More than 30 years after he died, Indian mystic Rajneesh, popularly known as Osho, is still providing food for thought toauthors, scriptwriters, and movie producers. He ran a commune in the United States, had a fleet of 93 Rolls-Royces, and propounded a radical form of spirituality before he was arrested and deported to India in 1985. He built his empire selling enlightenment.
His controversial legacy still can’t be put to rest. Osho is known for his outlandish philosophies and the blind faith his followers or ‘Rajneeshees’ have in him. Led by Ma Anand Sheela, the spokesperson for the Rajneesh movement, they orchestrated the 1984 bio-terror attack in the United States — the largest in the country’s history. In the 1960s, he became known in India as the ‘sex guru’.
But Osho’s teachings — ‘Rajneeshism’ — still live on in meditation centres around the world. His followers wear the signature crimson kurtas. Netflix released a documentary called Wild Wild Country on the mystic in 2018.
Rajneesh was born Chandra Mohan Jain in a small village in the Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh. He completed a postgraduate degree in philosophy from Sagar University and took up a teaching job at Raipur Sanskrit College.
But he found his true calling as a meditation instructor, and later, a self-styled guru.
The rise of the ‘neo-sanyasis’
Osho was a proponent of ‘religiousness’ and not religion. In 1974, he set up an ashram in Pune where he trained disciples in dynamic meditation — uninhibited movement and catharsis, expressed in the form of dancing, kicking, and screaming. The ashram even attracted Westerners, including therapists from all over the world.
Bollywood, too, could not resist the uniqueness of the Rajneesh movement. Vinod Khanna, Parveen Babi, and even Mahesh Bhatt were well-known Osho adherents. At the height of his career, Khanna allegedly left the business to devote himself to Rajneeshism. He also worked as Osho’s gardener.
Osho’s views on sexuality set him apart from other gurus. Sex became a big part of Osho’s movement, to the point that disciples would have to get tested for HIV before they could register and lodge in the ashram.
In his 2010 book The Rajneesh Chronicles, American writer Win McCormack has given first-hand accounts of Osho’s disciples. “All cults control sex, in one way or another,” said Margaret Singer, an expert on mind control. “Either they prohibit it completely, or they enforce participation in it. What the cult leader is attempting to do is prevent pair bonding and stop couples from leaving because they love each other more than they love the group. This way, the leader takes actual control of this most intimate area of a person’s life.”
In McCormack’s book, former disciples of Osho claim that his cult had a strong tendency to coerce followers into sexually engaging with each other. Roselyn Smith, a former disciple who attended Rajneesh’s ashram in Pune from 1980 to 1981, claimed that women in the ashram were forced to engage sexually with the participants in orgies.
Utopia promise ends with bioterrorism
During the late 1970s, tensions between Osho’s followers and the Morarji Desai government led to the closing of the Pune ashram. A few years later, the mystic refocused his efforts in the US — inviting followers from around the world to join him in building a city on a deserted ranch in Oregon. The region, Rajneeshpuram, was incorporated as a city in the 1980s. Some of Osho’s followers settled in the nearby town of Antelope.
Thousands of homeless individuals were given shelter and a new purpose by Ma Anand Sheela. In the mid-1980s, Rajneeshees even built their own airport to ferry supplies and passengers. That was when Osho became popular as the US’ ‘Rolls-Royce guru’.
The religious metropolis attracted the ire of neighbouring cities, and people accused Rajneeshees of abusing drugs. But Osho’s followers were undaunted and soon started nurturing political ambitions. In the run-up to the municipal elections in Oregon, Sheela orchestrated the bio-terror attack by contaminating 10 local salad bars with salmonella bacteria to depress voter turnout.
Soon after, it was revealed that many of his followers lived in the US with expired visas and had married American citizens to get renewals. Osho also reportedly facilitated over 400 illegal marriages.
When all of the cult’s history came to light in a US court, Sheela was convicted to 20 years in prison, while Osho was deported back to India.
Osho’s books are still bestsellers in India and ashrams continue to practise what Rajneeshees call ‘free love.’
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)
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