Rajneesh, Bhagwan Shree (1931-1990)

views updated May 21 2018

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.

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 un-diagnosed 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 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 mid-1990s.

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.


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.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

views updated May 14 2018

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931-1990) was a religious leader who developed a following which included many Americans at Poona, India. In 1981 he and many followers moved to a large ranch in central Oregon in the United States and there began to build a small city as a home for his devotees. His unusual form of Indian spirituality, especially known for its encouragement of free sexual activity, attracted many followers as well as considerable controversy.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was born at Kuchwada, India, on December 11, 1931, and received the name Rajneesh Chandra Mohan at about six months of age. He graduated from high school in Gadarwara in 1951 and went to Jabalpur, where he enrolled at Hitkarini College. He received a B.A. degree from Jabalpur University in 1955 and an M.A. in philosophy from Saugar University in 1957.

Filled with doubts which were spurred in part by his college philosophy courses, Rajneesh spent a year engaged in meditation and personal struggle. During this time he also suffered severe headaches. All of that came to a peak on March 21, 1953, when, he said, he was enlightened. Seven days earlier he had decided that his effort to achieve enlightenment was futile, and in a feeling of helplessness he had abandoned the search. As he described what then happened, "Those seven days were of tremendous transformation, total transformation. And the last day the presence of a totally new energy, a new light and new delight, became so intense that it was almost unbearable, as if I was exploding, as if I was going mad with blissfulness."

Following his enlightenment Rajneesh went on to finish his studies. In 1957 he received a teaching position at Raipur Sanskrit College. The next year he became a professor of philosophy at Jabalpur University. Frenetic activity, including far-flung travels around India and controversies surrounding his unconventional ideas, marked his years there. In 1964 he began to hold organized meditation camps. In 1966 he resigned from the university. He then became more outspoken, challenging prevailing ideas about such issuesas sex, Hinduism, socialism, and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1968 he jolted Indian traditionalists by giving a lecture in which he advised his listeners that "sex is divine," that through sex one could achieve the first step toward "superconsciousness."

In 1970, at Bombay, Rajneesh introduced what has come to be called "Dynamic Meditation," which Rajneesh synthesized from Yoga, Sufism, Tibetan Buddhism, and contemporary psychological thought. Rajneesh taught that meditation properly began with the body, not the mind; thus Dynamic Meditation involved such activities as screaming, shouting, and the removal of clothing. Rajneesh's disciples became extremely devoted to him, feeling deeply moved simply by being in his presence, and later in 1970 he founded a sannyas (discipleship) movement for those wanting to commit themselves to him and his work. Many who joined the sannyas movement were Western, not Indian. They adopted new Indian names, wore malas (beaded necklaces with lockets containing Rajneesh's picture), and orange and red clothing, representing the many who became sannyasin (members of the sannyas).

Rajneesh had until then been using the title "Acharya," which means "teacher." In 1971 he felt that he had outgrown that role, so he assumed the title "Bhagwan," which means "God." The change, he said, was symbolic rather than literal, indicating that his work would now not be intellectual, but a matter of direct heart-to-heart communication.

Rajneesh and the sannyasin outgrew their quarters in Bombay, and Rajneesh, suffering from diabetes and asthma, believed that Bombay's climate was a part of the reason for his bad health. Thus in 1974 they moved to a six-acre compound in Poona, 80 miles away. There at the Ashram Rajneesh welcomed ever-increasing numbers of followers, especially from Europe and the United States. Daily life there involved Dynamic Meditation, listening to discourses by Rajneesh, and working at an assigned job for six hours a day. Various psychological therapeutic practices were part of the program, and many trained psychologists were among those who joined the movement. Arts and crafts flowered, especially pottery and weaving. There were cultural activities, including a theatrical troupe. By the late 1970s, the six acres of the Ashram could not hold the growing numbers of sannyasin, and new land was secured 20 miles away. In 1979 the new commune at Jadhavwadi was opened.

But opposition mounted as well. Dynamic Meditation, with its overt sexuality, had never been fully accepted by conservative Indians, and the movement had become one largely composed of Westerners. Criticism from outside was constant and came to a peak in 1980 when an Indian opponent tried to kill Rajneesh during a morning discourse.

In 1981 Rajneesh took a vow of silence, following the example of certain other Eastern religious leaders. Now communication between Bhagwan and his followers would be purely heart to heart. That phase lasted until 1984, when Rajneesh began to give limited spoken presentations again.

Continuing opposition, some of it violent, to the movement in India led to a decision to relocate in the United States. After some searching the leaders found a venerable cattle ranch for sale in an isolated spot in central Oregon, comprising an area of 100 square miles—surely a vast enough expanse to encompass any foreseeable future growth. His followers—and soon Rajneesh himself—began moving to the ranch in 1981 and started building a city which they called Rajneeshpuram. Heated disapproval from neighbors arose at once, and both public officials and private organizations acted to restrict or remove Rajneeshpuram on the grounds that it violated the state's land-use planning laws. The prosperous commune, however, fought back in court and continued to expand its presence in Oregon, amid enormous controversy.

Finally, in November 1985, the United States charged Rajneesh with immigration fraud. He pled guilty with the understanding that he would be allowed to leave the country. After a time Rajneesh returned to a commune in Poona. Meanwhile, the community's assets—including 93 custom-built Rolls Royces—were auctioned off. Thirteen of his lieutenants were convicted of crimes ranging from attempted murder to wiretapping.

After returning to India in 1986, Rajneesh directed his followers to stop using the term "Bhagwan." After a time failing health caused him to stop giving discourses, and word came to his followers that the name Rajneesh was also being dropped. He began to be called "Osho," which he said was derived from an expression of the American psychologist of religion William James, "oceanic experience." The commune in India was thereafter called the Osho Institute and Osho Meditation Centers could be found in major cities around the world.

Rajneesh died of heart disease at Poona, India, January 19, 1990.

Further Reading

Rajneesh's discourses have been tape recorded for many years, and the tapes have often been transcribed into books; hundreds of those books of his teachings have been published by the Osho (formerly Rajneesh) Foundation International, and hundreds of tapes of his discourses are available. Several of his books have been published by commercial publishers; probably the most important is My Way: The Way of the White Cloud (1978). A three-volume digest of Rajneesh's teachings on many subjects is The Book (1982).

A biography of Rajneesh by a disciple, published by a major commercial press, is Vasant Joshi's The Awakened One: The Life and Work of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1982). □

Rajneesh, Bhagwan Shree

views updated May 11 2018

Rajneesh, Bhagwan Shree (1931–90). Founder of an Indian-based movement known variously as the Orange People (from their dress), Sannyasins or neo-Sannyasins, Rajneeshees, or followers of Bhagwan. He was born Mohan Chandra Rajneesh of a Jain father. He became enlightened, by his own account, in 1953. In 1981, having temporarily disappeared, he moved to Oregon in the USA, where a new city was planned, called Rajneeshpuram. Rajneesh took a vow of silence until 1984, so the foundation was run (increasingly autocratically) by his personal assistant, Ma Anand Sheela. In 1985, she absconded (and was later arrested), and Rajneesh was expelled from the USA. He resettled in Poona, where he became known as Osho. After his death, his followers continued to offer courses in his teaching.

In the Bhagwan's monistic interpretation of the world, there is only one source of energy and that is bio-energy, called ‘life’ or ‘love’ or ‘light’. Awareness of one's inner life enables one to stand at a distance from it, and eventually to become an impartial observer and witness—the sashi of classical Indian yoga. Thus, if one is ‘aware’, then whether one enters into or renounces sexual relationships, the end result is the same.