The much-discussed surrender of John, Paul, George and Ringo to the soothing influence of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi makes, in my view, depressing reading…The unfortunate Beatles, like many of us, it seems, are in grave danger of coming into contact with the Spirit of Universal Truth, an unhelpful tipple which has in the past turned the great mind of Aldous Huxley to mystical blotting paper.
John Mortimer, The New Statesman, 29 September 1967.
There’s high, and there’s high, and to get really high—I mean so high you can walk on water, that high—that’s where I’m going. The answer’s not pot, but yoga and meditation, and working and discipline, working out your karma.
George Harrison, Holiday, February 1968.
All at once, or so it seemed, the pop aristocracy of the UK turned to “Eastern” religion. Seemingly everyone was now devising his or her personal path to enlightenment: Pete Townshend with Meher Baba, Richard Thompson with Sufi Islam, even Dave Davies was reading Vivekananda’s Rajah Yoga. And of course The Beach Boys, Donovan and The Beatles had found the Spiritual Regeneration teachings of the Maharishi, a sort of pop fusion of Buddhism, Hinduism and even stray bits of American “power of positive thinking” boosterism.
The mystery is explained in part when you consider that many of these people had been taking LSD in great doses for a long time (Tony Visconti and his wife tripped once a week for a whole year, for example, and Visconti eventually became a Tibetan Buddhist). Eastern teachings resounded with celebrities who were trying to make sense of a world in which “all limits had been magically removed” (Bernice Martin). Also appealing was that many of the Eastern religion varietals on display didn’t require much in terms of material renunciation or moral strictures from novitiates.
The “new” religions also had appeared in somewhat of a vacuum. Since the late ’50s, there had been a general falling off in religious observance among the young in the UK (you might recall John Lennon’s infamous “we’re more popular than Christ” comment was specifically about British teenagers). So Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism, particularly the watery blends offered by various celebrity mystics and sages, found little competition. Buddhism in particular was hip with the young because it had no ruling omniscient god who mandated antiquated moral codes, and its priest caste was best known for a) protesting war and b) wearing colorful psychedelic outfits. It was seemingly devoted solely to the “now,” and was misinterpreted as something of a Pop religion.
David Bowie had been studying Tibetan Buddhism since 1965, if not earlier. So while his “Karma Man,” which he cut a few days after The Beatles and their spouses had decamped (in a blaze of press coverage) for Bangor, Wales, to be initiated into the Maharishi’s teachings, may have seemed like a trendy affectation, it was actually a sequel to Bowie’s earlier Tibetan homage “Silly Boy Blue.”
That said, by late ’67, Tibetan Buddhism was just as trendy as the rest of the lot. For many weekend Buddhists, “Tibet” was something of an Atlantis in the mountains, the land of Shangri-La, the site of the Lost Continent of Mu; it was a magic kingdom in which everyone was holy and wasn’t hung up on material things. ITC’s 1968 TV drama The Champions, for example, featured secret agents crashing their plane in Tibet and being healed (and given superpowers) by lamas. (Identifying as a Tibetan Buddhist would eventually become a political act, as taking the side of the Tibetans drew down the wrath of the student Maoists of 1968, some of whom heckled Bowie’s mime performance Yet-San and the Eagle, which featured “Silly Boy Blue.”)*
So something has changed since the days of “Silly Boy Blue,” which was a realist attempt to depict Tibetan culture, to the point where it sounded a bit like a National Geographic article turned into a pop song. “Karma Man” is nowhere as literal—its title figure, clad in saffron robes and kneeling on the floor in meditation, is something of a Buddhist superhero (even the name’s right out of Doctor Strange). He seems akin to Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man, with sigils and runes tattooed on his skin that offer lost wisdom and future prophecies. Bowie’s Karma Man is also now set in opposition to the West—the deceived and the blind mock him, consider him a carnival freak, and keep trying to slow him down.
Recorded on 1 September 1967 as the proposed B-side to “Let Me Sleep Beside You” (an attempt at nirvana for the flip side of an ode to maya); on Deram Anthology. A live recording (a BBC session arranged by Visconti on 13 May 1968 and available on Bowie at the Beeb) is so superior to the studio cut that I prefer to think of the latter as merely a rough draft.
Top: The Beatles seek enlightenment in Bangor, August 1967; Romano Cagnoni, “British Museum,” 1967.
*A point originally made by Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles, in About Time 2, a study of cultural influences on Patrick Troughton-era Doctor Who.