Studies in Contemporary Religion Series, No. 4
This book provides a brief introduction to the controversial guru Osho Rajneesh, also known as Bhagwan. Reflecting some twenty years of contact with his followers, it also draws upon his books and those of his adherents, ex-members, and other academics and commentators, as well as from a wealth of media, video, and internet material.
Writing more than ten years after his death, I find it difficult to predict if Osho left a lasting legacy or if his movement, like so many others, will eventually disappear. Nevertheless, during his lifetime his impact was dramatic.
My aim, in the space available, has been to convey an impression of the man and his movement by representing a number of different views of his life and teachings. One of the challenges of producing such an account is dealing with the inconsistency that Osho often displayed, leading to a wide range of interpretations. For this reason, I have necessarily had to be selective.
Spiritual teachers sometimes change either their name or the name of their movement to better fit the mood of the times. Osho, likewise, adopted and shed a number of titles during his career. As "Osho" was the last he assumed, I refer to him by this name for much of the book. However, when describing historical events, I use the name that was in usage at the time. This may be mildly confusing, but I have thought it best to remain as consistent as possible to the historical record.
My thanks to everyone who contributed to this book and especially to those "lovers" of Osho who made it possible.
Osho has been described as "the most dangerous man in the world," an "iconoclast," and a "great four-dimensional mystic." He was a man who devoted a lifetime to challenging the systems, institutions, and governments that he considered to be atrophied, corrupt, neurotic, or anti-life. This chapter addresses his intellectual influences and work.
His teachings were not static but changed in emphasis over time and represent an enormous body of work that is impossible to cover in full. In fact, he reveled in paradox and inconsistency, making it difficult for a biographer to present more than a flavor of his work. This is partly because, as he said, he taught neither ideology nor anti-ideology but "a way of being, a different quality of existence" (The True Sage, 125). It is also because "a perfect man is never consistent. He has to be contradictory" (ibid., 126-27). Notwithstanding these challenges, a number of themes are particularly significant. It is also possible to trace the development of his vision, especially in terms of his commentaries on religious scriptures and his call for "a new man."
In examining his work, it should be remembered that his teachings were not presented in a dry, academic setting. Instead, and especially in the case of his earlier lectures, they were delivered with an oratory which many found spellbinding. This was partly because he was a genuinely gifted speakermany say hypnoticand partly because he read widely and voraciously. His words appeared erudite and informed but never as if he were simply passing on secondhand information.
Having said this, some of his key Western inspirations include Nietzsche, Krishnamurti, Freud, and Gurdjieff. Sympathy with the philosophical position of Nietzsche may be detected in Osho's crusade against religion. As an early biographer noted, there is not much difference between Nietzsche's claim that "[o]ne should not be deceived: great spirits are skeptics. Zarathustra is a skeptic ... Convictions are prisons" and Osho's assertion that faith binds but doubt frees and that it is therefore "necessary ... to inculcate skepticism in place of blind faith" (Prasad, Rajneesh: The Mystic of Feeling, 11).
It does not seem that Krishnamurti, one of Osho's famous contemporaries, embraced much of Osho's mission. Yet, as with Nietzsche, there are clear similarities between their pronouncements. Both rejected orthodoxy as inauthentic, and Osho would have agreed with Krishnamurti's view that religion can be defined as "the cultivation of freedom in the search for truth" (ibid., 43).
Osho made use of Freud's psychoanalytic language when he spoke of the ego and of neurotic and patterned reactive behavior as the result of the unconscious. Perhaps Osho's greatest debt to the Viennese psychoanalyst may be discerned in his incorporation of catharsis into his meditations, making them unique in contemporary spiritual practice.
But of all his intellectual mentors, it was Gurdjieff of whom Osho spoke most approvingly. For, like Gurdjieff, he taught that human beings are reactive entities who do not know they lead a mechanical existence. This is, according to Osho, because their lives are rooted in the past, "moving in the same circle, in the same rut" ("Morning Discourse," 25 Apr. 1977).
Osho's message was ultimately a positive one. He taught that we are all Buddhas and that all have the capacity for enlightenment. Every human being, according to Osho, is capable of experiencing unconditional love and of responding rather than reacting to life. As he said: "You are truth. You are love. You are bliss. You are freedom" (The Goose Is Out, 286). It is possible, he suggested, to experience innate divinity and to be conscious of "who we really are." We do not do so only because our egos prevent us from enjoying this experience: "When the ego is gone the whole individuality arises in its crystal purity" (ibid., 142). The problem is how to bypass the ego so that our innate being can flower; how to move from the periphery to the center. Osho's answer came from a variety of viewpoints.
