Forty-five years ago in the turbulent summer of 1968, The Beatles recorded their magnum opus, a double album that would eventually gain worldwide fame as “The White Album.” As the Vietnam War raged and the streets of the U.S. burned with rioting and discontent in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, The Beatles, the pied piper of global youth, were deep into the recording of their album under their new Apple label.
Most of the songs they recorded during these heady days were composed some months earlier, in February 1968, when The Beatles visited India.
Already the most famous quartet on the planet, the Fab Four surprised the world again by making a trip to remote northern India to study Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Hindu mystic they had met in England in the summer of 1967. While The Beatles’ infatuation with Indian culture and religion had already been widely known, the act of actually voyaging 5,000 miles from the extreme rock-star affluence of London to a simple compound in the hills of Rishikesh was an entirely different matter.
By early 1968, the world had changed dramatically for the group – no longer the innocent "cheeky chaps" from dreary provincial Liverpool, they were by now mature, even world-weary, adults, who had climbed to the top of the mountain of fame and completely exploded the very definition and meaning of celebrity. The Beatles had become bigger than they – or anyone – could ever have imagined. Having amassed an unprecedented amount of wealth and adulation, they were also discontent, unsatisfied, frustrated and even bored. After indulging themselves in the hedonistic lifestyle of "Swinging Sixties" London (which, of course, included the consumption of hard drugs), they sought a new adventure.
John Lennon was deeply unhappy with The Beatles, with his wife Cynthia and with his humdrum existence as a suburban London father and husband (indeed, he had already secretly begun his relationship with Japanese artist Yoko Ono); Paul McCartney had tried to take creative (and commercial) control of the band since the death of manager Brian Epstein in the prior year, much to the annoyance of John and George Harrison; while George, struggling under the domination of John and Paul, eagerly sought to free himself from the prison of pop stardom. Indeed, The Beatles were looking for something new and liberating.
That turned out to be Hinduism and meditation – something as far from the London rocker lifestyle as one could imagine. Along with various wives, girlfriends, friends and hangers-on, The Beatles found themselves in a kind of rustic heaven on earth, in an ashram near the foothills of the Himalayas. It was the ultimate retreat. One of the 60 or so Western guests of the Maharishi that long-ago spring was a young woman named Prudence Farrow. Born to Hollywood royalty, Prudence was the daughter of Australian film director John Farrow and Irish actress Maureen O’Sullivan. Her older sister is the famed film star, Mia. Of the many songs The Beatles wrote in India, one composition by John Lennon was inspired by Prudence Farrow, the classic and gentle lullaby, “Dear Prudence.”
Now a 65-year-old grandmother living in Seagrove Beach, Fla., Prudence Farrow-Bruns, PhD, kindly agreed to speak to International Business Times to discuss those heady days and how Indian mysticism changed her life.
IB TIMES: How did you come to visit India in early 1968? Was it your first trip to the country?
FARROW-BRUNS: Yes, it was my first time in India. My elder sister Mia [who had just divorced Frank Sinatra], and I traveled to the ashram in Rishikesh in January 1968 to study Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I had learned to meditate a year and a half before.
IB TIMES: How did you initially get involved with Indian culture and Hinduism?
FARROW-BRUNS: When I was 16 years old, I read "Siddhartha" by Herman Hesse and became fascinated and enthralled by what it revealed to me about India, Hinduism and Buddhism. In 1966 at the University of California at Los Angeles, I had learned Transcendental Meditation and it became a lifelong interest, even obsession, of mine. The following year I opened a school for yoga in Boston.
IB TIMES: Growing up in Hollywood, with parents in the movie industry, did you have any interest in becoming a film actress?
FARROW-BRUNS: No, I was no actress. I actually became very disenchanted by Hollywood and didn’t really want to have anything to do with it. I was also deeply affected by the death of my brother Michael in 1958, and the passing of my father in 1963. Hollywood held no appeal for me.
IB TIMES: Did you know The Beatles would be in Rishikesh or was that just a coincidence?
FARROW-BRUNS: No, that was a coincidence. They flew in later, in February, from London, while we arrived, with the Maharishi himself, one month earlier from New York.
IB TIMES: Were you a Beatles’ fan prior to meeting them in Rishikesh?
FARROW-BRUNS: I certainly knew who they were, I liked their music, and I viewed them as a kind of "voice" for our generation, but I was not an obsessed fan of theirs.
