Top scientist’s candid story of an Orange People childhood

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A podcast with Australian top scientist, Archa Fox, about her sannyas childhood. Excerpts from two posts on Australian ABC News, May 5 and 22, 2021.

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Inage: Archa Fox (far left) and her sister were given new names and mala beads at their “taking sannyas” ceremony with guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. (Supplied: Archa Fox)

Duration: 25min 44sec
Broadcast: Sun 25 Apr 2021, 5:05pm
Guests: Dr Archa Fox, @AFox_Perth, Associate Professor. Molecular, cell and RNA-protein biologist, University of Western Australia

When pioneering Australian RNA biologist Archa Fox was a young child, her parents were drawn into the orbit of the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Like thousands of others searching for inner freedom and a new way of being, her family packed up their life and two kids to join the Orange People communes in India and Oregon as disciples.

Archa shares her candid, confronting story of what happened next and what she witnessed. What started as a spiritual movement eventually morphed into a cult. Did Archa find science because of – or despite – her early life?

Archa with mother and sister
Archa (right) with her sister and mother, entered the cult as Hannah. (Supplied: Archa Fox)

Idealistic hopefuls responded in their droves to become “Rajneeshees”, including Dr Fox’s father, then a philosophy lecturer at the University of Western Australia, and her mother, a modern dance teacher.

“I think they were trying to unravel both of their own backgrounds and histories,” Dr Fox says.

Her Jewish mother’s own childhood had been haunted by the nightmares and trauma of Holocaust survivors.

“She carried with her a lot of pain, intergenerational pain. I think she was looking to … find herself.”

Archa’s father had come across Bhagwan’s ashram while travelling in India and saw it as a liberation from his own “very stereotypical repressed, stiff upper lip, don’t-talk-about-emotions, intellectual” family.

“They were both seeking ways to break free from the confines of their upbringing,” Dr Fox says.

“My sister and I went along for the ride. [We] really didn’t have much choice in the matter.” […]

Archa Fox (far left) and her sister were given new names and mala beads at their “taking sannyas” ceremony with guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.(Supplied: Archa Fox)

“The name Archa, or Ma Deva Archa, was actually given to me by Bhagwan.”

Unlike the rest of her family, she has kept her name.

“It’s very much part of me now,” Dr Fox says.

Her very earliest memories are infused with fun, freedom, and the vibrant sounds and smells of India.

“Even though I’ve never yet gone back to India to visit, they’re so richly evocative,” she says.

“I liked chapati or roti bread spread with Vegemite that my grandmother would send us in packages from Australia.

“We did a lot of begging in the commune for little bits of spare change so we could buy ice creams and have rickshaw rides.”

She recalls no formal schooling arrangements.

“Somehow … I learnt to read, write and do basic maths,” Dr Fox says. […]

Archa and Husband
Archa Fox and her husband Charlie Bond are partners in life and work. As scientists, they collaborate on projects.(Supplied: Archa Fox)

Today, Dr Fox is married with two children.

She and her husband, Charlie Bond, also a scientist, collaborate on cell biology research at the University of Western Australia.

She thinks her path into science was partly influenced by growing up in the Orange People sect.

“I was encouraged to just explore whatever interested me. There was no real consideration about money, security, or needing to have a good job. It was very free in that sense.”

She powered through her final school exams and could have gone into medicine or law with her marks.

“I took a bit of pride in being unconventional, saying … I’m not going to actually use it to do something that people might expect,” she says.

“It’s an immense privilege to be able to go to work every day and essentially do what I love … to discover the way things work and hopefully help people as well.”

Her scientist mind was activated as a child in the ashram.

“I didn’t believe all those things that the adults believed. I was observing them … and I knew that was their choice to believe that,” she says.

“But it is interesting to me that there were so many adults who were not very scientific or rational or evidence-based in their approach.

“There was even talk about ‘the mind is wrong and it’s the heart that you need to listen to’.

“And then what do I do? I’ve become a scientist,” she smiles.

“I do think I have a tender heart and I’m a very loving person, but I rely on evidence that’s collected as opposed to vague spiritual notions.

“Actually, as a scientist, I’m comfortable with there being phenomena that we can’t explain, although I would probably say that we can’t yet explain it.”

It’s taken decades for Dr Fox to talk openly and freely about her past, and to embrace her story.

But despite the challenges of her childhood, she has no regrets.

“On the whole, the positives definitely outweigh the negatives for me,” she says.

“I do feel like I don’t need to be ashamed of this. It is just a part of my life story.

“It’s unusual. It’s different, but it is who I am as well.”

Prof Archa Fox
Archa Fox is now internationally renowned for her research into how RNA works in cells. (Supplied: Archa Fox)

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