Rage Against the New Age Machine: Three Days at the Osho International Meditation Resort

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I went to India searching for spiritual enlightenment. I found a neoliberal heaven that catered to my worst possible self.

That’s almost true. I took my journalism class to India this past spring to cover the role of religion in the recent election. I’d done similar trips before to Israel and Ireland, but this time I wanted the students to have more than a fleeting encounter with the religion they were covering.

During a previous trip to India, the class had visited one of Delhi’s Hanuman temples, where the synesthetic overload of traditional Hindu worship (yonis and lingams, flowers, sugary prasad, gongs and incense) had left a group of cerebral journalism students with no choice but simply to be.

On this trip, I wanted students to experience something like that before they started reporting. And for myself? I wanted a break, a chance to rest after a difficult year. My younger brother’s unexpected death had emptied me out, and desperate to fill the hole, I’d taken on too much work. A weekend retreat at an Indian ashram was my go-to fantasy, my hope for healing.

I had chosen Ananda and Osho for our three-day immersion because they were located near Mumbai and Westerner-friendly. In fact, both had developed an East-West hybridity that extended from Americans in key leadership roles to a spiritual eclecticism with room for Jesus, New Age and Zen. So after flying 20-plus hours from Los Angeles to Mumbai and driving another eight hours to Pune, I’d dropped half of the students at the rural Ananda retreat and alighted at Osho with the rest.

The Osho International Meditation Resort is an urban oasis: an integrated mix of dark, sleek geometric buildings and greenery. The eating patio opens onto a huge swimming pool landscaped to resemble a small lake. The lush environs promise harmony, peace and tranquility.

Unfortunately none of that was available on arrival. Coralling and cajoling students, even grownup ones, requires energy and the last bits of mine were drained before I “lost” the group at the Mumbai airport. After the nearly day-long flight, we still had a four-hour bus ride ahead of us. When we finally found each other, boarded the bus and found boxed breakfasts of chicken salad sandwiches, I relaxed a bit. That was premature. The bus driver went in circles, clocking eight hours to travel 95 miles. Arriving at Osho, my only goal was sleep. But the registrar at the Welcome Center had other plans. First check-in, then blood tests to insure we did not have AIDS, a lengthy registration and payment.

Although Osho’s guesthouse and “multiversity” accept credit cards, the registrar requires cash for the resort’s day passes, food and other amenities. Discovering that I lacked the rupees to cover the class’ costs, a serene blonde volunteer taxied me to an off-campus cash machine. Each time the ATM refused my request, my adrenaline surged. I knew Citibank could be unreliable, but why was a peace-and-love retreat tormenting me? Returning empty-handed, I vented loudly in the crowded check-in area. Eager to calm my rising and very public ire, the registrar allowed us to check in and told me to come back in the morning.

But before we could go to our rooms, we were taken to the Galleria, Osho’s one stop shop for toiletries, souvenirs and mandated resort wear—long maroon robes for daytime activities and white ones for the evening meeting. Tetchy from hunger, lack of sleep and recalcitrant ATMs, I grabbed whatever the salesclerk handed me barely registering that my students were modeling different styles. Two hours into my stay, I was not feeling the love.

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 12.56.12 PMIn his heyday, Osho (1931-1990) was less about love than the pursuit of happiness. Labeled the “sex guru” for what were liberal attitudes in 1960s India, Rajneesh, as Osho was known then, was equally contrarian on politics, economics, and religion. A fervent capitalist, he hailed science, denounced institutional Hinduism and encouraged followers to leaven their asceticism with sensual pleasure and material comfort. (His vision of the enlightened man was “Zorba the Buddha.”) In 1974, when he opened a center in Pune, Rajneesh’s teachings reflected his eclectic tastes. Culling inspiration from Zen, the human potential movement, Gurdjieff, and Christianity, the charismatic guru offered “dynamic meditations,” practices that included dancing, screaming, deep breathing, jumping, humming and spinning.

Americans and Europeans were attracted by Rajneesh’s idiosyncratic methods, but the Indian government was less enthused. Authorities thwarted the movement’s attempts to move to a larger property and denied visas to foreign acolytes. The center’s tax exempt status was rescinded, and religious leaders railed against Rajneesh’s heterodox teachings.

