by Hartosh Singh Bal
The West came to know him in the sixties. The children of parents who had lived through a world war wanted no part of the old answers. With their disdain for everything their parents stood for, they searched for easy answers elsewhere. Among those offering such answers was this man named Rajneesh, who later preferred to be called Bhagwan and then Osho.
Rajneesh’s notoriety predated his Western disciples. In 1964 he had delivered a series of lectures in Bombay. The lectures became a book – From Sex to Superconsciouness. In the prudery of the India of his time it was a shocking title, little heed was paid to what he had actually written, here was an Indian Guru putting his whole heritage to shame. A nation struggling for respectability felt the shame, a tradition used to shore up their view of themselves was being sullied.
Strangely enough in the compilation of 1500 pages devoted to himself not once does Rajneesh speak of a romantic attraction or a sexual experience. In over half a million words, from the servant at his grandparents’ house to a professor in his college, he takes up every interaction that matters to him. There is no hint of a woman. The Rajneesh who delivered these lectures in 1965, at the age of 34 was in all likelihood a sexual novice. The book that first evoked sex in the public consciousness of modern India was probably written by a virgin.
It is only such naivety that would allow the man to imagine sexuality devoid of jealousy and betrayal. It is almost as if the man writing about removing jealousy from relationships, of sexuality as a burden without guilt, is hoping to create an ideal world removed from the constraints of his surroundings. In the small town where he grew up it was precisely the fear of these emotions and the disruptions they bring in their wake that had forced sexuality into spaces closed to most unmarried youth including Rajneesh. He wanted the sex, but he thought he could do away with its attendant emotions. Only a man who had lusted in the abstract could think so.
In him the children of the sixties found a match for all the wrong reasons. For a few brief years, sweeping aside their entire heritage, they learnt the mechanisms of the act and came to believe that the associated `hang ups’ were burdens imposed by society. They believed in an innocent state in nature free from such burdens. The prudery that Rajneesh faced and the promiscuity they had experienced led them to the same conclusions, and in this virgin guru these promiscuous naïf found their guide.
Yet, the virgin guru’s prescriptions of freedom originated where so many of his other ideas did, from books, in this case a book describing a society so far removed from his that he never really understood the problems with what he was contemplating.
A buxom red-haired mannequin in a black sari guards the entrance to the shop. The sari, carefully draped to reveal an ample amount of cleavage, only manages to highlight the attempted allure of white plastic. The signboard above proclaims: Timarniwala & Sons, Clothes Shop. I am seated on a mattress on the floor leaning my back against shelves lined with bales of cloth, listening to the shop-owner in Gadarwara talk about his first cousin Rajneesh Chandra Mohan.
The origins of the self-styled bhagwan had been far from my mind when I had set out from Bhopal a few days earlier. I was travelling along the Narmada river in central India, working on a travelogue in a region that has largely gone unreported even in India. The second leg of my journey along the Narmada, was to take me to Narsinghpur. The route I had chosen went past Jabalpur, with the river to my right. Under normal circumstances I would have missed the small non-descript sign – Osho tirth, pointing to the village of Kuchwada – but the potholed road had forced me to slow to little more than walking pace.
For a moment I hesitated, tired with the driving, unsure of the village road that lay ahead. Osho had never interested me, and his exploits seemed to belong to another world. The serendipidity of this signboard where I least expected it led me to reconsider. It took me less than half an hour to reach Kuchwada. Some five hundred yards short of the village was the gate to Osho tirth, the `pilgrimage’ at Osho’s birthplace. Visitors, a signboard announced, were allowed ten minutes to stroll around the site after paying Rs 5 for entry.
The boy at the gate pointed me to the library across the road. It was a white domed structure. The sun poured in through the skylights and wasps buzzed in and out as I looked through the enormous volume of words that Rajneesh had regurgitated in the course of his life – Vedanta, Buddhism, the Gita, Kabir, the Sufis, the Bible, Mahavira, the writings of Nanak, nothing had been spared his attention.
I walked into the main compound. Rajneesh’s acolytes from Japan had built the complex and their influence was visible in the architecture. Even so, the huge pale blue pyramid shaped meditation hall caught me unawares. I was not allowed entry into the hall. There was little else to do, but for a visit to the house that Osho had once lived. It lay further along the road in the heart of the village. It has been bought by the Osho trust and is now a pilgrim spot largely visited for some reason by devotees from Japan. It is still the largest house in the village, a double-storey mud and brick structure. The rooms have been restored with some care, and a precarious set of steps lead up to the second floor. It is a house that figures as a place of some importance in Osho’s reminiscences.