His first tactic was to identify the ways in which the ego, or mind, comes to exert its control. This occurs, he said, because the mind is first and foremost a mechanism for survival. At some unspecified point in our early development, we found it "necessary to stop being ourselves" (Belfrage, Flowers of Emptiness, 28). The mind replicates behavioral strategies that, in the past, proved successful in ensuring survival. But in appealing to the past, the mind prevents us from living authentically in the present. Worse still, this strategy means that we continually repress what we genuinely feel on the grounds that it may topple the fragile machinations of the mind regarding what we think we ought to feel. In so doing, we automatically close ourselves off from experiencing the joy that naturally comes when we move into the present because "the mind has no inherent capacity for joy. ... It only thinks about joy" (The Goose Is Out, 13). The result, he warned, is that we unconsciously poison ourselves with various neuroses, jealousies, fears, etc. (see Bharti, Death Comes Dancing, 11), accumulating false religious teachings instead of living in joyous, authentic awareness.
This kind of unconscious behavior does not produce the effect we desire. For instance, by repressing sexual feelings, we hope to pretend they do not exist. Repression only leads to the re-emergence of these feelings in another guise to haunt our lives. The result, he said, is that society is obsessed with sex, evidence for this being the high incidence of rape, prostitution, and pornography (see The Secret of Secrets, 2:344). The solution that he proposed was simple. Instead of repressing, we should accept everythingour thoughts, feelings, prejudices, and opinions--unconditionally: "Be total. Be authentic; be true" (Roots and Wings, 111). In short: "We have been repressing anger, greed, sex ... And that's why every human being is stinking. ... Let it become manure, ... and you will have great flowers blossoming in you" (Be Silent and Know, 36). This solution could not be intellectually understood, as the mind would only assimilate it as one more piece of baggage. He offered a practical answer: meditation.
According to Osho, meditation is not simply a practice. It is a state of awareness that can be realized in every moment. What he presented to his followers, then, was a series of techniques to implement this approach. As we will see, he incorporated the use of Western psychotherapy as a means of preparing for meditationa way for his disciples to become aware of their mental and emotional refuse. He also introduced his own, original techniques, characterized by moments of alternating activity and silence. In all, he suggested over a hundred techniques for successful meditation.
The most famous remains his first: Dynamic Meditation. This is divided into five stages. In the first, a person engages in ten minutes of rapid breathing through the nose. The second ten minutes are dedicated to catharsis: "[L]et whatever is happening happen. ... Laugh, shout, scream, jump, shake--whatever you feel to do, do it!" (Meditation: The Art of Ecstasy, 233). In the third stage, the person jumps up and down shouting hoo-hoo-hoo. In the fourth stage, everything stops. As one disciple said of this stage: "I was too tired to think, too drained from the catharsis ... [M]y body was too tired to fidget, to move; it was utterly relaxed" (Bharti, Death Comes Dancing, 18-19). Finally, the exercise is completed with between ten and fifteen minutes of dancing and celebration.
Not all of Osho's meditation techniques are as animated, although many are. In his Kundalini Meditation, for instance, participants are urged to shake for the first fifteen minutes until they "became" the shaking. In contrast, others, such as the Nadhabrahma Humming Meditation, are much gentler, although they also contain some movement and activity. His final formal meditation technique is called the Mystic Rose. It combines lengthy periods of intense activity with equally lengthy periods of rest-- three hours of laughing every day for the first week, followed by three hours of weeping each day for the second. The third week entails silent meditation. The result of these processes is the experience of "witnessing" wherein "the jump into awareness becomes possible" (Meditation: The Art of Ecstasy, 116).
Osho put other devices into place to propel his disciples into conscious awareness. One was simply for him to function as a master and to be authentically present with his followers: "A Master shares His being with you, not his philosophy. ... He never does anything to the disciple" (The Rajneesh Bible, 419). He also delighted in being paradoxical and in surprising his audiences with behavior that seemed to be entirely at odds with traditional images of enlightened individuals. He explained that all such behavior, however capricious and difficult to accept, was "a technique for transformation" to push people "beyond the mind." Another device was the initiation he offered his followers: "[I] f your being can communicate with me, it becomes a communion. ... It is the highest form of communication possible: a transmission without words. Our beings merge. This is possible only if you become a disciple" (Bharti, Death Comes Dancing, 104). Yet ultimately, Osho said, anything and everything was an opportunity for meditation.
Through such devices, Osho hoped to create "a new man" who combined the spirituality of Gautama Buddha with the zest for life embodied by Zorba the Greek from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis: "He should be as accurate and objective as a scientist ... as sensitive, as full of heart, as a poet ... be [as] rooted deep down in his being as the mystic" (Philosophia Perennis, 10). The "new man," he continued, should reject neither science nor spirituality but should embrace them both to create a new era. He considered humanity to be threatened with extinction due to over-population, impending nuclear holocaust, and diseases such as AIDS, and he believed that many of society's ills could be remedied by scientific means. Neither would the "new man" be trapped in institutions such as family, marriage, political ideologies, or religions (see ibid., 23). His term, "the new man," embraced men and women equally, whose roles he saw as complementary (see Palmer, Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers). Indeed, he put women into most of his movement's leadership positions.
