George Harrison as theological rock star

October 7, 2011

As the lead guitarist of the world's preeminent rock band and a
prolific song writer, the Beatles' George Harrison has secured his place
in pop culture history. But his greatest legacy may be the way his
decades-long spiritual quest shaped the ways the West looks at God,
gurus and life.

Harrison, who died of cancer in 2001 at age 58,
was an intensely private global superstar. He's now in the spotlight
again, thanks to a coffee-table book by his widow, Olivia, and a new
Martin Scorsese documentary on HBO.

Both projects are subtitled Living in the Material World,
a Hindu-inspired phrase Harrison chose for a 1973 song that illuminates
his theology and sense of artistic vocation: "Got a lot of work to do /
Try to get a message through / And get back out of this material
world."

Harrison discovered Eastern religion through his love for
Eastern music, which was sparked when the Byrds' David Crosby and Roger
McGuinn introduced him to the work of Ravi Shankar, the renowned sitar
musician who would become a lifelong friend and mentor. Harrison added
sitar lines to the Beatles' 1965 hit "Norwegian Wood." When he traveled
to Bombay the next year to study with Shankar, he was moved by the
Indian people's spirituality.

"The difference over here is that
their religion is every second and every minute of their lives," said
Harrison, who like Paul McCartney was raised in Liverpool's Roman
Catholic community.

Harrison previously had sought insight through
marijuana (introduced to the Beatles by Bob Dylan) and LSD. "It was
fantastic," he once said of drug use. "I felt in love, not with anything
or anybody in particular, but with everything."

Drugs, however,
weren't enough. "LSD isn't a real answer," he said. In 1968, Harrison
led the Beatles and their celebrity friends on a pilgrimage to
Rishikesh, India, to study Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi
Mahesh Yogi. The Maharishi, like other savvy Eastern gurus, used
endorsements from rock stars to market himself to spiritual seekers in
the West, many of whom embraced the Beatles as seers and oracles.

Most
of the time, though, Harrison let his music do the talking. His dreamy,
sitar-drenched "Within You Without You" opened side two of 1967's
classic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. The song
contrasted Western individualism with Eastern monism: "And the time will
come when you see we're all one / and life flows on within you and
without you."

"I Me Mine," the final song recorded by the
bickering Beatles, attacked "the ego, the eternal problem." After the
Fab Four folded, Harrison's solo career blossomed. All Things Must Pass, his 1970 solo album, was a three-LP box set that Rolling Stone magazine called "the War and Peace of rock and roll." The chorus of "My Sweet Lord," a no. 1 single, alternated chants of "Hallelujah" and "Hare Krishna."

Thirty-one years and 13 albums later, Harrison's last recorded song was the title cut of his posthumous 2002 release, Brainwashed.
The song catalogs humanity's spiritual crisis, pleads for divine
deliverance, repeats "God" 48 times in the choruses and closes with
Harrison and his son Dhani chanting a Hindu hymn.

"George was
making spiritually awake music," said filmmaker Scorsese. "We all heard
and felt it, and I think that was the reason that he came to occupy a
very special place in our lives." Harrison's beliefs were as complex as
his song structures.

He could be preachy, pedantic and dismissive
about problems in the "material" world, but he also organized the
superstar Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, raising $10 million for
victims of human and natural tragedies.

A cafeteria Hindu,
Harrison's songs drew inspiration from everything from Ram Dass's
best-selling memoir ("Be Here Now") to the Tao Te Ching ("The Inner
Light") to Paramahansa Yoga­nanda's Auto­biography of a Yogi ("Dear One").

"Harrison exemplified consumerist religion," said Dale Allison, author of  The Love There That's Sleeping: The Art and Spirituality of George Harrison. "He was curious and read a lot, and he liked to try out things that he read."

Harrison
was perhaps the most explicitly and consistently theological rock star
of the last half-century. He nudged his bandmates—and his listener
fans—a bit further to the East, encouraging audiences to open themselves
to new (or very old) spiritual influences. Or, as his widow, Olivia,
puts it, he "transcended the distractions of success and fame to
maintain a one-pointed focus upon his goal of spiritual awakening." 
—RNS