Maharishi and Me by Susan Shumsky – Review
By Rachael Popow
It’s been a big year for Beatles anniversaries, with their film Yellow Submarine and self-titled double album (better known as ‘The White Album’), both getting lavish 50th-year re-releases. However, there’s been less fuss about the anniversary of another, more mysterious chapter in the Fab Four’s history – their trip to Rishikesh in India to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
As fans will know, they arrived in February, 1968. Ringo Starr lasted 10 days before the food and the insects got too much, while Paul McCartney stuck it out for a month.
Most of the speculation though has focused on George Harrison and John Lennon’s sudden departure in April. It seems they may have already been growing uneasy about whether the Maharishi was exploiting their fame when they heard claims that the guru had made a pass at a female student and decided to pack their bags.
Despite her own involvement in the transcendental meditation movement predating theirs – and the large photo of them on the cover of her book – author Susan Shumsky wasn’t actually in Rishikesh at the same time as the Fab Four. However, her account of the incident in Maharishi & Me: Seeking Enlightenment with The Beatles’ Guru suggests Lennon’s friend Alexis ‘Magic Alex’ Mardas was responsible for starting the rumours.
If, like me, you’ve got a penchant for books about The Beatles, you will know that’s also the opinion of some of the people who were there. But if you think that while Mardas wasn’t the most trustworthy source (he’s also the man who reportedly told the band that he could make protective force fields and wallpaper that doubled as a speaker), The Beatles weren’t wrong to be wary of the Maharishi, you won’t find much in Shumsky’s book to change your mind.
It’s not that Shumsky, who became interested in meditation as a teenager in the 1960s and spent more than 22 years studying Maharishi’s teachings, including six on his staff, has set out to write a scandalous, debunking expose. Although she gradually became disillusioned with the movement, she clearly feels she gained a lot from her study and has a great deal of respect for the guru.
Still, despite the moments of bliss she achieved through meditation, life as one of his followers sounds stressful. Everyone was in competition for his favour, which could be taken away without warning – Shumsky reports that the staff were often afraid to take holidays in case they weren’t allowed back – and they could also be subjected to public humiliations, which his disciples justified as being the Maharishi’s way of stripping away your ego.
There was sexism as well. In one of the more bizarre incidents, Shumsky fears she’s been relegated to riding in the back of a car with an in-heat dog because Maharishi had realised she was menstruating.
Reading Maharishi & Me, it often feels as if Shumsky still has conflicted feelings about her time in the movement. She can be dismissive of Maharishi’s critics, claiming that Westerners struggle to understand the guru-disciple relationship. (At one point she says that if Mia Farrow, whose stay at Rishikesh coincided with that of The Beatles, felt uncomfortable at being singled out for special treatment from the Maharishi, it was probably because “as a mirror to her, he parodied the kind of adulation she expected” to get an emotional reaction. To this Westerner, that feels like slightly tortured logic). Yet many of her own stories back up their points and she eventually reached some similar conclusions herself. One big revelation in particular, which comes towards the end of the book, casts much of what has gone before, including The Beatles’ exit, in a very different light, but is dealt with surprisingly quickly.
However, as an account of one woman’s spiritual journey, honestly exploring how she felt at the time rather than reassessing the movement with the benefit of hindsight, it makes for intriguing and often eye-opening reading.
‘Maharishi & Me: Seeking Enlightenment with The Beatles’ Guru’ by Susan Shumsky is out now, priced at £19.99