could want?

In retrospect, the meeting of the Fab Four and the teacher who will probably always be known as "The Beatles' Guru" seems as karmically destined. Young people everywhere, always eager to emulate their musical heroes, flooded TM centers. The press coverage was remarkable for its shortage of cynicism. It featured parents and respected cultural leaders who were impressed by the life changes they observed in the meditating youth. As a result, scientists, prodded by Maharishi, who had majored in physics, started doing rigorous research on the effects of the practice.

Before long, physicians and therapists were recommending meditation to stressed-out grownups. To meet the burgeoning demand, Maharishi trained a cadre of teachers, essentially democratizing what had long been an esoteric practice available only to an elite few, much as Henry Ford had democratized automobiles. Now, hundreds of studies later, meditation and yoga are as mainstream as aerobics and vitamins.

Would this have happened if the Beatles had never gone to India? Maybe, maybe not, but certainly not as quickly. That's not just my assessment. Life magazine at the time dubbed 1968 "The Year of the Guru," and when Newsweek commemorated that seminal year four decades later, one article was titled "What the Beatles Gave Science." The author, Sharon Begley, chose the topic because the lads' trip to India "popularized the notion that the spiritual East has something to teach the rational West."

Philip Goldberg: Beatles in India: The Retreat That Reverberates Across the Universe
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