Rajneesh, Bhagwan Shree (1931–1990)
Controversial Indian spiritual teacher, known since 1988
within the movement he established as ‘‘Osho.’’ From modest
beginnings in India, he built up a worldwide following, which
experienced a major crisis in 1985 when the community he was
building in Oregon fell apart after four years of conflict with
residents of the town of Antelope, Oregon, and their allies
throughout the state. The disintegration of the center occurred
in the midst of scandal surrounding various criminal exploits
planned and committed by community leaders, several of
whom were later tried and convicted.
Rajneesh was born Mohan Chandra Rajneesh, on December
11, 1931, in Kutchwara, India, with a Jain religious background.
At age seven he attended the Gunj School at Gadwara,
where he showed great intelligence. He went on to study at Jabalpur
University (B.A., 1955) and the University of Saugar
(M.A., 1957).
According to those who knew him, he was a fearless child,
given to playing pranks and fascinated by the occult and hypnosis.
He was also said to have been obsessed with death and
sex. An astrologer had predicted that he might die at age 21.
In surviving that year, he was said to have achieved total enlightenment.
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He read widely, was an independent thinker, and displayed
an original approach to traditional Indian concepts, often at
odds with authority. In 1968 he became a traveling lecturer on
the theme of the importance and sacredness of sex as a step on
the path to higher consciousness. He was greatly impressed
with the personality and teachings of Georgei Gurdjieff, whose
concepts he knew through reading the books of his disciple
Peter D. Ouspensky. His absorption of Gurdjieff’s philosophy
affected his style of leadership as a guru (teacher). He began
to write books as Acharya [Professor] Rajneesh.
Basic to his teachings was a spiritual practice called ‘‘dynamic
(or chaotic) meditation,’’ said to be especially suitable for
Western consciousness and physique. This involved fast intensive
breathing, intended to break through tensions and related
emotional blocks, followed by a cathartic release of emotional
energy (rather like the latihan in Subud). The Sufi mantra
‘‘Hoo’’ was then shouted intensely, to further raise the energy
level, with special effects on the sexual centers of the body. This
was followed by a period of absolute stillness and silence, during
which a form of meditation ensued.
The concept of emotional tensions rooted in different segments
of the body recalls the ‘‘muscular armoring’’ postulated
by Wilhelm Reich, whose therapeutic techniques also involved
intensive breathing to achieve catharsis. The relationship between
sexual energy and higher consciousness had been charted
in ancient Hindu texts on kundalini, but the idea of achieving
higher consciousness through unrestrained sexual
expression differs somewhat from Hindu tantric yoga teachings,
which involve disciplined sexual activity under exacting
conditions. Rajneesh’s teachings, which seemed to offer sanction
for unrestrained sexual activity, had a great appeal to
Western seekers of Eastern wisdom who were experiencing the
freedoms of the modern sexual revolution.
In 1970 Rajneesh established a following in Bombay, where
he assumed the title ‘‘Bhagwan’’ (Lord) and was seen by his followers
as a spiritually enlightened master. In 1974 he acquired
land for an ashram in Poona (southeast of Bombay), which became
his headquarters for the rest of the decade. Here Western
devotees flocked for a period before returning to their homes
to spread the movement worldwide. Rajneesh himself is author
of more than a hundred books in Hindu, and almost as many
in English (almost all transcripts of the talks he gave over the
years). Many have been translated into German, Japanese,
Dutch, Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Rajneesh retained some aspects of the traditional Hindu
guru-chela (teacher-pupil) relationship. He termed his devotees
neosannyasins. Devotees initiated into his movement were required
to don the traditional robe of a renunciate (though it
was red rather than ocher) and wear a mala (rosary necklace).
