Episode 2: Oasis in Poona - Full Transcript

Introduction 

This is the Building Utopia podcast. My name is Rusty King, and I’m obsessed with the history of the charismatic leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. In this series, we’re taking 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.

Today we’re taking a grand tour of Bhagwan’s first ashram in the city of Poona, India. When Bhagwan arrived there in 1974, it was just one house and a few followers, or sannyasins, who joined him. Within a couple years, it had expanded into one of the most popular — and controversial — ashrams in India, where people could meditate, commune with likeminded people, and be close to the man they called Master. As word spread about the ashram, it became a glamorous beacon to people from the West. I mean, Diana Ross stopped by. 

But beyond the blissful exterior, the ashram had some dark corners. Bhagwan required sannyasins to partipate in therapy that could get extremely violent. Some said he was using it to try to brainwash them all. And a hierarchy began to emerge where ashram leaders gave orders that could not be questioned.

In today’s episode we’ll track the ashram from its beginnings, and see how an unstoppable force of nature made it flourish: Bhagwan’s personal secretary, Ma Yoga Laxmi. We’ll stroll the grounds through the eyes of a newcomer to see what the place was all about. And we’ll examine the new, lucrative, sometimes-terrifying method that Bhagwan developed to instruct his followers — and perhaps to keep them under his control.

Stick with us.

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PART 1 - Poona Becomes Institutionalized

An ashram was the logical next step for Bhagwan. He’d been welcoming his followers in a cramped apartment in Bombay, but with all the Westerners who were arriving and wanting to be with him — it was just too small. He needed a dedicated space to attract more followers and put his ideas into practice. And that’s exactly what an ashram is: an isolated place where master and disciple can live and work together, without all the distractions from the outside world.

But how does one go about setting up an ashram for the first time? Well, if we take Bhagwan’s first ashram as an example, you need two things: a dedicated work force, and a Laxmi.

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Any discussion about Bhagwan’s first ashram needs to start with Ma Yoga Laxmi. She was his personal secretary, but don’t let that title fool you. By the early 1970s Laxmi was effectively the CEO of “Bhagwan Enterprises,” in charge of promoting him, raising donations to support him, and basically making his life as easy as possible so he could focus on being a master. Bhagwan put the ashram’s development squarely in her hands. She found the site, and she moved her master there in March 1974. As we’ll discuss later in this episode, she nurtured a dedicated, free labor force that made almost anything they wanted possible.

It was a huge amount of work setting up the ashram, but a couple years after they settled in Poona, Laxmi described it as if it all just happened naturally:

[LAXMI AUDIO] “As the news spread that Bhagwan is in India, Bombay, people started coming. So then we started searching for a big place, and as Bombay is congested, population wise also, and ecology also considering that point, we felt it would be better if we go a little far from Bombay, and that’s how Poona happened. When we moved to Poona in ’74 March 21 it was only seven people moving with him, but within three months it were hundreds and now as you see it’s grown into thousands.”

Laxmi’s narrative leaves out some initial growing pains… primarily that her Master hated Poona when he first arrived. Bhagwan moved in to the mansion Laxmi had bought him, lectured for eight days, but then he just stopped talking, in protest it seemed. It must have been quite a surprise when this happened. I mean, this is a guy whose entire livelihood — and significance — was based on his words. He didn’t write books or anything, he just talked.

Although he stopped speaking publicly, to Laxmi in private, he had plenty to say:  His asthma, his allergies, the climate, the smells…  All the things he was trying to escape in Bombay — they just seemed worse in Poona. He gave Laxmi his direction: we’re going back. Find another spot, closer to Bombay.

So did his devoted secretary follow her Master’s orders and abandon her plan? No. Bhagwan remained silent, but he didn’t go back to Bombay. People would see him walking through the gardens outside his home. It seemed like he was starting to enjoy the surroundings. And 34 days after his silence began, as if nothing had happened — Bhagwan started his daily lectures again. In his first lecture after the silence, he told the handful of sannyasins who were at Poona that an enlightened master is a white cloud, drifting around without purpose or direction, appearing and then disappearing. White clouds don’t think about the future, they don’t plan for what’s next. They just exist in the present moment.