During his life, Osho delivered eloquent commentaries on all of the major spiritual traditions, including Taoism, Christianity, Buddhism, Yoga, and the teachings of a variety of mystics, and on such sacred scriptures as the Upanishads. But towards the end, he came to be described as a Zen master. An early biographer observed that his closest philosophical links were not with Zen but with practitioners of Tantra, who regard the body as an essential aspect of spirituality (see Prasad, Rajneesh: The Mystic of Feeling, 141-42). In fact, Osho rejected the suppression of emotions, emphasized the positive benefits of spontaneity and naturalness, and conceptualized everything as being in dynamic polarity with its opposite, maintaining that both polarities should be accepted. His early lectures often focused on traditional Tantric themes such as the existence of spiritual centers in the body called chakras.
Nevertheless, the majority of his publications, from early on, focused on Zen. As time went on, the communes which arose around him tended to reflect "the aesthetic of Zen" in their beautiful environment. But in terms of his corpus of teachings, to try to fit him neatly into any single category, either as a "Zen master" or a "Tantric guru," is to do him a disservice.
As might be expected, due to his message of sexual, emotional, spiritual, and institutional liberation, and his contrariness, his life was surrounded by conjecture, rumor, and controversy. Was he enlightened or, as critics suggested, an indulgent charlatan? This will be addressed at the end of this book. First, I will trace the events of his life as a prelude for further discussion.
Over 700 years ago, it is said, a holy man, after many lifetimes of searching, stood on the brink of enlightenment. At the end of a twenty-one-day fast, and three days before he was due to achieve this state, he was killed. As a result, he had to return to the earth one last time to complete this enterprise. Thus, Mohan Chandra Rajneesh was born into a Jain family in Kuchwada, India, on 11 December 1931, the son of a cloth merchant and one of eleven children. He was brought up by his maternal grandparents and was soon recognized to be a natural leader among local children. He was bright, gifted at art and storytelling, and rebellious, and often played truant in order to swim and play with his friends and childhood sweetheart, Shashi. Later, he experimented with hypnotism and was associated for a brief period with communism, socialism, and two nationalist movements, the Indian National Army and Rashtriya Swayamsavek Singh. During this time, he acquired a reputation as an egotistical, immodest, discourteous, even seditious young man (see Joshi, The Awakened One, 27). It was a reputation he would never outgrow.
Death was present in young Rajneesh's life. His grandfather, whom he adored, died when he was seven; his sweetheart and cousin, Shashi, died of typhoid when he was fifteen. At nineteen, he enrolled as a student at Jabalpur University, earned a master's degree at the University of Sagar, and went on to teach philosophy at Raipur Sanskrit College. It was at Jabalpur in March 1953, at age twenty-one, that he had an extraordinary experience during which he felt "as if I was going mad with blissfulness" (in Brecher, A Passage to America, 29). After months of lassitude during which he said he fought to maintain his sanity, he suddenly felt filled with a new energy: "I have known many other deaths, but they were nothing compared to it. They were partial deaths. ... That night the death was total. It was a date with God and death simultaneously" (ibid., 29). He had, he would explain later, achieved the enlightenment he had so narrowly missed in his previous life.
Such an experience is often characterized as ineffable, and Rajneesh too apparently told no one of his enlightenment until years later. By the mid-1960s, he had become increasingly dissatisfied with conditions in India and began to hold public meetings. These quickly reinforced his reputation for controversy but proved so popular that he was able to devote himself full time to touring. As he questioned India's institutions and practices, he became well known for his reluctance to shy away from argument: "With or without reason I was creating controversies and making criticisms. I began to criticize Gandhiji, I began to criticize socialism" (in Joshi, The Awakened One, 80). Both, he said, glorified poverty when it should be rejected. He condemned brahminical religion as sterile and proclaimed all religious and political systems to be false and hypocritical (see ibid., 88). His response to the crisis he outlined was to hold meditation camps that would involve catharsis and activity to bring about what he described as "authentic religiosity.
For the most part, these early meditation camps and public speeches, conducted in Hindi, attracted few Westerners. In a book written in 1970, a devotee described the attraction he and other Indians felt: "[T]he roles he plays are dramatic and the impact he makes on all who come near him is staggering ... [T]here is something really powerful and extraordinary about him. His indomitable personality never fails to exert a strange fascination, even over people who do not agree with his views" (Prasad, Rajneesh: The Mystic of Feeling, 1). By 1970, a small circle of Indian followers had grown up around him. Consistent with his own teaching, Rajneesh initially resisted the idea of setting up a formal organization, but was ultimately persuaded. Reportedly, the first formally initiated disciple, Laxmi, immediately recognized Rajneesh as her spiritual teacher when she went to meet him one day in Bombay with other devotees. She wore orange, having felt drawn to the color. He called her to him with these words: "This is beautiful. This is the way existence wants it to happen. Today, my neo-sannyas begins" (Brecher, A Passage to America, 33).
