*7.34-THE INNER LIGHT (Beatles)

George Harrison
George Harrison



Without going out of my door
I can know all things on earth.
Without looking out of my window
I can know the ways of heaven.

        The farther one travels
        The less one knows,
        The less one really knows.


Without going out of your door
You can know all things on earth.
Without looking out of your window
You can know the ways of heaven.


                Arrive without traveling.
                See all without looking.
                Do all without doing.


The last psychedelic song that the Beatles recorded to be released as a single, The Inner Light is found on the B side of the Lady Madonna. Very much like the Rolling Stones’ single released three months later (Jumping Jack Flash / Child of the Moon), the B side signified the group’s adieu to the psychedelic aesthetic—at least on Top 40 radio—while the A side represented a return to the more stripped down, basic rock direction that both groups would continue to feature in their singles until the end of the decade.

The Inner Light was the first ever Harrison composition to be featured on a Beatles single. The lyrics are a rendering of Chapter 47 in Laozi's Tao Te Ching, the foundational book of Taoism, written circa the 6th century BC. The music is played by Indian musicians in Bombay (the present Mumbai), and features a different kind of sound than the sitar-based music of the Northern tradition that Ravi Shankar had introduced Harrison to. The music is driven by a harmonium drone, accompanied by lute-like sarod, a South-Indian drum rhythm and an Eastern-sounding flute (shenai). According to Dominic Pedler’s The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles (2003), p. 524, the song form appears to be an expression of the Karnatak temple music tradition of Southwest India. Alan W. Pollack points out in his soundscapes blog that of the three most unabashedly Indian-influenced Harrison songs, Inner Light “is particularly distinguished by virtue of its indigenous purity of instrumentation, inwardly focused lyrics, and almost strict form alternation between instrumental and sung interludes”.

The Inner Light was the first of several songs that the Beatles released (including Across the Universe and Dear Prudence) that were written around the time of their February 1968 stay in an ashram in Rishikesh under the spiritual direction of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. However, it is the only Beatles song that was actually recorded in India. Harrison provides the vocals to the recording, and later Lennon and McCartney added harmonies to the last line of the concluding verse.

In the lyrics, George Harrison followed John Lennon’s insight used in All You Need is Love to present ideas in simple paradoxical word constructions. There had been a whiff of this in Harrison’s previous raga Within You and Without You, but The Inner Light, particularly in the last verse, offers the paradoxes in the form of irrational koans. How does one arrive without traveling? See all without looking? Do all without doing? There’s “nothing you can do that can’t be done”, after all. It’s ironic that Harrison would write a song about there being no need to travel in order to see the world, when he’d made a great effort to visit India in order to receive wisdom from the Maharishi. But there it is; after a long journey toward knowledge, one learns that there was no need to have left home in the first place. [It seems to me that while both Lennon and Harrison were learning to use words in a zen manner as a method by which to reach spiritual enlightenment, McCartney used paradoxical word constructions for humorous effect, often as puns: Hello Goodbye comes to mind, as well as “see how they run” in Lady Madonna, which both evokes The Three Blind Mice and a “run” in the Madonna’s stocking.]