Friday, September 10, 2010

What to think about Rajneeshpuram?

The Oregonian recently ran an interesting Q&A with Win McCormack, author of The Rajneesh Chronicles: The True Story of the Cult That Unleashed the First Act of Bioterrorism on U.S. Soil that's recently been re-released. Unlike the vast majority of article comments that I've read, the comments to this particular article are actually thought-provoking, and I recommend that you read them.

(For a bit more background on the Rajneeshees, Carl Abbott wrote the Oregon Encyclopedia entry "Rajneeshees.")

I don't quite know what to think about Rajneeshpuram . . .

One of the most fascinating dynamics of people's views and experiences of Rajneeshpuram that I haven't yet reconciled in my own mind is characterized by comparing two statements from the Oregonian piece. First, in response to the question "Did Rajneesh believe in anything?" McCormack says:
    Oh no, no, no. He actually didn't hide the fact that for him it was all a joke; that was part of his message. He said at one point, "This is my circus, and I enjoy it."
McCormack was then asked a follow-up question, "One might appreciate the comic imagery of his driving one of his 96 Rolls-Royces around the ranch by day, and huffing nitrous oxide by night," to which he replied:
    He did. I actually saw it afterwards. I went on a tour of the place. I saw his nitrous oxide machine. It was right next to his bed.
Additionally, the Rajneeshee leadership was accused of attempted murder, arson, poisoning, and wiretapping.

In response to these charges, Bhagawati writes "To imply that a religious group was responsible for the crimes of a few is so like the people who hate Moslems, Catholics, Protestants, because they dislike the actions of a few," and follows this with a defense of some of McCormack's claims and a call for religious tolerance in general.

I'd like to put aside for the moment extremist anti-Rajneesh sentiment of whatever kind to focus on what to me are the more interesting questions:

First, the Rajneeshee leadership did commit crimes. Bhagawati asks us not to tarnish the entire community with these crimes. However, where are outside observers such as myself supposed to draw the line of complicity? The leadership existed to gather and keep together the community, provide for infrastructure, provide for spiritual guidance, etc. The community supported the leadership by giving money, time, energy, etc. I'm not sure how Rajneeshpuram's governance was structured, specifically regarding the levels of input that community members had on the leadership -- how open & democratic was the community?

If community members were unaware of the crimes at the time, in part because of an unrepresentative governance structure, then they could hardly have objected to the actions & crimes of the leadership, and could not justifiably be associated with the crimes. This would be modified somewhat if the community members voluntarily gave up their agency in a less-than-democratic system in exchange for Rajneesh's guidance and oversight from the leadership; I would not consider claims of voluntarily giving up agency an absolution for some level of complicity in the crimes of the leadership (see, for example, the Hannah Arendt's thoughts on the "banality of evil" and the so-called "Nuremburg defense").

If the community members later became aware of the crimes, whether or not they gave up their agency in getting involved in the community, I would expect that they would admit to some level of complicity in having supported a leadership that was committing crimes. I've heard at least one former Rajneeshpuram member claim that the Rajneesh didn't know that Sheila and the others were committing crimes; that's all well and good, if it's true or not. However, I, as a white American, can admit to the egregious moral outrage of slavery that my forebears (direct and otherwise) were responsible for. As a member of the American community, I'm less fully self- and culturally-aware if I don't admit to the outrages of slavery, slaughter of Native Americans, wars of imperialism, etc. I'm not saying that there are not great benefits that I enjoy as an American, and I'm not suggesting that there were not some amazing and positive elements of Rajneeshpuram, but I do expect some form of this kind of awareness and honesty from the Rajneeshees.

Second: I've heard this from the former Rajneeshpuram member I referred to above, and it's alluded to in both McCormack & Bhagawati's responses, but I have a hard time understanding how someone who claims to be so thoroughly enlightened could have owned so many Rolls Royce cars and could have surrounded himself with such criminals. I consider both to be extremely morally suspect, which undermines my ability to have respect for his actions.

What I mean by "morally suspect" here is that the money wasted on those cars could have (should have, I would argue) gone to alleviating poverty, educating those in need, providing goods and services to children and families, building infrastructure in under-served areas, setting up grant and scholarship programs, etc., etc. Instead, the supposedly "enlightened" Rajneesh wasted the money on the most base and reprehensible kind of conspicuous consumerism. Also, if the Rajneesh were so "enlightened," how did he not know that the hearts and minds of some of his key lieutenants were so warped?

These contradictions simply don't make sense to me -- I do not understand how an "enlightened" person could act this way. OshoLover entreats us to look at McCormack's face as an example of someone who is "poisoning others minds and keeping them away from a gem like Osho [Rajneesh]" (an unnecessary and ad hominem attack, by the way). I would counter this with the example of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is not driving around in 96 Rolls Royce cars, nor surrounding himself with criminals. When I hear people defend the Rajneesh, I'm reminded of the lesson of Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night: One must be careful about how one portrays one's self in the world, because, eventually, one may very well become that portrayal through-and-through.

