Osho (11 December 1931 – 19 January 1990), born Chandra Mohan Jain, and also known as Acharya Rajneesh from the 1960s onwards, as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh during the 1970s and 1980s and as Osho from 1989, was an Indian mystic, guru, and spiritual teacher who garnered an international following.
A professor of philosophy, he travelled throughout India in the 1960s as a public speaker. His outspoken criticism of socialism, Mahatma Gandhi and institutionalised religions made him controversial. He also advocated a more open attitude towards sexuality: a stance that earned him the sobriquet “sex guru” in the Indian and later international press.In 1970, Osho settled for a while in Bombay. He began initiating disciples (known as neo-sannyasins) and took on the role of a spiritual teacher. In his discourses, he reinterpreted writings of religious traditions, mystics, and philosophers from around the world. Moving to Poona in 1974, he established an ashram that attracted increasing numbers of Westerners. The ashram offered therapies derived from the Human Potential Movement to its Western audience and made news in India and abroad, chiefly because of its permissive climate and Osho’s provocative lectures. By the end of the 1970s, there were mounting tensions with the Indian government and the surrounding society.
In 1981, Osho relocated to the United States and his followers established an intentional community, later known as Rajneeshpuram, in the state of Oregon. Within a year, the leadership of the commune became embroiled in a conflict with local residents, primarily over land use, which was marked by hostility on both sides. The large collection of Rolls-Royce automobiles purchased for his use by his followers also attracted notoriety. The Oregon commune collapsed in 1985 when Osho revealed that the commune leadership had committed a number of serious crimes, including a bioterror attack (food contamination) on the citizens of The Dalles. He was arrested shortly afterwards and charged with immigration violations. Osho was deported from the United States in accordance with a plea bargain. Twenty-one countries denied him entry, causing Osho to travel the world before returning to Poona, where he died in 1990. His ashram is today known as the Osho International Meditation Resort. His syncretic teachings emphasise the importance of meditation, awareness, love, celebration, courage, creativity and humour—qualities that he viewed as being suppressed by adherence to static belief systems, religious tradition and socialisation. Osho’s teachings have had a notable impact on Western New Age thought, and their popularity has increased markedly since his death.
Childhood and adolescence: 1931–1950
Osho was born Chandra Mohan Jain, the eldest of eleven children of a cloth merchant, at his maternal grandparents’ house in Kuchwada; a small village in the Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh state in India. His parents Babulal and Saraswati Jain, who were Taranpanthi Jains, let him live with his maternal grandparents until he was seven years old. By Osho’s own account, this was a major influence on his development because his grandmother gave him the utmost freedom, leaving him carefree without an imposed education or restrictions. When he was seven years old, his grandfather died, and he went to Gadarwara to live with his parents. Osho was profoundly affected by his grandfather’s death, and again by the death of his childhood girlfriend and cousin Shashi from typhoid when he was 15, leading to a preoccupation with death that lasted throughout much of his childhood and youth.In his school years he was a rebellious, but gifted student, and acquired a reputation as a formidable debater. Osho became an anti-theist, took an interest in hypnosis and briefly associated with socialism and two Indian nationalist organisations: the Indian National Army and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. However, his membership in the organisations was short-lived as he could not subscribe to any external discipline, ideology or system.
University years and public speaker: 1951–1970
In 1951, aged nineteen, Osho began his studies at Hitkarini College in Jabalpur.Asked to leave after conflicts with an instructor, he transferred to D. N. Jain College, also in Jabalpur.Having proved himself to be disruptively argumentative, he was not required to attend college classes in D. N. Jain College except for examinations and used his free time to work for a few months as an assistant editor at a local newspaper.He began speaking in public at the annual Sarva Dharma Sammelan (Meeting of all faiths) held at Jabalpur, organised by the Taranpanthi Jain community into which he was born, and participated there from 1951 to 1968. He resisted his parents’ pressure to get married. Osho later said he became spiritually enlightened on 21 March 1953, when he was 21 years old, in a mystical experience while sitting under a tree in the Bhanvartal garden in Jabalpur.
