It was 1967 and the Indian meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, dressed in white with long flowing black hair and a gray beard, beamed as he stood surrounded by four smiling young Beatles at the peak of their popularity.
George Harrison, clutching a sitar, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were on their way to a retreat in Wales led by the Maharishi, and the Hindu holy man was on his way to worldwide fame.
It has been more than 50 years since the Maharishi began teaching a technique known as Transcendental Meditation. He is now believed to be 91 and on Tuesday, a close adviser said he has retreated into near silence and turned over the day-to-day running of his global network to aides.
"He is not as young as he once was," adviser John Hagelin, an American physicist, said by telephone from the Dutch village of Vlodrop where the TM movement is now headquartered. "I think he probably has a more limited reserve of physical energy to draw upon. He was working ... 20 hours a day for years."
Transcendental Meditation, or TM, is a 20-minute twice daily routine in which the meditator silently focuses on a sound, or mantra, to induce relaxation and "dive into a state of pure consciousness."
Most scientists agree TM can ease stress, high blood pressure, pain and insomnia. But some argue it is no more effective than many other mind-body relaxation techniques.
Movie director David Lynch once extolled the virtues of TM in a speech.
"Anger, stress, tension, depression, sorrow, hate, fear — these things start to retreat," said Lynch, a longtime practitioner. "And for a filmmaker, having this negativity lift away is money in the bank. When you're suffering you can't create."
6 million practitioners claimed
The Maharishi's movement claims some 6 million people have become practitioners.
But it was not until the Beatles visited his ashram in India in 1968 that the guru became an icon of the counterculture movement. John, Paul, George and Ringo came for spiritual instruction as they struggled to come to terms with the death of their manager Brian Epstein.
Other celebrities who followed the Maharishi's teachings included singer Donovan, actress Mia Farrow and the Beach Boys.
The attention his famous followers focused on the Maharishi's movement turned it into a global phenomenon with outposts in some 130 countries. For the last 17 years, he has run it from a former Franciscan monastery in a secluded forest near Vlodrop, an eastern Dutch village near the German border. He often spent hours on end speaking by video links to followers around the globe.
Focus now on ancient Indian texts
The Maharishi told senior aides at a Jan. 8 meeting in the Netherlands of his plan to withdraw from administrative duties and spend his time absorbed in the ancient Indian texts that underpin his movement. The announcement caught many followers off guard.
"He had been involved very dynamically administratively in his worldwide movement for over 50 years, so it's quite a significant change to see him dive back purely into knowledge and let other people take care of the administration," Hagelin said.
There is no one designated successor but many people have been trained for years to carry on the Maharishi's various tasks, Hagelin said.
The Maharishi — a Hindi-language title for Great Seer — now spends his days in silence contemplating and preparing a commentary on the Vedas, a vast Sanskrit canon compiled some 3,500 years ago, from which he evolves solutions for today's troubled world.
"I think everybody's quietly feeling some sense of celebration that he's finally going to complete his commentary on the Vedas, which probably will have a longer-term impact," Hagelin said. "It's a vitally important body of literature."
The Maharishi is believed to have been born Jan. 12, 1917, in central India. He earned a physics degree from Allahabad University, was the longtime secretary to a leading Hindu sage, then went into silent retreat for two years in the northern Indian hills.
In 1955, he began teaching Transcendental Meditation and took his technique to the United States in 1959.