A fleet of clouds sails clear of the midday sun, and a klieg from heaven gleams through the skylight of a Manhattan loft and onto John McLaughlin, sitting cross-legged on his kitchen counter. Though he emerged last winter from an eight-year discipleship to the guru Sri Chinmoy, John still meditates daily and wears the Indian dhoti. At 34, McLaughlin is the Jerry Brown of music, except that these days he can't get elected—at least on the pop charts.

To most critics and cognoscenti, though, the British-born McLaughlin is the most accomplished of all jazz-rock guitarists and an influence sometimes compared to Coltrane. In performance, with his new group on campuses and in small clubs, musician friends like Carlos Santana have been stunned by McLaughlin's dizzying speed and clarity, and his brilliant fusion of fluttering sitar-like inflections with intricate jazz improvisation.

He made his name (and up to $20,000 a night) in the early 70s as Mahavishnu, with a searing, fearsomely loud, electric group called the Mahavishnu Orchestra and such informative albums as The Inner Mounting Flame. But McLaughlin has now forsaken all that to gather up three superb Indian musicians on violin, hand drums and ghatam, and gone into acoustic, raga-type compositions. Shakti, which translates "creative intelligence and power" in Sanskrit, is the title of this new group as well as of its first LP.

A sumptuously spiritual and refined man, McLaughlin shrugs: "Whether people accept this music or not, I don't give a damn. I know how good—and right—the group is. We all sell out to a point. And don't get me wrong, I like living comfortably and having a nice car. But if money determines your art, then what's the point?" McLaughlin rents on the shabby Lower West Side and drives an Audi. He is now just an opening (if sometimes show-stealing) act for groups like Weather Report, for which his germinal success with electric jazz-rock helped cut a commercial clearing. Though he also trailblazed for such major followers as Chick Corea and former Mahavishnu drummer Billy Cobham, McLaughlin found the genre ultimately limiting. "You can scream and wail with electric music," he says. "It has the physical intensity acoustic lacks, but subtlety goes right out the door. The more noble sentiments, strength, courage, tenderness, pathos, joy, tragedy—these are stifled. Shakti is the proper form for their expression."

McLaughlin, since leaving Chinmoy's Centre, has voyaged through India and returned more secular. His hair is its longest in eight years. He now indulges in an occasional cigarette or taste of wine or beer. And, after his second marriage split up last fall (that wife was also in the ashram and helped him run a restaurant in Queens), he finds, "I like to have pretty women around me—who doesn't?"

John hasn't completely severed with Chinmoy, but is no longer a disciple. "I love him very much, but I must assume responsibility for my own actions. When my sweet wife walked out on me, that catalyzed everything," he explains. (His first marriage produced a son, Julian, now 11, living in England, whom "I don't see as much as I'd love to. We are pals, sort of at the 'hanging out' stage.")

McLaughlin's loft reflects the serenely uncomplicated daily life that provides easy access to higher states. Coffee table books tend to be erudite tomes on Eastern mysticism. There is a meditation area with a bronze of Buddha's wife nestled among a half-dozen trees, and McLaughlin takes a simple delight in watering the plants. He relishes cooking Indian or Italian, and dries his wash on a line near his Ping-Pong table. His more violent pastimes include scuba-diving and skiing.

The youngest of five children, John was born in Yorkshire, England, but moved at age 7, with his mother, to a tiny seacoast village just south of Scotland when his parents split. His father, a turbo engineer, wanted John to follow him, but, recalls McLaughlin, "I got almost everything from my mother, a violinist—and my brothers. They were Ph.D.s, intellectuals, great debaters. I remember very little about my father."

McLaughlin's first guitar at 11 was a hand-me-down. Three years of classical piano study helped him "cop everybody's licks off records—Lead-belly, Coltrane, Krupa, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Tal Farlow, Muddy Waters." By 16, he'd quit school and gone to work in a guitar repair shop, until a friend coaxed him to gig on the road that led to London. McLaughlin's heaviest dues there were in recording and TV sessions, where he played "plug-in, you-name-it, chinky, toppy, computerized guitar" for Humperdinck, Bacharach, Anka, Nero and Warwicke. In 1970 his growing rep had led him to join Miles Davis on his famous Bitches Brew LP. By then McLaughlin, already an occult probing the eastern religions, yoga, psychedelic drugs and astral projections, had met Chinmoy and "begun the awesome task of searching for self-awareness."

"The artist, mad fool that he is," says McLaughlin, "is intuitively aware that what is inside him is real—The Truth. I believe one can know the unknowable, but only in perfect silence. We realize the utter futility of trying to speak the unspeakable," he says. "But there is a delightful pointlessness and mystery about it all that makes life so beautiful."