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