John Lennon beyond the Maharishi

I don't believe in magic, I don't believe in I-Ching,I don't believe in Bible, I don't believe in tarot, I don't believe in Hitler, I don't believe in Jesus, I don't believe in Kennedy, I don't believe in Buddha, I don't believe in mantra, I don't believe in Gita, I don't believe in yoga, I don't believe in kings, I don't believe in Elvis, I don't believe in Zimmerman, I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me
That litany of rejected influences comes from the track God on the 1969 John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album. John Lennon dismisses two elements of Christianity, the Bible and Jesus, and five of Eastern traditions, I-Ching, Buddha, mantra, Gita and yoga. But intriguingly Lennon does not reject Islam as an influence. There may well be a simple explanation for this: namely that Vedanta and Zen Buddhism but not Islam were the esoteric traditions of choice for the the 1960s counterculture. But there is another possible explanation for the omission, which is that Lennon had not rejected Islam. The latter explanation is highly speculative, but does have some support.

Stereotyping inextricably links John Lennon to the media-friendly Transcendental Meditation guru Maharishi Maheshi Yogi. But following the 'summer of love' Lennon explicitly rejected the Vedantic trappings of the Maharishi - mantra, yoga and the Gita. Contemporary stereotyping also inextricably links Islam to the intolerant Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. But Islam was also a major influence on the Indian sub-continent. Islam arrived in India in the 7th century; the Muslim Mughal Dynasty - which produced the iconic Taj Mahal - spanned the 16th to 19th centuries and at its peak controlled most of the sub-continent and parts of Afghanistan. In the 13th century the early sultans of Delhi resisted the demands of ulamas - Islamic scholars - that Hindus should be forcibly converted. Instead, guided by the Chishti Sufis, a more tolerant approach allowed Hindustani culture to develop as a composite of Muslim and Hindu societies. This overlooked era ranks alongside the al-Andalus on the Iberian Peninsula as a one of the great fertile multi-cultural and multi-religious interludes.

The benign and tolerant strand of Islam known as Sufism is one of the legacies of Muslim India, both in present day India and Pakistan. The counterculture's engagement with Sufism is less celebrated than its engagement with Vedanta and Zen, despite that engagement producing important but overlooked music. But in an interview transcribed in Lennon On Lennon: Conversations With John Lennon the following comment is made by Lennon: "That's my attitude all down the line. Whatever will be. But don't just be about sitting in the shit and hoping, y'know, accepting the will of Allah." That phrase 'Accepting the will of Allah' may just be a throwaway line. But it is definitely not a throwaway line found in Liverpudlian slang.

A more robust link between Lennon and Islam is suggested in a 2011 Times of India article which reports that "John Lennon's famed Imagine (1966) seems to be inspired by Baul philosophy: 'Imagine there's no God, no heaven...'" Whereas the Maharishi's transcendental teachings were rooted in the Himalayas of northern India, the Bauls are indigenous to Bengal which today is divided between Indian West Bengal and the sovereign state of Bangladesh. The Bauls of Bengal syncretically integrate elements of Sufi Islam, and Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism, and their community draws its adherents mainly from Sufi Muslims and Vaishnava Hindus. Like John Lennon, the Bauls decry organised religion - Imagine there's no heaven and no religion too - and believe that the divine exists within - I just believe in me - and can be released by joyful celebration - All you need is love.

Suggestions that the Bauls influenced John Lennon have some tenuous factual support. In his litany of rejected influences 'Zimmerman' - Bob Dylan - is cited. The celebrated Baul singers Purna Das and Lakhan Das Baul were taken up by Bob Dylan's manager Albert Grossman and worked in Dylan's studio near Woodstock, and Purna Das and Lakhan Das Paul appear alongside Dylan on the cover of John Wesley Harding seen above. Sally Grossman, wife of Albert, is an authority on the Baul music of Bengal and hosted George Harrison in Woodstock during the heyday of the Beatles. So it is quite plausible that George Harrison introduced John Lennon to the culture and music of the Bauls. George Harrison together with Ravi Shankar went on to draw the world's attention to the plight of divided Bengal with their 1971 Concert for Bangladesh.

Linking John Lennon and Islam via Bengal may be no more than a fanciful conspiracy theory. But that should not detract from the importance of the music of the Bauls - a recording from my library is seen below. In 1962 Allen Ginsberg travelled to Santiniketan in Bengal after reading Rabindrath Tagore's translation of Baul lyrics. Later Baul singers Purna Das and Lakhan Das Baul met Mick Jagger in France and recorded in his studio. The Bengali poet, composer and educationalist Rabindrath Tagore championed the Bauls. Tagore was an important influence on Leonard Elmhirst who founded the progressive Dartington Hall School in England, which was modelled on Tagore's educational experiment at Santiniketan. The Dartington Summer School has made a major contribution to contemporary music; among those who have participated are Peter Maxwell Davies, Elisabeth Lutyens, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bruno Maderna, Luciano Berio, and Igor Stravinsky, and William Glock presided there for some years.

Elisabeth Lutyens' connection with Indian-tinged Dartington is synchronicitous. Her father Edwin Lutyens designed colonial New Delhi and her mother Mary was a leading figure in the Theosophy movement which had its roots in Himalayan Indian mysticism. Mary Lutyens went on to champion the Indian polymath Jiddu Krishnamurti after his breakaway from Theosophy. Krishnamurti's teaching that "Authority destroys, authority perverts, authority corrupts" resonates with John Lennon's nihilism. One of the many Lennon myths is that he met Krishnamurti at Ojai, California in 1972 when on the run with Yoko Ono from the FBI: they did visit Ojai but Krishnamurti was abroad at the time. More on Elisabeth Lutyens including a photo of her with Stravinsky at Dartington in Walking with Stravinsky.

Sources include The Elmhirsts of Dartington, the Creation of a Utopian Community by Michael Young, Jashn-e-Khusrau 2013, Celebrating the Genius of Khusrau published by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and The Hippie Trail by Sharif Gemie and Brian Ireland. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Pliable said…
A response to this post states that according to a reliable source John Lennon stated in an American TV interview that he believed in all the prophets from Abraham to Muhammad. He went on to say that according to the Maliki school these beliefs are a declaration of faith, making him technically a Muslim. This report is not authenticated by any independent source and corroboration or otherwise would be appreciated.

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