Having completed his B.A. in philosophy at D. N. Jain College in 1955, he joined the University of Sagar, where in 1957 he earned his M.A. in philosophy (with distinction). He immediately secured a teaching post at Raipur Sanskrit college, but the Vice Chancellor soon asked him to seek a transfer as he considered him a danger to his students’ morality, character and religion. From 1958, he taught philosophy as a lecturer at Jabalpur University, being promoted to professor in 1960. A popular lecturer, he was acknowledged by his peers as an exceptionally intelligent man who had been able to overcome the deficiencies of his early small-town education.
In parallel to his university job, he travelled throughout India under the name Acharya Rajneesh (Acharya means teacher or professor; Rajneesh was a nickname he had acquired in childhood), giving lectures critical of socialism and Gandhi. He said socialism would only socialise poverty, and he described Gandhi as a masochist reactionary who worshipped poverty. What India needed to escape its backwardness was capitalism, science, modern technology and birth control. He criticised orthodox Indian religions as dead, filled with empty ritual, oppressing their followers with fears of damnation and the promise of blessings. Such statements made him controversial, but also gained him a loyal following that included a number of wealthy merchants and businessmen. These sought individual consultations from him about their spiritual development and daily life, in return for donations—a commonplace arrangement in India—and his practice grew rapidly. From 1962, he began to lead 3- to 10-day meditation camps, and the first meditation centres (Jivan Jagruti Kendra) started to emerge around his teaching, then known as the Life Awakening Movement (Jivan Jagruti Andolan). After a controversial speaking tour in 1966, he resigned from his teaching post at the request of the university.
In a 1968 lecture series, later published under the title From Sex to Superconsciousness, he scandalised Hindu leaders by calling for freer acceptance of sex and became known as the “sex guru” in the Indian press. When in 1969 he was invited to speak at the Second World Hindu Conference, despite the misgivings of some Hindu leaders, he used the occasion to raise controversy again, claiming that “any religion which considers life meaningless and full of misery, and teaches the hatred of life, is not a true religion. Religion is an art that shows how to enjoy life.” He characterised priests as being motivated by self-interest, provoking the shankaracharya of Puri, who tried in vain to have his lecture stopped.
Osho’s birthday celebrations at his Bombay residence on 11 December 1972 At a public meditation event in spring 1970, Osho presented his Dynamic Meditation method for the first time.
He left Jabalpur for Bombay at the end of June.On 26 September 1970, he initiated his first group of disciples or neo-sannyasins.Becoming a disciple meant assuming a new name and wearing the traditional orange dress of ascetic Hindu holy men, including a mala (beaded necklace) carrying a locket with his picture. However, his sannyasins were encouraged to follow a celebratory rather than ascetic lifestyle. He himself was not to be worshipped but regarded as a catalytic agent, “a sun encouraging the flower to open”.
He had by then acquired a secretary Laxmi Thakarsi Kuruwa, who as his first disciple had taken the name Ma Yoga Laxmi.Laxmi was the daughter of one of his early followers, a wealthy Jain who had been a key supporter of the National Congress Party during the struggle for Indian independence, with close ties to Gandhi, Nehru and Morarji Desai. She raised the money that enabled Osho to stop his travels and settle down. In December 1970, he moved to the Woodlands Apartments in Bombay, where he gave lectures and received visitors, among them his first Western visitors. He now travelled rarely, no longer speaking at open public meetings. In 1971, he adopted the title “Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh”.Shree is a polite form of address roughly equivalent to the English “Sir”; Bhagwan means “blessed one”, used in Indian traditions as a term of respect for a human being in whom the divine is no longer hidden but apparent.
