I was in junior high when I had my first real encounter with the Beatles.
When I say that, I’m not talking about the time I noticed the vocals of “Hello, Goodbye” in the background of a Target commercial or when I curiously picked up “The Beatles: Rock Band” video game on a trip to the local DVD rental store.
I am talking about the first time I took a deep dive into the band’s entire discography: collecting CDs to maintain the respectable stack of Beatles albums on my desk, watching “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” over and over again, attempting to play through a variety of the band’s songs by ear on the piano everyday after school.
By the age of 14, I had turned an innocent fascination with the band’s music and history into a thorough obsession. At 14, listening to the Beatles was the only form of worship I was familiar with.
To say that I found the Beatles at a pivotal time in my life and quote-unquote “religious journey” would be an understatement. Although my parents are practicing Hindus, it never felt as if their religion — our family religion — ever escaped the confines of our household into the streets of my southern Minnesota hometown.
My parents enrolled me in a small parochial Catholic school for the entirety of my elementary education. Until the sixth grade, I diligently attended mass on a weekly basis, reciting many Biblical scriptures and singing along to every hymn — even if I barely understood the significance of what I was saying. I even started a small collection of my own rosaries. Catholicism was something I could freely discuss in the classroom, but not at home. With my parents, I spent full days reading stories of Hindu mythology, my mother never sending me to bed before I had practiced reciting traditional Sanskrit prayers.
At one point, I innocently asked her why I had the unique disposition of being “half Hindu, half Catholic” — despite knowing full well that I was consistently on the outskirts of religious conversations at school. My mother laughed and corrected me. I wasn’t “half” anything; obviously, I had to fully embody the Hindu religion, culture and traditions that had been passed on to me from generations before.
But somewhere in this frenzied religious experience, even after I had left Catholic school and entered the (still quite religiously conservative) throws of a Midwestern public school, I realized that this thin, fraying latch onto my family religion was quickly falling apart.
At 14, I missed several weeks of school to travel to India following the sudden deaths of my grandparents. This experience made me resent every single encounter with religion I had ever had, whether it failed me in my time of need or kept me tied to a cross-continental identity that felt much more like a burden than a saving grace.
And that’s when I met the Beatles.
I convinced myself that no amount of prayers, chants or rosaries would get me through difficult times. But if I could escape my immediate reality by putting on my headphones and listening to a band that I believed was larger than life, then maybe I really was connected to some higher purpose.
Its lyrics were my scripture, the songs my hymns. Everytime I heard the gentle strum of the sitar on “Norwegian Wood” or John Lennon’s distant vocals on “Across The Universe,” I was instantly in church. Whereas prayers that my teachers and parents taught me as a child felt distant and unfamiliar, even the most meditative lyrics of the Beatles felt like coming home.
The religion of the Beatles seemed to be as evolving as my own. And as I heard things such as that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” or read about Lennon’s own eventual renunciation of organized religion altogether, I became more comfortable with the idea of not forcing myself to abide by any religious labels in order to prove that I believed in something.
But beyond serving as my own spiritual awakening, the Beatles created a space where my family members could find a middle ground. I could set my cultural angst and resentment aside if it meant I could spend time with my parents and siblings. Listening to albums back-to-back at home or on road trips was not only acceptable, but encouraged. When it came to the introspection and existentiality of songs like “Yesterday” and “In My Life,” it seemed as if my parents and I could find harmony and bridge religious tradition with a more modern spirituality.
I don’t listen to the Beatles nearly as much as I did back then. But at this point in my life, a solid seven years after John, Paul, George and Ringo consumed my cultural consciousness, I still credit them for shaping a large part of my identity — and not merely from a religious standpoint, but as a young artist, musician and writer.
Play me a Beatles song, and I’ll still recite the lyrics word-for-word. Sing me a Beatles song and I’ll sing it right back. After all, faith in something, anything, can be terrifying — but there’s nothing more comforting than having just enough of it to remember your favorite songs by heart.