His autobiography details his past lives in extravagant detail before it arrives at his birth. There is immediately a problem. A great man’s birth in the Indian way must be heralded by portents and omens, yet how is this to be reconciled with the rationality Rajneesh so fervently argued for? He finds a way.
The Narmada in spate floods the village. The flood exceeds anything in living memory, “The rains were so heavy that the ocean was not able to take the water as quickly as it was coming, so the water at the ocean front was stuck; it started flowing backwards. Where small rivers fall into big rivers, the big rivers refused to take the water, because they were not able even to contain their own water. The small rivers started moving backwards.’’
The floodwaters of the Narmada enter his grandparent’s house, reaching up to the second floor where his pregnant mother lies on a bed. The waters reach his mother’s stomach and then recede. He is born `almost a sant’ in the village, and even the elderly lined up to touch his feet.
His grandparents ask his parents that he be allowed to stay with them, a solace in their old age. He is indulged, nothing is required of him, nothing is forced upon him. He lives in this house, with his grandparents and an elderly manservant for company. The family is by far the richest in the village, and there is no question of playing with the other children.
After his childhood in Kuchwada, he goes to school at Gadarwara where his parents lived. Even today the family continues with the business that goes back to Rajneesh’s grandfather. Everyone in town seems to know where his cousins live. Two clothes shops, identical to each other, stand side by side in the crowded bazaar of Gadarwara. I pick one at random, it is late in the evening and there are no customers around. The shop attendant seats me on the floor, as he would any customer. The cousin is having his dinner upstairs.
When he descends the stairs that lead down to the middle of the shop floor from the first floor house, he apologises for keeping me waiting. He sits down besides me, nothing in him hints at any relationship with a godman, he is any shopkeeper anywhere in India but for the story he seems to have repeated several times earlier; I sit through a sketchy hagiography.
Not once does he call his cousin by his name as he talks to me, “Osho was brilliant. He studied from primary school to his matriculation here in Gadarwara. He had a great memory, he just had to read something once to remember it.’’ I ask him whether Rajneesh kept in touch with the family, “Before his move to Poona, even after he was a godman in Bombay, he would return to Gadarwara twice a year, for Diwali and Rakhi.’’ He doesn’t have much else to add.
He talks of a diamond watch presented to him by Osho. Along with a passion for his collection of Rolls Royce, these watches were another of Rajneesh’s obsessions. He does not offer to show me the watch. I then go to the adjacent shop owned by another cousin who is older, closer in age to Rajneesh. I am hoping to learn something more personal about Osho, all I get are terse monosyllables. I am told later he was sulking because I had failed to come to him first. I started feeling some stirring of sympathy for the man who sought to leave all this behind.
Among relatives such as this Rajneesh would have stood out. Perhaps those first eight years of keeping his company made the difference, but by the time he came to Gadarbara he was no easy child to deal with, at least according to his own testimony.
His rebelliousness had a certain streak of perverse intelligence, it was a streak that shows through in much he did. Shortly after he arrived in Gadarwara, his father in an attempt to impose his authority ordered his son to get a hair cut. When his son refused, he snipped off a lock of hair. Rajneesh promptly went and got his head shaved, an act undertaken by an Indian son only at his father’s death. At this stage, Rajneesh claims, his father gave up.
It was no different in Jabalpur. The transition from a rebellious and questioning young man to a new age guru is not easy to capture, but Rajneesh manages to do it with some honesty in his writings:
In my youth I was known in the university as an atheist, irreligious, against all moral systems. That was my stand, and that is still my stand… But being known as an atheist, irreligious, amoral, became a problem. It was difficult to communicate with people, almost impossible to bridge any kind of relationship with people…
I became aware that, strangely, the people who were interested in the search for truth had got involved in religions. Because they thought me irreligious, I could not commune with them; and they were the people who would be really interested to know.…
Then it was obvious to me that I would have to play the game of being religious; there was no other way. Only then could I find people who were authentic seekers.
It took a few years for me to change my image in people's eyes. But people only listen to words, they don't understand meanings…So I used their own weapons against themselves. I commented on religious books, and gave a meaning that was totally mine…
A day after meeting Rajneesh’s cousin I had gone to the Gadarbara library to look for the jawbones of a dinosaur recently found in the library compound. A few workers had been digging to shift the swings and slides meant for children to another part of the compound when they came upon this jawbone. Years later it was still lying in the library, no further exploration had ever been undertaken around the site.
The librarian, keen to bolster the significance of his town, told me there this was one of two things of `world importance’ in his library, the other was the collection of books donated by Rajneesh.
A separate shelf had been devoted to the collection. Each book was inscribed Rajneesh Chandra Mohan, B.A. Previous, D.N. Jain College, Jubblepore. I noted down a few names. This Believing World by Lewis Browne; A Naval Venture – The War Story of an Armoured Cruiser by Fleet Surgeon T.T Jean, 1649 a novel of a year by Jack Lindsay; and then what for me was a surprise – Phulmat of the Hills by Verrier Elwin.
