Episode 1: Finding the Master - Full Transcript
Where do you begin with Bhagwan?
Maybe you begin at the end. It’s 1990, in Poona, India, where thousands of disciples, all dressed in red, have been called to an assembly. They’re shocked when they hear that the man they call “Master” has just died.
By that point he had been going by the name “Osho,” but before that he was known across the world as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. To his followers, who are now weeping and comforting each other and singing his name, he was not only a person who attained enlightenment — but he was an enlightened master, on the same level as Buddha or Jesus. Over the course of his life, tens of thousands of people flocked to be near him, whether he was in Bombay, or his ashram in Poona, or his commune in eastern Oregon. From Bhagwan, they learned about life, and the meaning of everything, and how to become enlightened themselves. They danced and laughed and made love. They meditated, worshipped. They protected him, fought for him. And now he’s gone.
If the camera pans over to Bombay, or Portland, Oregon, or Washington, D.C., it’ll probably catch some smug faces right about now. These people are happy that Bhagwan is gone. To them, he was nothing more than a con-man. A cult leader, really. He used mind-control and hypnosis to persuade people to devote themselves to him. He gladly took everything they owned, while his followers were forced to live simple lives and work for him for no pay. On their backs, Bhagwan lived in luxurious style, with nearly 100 Rolls Royces at one point, diamond Rolexes, private jets, and a household staff that catered to his every whim.
But that’s just scratching the surface of why they’re happy to see him go. To many — particularly the good people of Oregon — Bhagwan was the head of a criminal enterprise. In Bhagwan’s name, his followers lied to the government, committed arson, poisoned an entire community, tried to kill each other, and wanted to kill outsiders — including the U.S. Attorney for Oregon.
So maybe you start to understand Bhagwan by looking at who he became and how people thought of him, and then try to figure out how he got there.
But I think if you really want to understand Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh — what motivated him to become a guru, why people were so drawn to him, and how things got so crazy by the end — you need to start at the river.
It’s the 1930s in the city of Gadarwara, India. Here’s this kid, Raja, and he’s got a group of boys from town who follow him everywhere. He leads them on all these death-defying stunts near the river — practically kills some of them — but they stick with him.
When the river floods it becomes swollen, furious. Raja leads his gang to the most dangerous rapids and points across to the other side — saying, “That’s where we’re going.” He dives in, and they all jump in after him. Raja always seems to reach the other side, right where he pointed, while the others flail around, end up downriver.
And yet… they come back the next day for more. They’re right there with Raja when he climbs the tall cliffs nearby, where one false step will send them hundreds of feet down. They come back after he finds the kids who don’t know how to swim and tosses them in the river, watching them struggle. The boys even come back after he holds their heads underwater, releasing them just before they pass out, and then asking them — “How was it?”
They must be getting something from these experiences, right? Being around Raja must make the boys feel tough, invulnerable. He’s teaching them something about death and courage.
And Raja? He’s testing them — seeing how far he can push the other kids until they just say “no.” He’s also testing himself. He must know that he’s got natural charisma, that he draws people to him. Maybe he’s testing out how to best use his charm to get what he wants.
What little Raja was doing with his gang down by the river is essentially the same thing he did years later as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. He was flexing the same muscles, testing the boundaries of the people around him, seeing how far they’d go for him. You just had to trust him, give yourself to him — and he could help you. This was always his guarantee:
[BSR AUDIO] “I promise you that if you surrender to me, I will transform you.”
This is the Building Utopia podcast. My name is Rusty King, and I am obsessed with the history of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers. This series will take a deep dive into the creation, and implosion, of the communities that formed around Bhagwan. Along the way we’ll meet some of the big personalities who supported him, and we’ll try to get inside the minds of everyday Rajneeshees.
You may already be familiar with Bhagwan and his exploits — perhaps from watching a recent Netflix documentary series, perhaps from reading about it. Whether you know a lot or nothing at all, this series will provide a fresh examination of Bhagwan’s life, including fascinating nooks and crannies that haven’t been widely reported.
Today’s episode will delve into Bhagwan’s early years in Bombay. We’ll explore his initial efforts to organize his followers and how he was able to cement his master/disciple relationship with people from the West. We’ll also visit a tiny farm in the middle of nowhere where Bhagwan conducted an experiment that pushed his followers to the brink of death.
