George Harrison began writing "Within You Without You" in early 1967 while at the house of musician and artist Klaus Voormann, in the north London suburb of Hampstead. Harrison's immediate inspiration for the song came from a conversation they had shared over dinner, regarding the metaphysical space that prevents individuals from recognising the natural forces uniting the world. Following this discussion, Harrison worked out the song's melody on a harmonium and came up with the opening line: "We were talking about the space between us all".
The song was Harrison's second composition to be explicitly influenced by Indian classical music, after "Love You To", which featured Indian instruments such as sitar, tabla and tambura. Since recording the latter track for the Beatles' Revolver album in April 1966, Harrison had continued to look outside of his role as the band's lead guitarist, further immersing himself in studying the sitar, partly under the tutelage of master sitarist Ravi Shankar. Harrison later said that the tune for "Within You Without You" came about through his regularly performing musical exercises known as sargam, which use the same scales as those found in Indian ragas.
"Within You Without You" is the first of many songs in which Harrison espouses Hindu spiritual concepts in his lyrics. Having incorporated elements of Eastern philosophy in "Love You To", Harrison became fascinated by ancient Hindu teachings after he and his wife, Pattie Boyd, visited Shankar in India over September–October 1966. Intent on mastering the sitar, Harrison first joined other students of Shankar's in Bombay, until local fans and the press learned of his arrival. Harrison, Boyd, Shankar and the latter's partner, Kamala Chakravarty, then relocated to a houseboat on Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir. There, Harrison received personal tuition from Shankar while absorbing religious texts such as Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi and Swami Vivekananda's Raja Yoga. This period coincided with his introduction to meditation and, during their visit to Vrindavan, he witnessed communal chanting for the first time.
The education he received in India, particularly regarding the illusory nature of the material world, resonated with Harrison following his experiences with the hallucinogenic drug LSD (commonly known as "acid") and informed his lyrics to "Within You Without You". Having considered leaving the Beatles after the completion of their third US tour, on 29 August 1966, he also gained a philosophical perspective on the effects of the band's international fame. He later attributed "Within You Without You" to his having "fallen under the spell of the country" after experiencing the "pure essence of India" through Shankar's guidance.
The song follows the pitches of Khamaj thaat, the Indian equivalent of Mixolydian mode. Written and performed in the tonic key of C (but subsequently sped up to C♯ on the official recording), it features what musicologist Dominic Pedler terms an "exotic" melody over a constant C-G "root-fifth" drone, which is neither obviously major nor minor in scale. Based on a musical piece that Shankar had written for All India Radio, the structure of the composition adheres to the Hindustani musical tradition and demonstrates Harrison's advances in the Indian classical genre since "Love You To".
Following a brief alap, which serves to introduce the song's main musical themes, "Within You Without You" comprises three distinct sections: two verses and a chorus; an extended instrumental passage; and a final verse and chorus. The alap consists of tambura drone, over which the main melody is outlined on dilruba, a bow-played string instrument that Boyd began learning in India. Throughout the vocal section of the song – the gat, in traditional Indian composition – the rhythm is a 16-beat tintal in madhya laya (medium tempo). The vocal line is supported throughout by dilruba, in the manner of a sarangi echoing the melody in a khyal piece. The first three words of each verse ("We were talking") have a tritone interval (E to B♭), which, in Pedler's view, enhances the spiritual dissonance that Harrison expresses in his lyrics.
Over the instrumental passage, the tabla rhythm switches to a 10-beat jhaptal cycle. A musical dialogue ensues in 5/4 time, first between the dilruba and sitar, then between a Western string section and sitar, resolving in melodic unison and together stating a rhythmic cadence, known as a tihai, to close the middle segment. After this, the drone is again prominent as the rhythm returns to 16-beat tintal for the final verse and chorus. On the finished recording, the tonal and spiritual tension is relieved by the inclusion of muted canned laughter.