Faced with open hostility, the guru and his closest associates decamped from Pune to a 64,000-acre spread in Oregon. Dubbed Rancho Rajneesh, the commune was envisioned as the hub of a self contained city. When locals resisted the planned expansion, the Rajneeshiis (as disciples were called) tried subterfuge, then violence and bioterrorism to get their way. When all such efforts failed, the masses fled and the leaders faced imprisonment. With the aborted venture in disarray and looming charges of immigration fraud, Rajneesh made a plea bargain to leave the US. To this day, uncertainty shrouds the Oregon venture: What did Rajneesh know and what did his inner circle conspire secretly in his name?

Rajneesh returned to the Pune center in 1987 and later renamed himself “Osho,” an honorific title for a Buddhist priest. He enlarged the Pune property and called it Osho, too. The eponymous site, he decided, would be a multiversity and meditation resort, refocused on teaching and developing new meditative techniques. Whether a religious genius or a savvy entrepreneur, Osho anticipated the psychic rootlessness of 21st century cosmopolitan elites hungry for “something more” and happy to pay for it. The spiritual equivalent of Dylan’s Candy Bar, the retreat center’s enticing wares were culled from esoterica worldwide. Lord Buddha had a Bodhi tree, but Osho’s clientele could choose from tarot cards, horoscopes, aromatherapies, kabbalah classes, tantra and oh so much more.

Yet just as Osho, the center, was coming into its own, Osho, the man, died—too soon to savor a renewed enthusiasm for his teachings. By the 1990s, his mix-and-match style reflected Western tastes—it was spiritual but not religious (Osho called it a “religionless religion”), wildly eclectic, zealously materialistic and focused on individual well-being. Basic classes were open to all who paid a modest daily fee and key was the early morning “dynamic meditation,” an hour mash-up of heavy breathing, screaming, jumping and dancing.

The multiversity offered then, as it still does,  a wide range of spiritual, mystical, New Age and therapeutic teachings and practices. During our stay, guests could experience centering, energy balancing, massage, astrology, breathing, hypnosis, counseling, neo-Reichian bodywork and workshops on laughing and crying, seeking the feminine, primal feelings and family dynamics. Classes were an hour but courses could take weeks or months. Prices were consistent with similar offerings in New York or Los Angeles.

But I was unaware of either the multiversity’s curricula or its cost when I began my own journey of self-exploration. I was intent on paying my bill, attending orientation and returning my white robe for a perkier, more flattering style. The next morning, rupees in hand, I went to the Welcome Center. I had five minutes before our orientation session so when the registrar asked me to wait, I explained that I needed to get to my students. But he demurred, joining a tanned and tangle-haired young couple sitting at a computer. The three proceeded to navigate the check-in procedure.

I counted to ten, which only increased my agitation: now I’d lost another ten seconds. Orientation would start without me. Desperate, I marched to where the registrar sat with the tousled couple and spoke crisply and clearly, “I need to pay now.” The registrar looked surprised, the couple was startled and the rest of the room went silent. Oshoites do not speak loudly. They speak softly, and address each other as “friend.” No ego and no anger. My loud assertions violated a basic code of the center: rather than transcending my base self, I was wallowing in it.

From what I could see, Osho’s clientele were well-heeled seekers from across the globe. During the weekend, there were (mostly young) men and women from France, Italy, Germany, Russian, Israel, the U.S., Japan, Argentina and India. Some, like us, were there for a short stay, but others came to study at the multiversity for a week or even several months. Still others worked at the resort, supplying volunteer labor in exchange for courses.

Seekers came to Osho to satisfy their spiritual needs. Most wanted to find their best self. My need, I realized as I yelled at the registrar, was to channel my worst. I was already angry—why did my brother die, why must I work so hard, why wasn’t my husband sorrier to see me go—and primed to snap. Now something about Osho—its spiritual preciousness, regimented excess, brazen capitalism—threw me over the edge. I couldn’t just register, I had fill out forms, take an AIDS test, and rustle up cash. I couldn’t set my own schedule. I had to buy special clothes, eat at mandated times and attend an orientation.

