The Vaishnava Path in George Harrison’s Songs

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Forty years ago, George Harrison was already giving the world the gift of spiritual inspiration through his music when he donated the Bhaktivedanta Manor to Srila Prabhupada.

My sweet Lord . . .

I really want to see you
Really want to be with you
Really want to see you, Lord,
but it takes so long, my Lord.

George Harrison released “My Sweet Lord,” his first solo single, in America in November 1970. Internationally, sales soon exceeded five million copies.

The biographer Simon Leng calls the release of “My Sweet Lord” one of the “boldest steps in the history of popular music,” because it risked ruining Harrison’s career.

In I, Me, Mine, George writes, “I thought a lot about whether to do “My Sweet Lord” or not, because I would be committing myself publicly, and I anticipated that a lot of people might . . . fear the words ‘Lord’ and ‘God’—makes them angry for some strange reason.”

Leng, in The Music of George Harrison, characterizes the song as “gospel incantation with a Vedic chant” and a “triumph” because it was “obviously genuine. . . . The power of the song comes from the emotion it transmits. . . . His tone was beguilingly sweet, but also sad.”

“My Sweet Lord’s” repetitive, emotional appeal, laced with self-pity, certainly is “beguilingly sweet, but also sad.” For the song expresses an aesthetic quality characteristic of Vaishnava theology. That quality, technically known as viraha bhakti, is a soul-stirring love for God arising from the anguish of distance and separation. Such love in separation is a precursor of unfettered unity, for God responds and makes Himself known by His embrace.

Srila Rupa Goswami (c. 1550 CE) describes the sweet-sad melange of separation from God in this comment: “If one develops love of Godhead, love of Krishna, the son of Nanda Maharaja, all the bitter and sweet influences of this love will manifest in one’s heart. Such love of Godhead acts in two ways. The poisonous effects of love of Godhead defeat the severe and fresh poison of the serpent. Yet there is simultaneously transcendental bliss, which pours down and defeats the pride of nectar and diminishes its value.” (quoted in Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 2.52)

The bittersweet aesthetic of “My Sweet Lord” touched the hearts of millions. Love in separation is one of many aesthetic qualities in Vaishnava theology, and some of these qualities are illustrated in George’s other lyrics. In making observations about George’s songs, I am not arguing that he attained the highest states of bhakti, nor do I want to pass judgment on anyone. George was seriously spiritual-minded. The Vaishnava journey to Krishna, in progressive stages of love, is reflected in his songs. He struggled in life, found some balance, and never departed from his convictions. Westerners especially can easily learn something about the theology of bhakti as George expressed it.

They say I’m not what I used to be
All the same, I’m happier than the willow tree . . .
I know something so dear to me
Beyond words, beautiful feeling in my soul.
from Mystical One” (1982)

How did George’s interest in Eastern spirituality grow? At the height of the Beatles’ fame, George’s LSD experiments and interest in Indian music drew him into an experience of the all-pervasiveness of God in music (nada brahma). His friendship with the sitarist Ravi Shankar led him to India.

John Barham, another student of Shankar’s, recalled, “The meditative aspect of some Indian music touched George in a way that no other music did, and this did influence the development of his own identity in a profound way.”

Upon returning to record with the Beatles, George’s realizations were set to an Indian rhythm and melody in “Within You Without You” on the Sgt. Pepper album (1967): “When you see we’re all one, and life flows on within you and without you.”

That August, George attended a lecture in London by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and then went on a retreat with him in Wales. Next, along with the other Beatles, George stayed in Rishikesh with Maharishi for three months. By July of 1968, George’s quest was portrayed in the film Yellow Submarine: He was the mystical Beatle, wearing wooden beads and seated in a lotus position.

In London in November 1969, George met a small group of Hare Krishna devotees. Gathering the group in Apple’s Abbey Road studio, he recorded the single “Hare Krishna Mantra,” which quickly became the number one song in Britain and several other countries. Then George met Srila Prabhupada in England and received his encouragement to write songs about Krishna.

George next donated twenty thousand dollars to publish Srila Prabhupada’s book Krishna, a narration of Krishna’s transcendental life from the Bhagavata Purana’s Tenth Canto. In the foreword, George mentions reconciling all things in Krishna, or God.

Interviewed about the success of “My Sweet Lord” and his triple album All Things Must Pass (1970), George said, “I want to be God conscious. That’s really my only ambition, and everything else in life is incidental.”