In his book Indian Music and the West, Gerry Farrell writes of "Within You Without You": "The overall effect is of several disparate strands of Indian music being woven together to create a new form. It is a quintessential fusion of pop and Indian music." Peter Lavezzoli, author of The Dawn of Indian Music in the West, describes the song as "a survey of Indian classical and semiclassical styles" in which "the diverse elements ... are skillfully woven together into an interesting hybrid. If anything, the closest comparison that might be made is to the Hindu devotional song form known as bhajan."
According to Religion News Service writer Steve Rabey, "Within You Without You" "contrast[s] Western individualism with Eastern monism". The lyrics convey basic tenets of Vedanta philosophy, particularly in Harrison's reference to the concept of maya (the illusory nature of existence), in the lines "And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion / Never glimpse the truth". Author Joshua Greene paraphrases the song-wide message as: "A wall of illusion separates us from each other … which only turns our love for one another cold. Peace will come when we learn to see past the illusion of differences and come to know that we are one …" The solution espoused by Harrison is for individuals to see beyond the self and each seek change within, further to Vivekananda's contention in Raja Yoga that "Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest that divinity …"
At times in the song, Harrison distances himself from those who live in ignorance of these apparent truths – saying, "If they only knew" and asking the listener, "Are you one of them?" In the final verse, he quotes from the gospels of St Matthew and St Mark, lamenting those who "gain the world and lose their soul". Author Ian MacDonald defends the "accusatory finger" behind such statements, saying: "this is a token of what was then felt to be a revolution in progress: an inner revolution against materialism."
In the context of 1967, the transcendental theme of Harrison's lyrics aligned with the philosophy behind the Summer of Love – namely, the search for universality and an ego-less existence. Author Ian Inglis considers the line "With our love we could save the world" to be a "cogent reflection" of the Summer of Love ethos, anticipating the utopian message of Harrison's composition "It's All Too Much" and the John Lennon-written "All You Need Is Love". He adds, with reference to the chorus: "The lyrics are given greater depth by the double meaning of without – 'in the absence of' and 'outside' – each of which is perfectly applicable to the song's sentiments."
Harrison recorded "Within You Without You" for the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album based around Paul McCartney's vision of a fictitious band that would serve as the Beatles' alter egos, after their decision to quit touring. Harrison had little interest in McCartney's concept; he later admitted that, following his return from India, "my heart was still out there", and working with the Beatles again "felt like going backwards". After it was decided to omit "Only a Northern Song" from the album, the song became Harrison's sole composition on Sgt. Pepper.
The recording features musical contributions from only Harrison, Beatles aide Neil Aspinall, and a group of uncredited Indian musicians. As with his Indian accompanists on "Love You To", Harrison sourced these musicians through the Asian Music Circle in north London. According to author Alan Clayson, Harrison missed a Beatles recording session to attend one of Shankar's London concerts, an absence that served as "fieldwork" for "Within You Without You".
MacDonald describes the song as "Stylistically … the most distant departure from the staple Beatles sound in their discography". The basic track was recorded on 15 March 1967 at EMI's Abbey Road studio 2 in London. The participants sat on a carpet in the studio, which was decorated with Indian tapestries on the walls, with the lights turned low and incense burning. Harrison and Aspinall each played a tambura, while the Indian musicians contributed on tabla, dilruba, tambura and swarmandal. A type of zither, the swarmandal provided the glissando flourishes that introduce the tabla during the alap and signal the return to 16-beat tintal before the final verse.
The session was also attended by Lennon, artist Peter Blake, and John Barham, an English classical pianist and student of Shankar who shared Harrison's desire to promote Indian music to Western audiences. In Barham's recollection, Harrison "had the entire structure of the song mapped out in his head" and sung the melody that he wanted the dilruba player to follow. The twin hand-drums of the tabla were close-miked by recording engineer Geoff Emerick, in order to capture what he later described as "the texture and the lovely low resonances" of the instrument.
