Part 6: Bodhena’s scientific and humorous evaluation of the population at the Poona ashram in 1978/79
Links to all published parts can be found at the bottom of the articles
You’re probably asking yourself by now what an ashram’s got to do with geography. Well, let me tell you this much. The subject of geography is the spatial distribution of phenomena, the patterns they create and their inter-relatedness. These phenomena can be of economic or social nature, or in the field of physical geography, like hydrology or geomorphology. The ashram as a physical entity was undergoing a very dynamic process which had a definite spatial component, and involved in this were people, whose motivations were putting a certain shape to all this. Of particular interest here was the influence of the ashram on the city of Poona, and, ultimately, the “new commune” that Osho had been talking about.
Personally, I didn’t worry too much about that at the time. I had achieved my main objective, which was that I was back in Poona with the means to support myself, and so I set out to work. The ashram management was very supportive, as long as I didn’t cross certain boundaries. After all, a scientific study like this would only further their own interests, and they knew me well enough to see that they could trust my judgement and that I was not on any negative trip. Still, my first priority was to be a sannyasin, so I did a few more groups and made certain that any research I was involved in wasn’t interfering with going to discourse in the morning, doing Kundalini in the afternoon and generally having the social life typical of a sannyasin in Poona.
Ah, those were the days … just imagine, it is ten in the morning, you are riding high on the energy of yet another beautiful discourse, the sun is shining, the sky has never been more blue (pollution permitting), the trees have never been of a more brilliant green, and the whole world is just waiting to be embraced. You could continue with some more active celebration at Sufi Dancing which by now is getting under way in Buddha Hall, or you could just find your favorite spot on the Zen Wall, watch the river of the ashram life flow by and wait for something to happen. Invariably, you’d always run into who you needed to meet, maybe a friend who was going back to the West in a couple of days and who was going to take along some mail for you, or the beautiful ma you sat next to in discourse the other day, and the outcome might just be that you got yourself a hot date for the evening (or for right there and then).
Before you knew it, it was time for lunch, and afterwards it was over to Buddha Hall for a little nap during the taped discourse. Oops, you almost spaced out that you had to pick up your new darshan robe at your tailor, so you’d hop into a rickshaw to MG Road to take care of that, grab a cup of coffee and do a bit of shopping while there, and by the time you were back at the ashram, Kundalini was about to start.
The place to go to in the evening was Music Group (unless you were one of the lucky ones to have darshan). There were hundreds of us there, sometimes up to a thousand, singing and dancing along (“Drinking from your wine, Bhagwan … “). It was Anubhava, a sannyasin from Germany, who clearly carried the event. Just with his voice and guitar and backed by a few musicians he’d do his magic, every night. There were times the energy was so high that we thought it would lift the roof off Buddha Hall.
As far as food went, we were certainly not starving. There was Vrindavan Restaurant and Snack Bar right at the ashram, serving a simple and delicious fare suitable for western stomachs, and we could be sure that it had been prepared under the highest hygienic conditions (which was very important if you had arrived in India just recently).
Maybe a fifteen minute walk away was Prem’s Restaurant, a place that was very popular among sannyasins (and would continue to be when we’d come back from our American adventure). The place had had its beginnings when a year or two earlier Mr. Prem had rented out a few rooms in his house to sannyasins, and once a week he’d cook a dinner for his tenants. Another Indian success story!
If you were on a shoestring budget, you could go for a Club Sandwich at the Cafe Delite (also dubbed “Cafe Disgust”), and for desert head for one of the roadside places across the street from Mobo’s Hotel for a mixed fruit pulp, with or without cream (if you didn’t specify, you got it “with”). At the Delite, they seemed to be having a persistant shortage of dishes – they always had about a dozen busboys running around the place like bloodhounds (“Finished? Finished?”), and if you didn’t hold on to your plate, it was gone, even if you had only eaten half of your meal.
There were a few enterprising sannyasins that were operating restaurants, like the Surrender Garden, a few minutes walk from the ashram. The bamboo hut villages that had sprung up on the fields beyond Koregaon Park, along the river, had their own subculture going and also featured a small restaurant here or there.
For the wealthier clientele, there were high-end eateries downtown like the Chinese Room or Latif’s, with prices that were still very reasonable by western standards, and not to forget the Hotel Blue Diamond, Poona’s only luxury hotel, very conveniently located just around the corner from the ashram. Its restaurant and bar was a very popular off-hour meeting place for the ashram establishment.
It was the general hygienic situation in India that created a lot of health problems for western sannyasins. A test conducted by ashram chemists showed that a large percentage of the dust (that was everywhere) consisted simply of shit, and many people came down with dysentery, dengue fever or hepatitis. Also amoebas were quite common, and I’ve met people who were still battling them years after they had left India.
Fortunately, nothing seemed to touch me. The city water in Poona was supposedly safe, and I drank plenty of it, unboiled. I ate kilos of grapes when they were in season, as well as mangos and apples, without going through an elaborate trip about cleaning them. During the hot season, my favorite was freshly pressed sugarcane juice, with a twist of lemon and ginger and a bit of crushed ice, and believe me, I had countless glasses of that, in a simple shack by the road.
Later that winter it happened that Dr. Weise, the other professor who was overseeing the work on my thesis, came to India on a three week excursion with a group of students. I took a break at the ashram and tagged along, using my travel expertise to help with the organizing. We went around South India, and also came by Auroville, the spiritual community I had once been interested in. The people there seemed to be nice enough and were living in an admirable fashion, but compared to the intense, high-energy atmosphere of the ashram that I’d come to know, the place seemed a bit dead. Wearing orange and mala, I got a response from some of them to the effect that they appeared to be having a bit of a difficult time coping with the energy of some of Osho’s sannyasins they’d met.
