Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh: Is he a charlatan, hypnotist or a …

Posted: July 15, 2019 at 3:47 am


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At a time when national politics seems to have reached its nadir, and the country is adrift on an uncharted course, one man is hammering out an unusual ideology of his own. Amidst the chaos of unstable governments and power breakdowns, warring politicians and embattled industrialists, one Indian is establishing a curious empire that seems to grow and grow.

Everything works in his little hotbed of activity, and he is busy piecing together fragments of a somewhat bizarre jigsaw that will one day, he claims, change the destiny of mankind. Flung far out in a town on the Malabar coast, he is slowly achieving a unique star status, capable of hogging headlines, arousing public opinion, provoking reaction.

Eighty miles inland from Bombay, the tranquil resort of Pune, once the home of aging British colonels, retired civil servants and a stylish assortment of sybarites from Bombay in search of a salubrious climate, has struck fame anew from an odd quarter. Some of the peace and quiet-has been shattered, with the permissive new peep-show the city is now said to promise. Not since an Indian guru with piercing hypnotic eyes moved in with his foreign gang has the town been the same again.

Flooded with saffron-swathed sannyasins cuddling in shady by-lanes that once knew no trespassers, Pune now rolls off the tongue with the spurious tang of sin. Is he a charlatan, hypnotist or a sex maniac? Travellers wonder as they step aboard the Deccan Queen at Bombay's Victoria Terminus each evening, their eyes taking in the spectacle of blonde - and usually bra-less - beauties on their way to prostrate themselves at the feet of this mesmeric godman.

Most Indians might travel to Pune in salacious silence these days, but it is doubtful if they return having rid themselves of their repression. Most westerners may get there carrying their souls on their sleeves, and come back to shout from the housetops their song of spiritual salvation.

Household Word: Provided they get beyond the ornately carved wooden-and-brass doors of the Rajneesh Ashram, both kinds of visitors have a point. For the man, who at 48, has adopted the title of Bhagwan (God) advocates sex and spirituality in equal measure. Excess in one, says Shri Bhagwan Rajneesh, may only expedite success in the other. And for hitting upon one such foolproof formula for salvation, elaborated and embroidered with a thousand meditation philosophies, he has become a unique religious export, a one-man spiritual industry, and a perpetual source of moral controversy.

He is a tough salesman, and with the aid of some neatly developed gimmicks, which he calls "devices", has created a spiritual supermarket, and he is a sell-out. Set apart from India's bewildering gaggle of gurus and godmen there has not been a religious commodity so publicised, since the Beatles and Mia Farrow abandoned the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for pastures new.

Manufacturing Industry: But Rajneesh goes several steps further in the art and industry of empire-building. Not only has he converted actors Terence Stamp and Vinod Khanna to his unique brand of sannyas, but an estimated 3.000 aspirants, the bulk of them soul-searching westerners, cross the portals of his ashram every month. Roughly a dozen a day are converted as sannyasins- that is, they convert to wearing coloured robes and wooden-bead malas with his photograph and adopt a name of his choosing.

According to the Ashram some 100,000 people world-wide have officially taken to sannyas a la Rajneesh in the last few years, since he moved to settle in Pune in late 1974. And a permanent settlement of 350 sannyasins have renounced their lives abroad - only one-sixth of his following is Indian - to come and work in the nucleus of his ashram. They produced everything from a range of unscented Body Dharma toiletries to a lavish variety of Rajneesh literature in the form of books, magazines, newsletters and tape-recordings of his lectures.

Dozens of press releases issue forth from the Rajneesh press office each week. Flaky pastries and plum tarts emanate from gleaming kitchens to beat every confectionery in town. Amateur jewellers and carpenters pore over crafting fine inlay furniture and silverware. Blonde seamstresses sit at electric sewing machines to turn out high fashion dresses in Rajneesh colours. Trained therapy leaders take a boggling variety of meditation and therapy courses with names such as Sufi Dancing and Dynamic Meditation.

Smelling Routine: Rajneesh himself is scarcely to be seen. As his business grows, he becomes more difficult to approach individually. Shutting himself up in closely-guarded rooms for most of the day he makes only two public appearances: one for his two-hour discourse in the morning and a smaller private darshan in the evening during which he ordains new disciples.

And each morning, approximately 500 visitors, dressed in shades of orange, freshly bathed with ashram soap and shampoo, move single file, to be "sniffed" before they can confront their guru. The "sniffing" process has become something of a Rajneesh trademark.