Was Bhagwan telling this to his followers, or was he telling it to himself? We don’t know what exactly happened to persuade Bhagwan to stay in Poona and start talking again, but, if this lecture is any clue, I suspect he and Laxmi had some conversations about him just trusting her to make this work. Let Bhagwan be the white cloud, and let Laxmi gust him along.

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If you just looked at Laxmi, you might not think she had the fortitude to carry out her temperamental master’s wishes. She was petite, birdlike, very fragile. She wore a red scarf over her hair, like a nun, to show her utter devotion to Bhagwan. And people who knew her said she could seem a little naive, particularly when it came to things like sex. 

But what you need to know about Laxmi is that she also radiated authority and confidence when it came to her job and protecting Bhagwan. It helped that she was no stranger to dealing with the whims of powerful men. They were there throughout her childhood. Laxmi was born in 1933 to a wealthy businessman father, who helped fund the fight for India’s independence. He had close ties with political leaders like Nehru, and even Mahatma Gandhi, who stayed at Laxmi’s family home in the year before he was assassinated. Taking inspiration from these leaders, Laxmi jumped into social work as a young woman in the 1950s, and she led political organizations fighting for women’s rights. 

Her life changed completely at an event she hosted in the late 1960s, where the featured speaker was to be a teacher named Acharya Rajneesh. She pictured him as a humble Jain monk with a begging bowl, and was surprised when he arrived wearing pristine white cloth and silk. In her unpublished memoir, Laxmi wrote that Rajneesh “gracefully cast a spell” as he entered, and she was so stunned by his appearance that she forgot to introduce him to the crowd. As he gave his lecture, Laxmi was overcome with the feeling that she had known him forever. She told a colleague that she was in love for the first time. The woman whacked Laxmi on the cheek to try to break her out of Rajneesh’s “hypnosis.”

But it was too late. From then on, Laxmi sought out ways to be in his presence. She helped with his personal needs, like buying him new clothes, new pillows, new linens. At this point, in the late 60s, Rajneesh had quit his university teaching job and was a full time traveling lecturer and meditation teacher. Laxmi made herself so useful that Rajneesh invited her to start traveling with him and taking care of his logistics. She essentially became his tour manager, doing battle with hosts that didn’t provide her master with an air-conditioned room, or who failed meet his very specific dietary requirements. In short order, Laxmi became the brains behind his entire operation.

It was Laxmi who helped raise enough money in 1970 so that Rajneesh could stop touring and settle down in Bombay.

It was Laxmi who first worse sunrise colors to show her dedication to Rajneesh, and suggested that he give a mala necklace to his followers with his image on it.

It was Laxmi who sat outside his bedroom door and decided who got to see him and who got sent on their way. She’d subtly pass along information about visiting sannyasins, which he then used to make himself seem almost omniscient when he spoke with them. This trick certainly played into the new name that Rajneesh adopted at this time — Bhagwan — which to some meant “God.” 

Between the two of them, Bhagwan and Laxmi had the smarts, the ambition, the charisma, and the connections to make Bhagwan an international icon. And as soon as Bhagwan committed to staying at Poona, that’s exactly what Laxmi set about doing.  

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Within months of arriving, Laxmi sold Bhagwan’s Bombay apartment and bought the property next door to his house in Poona. Bhagwan named it Krishna House, and Laxmi’s office on the ground floor became the nerve center for the entire ashram — the place where everyone went when they first arrived and when they were having any problems. The trust that had managed Bhagwan’s financial affairs since his early days as a guru was renamed the Rajneesh Foundation and the old trustees from Bombay were thanked and released from service. Laxmi became the managing trustee.

