The joy of shedding their chains

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In his third article of his series, Bernard Levin described observing sannyasins, and commented on the impact Laxmi had on him. Published in The Times, UK, 10 April 1980.

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The Times newspaper article

It is true, and I cannot see how it could not be, that a tree must be known by its fruit, the followers – he calls them neo-sannyasins – of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh are in general an exceptionally fine crop, bearing witness to a tree of a choice, rare nature. The first quality a visitor to Rajneesh’s ashram notices – and he never ceases to notice it – is the ease and comfort with which they wear their faith. Though they are unshakably convinced (I met only one with any residual doubts) that Rajneesh has enabled them to find a meaning for their lives and for their place in the universe, there was no trace of fanaticism in them and in most not even fervour. A prominent British journalist would have been a considerable catch for them, and they were plainly aware of it, for the efficiency and thoroughness with which they met all my requests, answered all my questions and showed me all I wanted to see, made it quite clear that the administrative side of the enterprise is fully aware of the world outside and the way it runs; whatever else these people are, they are not spiritual troglodytes. But if they would have been pleased to land me, there was never a glimpse of a net; the hours of talk were absolutely free of any proselytising. They have truly understood what Rajneesh meant by the words I quoted yesterday: “If you go to Hell willingly, you will be happy there; if you are forced into Paradise you will hate it.”

The joy with which they are clearly filled is, as anyone who listens to Rajneesh must deduce it would be, directed outwards as well as in; I cannot put it better than in saying that they constantly extend, to each other and to strangers, the hands of love, though without the ego-filled demands of love as most of the world knows it. They have shed their chains, and they demonstrated their freedom easily and unobtrusively, though the results at first can be startling; a young married couple I met spoke within ten minutes of a martial problem not usually discussed before strangers (or indeed at all), yet there was no exhibitionism or inverted vanity involved, only innocent naturalness of the nakedness in Eden before the fall.

They come not only from haunts of coot and hern, but from all over. I met an accountant, a journalist, a psychotherapist, a housewife, a farmer, a lecturer in Business Studies, among others. Few of them are pursuing their own professions on the ashram (the lecturer in Business Studies agreed cheerfully that there was not much call for such things chez Rajneesh) and those who live full-time on the premises or – for the place is very overcrowded – in Poona itself, are commonly assigned tasks which are themselves designed as part of the learning process, the point being that when an individual finds himself doing the floor-scrubbing with real joy, he is already a long way towards the goal.

Of course, everything that happens on the ashram is designed for the same purpose. The workshops are extensive and impressive; these are no fumbling amateurs messing about with batik and linocuts, but serious craftsmen turning out furniture, metal ware, silver inlaying, screen-printing and the like, of high quality. But the point is that almost all of them started without any skill at these trades. The further point is that they are all obviously happy in their work, and the point beyond that is that they would obviously still be happy if they were there doing something else entirely; this is not the story of people who discover an unsuspected talent in themselves, but one of the searchers who find in themselves something of which all talents, indeed all activities whatsoever, are gleaming reflections.

The encouragement of this discovery is also the purpose of the therapy groups and the various forms of “dynamic meditation”. Liberation from the ego must start with liberation from the layers of self-consciousness in which we are wrapped, as in the “Sufi dancing” (I don’t think Omar Khayyam would have noticed much of the Sufis’ teaching in it, mind you). This consisted of some simple (though not simply spontaneous) steps and movements, with constant change of partners and such exercises as pausing to look into the eyes of neighbours. I was dragged onto the floor by one of my new-found friends (“You don’t have to do anything!”) and even this limited experience of the disembarrassing process made me see its necessity and efficacy.

There is a jargon, of course. An experience is “heavy”: someone is “into” this or that technique; asked what he had been before coming to the ashram, one young man replied, not “a musician”, but “I moved in music energy”. Clearly, it had never occurred to any of the full-bearded, long-haired men that they were unconsciously trying to resemble Rajneesh: instead, there was much easy talk of the difficulty of shaving in cold water and the poor quality of Indian razor blades. (For that matter, it did not require psychic gifts to see that many of the women are plainly in love with Rajneesh.)

They are, as I say, free of doubt: but they wear their certainty like a nimbus, not a sword. A Canadian girl I met had an ease and naturalness that were like magic; she made me want to hug her; though I hardly need say I didn’t. (Only afterwards did I realize that if I had done so she would have taken the gesture for no more than it was: an innocent salute to her almost incredible vitality.) Even more relaxed was the formidable Laxmi, one of the only two people who ever see Rajneesh alone: she is the administrative head of the enterprise, and she glows with a force that nearly knocked me down. And she was the first to say, in answer to my questions to what Rajneesh was to them, that they regarded him as a God. I invited her to elaborate, and she willingly did: but if he is God, he is a very undeified one, and certainly in his discourses there is no hint of “Who say ye that I am?”, only a powerful sense that he is a conduit along which the vital force of the universe flows. (One of the ashram-dwellers, when I asked the same question – what do you regard Rajneesh as? – put it impressively in two words: “A reminder.”) But there is no doubt that Rajneesh is regarded, at the very least, of being possessed of psychic powers.

