Monday, February 25, 2013

The Spirituality of George Harrison: in Honor of George's 70th Birthday

Today is George Harrison's birthday. He would have been 70 had he lived. Today, I want to honor the spirituality of George Harrison. I find George's spirituality very inspiring for my own relationship to God.

George did not always “walk the talk,” as evangelical Christians say, and George would readily acknowledge this. But he steadfastly followed his spiritual path all his life. He never swerved from it. George's life long passion as an adult was the pursuit of God.

When George passed away in 2001, his widow Olivia Harrison said, “George left this world in the same way he lived in it- in the consciousness of God.” According to Olivia Harrison, upon George’s death, “There was a profound experience when he left his body. It was visible. He just lit the room.”

George's spiritual path was based on Hinduism, which he first embraced in the mid sixties. During the filming of the 1965 movie Help! on location in the Bahamas, the Beatles met Swami Vishnu-devananda, founder of Sivananda Yoga, who gave each member of the band a signed copy of his book, The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga. George became interested in Indian and Hindu culture. He learned to play the sitar, and had as his teacher Ravi Shankar. Shankar was not only a musical mentor, but a spiritual one as well.

The Beatles went through their famous chapter with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and visited him in India in 1968. The other Beatles lost interest in the teacher, but George remained committed to his spiritual practice.

To understand George's spirituality, we need to know a little bit about Hinduism. In its popular form, Hinduism may seem to be polytheistic, with many divinities. But actually, Hinduism teaches that there is only One Reality, which is the foundation of our being, and our task in life is to realize our divine potential, our union with this One Reality. In Hindu scriptures, Ultimate Reality, God, is called Brahman. The Divine within us is called Atman, roughly analogous with the Soul in Western religion. Hinduism (at least one major stream of the tradition) teaches that the Brahman and Atman are ultimately the same. Our separateness from God is an illusion.

The method for realizing this identification with the divine is Yoga. There are different types of Yoga, two of the most common forms are Karma Yoga, union through detached action, and Bhakti Yoga, union through devotion. There are other types of of Yoga as well.

George followed a path of devotion most of his life. Following the path of devotion, one must choose an image of God, and be devoted to that image. For George, it was Krishna, God in human form. The Bhagavad Gita, one of the primary Hindu scriptures, presents teaching on devotion to Krishna, and on the paths of Karma and Bhakti Yoga.

George was also ecumenically minded. He believed that Jesus was a manifestation of God, and said in an interview in the early eighties, “The Greek word for Christ is Kristos, which is, let’s face it, Krishna, and Kristos is the same name actually.” During his 1974 American concert tour, George encouraged his fans to “Chant Krishna! Chant Jesus! Chant Buddha!”

Besides his devotion to God, George was also devoted to Hindu teachers, especially Paramahansa Yogananda. Paramanhansa Yogananda is famous for being the wisdom of Hinduism to the West, and he taught the fundamental unity between Yoga and Christianity. George wrote his song, Fish on the Sand, from the 1987 Cloud Nine album about his devotion and reliance on Yogananda. George often enjoyed visits to the Self-Realization Fellowship Center in Encinitas, California, which was founded by Yogananda.

George's spiritual practice was largely based on saying a mantra and chanting the Name of God. His big #1 hit from 1971, My Sweet Lord, features the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra, and chanting the Divine Names of Vishnu and Lord Rama. He also produced a hit single of the Hare Krishna Mantra performed by the Radha Krishna Temple in 1970.

George maintained his practice of mantra all his life. For this sort of spiritual practice, the Name of God and God are the same; to practice Mantra is to put one's self in the presence of God. George likened the practice of mantra to “God dancing on your tongue.”

One of my favorite religious songs of George is Awaiting on You All, from the 1971 All Things Must Pass album. The song proclaims that by “chanting the Names of the Lord you'll be free..” The song is upbeat. I love the words expressing devotion to Jesus:

You don't need no passport
And you don't need no visas
You don't need to designate or to emigrate
Before you can see Jesus
If you open up your heart
You'll see he's right there
Always was and will be
He'll relieve you of your cares.”

I also like the lyrics that seem to be distinguishing between religion and God in this song:

You don't need no church house
And you don't need no temple
You don't need no rosary beads or no books to read
To see that you have fallen
If you open up your heart
You will know what I mean
You've been kept down so long
Someones thinking that we're all green.”

George shared his faith on all of his albums, sometimes to the chagrin of critics and some fans. But I personally find his spiritual songs very edifying.

Probably his two most well known spiritual songs are My Sweet Lord from 1971, and Give Me Love, 1973, both #1 hits which express devotion to God. But for me, the greatest of his spiritual songs was the title track on his last album, Brainwashed.

The message of Brainwashed is that we are in a “Matrix”-type of world, “brainwashed by the military, brainwashed by Dow Jones... brainwashing us in Brussels, brainwashing us in Bonn, brainwashing in us in Washington, in Westminster and London...”

In the song, George cries out, “God, God, God, won't you save us from this mess...”

In the middle of the song, there is an interlude in which a lovely female Indian accent recites a brief passage from a Hindu religious classic book, How to Know God - The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, page 130:

The Soul does not love, it is Love Itself;
It does not exist, It is Existence Itself;
It does not know, It is Knowledge Itself.”

George, as his wife said, lived his entire adult life in the consciousness of God.

As a Christian, I find I have a lot in common with George. My spiritual teacher is Bede Griffiths. I follow a path of inter-spirituality, which is based on my devotion to Christ, but also influenced by yoga. My own practice is a mantra based on the Christ, which is taught at Bede Griffith's Shantivanam Ashram in India. I also chant the name of Christ. I find peace in this practice amid life, which can often be stressful. It is reassuring to me to realize that God is lives in me, and that I can know God. It gives me hope for the future.

For me, George is a spiritual brother. His example of clinging to God all his life, in spite of his failings, is inspiring to me.


Here are some links to some online articles about George's faith:


Below is my YouTube mix of some of George's spiritual songs. The song list is:

1) Within You and Without You
2) The Inner Light
3) My Sweet Lord
4) Awaiting on You All
5) Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)
6) Fish on the Sand
7) Brainwashed


  1. This blog post reflects my sentiments precisely. I think even Paul said George was the better song-writer of all the Beatles. Whether he did or not, George was the best in my opinion. Got to see him once, in Atlanta, in the '70s. Very fond memories. The Tribute to George concert still brings tears to my eyes. Thanks for this well written blog post.

  2. I woke up this morning thinking of George for no apparent reason. I was inspired to post video and lyrics to Brainwashed on Facebook and, long story short, ended up on this blog. Don't know anything more about you or your blog but would like to thank you for adding a bit more light to this already luminous morning.
    BTW I am only slightly familiar with Bede Griffiths, having a book of his on the Bhagavad Gita that over the years I read bits at a time. Beautiful, heartfelt.