The first of two overdubbing sessions for "Within You Without You" took place at Abbey Road on 22 March. Two more dilruba parts were added that day, played by an outside musician, after which a reduction mix was carried out, to allow for further overdubs onto the four-track recording.
Producer George Martin then arranged the string orchestration, for eight violins and three cellos, based on Harrison's instructions. The pair worked hard together on the arrangement, ensuring that Martin's score imitated the slides and bends of the dilrubas. The orchestral parts, performed by members of the London Symphony Orchestra, were added on 3 April. During the same session, Harrison recorded his vocal and a sitar part, the solo of which, in the description of music critic David Fricke, "sings and swings with the clarity and phrasing of his best rockabilly-fired guitar work". Harrison also overdubbed occasional interjections on acoustic guitar.
On 4 April, while preparing the final mixes of the song, in stereo and mono, Harrison added crowd laughter taken from a sound effects tape in the Abbey Road library. Martin and Emerick were both opposed to this addition but deferred to Harrison, who later said that the laughter provided "some light relief", adding: "You were supposed to hear the audience anyway, as they listen to Sergeant Pepper's Show." The completed recording was enhanced in the mixes through the liberal application of automatic double tracking. Before Harrison recorded his vocals the previous day, the track had been edited and then sped up so that its length was reduced from 6:25 to 5:05. In the process, the song's key was raised a semitone, to C♯.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released on 1 June 1967, with "Within You Without You" sequenced as the opening track on side two of the LP. Greene notes that for many listeners at the time, the song provided their "first meaningful contact with meditative sound". In his 1977 book The Beatles Forever, Nicholas Schaffner likened "Within You Without You" to Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha – an influential novel among the emerging counterculture during the Summer of Love – in terms of the song's evocation of Hesse's "idealization of individuality" and "vision of a mysterious East". Eager to separate the song's message from the LSD experience at a time when the drug had grown in popularity and influence, Harrison told an interviewer: "It's nothing to do with pills … It's just in your own head, the realisation."
Although Harrison later spoke dismissively of the Sgt. Pepper project and its legacy, he conceded that he had enjoyed working on the record's iconic cover. For this, he asked Blake to include pictures of Indian yogis and religious leaders – including Yogananda, Mahavatar Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya and Sri Yukteswar – to feature beside images of the Beatles. Among the song's lyrics, printed on the back cover, the positioning of the words "Without You" behind McCartney's head served as a clue in the Paul Is Dead rumour, which grew in the United States partly as a result of the Beatles' failure to perform live after 1966.
In 1971 the song was issued as the title track of an EP release in Mexico. Part of a series of Beatles releases sequenced by Lennon, the EP also included the Harrison-written tracks "Love You To", "The Inner Light" and "I Want to Tell You". In 1978 "Within You Without You" appeared as the B-side to the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"/"With a Little Help from My Friends" medley, on singles released in West Germany and some other European countries. An instrumental version of the track, at the original speed and in the key of C, appeared on the Beatles' 1996 outtakes compilation Anthology 2.
Recalling the song's release in his book The Beatles Diary, Barry Miles writes: "Some thought it a masterpiece, some a prime example of mock-philosophical babble. Either way, it was pure Harrison." David Griffiths of Record Mirror praised the album's musical and lyrical scope, which included "life-enhancing philosophy", and added: "George Harrison's 'Within You Without You' is a beautifully successful and adventurous statement in song of a Yoga truth." The Times of India's music critic similarly admired the Beatles for "explor[ing] farther reaches in the musical firmament" and described Harrison's composition as a "memorable" track. In one of the few unfavourable reviews for Sgt. Pepper, Richard Goldstein, writing in The New York Times, said the song was "remarkable" musically and a highlight of the album, yet he considered the lyrics "dismal" and full of "the very clichés the Beatles helped bury". Allen Evans of the NME found the "deep, rich rhythm" of the tabla "most appealing", although he bemoaned that it was difficult to decipher the lyrics "because they merge with the sitar music so closely".