Poona ashram: 1974–1981
The humid climate of Bombay proved detrimental to Osho’s health: he developed diabetes, asthma and numerous allergies. In 1974, on the 21st anniversary of his experience in Jabalpur, he moved to a property in Koregaon Park, Poona, purchased with the help of Ma Yoga Mukta (Catherine Venizelos), a Greek shipping heiress. Osho taught at the Poona ashram from 1974 to 1981. The two adjoining houses and 6 acres (24,000 m2) of land became the nucleus of an ashram, and the property is still the heart of the present-day Osho International Meditation Resort. It allowed the regular audio recording and, later, video recording and printing of his discourses for worldwide distribution, enabling him to reach far larger audiences. The number of Western visitors increased sharply. The ashram soon featured an arts-and-crafts centre producing clothes, jewellery, ceramics and organic cosmetics and hosted performances of theatre, music and mime. From 1975, after the arrival of several therapists from the Human Potential Movement, the ashram began to complement meditations with a growing number of therapy groups, which became a major source of income for the ashram.
The Poona ashram was by all accounts an exciting and intense place to be, with an emotionally charged, madhouse-carnival atmosphere.The day began at 6:00 a.m. with Dynamic Meditation.From 8:00 a.m., Osho gave a 60- to 90-minute spontaneous lecture in the ashram’s “Buddha Hall” auditorium, commenting on religious writings or answering questions from visitors and disciples.Until 1981, lecture series held in Hindi alternated with series held in English. During the day, various meditations and therapies took place, whose intensity was ascribed to the spiritual energy of Osho’s “buddhafield”. In evening darshans, Osho conversed with individual disciples or visitors and initiated disciples (“gave sannyas”). Sannyasins came for darshan when departing or returning or when they had anything they wanted to discuss.
To decide which therapies to participate in, visitors either consulted Osho or made selections according to their own preferences.Some of the early therapy groups in the ashram, such as the Encounter group, were experimental, allowing a degree of physical aggression as well as sexual encounters between participants. Conflicting reports of injuries sustained in Encounter group sessions began to appear in the press. Richard Price, at the time a prominent Human Potential Movement therapist and co-founder of the Esalen institute, found the groups encouraged participants to ‘be violent’ rather than ‘play at being violent’ (the norm in Encounter groups conducted in the United States), and criticised them for “the worst mistakes of some inexperienced Esalen group leaders”. Price is alleged to have exited the Poona ashram with a broken arm following a period of eight hours locked in a room with participants armed with wooden weapons. Bernard Gunther, his Esalen colleague, fared better in Poona and wrote a book, Dying for Enlightenment, featuring photographs and lyrical descriptions of the meditations and therapy groups. Violence in the therapy groups eventually ended in January 1979, when the ashram issued a press release stating that violence “had fulfilled its function within the overall context of the ashram as an evolving spiritual commune.”
Sannyasins who had “graduated” from months of meditation and therapy could apply to work in the ashram, in an environment that was consciously modelled on the community the Russian mystic Gurdjieff led in France in the 1930s. Key features copied from Gurdjieff were hard, unpaid work, and supervisors chosen for their abrasive personality, both designed to provoke opportunities for self-observation and transcendence. Many disciples chose to stay for years. Besides the controversy around the therapies, allegations of drug use amongst sannyasin began to mar the ashram’s image. Some Western sannyasins were financing extended stays in India through prostitution and drug-running. A few later said that, while Osho was not directly involved, they discussed such plans and activities with him in darshan and he gave his blessing.
By the latter 1970s, the Poona ashram was too small to contain the rapid growth and Osho asked that somewhere larger be found.Sannyasins from around India started looking for properties: those found included one in the province of Kutch in Gujarat and two more in India’s mountainous north. The plans were never implemented as mounting tensions between the ashram and the Janata Party government of Morarji Desai resulted in an impasse. Land-use approval was denied and, more importantly, the government stopped issuing visas to foreign visitors who indicated the ashram as their main destination. In addition, Desai’s government cancelled the tax-exempt status of the ashram with retrospective effect, resulting in a claim estimated at $5 million. Conflicts with various Indian religious leaders aggravated the situation—by 1980 the ashram had become so controversial that Indira Gandhi, despite a previous association between Osho and the Indian Congress Party dating back to the sixties, was unwilling to intercede for it after her return to power. In May 1980, during one of Osho’s discourses, an attempt on his life was made by Vilas Tupe, a young Hindu fundamentalist.Tupe claims that he undertook the attack, because he believed Osho to be an agent of the CIA.
