Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Religious Thought as Manifested in the Musical Content of George Harrison's Brainwashed

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Religious Thought as Manifested in the Musical Content of George Harrison's Brainwashed

Article excerpt

Michael Gilmour's 2004 article in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture is a study of George Harrison's final album, Brainwashed. Since the work was inspired by Harrison's Hindu faith, the record is distinct among albums by Western musicians exploring religious themes, which are usually created with a predominantly Christian worldview. With an artwork inspired by a theological tradition foreign to most Westerners, scholars from Judeo-Christian traditions require a new approach when studying the album. Gilmour, a Christian, approaches the record as a religious outsider, attempting to discern what a layperson or an "interested but non-specialist listener" could learn about Hinduism from the album (2004, 1). (1) By studying the lyrics, liner notes, and record jacket, Gilmour argues that the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text, was the "primary inspiration" for Harrison's record (1). (2)

While performing a "source-critical reading of George Harrison's writing" leads to an accurate and insightful conclusion, Gilmour does not consider any of the musical content of Brainwashed in his article (2004, 1). While musical analysis can be challenging for the nonspecialist, the attempt must be made, since, as Albin Zak believes, "as soon as we section off some part ... we are no longer dealing with the record or the experience it offers" (2005, 96). Understanding this experience involves conceiving of an album as a totality, a combination of music and lyrics delivered through performance, then recorded and edited in the studio. While the album's artwork and lyrics are certainly worthy of study, any understanding based solely on these considerations is necessarily limited. (3)

Since the complete exclusion of musical evidence leaves Gilmour's article incomplete, this paper attempts to supplement his work by analyzing three of the album's twelve songs. This cross-disciplinary approach leads to a new understanding of Harrison's music, which functions as a means for articulating his evolving relationship with his individual and idiosyncratic variety of Hinduism. If one studies the music within this framework, Brainwashed, created during the final years of Harrison's life and finished posthumously, is the culmination of his spiritual understanding. An exploration of the music strongly supports Gilmour's conclusion that Harrison drew from the Bhagavad Gita for his religious material and also provides a more nuanced understanding of the album as a fundamentally musical work. Most important, it sheds new light on Harrison's personal spiritual beliefs. (4)

Harrison was notoriously reserved, especially with regard to his religious convictions, so a complete understanding of his conception of or engagement with Hinduism is beyond our current scholarship on this intensely private individual. This makes it difficult to know with certainty what exactly Hinduism meant to Harrison. It is possible to use his public statements--interviews, answers to press questions, and music--to infer a number of aspects that were especially important to him. We know for certain that several gurus and texts shaped Harrison's spiritual development. (5) He associated primarily with the Hare Krishna movement, which was brought to the West by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). This group, commonly known as the Hare Krishnas, is part of the Vaishnava tradition in Hinduism, which focuses its worship on Vishnu or His incarnations, especially Krishna. The movement holds that Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and the Bhagavad Gita, part of the longer Indian epic the Mahabharata, imparts Lord Krishna's instructions to the warrior-prince Arjuna. From these teachings, the Hare Krishnas believe that the Lord is best reached by practicing bhakti yoga, a yogic practice involving loving devotional service to Krishna, including chanting and singing of the Maha mantra. …

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