Rather than the dream of a peaceful retreat I’d cherished for months, this was New Age fascism.

While other guests enjoyed the dissonances – a search for self set against a late-night bar scene, costly multiversity classes, and nightly videos of Osho’s rambling, racist and misogynist lectures, I felt like screaming. So I did.

I screamed at the Welcome Center and the registrar left the couple to take care of me. I screamed at the Orientation Center, and the staffers asked what I needed, I screamed at the woman sent to calm me down, and she promised help soon. Why was I feeling so much anger? I was jetlagged, check. I felt hassled, check. My brother was still dead, check.

But there was more. I was angry because Osho wasn’t living up to my fantasy. I expected paradise but landed at Wal-mart. Spirituality was packaged, experience was monetized, and consumers were expected to be docile. Idiosyncratic imperatives –rules on how to spoon food on plates, appropriate body odors, prohibitions on coughing and sneezing—were mandated. As a “guest” at Osho, I was expected to pay up and shut up.

I’m not naïve. Religious institutions and spiritual movements need money. I’ve paid for High Holiday tickets, passed the plate at church, and dropped bills into the basket at yoga class. But Osho’s opacity and its denial of the obvious (robes and shampoos, wine and brownies, books and videos were all moneymakers) bothered me.

My fuming was worthless. Orientation still started 45 minutes late. My students and I, packed into a classroom with 20 other guests, were led through a set of meditation exercises. We danced, spun, hummed, and took deep primal breaths. We looked like kindergarteners and felt like idiots. Pushed by the trainer, a white-haired Dutch woman, to shed the “I” that judges, we put on blindfolds to ease our freedom. Jumping and shouting “Hoo, Hoo,” we became other to ourselves. When I could see again, I realized that one student was missing and several others looked stunned.

Later at lunch, I stayed away from the members of the class. I didn’t want to join their chorus of complaints (crazy exercises, crazier rules), but neither could I defend what we’d seen, heard and done. It was easier to enjoy the food, stare at rich people and then take off for the Galleria. I’d schlepped the white robe, folded in its plastic bag, all morning. Finally I could exchange it for a nicer style. The clerk, an older American woman, told me that was impossible. The transaction was in the computer, there were no exchanges, and the rules had to be followed. I countered her every argument with my one of my own. I was tired and she had forced this on me. I didn’t like it. I hated it. I hadn’t even taken it out of the packaging.

Our exchange grew so heated that her co-worker, an Indian with the fierce bearing of Yogananda, joined us. He too, recited the rules, explaining the impossibility of my request.

But I was in a frenzy. I shook with the righteous fury of an innocent trapped by a capitalist cult masquerading as a “meditation resort.” “You say you are my friends,” I cried. “But this is not how a friend behaves.” The Indian gave me a long, hard look, “You are not a good person,” he hissed. Then he gave me the robe I wanted.

I told myself I’d beat the system. Not only did I have the robe I wanted but I’d pierced an Oshoite’s calm. It felt like a victory, albeit with a spiky edge.

I spent the next few hours in classes. I signed up for a psychic healing session at the multiversity. A waif-like Spanish woman led me to an attic aerie filled with small, colored bottles. I lay down on her table, closed my eyes, and she moved her hands above my body, sighing and making soft clicking sounds. I waited for a mysterious shift in my consciousness but I felt nothing. It would take several sessions to unblock my energy, she said. Would I like to come back tomorrow?

Now, months later, I’m unsure about why what happened next. On my way back to my dorm, I felt compelled to visit the Galleria. Finding Yogananda, I apologized for screaming at him. He must have assumed that I was on the path to my true authentic self because he smiled and asked if he could hug me. When he did, something broke inside me.

My grief and anger, loneliness and regrets remained. So did my frustration with Osho’s neoliberal haven. But none of it mattered as much. My brother was dead, but so was the fever dream of spiritual escape that had landed me in Pune. I had not found enlightenment, but I was awake.