One of her first — and probably most challenging — orders of business was to find places for everybody to live. As she said in that interview, there were only about seven people who first came to set up the ashram, but within two years there were three to five thousand sannyasins living in and around the ashram, and 25 to 35 thousand came to visit each year. We’ll discuss later in this episode how so many people were drawn to the ashram. The visitors would stay at local hotels or rent a place nearby, sometimes living with an Indian family or crammed into a tiny space with other sannyasins. The poorest visitors built shanties in Poona anywhere they could find open space.

The prime place to live, though, was within the ashram walls, close to Bhagwan. This privilege was mainly reserved for two classes of people: the fabulously wealthy, who could afford to buy one of the few on-site apartments; and those who worked for the ashram, doing anything from cleaning to administrative work to serving as a bodyguard. Laxmi did what she could to make space for them: subdividing big rooms, tacking on housing to existing buildings. One person described the ashram as looking like a “rabbit warren” by the mid-70s.

Living on-site, close to their Master, within his energy field — was BIG DRAW for people. And although ashram workers got no pay, they did get free room and board. It was enough to entice many sannyasins to move in and devote themselves to working there. And thus — Laxmi had a labor force at her disposal.

 Working for the ashram was pitched as another way to surrender. And by becoming a worker, you really did have to surrender. You effectively gave up control over your job and your schedule, working morning to night, six to seven days a week. Laxmi and her staff might take into consideration your experience and your education… or they might not. A trained architect could easily end up scrubbing toilets for months on end. Bhagwan preferred that his sannyasins receive unfamiliar work assignments, since it served his goal of disrupting their lives.

The ashram workers were told that work was a form of meditation. As we discussed before, Bhagwan took this idea from the philosopher George GUR-jeef and tested it out at the Kailash farming experiment in the year before the ashram was founded. Sannyasins were told to work with joy and use the work assignments as a way to dissolve their ego, which they could only do if they focused exclusively on the task while they were doing it. Here’s Laxmi:

[LAXMI AUDIO] “Like here, people they put their energy into work. For them work is joy, play.”

An Italian sannyasin named Deeksha, who oversaw the ashram kitchens, said that some considered the work “pure hell,” at least at first:

[DEEKSHA AUDIO] “What’s happened to the people? I don’t know, pure hell sometimes maybe in a way? They go really through a lot of things, its’ difficult, like this. They have to surrender to someone, someone in charge of the vegetables. They have to cut the vegetables in a particular way. Who cares, you know if you cut the carrots round or straight? But for some people who come from the west with their own individuality… But then once you go through it, it’s a beautiful game, then it’s heaven actually. Becase then it’s playing kitchen, which is what we’re doing. We’re playing kitchen.” 

What Deeksha is referring to with the vegetables being chopped the right or wrong way, was a requirement that workers do their job exactly as they were told by their supervisor, whether or not it was actually the best way to do it. This was a corollary to Bhagwan’s command to surrender: you had to surrender not just to him, but to the ashram, and the people running it.

Here, at a lecture, Bhagwan tells a sannyasin — who actually worked under Deeksha — that although he might be smarter than her, and Deeksha might be wrong…

[BSR AUDIO] “You are right, and still you have to surrender to something which does not appear at all right logically. Deeksha is crazy! You may be far more intellectual, far more rational -- but you have to surrender to Deeksha. Her craziness is her quality -- that's why I have chosen her. I have got many more rational people: I could have chosen a Ph.D. who would have convinced you that he is right. But when you are convinced and you follow, it is not surrender. When you are not convinced at all, you see the apparent stupidity of a certain thing, and still you surrender, that is a great step, a great step of getting out of your past.”

So the best form of surrender is when you think something is wrong but you still do it… This might sound benign when it comes to chopping vegetables, but look ahead five or ten years and you’ll find sannyasins willing to lie, poison, and kill people in Bhagwan’s name — often at the suggestion of a commune supervisor. To understand that, you need remember these seeds of “surrender to the hierarchy” that Bhagwan planted from his earliest days as a master. 

As an aside, we’ll actually be hearing more about this Italian supervisor, Deeksha, in later episodes. She was instrumental in getting Bhagwan to the United States, and she later took on an even more interesting name… Confidential Government Informant P-25.

