I’ve watched up to episode 4 of the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country. Every episode is an education and a test of my willingness to be honest and open. I’m learning new things about what happened, and it’s eye-opening to hear the version that is being presented, in great part by those that my friends within the cult?/movement? would consider the ‘villains of the piece’ – sannyasins like Sheela and Shanti B. The full story, the story of every one of those thousands of sannyasins who lived and worked at Rajneeshpuram, is not being told in the series, let alone the story of those who could never fit in in such a rigid structure as existed at ‘The Ranch’ as we called it.
Anyone who remembers the London sannyas scene of the late 1980s will remember how many sub-sects there were after ‘The Commune’ (the globe-spanning network of official communities run along the same lines as Rajneeshpuram) collapsed. There were the people that continued in the same vein, practising meditations and visiting the Pune ashram regularly, there were the followers of various star therapists such as Veeresh or Teertha, there were the bonkers ones for whom the parties, the celebrating, the music and the drugs were at least as important as the meditation and the darshan. The brilliant and beautiful thing about Osho and sannyas was that there was room for everyone to join: it was a wide, a very wide path.
In 1983, my parents were veterans of several ‘movements’ – the Socialist Worker’s Party, radical feminism, CND, Greenpeace and primal therapy, the new enthusiasm for Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was not an alien concept to our family; it was just the next thing that my parents got interested in and then passionate about. It involved various new behaviours that were mortifying to the 12-, 13- and 14-year-old me: changing your name for a Sanskrit one, wearing only shades of red, orange and pink, wearing the ‘mala’ (a necklace of 108 wooden beads representing the 108 forms of meditation and suspending a ‘locket’ with a picture of Bhagwan), at all times. There was the ‘Dynamic‘ meditation in the morning (although my parents practised a ‘silent’ version, kids who went to my school could hear the strains of the ‘Indian music’ that comprised the last stage as they passed our house in the mornings), ‘Kundalini‘ at night. But whatever, we had always been a weird family, and this was just a bit more Hilton oddness. I enjoyed visiting Medina, the English commune in a large faux-Tudor manor house in Suffolk, which was also the site of the school for all the commune kids from across Europe. I liked those kids – for one thing, none of them wanted to punch me, unlike kids in London. I was tempted to take sannyas myself, but I could not countenance being told what to wear.
By the summer of 1985, my parents had decided that they wanted to go to join Rajneeshpuram, the giant commune situated in the Oregon back country. I was very torn. I am not naturally a big ‘joiner’ and also I treasure my alone time; the idea of living in a commune was very challenging. But equally, I loathed my life in London; I was depressed, lonely and feeling harrassed to the point of despair at school and, even though I was a star pupil, I was skipping school about half the time. Suffice it to say, I wanted to leave the life I had, but not particularly for the prospect of Rajneeshpuram. I tried to convince myself it would be like the Prince song Paisley Park, which I listened to over and over that summer.
The sale of our house and its contents had been finalised, the visa forms filled out, we’d gotten rid of all our possessions save two small cardboard boxes of stuff each – we were very much on our way to the commune, when, in September 1985, Sheela fled the Ranch with a group of her cronies and the whole structure came crashing down, sort of in slow motion. Bhagwan was arrested in October and then left the States, never to return. There seemed no reason to travel to Rajneeshpuram now. Instead we travelled and lived in communes and slept on floors for six months. In February 1986 we were in Bali. I was 14 years old and stuck indoors with second-degree burns from the sun (I am not at all suited to tropical climates!) and had run out of reading materials. I read an article in The Rajneesh Times and like a bolt from the blue, knew that I had to take sannyas, I had to join in: the words I’d read were a perfect reflection of a peak spiritual experience I’d had aged 12, a feeling I missed greatly and wanted more of.
I honestly feel like being a sannyasin gave me a life, a chance to be happy. I never met Bhagwan, who later renamed himself ‘Osho’. I read his words and I listened to them with the zeal and passion of a true devotee, though. I was transformed by the master-disciple relationship which is so dependent on the quality and sincerity of the disciple, not just of the master. I basked in the love, the warmth, the wisdom and the crazy of sannyasins. Aged 17 and 18 I lived in a commune that was like a miniaturised version of Rajneeshpuram – there were no guns or poisonings, but there was every type of power play and life was lived at a pitch of intensity rarely seen outside of military basic training. There was rat-packing and love-bombing, boot-licking and camaraderie and very little sleep. I took part in all that with the purest of intentions. I wanted to push myself spiritually and therapeutically. I wanted to gain ‘enlightenment’. I wanted to help the whole world gain enlightenment. And I look back upon those times with a mixture of pleasure, pride and regret. I learned deep and often painful lessons; I also made friends that will be with me for life.
I watch Wild Wild Country now, no longer a desperate teen but a well-educated woman with 46 years of life experience, and I am delighted by the energy, the talent and the sheer hard work that people put into building Rajneeshpuram. I’ve seen sannyasins put similar energy and effort into so many other ventures – businesses and communities and parties and houses. I don’t know of many other groups or movements who try for community, ecology, spirituality, fun, adventure, luxury, beauty and cleanliness all at once. It’s a unique blend that I’m proud to uphold. I am heartbroken that this ambitious project could have been so side-tracked by power issues. I’m annoyed that both the programme-makers and the interviewees present those thousands of sannyasins as one homogeneous lump of humanity. And then I’m furious at the way the homeless people were treated and used. I feel very strongly that the guns were a terrible idea, one that I could never have supported. I see one person after another refusing to take responsibility for the awful things that they did.
I have always felt that the lesson I learned in the London commune and the lesson of Rajneeshpuram was the same: power, even a tiny amount of power, can be a corrupting influence. No-one is immune! The baby-boomers who flocked to sannyas saw themselves as opposed to the mores and the wars of the previous generation but recreated a fascist-type state when left to their own devices. It was a great and daring experiment and one of the things it proved beyond doubt was that it’s not being a man, being white, or wearing a suit, that makes you go power-mad and lose your compassion.
No-one spoke truth to to power, or if they attempted it, they were ejected. And I think that all leaders need to keep truth-speakers near them. Like the Roman emperors during their Triumphal processions, all leaders, gurus, CEOs, rock stars, anyone in a position of power and adulation, needs someone standing behind them, whispering constantly in their ear ‘You are only human, you are only human’. In that, Osho let us down. I do not hold him responsible for the sickness and tragedy at Rajneeshpuram – all the adult sannyasins involved have to take responsibility for what happened and their decision to ‘go along’ with those horrible plots and schemes. Perhaps there is no duty of care for a Zen master – one who may kill you in order to bring you to enlightenment. But I am disappointed that Osho did not employ that whisperer, even just for himself. Because he was only human, after all.