Inspired by the docuseries Wild Wild Country, Anke Richter visits Osho International Resort in Pune and writes about her experiences during a week’s stay. Published in stuff, New Zealand, on June 10, 2018.
The motor rickshaw stops at a police checkpoint in a leafy, quiet street. I get off in front of a massive black wall with a security gate.
While I put my bags on the belt, I feel curious and alert. I am entering the Osho International Meditation Centre (OIMR) in Pune. Am I going to dive deeper into my soul – or into a cult? I grew up in Cologne, Germany, which was the European centre of the Rajneesh movement – hundreds of its citizens dressed in the cult’s trademark orange and red for more than a decade.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who later called himself Osho, was the most famous and influential guru of the 1970s and 80s: a charismatic Indian intellectual who attracted thousands of Westerners, predominantly young women, to worship at his feet.
They gave up their names, their learned ways of thinking and their relationships to be with him. Celebration, self-knowledge and transcendental sex were at the core of this new spirituality, which came to look hedonistic, if not blatantly capitalist. Osho had 93 Rolls-Royces which he paraded in front of his cheering disciples. Was he a conman, a seducer – or a saviour with a powerful message of radical awakening?
In my late teens I often spent nights at the squeaky clean “Zorba the Buddha” discotheque in Cologne, which was owned by the Rajneesh. But otherwise I had little to do with the many sannyasins, as the Bhagwan followers called themselves. It’s not as if they seemed desperate to convert people. They were friendly but aloof – with an air of shiny happiness, freedom and financial success. Most of the money from their many businesses went straight to Pune, India, where Bhagwan’s ashram was based and everyone supposedly lived in a drug-free state of ecstasy. Am I now hoping to reach that high, three decades later?
Of course, times have changed. As the many viewers of the Netflix series Wild, Wild Country are aware, the movement moved from India to the United States where it imploded in the mid-80s in criminal scandals involving attempted murders within the movement and alleged poisoning of the local townspeople. It then reinvented itself and dispersed. But it still exists and I want to explore the legacy of this controversial mystic at its origin, at the former ashram that attracted thousands, including a few New Zealanders. Half of the Europeans there were Germans, some staying for months, some for years.
“Life begins where fear ends,” is one of Osho’s countless quotes. His talks – spoken freely for hours, without any notes – are published in hundreds of books. Despite his former fights with Indian authorities, in death he is now fully rehabilitated as a spiritual master; many celebrities – from Lady Gaga to Kourtney Kardashian – are reportedly fans. Some popular alternative self-help tools from ecstatic dance to the “conscious sexuality” of neo-tantra stem from Osho’s former ashram in Koregaon Park, the richest part of the busy, noisy city of Pune, about three hours by car southeast of Mumbai. I have booked myself in for the week-long “Living In” programme.
First day: Rigor
Everything seems quiet, clean and empty. There’s a lot of shiny cool black around me – very zen. Water trickles down one of the imposing marble walls. Tall trees offer shadowy resting places along the park-like compound. I cannot spot a picture of the bearded sage with dark eyes and signature velvet cap anywhere. Everyone on this side of the wall, apart from the local cleaning and service staff, is dressed in long maroon robes, including the Indian visitors who only pay half price to enter. I am escorted to the resort shop where I have to buy my own gown, plus a white one that looks like a nightie for the evening talk.
Credit Trip Advisor
I also have to get coupons for my meals and a security ID pass. The formalities take forever. They are not forcing visitors to take an HIV test anymore because the Indian government considers this discrimination. But there’s a required pep talk only for the Indian men. It basically tells them not to treat Western women in the resort like prey. Which does make sense in terms of gender and culture clash, but has been called “racist” on Trip Advisor.
The “Multiversity” is the faculty that offers all sorts of therapy courses. On the screens hanging outside I click my way through this esoteric supermarket, from astrology via family constellation to rebirthing. “Mystic Rose” is 21 days long: The first week you only laugh, the second week you only cry, and in the third week you are completely silent. It takes hours before our group of new arrivals has gone over all the introductions and paperwork. We now know not to sneeze or cough in the meditation hall or we will be thrown out. There is a strict code of hygiene everywhere. Photos are not allowed. It’s a lot of “verboten”, even for a German.