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Laxmi’s labor force just kept growing and diversifying as more people came. But for every one person working at the ashram, there were 8 or 10 people who just came to visit, for days, weeks, or months. They could meditate, they could attend discourses… but Bhagwan wanted to give them something else to do while they were visiting. Something that would allow them to become active participants in their move toward enlightenment.. and something that would make the ashram some money.

In 1975 Bhagwan introduced his new creation. It set Poona apart from any other ashram at the time — and created a huge amount of controversy that clouded Bhagwan for the rest of his life. 

Coming up after the break, we’ll tag along with a girl who arrvies at the ashram for the first time in 1976, and see through her eyes what the place was like two years after its founding. And we’ll visit the padded rooms beneath Krishna House, where Bhagwan sent his sannyasins to scream, fight, and vent their aggression.

Stick with us.


PART 2 - Life at Poona

The taxi ride from the Bombay airport had been terrifying. At a certain point, Kate Strelley stopped looking at the oncoming trucks, but she still got flung from side to side as the driver violently swerved all the way to Poona. She has a handwritten address in her pocket — 17 Koregaon Park — and all she really knows is that it will bring her to the red-robed man she fell in love with back in England.

The year is 1976. Kate is 15 years old.

The taxi has dropped her off in a nice neighborhood, with big old Victorian homes, in front of an imposing gate. Its teakwood surface is carved into beautiful flowers and engraved with brass. To either side are white marble gateposts, and hanging from the archway, looking totally out of place, is… a crystal chandelier. A tall Indian man dressed in bright orange comes out, and Kate tells him the name of the man who came here a few days earlier, the man she loves, the man she has to be reunited with. The guard holds open the gate and gestures for her to come in.

Kate has no idea what she’s in for.

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As she walks through the gate, Kate feels an overwhelming sense of… “new beginnings.” To her left, a new lecture hall is being erected, called Buddha Hall, that will hold thousands of sannyasins for Bhagwan’s discourses. To her right is a quarter-acre garden, surrounding a circular pool with a fountain. Just beyond that is a shimmering modern building with plate-glass doors framed in dark teak. As Kate climbs the building’s wide stairs, she sees an office perched on the corner with floor-to-ceiling windows, a prime place to monitor everything happening in the ashram. The building is called Krishna House, and the corner office, belongs to Laxmi. 

Kate pushes through the glass doors and is immediately pelted by cold air. Other than Bhagwan’s bedroom, Krishna House is the only air-conditioned spot at the ashram. She sees elegant women in orange and red working in the reception area. One of them greets her, wraps an arm around her shoulders, and guides her to a chair. It’s a very warm greeting for a complete stranger, who knows nothing about this place. See — Kate Strelley is not a sannyasin. She knows almost nothing about Bhagwan. She’s just here to find her boyfriend. 

From where she sits, Kate has a good view of Laxmi’s office. Bhagwan’s secretary sits behind a wide desk in a throne-like yellow chair. It’s propped up on a dais, since she’s so tiny. To either side of Laxmi are her assistants, who take dictation and do everything Laxmi delegates to them. She’s filled her desk with windup toys, trick pencils, and other gag items, which she uses to make visitors laugh and feel comfortable. And behind her are bookshelves that, over time, become filled. See, Bhagwan’s words are now all recorded, transcribed, and sold, and these books and audio recordings have helped him become internationally famous. They’ve also drawn many people here, including Kate’s boyfriend.

She’s eventually greeted by a Greek woman named Mukta, who suggests that if Kate wants to find the sannyasin she loves, she should ask Bhagwan himself that night, at something called “darshan.” It turns out Mukta knows Bhagwan better than most. She’s a wealthy heiress who actually bought Bhagwan’s home here in Poona, which he named Lao Tsu. She’s one of his closest confidantes, and he has entrusted her with making his home a paradise.

