George Harrison lacked something in the mid-1960s, but legendary sitarist, Ravi Shankar, filled that void with Indian music. In 1965, nothing impressed George, not even his idols like Elvis Presley, and he was getting bored with his fame and fortune.
George felt there had to be something more to life than being a celebrity. It was like hitting a wall. However, Shankar broke that wall with a sledgehammer. He taught his apprentice that playing the right notes could bring you closer to God.
After Shankar taught him Indian music, George was ready to drop everything in his life, including his wife, Pattie Boyd.
George Harrison first met Ravi Shankar in 1965, and the sitarist taught him Indian music
Technically, George first heard Indian music while his mother was pregnant with him. She used to play the radio station, Radio India, hoping the mystical sounds of the Eastern music would calm her rambunctious unborn baby.
George reconnected with the music on the set of Help! in 1965. There’s a scene in The Beatles’ film where an Indian band plays at a restaurant. George couldn’t stop hearing the sitar’s interesting sound and went and bought one. Then, his friends told him to listen to Shankar’s music. Listening to the sitarist’s ragas for the first time changed George’s life.
In Here Comes The Sun: The Spiritual And Musical Journey Of George Harrison, Joshua M. Greene wrote, “Describing the moment years later, George said the music felt familiar, not intellectually but emotionally, as though calling him back to a place he already knew.”
Maybe George remembered the Indian music from when he was in the womb. Or, maybe George had heard the music in a previous incarnation. Shankar would later teach him about that and so much more.
Inspired by the Eastern sounds, George added the sitar to The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” George finally met Shankar in 1965. George impressed the sitarist. Shankar offered to teach George sitar.
He asked George if he knew how to read music. George replied no. “Good,” Shankar said. “It will only confuse you anyway.” Then, George learned the basics.
“Ravi showed him how to sit properly with one leg draped over the other in a half-lotus position,” Greene wrote. “He demonstrated how to hold the large gourd against the instep of the left foot.” Greene continued, “He showed George how to play micronotes by stretching a string out to different tensions.
“He defined ragas, the fundamental form of Hindustani and Carnatic classical music. There were thousands of ragas, each with its own movement and theme and corresponding time of day. When played correctly, a raga would evoke in listeners a particular emotion such as happiness, sadness, joy, or wonder.
“Ravi told George that despite having given so many years of his life to the sitar, in his heart he knew he still had a long way to go before he mastered it. Then he played again, conjuring an alchemical mixture of notes and sounds and subtle bending of strings.”
However, the most important thing Shankar taught George was that “God is sound.”
George was ready to leave everything, including his wife, Pattie Boyd, behind after Shankar taught him Indian music
George’s first lesson with Shankar changed his life, and it came at an opportune moment.
“Nothing was giving me a buzz anymore,” George told CBS This Morning. “I just thought, well, I’m looking for something really, really beyond just the ordinary, the mundane, I wanted somebody to impress me. I didn’t expect it to be this little Indian man. But, you know, good things come in small packages.”
George had met royalty, celebrities, and some of his biggest idols, but Shankar had the biggest effect on him.
“Ravi embodied something new for the young musician, something that went far beyond fame and wealth,” Greene wrote. “Ravi was inviting George to examine life through a lens that revealed something extraordinary: that the talent behind his unprecedented success had a higher purpose.
“God is all around us but hidden. If George made the right sound, he could bring God out of hiding.”
“There is more to it than exciting the senses of the listeners with virtuosity and loud crash-bang effects,” Shankar said. “My goal has always been to take the audience along with me deep inside, as in meditation, to feel the sweet pain of trying to reach out for the Supreme, to bring tears to the eyes, and to feel totally peaceful and cleansed.”
Suddenly, George felt he could leave everything behind, including his wife, to learn more from Shankar and Indian music.
“I felt I wanted to walk out of my home that day and take a one-way ticket to Calcutta,” George said (per Greene). “I would even have left Pattie behind in that moment.”
“Not that he had ever been indifferent to loved ones, but loved ones only knew him for what he had been, not what he could become,” Greene added. “All his life he had wanted things he couldn’t afford—fast cars, fancy clothes, a big house, a beautiful wife—and yet none of it had ever really satisfied him. Here was a greater treasure, something that could not be purchased.”
The Beatle didn’t quite leave his wife in the dust
George might’ve felt that he could’ve dropped Boyd and his life as a Beatle to embark on a spiritual journey with Shankar and Indian music, but he didn’t. Boyd joined her husband on his newfound journey.
Shortly after his first lessons with Shankar, George and Boyd traveled to India to see the culture for themselves. With Shankar, they took a train north to Kashmir and arrived at the city of Srinagar, at the foot of the Himalayan mountains where yogis lived.
George had heard “Yogis of the Himalayas” when he first took LSD. It was almost like he’d prophesized he’d be amongst them soon.
When the couple returned from their six-week trip, George continued to read about Hinduism. He started meditating frequently. Boyd wasn’t as committed to spirituality as her husband, but she did enjoy it. She was the one who discovered Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
After a while, Boyd realized George’s love for spirituality was often bigger than his love for her. She wasn’t sure if his love songs were about her anymore or God. George would’ve argued that to love a person entirely is to love God.