Each visitor before attending a Rajneesh discourse is vigorously smelt around the neck, behind the ears and in the hair by two women, for any strong smell of perfume that might aggravate Rajneesh's allergy. Being asthmatic, say his chief disciples, such precautions are necessary. "Otherwise he would have to be put in a glass cage." explain members of his conscientious press office, as smelly visitors are briskly sifted from clean-smelling ones and moved to the back of the hall.

Discourse: A little after eight the sound of a Mercedes driving up a gravel path signals the arrival of the master. A hush falls among the gathered audience robed in varying shades of saffron, their hands folded in greeting. Squatting silently, albeit painfully, on a hard cement floor, row upon row of tangled white legs cross and re-cross in discomfort to sit through a two-hour discourse. "Life," begins the master, "is three-dimensional.

He alone has the privilege of a chair, a smart, high-backed executive's armchair placed high on a raised marble platform. He also has the privilege of wearing white, a long, high-necked, long-sleeved polyester tunic that stands out in marked contrast to the hysterical colour schemes followed by his disciples.

Perpetually by his side, either carrying a cushion, or imprinted in photographic blow-ups plastered on every inch of the ashram's wall, is the fine-featured Frenchwoman. Ma Yoga Vivek, who is one of the two people in the ashram - both women - who has access to him all the time. Ma Vivek has been with him for seven years. She looks after "his body." But like him, she is never directly accessible.

Then peppered with the sayings of Pythagoras and Jean-Paul Sartre, Lao Tzu and P.D. Ouspensky, Buddha and Socrates, the discourse rambles on: a point here, a point there, vapid spiritual jargon, homespun homilies jumbled in a brew spiced with trendy four-letter words and jokes culled from randy, railway-station joke books.

His even monotone pipes on - the accent slipping every now and then in dreadful mispronunciations - but not all the lavatory humour and heavyweight quotes in the world alleviate the tedium of his discourses. Yet the effect is strangely hypnotic, induced by the general atmosphere rather than his long-winded loquacity. The audience is filled with elation, as the purring of a Mercedes engine signals their master's departure to his residence less than 200 yards away.

Overwhelmed: The Mercedes, painted a pale orange-gold, is worth over Rs 10 lakh. A mere trifle admits one doting disciple, wouldn't it be lovely to see him in a white Rolls-Royce? "Bullshit," says actor Vinod Khanna, now Swami Vinod Bharati, when asked if the rumour of his having paid for one of the most expensive cars in India is true, "but I wish I could have." Khanna, 33, has been a Rajneesh disciple for the past three-and-a-half years.

He was introduced to him, like many other followers, through his books. "I had always had this need for a leader. The moment I saw him I knew this was the man I was looking for," explains Khanna, now in the process of completing his film assignments before joining Rajneesh permanently. "Everything about him: his face, his voice, his thoughts changed me." Asked what his family thought about his conversion, Khanna said: "My wife still thinks I've been hypnotised."

A majority of Rajneesh's disciples explain being overwhelmed in a similar manner. Says Swami Divyananda, 32, formerly Michael Glynn, a graphic designer who worked in Canada: "My whole face seemed to explode in a twitch when I came face to face with him. I first met him in Bombay six years ago, more or less by mistake. Then I went back to the West for two years in between but it became really hard to communicate: I was standing at a subway station in Montreal one day and I happened to look into the eyes of a group of young kids standing nearby: I saw they were quite dead. I had to come back to him."

Says Ma Yoga Pratima, an attractive 26-year-old Australian who now runs the brilliant publishing programme: "Perhaps it was the bourgeois Australian mentality that sickened me. But it was a continual feeling of despair and deadness that got me in the end." She discovered "Bhagwan" a few years ago while living in a house in Finsbury Park in London which was run as a commune for growth therapy groups. When she returned to Australia for four months "it was like being in a horror movie."

"This is," she says definitely, her blue eyes flashing, "the only place I have felt at home in. I belong here. This is my family." So intense is her attachment that since she came to stay her Catholic father has taken sannyas and her Quaker mother is about to follow.

At the centre of the environment he breeds is the magnetism of Rajneesh himself. Some of his disciples who have come to stay speak of their premonition of him before ever meeting him. Others openly admit to being under his spell. Says Paris photographer Tana Kaleya, now called Ma Deva Tanmayo, whose book of photographs of naked men Les Hommes (including Rudolf Nureyev, Helmut Berger and Terence Stamp in various stages of undress) made her famous some years ago, and who is now working on a book on Rajneesh and his ashram: "I have not been much interested in men since I did my last book. But this man - though I haven't seen him in the nude - provokes love in me. It's not a question of liking - he enchants me. This man is sheer poetry."