According to the Beatles' official biographer, Hunter Davies, writing in 1968, some contemporary reviewers speculated that the burst of laughter at the end of "Within You Without You" was inserted by Harrison's bandmates to mock the song. Davies corrected this misconception, saying: "It was completely George's idea." In a review published five months after the release of Sgt. Pepper, Hit Parader considered that the album had not endured as well as the Beatles' previous works, and opined: "Harrison has produced a soothing, sinuous, exotic sound for 'Within You Without You'. But even though his repetitious recitation of elementary Far Eastern philosophy is probably intended to reflect the infinity of the universe, it soon becomes a bit monotonous. The laughter at the end seems to be deflating the pretentiousness of the lyrics."
The song has continued to invite widely diverse opinions. Writing in 1988, author and critic Tim Riley dismissed "Within You Without You" as dull and "directionless", adding that it was "the most dated piece on the record ... [and] could easily have been left off with little to no effect" on the album. Conversely, Ian Inglis considers the song to be "absolutely central to the form and content" of its parent album. Among other Beatles biographers, Ian MacDonald views "Within You Without You" as the "conscience" of Sgt. Pepper and "the necessary sermon that comes with the community singing", and Kenneth Womack terms it "quite arguably, the album's ethical soul".
Writing for Rough Guides, Chris Ingham admires the track as "beautifully put together"; he describes it as both "some of the most exotic music released under The Beatles' name" and a "philosophical meditation on life and love beyond self ... [that], once surrendered to, is a central part of the Pepper experience". Harrison and Lennon biographer Gary Tillery echoes these sentiments, saying: "'Within You Without You' was one of the most original and distinctive songs the Beatles ever created, a gem in the album generally considered the pinnacle of their career. And only one Beatle could be given credit for it." In his book on the history of ambient music, Mark Prendergast includes "Within You Without You" among the album's "three outstanding cuts" and deems it to be "the most timeless piece of dronal psychedelia ever recorded".
Musicologist Allan Moore considers that Harrison's "command of the quasi-Indian medium is of a very high order" and, with regard to the song's message, he states: "In its explicit, prescient call to the me-generation, perhaps 'Within You Without You' is a key track [on the album] ... expressing the deepest commitment to the counter-culture." Writing for PopMatters in November 2009, Ross Langager attributed a similar significance to the track:
Sgt. Pepper is about Britain, and the Summer of Love was always about America. The only song on the album that approaches the ideology and rhetoric of the hippie counterculture was George Harrison's sole contribution, the lush sitar-washed "Within You Without You", and it follows that Harrison was the only Beatle to have visited Haight-Ashbury at the peak of the scene. Even then, Eastern philosophy informed the lyric more deeply than did acid culture, and it's still a dense and stunning composition no matter its ideology.
Among reviews of the 2009 remastered Beatles catalogue, Neil McCormick of The Daily Telegraph described "Within You Without You" as "dour, droning" and Consequence of Sound grouped it with the "major clunkers" on Sgt. Pepper; by contrast, Sputnikmusic deemed it to be "vital to the album's diversity of instrumental material". AllMusic critic Richie Unterberger admires the "nice haunting melody", but he considers the track overlong and notes the potential for offence in this, "the first Beatles song where [Harrison's] Indian religious beliefs affected the lyrics with full force". Writing for Ultimate Classic Rock in 2013, Dave Swanson described it as a "heady masterpiece of ethereal drone" that captures the "pure bliss of 1967 ... in full bloom" while musically exploring "previously uncharted pop group waters". In his Harrison obituary for Salon.com, in December 2001, Ira Robbins considered "Within You Without You" to be "the song that most clearly articulated his devotion, both artistic and philosophical, to India", with a lyric that "pairs worldview and personality in lines that now seem prophetic". Robbins concluded: "Whether he was warning others or testing his own conviction, the admonition stands. 'The time will come when you see we're all one/And life flows on within you and without you.'"