It appears from the lyrics in the album Dark Horse (1974) that George, though making spiritual progress, relapsed and had to struggle with unwanted habits. He writes about this with stark honesty in these songs. However, from then on he apparently found a steady balance between worldly existence and his commitment to a spiritual path. His resolve became firmer. This is evident from his final songs and from his widow Olivia’s descriptions.

George's spiritual resolution rarely decreased for the rest of his life, Olivia said about her late husband: “The issue of possessions, attachment, and identification with the ego were in the forefront of our awareness, and George was always quick to point out that in reality there is no I, me, or mine. George was relentless at keeping our spiritual aim.”

In the obituaries, his most often recurring quote was “Everything else can wait, but the search for God . . .”

The Vaishnava Path

The doctrinal focus of the Bhagavad-gita is devotional service to Sri Krishna, and the devotion of intense love and separation (viraha bhakti) is found in the Chaitanya Vaishnavas’ most influential devotional text, the Bhagavata Purana (Srimad-Bhagavatam) , and in the South Indian songs of the ülvars.

In Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Alvars, S.M.S. Chari presents Srila Ramanuja’s understanding of devotion in four phases. The first phase, bhakti, is sincere devotion, with a keen desire to see God. When bhakti is nurtured and made steady through meditation and practice, as outlined in the Gita, it is called para-bhakti, the second phase. Then come initial experiences of God, temporary glimpses of God withinthe third phase, para-jnana. Having had glimpses, the devotee feels an intense anguish of separation and ardently yearns for a full, uninterrupted vision of God. This fourth phase, called parama-bhakti, in due course delivers one from worldly existence through direct realization of God. The joy of union and the anguish of separation alternate, arousing unceasing and ever-increasing ecstasy and contemplation.

Prominent followers of Sri Chaitanya reflected on His life and teachings with extensive references to the Bhagavata Purana. The first of them to identify chronological stages of devotional achievement was Rupa Goswami, who outlined nine stages: faith (shraddha), the association of saints (sadhu-sanga), devotional practices (bhajana-kriya), purification (anartha-nivritti), resolve (nishtha), relish ( ruci), attachment (asakti), love (bhava), and pure love (prema). (Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu 1.4.15—16) Two centuries after Rupa, Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti wrote Madhurya Kadambini to elaborate on Rupa’s stages. Later, in Sri Bhajana-rahasya Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura (c. 1850) correlated the nine stages with the eight verses of Chaitanya's Sikshashtaka. With respect to their descriptions of the Vaishnava path to Krishna, we now turn to George’s songs.

“Awaken and See”

The earliest sign of bhakti, says Rupa, is faith: a trust or interest in the path. Vishvanatha mentions a firm trust in devotional scriptures and a genuine desire to practice their prescriptions. Bhaktivinoda presents the first act of faith as remembering God by the continued repetition of His names, which subdues ignorance.

In George’s songs, faith appears in “Awaiting on You All,” wherein George humorously excludes any requirements other than chanting: “You don’t need no passport. And you don’t need no visas.”

He asks you to “open up your heart” to recognize that we are “polluted” and “fallen” and take the solution: “Now here’s a way for you to get clean.”

By chanting the names of the Lord and you’ll be free.
The Lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see.

The words “awaken and see” express George’s early faith and encouragement to others. The song embodies his understanding of scriptural lessons he learned from Srila Prabhupada, both in person and through his books.

“I Look for the Pure in Heart”

Next Rupa speaks of three stages: saintly association, practice, and purification. He explains that saints and gurus are respectfully approached for instruction on proper conduct. This is also important to Vishvanatha, who explains how unsteadiness is overcome as obstacles are surmounted. Bhaktivinoda includes in his second division both good association and overcoming obstacles. For him, the separation of the soul from Krishna and its misidentification with matter (maya) are unwanted. Other obstacles (weakness of heart, offenses) can be overcome by chanting, by following a guru’s direction, and by receiving the mercy of saints. He advises shunning bad company and desires for fame.

George’s rejection of fame and possessions is identifiable in “I, Me, Mine,” the last song the Beatles recorded. George, inHelp Me Lord,” petitions God to snuff out his mundane desires.

In “Beware of Darkness,” he warns, “Watch out now, take care, beware of the thoughts that linger, winding up inside your head. . . . each unconscious sufferer wanders aimlessly; beware of Maya.”

In “The Day the World Gets ‘Round,” he describes a deluded world and the foolishness of people, while himself aspiring for good company: “I look for the pure of heart, and the ones who have made a start. . . . But Lord, there are just a few, who bow before you.”

