In the winter of 1967-68, I went to a Ravi Shankar concert in Boston. The auditorium was packed with aficionados of Indian classical music, curiosity seekers, trend followers, and a boatload of hippies and rock fans. Nine of ten, I would estimate, were under 30, and most of them inhabited the new landscape called "counterculture." Without trying, and with considerable reluctance, Shankar had become a superstar, having made his historic appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival that June, at the onset of the Summer of Love, and his festival-ending performance had blown thousands of minds.
Before starting that Boston performance, Shankar addressed the audience. He said he'd learned that young people were taking drugs before coming to his concerts, thinking they would appreciate the music more if they were stoned. He did not like that idea. About 48 at the time, and therefore an elder, he said we should come to the music with clean nervous systems, and if we wanted to expand our minds we should do so with meditation and yoga. You could practically hear a collective "bummer" emanating from the minds of the disappointed.
But others had a different reaction: for them, Shankar's statement confirmed something they had come to suspect: that the psychedelic experience was a window into states of consciousness that might be attained safer and more reliably through the same ancient wisdom that had fed the music we had come to hear. Yehudi Menuhin, the great violinist who had brought Shankar to the West, said in his memoir that the purpose of Indian music is "to make one sensitive to the infinite within one, to unite one's breath with the breath of space, one's vibrations with the vibrations of the cosmos." For that reason, the music's euphoria triggered for many listeners an exploration of India's spiritual treasures. That's why the maestro should be remembered as much for his contribution to contemporary spirituality as for his virtuosity and his role in promoting world music.
Shankar, who died on Dec. 11, was introduced to American audiences in 1956 by Menuhin (who also brought the hatha yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar to the West). Through Menuhin, classical music aficionados acquired an appreciation for Indian music (the sitarist and violinist collaborated on a Grammy-winning album titled "West Meets East"). Interest quickly crossed over into jazz; Shankar collaborated with luminaries such as Bud Shank and Paul Horn, and became so close to John and Alice Coltrane that they named their son Ravi (Ravi Coltrane is now a stellar saxophonist in his own right). The Coltranes became serious students of Indian spirituality, and Alice eventually became a swami, running her own ashram in California until her death in 2007. Shankar also influenced, and collaborated with, the renowned composer Philip Glass, who has been a student of Hindu and Buddhist spiritual teachings since the sixties.
But it was, of course, Shankar's musical and spiritual influence on George Harrison that shook the world. In 1966, George spent six weeks in India, studying sitar under the master's tutelage. The musical results can be heard on several Beatles tracks, notably "Within You Without You" on the Sgt. Pepper album, and many of George's solo works. But the mentor-student relationship also catalyzed a spiritual quest that would make George about as Hindu as a Liverpool Catholic could possibly be. Shankar gave George books to read. They included Swami Vivekananda's Raja Yoga, which George said taught him that spirituality was more a matter of direct inner experience than of force-fed dogma, and Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda's seminal memoir, which George would hand out as a gift the rest of his life.
Those introductions led directly to the watershed moment in Aug., 1967, when the Beatles met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and took up Transcendental Meditation, which in turn led to their famous sojourn at his ashram on the Ganges. Musically, the chief result of that encounter was the White Album; spiritually, it led to the mainstreaming of meditation and other expressions of Indian spirituality, including today's boom in hatha yoga and kirtan, the traditional chanting that George put on the pop map with his 1970 album with Hare Krishna devotees.
That powerful mix of music, friendship, collaboration, and spiritual transformation constitutes a unique legacy. In celebrating the remarkable life of Pandit Ravi Shankar, it should be appreciated as much as his astonishing virtuosity.