The ‘Theology’ Of George Harrison

The Beatles, an extension of the heady pragmatic materialism of the late fifties, claimed they were more popular than Jesus Christ. Their song “Eleanor Rigby” sees the church as an irrelevant symbol, “Father McKenzie preparing sermons that no one will hear.” In an early press release George Harrison says, “There’s nothing better, for me, than a bit of peace and quiet. Sitting around a big fire with your slippers on and watching the telly. That’s the life!”

This narrow approach to reality gave way to a drug period. But eventually drugs offered too limited a vision. Allen Ginsberg put it this way: “The Beatles satiated every fantasy in relation to the material universe and realized that in order to go any further they would have to go into inner space.”

George Harrison prepared the way for this inner journey by traveling to India in 1965 to buy a sitar. He met Ravi Shankar and spent a few months meditating. The first effects of this study became apparent on the album “Revolver” and especially in the song “Norwegian Wood.” Overnight the sitar became a popular instrument, and Indian culture became fascinating to Westerners. This came to a head in the promotion of a kind of Hinduism by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and in its acceptance by the Beatles. In a TV interview Harrison asserted, “I believe in reincarnation.… You keep coming back until you have got it straight. The ultimate thing is to manifest divinity and become one with the Creator.”

The Beatles aided the meteoric rise of the Guru Maharishi, though later they separated themselves from his commercialism. “We have not broken with the thoughts of meditation,” said George Harrison. “We have only broken with the Maharishi and his ideas of making the whole thing subject to mass media.”

The synthesis of the drug interest and the growing awareness of religion was expressed in the Beatles’ unified work called “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In “Within You Without You,” George Harrison expresses the desire for true spiritual values:

When you’ve seen beyond yourself,

Then you may find peace of mind

Is waiting there;

And the time will come

When you see we are all one.

This interest in religion shown by the Beatles at the end of the sixties totally left out Christianity. The trend toward Jesus got a gradual start with “Let It Be,” which was a hymn to the Virgin Mary. At about this time Harrison said in an interview:

The only reason for being here is to have full understanding of the spiritual aspect of life. Eastern religion taught me that the ideal is to become one with God through living-work, self-control, meditation and yoga. If you sweep roads then you should do it for whoever you have chosen as your deity. If you work for him then he will do his work for you.

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The inner tensions and developing personal positions of the individual Beatles ultimately led to their breakup. This is expressly seen in the album “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” which stands in contrast to George Harrison’s single-minded “All Things Must Pass.” It’s a collection of songs about Lennon’s feelings—personal rather than cosmic, emotional rather than meditative, cathartic rather than persuasive, and disillusioned with religion.

“All Things Must Pass,” released in 1970, and “Living in the Material World,” released in 1973, give an overall picture of George Harrison’s religious development. Although religion is a major theme in “All Things Must Pass,” it is love viewed as religion: Love is God rather than God is love. Harrison becomes the preacher of love. In “Living in the Material World” love is still present, but Krishna is the central point. There is a marked ambiguity about “My Sweet Lord.” Jesus is just one avatar or descent of god among many, Krishna and Rama being others. The “Hallelujah” switches to “Hare Krishna” as Harrison reduces incarnation to a mere emanation of the One. By the time of the Bangladesh Concert, George Harrison was prefixing “My Sweet Lord” with Hare Krishna, making clear the direction of his thought. Billy Preston appears by the grace of God, but the whole project is presented to Sri Krishna.

When “Living in the Material World” appeared it was evident that George Harrison had thrown off all connections with his Christian heritage. Again we read, “All Glories to Sri Krishna.” The Lord of George Harrison’s life is Krishna, emanation of Vishnu. George Harrison wants us to be under no illusions—he is a Hindu. In the song “The Light that has Lighted the World” Harrison gives his personal testimony, thanking all who have helped him:

I’m grateful to anyone,

That is happy or free

For giving me hope

While I’m looking to see

The Light that has lighted the world.

In “Awaiting on You All” Harrison sings:

You don’t need a love-in,

You don’t need a bed pan,

You don’t need a horoscope

Or a microscope to see

The mess that you’re in.…

You’ve been polluted so long … and

You don’t need no church house

And you don’t need no Temple

And you don’t need no rosary

Beads or those books you read

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To know that you have fallen.