We hope you stick around.
PART 1 - The Path to Enlightenment
There are some people, like Bhagwan’s followers, who would tell you that he was unknowable — a living mystery, connected to this world by the thinnest silver thread.
And then there are unfortunate people like me… who have spent months or even years trying to figure Bhagwan out, and struggling to get much closer.
I’ve read nearly everything you can read about Bhagwan. His lectures, biographies, medical records, his FBI file, criminal reports, trial testimony. I’ve listened to him talk for hours. I’ve tried to see him through the eyes of other people - his long-time bodyguard, his lover, his secretaries, his parents, his childhood friends. And I’ve tried to understand his teachings, and also what motivated him as a flesh-and-blood human being.
The main thing I’ve figured out is that when you start to question anything in Bhagwan’s orbit — the people, the politics, the crimes — it just creates more questions.
And that’s exactly how he wanted it.
First, a little bit about how Bhagwan became Bhagwan. His childhood nickname was Raja or Rajneesh, and he was a precocious kid, obsessed with death. He’d lay in a crematorium at night — he’d go to funerals of people he didn’t even know. Over time he stopped fearing death and just accepted it as a reality. That freed him to do the reckless stunts with the local boys… and basically stop taking life so seriously. Rajneesh challenged authority all the time as he grew into an adult, and he even got kicked out of one college for arguing with his professors.
That didn’t stop him from becoming a philosophy professor himself in his 20s. Not long after that, he hopped on India’s guru circuit. There were lots of them at the time, scattered around India, sharing their wisdom, attracting thousands of listeners. A guru is a spiritual teacher, an enlightened person who can guide his disciples along the path toward enlightenment through lectures and meditation. The principal is that you can’t do it yourself by reading a book — you need to learn spirituality at the feet of a master.
Becoming a guru was a natural fit for Rajneesh, who already had a reputation for his golden tongue, his cunning debate skills, and his limitless memory of what he read. Even as a young man, people were coming to him for help with their physical and emotional problems. After attracting a loyal audience in his college town, Rajneesh set out to conquer India in his late 20s, lecturing to religious and student groups, political organizations, and pretty much any mass gathering that would have him. He loved teaching, loved engaging with an audience. And his crowds just kept growing.
Of course, a lot of that had to do with the controversies he ginned up everywhere he went. Rajneesh would throw out inflammatory comments that nobody else was really saying at the time. He accused Mahatma Gandhi of being a poverty-worshipper, and anti-technology. He lectured on sexual divinity, the sacredness of sex, provoking furious responses from his audiences.
But perhaps his most controversial comments had to do with organized religion. No religion was safe from Rajneesh’s sharp tongue — even the religion he was raised in, Jainism. He mocked religious beliefs, practices, and especially conservative attitudes towards sex. His attacks were shocking to many in India who considered their country to be religiously diverse and tolerant. People yelled at him from the crowd, they canceled his lectures…
He loved it.
And on the flip side, Rajneesh was finding people who were hungry for his message. There were plenty of Indians who had become disillusioned with religious tradition and saw all the rituals and prohibitions as oppresive burdens in their lives. Rajneesh’s lectures showed them that a different way was possible.
He also attracted hundreds of people to the meditation camps he hosted in the countryside, starting in 1964. Rajneesh experimented with new forms of meditation, intended to knock down whatever barriers were preventing the participants from achieving inner peace. He became well-known for the loud, chaotic practice he developed, called Dynamic Meditation.
But despite his growing fame, and the thousands of people who would come to hear his lectures — by 1970, Rajneesh was almost forty, and the routine was getting old. Most concerning to him was that he felt like he wasn’t making any progress in influencing Indian society. At each lecture he looked out at a sea of unfamiliar faces, strangers. As he described it, he had to start each lecture with ABC, and it became clear to him that he would never be able to reach XYZ.
He knew that more was possible.
What if he could speak to a smaller group of dedicated people over time? This would give his message continuity, and allow him to dig deep into the different spiritual traditions. And he could actually have a dialog with people who engaged with his ideas, who knew the ABCs, and now had questions about the DEFs.
