It’s hard to believe that we are coming up on the eleventh anniversary of the tragic death of George Harrison. The former Beatle’s passing -- at the premature age of 58, from lung cancer, on Nov. 29, 2001 -- came less than three months after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, which somewhat overshadowed the importance of his untimely demise.
As a lifelong Beatles fan, he was one of the most important and influential pop culture figures of my life -- however, as a person of East Indian descent, my view of "The Quiet Beatle" is rather complicated.
For better or worse, Harrison inadvertently became the greatest promoter of Indian culture and Hinduism to the Western world during the 20th century.
This had its good and bad aspects.
First, a little background.
By most accounts, he first became interested in Indian music when he picked up a sitar during a break in the filming of The Beatles’ second movie, “Help!,” in 1965. (I have never been completely satisfied by this story, since, like many tales about the group, it may be apocryphal.)
If you recall, that movie featured an absurd "plot" that included cartoonish villains who looked vaguely like Indians. The film also had certain other Indian symbols and ambience. (By this reckoning, if "Help!" had depicted, say, Chinese or Arab villains, perhaps 1960s history would’ve been dramatically different.)
In any case, an interest in the sitar (which made its wobbly Western pop music debut in the song "Norwegian Wood" later that year) led to a meeting with Indian virtuoso Ravi Shankar, which in turn led to George’s infatuation and ultimate deep immersion into Indian culture and food, and Hinduism.
These chance events would ultimately make a significant impact upon the Beatles, and, by extension, Western pop culture.
By the late 1960s, the band had engineered another pop culture revolution by wearing Indian-style clothing, spouting religious and philosophical aphorisms that seemed to borrow from "Eastern" thought, and later even visiting India for a highly publicized training session to learn Transcendental Meditation with the fraudulent "mystic" Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
For John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, their interest in Indian/Hindu culture was rather fleeting and temporal -- although it may have led John and Paul to become vegetarians. Ringo, God bless him, just went along with the fad, wore colorful clothes for a while, but remained, at his essence, an ordinary, unpretentious Northern English lad who never really changed his working-class attitudes and customs.
But for George, India changed his life permanently. He learned to play the sitar, read Hindu texts, meditated, chanted, frequently visited India, dressed in Indian-style clothes, and became deeply involved in the "Hare Krishna" consciousness movement.
And because he was a Beatle -- part of the most popular, powerful and influential pop culture force the world has ever known -- his thoughts and activities influenced millions of others around the globe.
Indeed, tens of thousands of Westerners (of various ages, but mostly the young) became interested in India, learned about yoga (which itself, ironically, eventually metamorphosed into a billion-dollar industry); and many journeyed to the subcontinent.
And it all happened because of a poor Irish Catholic boy from Liverpool with no education and a nasal voice.
Ironically, Westerners had been fascinated by India for centuries -- but such interest was limited to scholars and academics like Max Müller, John Muir, Edwin Arnold or William Jones, who had little influence over the broader society. As a result, Westerners remained largely ignorant of, or indifferent to, India.
Unlike those 18th and 19th century academics, Harrison had a ready-made global audience of hundreds of millions due to the Beatles’ immense fame and popularity and the instantaneous power of global mass media. Plus, he was handsome, smart and charming -- an ideal PR man for something as remote and incomprehensible to the average Westerner as Indian/Hindu culture.
However, it might not all have been for the best.
For many Westerners, India and Hinduism was nothing but a fad, a temporary, superficial infatuation that led nowhere.
Most disturbing, in some circles, Indian culture somehow became associated with drugs and free sex (i.e., the hippie movement). People like my parents were baffled and outraged by this misappropriation, cheapening and corruption of Indian culture.
Therefore, we must wonder -- was George’s immersion in India really genuine?
Yes, I believe it was … with some reservations.
The lifestyle of a Western rock-and-roll star, with its drug and alcohol abuse and sexual promiscuity, are anathema to conservative, traditional-minded Indians.
However, here we must make a distinction between “Hinduism” and “Indian culture.”
Unlike Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Hinduism (which is itself a vague and arbitrary term coined by Westerners) has no fixed precepts of human behavior. There is nothing analogous to the Ten Commandments within the broad umbrella of Hindu philosophy.
Thus, customs and practices that Westerners associate with Hinduism are actually Indian traditions (the two things are, of course, deeply intertwined). For example, Hindus worship the cow and refrain from eating beef not because their holy books forbid it, but rather because at one point in ancient times, a cattle shortage led people to preserve and protect the valuable livestock. Over the centuries, this became part of the fabric of Indian society.
At its essence, Hinduism, like Buddhism, simply believes that as long as people are ensnared in physical addictions and have any kind of "desire," they will be endlessly reborn on earth to suffer the fates and arrows of material life. Once a person’s consciousness evolves beyond earthly desires (a state of nirvana), he or she will be freed from this cycle of birth and rebirth and enter a joyful, painless everlasting existence in the spiritual sphere.