They are free of doubt;
but they wear their certainty
like a nimbus, not a sword.

He never now leaves his quarters, except for the morning discourse (the evening gatherings are held on a terrace abutting on to his room, and he has even given up his former practice of walking in his private garden; when I asked why he never looked in on the various groups to see how the work was going, the reply, immediate and without affectation, was, “But he does – only not in the body.” He speaks for himself at the daily discourses, of course and for the rest of the time Laxmi speaks for him. On my second visit, however, last week, I could almost have wished she had not, for she told me of his views that Mahatma Gandhi was wrong in his attempt to break the hideous grip of the caste system, to call the “Untouchables” Harijans, meaning “Children of God”, for this had the effect of boosting their ego – a remark which must rank high on anybody’s list of the dozen most ridiculous things ever said.

There is a constant talk of a move to the new ashram, for which planning permission is still being laboriously negotiated. This is to be so large that all the sannyasin who want to live on it will be able to do so, and it will be entirely self-supporting: I was even shown detailed coloured drawings of the projected layout and buildings. On my first visit I sensed or thought I did, that the whole project was chimerical, that the new ashram was to remain a dream, and that the dreaming was itself part of the technique, but on my second they insisted that the project was realistic and their intentions definite. I have heard the sannyasins’ temporary sojourn at the ashram (any come for a month or so at a time, often using their annual leave for the purpose) described as a holiday with remarkable therapeutic qualities, for I met no one who did not testify to the gains the experience had brought, and none who lacked the visible signs of such gains.

Is anything lost? I think not, but I am not quite certain. For some, perhaps, there is a softening of the wrong kind, a loss of definition, of individuality in the better sense. I found myself wondering how they would get on in the extreme situations, of privation or persecution, or even flung back into the pressures of the life the rest of us lead. Perhaps some would be unable to cope (but then, look at the numbers who are unable to cope right now, without having had any transformative experience). Certainly, they all feel secure – not in Rajneesh’s protection but in their own new-found wholeness.

Outside, too, there were reminders of a world elsewhere. In Poona I saw the reception after a Parsee wedding, opulent beyond imagining, set in a fairy-lit garden with Strauss waltzes amplified into the night, and a present-laden receiving line that stretched on for ever. I also saw the old man with a legless child, begging by the roadside, and the tents of sacking beneath the bridge nearby. Inside the tents could be glimpsed neatness and order among the pitiful possessions, a people still unbroken by poverty. To Rajneesh’s followers, the wedding-guests and the tent-dwellers are suffering the same spiritual wan, and so no doubt they are: but I think it will be some time before either group recognises the fact.

At the evening darshan Rajneesh initiated new sannyasin, discoursing beautifully and poetically to each on the theme of the new name he or she had acquired: he welcomed back with a huge and radiant smile and apt words of greeting, those who had been away; he gave a third group an extraordinary “energy-transfer”, pressing with his middle finger (like a violinist stopping a string) on the centre of their foreheads, over the “third eye”, in which experience reactions clearly varied from nothing at all to something close to convulsions: and he said an equally individual farewell to those who were leaving, ending in each case with the same formula, an inquiry as to their destination followed by the words, “Help my people there.”

Some would say they would do better to stay in Poona and help the tent-dwellers; some, more subtly, would argue that they should help the wedding-guests. Some, and on the whole I rather think I am one of them, would say that both arguments have missed the point of Rajneesh’s teaching, which is concerned to enable the individual to put himself right, since until that is done he can hardly hope to put others right. I came away, impressed, moved, fascinated by my experience of this man (or God, or conduit, or reminder) and the people (“be ordinary and you will become extraordinary”) around him. I came away, also, to a haunting fragment of time: beside the road leading to the ashram there was, in addition to the beggars, a peddler selling simple wooden flutes. As I passed him for the last time he was playing a familiar tune: how he had learnt it, what he believed it to be, I could not even begin to imagine. It was “Polly put the kettle on”.

© Times Newspapers Limited, 1980

After these three columns, two months later, Levin writes a fourth article:
A rather special kind of loving – Christo sent us an article by Bernard Levin that appeared in the British ‘Times’, describing the events that occurred in Buddha Hall on 22nd May 1980, and recounts his memories.

Read first part: Struck by enlightenment in Poona
Read second part: An extraordinary journey into the interior

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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