Kate doesn’t know what else to do, so she returns that night for darshan. The ashram has taken on a magical, golden glow in the setting sun. Somebody is playing a bamboo flute in the distance, and she can hear a sitar and a tabla too. She walks past Krishna House and joins a small group of people waiting at a pair of wrought iron gates. At some appointed time, the gates swing open and they all walk single-file toward the back part of the property, where Bhagwan’s house hides among the trees that Mukta has been planting. Strangely, they all have to pass between two women, who lean in to sniff each person to make sure they’re not wearing any perfume, aftershave, cologne, cigarette smoke, soap, or other fragrance. Their master is sensitive to smells, and offenders are forced to leave. Kate makes the cut, and she continues along to an open-air theater attached to Lao Tzu.

While Buddha Hall is being erected, Bhagwan has been using the Lao Tzu carport for his lectures and darshans. A couple years earlier, his followers had extended the space with additional pillars and a roof, but just as it was completed, the hall collapsed in a roar of concrete and steel. Fortunately, nobody was inside at the time. Bhagwan was reportedly furious about the accident — not at the Indians who designed and built it, but at the Western disciples who had criticized the project’s engineering. Their negativity supposedly brought the building down.

Bhagwan finally shuffles out of his house, wearing ghostly white robes, his hands pressed together in a namaste salutation, a grin on his face. A wisp of a woman follows behind him, her eyes cast down at the ground. She is Ma Yoga Vivek, formerly Christine Woolf of England, who we met in the previous episode. She has now become Bhagwan’s constant companion, personal caretaker, and lover. Bhagwan takes a seat on a padded chair, with two women sitting cross-legged to either side of him: Mukta, the Greek heiress, and Laxmi. Behind him is a big red-haired man named Shiva, who is Bhagwan’s bodyguard. He got this job only after putting himself through the misery of a little something called the Kailash experiment. Shiva was formerly known as Hugh Milne.

Laxmi starts reading names off the list, and one by one the guests approach Bhagwan and sit at his feet. He answers their questions and, occasionally, reaches forward to touch the sannyasin or to give a small gift. Kate feels like she’s in a dream watching this whole strange procession. 

Suddenly Laxmi calls Kate’s name. Before she can ask about her boyfriend, Bhagwan throws her off by saying, “So, you’ve made it at last.” He gives her a sannyasin name, Ma Prem Avibha, and tells her that it means “Infinite Burning Love.” Then he touches the center of her forehead, her third eye, and tells her that tomorrow she’ll move into the ashram and start working there.

Kate didn’t ask for any of this. She’s not there to become a sannyasin, or to work. She blurts out her question: Hey, do you know where my boyfriend is? Everybody laughs at the impertinence of this teenager, at the thought that the master would know something as trivial as some kid’s location. Shiva comes forward and moves Kate — or Avibha? — off the stage. She’s not sure what it all means, she’s not sure if she wants to be a sannyasin — but she knows… that she’ll come back the next day.

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Kate Strelley was riding the wave of Westerners who flooded into the Poona ashram in the mid-to-late 1970s. It’s easy to think of the new arrivals as uniformly affluent, well-educated, successful Westerners. That’s the image that’s often portrayed of Bhagwan’s followers. But the reality is far more diverse. They came from across the socio-economic spectrum. Some were wealthy, but many others had to scrounge together whatever they could to come to India and try to stay there. They hailed from America, Europe, Japan, Australia, South America. 

Many were drawn to Poona after first having contact with a Rajneesh meditation center in their home country. There were more than 20 centers by the mid-1970s: six in the US, two in England, two in Germany, and others scattered throughout Europe, Asia, and Australia. These were usually founded by Bhagwan’s earliest disciples, who were sent back home to “spread the word.” And others came to Poona because they read Bhagwan’s discourses, or listened to the recordings, or just heard about him while wandering around India.

Visitors to the ashram found a glamorous oasis in the middle of India, filled with people interested in meditation, alternative medicine, Eastern philosophy, and spiritual growth. Once a visitor arrived at the ashram, nearly all their needs could be met — and all their money spent — within the ashram walls. In modern terms, the ashram became a self-contained, vertically-integrated business. There were various eating facilities, a meditation university, and a medical center. The ashram made its own pottery, jewelry, clothing, candles, soap, and more — which were sold at an on-site boutique. Musical instruments were produced at a workshop, as were the mala necklaces that Bhagwan conferred on each new sannyasin. All these businesses were run and staffed by unpaid ashram workers.