By 1981, Osho’s ashram hosted 30,000 visitors per year.Daily discourse audiences were by then predominantly European and American.Many observers noted that Osho’s lecture style changed in the late seventies, becoming less focused intellectually and featuring an increasing number of ethnic or dirty jokes intended to shock or amuse his audience. On 10 April 1981, having discoursed daily for nearly 15 years, Osho entered a three-and-a-half-year period of self-imposed public silence, and satsangs—silent sitting with music and readings from spiritual works such as Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet or the Isha Upanishad—replaced discourses. Around the same time, Ma Anand Sheela (Sheela Silverman) replaced Ma Yoga Laxmi as Osho’s secretary.
Osho’s teachings, delivered through his discourses, were not presented in an academic setting, but interspersed with jokes and delivered with a rhetoric that many found spellbinding.The emphasis was not static but changed over time: Osho revelled in paradox and contradiction, making his work difficult to summarise.He delighted in engaging in behaviour that seemed entirely at odds with traditional images of enlightened individuals; his early lectures in particular were famous for their humour and their refusal to take anything seriously.All such behaviour, however capricious and difficult to accept, was explained as “a technique for transformation” to push people “beyond the mind.”
He spoke on major spiritual traditions including Jainism, Hinduism, Hassidism, Tantrism, Taoism, Christianity, Buddhism, on a variety of Eastern and Western mystics and on sacred scriptures such as the Upanishads and the Guru Granth Sahib. The sociologist Lewis F. Carter saw his ideas as rooted in Hindu advaita, in which the human experiences of separateness, duality and temporality are held to be a kind of dance or play of cosmic consciousness in which everything is sacred, has absolute worth and is an end in itself. While his contemporary Jiddu Krishnamurti did not approve of Osho, there are clear similarities between their respective teachings.
Osho also drew on a wide range of Western ideas.His view of the unity of opposites recalls Heraclitus, while his description of man as a machine, condemned to the helpless acting out of unconscious, neurotic patterns, has much in common with Freud and Gurdjieff. His vision of the “new man” transcending constraints of convention is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil; his views on sexual liberation bear comparison to D. H. Lawrence; and his “dynamic” meditations owe a debt to Wilhelm Reich.
Ego and the mind
According to Osho every human being is a Buddha with the capacity for enlightenment, capable of unconditional love and of responding rather than reacting to life, although the ego usually prevents this, identifying with social conditioning and creating false needs and conflicts and an illusory sense of identity that is nothing but a barrier of dreams. Otherwise man’s innate being can flower in a move from the periphery to the centre.
Osho views the mind first and foremost as a mechanism for survival, replicating behavioural strategies that have proven successful in the past.But the mind’s appeal to the past, he said, deprives human beings of the ability to live authentically in the present, causing them to repress genuine emotions and to shut themselves off from joyful experiences that arise naturally when embracing the present moment: “The mind has no inherent capacity for joy. … It only thinks about joy.”The result is that people poison themselves with all manner of neuroses, jealousies and insecurities.He argued that psychological repression, often advocated by religious leaders, makes suppressed feelings re-emerge in another guise, and that sexual repression resulted in societies obsessed with sex.Instead of suppressing, people should trust and accept themselves unconditionally.This should not merely be understood intellectually, as the mind could only assimilate it as one more piece of information: instead meditation was needed.
Osho presented meditation not just as a practice but as a state of awareness to be maintained in every moment, a total awareness that awakens the individual from the sleep of mechanical responses conditioned by beliefs and expectations.He employed Western psychotherapy in the preparatory stages of meditation to create awareness of mental and emotional patterns.
He suggested more than a hundred meditation techniques in total.His own “Active Meditation” techniques are characterised by stages of physical activity leading to silence.The most famous of these remains Dynamic Meditation,which has been described as a kind of microcosm of his outlook.Performed with closed or blindfolded eyes, it comprises five stages, four of which are accompanied by music.First the meditator engages in ten minutes of rapid breathing through the nose.The second ten minutes are for catharsis: “Let whatever is happening happen. … Laugh, shout, scream, jump, shake—whatever you feel to do, do it!”Next, for ten minutes one jumps up and down with arms raised, shouting Hoo! each time one lands on the flat of the feet.At the fourth, silent stage, the meditator stops moving suddenly and totally, remaining completely motionless for fifteen minutes, witnessing everything that is happening.The last stage of the meditation consists of fifteen minutes of dancing and celebration.