They assumed new spiritual names. Seeing Rajneesh’s followers
adopt the trappings of the renounced life (sannyas) was
greatly offensive to many Hindus, since a renunciate normally
renounced sex, wealth, and family ties. The neosannyasins did
not renounce ties to the world; rather, they saw themselves entering
into a more conscious life. The spectacle of devotees advocating
wildly permissive sexual activity while clad in the robes
of renunciation, however, seemed a travesty of Hindu religion.
Through the late 1970s there were many complaints from
local residents about the activities of the Rajneesh Foundation.
A few of the female devotees turned to prostitution in order to
make enough money to stay at the ashram. Drugs were forbidden
at the ashram, but some devotees succumbed to the temptation
of lucrative rewards as drug runners, and several were
caught and prosecuted. There were also problems of sexually
transmitted diseases, especially herpes, among the promiscuous
followers. At one point, a British devotee allegedly made
advances to an Indian lady outside the ashram, and enraged
local residents attacked the devotees. The Indian authorities
questioned the charitable status of the ashram, which had reputedly
acquired some $80 million in donations in only a few
years, and the ashram accountants were accused of not keeping
proper receipts and documentation. The state charity commissioners
in Bombay ruled against the ashram, which was pursued
for some $4 million in unpaid taxes.
In 1981 Rajneesh astonished and bewildered many of his
followers by suddenly leaving the ashram with a handful of key
workers who were involved in his secret plans and moving to
the United States. Shortly thereafter the ashram was closed and
many of the items accumulated there were sold. The Rajneesh
Foundation was disbanded, and a new corporation, Rajneesh
International, was founded in the United States.
The American Years
A prominent figure in handling Rajneesh’s practical affairs
was his disciple Ma Anand Sheela (Sheela Ambalal Patel), who
had been a key figure in ashram activities since first joining the
guru in 1972. She had found the mansion in Montclair, New
Jersey, where the guru and his staff first became established in
the United States, and she next set about locating a larger site
for a more ambitious American ashram community.
In July 1981 she oversaw the purchase of the 64,000-acre
Big Muddy Ranch and lands in eastern Oregon, near the village
of Antelope, for $5.75 million. Over the next two months,
some two hundred devotees settled in, building 50 new houses.
Rajneesh himself had arrived in August, ostensibly ‘‘on a visit,’’
in order to avoid immigration rules. Plans were made to construct
an ashram city on 2,000 acres of the site, to be named
Rajneeshpuram. Large sums of money amounting to some
$120 million flowed into the project from sympathizers and Indian
assets.
Local residents fiercely opposed the creation of an ashram
city, and environmentalists organized against the movement.
In the face of an increasingly hostile situation, with those opposed
to the ashram taking every legal means to slow its development
and harass its members, Sheela and her associates became
increasingly paranoid and moved to solidify their
position. Their plans began to take on a conspiratorial nature,
and efforts were made both to subvert Oregon’s liberal voting
laws (which allowed new residents to vote immediately), and to
organize criminal acts to stop their local detractors (including
plans to spread salmonella bacteria). The commune eventually
collapsed when some of the criminal plans became known to
authorities and a federal court ruled against the union of religion
and government implied in the Rajneeshpuram charter.
During the period of disintegration, internal conflict at the
highest level broke out. It was discovered that Sheela had installed
listening devices at houses in the commune and even
bugged Rajneesh’s own bedroom. The two severed their relationship.
In September 1985 Sheela and some other officials
fled from Oregon to Europe, and Rajneesh called news conferences
to state that the commune was now ‘‘free from a fascist
regime,’’ accusing Sheela of maintaining a secret ‘‘poison lab’’
and trying to kill his personal doctor, dentist, and housekeeper.
He claimed that she poisoned Jefferson County District Attorney
Michael Sullivan, who had suffered a serious undiagnosed
illness during a 1983 dispute with Sheela. In
response, in an interview with a German magazine, Sheela denied
these charges and also the accusation that she had created
a $55 million debt at the commune in a fraud scheme, diverting
some of the funds to a Swiss bank account. She countercharged
that the commune debts arose from the guru’s opulent tastes.