If Rajneeshpuram community members individually had a great time, this doesn't exonerate their leadership, and that, in turn, taints the entire movement to some degree, appeals to religious and cultural tolerance notwithstanding. For example, not every Catholic priest is a pedophile, but because the Catholic leadership from the Pope on down enabled the kind of secrecy and anti-democratic hierarchy that fostered pedophilia through the fundamental structure of their system, the institution of Catholicism is, in fact, tarnished (whether or not Catholics want to hear this doesn't make it any less true); similarly, not every American made the decision to wage illegal and unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, but all of us Americans are tainted to some degree by these actions, whether we like it or not.

If Rajneeshpuram community members individually had a great time, but gave up their agency to be involved in the community, this also doesn't excuse them from some complicity in the crimes of the leadership.

In conclusion, I'll leave you with a thought experiment. I want to turn around Bhagawati's call for religious tolerance around: Just because a given individual does not perpetuate the worst aspects of her or his belief system does not exonerate that person from these aspects of the belief system. Belief systems are not inherent, they are learned. Many people aren't aware that they beliefs they hold are contingent on history and culture, and to varying degrees on choice. This lack of awareness doesn't make it any less true, however. If a person associates themselves with a given belief system, they must be ready to take the positive parts of that system with the negative parts of that system; otherwise, they're not fully conscious.



  1. James
    Nice post. Honest questions. You have surely windows of your heart open and that is all Osho needs.
    Judas was the closest disciple of Jesus.But still Jesus could not make him a good person. Judas was a criminal and we know very little of
    Judas's full crime list now. Do you want Judas to represent Jesus now?

    Concentrate of good things about Osho. Read atleast once this blog

  2. It is not the case that individuals within the Rajneesh cult had a great time, Bhagawati's claims to the contrary. I have written several times about Bhagwan; I also visited the ranch (albeit in 2004, long after the Rajneshees were gone). For more on life there, I recommend "The Promise of Paradise," by Satya Bharti Franklin, who joined Bhagwan in Pune (leaving her three young children in Westchester), becoming his ghostwriter, and following him to Antelope, where she became disillusioned, with cause.

    To ask whether Bhagwan is enlightened is, I think, a question that has no real meaning. We can accumulate knowledge and wisdom and bring that to others in our works and our works, good begetting good and etcetera. Those who follow(ed) Bhagwan (or any charismatic figure, from Ching Hai to Stalin to Joseph Smith) do so for many reasons, chief amongst them that they long to be part of something larger than themselves, something that they are told will build a better world, and if it devolves into less than that; if compromises must be made, perhaps, they are made to believe, these are the price, the necessary sacrifices. The arc of every cult is about the same; they either end badly, or they gain real traction and become, say, Catholicism.

    It surprises me not at all that people still believe that Bhagwan was a font of goodness; the facts do not muddy their devotion; to do so would call too much into question. Better to dig in and make unbelievers the enemy. Such is human nature. The divide between living that way, and the way of unbelievers, of which I am strongly one, can perhaps not be breached, and it doesn't interest me very much to try. What does interest me, and always, is to expose the charlatans and sociopaths amongst us, and let the reader make his choice.

  3. Nancy Rommelmann
    Osho was not one of the charlatans. Do not put Osho in the same basket as "Ching Hai to Stalin to Joseph Smith.. bla bla". Osho is unlike any others. With Osho, A new age of humanity is born. Have you ever heard a charlatan person saying "I am Sex Guru", "God is dead","I am super materialistic",using F word thousand of times etc.
    Osho never cared about respectability. Osho had the courage to stand against the very popular beliefs. He had the courage to speak against all the organized structures.
    He had the courage to speak against Budha in Nepal. He had the courage to speak against Jesus in chrisian countries..against Krishna in India.
    Osho is the last person to come into the category of charlatans.
    Also remember Osho is not a cult like Christianity. Osho is not even a religion. It is a revolution of real religiousness.

    You claimed to know lot of Osho. You always approached Osho as a outsider. You never opened your heart. It is useless to go to an ocean unless you are in swimming suit.. Come out of your formal ideas and show some love for unknown...

  4. OpenMinded & Nancy, thanks for the comments -- you've both provided more productive food for my thoughts.

    The discussion threads on the Oregonian page and here brings seems somewhat similar to a dynamic that I've been focused on recently. This dynamic involves people holding beliefs regardless of evidence to the contrary. I've blogged about it here -- however, the questions I have regarding Rajneeshpuram (and religion generally) do not correlate precisely with this linked blog post, for at least one reason: I'm not always interested in the reasons why someone believes or does not believe in God, or Allah, or Zeus, etc., but why people believe or disbelieve things even in the face of hard evidence contrary to their beliefs. Continuing to believe that Pres. Obama wasn't born in the U.S., for example, or the frustrating occurrence during the Bush II administration when the majority of Americans believed that Iraq had anything at all to do with the Sept. 11 attacks.