“Your Love and Nothing More”

Steady resolve and resolute practice constitute Rupa’s fifth stage. Vishvanatha says that although impurities are still somewhat present, they no longer distract one from direct devotional practices, and one develops qualities favorable to the practice, such as humility. Bhaktivinoda emphasizes the necessity of self-surrender, eagerness for bhakti, and profound humility.

“That is All,” George’s final track on Living in the Material World, illustrates these qualities: “That is all I’m living for, your love and nothing more, and that is all . . . that is all I want to do, to give my love to you. . . . Please let me love you more, and that is all.”

In “Give Me Love,” a full commitment is expressed: “Trying to touch and reach you with heart and soul.”

George’s humility is evident in “Hear Me Lord”: “please, please hear me, Lord, . . . forgive me, . . . help me rise a little higher.”

“He Whose Sweetness Flows”

Rupa’s sixth stage, relish, implies a taste of the nectar derived from resolute practices. For Vishvanatha, relish results from taking the “golden medallion” of bhakti deep into the heart. An unimaginable bliss, “taste” acts like a dance instructress who takes the devotee by the hands. At this stage Bhaktivinoda emphasizes total uninterest in worldly affairs, owing to a taste for the holy name. With one’s attention undivided, worldly interests dwarf before bhakti’s sweetness.

During a visit to Vrindavan, the sacred village where Krishna grew up, George illustrated bhakti’s sweetness in a song he wrote there:It is ‘He’ (Jai Sri Krishna).” The song mainly repeats and relishes names of Krishna and Radha, His consort.

The tempo and lyrics delight the listener: “He whose sweetness flows to anyone of those that care to look his way, see his smile. . . . He who is complete, three worlds at his feet, cause of every star. It is ‘He’: Jai Sri Krishna.”

George also used “sweet” to describe God in “My Sweet Lord,” accompanied by the significant, repetitive sound of “Hmm,” as if encouraging listeners to taste the sweetness.

“You are the breath of life”

In Rupa’s seventh stage, strong attachment appears. Vishvanatha says that although “taste” has Krishna as its subject, the subject becomes profoundly Krishna at the stage of attachment. This attachment reaches an “extreme depth,” and it polishes the mirror of the heart so that the Lord’s reflection is almost visible. Such absorption requires no effort, whereas remaining conscientious about normal worldly dealings does.

The devotee may call out, “Will I ever see Krishna? Where shall I go? What shall I do to attain my desired object?”

Bhaktivinoda explains that this stage is attained by chanting without offenses and makes one feel insignificant and full of anguish. George’s song “Life Itself” suggests some awareness of this sort of attachment:

You are the One
You are my love
You send the rain and bring the sun You stand alone and speak the truth
You are the breath of life itself,
Oh yes you are, you are the One.
I need you more each step I take
You are the love in life itself . . .
You are the one that I'd die for
And you're all that is real
You are the essence of that which
We taste, touch and feel . . .
You are my friend and when life's through
You are the light in death itself, oh yes you are.

In Ramanuja’s third and fourth stages, glimpses of God are achieved and relieve a devotee’s feeling of separation from God. The joy of union and the anguish of separation alternate. This is also represented in George’s lyrics:

It’s been a long long long time.
How could I ever have lost you?
When I loved you?
It took a long, long, long time.?
Now I’m so happy I found you?
How I love you
So many tears I was searching
. . . How I want you
Oh, I love you
You know that I need you
Oh, I love you

Devotional heights akin to a madness of extreme emotion and unusual bodily symptoms are not identifiable in George’s songs. As described in Rupa’s eighth and ninth stages, there is a meltdown of the heart and mind, as God’s beauty overwhelms the devotee. Such love exhibits possessiveness of God and marks the stage of prema. God, powerless before such love, reveals Himself in all His beauty and charm.

Both Vishvanatha and Bhaktivinoda cite examples and verses that convey the nature of these stages. The condition is best portrayed in the life of Chaitanya: Paralyzed and then shaking, sweating, and turning pallid, Chaitanya wept and uttered indistinct sounds. His bodily hairs stood on end. He laughed, wept, danced about, and sang. He jumped up and ran about, and the next moment fell on the ground unconsciousness.

George remained detached from the wealth and fame that surrounded him. His catalogue of songs honestly illustrates what he learned about the devotional path and could express in the grammar of a contemporary rock star.

Below, Gauri Dasa leads a tour of the George Harrison Memorial Garden at Bhaktivedanta Manor.

About the Author: 

Gauri Dasa

Gauri Dasa joined ISKCON in 1984. Originally from Scotland, he lived ten years in India and is now Head of Development at Bhaktivedanta Manor.