After this experience, Rajneesh began to regularly initiate individuals, especially those who participated in his meditation camps, into "neo-sannyas." This, he explained, was inspired by traditional Indian renunciation, but was to be a new and celebratory form centering on "the death of all that you were yesterday" (A Cup of Tea Pune, 85). Such renunciation involved the surrender of everything that prevented the individual from living totally in the present. The important aspect of the process, said Rajneesh, was not surrendering to him but surrender itself: "[T]he real thing is not to whom you surrender. The real thing is the surrendering" (Meditation: The Art of Ecstasy, 108). As one biographer described it: "To be initiated into sannyas means that you have come to realize that you are just a seed, a potentiality. It's a decision to grow, a decision to drop all your securities and live in insecurity. You are ready to take a jump into the unknown, the uncharted, the mysterious" (Bharti, Death Comes Dancing, 23). Each new sannyasin was given a new name and a mala, a necklace of 108 beads with Rajneesh's photograph on it. They were required to wear orange clothes as well. One follower observed wryly: "Orange put you on the spot. Suddenly you had to stand up for yourself. Suddenly you had to walk your talk. 'A sense of humour' [Rajneesh] observed 'should be the foundation stone of the future religiousness of man.' Well, the first time you wore your orange to the supermarket you found out exactly what that meant" (Sam, Life of Osho, 258).
In 1970 Rajneesh decided to stop traveling and settled in Bombay where he continued to give regular public lectures. By the following year, he had begun to attract a small Western following, and these early Westerners enjoyed personal and close relationships with their master. Among their number was a shy twenty-two-year-old English woman named Christine Wolff who was at first horrified by her encounter with Rajneesh and his meditation camps. Shortly afterwards, we are told, Rajneesh advised her to take sannyas and gave her three days to deliberate the matter. Early the next morning, she woke up and knew that she had to become initiated. Soon, past-life memories came to her and she realized that she had been Shashi, his childhood sweetheart who had promised on her deathbed to return to him. Taking on the name Ma Yoga Vivek, she became his constant companion and the focus of much speculation. What, one of his followers later asked him, did he do with Vivek? "I am killing her slowly," replied Rajneesh in a public lecture. "That is the only way for her to get a totally new being, to be reborn" (Bharti, Death Comes Dancing, 117).
Another notable occurrence in 1971 was that Rajneesh changed his title. Before, he had most commonly been addressed as "Acharya," a term of respect meaning teacher. Now, he said, the appellation "Bhagwan" was more appropriate. The new name has been variously translated by sannyasins as "the Blessed One" and "Self-Realized." Bhagwan's appropriation of the title offended many Indians: "[W] hile turning to God was highly acceptable to a conventional world, turning into God wasn't" (Brecher, A Passage to America, 15). Bhagwan himself was unconcerned about the controversy. Typically, he appeared to relish it: "Only those who are ready to dissolve with me remain. All others escaped." Subsequently, he continued, "The crowds disappeared. The word 'Bhagwan' functioned like an atomic explosion" (The Discipline of Transcendence, 2:107). The change had another function: it mirrored a new focus for his attention. Less and less was he interested in giving lectures to the general public. Instead, he said, his new goal was to transform those individuals who had committed themselves to sannyas through an inner communion: "Now I give you being, not knowledge. I am going to give you knowingand that is totally different" (ibid., 107).
Soon, Bhagwan began to alternate between delivering lectures in Hindi and English as the number of Westerners started to swell. Said one later: "The melody of his words captured my enthusiasm and imagination. He was asking me to dance with him, and he said it in words of love. It all made total sense" (Milne, Bhagwan: The God that Failed, 43). Many of these early followers were sent to a farm commune located in nearby Kailash and understood that they were to establish the foundations of a permanent community: "The entire focus was on work with the spirit of surrender. People did react to the conditions strongly, but they also learn[ed] how to live in a commune in love and acceptance" (Joshi, The Awakened One, 119). After some of the workers fell ill, the farm was closed. Bhagwan was not well either. In particular, his asthma was exacerbated by the Bombay air and his diabetes began to worsen alarmingly. It was felt that a move to a more congenial location was necessary. Laxmi was sent to find a suitable place that could enable Bhagwan to recover and would accommodate the burgeoning numbers of people who wanted to visit. Accordingly, six acres in one of the more prestigious suburbs of Poona (also known as Pune) were purchased early in 1974. Money for this undertaking was donated by sannyasins and well-wishers. A new experiment, on a larger scale, was about to begin.