    So, regarding Rajneeshpuram, this blog post was an attempt to square the idea of "enlightenment" with actions and results that seem extremely and egregiously unenlightened.

    OpenMinded refers to the story of the relationship between Jesus and Judas. I don't think this analogy works. I don't see the connection between this example and Rajneeshpuram because, according to the story, Jesus led an ascetic life in which he renounced material goods and committed himself to public service. Judas gave Jesus up, and Jesus voluntarily went to the cross. Osho, on the other hand, wasted money on material goods rather than spend money on the social good, and when the crimes of his lieutenants came to light, he left the country rather than accept responsibility. I don't personally believe that Jesus, if he existed, was "the only begotten son of God," etc. (as stated in the Nicene Creed), but even as a functional mythological construct (in the sense that Joseph Campbell articulated), the Jesus story and the Osho story are drastically different.

    I want to make it perfectly clear here that I'm still not trying to disparage individuals or belief systems here. I find myself fully in the camp of those who do not believe in deities of any kind nor follow any spiritual leaders. At the same time, I have no interest in speaking ill of those who do. What I am interested in, however, is learning more about how people with certain belief systems can square their beliefs with actions in the physical world that seem in such contradiction to their stated beliefs.

    On this, Nancy writes "The divide between living that way [i.e., devoted to a given belief system], and the way of unbelievers, of which I am strongly one, can perhaps not be breached." Perhaps she's correct, because it seems like such a wide chasm. Nancy then adds that "it doesn't interest me very much to try" to breach this divide. I still find myself trying to breach this, in some way . . . because I'm a glutton for punishment, I suppose!

  5. To be clear: I am equal parts fascinated and enraged by this divide, and on balance find myself exploring it a great deal. Like you, I am constitutionally unable to be swayed by gurus and other sociopaths (Win McCormack's statement to the contrary, that we will not recognize our own special charasmatic leader when we see him). But trying to convince those who do believe, that they are abetting foolishness and worse; this doesn't seem to do much good, as we have seen in some of the comments. (As my father used to facietiously say, "Don't confuse me with the facts.")

    One comment I found particularly benighted is the idea that followers would never, upon command from Rajneesh, have flung themselves into the crematorium. Rajneesh many times directed female followers to abort their babies, but first, to spend a few weeks getting to know the fetus; to bond with it, and then abort, and get sterilized in the process. And they did. They made sure, on Rajneesh's orders, that their generation ended with them. We know why he ordered as much; children leeching, as they do, love and devotion and time, the connections Rajneesh himself needed to remain the god-head. If some Rajneeshees were willing to sever all biological times with the future, I see it as a very small step, had Rajneesh asked, to sacrificing their mortal lives.

  6. "But trying to convince those who do believe, that they are abetting foolishness and worse . . ."

    Yes, this is a conundrum I've experienced for a long while, and continue to experience. It's one thing to believe in X, Y, and Z, but it's quite another thing when those beliefs shade into anti-civil rights campaigns, support for illegal invasions, murder, etc., or whatever the case may be.

    Truth be told, I haven't yet read extensively about the Rajneeshees. However, I did just take a few minutes to check out the pro-Osho side, and The latter source asserts much but doesn't provide any references, so I wouldn't be able to follow-up with any part of what is asserted.

    The former source, at least in the post "Christopher Calder, Krishna Christ and his Lying or Misinformed 'Lost Truth'," does contain copious references. According to this latter source, Osho is said to have admitted that Sheela and others committed crimes, and to have taken responsibility for this stuff. Regarding the Rolls Royce cars, this post also asserts that Osho purchased these "to make a joke out of American consumerism."

    I find myself still disagreeing with wasting money on those fancy cars, and not comprehending the mindset that makes people lose themselves in the midst of charismatic figures. I can read on the Internet the words of people who are convinced that Osho was even better than Jesus, the Buddha, Gandhi, etc., etc., but it's not in my constitution to lose myself in the veneration of others. I can read claims that Osho faced up to the allegations in one way or another, but unless I check on the sources cited myself, I won't really know for sure.

    I find myself right back where I started: On one side of the chasm, looking across the divide at others with views completely alien to mine. This is why I'm an urban environmental historian and not a theologian, I suppose -- in the work I do, issues are much more amenable to quantitative analysis, communal dialogue, empirical debate, and political compromise. With spirituality, things seems always to dissolve into the aether.

    In any event, thanks for the virtual conversation, Nancy & OpenMinded!