Joe Bosso of MusicRadar wrote in 2011 that although Harrison had already introduced Indian instrumentation to the Beatles' sound, the song served as "his Indian music coming-out party", and he praised the recording as "a glorious, David Lean-like panorama". Writing for Rolling Stone in 2002, David Fricke included the track on his list of the "25 Essential Harrison Performances". He described it as, variously, the Beatles' "purest excursion ... into raga", and "at once beautiful and severe, a magnetic sermon about materialism and communal responsibility in the middle of a record devoted to gentle Technicolor anarchy".
According to Mikal Gilmore of Rolling Stone, Harrison's interest in Indian culture "spread like wildfire" among his peers as well as their audience. Author Simon Leng writes that "['Within You Without You'], and Harrison's leadership of the Beatles into Vedic philosophy, sparked the entire fashion for Indian music and a million backpackers' pilgrimages to Kashmir ..." Juan Mascaró, a professor in Sanskrit studies at Cambridge University, wrote to Harrison after the song's release, saying: "it is a moving song, and may it move the souls of millions. And there is more to come, as you are only beginning on the great journey."
In the opinion of New Yorker journalist Mark Hertsgaard, the lyrics to "Within You Without You" "contained the album's most overt expression of the Beatles' shared belief in spiritual awareness and social change". Harrison's espousal of Eastern philosophy dominated the band's extracurricular activities by mid 1967, such that, author Peter Doggett writes, with Harrison's "emerge[ence] as the champion of all things Indian ... his power within the group increased". This in turn led to the Beatles' endorsement of Transcendental Meditation and their highly publicised attendance at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's spiritual retreat in Rishikesh, India, early the following year.
Music journalist Rip Rense cites the lyrics to "Within You Without You" as an example of how, in comparison to Lennon and McCartney, "Harrison was deliberately, forthrightly trying to say something [in his songwriting], and often something vast …" Among other contemporary rock musicians, Stephen Stills was so taken with the song that he had its lyrics carved on a stone monument in his yard. Lennon also admired the track, saying of Harrison: "His mind and his music are clear. There is his innate talent, he brought that sound together." David Crosby, who introduced Harrison to Shankar's music in 1965, described Harrison's fusion of ideas as "utterly brilliant", adding: "He did it beautifully and tastefully ... He did it at absolutely the highest level that he could, and I was extremely proud of him for that." Music critic Ken Hunt describes the song as an "early landmark" in Harrison's championing of Shankar, and Indian classical music generally, which gained "real global attention" for the first time through the Beatle's commitment. Peter Lavezzoli also highlights the effect of Sgt. Pepper and its "spiritual centerpiece ['Within You Without You']" on Shankar's popularity, during a year that served as "the annus mirabilis" for Indian music and "a watershed moment in the West when the search for higher consciousness and an alternative world view had reached critical mass". Musicologist Walter Everett lists Spirit's "Mechanical World" and the Incredible String Band's "Maya", both released in 1968, and much of the Moody Blues' 1969 album To Our Children's Children's Children as works that were directly influenced by the Beatles' song.
American musician Gary Wright recalls listening to "Within You Without You" repeatedly in the summer of 1967 while touring Europe for the first time, and he says: "I was transported to another place of consciousness. I'd never heard such sound textures before." Writing in the "100 Rock Icons" issue of Classic Rock, in 2006, singer Paul Rodgers cited the track to support Harrison's standing as what the magazine called "the Beatles' musical medicine man". Rodgers said: "He introduced me and a generation of people worldwide to the wisdom of the East. His thought-provoking 'Within You Without You' – with sitars, tablas and deep lyrics – was something completely different, even in a world full of unique music."