My single room in the guest house has the sterility of a brand new private hospital. Back in the day, the Rajneesh attracted rumours involving group naked pile-ons and couples having sex in public, but nothing here says “sex cult”. So far I have not even seen any long hugs or hand holding. There are no hammocks or cuddle zones, not even sun loungers around the pool – for which I have to buy maroon togs and pay every time I want to use it. Only the laundry service is free.
The gym has a state-of-the-art sauna that is separated for men and women. If the loose image of the wild old days is attracting some of the Indian men here, then they must be disappointed. They are also not welcome at any of the tantra courses – which have become rarer these days.
6.40pm, not a minute later, is the time when I have to arrive dressed in my long white robe at the Osho auditorium – or I can stay in my room instead. No wandering around the grounds either. I can feel cabin fever coming on.
It’s straight out of a sci-fi movie when one nightie wearer after the other floats up the black stone stairs in the dusk to the gigantic pyramid-shaped auditorium. First we are patted down by security. There was a bomb attack in 2010 just around the corner, at the popular “German bakery”, frequented by sannyasins.
The zen temple is cool and dimly lit – like a UFO that has picked up us earthlings. It gets more surreal. The upbeat jazzy dance music stops playing, everyone raises their arms and shouts: “Osho!” This repeats a few times. Cult alert! The master himself appears on a large screen and speaks to us from a video recording for 40 minutes, sharp and sophisticated with a very distinct accent. One thing he says sticks: “If you force it, you cannot enjoy it. If you enjoy it, you don’t have to force it.” It could be this week’s motto for me.
Osho always ends with jokes. Everyone in the hall is cackling. Apart from someone who is being sent outside because he coughed. The guy escorting him to the door is tall with striking snow-white hair – unmistakably Amrito, commonly named Dr John Andrews, Osho’s former personal physician. The bearded Englishman in his 70s is something of a grey eminence in this fiefdom. It was he who Osho’s infamous secretary plotted to kill back at the ranch in Oregon, to get him out of Osho’s way – all part of the larger-than-life cult and crime tale that’s had worldwide Netflix audience’s transfixed for more than six surreal hours.
Second day: Trance
“Dynamic meditation” – one of the pillars of Osho’s work – starts at 6am in the auditorium: puffing while jumping, cathartic screaming, silence and then dancing in 15-minute intervals. You can buy the maroon blindfolds for it at the shop. Then there’s yoga outside, done in long robes. I am feeling more and more rebellious among all this streamlined self-improvement and do a few quick laps in the pool, without paying for it.
The “Zennis” (tennis combined with meditation) court is empty, the large canteen closed. A tiny glass of wine costs around NZ$12. Abstinence will come easy at this price. Enlightenment might take longer.
“The old party spirit has gone,” says a grey-haired Swiss sannyasin with missing teeth sitting in the smokers’ corner. It’s just not what it used to be, he says, no more commune life but commerce instead. He used to cook and work in the gardens 30 years ago, or sit at Osho’s feet while monkeys were racing over the tin roofs. It was exciting, fulfilling. Now he’s looking after the online shopping website and spending his days in the air-conditioned office of the OIMR headquarters – hoping to meet some equally nostalgic friends. Work without pay, even though the OIMR is part of a multi-million-dollar imperium these days? He shrugs his shoulders, smiles evasively and rolls himself another cigarette. There’s no place for critical questions.
The first therapy that I get as part of my Living In programme sounds harmless: “Breathing.” I follow the therapist in a black zen suit with white sash down into the catacombs: a windowless cellar room with padded walls. Images from the former encounter therapy groups that took place down here pop up. In those explosive and confrontational weeks, the participants let off steam in the most physical ways. Some sessions ended in orgies, others with broken bones. I wonder what pain and monstrosities these walls have seen.