Osho developed other active meditation techniques, such as the Kundalini “shaking” meditation and the Nadabrahma “humming” meditation, which are less animated, although they also include physical activity of one sort or another.His later “meditative therapies” require sessions for several days, OSHO Mystic Rose comprising three hours of laughing every day for a week, three hours of weeping each day for a second, and a third week with three hours of silent meditation.These processes of “witnessing” enable a “jump into awareness”.Osho believed such cathartic methods were necessary, since it was difficult for modern people to just sit and enter meditation. Once the methods had provided a glimpse of meditation people would be able to use other methods without difficulty.
Another key ingredient was his own presence as a master; “A Master shares his being with you, not his philosophy. … He never does anything to the disciple.”The initiation he offered was another such device: “… if your being can communicate with me, it becomes a communion. … It is the highest form of communication possible: a transmission without words. Our beings merge. This is possible only if you become a disciple.”Ultimately though, as an explicitly “self-parodying” guru, Osho even deconstructed his own authority, declaring his teaching to be nothing more than a “game” or a joke.He emphasised that anything and everything could become an opportunity for meditation.
Renunciation and the “New Man”
Osho saw his “neo-sannyas” as a totally new form of spiritual discipline, or one that had once existed but since been forgotten.He felt that the traditional Hindu sannyas had turned into a mere system of social renunciation and imitation. He emphasised complete inner freedom and the responsibility to oneself, not demanding superficial behavioural changes, but a deeper, inner transformation. Desires were to be accepted and surpassed rather than denied. Once this inner flowering had taken place, desires such as that for sex would be left behind.
Osho said that he was “the rich man’s guru” and that material poverty was not a genuine spiritual value.He had himself photographed wearing sumptuous clothing and hand-made watches and, while in Oregon, drove a different Rolls-Royce each day – his followers reportedly wanted to buy him 365 of them, one for each day of the year. Publicity shots of the Rolls-Royces were sent to the press. They may have reflected both his advocacy of wealth and his desire to provoke American sensibilities, much as he had enjoyed offending Indian sensibilities earlier.
Osho aimed to create a “new man” combining the spirituality of Gautama Buddha with the zest for life embodied by Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek: “He should be as accurate and objective as a scientist … as sensitive, as full of heart, as a poet … [and as] rooted deep down in his being as the mystic.” His term the “new man” applied to men and women equally, whose roles he saw as complementary; indeed, most of his movement’s leadership positions were held by women. This new man, “Zorba the Buddha”, should reject neither science nor spirituality but embrace both. Osho believed humanity was threatened with extinction due to over-population, impending nuclear holocaust and diseases such as AIDS, and thought many of society’s ills could be remedied by scientific means. The new man would no longer be trapped in institutions such as family, marriage, political ideologies and religions. In this respect Osho is similar to other counter-culture gurus, and perhaps even certain postmodern and deconstructional thinkers.
Osho’s “Ten Commandments”
In his early days as Acharya Rajneesh, a correspondent once asked Osho for his “Ten Commandments”. In reply Osho noted that it was a difficult matter because he was against any kind of commandment but, “just for fun”, set out the following;
- Never obey anyone’s command unless it is coming from within you also.
- There is no God other than life itself.
- Truth is within you, do not search for it elsewhere.
- Love is prayer.
- To become a nothingness is the door to truth. Nothingness itself is the means, the goal and attainment.
- Life is now and here.
- Live wakefully.
- Do not swim—float.
- Die each moment so that you can be new each moment.
- Do not search. That which is, is. Stop and see.
He underlined numbers 3, 7, 9 and 10.The ideas expressed in these Commandments have remained constant leitmotifs in his movement.