  • Don

    I agree with the spiritual fascism label, but when the author says “later renamed himself “Osho,” an honorific title for a Buddhist priest,” I see we have a problem. Far from being honorific or a title of any Buddhist priest anywhere, this is the Sogdian-language version of the name of Shiva. Nothing less and nothing more. Of course, it’s obscure, and very likely that was why he picked the name for himself. He never eschewed obfuscation.

  • Mo Kip

    So sorry about your little brother. ;-(

  • Swami Bhajan

    too bad you didn’t have more time to enjoy the ashram and take more therapy groups and maybe meet some more nice locals.

  • andrew123456789

    Interesting article from a self-growth perspective. Not sure why such an nonrepresentative destination was selected for teaching students about the religion that informed that on which they were reporting, but I realize that’s not the point of this essay.

  • Northern_Witness

    An interesting article that filled some gaps for me.

    Osho aka Sri Rajnneesh was a major cult leader in the US in the 80’s. He promoted free love and thus became hugely popular. He ran a commune in Oregon that was patrolled by armed guards. Rajneesh and his ashram was under investigation for multiple felonies including arson, attempted murder, drug smuggling, and vote fraud in the nearby town of Antelope as Rajneesh tried to take over the town.

    Rajneesh attempted to flee the U.S. but was apprehended shortly before takeoff in his private plane loaded with gold.

    In 1985 Rajneesh pleaded guilty to immigration fraud and was deported from the United States. He was refused entry by 21 countries before being accepted by India and fleeing to his new ashram in Pune, India, again complete with armed guards. Because of AIDS the
    newly incarnated Osho changed his message away from free love.

    In 1990 Osho died under mysterious circumstances, some say, he was poisoned by his key supporters so that they could get their hands on his books, tapes, etc and make vast sums of money.

    Does anyone have any thing spiritually to learn from Osho’s manipulative theories? I think not.

    All this info on Osho/Rajneesh is widely available at the click of a mouse. It makes me wonder why anyone who was responsible for a group of students would not do their due diligence prior to going there. A little prior effort would have enabled the students and the author to gain a better understanding of India and its religions by visiting a different ashram.

  • Michelle

    So well articulated is this report- I laughed and then smiled, then wept a little. Everything reported is familiar to me, though I’ve never been to India, I have spent time at an Ashram, and have also lost loved ones. i still meditate, often sit with Zen monks, do a regular gentle yoga asana practice, and sometimes chant with Hindu and American chanters. The practices continue to aid me in balancing the universal challenges of living a human life. i wish you well and thank you for this very fine sharing.

  • joeyj1220

    the students may have know this… not going to visit and do academic research on it because of the kookiness and criminal behavior of the deceased leader is like saying you shouldn’t visit the Vatican because numerous popes (and even current curia members) were vile and corrupt with financial ties to the mafia

  • Northern_Witness

    Good point on the students finding out about Osho/Rajneesh for themselves but, in the final analysis, it is the responsibility of the teacher. Think of the legal liability and damage to the institution’s reputation if one of the students had come to harm or was defrauded or brainwashed there.

    Also, it is not just Osho who was corrupt. His followers were also corrupt. The current crop enjoy an easy life thanks to the sale of Osho/Rajneesh books. Don’t forget that for them Osho is the Guru. Those who follow his example and suggestions will similarly be corrupted. Others will be unwitting abettors.

  • joeyj1220

    You’re falsely acting on the assumption that the students weren’t taught this info before they left. A huge assumption on your part. And so what if the followers enjoy the “easy life thanks to the sale of Osho/Rajneesh books”?? Every time I’ve gone to Disney World, folks were making money left and right off the works and ideas of a dead animator. Name one “tourist” destination that doesn’t do as much. I still go back to my earlier analogy of the Vatican; people make tons of money from that corrupt place. I have no desire nor inclination to go to a New Age ashram as I always suspected it was hooey sold for a profit, but it’s a bit disingenuous to hold one “spiritual” retreat center to any loftier goal than you would any other.

  • Northern_Witness

    The point is that the suspicion is that Rajneesh was murdered by his own followers precisely because of the treasure represented by the sales of his books.