What they see for the next hour is me, lying on the floor, breathing myself into a trancelike state and then screaming because the therapist is pressing heavily on acupressure points on my body to release my emotional blockages. It’s brutal but does the job. Once the torture is over I feel light and joyful, wandering through the zen garden, marvelling at peacocks and red dragon flies. The spiritual holiday resort in Absurdistan which I have secretly called “Animal Farm” has suddenly become beautiful. I feel more free and peaceful. Something is working.
My state of peace and freedom is over pretty quickly that evening once I’m back inside the auditorium.
Because it’s so cool in there I have put on a light grey silk dress under my white robe. Not quite subtle enough. One of the guards taps on my shoulder: he wants me to go outside and take off the dress. The grey colour is “distracting”. At least he doesn’t hit me with a zen stick.
Third day: Nausea
I meet another rebel. A young British lad with a diamond stud in his nose who wanted to go for the Freudian Primal therapy is not allowed to participate because his dad is of Indian origin. “Osho said that it takes three generations before Asians can get rid of the social conditioning around their parents,” he says. He is disappointed and heads to the outdoors disco dance that is just starting. Instead of staying for another week he might now get stoned in Goa instead.
Every day before lunch, a DJ plays – anything from cheesy Bollywood pop to 80s disco. Osho said that if you have to decide between celebration and meditation, you should go for celebration. We jump and twitch around in the “Buddha Grove”. This week is finally starting to be fun. No one seems fanatic. More like gentle, seeking.
A small old man with a sun hat is twirling in front of me on the dance floor like a dervish. This technique is called “Sufi Whirling” and offered as a meditation this afternoon. I join in. After five minutes of whirling I feel an ecstatic high. This works: Finally, I can let go of my mind! After 15 minutes I feel dizzy. Then nauseous.
After half an hour I almost collapse. My first bout of sickness in India doesn’t come from food poisoning but from whirling. I skip the evening talk because I can hardly move.
Fourth day: Treason
In my next therapy session, I learn how to make my legs shake while lying on my back to release old trauma. It’s one of the many effective body and mind treatments which sannyasins offer all around the world. I get a bit closer to the demi-god’s work by doing this than, say, browsing through the resort bookshop.
There’s a note in my room to come to the “Living In” office. Which rule did I break? Did someone spot me doing my secret laps in the pool? Do I have to swap my yellow day-pack for a maroon one? False alarm: a Japanese volunteer just wants to give me another introduction to the many meditations on offer.
I go for the classic “sitting meditation” in Osho’s former residence, the Lao Tzu house. It’s half museum, half mausoleum, with one of the master’s beige Rolls-Royces displayed at the entrance. We have to put on white socks as to not damage the fine marble floor inside. I walk through his former library filled with thousands of books from Carlos Castaneda to Carl Jung.
The next room has mirror walls – and Osho’s dentist chair on display. The sanctuary where we meditate is a temple hall in gold and white marble, all pomp, magic and glory of a bygone era with a mirrored platform that holds the guru’s ashes. The shrine has an inscription: “Never born, Never died. Only visited this Planet Earth.”
Osho died on January 19, 1990, at the young age of 58 – according to his loyal believers because of a secret creeping poison from his time in a US prison. The death certificate stated a cardiac arrest. Osho was hastily cremated and didn’t leave any last records or instructions in writing. Twenty-three years later a false will appeared that is still in the Indian courts. Last year, a journalist from Pune investigated the contradictions and mysteries around the rapid passing of the spiritual leader, stating that they point towards suicide or euthanasia. I contact the author of Who Killed Osho? and order his book, feeling like a traitor when Amrito, the doctor, crosses my path on my way to the café later.
The book places him under suspicion.
Fifth day: Profit
Osho only spent one night in his palatial temple, says the tai-chi teacher, Raj. He’s 64 years old, Canadian, and was a lawyer in his earlier life under the name D’Arcy O’Byrne. He also believes in the conspiracy theory that Osho was poisoned in America. We are meeting for a coffee outside the Multiversity. Raj – bald head, broad body, constant Buddha smile – belongs to the “Inner Circle” of the Osho imperium.
