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Life as Celebration

HOT columnist Sean O’Shea reflects on the life and times of the controversial Indian religious teacher Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931-1990) and his movement known as Rajneeshism.  In part 1 he introduces us to the Rajneesh phenomenon and describes its origins in the swinging sixties.

Failure is an occupational hazard for those who would be gods and charisma, whether spiritual or political, tends to decline over time either through corruption or misadventure. Charismatic leaders who cannot demonstrate enduring success become tarnished and eventually lose their lustre and appeal. Such is the tragi-comic story of Bhagwan (the Blessed One) and the movement he founded known as Rajneeshism.

There were those, not least Bhagwan himself, who denied that there ever was such a ‘movement’. However, what is beyond controversy is that there was a cultural phenomenon instigated by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh which developed in Pune in India in the seventies, swept across the western world, led to the establishment of meditation centres in major cities, outraged local communities, and turned a significant number of the educated youth of the period into smiling, orange-robed devotees of life as celebration.

There has been a fashionable tendency to condemn or dismiss Bhagwan as a power-crazed, sex-obsessed, demonic figure out to expropriate his followers of whatever funds and resources they possessed. There were also those who viewed him as one of the greatest spiritual leaders of the later part of the twentieth century, if not of all time, and who persist in an exclusively devotional attitude towards him in spite of all evidence of his failings. The truth, if it ever gets fully revealed, is probably somewhere between these extremes.

My main objective however is not to pass judgement on the man. I want to provide a perspective on the movement as an experiment in intentional community building, place it in its historical context and report on my personal experience of it, particularly through my participation in activities at the Medina commune in the hamlet of Herringswell, Suffolk, England.

Secondly I want to comment on aspects of the politics and psychology of the movement.

In the sixties many on the democratic socialist left imagined that their particular vision of the good society would prevail. The opposite happened and a radical individualism espoused by religious, political and market fundamentalists came to dominate the social, political and ideological landscape. Rajneeshism, with its gospel of free love and its communitarian and apparently libertarian philosophy would not immediately be placed in this category. However, on close inspection, there were characteristics associated with it which we would now regard as defining features of fundamentalism.

Cultural background – the swinging sixties

In the sixties and seventies a widespread disenchantment developed with traditional religion, conventional politics, and the materialistic, technocratic, and in the USA, increasingly militaristic state.  It was an era of radical politics, social experimentation, rebellion and ferment on many fronts which Theodore Roszak labelled the counterculture in his book of the same name.

There were civil rights marches, anti-war and anti-racist demonstrations, and protests against environmental degradation. Second-wave feminism continued the debate over women’s role in society and there was a struggle for legal and cultural equality. There were attempts to develop more holistic approaches to the organisation of health, society, the environment and the economy.

The attitude of many of the baby boomers towards their parental generation was summed up by Philip Larkin in his famous poem This Be The Verse:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had,
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn,
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern,
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

As an alternative to conventional family life some people were attracted to the idea of communal living and transitional communities of both a secular and religious nature, and co-operative ventures of various sorts, flourished for a time in city and countryside.

A significant minority of young people and some dissident elders became interested in the possibility of human development beyond the conventional, conformist, alienated workaday world. And there was a growing interest in the pursuance of more joyful and celebratory lifestyles where one’s full creative potential might be realized and expressed.

A number of alternative education centres such as the Esalen Institute in California and the Quasitor Centre in London were founded in response to this need. These centres offered encounter groups, rebirthing, primal therapy, gestalt and other therapies designed to help people get more in touch with their bodies and feelings, remove emotional blockages, and achieve a deeper sense of relatedness to themselves, others and the cosmos.

There was also a darker side to this enterprise. Some of the groups and therapies promised quick individual fixes to complex life issues. The mantra was that we all create our own reality! From here it follows that we also create our own misfortunes, so if you were ill or poor or lived in difficult circumstances it was your own fault and you deserved no pity. Meantime many dollars were exchanging hands and some people were making a hell of a lot of bucks.

It was also the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and the ready availability of contraception liberated people to explore their sexuality. Furthermore, experimentation with hallucinogens and mind-expanding drugs both licit and illicit stimulated an interest in eastern mysticism and the pursuit of ‘peak experiences’. This need was responded to by an influx of Swamis from the east promising enlightenment now. The Beatles engaged the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of transcendental meditation (TM) as a spiritual teacher. However, their association with him was short-lived, and illusion was quickly transformed into disillusion, with Lennon writing a song about the experience which included the lines:

What have you done? You made a fool of everyone.

Buoyed up by a temporarily flourishing economy, investment in welfare and low unemployment, a sense of optimism prevailed, particularly amongst the young. When one takes account of this swinging, social and cultural milieu, one is drawn to the conclusion that if the Bhagwan didn’t exist, he would have had to be invented.
And to an extent he was invented by his own followers.

As this story unfolds it will become clear that the sometimes omnipotent and sometimes hapless guru became a screen upon which the needs, hopes and illusions of thousands of his followers were projected.

August 22, 2012

Posted 19:42 Saturday, Aug 25, 2012 In: SOS

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