Meanwhile back at the Rajneesh ranch, the guru ordered
the burning of 5,000 copies of The Book of Rajneeshism, along
with many pendants and the red robes formerly worn by Sheela,
thus symbolizing a repudiation of the ideas and projects
that he attributed to Sheela rather than to himself.
In October 1985, as authorities were building a strong case
against him on a variety of charges, Rajneesh suddenly left Rajneeshpuram.
A Lear jet took him and a few officials of his
movement to an undisclosed destination, but when the jet landed
at Charlotte, North Carolina, for refueling, police had already
been alerted. On October 28 he was arrested, together
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with six followers. Coincidentally, on the same day, Sheela and
two associates were arrested in Germany. Rajneesh was handcuffed
and taken back to Oregon to stand trial, but his progress
in and out of jail and across several states was marked by a manner
of simple dignity and became more like a triumphant procession.
The authorities were never able to connect him with crimes
on the ranch, but he was found guilty of immigration violation
and conspiracy to evade visa regulations (charges his followers
claimed were entirely bogus). He was fined $400,000, given a
suspended prison sentence of ten years, and ordered to leave
the United States for a minimum of five years. Sheela was returned
from Germany on charges of attempted murder, poisoning,
and wiretapping. She was jailed for four and a half
years. After his sentence, Rajneesh left the country on what became
a world tour. He became persona non grata all over the
world. Countries that refused him entry or expelled him after
entry include Antigua, Australia, Bermuda, Canada, Costa
Rica, England, Fiji, France, Greece, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica,
Mauritius, Seychelles, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Uruguay,
Venezuela, and West Germany. Legal proceedings growing
out of the fall of Rajneeshpuram continued into the mid1990s.
Eventually Rajneesh returned to Poona and reestablished
the ashram there. Eventually the ranch and its assets were sold
and the movement in the United States returned to the decentralized
state it was in before the founding of the Rajneeshpuram.
In the wake of the fall, a number of books, including
several by former members in the leadership of Rajneeshpuram,
appeared. At Poona, Rajneesh continued to teach, and
his disciples published an equal number of volumes aimed at
his vindication. In 1988 the first national gathering of American
followers since the fall of Rajneeshpuram was held. The
movement reorganized and has continued to the present.
In 1988 Rajneesh changed his name to Osho (i.e., one upon
whom the heavens shower flowers). He had begun to develop
some new meditation techniques that were barely shared with
the followers in India when on January 19, 1990, he suddenly
died amid charges that the American government had poisoned
him. The international movement continued under the
leadership of senior disciples in Poona, there being no guru
arising to take Rajneesh’s place. Osho Commune International
is headquartered at 17 Koregeon Park, Poona 411 001, MS,
India. The American headquarters can be reached at Osho
Viha Meditation Center, P.O. Box 352, Mill Valley, CA 94942.
Sources
Belfage, Sally. Flowers of Emptiness. New York Dial Press,
1981.
Braun, Kirk. The Unwelcome Society. West Linn, Ore. Scout
Creek Press, 1984.
Gordon, James S. The Golden Guru. Lexington, Mass. Stephen
Greene Press, 1986.
Milne, Hugh. Bhagwan The God That Failed. New York St.
Martin’s Press, 1986. Reprint, London Sphere Books, 1987.
Rajneesh, Bhagwan Shree. The Great Challenge A Rajneesh
Reader. New York Grove Press, 1982.
———. I Am the Gate. New York Harper & Row, 1977.
———. The Orange Book. Rajneeshpuram, Ore. Rajneesh
Foundation, 1983.
———. Tantra, Spirituality, and Sex. San Francisco, Calif.
Rainbow Bridge, 1977.
Rajneesh The Most Dangerous Man Since Jesus Christ. Zürich,
Switzerland Rebel Publishing House, 1983.
Strelley, Kate. The Ultimate Gate. San Francisco Harper &
Row, 1987.