    This “ashram” is an ashram in name only. Others are much more authentic and spiritually significant. Your comments about ashrams demonstrate your ignorance

  • Jim Reed

    Some people respond to spiritual enlightenment more than others. When the Beatles went to India Paul couldn’t get into it and left, but John was inspired to write some great music, Dear Prudence and Sexy Sadie.

  • Harry McNicholas

    What a sham. Americans can be dumb as rocks.

  • Harry McNicholas

    Jim. I doubt John Lennon experienced enlightenment but just had got some good ideas for some songs. Lead Belly also wrote some great songs but he never went to India.

  • Harry McNicholas

    Kind of a little of everything and nothing of one.

  • Harry McNicholas

    Sounds to me like some good reasons not to go to the Vatican. I suppose it would be alright if I attended a Nazi rally. Heck Hitler is dead and we shouldn’t blame current Nazis for what Hitler did.

  • Harry McNicholas

    If you knew about the background of this organization, why would you go? Also, Disney World is not conning into thinking it is some religious site. Who is holding the Vatican up except you?

  • Harry McNicholas

    Have you ever considered to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps? Have you considered just to save yourself instead of relying on some phony guru? No?

  • Harry McNicholas

    Why is she mentally ill? There are nice local people also in the U.S. and in every country on the planet.

  • Jim Reed

    It was more than just good ideas. It was inspiration from exposure to the ways of Maharishi (Sexy Sadie as written by George).

  • Jim Reed

    Enlightenment, don’t know what it is. (Van Morrison)

  • Jim Reed

    It is what we do with our superpowers.

  • Jim Reed

    We know that, but I think Diane is trying to tell us something here in this article, or maybe tell herself? You have to look below the surface.

  • Sloppiest use of the term ‘neoliberal’ I’ve ever seen.

  • Ledbelly didn’t inspire mass murder though, so that’s another point for The White Album era Beatles.

  • joeyj1220

    Did you hear me “hold” the Vatican up??? I simply said people go to visit the Vatican as tourists. And I’d imagine they do it for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with religion. As an atheist, I visited the Vatican when I was in Rome because I have an interest in Renaissance art and history.

  • Jim Reed

    Here’s another clue for you all. That was Paul.

  • Jim Reed

    The whole point of so many religions is every one can accuse the others of being nonrepresentative as needed. Maybe that was DIane’s point? If you want to search for the ultimate religion, you can probably save a lot of time by just starting at the top and going to India where it is totally screwed up, then you can be done with it.

  • Jim Reed

    The whole point of being a current Nazi is they want to enjoy being blamed. It is not a political movement. They just like that history.

  • Harry McNicholas

    Sorry but it was John Lennon who got into it. He did write some good songs as did Paul. It had nothing to do with enlightenment. Also, I do not think that the Beatles in anyway inspired mass murder.

  • Harry McNicholas

    No just good ideas. All good ideas are inspired but sorry being inspired is not enlightenment. Instead of the Buddha, the Maharishi should be compared to the Wolf of Wall Street.

  • Harry McNicholas

    I think you need to study the issue Don. Osho is a name for not a Buddhist Priest but for a Buddhist monk of long practice in Japan. Look it up.

  • Harry McNicholas

    When you write something, write what you mean and mean what you write.

  • Harry McNicholas

    If Old Van had studied Buddhism a bit he would know what is enlightenment.

  • Jim Reed

    I don’t think that either, but Helter Skelter is from Paul, and that must be what the Manson reference was to.

  • Jim Reed

    That is easy to say, but not easy to accomplish on a religion site. We have been trying for half a dozen years, and probably making great progress, but everything still seems obscure. Religion in America still has a lot of years to go.

  • Jim Reed

    I think he got sidetracked by Christianity.

  • Jim Reed

    I think that was the point of John’t song, “you’ll get yours yet”. It seemed inspired to me.

  • Harry McNicholas

    All song writers are inspired including Lennon and Lead Belly plus Mozart.

  • Harry McNicholas

    Because some nut group takes a song written by someone does not mean the song writer is guilty of inspiring a group of nuts.

  • Big Mike

    *sweeps entire literary canon off the table.

  • zohaib hashmi

    woow. what a movement on picture
    crackeygen