At the end of the tour, there were a few days off, and about half of the participants used that time to visit the ashram, with two of them taking sannyas. A few months later, it was the good professor himself who, along with his young and pretty wife, took the jump. Now going by the name of Swami Devanando, he hung on to his job at the university for another year or so, then dropped out and came back to Poona.
Meanwhile, my research was progressing nicely. I conducted 200 detailled, semi-standardized interviews with ashram visitors, about where they came from, what they were doing here and what their plans were. One morning before discourse, with a few helpers and generous support from the ashram management, I handed out short questionnaires to everybody going into Buddha Hall. More than 90% of the questionnaires were returned, almost 1,200. Furthermore, I had in-length interviews with several key persons that gave me a good picture of the organizational structure of the ashram and of the work that was happening there, at least the part of it that was visible from the outside. I was also able to use some of the ashram’s own data, as well as a number of the ashram’s publications.
This gave me a pretty good picture of who was here, at least statistically. According to my “discourse survey”, the average age was 31 years. The largest age group was the one from 26 to 30 years, with 36%. Another 21% were between 21 and 25 years old, and 30% between 31 and 40. So, by and large, these were the Baby Boomers, the generation that had grown up with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and who was here were the ones that hadn’t given up their quest for the truth yet, that were not satisfied with the dreams promised by the bourgeois society they’d grown up in, however much they might have rebelled against it at some time.
As far as their countries of origin were concerned, the Germans were the strongest national group with almost 20%, followed by the US Americans and the British with a bit over 16% each. Australians, Indians and Dutch accounted for between 6 and 7% each, and Canadians, French and Italians for between 4 and 5% each. Of the remaining 14%, almost 9% came from various other European countries, 3% came from Asia, 1% from Latin America and .5% from Africa. Another 1% came from New Zealand, boy, those Kiwis almost fell through the cracks! And in fairness to the Indians I have to add that they were very much underrepresented since their visiting pattern to Poona differs decidedly from the rest.
Professionally and socially, people came from all walks of life. Most of them had had a rather extensive education. Of the 200 visitors I had interviewed, almost 60% had spent at least some time at college or university. I have met, among others, university professors, psychologists, MDs, lawyers, architects, teachers, managers, bookkeepers, engineers, craftsmen, various kinds of artists, policemen, nurses, secretaries, stewardesses, housewives, students, and quite a few drop-outs. I have also met several people with a rather extensive background in drugs, some of them clean now, some not. And a good friend of mine even confided in me that he’d once robbed a bank – that impressed me, since I agree with Bertold Brecht that founding a bank is a greater crime than robbing one.
There were also the occasional VIPs visiting the ashram, some more, some less “important”. Back in 1977, the singer Diana Ross and Werner Erhard (of EST) had come, and even talked to Osho in darshan. Around the same time, the then fairly well known actor Terence Stamp had taken sannyas, as had Richard Price, one of the founders of the Esalen Institute (he got a bit scared, though, and subsequently backed off). Vinod Khanna, one of the most popular movie stars of the Bollywood scene, had joined the club, too, and did a lot of very positive PR work for Osho. And from time to time, the rumor would go around the ashram that George Harrison was on his way, who, unfortunately, never made it – apparently he was quite happy with the Hare Krishna.
In 1978, I briefly shared a room with Martin Siems, a psychologist and sociologist who had co-authored the book “Anleitung zum sozialen Lernen” (Instructions for social learning), a renowned bestseller at the time in Germany. A few years earlier, I had participated in a “self-help group” (a group run by its participants) with 8 other people that had been based on that book and, for all of us, had been very successful. Martin participated in several groups, and maybe a year later I came across a very positive magazine article he had written about his experiences.
We also had royalty living right among us. Swami Vimalkirti, aka Prince Welf of Hanover, was the great-grandson of the last German emperor. Now he was living at the ashram with his wife Turiya, an established therapist, and their seven-year-old daughter Tanya. His present occupation was being a guard at Lao Tzu House.
And there were all kinds of deadbeats, pot-heads, weirdos and crazies hanging out around the fringes of the sannyasin scene in Poona. Some of them had at some point taken sannyas, but more or less dropped it, a few had even gotten their malas confiscated. They’d get together at more seedy establishments like the Cafe Bund or the Sunder Lodge, smoking it up. Man, you could go up to the back porch of the Sunder Lodge at almost any time of the day and there’d be a fat joint going around. Actually, there were quite a few sannyasins who still liked to turn on, and this was one of the places to go to score a tola of Manali or some good Kerala grass.
For people with certain psychological conditions it was a risky thing to engage in the activities at the ashram. Some of them had ignored the advice to return to their home countries, but had stayed around and now were occasionally seen walking around Koregaon Park in a more or less confused state of mind. A few had gone off the deep end, wound up in the local loony-bin across the river and had to be bailed out by their embassies (who were not very pleased about that, as you can imagine).
At the guards department of the ashram, we had a whole “cuckoo album” of such people that were “banned”, complete with mug shots and background stories, and the guards at the gate had to be alert, because sometimes one of those people would try to sneak in and be of a nuisance (like making a big scene and demanding to see Osho).
From Bodhena’s Adventures in Samsara – read more excerpts…
Bodhena took sannyas in the late seventies in Pune where he worked first as a handyman for the group department, then as a Krishna Guard. After living in Geetam for a few months, he was invited to the Ranch where he worked in construction, security, Magdalena Cafeteria, Chaitanya (accounts) and as a paralegal at Rajneesh Legal Services. In early Pune II he worked for the Rajneesh Times, and then again as a guard at Lao Tzu House. In recent years, he has been living in Clausthal, Germany, practising nowhere to go and nothing to do. bodhena (at) hotmail (dot) com