Visitors would start their day with early morning dynamic meditation, then attend Bhagwan’s two-hour discourse in the massive Buddha Hall with thousands of other sannyasins. After that they could chill out on the ashram grounds, participate in any of the meditations offered throughout the day, attend group therapy courses, meet new friends at the cafeteria, or explore Poona. At night Bhagwan held his darshans, or audiences, which were limited to a much smaller group and invite-only. The ashram was teeming with activity and laughter and positive energy, and I can see why people showed up to stay for a week and ended up staying for years.

Kate Strelley is a good example. She came in 1976 to find her boyfriend, but she became an ashram worker and stayed for five years off and on. Kate became the secretary to Laxmi’s assistant, Ma Anand Sheela. As we’ll discuss in future episodes, this gave her a front row seat to Sheela’s stunning rise to power with Bhagwan over the coming years.

When you hear sannyasins describe Poona, you can see why they fell in love with the place. Here’s a British accountant named Ma Prem Savita, interviewed at Poona in the late 1970s: 

[SAVITA AUDIO] “It’s very hard for me to put my experience here into words. I do the same things I did in the west, I have friends, the same kind of work. But there’s a quality here that you couldn’t find in the West. There’s a depth, a love, a richness, many many things. But it’s an inner thing. What comes with meditation is not something you can put into words … I went back briefly last year because my mother died, and there was nothing wrong, it was very beautiful there, England was very beautiful. And all I wanted to do was come back. It’s like, this for me is my family, my home. It’s rich, it’s abundant. There’s nothing in the West for me now.”

Keep this Savita character in the back of your mind for future episodes. She ultimately did find her way back to the West, becoming the number two person in charge of the Rajneeshpuram commune in Oregon. And even two decades later, she was still speaking about Poona in glowing terms — as she was released from federal prison.

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So the table was set: Laxmi had a workforce to build Bhagwan’s paradise, and wave after wave of new sannyasins just kept coming in from the West. In 1975, Bhagwan introduced a new way to keep all of these visitors busy working toward enlightenment. And it just happened require them to turn over lots and lots of cash.

If you walked by the Krishna House basement, you might hear something like this. [ENCOUNTER GROUP AUDIO]

This was a “no limit” encounter group therapy session, recorded for the 1979 film Ashram in Poona. As we’ll see, the ashram’s encounter groups were a powerful, terrifying force. Bhagwan believed that Westerners needed a mix of Western psychology and Eastern spirituality. The incoming sannyasins included psychologists and group therapy practitioners, who share with him what they did. Bhagwan chose what he wanted to try out on his sannyasins, starting with basics like Primal Scream therapy, and then expanding the menu to include things like bioenergetics and tantric sex. By the late 1970s, the ashram offered as many as 90 different therapy options at any given time.

Virtually every sannyasin had to take group therapy at one point or another. New arrivals didn’t have much say over what courses they took. When they first arrived, they would get an appointment with Bhagwan and, after a brief conversation, he would give his “prescription” for their time at the ashram. If you were new to group therapy, he would tell you to take some basic courses before moving on to the more advanced groups, like the encounter groups.

The man who Bhagwan tapped to run this was a British therapist named Teertha, who had a regal bearing, and looked to me sort of like Liam Neeson in those Star Wars movies. Depending on who you ask, he was a brilliant and empathetic therapist, or a self-absorbed sadist who used group therapy to play out his own fantasies. Teertha championed “no limit” encounter therapy, which is represented by the audio we just heard. As the name implies, there were no rules in these sessions, and they often involved lots of screaming, violence, and group sex. Here’s Teertha:

[TEERTHA AUDIO] “Often people have patterns of anger, patterns of suppressed sex, patterns of violence and they don’t know about it. Often other people can see it, but they don’t see it. With a little more pressure, with a little exaggeration, they start to feel themselves. When they feel themselves, then they can see what they’re doing. When they see what they’re doing, then they have the choice of continuing it or dropping it. We’re not concerned in the group of changing people. We want somehow to show people themselves more clearly so they have the choice to see whether they want to continue what they’re doing, or whether they want to drop it, or change.”