"Within You Without You" was included on the 2006 remix album Love, which was created for the Cirque du Soleil stage show of the same name. Harrison's vocal appears over the rhythm section from "Tomorrow Never Knows", after the track opens with Lennon's lyric from the latter song. Reviewing the album for PopMatters, Zeth Lundy writes: "The 'Within You Without You'/'Tomorrow Never Knows' mash-up, perhaps the most thrilling and effective track on the entire disc, fuses two especially transcendental songs into one: ... a union of two ambiguous, open-ended declarations of spiritual pursuit." Paul Moody of Uncut similarly considers it to be the "best of all" the mashups on Love, with the two tracks' "cosmic drones ... fitted together like a glove".
Remixed and remastered by George Martin and his son Giles, "Within You Without You"/"Tomorrow Never Knows" was the first track prepared for Love. Speaking to Mojo magazine in December 2006, Giles Martin said that he had first created a demo combining the two songs, which he then nervously presented to McCartney and Ringo Starr for their approval. In Martin's recollection, "they loved it", which allowed the project to proceed. The Love remix is one of the songs in The Beatles: Rock Band.
Big Jim Sullivan, a British session guitarist who became proficient on the sitar, included "Within You Without You" on his album of Indian music-style recordings, titled Sitar Beat and first released in 1967. In the same year, the Soulful Strings recorded the song for their album Groovin' with the Soulful Strings, a version that also appeared on the B-side of their most successful single, "Burning Spear".
In 1988 Sonic Youth recorded "Within You Without You" for the NME's multi-artist tribute Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father. Fricke highlights this recording as an example of how, regardless of its Indian origins, the composition can be interpreted on electric guitar effectively and "with transportive force". Big Daddy covered the song on their 1992 Sgt. Pepper tribute album, a release that Moore recognises as "the most audacious" of the many interpretations of the Beatles' 1967 LP, with "Within You Without You" serving as "the cleverest pastiche", performed in a free jazz style reminiscent of Ornette Coleman or Don Cherry. Other acts who have covered it for Sgt. Pepper tributes include Oasis, on a BBC Radio 2 project celebrating the album's 40th anniversary (2007); Easy Star All-Stars (featuring Matisyahu), on Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band (2009); and Cheap Trick, on their Sgt. Pepper Live DVD (2009). In 2014, the Flaming Lips, with featured guests Birdflower and Morgan Delt, recorded it for their Sgt. Pepper tribute, With a Little Help from My Fwends.
Guitarist Rainer Ptacek opened his 1994 album Nocturnes with what AllMusic critic Bob Gottlieb describes as a "stunning instrumental" reading of the song, recorded live in a chapel in Tucson. A version by Angels of Venice appeared on their self-titled album, released in 1999, and Big Head Todd and the Monsters contributed a recording for Songs from the Material World: A Tribute to George Harrison in 2003. The following year, Thievery Corporation covered the track on their album The Outernational Sound. Patti Smith included it on her 2007 covers album Twelve, a version that, according to BBC music critic Chris Jones, "sounds like [the song] could have been written for her". Peter Knight and his Orchestra, Firefall, Glenn Mercer, R. Stevie Moore and Les Fradkin are among the other artists who have recorded the song.
Dead Can Dance's 1996 album Spiritchaser includes the track "Indus", the melody of which was found to be very similar to that of "Within You Without You". The duo's singer, Lisa Gerrard, told The Boston Globe that they had subsequently obtained Harrison's blessing but "the [record company] pushed it", with the result that they were forced to give the former Beatle a partial songwriting credit. In 1978, the Rutles parodied "Within You Without You" on the track "Nevertheless", performed by Rikki Fataar.
According to Ian MacDonald:George Harrison – lead vocals, tambura, sitar, acoustic guitar
Uncredited Indian musicians – dilrubas, tabla, swarmandal, tambura
Neil Aspinall – tambura
Erich Gruenberg, Alan Loveday, Julien Gaillard, Paul Scherman, Ralph Elman, David Wolfsthal, Jack Rothstein, Jack Greene – violins
Reginald Kilbey, Allen Ford, Peter Halling – cellos