Struck by enlightenment in Poona

Media Watch

In his first article of four, Bernard Levin described his impressions upon visiting the ashram and seeing Osho during the discourse he attended. Published in The Times, UK, 8 April 1980.

The Times newspaper article

The scene is a huge makeshift auditorium, roughly oval in shape, a marquee with a flat stone floor; it is open all around but has a simple roof of matting and corrugated iron, supported on slim, crude wooden pillars. On the floor some 1,500 people are sitting: the frailer among them (including me) have thin cushions. They all face a raised marble platform set midway along one side of the hall: on it there stands a plain swivel chair (it looks a good deal more comfortable than my bit of the floor, cushion and all); a microphone on a stand projects over the chair’s arm. The time is a quarter to eight in the morning. We are in Poona.

The first surprise is the colour; almost literally every person in the place is wearing orange. There is a very wide variety of garments but in the colour, though the shade varies from almost yellow to almost red, is common to all. The second surprise is that there is total silence throughout this orange sea; over a loudspeaker there comes an appeal against coughing, but the plea is unnecessary, for the silence is unbroken, and deeper than the “Bayreuth hush” itself.

Accompanying the silence is stillness, the orange sea is frozen, row upon row of graven images. Among the men, beards and long hair are overwhelmingly prevalent.

The silence is broken by the crunch of a car’s wheels and the accompanying purr of an expensive engine. A large, gleaming, yellow Mercedes comes into view, being driven round the perimeter of the hall. (I was to see the car later, being washed, and to gain the distinct impression it is washed several times a day.) As the car approaches a covered walkway just behind the platform with the chair, I experience the third surprise: mine is the only head that turns.

An orange-clad attendant, on the watch for this moment, moves forward to open the car door; out of it steps, with unhurried graceful movements, a figure dressed in a white robe, beneath which his feet are clad in simple sandals. He walks slowly into the hall, his hands together in the traditional Indian greeting, and mounts the steps to the marble platform. He stands in front of the chair and turns through 180 degrees, extending the silent greeting to the whole hall: it is returned by the orange audience. He is tall, though not exceptionally so, bald on top but with long hair hanging down behind, and luxuriantly grey-bearded. He smiles, and sits down in the chair. Another attendant steps forward and hands him a small folder. He puts it on his lap, opens it, takes a slip of paper from it, and speaks for an hour and three quarters without pause, hesitation, repetition or notes. This is Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh: Or, many in that hall believe, God.

The lure of India is almost as old as India herself; in recent years, however, it has become much stronger, and her seers and sages and sannyasin have provided new hope for more and more of the jaded spiritual palates of the West. Europe and America sense that the nirvana which, in their dissatisfaction, they seek, is what India has always offered, and India’s holy men are now doing a roaring trade in the provision of peace to the angry and tormented souls of those who come to learn how they may be healed, how the psychic split may be mended and the ego dissolved in the true self. As Rajneesh himself puts it, “When you have everything the outer can provide, then a natural desire arises to explore the inner.”

Holy men, like unholy ones, differ. In Bombay, I sat at the feet of an aged prophet, Nisargadatta Maharaj, who speaks in a tiny room reached by a rickety flight of stairs in a house in one of the poorest quarters of the city (and the poorest quarters of Bombay are poor indeed). Later, in the same city, I heard Krishnamurti speak to a throng in the open air, his voice that of the cultured West, his words those of the feeling East. Everywhere, the seekers compared notes; many spoke of other sages, in Goa and elsewhere, exchanging recommendations like tourists singling out restaurants. Rajneesh, it is clear, has three stars.

In the most important sense, of course, they are tourists; spiritual tourists. Many, indeed, have come to Rajneesh after a long time spent trying other roads. Now: heureux qui comme Ulysse… they all feel they have come home, that whatever it was they had been seeking, they have found it. I have to say, after spending several days at the Rajneesh Ashram last year and after a further visit last week (when I discovered that the Mercedes has now been replaced by an immense white Rolls Royce), that I am not the least surprised.

There are, to be sure, some taxes to pay, which is what I meant when I said that holy men differ. The essence of Rajneesh and of his teaching I shall discuss in due course; the essence however, is wrapped in showmanship of a remarkable quality. To start with, those going to the morning discourse, which is open to all on payment of a trifling admission charge (and it takes place every day of the year, except on the rare occasions when he is ill – or, as they carefully specify, “unwell in the body” – being given, month in month out, in English and Hindi alternately), must first pass through an experience that brings to mind the Roman yoke; two of the Rajneesh’s Praetorian Guard stand in the path that leads to the auditorium, and as the long queue shuffles forward they sniff each discourse-goer as he or she passes between them.

The official reason given for this curious practice is that Rajneesh is allergic to perfumes of any kind; visitors are warned not to use scented shampoos, deodorants, or even after-shave lotions, and those who fail to pass the sniffing test are forbidden entry, though I saw borderline cases being allowed to proceed after a scarf was bound over their offending hair. Now since nobody at the discourse sits within 18 ft. of Rajneesh, and some as far as 30 yards away from him, it seems clear that the official reason is nonsense. The sniffing, like the car (which is used only to bring him a few yards from his own quarters on the ashram and return him thither after the discourse, and must therefore have the lowest mileage of any car in the world), like the legends propagated by his disciples (does he really read 50-70 books a week?), like the tape-recording of his every word (all his discourses are published in book form and on cassettes), like the four stipulations which each sannyas or initiate is asked to accept (the donning of an orange garment, the wearing of the mala, a string of 108 beads from which Rajneesh’s portrait is suspended in a locket, the adoption of a new name, and the daily practice of meditation), not to mention his triumphantly stage-managed entrance for the discourses themselves, all these trimmings must be accepted and digested, by anyone wanting to understand Rajneesh, before the kernel of his mystery can be approached.