Months later back in Delhi as I read through Rajneesh’s autobiography I came upon a section titled Aboriginals, where he talks of Bastar, the vast tribal territory inhabited by the Gonds that lay to the south of Amarkantak, the source of the Narmada:
Nobody goes into those deep forests. They live in caves; nobody goes there. And they have such beautiful caves.
And they are such beautiful people. You will not find anybody fat, you will not find anybody thin—they all look alike. They live long, and they live very naturally. Even about sex they are very natural, perhaps the only natural people left in India.
And exactly what they do, has to be done all over the world if you want people not to be perverted. Behind all kinds of mental sicknesses is sexual perversion. In Bastar I found for the first time, people totally natural.
After a girl and a boy come of age—that is thirteen and fourteen…They have in their villages, in the middle of the village, a small hall just made of bamboos, as their huts are made. The moment a girl starts having periods, she has to stay in the central hall. By the time a boy is fourteen, sexually potent, he has to live…All the girls and the boys who have become sexually mature, they start living together, sleeping together, with one condition—and that is a beautiful condition—that no boy should sleep with a girl for more than three days. So you have to become acquainted with every girl of the village, and every girl has to become acquainted with every boy of the village.
Before you decide to marry someone, you must know every woman of the village, so there is no question arising afterwards that you start feeling lustful for some woman. You have lived with all the women of your age, and it is your choice after the experiment with all the woman.
And there is no jealousy at all, because from the very beginning everybody is living with every girl. Every boy has the chance to be acquainted with every girl of the village, and every girl has the chance to be acquainted with every boy of the village.
So there is no question of any jealousy, there is no competitive spirit at all. It is just an experiment, an opportunity for every child to know sex with different people, and then find out who suits you, and with whom you were the most happy, with whom you settle harmoniously, with whom you felt your heart. Perhaps this is the only scientific way to find a soul mate.
The description of Bastar and its people is obviously borrowed from his reading. Some of the facts stated are just wrong, the Gonds do not live in caves and then there is the odd claim that the aboriginal children do not have dreams at all. But beyond the facts in these aboriginals he finds his noble savages, unsoiled by civilization – the very same innocent state of nature that his followers reposed so much faith in.
The key to Rajneesh’s communes lies here. He says as much, “And exactly what they do, has to be done all over the world if you want people not to be perverted. Behind all kinds of mental sicknesses is sexual perversion.’’
The Gond institution he describes in some detail is the ghotul of the Muria Gonds. Not all Gonds follow the same traditions as far as the ghotul is concerned. Certainly not all the Gonds of Bastar.
The Muria ghotul became well known to the outside world only because of a book written by Elwin. It was a book discussed widely in India, and the idea of `free sex’ had much to do with it. Rajneesh could not have escaped hearing of it. From the evidence of the library, he was already a reader of Elwin’s books, and the aboriginals he describes are aboriginals that seem to be imagined from Elwin’s book.
It was the ghotul of Bastar that was eventually transformed into the communes for his disciples. But institutions do not transfer so easily from one context to another. The adults seem to have survived the ghotuls Rajneesh put in place in Poona and Oregon, the children were another matter. British journalist Tim Guest has written of his childhood in Rajneesh’s communes where his mother was a sanyasin. It is not difficult to sense the echoes of Rajneesh’s own childhood in what the children experienced.
Bhagwan’s attitude to the practicalities of schooling was simple; teach the important subjects, English and maths. On no account, he said, were we to be taught the useless subjects, especially politics or history … For the rest of the time, Bhagwan said, the children should be allowed to play and to learn from each other and the adults around them.
The children belonged to the commune, Rajneesh wanted to save them from the embrace of the nuclear family, the same embrace he felt he had been saved from. But he forgot that when he said children learn by imitation from the adults around them, they need everything unless institutions such as the Ghotul mediate their learning.
The Muria Gonds had taken generations to create an institution without parallel. The very difficulty they had to guard against, their constant caution against attachment and jealousy in adolescents was a reminder of how natural these feelings were. When adults and children imitated the model in an entirely alien setting without the generations of preparation that had gone in to the ghotul the result was something else entirely. In a chilling passage Guest writes about the children from one of the communes named Medina, “That year, the summer of 1984 at the Ranch, many of the Medina kids lost their virginity; boys and girls, ten years old, eight years old, in sweaty tents and A-frames, late at night and mid-afternoon, with adults and other children. I remember some of the kids – eight, nine, ten years old – arguing about who had fucked whom, who would or wouldn’t fuck them.’’