Just a little pressure, a little exaggeration… in practice, this could mean physical or sexual violence against other participants. Teertha would also inflict what seems like emotional torture, like asking a married person to watch their spouse have sex with somebody else, just to prove their detachment.

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Despite the no-holds-barred approach to group therapy, participants had to be careful how they responded to what happened in those rooms. Bhagwan said that group therapy had an important spiritual purpose, requiring you to bring your doubts and insecurities to the surface and allow them to evaporate. But you had to surrender entirely to this process. If you didn’t join in with the other participants, you could be targeted by the group leader for verbal or physical assaults. If you lashed out at a group leader, or walked away from an uncomfortable session, you might as well keep walking through the ashram gate and never look back.

Now, as scary as group therapy may sound — it was actually a big draw for many Westerners, who saw it as a way to take action in dissolving their egos and participating in Bhagwan’s vision. But plenty of sannyasins who went through group therapy have said that its primary function was to brainwash and control the participants. Requiring them all to go through this conditioning ensured that people would do what they were told, even if they thought it was harmful, or a bad idea. Participants might come out of group therapy speaking differently, thinking differently, and criticising people who they felt weren’t surrendering enough. And the group leaders were treated like gods at the ashram. People would stop what they were doing and just admire them as they walked by. Various sannyasins have said that group leaders, who were primarily male, could pick any female sannyasin they wanted and compel her to have sex with them — as part of their “therapy.”

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So when Bhagwan gave his “prescription” to new arrivals, how did he know which courses they needed? Well, just like Laxmi slipping him personal information ahead of darshans, this was a bit of smoke and mirrors. Multiple people who worked at the Krishna House office have said that they would keep a chart showing available slots in each therapy group, and indicating whether men or women were needed to balance the group out. Bhagwan would receive this chart before darshan each evening, and would simply assign sannyasins to groups based on where they needed bodies to fill seats. 

Once your Master told you that you needed therapy, who were you to argue? If you showed up at Poona with your husband, and Bhagwan told him to take the tantric sex group — essentially a multi-day orgy — without you, then that’s what you did. Only the privileged few, like Kate Strelley and Sheela, who worked in the office, could get out of therapy. Kate was terrified of encounter groups and did everything she could to avoid going. And Sheela, Laxmi’s assistant, attended only one encounter group, where they sat in a circle and shouted hate at each other and at a pillow in the center of the room. She took a shower afterwards and refused to do any more group therapy.

Others just did what they were told. And the more groups a person was told to attend, the more income for the ashram, which charged for these services. A single group with 25-30 participants could bring in the equivalent of $40,000 today. And there were dozens of groups going on at once. In short order, group therapy became one of the most important sources of income at the ashram.

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Within just a couple years of arriving at Poona in 1974, Laxmi and Bhagwan had established a glamorous, profitable, wildly successful ashram. But with great success comes great scrutiny. And when you think about somebody like Bhagwan, who loved prodding traditional beliefs and provoking outrage, scrutiny meant trouble.

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Next time on Buiding Utopia, we’ll see how the vice began to tighten around Bhagwan by the end of the 1970s. As word spread around the world about what exactly happened within the ashram walls — Bhagwan’s oasis began to feel more like an island surrounded by sharks. Scandals erupted, enemies were made, and by the end, Bhagwan needed a new home. Laxmi was on the case, but she had a rival in her midst, someone who had been watching and absorbing everything she did in running the ashram. Her young assistant, Sheela, had a plan of her own for Bhagwan, a long game that she was plotting with care. 

Poor Laxmi was about to learn how exactly her Master would reward her years of utter devotion to him. 

We hope you join us next time.

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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.