To sum it up in a word, Rajneesh wanted disciples.
So, one day in June 1970, he packed up his personal library in Jabalpur, said goodbye to his friends, and boarded a train for Bombay. His wealthy supporters there were more than happy to provide him with a place to live and receive visitors. As Rajneesh put it, “Until now, the well reached out to the thirsty… Now, the thirsty will have to come to the well.”
So, if you were a seeker in the early 1970s who wanted to see the famous Acharya Rajneesh, you wouldn’t necessarily look for him in a lecture hall. You’d go to his apartment. One of his secretaries would greet you, find out who you were and what you wanted. If the timing was good, you’d be led down a hallway and into a private room. There, sitting on a plush office chair, you’d find a man in immaculately-pressed white robes, with an embroidered towel folded over his lap, smiling, inviting you to sit at his feet. As you settled in, you’d realize that you were in Rajneesh’s bedroom, which was where he received people.
He might chat with you, answer some of your questions. He might suggest that you join the morning meditation group. He might invite you to come back for one of his evening discourses, where devotees listened to him talk about philosophy. But that would be pretty much the extent of your involvement with Rajneesh in his first months in Bombay.
And then, everything changed. In the fall of 1970, Rajneesh initiated his first six disciples.
How exactly did one become Rajneesh’s disciple?
First he would give you a new name that he picked from ancient Sanskrit words meaning things like Bliss and Love. Second he would tell you to wear sunrise colors — orange, red, purple, pink — to symoblize your move toward enlightenment. Third he would give you a beaded necklace, called a mala, with his portrait hanging in the middle. Well — at least to you and me it might look like Rajneesh’s portrait, but don’t tell him that…
[BSR AUDIO] ”The picture only appears as mine, it is not. No picture of me is possible really. The moment one knows himself, one knows he is something which cannot be depicted, described, framed. I exist as an emptiness which cannot be pictured, which cannot be photographed.”
Finally, along with the new name and new clothes, you would agree to surrender to Rajneesh. He was essentially asking his disciples to become born-again, to allow him to destroy their former identities and create a new person according to his vision. By allowing yourself to be reformed, he could bring you closer to enlightenment.
In those early years, Rajneesh would personally induct his new disciples at a ceremony called “darshan.” To accept Rajneesh as your master was called taking sannyas, and the new disciple was called a sannyasin.
Now, everything about taking sannyas was controversial in India, but particularly troublesome was that Rajneesh was appropriating, and twisting, Hindu and Buddhist traditions for his own purposes. There were already orange-robed sannyasins in India, but it signified a person who had renounced the world and worldly pleasure. Now here was this 38-year old guru initiating his neo-sannyasins, telling them to celebrate all experiences in life, to indulge in pleasures. His sannyasins could have all the sex, champagne truffles, and even Rolls Royces that they wanted.
The controversy heated up even more within a year, when Rajneesh decided that he too needed a new name. Up to that point, followers had been using the honorific “acharya” to address him, which means teacher. But Rajneesh was no mere teacher. It was time to put on a bigger persona. He asked his secretary Chinmaya to help him think of something “universal,” something that is “not relative.” He immediately warmed to Chinmaya’s suggestion: “Bhagwan.” Depending on how you interpret it, Bhagwan means either “blessed one” or “God.”
Now this was all just too much for some of his Indian followers, who did not take sannyas and who left him around this time. And many left simply because they didn’t want to commit themselves to one man, one guru.
Perhaps to deepen and strengthen his relationship with those who remained, in 1972 Bhagwan began speaking about his own experience of attaining enlightenment. Before that he never really talked about it publicly or even privately, unless somebody directly asked him about it. It was just known that he was a self-proclaimed enlightened being, and he left the details fuzzy. And as he started filling in the details, many were surprised to learn — for the first time — that he became enlightened nearly 20 years earlier, in 1953!
Bhagwan said that his enlightenment came after a long period of tortured questioning about God. He felt completely alone, with no master to guide him toward enlightenment, no master to answer all his questions about life. He’d go running, and meditate, for long hours on end. But he was filled with doubt, he suffered from headaches, and he’d shut himself away in his room because he felt incapable of relating to other people.