In a prayer, “Hear me, Lord,” he implores forgiveness for his neglect of God. Here he seems to be addressing the Jesus of his youth, but placed in a Hindu context. Repentance offers escape from material existence, viewed as evil in itself. Man has a native “Jesus” consciousness just waiting to be realized. In “Awaiting on You All” it is spelled out:

You don’t need a passport,

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,

Then you will

See He’s right there.

He always was and will be.

This is not a matter of atonement with God through the one incarnation of the Personal-Infinite I AM. No, by merely “chanting” the names of the Lord one is free. “The Lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see.…” The Lord of Harrison’s lyrics waits for sleeping men to wake up; the Lord of the Bible reaches down to dead men and gives them resurrection life. In Harrison’s view, then, Jesus is reduced to an emanation of the absolute soul.

In “Living in the Material World” George Harrison tells us his material history—his meeting the other Beatles, his absorption with success, and his general sense of frustration.

Senses never gratified,

Only swelling like a tide

That could drown me in the material world.

Harrison views the world as evil and, giving the proceeds of the album to charity, suggests that he views making music as getting soiled by the world.

Got a lot of work to do,

Try to get a message through

And get back out of this material world.

Is this charity merely tokenism? Harrison’s palatial home shown in a picture on the album jacket certainly seems very much a part of the material world.

George Harrison treats Krishna as a personal god. It is certainly true that the ordinary Hindu views the gods as personal. This Bhakti or devotional Hinduism teaches the need for a personal approach to religion. The main thinker of this school was the twelfth-century teacher Rāmānuta. He believed in a pulsating universe, and he thought that God creates ad infinitum. He saw the soul as like God but not identical to God. He definitely believed in a personal god. However, Rāmānuta never showed how the idea of an infinite universe and the idea of reincarnation could be thought not to lead one back to the impersonal origin of all things.

The dominant Hindu view is expressed in the eighth- or ninth-century Unity School of Sankara. He believed in One Reality and no dualism. He taught that a “lower” and a “higher” truth exist. As long as man believes in the reality of the multiple world, it exists for him through the cooperation of soul and matter that has arisen from the personal god who directs everything. When through meditation one attains the insight that all diversity is only maya, an illusory appearance, then the person seeking salvation becomes conscious of his identity with the All-in-One—the only true actual deity possessing the impersonal Absolute, the Brahma. Sankara elucidates the contradiction between the naïve realism of the childish man, who holds the world to be real and personal in origin, and the idealism of the Enlightened One, who realizes the absolute impersonality of all. Francis Schaeffer writes in He Is There and He Is Not Silent, “To the pantheist, the final wrong or tension … the final Karma, if you will, is the fact that he will not accept his impersonality. In other words, he will not accept who he is.”

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This tension is manifest in George Harrison’s work. First it is seen in the idea of reincarnation. In the “Art of Dying” he sings:

There’ll come a time

When all of us must leave here;

Then nothing Sister Mary can do

Will keep me here with you.

There’ll come a time

When most of us return

Brought back by the desire

To be a perfect entity.

Or in “Give Me Love”: “Keep me free from birth.” Reincarnation is not me returning as personal but eternal soul manifesting itself in material forms.

In “Beware of Darkness,” we are told to beware of maya, illusion. In reality Krishna is not personal but only maya: an illusory personification of the impersonal. Perhaps in “Be Here Now” George Harrison is expressing this:

Now, is, here now

And it’s not what it was before;

Remember, now be here now

As it’s not like it was beforeit was.

“It was” is the basis of all—the final impersonal; yet Harrison says, “I hope to get out of this place by the Lord Sri Krishna’s grace/My salvation from the material world.” Or in “That Is All”:

Silence often says much more

Than trying to say what’s been said before;

But that is all I want to do

To give my love to,

That’s all I’m living for,

Please let me love you more—and That is all.

The introduction of the “you” by Harrison is understandable but unwarranted if one takes Hinduism seriously. We have already seen George Harrison’s search for a personal deity expressed in his songs about love:

The Lord loves the one

That loves the Lord

And the law says if you don’t give

Then you don’t get loving.

But Hinduism, being impersonal at heart, cannot provide a consistent basis for a personal relationship between finite man and infinite God. It is only through God the Son, the Second person of the Trinity, in his incarnation as God and man, that the I-You relationship Harrison seeks can be found. Harrison’s “theology” is fragmentary and self-deceived, looking to Hinduism for the fulfillment of a longing that is an unconscious remainder of rejected and largely forgotten Christianity.


Michael Garde, a Baptist, is a student at the Pontifical University, Maynooth, Ireland.

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