And they can be regarded in two ways; either as irrelevances – distracting, trivial or suspect according to taste – or as a minor but subtly essential part of the mystery itself, designed to shake his hearers loose from preconceptions and make them more open to what they are to hear and experience; a close parallel in fact, to the “meaningless” riddles of Zen, which also irritate those who miss their point. For my part I have no doubt at all that, with one exception, which I shall discuss, the trimmings should be regarded in the second light, and that for anyone willing to suspend traditional forms of judgement long enough to understand, they serve the purpose for which they are designed. That purpose, as I say, is the emotional freeing of those who wish to hear, and benefit from, Rajneesh’s teaching.

The process of disorientation takes many forms. Another very significant one, which provides a valuable test of understanding – to recoil from it suggests that those who recoil have missed the point – is the way in which Rajneesh sprinkles jokes, some of them very rude indeed, throughout his discourse. They are meant to illustrate his theses, and are thus the equivalent of Christ’s parables; but they are also, particularly the blue ones, clearly designed to de-mystify and de-sanctify Rajneesh’s own personality, to bring him down from the heights on which his followers inevitably tend to place him, to the human level on which they live themselves. (Some of the jokes, incidentally, are very funny, like the one about the poor cobbler who goes to the farmer for a pound of butter and is told that he can only have it on payment of a pair of woollen socks. Woollen socks being beyond the cobbler’s means, he and his family face a butterless diet, until his wife says that she will unravel part of their woollen bedspread and knit a pair of socks with the wool. She does so, and the socks are handed over in return for the pound of butter. Next time the family needs butter, the same procedure is followed and gradually the bedspread disappears, until finally there is only enough wool to knit a single sock. The cobbler takes it to the farmer and asks if he can have half a pound of butter for it; the farmer, however, is in an expansive mood, and says he can have the whole pound. “You see,” he says, “I don’t wear the socks, I give them to my wife, who unravels them for the wool. She’s knitting a bedspread and she only needs the wool from one more sock to finish it.” This story was used by Rajneesh to illustrate the futility of so much of the modern worlds’ striving and endeavour, and seemed to me to do so rather neatly.)

Nevertheless, the showmanship and what goes with it is not all quite so innocent or salutary, which brings me to the exception. As those of my readers who have followed my accounts of Mrs Gandhi’s subversion of Indian democracy may readily suppose, I found a substantial bone in my throat at this statement of Rajneesh’s views on her:

She possesses a better vision of the future and more understanding of the present. She is flexible, open, vulnerable, ready to understand anything that is happening in the modern world. But she is also a criminal and a tyrant.

The reason for Rajneesh’s praise of Mrs Gandhi and concomitant attacks of her democratic opponents lies in the fact that the Morarji Desai government showed itself hostile to Rajneesh and his movement, and indeed to the Indian “Godmen” generally, feeling that they damage India’s standing abroad by perpetuating the myth that India is a country full of strange rites and fakirs on beds of nails, not be thought of as a modern state with a modern state’s role to play in the world. Rajneesh’s people claim that there was a history of obstruction and harassment of their activities on the part of Morarji’s government, ranging from the blocking of legitimate acquisition of land to the banning of a British television team that wanted to make a film at the ashram; doubtless Rajneesh feels that he will get more favourable treatment from the resurrected Mrs Gandhi. But the Enlightened are supposed to be above such considerations.

In a different area altogether, though no less disturbing, are the claims the Rajneesh Foundation makes to be operating a university on the ashram. I have no doubt that the wide range of consciousness-expanding therapeutic techniques practised there (they include Massage, Reflexology, Alexander Technique, Acupuncture, Rolfing, Postural Integration, Hypnosis, Counselling, Rebirthing, Dynamic Meditation and many others) are of the greatest value for the growth towards wholeness of those who shop at this amazing spiritual supermarket, but there is clearly nothing that can be seriously described as University-standard teaching, and the claim that there are courses at an “International University” there, “leading to a Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts or Doctorate of Philosophy degree” is nonsense, while the further assertion that “in many cases academic credits from Rajneesh International University can be applied towards degrees at other colleges” is even greater nonsense. I do not believe that this provides the explanation for the air of hostility to the activities of the Rajneesh ashram that could, certainly on my first visit, be distinctly felt in Poona among Indians themselves. There are the usual tales of dark doings with hints of sexual impropriety, that such movements invariably attract; there are the equally inevitable allegation of drug-use, no doubt because long hair among young people (the overwhelming majority of Rajneesh’s followers are young) is always associated, in popular mythology, with drugs. And, of course, these allegations have been picked up, embellished, and printed in the West.

Yet even a brief visit to the Rajneesh headquarters is sufficient to dispel such beliefs: I shall have a good deal to say about the disciples I talked to, but for the moment I want only to say that the gossip conveys more about the gossipers than about the subject of the gossip – as indeed, is commonly the case – and that in this instance it conveys something of very considerable significance. What that significance is I shall discuss tomorrow.

To be continued…

© Times Newspapers Limited, 1980

Bernard LevinHenry Bernard Levin CBE (19 August 1928 – 7 August 2004) was an English journalist and author, described by The Times as “the most famous journalist of his day.” He became also a well-known TV broadcaster and published 17 books. Bernard Levin came to Pune with his then partner, Arianna Stassinopoulos (later Arianna Huffington) and wrote three extensive accounts in his column after visiting Shree Rajneesh Ashram.

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