Finally, in March 1953, at the age of 21, Bhagwan gave up.
He stopped searching, as he had been doing his whole life. He felt it was futile. And on that day when he finally stopped searching, stopped asking, stopped pleading with the universe for answers… something started happening.
He felt a totally new energy, coming from everywhere, the trees and the rocks and the sky and the sun and the air… He felt a hopelessness that was absolute and total, but at the same time he felt happy, very tranquil.
This feeling continued on for seven days, and he called it a total transformation. On the last day, March 21, 1953, he felt a new energy becoming so intense that it was almost unbearable, which made him feel as if he was exploding, as if he were going mad with blissfulness. It was such a beautiful experience that he felt ready to die, at that moment. He was content. Death was welcome.
Bhagwan fell asleep early that night, but suddenly woke up around midnight. At least, some part of him woke up. His eyes remained closed, but he could feel everything around him, all the life, a great storm of light, joy, ecstasy. He was drowning in it, experiencing a totally new reality, and everything he had known before was unreal. Bhagwan didn’t know what to call what he was experiencing — call it god, call it truth. It was nameless. He jumped out of bed and ran from his bedroom — because it was too small a place for such a big phenomenon. In a nearby garden, everything became luminous. He could see the whole garden alive, even the small grass leaves were so beautiful.
Bhagwan sat under a tree for hours, but it was infinity. Everything settled down as he sat there. The whole universe became a benediction.
Since that night, Bhagwan told his followers, he had never been in the body ever again. Instead he was hovering around it, connected by just a very delicate thread.
If you’re wondering what people hoped to get out of their relationship with Bhagwan, why they would give up everything to be around him, most were searching for this very experience. They too wanted to become enlightened. Whereas Bhagwan had to figure it out on his own as a young man, if his followers surrendered to him, a master, he could bring them closer to enlightenment.
So by 1972 Bhagwan had accomplished what he had set out to do just a couple years earlier — he had settled in one place, solidified his message, and started forming a community of dedicated sannyasins. The thirsty were coming to the well in droves.
Coming up after the break: a curious new species of sannyasin begins popping up in Bhagwan’s apartment, and he has to figure out what on earth to do with all these Westerners. Stick with us.
PART 2 - The Western Invasion
Christine Woolf has been wandering around Bombay in a haze. Ask her why she’s here, and she won’t have a great answer. Neither will her friends and family back in England, who were shocked when the 21-year old announced that, on a whim, she was going to quit her job, vacate her apartment, and travel to India. It seems so out of character for her. She’s normally so straight, so square. Something’s been telling her that this is what she should do. Still, as she walks the crowded streets she keeps asking herself “What am I doing here?”
She meets another Westerner, who invites her to a lecture. Christine doesn’t want to go. It sounds boring. But, again, something inside tells her that she should go. So she does.
When they arrive, they see thousands of Indians sitting in a huge parade ground, gathered around a single, white-robed speaker, whose lecture is already underway. He looks like a tiny speck from the back of the crowd, where Christine stands.
And then, she feels the pull.
It draws her forward, pushing past the others, closer and closer and closer to the man and his voice and his face and his eyes. She takes a seat in the front, and finds herself in even more of a haze than she was before. He’s captivating. She’s completely taken by him.
Now, she has no idea what he’s actually saying. He’s speaking in Hindi. But it doesn’t matter. It’s his presence, the sound of his voice, that draws her in. Her companion tugs at her arm and tries to persuade her to leave early, but Christine refuses. She stays until the very end, and then just sits there while others get up to leave, transfixed by the experience.
She learns about a meditation camp that the man will be hosting in a few days, out in the mountains. She doesn’t know anything about meditation — but, she goes.
There, she finds devotees to this man jumping around, shouting, doing a wild form of meditation that he invented called “dynamic meditation.” Christine hides in the bushes, terrified, not understanding what’s going on. But the man in white spots her, and summons her to his bedroom where he explains — in English — the meditation, and makes her feel more comfortable.