For most others, however, Rajneesh means little other than volume upon volume of prose. Voluble spiritualist that he is, every pearl of wisdom that drops from his mouth is duly recorded. No fewer than three dozen stenographers, editors and translators laboriously make transcripts of each morning's discourse so that, Rajneesh is perhaps the only guru in the world who inadvertently dictates, a 400-page book every 10 days.

The Rajneesh Foundation, set up as a charitable trust, has made a phenomenal success of its publishing programme, with over 220 volumes published in Hindi and English since early 1975 alone. With each page virtually designed individually, then laid out with photographs and specially bound in silk, each Rajneesh text is sold at a three-fold profit, with a growing demand for more.

Ma Yoga Laxmi, the 46-year-old Gujarati woman, who as managing trustee of the Foundation, is the woman responsible for Rajneesh's rising fortunes, admits that in business terms the publishing programme has been the ashram's biggest success. She is a small, dark, sprightly woman seated on a bright yellow swivel chair, so disproportionately large that she has a special wooden platform for her feet.

She speaks in the third person singular and her long association with westerners has resulted in her conversation being punctuated with Americanisms such as "Bullshit" and "Hey you." "We don't like poverty here," she says, "and everything must be done skilfully and beautifully. We now publish about 45 titles a year and that not only helps the money circulate but brings in more and more people."

"Bhagwan is into every worldly game," says Swami Krishna Prem, a canny Canadian, who gave up his successful career in advertising and sales promotion to join Rajneesh in 1973. A bearded, unkempt-looking man, he talks with the swift glibness of a hard-selling travelling salesman. As the chief of the ashram's press office, Krishna Prem is doing for Rajneesh's renown what Ma Laxmi has done for his financial resources. "Bhagwan wants one thing, and that is that he should be known in every part of the world during his lifetime. But he's not into making money. That is only a spin-off for what is actually going on. One should go on housetops to acclaim him because there won't be another chance like it in years."

Publicity: What does, indeed, go on at the Rajneesh Ashram is a question that is latently connected with widespread visions of wild sex orgies and other exercises in mystical titillation. Many of these theories have circulated because of Rajneesh's unabashed openness on the subject of sex. To the uninitiated, the sight of sundry sannyasins locked in long, lingering embrace, eyes rapturously closed, noses nuzzling necks, hands exploring bodies, can at first appear unnerving and suggestive. But hardcore sex is harder to find. If it happens, then it is behind firmly closed doors.

Promiscuous-looking colour photographs of half-stripped sannyasins which attracted wide publicity when they first appeared in the German magazine Stern, are dismissed by an ashramite as not being authentic. "It's nobody's business what people do in private," he says defensively. A somewhat coy notice pasted on the walls of the public toilet - together with dreamy-eyed photographs of Rajneesh - reminds visitors that nudity is objectionable in a public place.

"Sure," agrees Swami Krishna Prem, "the sex thing has caused the biggest misunderstanding. Bhagwan believes that sex, like other aspects of life, is a prison, a biological prison. And the only way to get out of it is to do it and do it and do it till you see the futility of it."

Disparaging: Another disciple explains his master's idea helpfully: "Genital sex is something that peaks your energy. Orgasm is beautiful. Look at Bhagwan: he's in orgasm all the time, you can see it in his eyes, he's reeling from the effect." Since Rajneesh's basic tenet is the release of all energy in a consummation of a final spiritual energy, the act of refraining, consciously rejecting, amounts to repression, an approach that he abhors in other spiritualists, especially Indian ones.

Whatever his design for his followers his own ego peaks sharply and often. He is frequently disparaging about other godmen: Sri Aurobindo, according to him, was an erudite spiritualist but not, like him and Christ and Mahavira and the Buddha, an enlightened master. Sri Satya Sai Baba is put out as "that magic man from Bangalore." And the only other Indian he is prepared to acknowledge as a master is J. Krishnamurti. But there is a qualification. "The difference between Krishnamurti and myself is," he once explained, "that if both of us were sitting on a roof, it is I who would possess the ladder."

His egoism manifests itself amply in the "devices" he employs to disseminate his own cult. He can on occasions be uncharitable, blankly dismissing, and particularly unpenitent about personal remarks made about politicians among others. He can also express his irritation easily. The only question he answered for India Today was during his discourse when he replies queries submitted in writing a day earlier.

The question was: What is the difference between you and other godmen? Predictably he took exception to the word "godman." He began by saying: "I am not a godman. I am simply God as you are, as trees are, as birds are, as rocks are. I don't belong to any category. 'Godmen' is a category invented by journalists. I simply don't belong to any category ..." and continued the answer for nearly 45 minutes during which he attacked "life-negating and hypocritical pseudo god men" and held forth on his own philosophy of life.

