Musicians and Writers Channel India
Some of the most influential, and certainly the most sublime, disseminators of Vedic principles have been artists. Intrigued by, inspired by, and/or transformed by India’s art forms and spiritual teachings, they incorporated themes into their art, and out it came in sattvic sounds, puranic prose, Vedantic verse, and other forms and into the minds and hearts of listeners, viewers, and readers. Among them have been the following.
Ravi Shankar first came to America in 1956, at the invitation of the great classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, a yoga practitioner who also brought B.K.S. Iyengar to the West. The two virtuosos recorded a Grammy winning album, West Meets East, in 1967. Shankar later recorded with Philip Glass as well, and with jazz artists like Bud Shank and Paul Horn.
Ravi Shankar and the great John Coltrane became so close that Coltrane named his son Ravi. He and his wife, Alice Coltrane, became devoted to Indian spiritual teachings and to Indian motifs in their music. After John’s tragic death at age 40, Alice dove ever more deeply into Hindu teachings, eventually becoming Swami Turiyasangitananda and establishing her own ashram in Southern California.
But it was, of course, Shankar’s musical and personal relationship with George Harrison that changed the face of both music and spirituality. The first time rock fans heard a sitar was on the opening bars of “Norwegian Wood” in 1965. Two years later, on the iconic Sargeant Pepper album, George’s “Within You Without You” had far more sophisticated Indian musical motifs, and the lyrics were like a rock ‘n’ roll Upanishad. George became an emissary for Vedanta, first as an advocate of TM – as described in Chapter 8 – as a bhakta chanting the names of God with the Hare Krishnas, and as a solo performer from “My Sweet Lord” until the last album he recorded, “Brainwashed.” Other musicians were also Vedic transmitters: Philip Glass, Charles Lloyd, John McLaughlin and more. But George was the most persistent, the most dedicated and the most overt.
See George learning sitar from Ravi Shankar.
The transmission came through poetry too, from the British Romantics – Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth – to Whitman, to Ginsberg and the Beats. But the verse of T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats is, perhaps surprisingly, among the most intentional in its celebration of Indian philosophy. Little known facts: while at Harvard, Eliot studied with some of America’s leading Indologists and Sanskritists; and Yeats also worked with an Indian monk named Shri Purohit Swami on translations of the Mandukya Upanishad and the Yoga Sutras.
Novelists intrigued by, or personally commited to, Indic spiritual teachings described the yogic quest for realization through the lives of fictional characters. They included Hermann Hesse (Siddhartha, Journey to the East, etc.), the Somerset Maugham of The Razor’s Edge (whose guru figure is based on Ramana Maharshi), and most especially for Americans, the J. D. Salinger of Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter and Seymour: An Introduction. No one else painted quite such compelling and accurate portraits of modern seekers trying to square the Eastern spiritual quest with life in the modern, urban world.
Other art forms served as transmitters as well, from the glorious cinema of Satyajit Ray (the Apu Trilogy in particular) and Merchant-Ivory to documentaries such as Louis Malle’s exquisite Phantom India to memoirs like Eat, Pray, Love to the comedy of Swami Beyondananda (Steve Bhaerman). More will be added as this site is developed.