Once Christine engages in the process with Bhagwan, she says she experiences “explosion after explosion after explosion.” She finds herself crying all the time, seeing her own mind. She lets everything come in, the nature, the people — it’s all so beautiful. Bhagwan invites her to take sannyas, and after one night of hesitation, she shows up at his door and declares that she’s ready.
He gives her the name Ma Yoga Vivek, which means “awareness.” She goes on to become one of the most important people in Bhagwan’s life, closer to him than anybody else. We’ll be checking in with Vivek again later in this series — about her life with Bhagwan, and the many failed attempts to kill her.
Vivek was one of many Westerners who flooded into India in the late 60s and early 70s. The counterculture movement prompted many Americans and Europeans to travel to the East and learn from the masters. They were searching for something — some deeper meaning, or some insight into themselves and their place in the universe. Probably the most famous example of this is the Beatles, who traveled to India in 1968 to live with the guru Maharishi and practice trascendental meditation.
Those who wound up at Bhagwan’s feet found a guru who was unusually well-read in Western philosophy and psychology. He could speak with them in perfect English. His Dynamic Meditation sessions were raucous, combining movement, relaxation, and wild dancing to popular music. And he was modern - up to date on new technology, pop culture. He was pro-capitalism, pro-sex. Best of all? He made enlightenment sound pretty attainable - all you had to do was surrender.
So they started showing up, and sticking around, and spreading the word to others that they needed to check out this Bhagwan guy. Vivek and others felt themselves drawn in by his presence — even if they didn’t grasp what exactly he was talking about. Something about him was hypnotic. The way he drew out his syllables, his dark, penetrating eyes. Followers say that time seemed to stop in his presence, or at least it no longer mattered.
Bhagwan was never one to miss out on an opportunity, and he grabbed it as soon as these Westerners started showing up in his apartment and at his meditation camps. He gave his first public lecture in English, not Hindi, in January 1972. He would lavish attention on new arrivals from the West, asking about their personal problems and dreams, and encouraging them to take sannyas.
And Bhagwan was certainly not oblivious to the cash that accompanied them. He was the “guru of the rich,” after all. Only the wealthy, he said, had enough time and security to devote their lives to the search for enlightenment. The poor were too focused on things like finding their next meal to devote themselves to the spiritual journey that Bhagwan had in mind. He was happy to make himself available to these Westerners, with their cash, their gifts… and their ability to draw money from folks back home. A Greek shipping heiress became Ma Prem Mukta. A wealthy Italian woman, rumored to be related to Mussolini, became Ma Anand Deeksha. Bhagwan kept them close, and these women, and others like them, became critical figures in the next chapter of Bhagwan’s life.
Many new sannyasins took up residence in the areas around his apartment. They just wanted to be close to him. They’d meditate throughout the day, and attend evening discourses with Bhagwan at his apartment, where he’d lecture on any number of topics.
Occasionally, a follower would be granted a private audience with Bhagwan, where he would ask the sannyasin how life was going, what he or she was doing, and sometimes pry into their sex and love lives and offer suggestions. He might suggest that one sexual partner be dropped for another; he might tell two sannyasins who didn’t know each other to move in together and live as a couple. And some female sannyasins reported that their private darshans with Bhagwan ended with them laying completely nude on his bed while he scrutinized their bodies.
In 1972 the Western floodgates opened for Bhagwan. Soon, his Bombay apartment just wasn’t big enough to hold all his followers at one time. He needed a space where they could all be together, peacefully, without interruptions from nosy neighbors and conservative Indians who harassed them on the street. Communal living seemed like the way to go.
But Bhagwan had never done communal living before, other than his week-long meditation camps. And he still had a lot to learn about how to manage these Westerners, and keep their attention. He decided to kill two birds with one stone. One by one, Bhagwan summoned certain Western sannyasins into his bedroom and told them he had something in mind for them. They would be building a new commune for him, by hand… by themselves. He didn’t call it an experiment at the time, although that’s what it was. And he certainly didn’t tell them how high the stakes would be.
It was the boys at the river all over again. Bhagwan was about to push his followers underwater, and see how long they could go without breathing.
It’s a pitch-black evening when Hugh Milne decides to walk away from it all. He’s been living on this dirt-poor farm in the middle of India for the past two months. They’re supposed to be setting up an ashram for their Master, but… he’s never shown his face around here.