Orange Onslaught: His own followers have considerable faith in his provocations. "Of course, we wear orange for shock value. It is nothing but gimmickry. He calls himself Bhagwan for the same reason. Just as his being called Bhagwan bothers most Indians, so does our wearing orange in London or New York appall most people."

Pune citizens find it hard to cope with the orange onslaught. Clashes between residents and ashramites are frequent, and they receive wide publicity due as much to the ashram's efforts as that of the media. On June 26, a 21-year-old foreign disciple called Ma Deva Homa was set upon at night by two men and raped outside the ashram. The press office at the ashram claims that "no less than 20 young foreign women have been assaulted or molested by local hooligans in the past month alone........and not less than 25 of our disciples' huts have been looted and thefts committed, with no action taken by the police."

Earlier this year, a 15-year-old American disciple of Rajneesh was asked for a Rs 1,000-bribe and allegedly assaulted by an inspector of the Foreigners Registration Branch of the Pune CID when she asked for a visa extension. A series of such incidents, including instances of Rajneesh followers being refused visas in Indian missions abroad and foreign film teams being rejected permission to film the ashram, have led to the ashram unleashing a bitter attack against Morarji Desai, "whose Government discriminates against the disciples of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. thereby exposing them to exploitation and corruption."

Tension: Morarji Desai himself, according to the ashram, is responsible for creating these obstacles because of his personal dislike of Rajneesh. The story told in the ashram concerns a chance meeting between Rajneesh and Morarjibhai many years ago. Left together in a room, Rajneesh was under the impression that Morarjibhai had stayed on to speak to him. Morarji thought it was the other way round and took it as a deliberate slight which has continued to irk him. Lately, Rajneesh's dislike of Morarji has verged on the vitriolic.

The ashram's propaganda network being infinitely superior to the Government of India's, their version of the unholy war gets around faster. Lately, the Charity Commissioner of Pune, R.P. Ranadive, in a ludicrously-worded notification has instituted an inquiry under the Bombay Public Trusts Act. His objections? That ashram disciples do not follow traffic rules; that "public streets are used as lavatory for natural calls which gives bad smell and resulted in nuisance near the locality near about the ashram"; that "disciples purposely indulge in teasing ladies from the neighbouring localities in spite of the fact that they are aware that hugging and kissing is not approved by the Indians"; and that disciples are smuggling and dealing in opium and charas.

The "hugging and kissing" business is mainly what most Pune residents find objectionable. Says the city's mayor Ramchandra P. Wadke, who has - being an athiest, he likes to point out - never entered the ashram: "I have only passed that road a few times. I am afraid they do not behave properly. Ladies and gents sitting on the parapet and smoking is not a common sight in Pune. I am afraid, this is not gentlemanly behaviour." In addition to shaking the genteel morality of the city, citizens of Koregaon Park complain frequently about the noise "created by all the song and dance." Noisome or not, song and dance is serious business in the ashram and, more important, it is serious money.

Each morning after the discourse is over, a 37-year-old blonde, brassy Californian called Ma Prem Aneeta takes the hall over for her class in Sufi dancing. Standing with the mike in the centre she croons instructions to a swinging group: "Let go, let go," "Learn to play with each other, learn to touch." Then with the aid of a pair of bongo drums and a guitar she instructs her pupils in nursery-school-type dance steps to impromptu lyrics such as: "Wake up, wake up/Now's your chance/ To come alive/And sing and dance." To which the refrain is: "How much longer can you ignore/Bhagwan knocking on your door."

Sufi dancing is but one of the over 50 therapy groups in constant operation at the ashram. Not all of them are as puerile. From Gestalt to Encounter, Acupuncture to Tai Chi, Golfing to Tantra, traditional eastern meditation practices and western psychological therapies are offered in courses that last from two to 15 days. Group therapy, an offshoot of Jungian psychological analysis, first became established in the '60s in America as the work of a team of "holistic" psychologists. Now it has become both a fashionable and expensive business.

Therapy: With the conversion of several educated foreign practitioners of therapy groups to Rajneesh's sannyas, it has become immensely profitable for the ashram to offer courses to westerners in search of themselves. But Rajneesh takes sufficient precautions. Indians are not encouraged to take up therapy courses. "Eastern psychology is introvert; it is ingoing. The Indian needs to be in a state of total, utter aloneness. He needs meditation techniques like Vipassana where he can forget the whole outside world. Western psychology is extrovert and outgoing. If a westerner comes and I put him directly into Vipassana meditation he is at a loss "

With over a thousand foreigners taking courses each month, the Rajneesh Foundation has now established the Rajneesh International Meditation University, which offers degree programmes in subjects as varied as parapsychology to occultism and applied crafts.

