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Gurus, Saris, and Sitars

How the West came to embrace Eastern culture in the 1960s.

On February 15, 1968, the Beatles traveled to India to study Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The trip was widely publicized and helped spawn a lasting fad for all things Indian. But the four lads from Liverpool were far from the first Westerners fascinated by Eastern culture.

Western explorers have been bringing back tales and ideas from Asia for centuries. In the 19th and 20th century, as long-distance travel became easier, spiritual leaders from the East traveled west to share their religions and philosophies with new audiences. By the 1950s, Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were seeking their own Zen -- a quest that, through roundabout means, helped spark a cultural revolution that would flourish in the next decade.

622357606  1 Allen Ginsberg/Corbis via Getty ImagesBy the early 1960s, Allen Ginsberg's interest in Buddhism had extended to Krishnaism. In 1962, he traveled to India for a year with his partner Peter Orlovsky, forming friendships with young Bengali poets that would profoundly influence Ginsberg’s life and writing.

Bhaktivedanta Swami At His British HeadquartersExpress Newspapers/Getty ImagesGinsberg became a vocal supporter (and financial backer) of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a spiritual leader who helped grow the Hare Krishna movement in the West by opening the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in downtown New York City in 1966.

By the end of the 1960s, ISKCON centers were popping up across the United States. This photo from 1970 shows a Hare Krishna procession in Laguna Beach, California. Slim Aarons/Getty Images By the end of the 1960s, ISKCON centers were popping up across the United States. This photo from 1970 shows a Hare Krishna procession in Laguna Beach, California. George Harrison is pictured with the Radha Krishna Temple musical group in 1969. The group recorded an album of mantra music with Harrison, which was released on the Beatles' Apple label. Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images George Harrison is pictured with the Radha Krishna Temple musical group in 1969. The group recorded an album of mantra music with Harrison, which was released on the Beatles' Apple label. Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja (B.K.S.) Iyengar, one of the 20th century’s most prominent yoga teachers, traveled frequently to places like Switzerland, England, and the United States in order to showcase his particular style of yoga. Shown here in 1960 at a Pre-Wimbledon party in Highgate, England, B.K.S. Iyengar demonstrates the Kukkutasana (Rooster pose) for tennis star Angela Buxton and others. Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja (B.K.S.) Iyengar, one of the 20th century’s most prominent yoga teachers, traveled frequently to places like Switzerland, England, and the United States in order to showcase his particular style of yoga. Shown here in 1960 at a Pre-Wimbledon party in Highgate, England, B.K.S. Iyengar demonstrates the Kukkutasana (Rooster pose) for tennis star Angela Buxton and others. Yoga had a small following in the West from the 19th century onward, thanks to teachers like Swami Vivekananda, but it wasn't until the early 1960s that the practice began to take off. Shown here in 1964, Hampstead housewives practice yoga in a community hall in London. Express/Getty Images Yoga had a small following in the West from the 19th century onward, thanks to teachers like Swami Vivekananda, but it wasn't until the early 1960s that the practice began to take off. Shown here in 1964, Hampstead housewives practice yoga in a community hall in London. A group yoga class takes places during the Whole Earth Fair in Boulder, Colorado on July 20, 1970. Robert Altman/Getty Images A group yoga class takes places during the Whole Earth Fair in Boulder, Colorado on July 20, 1970. Meditation also saw a surge of popularity in the 1960s. Shown here with Swami Satchidananda in 1967, Prudence Farrow would later travel to India with sister Mia and inspire the Beatles song, "Dear Prudence." Before that notable trip, she ran a yoga Institute for Satchidananda in Boston, Mass., when she was just 19. Harry Benson/Getty Images Meditation also saw a surge of popularity in the 1960s. Shown here with Swami Satchidananda in 1967, Prudence Farrow would later travel to India with sister Mia and inspire the Beatles song, "Dear Prudence." Before that notable trip, she ran a yoga Institute for Satchidananda in Boston, Mass., when she was just 19. After the Beatles’ 1968 trip to India, Eastern influences were no longer just for the counterculture and quickly infiltrated pop culture. Here Dick Van Dyke meditates in a scene from the 1969 film “Some Kind of Nut.” Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images After the Beatles’ 1968 trip to India, Eastern influences were no longer just for the counterculture and quickly infiltrated pop culture. Here Dick Van Dyke meditates in a scene from the 1969 film “Some Kind of Nut.” Marlon Brando plays an Indian guru in the 1968 film, "Candy," a fantasy satire that featured a cameo by Ringo Starr. Bettmann/Bettmann Archive Marlon Brando plays an Indian guru in the 1968 film, "Candy," a fantasy satire that featured a cameo by Ringo Starr. In the mid-1960s, fashion took a dramatic turn from miniskirts and geometric prints to long tunics and flowy, ornate dresses that borrowed from Eastern styles. Posing for Vogue in 1966, Veruschka dons a sari silk robe with gold embellishments. Franco Rubartelli In the mid-1960s, fashion took a dramatic turn from miniskirts and geometric prints to long tunics and flowy, ornate dresses that borrowed from Eastern styles. Posing for Vogue in 1966, Veruschka dons a sari silk robe with gold embellishments. Shirley MacLaine wears a sari while in New Delhi to meet with India's prime minister, Indira Gandhi, in October 1967. Manchester Daily Express/SSPL via Getty Images Shirley MacLaine wears a sari while in New Delhi to meet with India's prime minister, Indira Gandhi, in October 1967. Elizabeth Taylor at the Lido in Paris with husband Richard Burton, dressed in a Hindu sari, circa 1967. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images Elizabeth Taylor at the Lido in Paris with husband Richard Burton, dressed in a Hindu sari, circa 1967. The Beatles’ interest in Indian culture began several years before their trip the Maharishi’s ashram. This photo from 1966 shows George Harrison receiving a sitar lesson from a Sikh teacher as Paul, John, and Ringo look on. Bettmann/Bettmann Archive The Beatles’ interest in Indian culture began several years before their trip the Maharishi’s ashram. This photo from 1966 shows George Harrison receiving a sitar lesson from a Sikh teacher as Paul, John, and Ringo look on. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones plays “Paint it Black” on a sitar while on set for “Ready Steady Go!," a popular British television show. Ivan Keeman/Redferns Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones plays “Paint it Black” on a sitar while on set for “Ready Steady Go!," a popular British television show. Ravi Shankar plays the sitar at a music school in Los Angeles in 1967. Along with Ali Akbar Khan and Nikhil Banerjee, Shankar was largely responsible for the great surge of popularity in Indian music and, particularly, interest in the sitar. Henry Diltz/Corbis via Getty Images Ravi Shankar plays the sitar at a music school in Los Angeles in 1967. Along with Ali Akbar Khan and Nikhil Banerjee, Shankar was largely responsible for the great surge of popularity in Indian music and, particularly, interest in the sitar. George Harrison with Ravi Shankar in Hollywood circa 1967. Bettmann/Bettmann Archive George Harrison with Ravi Shankar in Hollywood circa 1967.