Conditions are horrible. He and the 40-or-so other farmers work around the clock in temperatures reaching 120 degrees Farenheit. The locals think they’re crazy to be working at all. There’s never enough food to go around, and nearly everyone here has come down with some form of dysentery. The man running the camp is a South African pilot with no apparent experience managing anything. Over time, he’s gradually increased their workloads, taken away their privileges, and restricted their time off.
But Hugh Milne did not come all the way to India just to die of a tropical disease in the middle of nowhere under the thumb of a South African autocrat. So on this night, darker than any darkness he experienced in Edinborough, or London, or Bombay, Hugh decides to take one last walk around the farm before saying his farewells.
He makes it a hundred yards out into the darkness before he feels something out there. Something large, and dangerous. He remembers — too late — that the local villagers never go out after dark because of the man-eating tigers that prowl the area. On instinct, Hugh claps his hands and shouts. A piercing shriek and snarl come from nearby. Then he hears the sound of movement across gravel. Movement… away from him.
Hugh knows in that instant that it’s no mere tiger stalking him.
It’s his Master.
His Master, who sent him to this farm in the first place.
His Master, living comfortably in a luxury apartment back in Bombay.
His Master — sending him a message.
“It’s not time yet.”
So Hugh does stay, and the experiment continues.
What did the “guru of the rich” hope to accomplish, by sending dozens of his Western sannyasins 400 miles from Bombay, to an impoverished farm called Kailash?
At the time he said they were building his new ashram… but did Bhagwan really intend to live in the back of beyond, a dirt farm riddled with scorpions and rats? I doubt it. And years later he called Kailash an “experiment.” So… Bhagwan was testing something. Hugh Milne later learned that Bhagwan instructed the South African pilot to gradually make life hell for the sannyasins who had been sent there. He should increase their workloads and restrict their freedom over time. If at any point the rules became too much, the pilot was to drop them all without warning, and then sit back and watch the chaos.
The “work” part of the experiment was key, and this would became a hallmark of Bhagwan’s future communes: the hard work expected of all who lived there. Remember, up to this point Bhagwan’s sannyasins lived a pretty chill life: meditating, hanging out at his apartment, and otherwise just existing in Bombay. Suddenly at Kailash they were doing hard labor in the punishing heat, for no pay — all because their Master commanded it.
Kailash showed Bhagwan that they would do it, even the Western sannyasins — if he just asked. Maybe he learned that it’s all in the framing… At Kailash physical labor was treated as a form of meditation. He lifted this idea from the European mystic and philosopher George Gurdjieff, who was a huge influence on Bhagwan. Gurdjieff, and Bhagwan, believed that work and relaxation should not be two separate things. People should throw themselves into work, focusing their minds exclusively on labor while they’re doing it and NOT on the outcome — and that in itself can be an important form of meditation.
Kailash foreshadowed what was soon to come for Bhagwan. In 1974, while the experiment was still going on, his personal secretary Laxmi brought him terrific news: she had found a place where they could all live together, work together, and continue building the Rajneesh empire. And, probably to the surprise of the sannyasins battling dysentery under the central-Indian sun — that place was NOT Kailash.
With his Western disciples prepared to hike up their red robes and get to work, Bhagwan was poised to take over the world.
Next time on Building Utopia, we travel to Poona, India, where Bhagwan established his first ashram, which blossomed into an industrious, internationally-famous refuge for sannyasins. We’ll hear stories from followers who first experienced Bhagwan and his message inside the ashram walls, and delve into what life was like for everyday people who lived and worked there. We’ll also meet some of the key characters in Bhagwan’s life as a master, including his devoted secretary Laxmi, and a sweet, smart, ambitious young woman named Ma Anand Sheela.
Please join us.
Building Utopia is researched, written, narrated, and produced by me, Rusty King. If you enjoyed this episode and would like to support the podcast — please go on iTunes and leave a 5-star review, write a comment, and subscribe.
For more insights on Bhagwan and his followers, including photographs and source documents, check out our website, buildingutopiapodcast.com. If you have a unique perspective on any of the issues discussed in this series, I’d love to hear from you.
See you next time.