Financial Success: Courses alone cost anything from Rs 50 to Rs 65 a day, and the money continues to pour in. Just over five years ago, says Ma Laxmi, before he moved to Pune, Rajneesh set up the ashram with Rs 7,000 in loans. In 1977-78 the Rajneesh Foundation income was Rs 58.74 lakh, with donations amounting to Rs 47.54 lakh, most of them in foreign currencies. Expenditure. on the other hand, was Rs 8.29 lakh leaving a surplus of Rs 43.10 lakh.

When she met him in the early '60s at a political meeting she was 34 years old, the daughter of a prosperous cloth merchant family in Bombay. "He walked in and I didn't know what hit me. I just sat stunned. This is the man for me, I thought. That was my first and last love affair: like Radha, like Meera I too was bewitched."

Rajneesh - then called Acharya Rajneesh - was then a man less complex, and certainly more accessible. Having quit his lecturership at Saugar University in Madhya Pradesh where he taught philosophy earlier, and decided that he was going to put his spirituality into practice (he is said to have become enlightened, Buddha-like, one night at the age of 21) he was travelling and organising small meditation groups.

Laxmi began to follow him from camp to camp. Then in 1970, during a dynamic meditation course in Nargol on the border of Gujarat, she went through a dramatic transformation. "A great laughter started within me, I was hysterical. It was a joke, everything was a joke. Who am I? I was asking but could not stop laughing."

Growth: The experience changed her life. On that day Rajneesh ordained her Ma Yoga Laxmi and decided that in future all his followers will adopt names of his choosing, and that he alone, would be entitled to give sannyas. A small society called the Jeevan Jagriti Kendra was set up by Rajneesh in a flat in Bombay. Slowly the Indians began to disappear as more and more foreigners joined his meditation camps.

"Initially, it was the freaks who came, young westerners experimenting with counterculture," says Krishna Prem. The money no doubt began to come in at the same time. One day apparently Rajneesh asked Laxmi to look for a house in Pune. Travelling there she found the perfect place: in late 1974 Jeevan Jagriti Kendra was dissolved and the Rajneesh Foundation established at Koregaon Park. Now the Foundation is negotiating for a 1,300-acre property near Saswad, 20 miles out of Pune.

"Only the other day," says Laxmi with the pride of a mother whose child has accomplished a feat, "he began to criticise Buddha. Bhagwan doesn't create controversy, he is controversy."

Weird: His small darshans in the evenings were once simple ceremonies in which he ordained new disciples. Now they get curiouser every day. Strobe lights have appeared. The ashram is plunged into darkness, as a group of musicians work up their instruments to a frenzied crescendo. Held close by 12 writhing women in saffron, the disciple seeking transfer of spiritual energy, is hypnotised by Rajneesh pressing his fingers on his forehead. Outside it's lights-out time, with a thousand-strong crowd dancing in the darkness of the main hall.

As the fever rises people strip to their underclothes. Sweating, gyrating, swinging to the rising rhythm pouring from the speakers, the release of energy is timed with the energy darshan inside. Again and again, as each disciple seeking energy transfer goes up, the 12 mediums flail their arms and thrust their bodies in supreme passion. A young disciple begins to slobber in the dark.

A woman holding her stomach in the audience cries out in ecstasy. The whole performance is designed as an esoteric ritual, a mystical purge, a special-effects pyschodrama. Depending on a disciple's state of mind, it could be hallucinatory, euphoric or even spiritually enervating. But a faked theatricality sticks around the sequence like congealed grease.

Success-oriented: And as with most gurus, it is not easy to separate Rajneesh's fakery from his reality. Like most performers, he is a bit of both. Like all cult heroes in search of a mass audience, he is both charlatan and instructor. And his ashram can be about as elevating as a cave in the mountains, as harmless as a night at a discotheque or as disturbing as a spell in an asylum. The truth probably lies in between and is perhaps more mundane.

Rajneesh might simply be an ambitious man, like any other, seeking his fortune. And his success, dependent on his normal human potential and those of his orange people, lies in merely utilising it to its optimum, just as in any other success-oriented human being. And the phenomenal success of his ashram is no different from the success of a well-managed business house that employs the rather original synthesis of shrewd Gujarati money-sense with smooth Madison Avenue public relationing.

In which case Rajneesh could with equanimity swap jobs with the head of an expanding multinational corporation. The Rajneesh Ashram could well become the IBM of religion. Or even its Coca-Cola, if it keeps on the right side of the Indian Government, and manages to retain its magic potion. That might, after all, be the real thing.

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July 15th, 2019 at 3:47 am