IB TIMES: Given their immense fame, were you at all excited or intimidated when you met them?
FARROW-BRUNS: No, not at all. I grew up in Hollywood and had met hundreds of celebrities during my youth.
IB TIMES: What was your assessment of each of the individual Beatles?
FARROW-BRUNS: The Beatles were all very nice, humble, modest, kind and down-to-earth people. This actually shocked me since other celebrities I had met before disappointed me and did not live up to my expectations – this was one of the reasons I really didn’t even want to meet The Beatles initially. I had been disillusioned before, but The Beatles were wonderful. I was closest to John and George since they were my "course buddies" during our studies with the Maharishi.
IB TIMES: Among the Beatles, George embraced Hinduism the most deeply. Do you think John, Paul and Ringo were very interested in the philosophy?
FARROW-BRUNS: As I recall, Paul and Ringo came to Rishikesh for a short period of time, a couple of weeks and a couple of days respectively. They were both very nice people, but I did not get to know them as they did not attend the course. Paul apparently still meditates, as does Ringo. As for John, I think he was very interested in meditation, but perhaps not as deeply as George was. For George and I, meditation and Hinduism completely changed our lives. It was a profound experience for both of us.
IB TIMES: While in India, were you aware that John was writing a song about you?
FARROW-BRUNS: Yes, I heard from George just before he and John left that they had written a song for me, but I wasn’t sure what the content would be.
IB TIMES: What was your reaction when you first heard of (or heard) the song "Dear Prudence" from The Beatles' "White Album?"
FARROW-BRUNS: The first time I heard the song was when my mother played it for me shortly after the record came out. But, initially, I was apprehensive about the song, because John had written at least two negative songs about his experience in India ["The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" and "Sexy Sadie"], so I was a bit worried what he would say about me. But I was relieved when I realized the song was very sweet, innocent and even flattering.
IB TIMES: John and George eventually left Rishikesh, apparently because John accused Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of improper behavior with women. John remained convinced Maharishi was guilty and a phony, but George did not. Did you believe these allegations?
FARROW-BRUNS: I don’t know if that is why John left the course. I do know he was bothered by these rumors, which I think were the result of a misunderstanding or a misinterpretation. I never saw any behavior like that and I was around Maharishi a lot. There was just one woman who started a rumor about the Maharishi, but I did not believe her. Maharishi was quite charismatic – I think his actions were misconstrued. He was unfairly accused, I think.
IB TIMES: The historical records state that the song "Dear Prudence" was inspired by an incident in which you were so deeply into meditation in your cottage quarters that John was tasked with reaching out to you. Is this a true story?
FARROW-BRUNS: It’s kind of true -- I was deeply immersed in my studies and meditation, locked away in my quarters. John, as my "course buddy," was concerned and wanted to bring me out of my quarters to enjoy [the experience] more.
IB TIMES: What was Rishikesh like in 1968?
FARROW-BRUNS: Very beautiful, remote and dangerous. We had few modern amenities on the forest reserve that Maharishi was given by the Indian government, and there were many wild animals in the jungles surrounding us. One of our party shot a tiger and once we witnessed a python consuming an entire water buffalo.
IB TIMES: How often do you visit India?
FARROW-BRUNS: I have been back to India many times, particularly in the 1990s and 2000s. India has changed tremendously since my first visit. In fact, I attended the Kumbh Mela [huge Hindu pilgrimage in northern India] earlier this year.
IB TIMES: Did you have any contact with any of The Beatles after the Rishikesh episode?
FARROW-BRUNS: No, I never saw any of them again after that period in India, although I later heard from mutual friends that George had asked about me. Also, Sean, John’s youngest son, once attended one of my daughter’s birthday parties.
IB TIMES: What do you do now?
FARROW-BRUNS: I run a nonprofit organization called the Dear Prudence Foundation which seeks to raise money to teach people how to meditate. I have been teaching TM for many years.
IB TIMES: Given the name of your foundation, it would appear that you have truly embraced the song you inspired.
FARROW-BRUNS: Yes, I have.
IB TIMES: What is your PhD in?
FARROW-BRUNS: I gained a doctoral degree in Sanskrit from University of California at Berkeley. I studied Sanskrit because I wanted to read the ancient Hindu texts in their original language.
IB TIMES: Thank you so much for speaking to me today. You have inspired one of the most beautiful and haunting of all rock-and-roll songs.
FARROW-BRUNS: Thank you.