That is quite a long row to hoe for anyone, much less a wealthy British rock star with all the temptations and pleasures of the material world laid out at his feet.
Indeed, even after his introduction to Indian/Hindu culture, George continued drinking alcohol, abusing drugs (although he apparently stayed away from heroin), amassed a huge fortune, and had innumerable affairs with women who were not his wife.
No real devoted “Hindu” would behave in this way.
However, I don’t blame him for that at all -- if I were in his shoes, I would do much the same.
Still, by claiming to be so "spiritual," he became subject to charges of hypocrisy. His apparent obsession with money (witness the song "Taxman") also would appear to contradict and undermine his spiritual aspirations.
Then again, many self-proclaimed "Hindus" are also hypocrites -- some to appalling degrees.
Yet, I still believe that he tried the best he could to live his life in a spiritual way -- within the framework of his privileged life as a very wealthy celebrity.
For one thing, he explicitly and repeatedly decried the meaninglessness of fame and wealth. Clearly, he was searching for something beyond the physical reality and found it in Hinduism.
Reportedly, he once said: “Through Hinduism, I feel [like] a better person. I just get happier and happier. I now feel that I am unlimited, and I am more in control.”
As I recall, George’s embrace of India and Hinduism caused him much grief -- critics complained he and his music became boring, sanctimonious and exasperating.
From a purely musical point of view, his exploration of Indian music and culture produced a decidedly mixed impact on his career as a rock star.
While the inclusion of a sitar part in songs like "Norwegian Wood" worked exceedingly well, his purely “Indian” productions like ‘Love You To," "Inner Light," "Blue Jay Way" and "Within You Without You" were tiresome and simply did not belong on Beatles albums. (Reportedly, Lennon, McCartney and producer George Martin were very reluctant to include such songs on Beatles records.)
In 1969, George produced the single "Hare Krishna Mantra," performed by himself and the devotees of the Radha-Krishna Temple in London. Amazingly, the chanting tune entered the top 10 record charts in Britain and elsewhere.
After the Beatles broke up and George was finally free to make his own records, he enjoyed some initial success, including the mega-popular "All Things Must Pass" album, but eventually he petered out. By the mid-1970s Harrison, just a little over 30 years old, was finished as a vital, meaningful force in pop music and pop culture (my apologies to all you Traveling Wilburys fans).
I believe the very peak of his career, and perhaps his life, was an event that took place in the summer of 1971 and shattered the boundaries between and East and West and represented the very best example of combining entertainment/pop culture with a noble cause.
"The Concert for Bangladesh" featured Harrison and a number of other top recording stars and sought to raise money for millions of refugees who were fleeing the deadly civil war in Bangladesh.
For an Indian boy of Bengali descent who was also a Beatles fan, the "Concert for Bangladesh" was a stunning and life-changing event. I was actually too young to understand what the concert meant at the time, but in retrospect, I see it as possibly one of the greatest moments of post-war global cultural exchange.
What on earth did some long-haired, bearded Western rockers have to do with the impoverished nation called Bangladesh thousands of miles away?
Absolutely nothing … and that was the beauty of it. Without George Harrison and Ravi Shankar it would never have been possible.
I get chills, and almost teary-eyed, today watching a video of the concert. To see George, Ringo, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell and others singing songs to raise awareness about a place most people in the Madison Square Garden audience probably knew nothing about was wonderfully bizarre, poignant and moving.
Even more impressive, the cover of the album of the concert did not depict any of the musicians who appeared on stage. Rather, it depicted a black-and-white photo of a small, anonymous, starving, bug-eyed Bengali child sitting in front of a plate of food.
It was an image as far from the “glamorous” world of showbiz and rock and roll as possible -- and yet, that photo and the album found itself at the very center of Western pop culture that year.
Although his old bandmates John and Paul were more widely celebrated for their songwriting skills, "Bangladesh" placed George at an exalted position in pop culture that the other two arguably never reached.
From my perspective, there is yet another interesting aspect to his obsession with India.
During the late 1960s, Britain was embroiled in a deep debate over immigration from the Commonwealth countries such as Jamaica, Pakistan and of course the most populous one, India itself. Right-wing politicians demanded a halt to such immigration, while extremists called for their deportation. In fact, the Beatles alluded to this in one of their biggest songs. "Get Back" was originally called "Don’t Dig No Pakistanis" and spoofed the anti-immigrant stance.
Thus, while the "beautiful people" of London enjoyed and promoted Indian culture, many ordinary British people became increasingly anxious over the presence of so many Indian (and other) immigrants in England.
George, who lived the privileged life of a wealthy rural country squire, did not concern himself with such mundane details of British life. After "Bangladesh," he spent the next 30 years of his life largely in obscurity, mostly by choice.
In any case, George’s connection to India only deepened as he aged, raised a family, and went into semi-reclusion as an eccentric gardener.
After he passed away, it was reported that he left behind £20 million for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. His corpse was also cremated and his ashes immersed in the Ganges River, near the holy city of Varanasi.
George Harrison had finally come "home."