An extract from The Joy Of Sects
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and the Sannyasins AKA Osho
Country of origin: India
Gods and guiding voices: The Hindu pantheon, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
Basic beliefs: Bliss is a birthright. God is the universal consciousness and the enlightened Bhagwan himself is the beginning of a totally new religious consciousness. Man determines what conduct is permissible. Basically an amalgam of Western psychotherapeutic practices and Eastern religion.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had a simple commandment for his followers, the Sannyasins: ‘Enjoy!’ Unlike other more ascetic gurus to have emerged from India in the 1960s and 1970s, he demanded little from his followers in the way of renunciation – and lots in the way of carnal pleasure. ‘Wait not for Godot!’ he preached. ‘The more you risk, the more you grow.’ His was an intoxicating promise: enlightenment, bliss and lots and lots of sex.
The ashram he established in Poona in India in 1974 quickly became a New Age Mecca. It attracted thousands of young Western disciples sold on the charismatic teacher’s mercurial wit and unique brand of Eastern mysticism. Marked out by their happy expressions and orange clothes (dyed at the Bhagwan’s instigation, to reflect the colour of the sun) they quickly spread their guru’s teachings and popularised his unique forms of taboo-breaking therapies. In these sessions, known as dynamic meditation, pupils were encouraged to destroy their religious and social conditioning to find out who they really were. They wore blindfolds – or nothing at all – and explored their deepest selves by screaming, fighting and, inevitably, shagging. Broken limbs were common, as were broken relationships. The latter came thanks to the teachers’ propensity to encourage their students to watch their partners having sex with another person – so they could confront the emotions that this betrayal provoked.
In spite of, or maybe even because of, these extreme practices, the ‘Rajneeshees’ continued to expand in number. Soon they spread out across Europe, establishing themselves in stately homes like the one they named ‘Medina Rajneesh’ in Suffolk, where 400 of the Bhagwan’s followers established themselves in the early 1980s – seemingly in utopian contentment.
Sadly, there were a few signs that all was not well in paradise. One of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s more chilling suggestions was that prominent female followers should become sterilised so that they could better practise his teachings. Ugly rumours of child abuse and the destruction of family life slowly began to surface. The guru’s ever increasing wealth also began to attract the unwanted attention of the Indian tax authorities.
To escape from a whopping bill, Rajneesh packed up his 150,000-volume library and, claiming medical problems, entered the United States (along with twelve tons of luggage). It was there that things really fell apart. Shortly after he’d settled his followers in a 60,000-acre $6million ranch on semi-desert scrubland near the small town of Antelope in Oregon, Bhagwan Rajneesh took a vow of silence (or as, he put it, he determined on a course of ‘speaking through silence’.) The day-to-day running of the huge community fell to his follower, Ma Anand Sheela.
Sheela took to wearing robes and calling herself ‘queen’. Fences, complete with guard towers, went up around the compound and disciples armed with Uzis patrolled the Bhagwan’s residence. Many of the commune’s 15,000 members were forced to do twelve hours work a day for no pay. While they succeeded in clearing and planting 3,000 acres of land, building a 350-million-gallon reservoir, a 10-megawatt power substation and a functioning dairy farm, only Sheela and her coterie seemed to live in any comfort. The others had to endure unbearable hardships.
The most bizarre incidents occurred outside the ranch in the local town of Antelope. The huge numbers of Rajneeshees enabled them to force the results of the 1984 local elections and take over Antelope’s local council. They decided to rename the hitherto upright Oregon backwater Rajneeshpuram. When attempts were also made to rig local county elections by shipping thousands of homeless people onto the ranch, resistance to the Sannyasins grew stronger. Sheela responded by having her followers dump salmonella into the salad bars of several local restaurants. Antelope therefore gained the dubious distinction of being the site of the first successful bio-terrorism attack in US history.
Eventually, Bhagwan Rajneesh emerged from his silence and attempted to distance himself from his disciples. He said that Sheela had been running the place like a ‘fascist concentration camp’ and went on the talk show Good Morning America to emphasise that those with him were ‘fellow travellers’ rather than followers. He also called on the FBI to conduct an independent investigation into the ranch. The FBI quickly found an extensive eavesdropping system that was wired throughout the commune residences, public buildings and offices. They also uncovered a secret laboratory where experiments had been run on the manufacture of HIV as well as salmonella.
Sheela confessed to having a rather ‘bad habit’ of poisoning people and was sent to jail. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh himself was charged with criminal conspiracy, 34 counts of making false statements to federal officials and two counts of immigration fraud. He paid a $400,000 fine and was given a ten-year sentence – suspended on the understanding that he would leave the United States. He returned to India in disgrace and died not long afterwards.
Many of the communes across Europe dispersed in disillusionment and surrounded by their own scandals. In spite of everything, however, many remain faithful to the Bhagwan’s teachings. His spiritual descendents (now calling themselves Osho) have maintained his ashram in India as a major tourist attraction and spiritual retreat. In England, meanwhile, they have a thriving community in a large house in Dorset, Osho Leela. There, they run ‘Singles Weekends’ offering parties, meditations, ‘bundles of fun and … who knows!’
Mohan Chandra Rajneesh was born in 1931. After working as a philosophy teacher for several years he accepted what he saw as God’s plan for his life – spiritually transforming humanity. In 1971 he assumed the modest title of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, meaning ‘The Blessed One Who Has Recognised Himself As God’. He established his first ashram shortly afterwards.
During his life the Bhagwan wrote more than 60 books and recorded upwards of 500 tapes. In addition to embracing the spirit of God, he also embraced the spirit of the 1980s, accumulating millions of pounds and no fewer than 93 Rolls-Royce cars. He said that he’d lived in poverty and lived in richness. ‘Believe me,’ he continued, ‘richness is far better than poverty.’ He claimed to be a man of very simple interests. He was ‘utterly satisfied’ with ‘the best of everything’.
Towards the end of his life, addicted to nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and haunted by the accusations of sex abuse, tax evasion and poisonings, the Bhagwan retreated back to his original ashram in Poona. In 1985 he declared that his religion was dead – and that it had, in fact, been invented by his followers. He said he was glad not to have to pretend to be enlightened anymore. Then, in December 1988, he told his followers that his body had become host to none other than Guatama Buddha. However, when the Buddha disapproved of his use of the Jacuzzi, Bhagwan banished him from his body and said that he was now Zorba the Buddha instead.
He died in 1990, instructing his doctor to dress him in his favourite socks and hat beforehand. When his disciples asked what they should do with him after he passed on he replied, ‘Stick me under the bed and forget about me.’
Words of Wisdom
‘The second problem I had (with my health) was my back … I cannot sit on [an ordinary] chair. It may be comfortable, but my back will not fit with it. Similarly I can use only one car. I have used all cars, and the best in the world; but the seat of just one car, one of the models of Rolls-Royce, the Silver Spur, fits with me perfectly. It is not their costliest car; their costliest is the Corniche, then the Carmargue. The third is the Silver Spur. So I tried a Corniche – it didn't work, my back trouble started. But with the Silver Spur it has settled completely.’
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
Ecstasy was first brought to Europe by the disciples of the Bhagwan. He had adopted the drug as his new spiritual elixir, and his army of orange people evangelically distributed it around the world. Some even set up laboratories to manufacture their own supply.
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