He, his brother and Amrito run things in Pune. Which he plays down with a laugh.
His team has just won a long trademark case at the European Court for the OIF, the Osho International Foundation in Switzerland. “Brand Osho” is now protected, from every meditation on YouTube to the green boxes of tissues in the padded cells. There have been years of conflict over these legal business issues – rifts between disgruntled sannyasin factions from Europe to Delhi who feel they have as much right to his legacy and have been pushed over by the management in Pune. They accuse the OIF of being money hungry and dictatorial. The keepers of the holy grail, on the other hand, see themselves as purists who secure Osho’s teachings.
Does Raj miss the old times? “No, please,” he laughs. “Absolutely not! But it was a beautiful experiment.”
Osho himself didn’t want to have an ashram anymore because that’s the start of a religion.
“From the outside, it looks like a cult. But when you walk in, this is like the anti-cult.”
The commune in Oregon failed, so now they have a resort. Simple as that. “It was all Osho’s vision.”
During Osho’s life time – or as Raj and his people say: “When Osho was in his body” – they sold about 100,000 of his books every year. Now they sell 3.5 million. Young Hollywood hipsters, including Will Smith’s children, have been spotted with Osho books. “Most people don’t care what happened in 1984 – they were not even born then!”
At that point Osho – who was still Bhagwan then – had left India for America. His followers built Rajneeshpuram, a flourishing city in the desert of Oregon. The aggression between the overwhelmed locals and the equally paranoid “red people” climaxed in heavy armoury, a mass biological poisoning attack and plots for murder – all masterminded by Osho’s former secretary and spokesperson Ma Anand Sheela. The “Goebbles to the guru” went to jail. When Osho tried to flee, he was arrested for visa violations, held in prison and finally made it back to Pune after an odyssey around the world in his private jet.
Raj is not so soft spoken any more, but still smiling. He tells me I am the only one who has ever asked such questions about the past, trying to find dirt. He sums up another Osho quote: “I am pointing to the Moon – and you are looking at my finger!”
We are interrupted by a new arrival, an elegant older lady with a large maroon sun hat and expensive jewels – “one of the richest women in Brazil.” She disappears towards one of the luxury suites. Those can be leased for a lifetime, with your own whirlpool in the bedroom.
Sixth day: Inspiration
Friday night is for “taking sannyas” – a baptism ceremony for those who are planning to live their life with Osho. You can now choose your Indian name yourself. The newbies sit on cushions on the dance floor, sprinkled by colourful laser lights. The house band plays cheesy tunes, Osho speaks from a recording, everyone gets emotional, then they dance.
A stunning German woman who is sitting next to me and is a therapist back home shakes her head in comic disbelief: this is only a poor copy of the initiation they used to have, she says. But she still visits Pune for a retreat every year: “To celebrate life, to go inwards and to be inspired all over again by Osho.” She can see the Moon. I am still looking at the finger.
Seventh day: Laughter
This morning I am not yelling out my repressed anger any more when we do the emotional release part in the “Dynamic Meditation”. Instead I am silly and giggly. My last session for the week is a “bliss massage” from head to toe which leaves me almost levitating. I have made peace by now with wearing a long gown but not with having to pay for using the pool.
At midday I am dancing happily in the sunshine. I don’t skip the evening talk, and instead of shouting “Osho!” in a chorus when the music stops, I just shout my own name. Such fun. Either the lewd jokes of the master are improving or my mood is – in either case, I’m laughing more.
Eighth day: Relaxation
Check out. My resort ID pass expires at 9am. Three minutes later I realise that I have left my yoga mat on the inside and now have difficulties retrieving it. Stern looks pass for a farewell. I am craving a hammock on a tropical beach. I’m not sure yet what I took away from this place. But I like my new maroon bikini.
stuff.co.nz – images Osho News; credit Internet