Poetry — 14 July 2013

Max Brecher’s introduction to his book, ‘A Passage to America’.

This book about Osho Rajneesh – formerly known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh – and his controversial American commune of Rajneeshpuram is, as the ancient Romans used to say, about everything and something else besides. God, politics, humor, wisdom, international intrigue, assassination plots, sex and the Vatican. It contains huge, unforgettable chunks from the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who, often in direct conflict with each other, passionately believed in the absolute rightness of their “causes”.

It consists of a fair sampling from modern history and also deals with the very nature of human existence. Calling it “sensational” is opting for a minimalist interpretation. At the top end of the scale it threatens to submerge writer and readers in an overdose of details and drown them in an emotional bloodbath.

You as a potential reader might ask, “Why retell a story that has already been told many times before?”. Indeed, I have often been asked this very same question by publishers who wanted to brush it and me off and avoid the risks of publishing what had – and has – the potential to become a snap it up item.

My response is simple. “Because it has never been properly told. Never been adequately researched, documented, taken apart and painstakingly pieced together. And what’s more, it’s too important to get wrong.”

Authors with an external, allegedly objective perspective have all too often relied more on refusal than refutation. Without evidence, logic or coherent argument, they have categorically dismissed Rajneesh, the man and his claim to embody a bliss and wisdom “which passeth understanding”. As if they themselves had reached some higher plane of existence and were miraculously above his state.

They have often portrayed him in the worst light possible, casting sinister, conspiratorial aspersions on every word, gesture and intention. The extent of their animosity can be gauged by their frequent failure to even get his name right. Thus instead of calling him Rajneesh, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, or Osho, they have used “the Bhagwan” and “the Rajneesh”.

On the other hand, those who continue to love and revere him – and demonstrate those sentiments by gathering in large numbers at sannyasin centers around the world and what is now known as the Osho International Meditation Resort in Poona, India and sannyasin centers around the world – have told insiders’ stories. But too often those have been depictions of their own insides. What happened to them and how they felt. Vivid and valid as those experiences of total immersion and transformation are, they often fail to create a picture large and persuasive enough for those who haven’t been there and done that.

Thus for different reasons no one has come close to telling this tale as, in my opinion, it should be told. Rajneesh’s rise, it is true, is moderately well known. But the fall is a travesty of reporting on all fronts.

While applauding my own efforts I readily admit that I am grateful to all those who have walked the trail ahead of me. And while I am not the proverbial dwarf standing on their shoulders, I have benefited from both their correct and incorrect readings. Hopefully, my inevitable shortcomings will one day be surpassed by something much better. I can hardly wait.

This volume is based on thousands of media reports from the period, legal, historical and religious research, and about 100 formal and informal interviews with government officials, lawyers and sannyasins in the United States, United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, Greece, India and Italy. It does not seek to square circles or build bridges across the chasms separating those who would praise Rajneesh and those who would bury him. But it does seek to dredge up exactly what happened, when and why from the murky depths of myth, hysteria and straight black propaganda.

What readers do with this new information and light is their business, not mine.

Like any major historical work, this undertaking is the effort of more than one person. I have received a great deal of direct assistance and encouragement from many people. Some had gathered and organized archives full of legal records and newspaper clippings and radio and television reports. Others helped with the interviews, travel arrangements and transcriptions of the recorded conversations. Many shared their time, experiences and opinions with me.

But I have never depended on the interpretations and interpolations of others. I did the legwork, got my hands smudged in the stacks, did a lot of sneezing when box after box was brought out, and reconstructed events in three ways: impossible, possible and probable. At the end of the day, the beginning and all points in between, I alone am responsible for the choices made.

I have tried to follow what Buddha called “the middle way” and the Upanishads, ancient Indian books of wisdom, “the razor’s edge” by steering a course between the shallows of outsider “objectivity” and the deep blue sea of insider “subjectivity”. Between a slow thoroughness conducive towards understanding and solid, stand the test of time conclusions and the dramatic demands of a good read.

Critics who find the course swerving too much hither and thither are asked to remember the uncommon territories we are passing through and cut me some slack.

Those familiar with the first edition of this volume should know that this is a totally revised work. The stress then was on stop the presses scoop journalism. Here I have delved more into the rich academic literature on this and related topics and been more generous with the use of footnotes. There are more than 1500 of them.

Without sacrificing rigor and accuracy, I have also opted for a more literary approach. Appropriate rhythms, telling metaphors, and more precisely chosen words. The results are, in my opinion, a stronger, tighter argument and more pleasing peruse.

There’s also a whole new chapter (13), which was originally intended to be a brief appendix on yellow journalism – with particular emphasis on The Oregonian – and then spun out to become the longest chapter in the book. It should be noted that the first 20 pages of that chapter were sent in a slightly different form to about 40 newspapers and television stations in Oregon – including The Oregonian – and not a single one of them deemed it or me worth a response.

So much for the quality of that state’s journalism. At least as far as this theme is concerned.

On the upside, there was one Oregon journalist who was very much interested in me and my work. Eric Cain of Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). He eventually came out with a visually beautiful and basically well balanced documentary (premiering in November 2012, now available online at www.opb.org).

After watching it I complimented him on his stroke of editorial genius. Basically sucking out most of the Sturm, Drang and hysterical lopsidedness from the subject and situating it in the once upon a time in Oregon style. A clash of civilizations. But he chose, correctly, I believe, to sidestep most of the information focused on here. After all, there’s only so much you can squeeze into an hour of even the best television.

Here’s as good a place as any to make some clarifying comment about names. One, while technically speaking “Rajneeshpuram” refers to the legal entity of a city – 2,135 acres out of the 126 square miles of Rancho Rajneesh – I almost always use it to refer to the whole place. Two, throughout most of the 1970s and 1980s Rajneesh was known to his disciples – sannyasins – as “Bhagwan”. Bhagwan is a multi-faceted Sanskrit word that can mean anything from “God” to “The Blessed One”.

Then, in December 1988 and January 1989, he announced in a series of discourses that he was definitely dropping the name “Bhagwan”. Alternatives were played with and in the spring of 1989, “Osho” was selected. The name was derived from “oceanic”, a word coined by the great American pragmatist philosopher and psychologist, William James.

According to James, oceanic feeling or experience refers to a blissful state of cosmic consciousness, of contact with the universal currents of existence. Something that, by his own admission, he could only read, write and dream about.

Rajneesh coined the name, “Osho”, to refer to the individual who experiences this state. For the sake of simplicity and neutrality, I will refer to him throughout as “Rajneesh” or “Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh”. Unless otherwise stated, emphasis in the text comes from the original sources.

Read the book review A Passage to America

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