Minisode 1: Dynamic Detours - Full Transcript

Introduction

This is a Building Utopia podcast “minisode.” In researching this series, I’ve come across so many people and events and random pieces of trivia that I find fascinating, but that just don’t fit into the main episodes. So I’ll be releasing some minisodes along the way — small detours that provide some color for topics that we’ve already touched on.

In today’s minisode, we’ll revisit Bhagwan as a boy, when he was known as “Raja,” and look at the life-or-death events that may have turned him into the brash, fearless guru we now know. Then we’ll sidle up to some of his earliest Western followers to see how they learned about Bhagwan and why they fell under his spell. We’ll end today’s episode at Bhagwan’s ashram in Poona, and learn about the not-quite-legal methods that some desperate sannyasins used to earn enough money to stay close to their Master.

Stick with us.

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PART 1 - Death Is Your Gift

In Episode 1 we glimpsed Bhagwan as a boy, when he was known by his nickname “Raja,” which means “king.” In some ways, Raja was the king of Gadarwara, India — where he had a gang of kids following him all over the place, doing risky stunts and challenging authority. Fearlessness, and confrontation, were always Bhagwan’s hallmarks — whether he was challenging national politicians, or thumbing his nose at government agents, or driving his Rolls Royce so fast that he and Vivek went a cliff in Oregon. Bhagwan would be the first to tell you that he didn’t fear anything — and in particular, he didn’t fear death. To the contrary, he claimed to have an intimate relationship with death.

But where did that come from? According to Bhagwan’s official biographer, Vasant Joshi, you can find the seeds of his fearlessness and his obsession with death in the back of a wagon… and in a deserted temple… and underneath a tree… and, perhaps, up in the stars.

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The whole family saw something special in young Raja, but it was his maternal grandfather who put the kid up on a pedestal, calling him “King,” treating him better than anybody else in the household. His grandfather asked a famous astrologer what Raja’s future would be. The answer that came back horrified him and everyone in the family. The astrologer predicted that Raja would face death every seven years and would almost certainly die by age twenty-one.

During his seventh year, they hovered around the boy, worried that Death could take him at any moment.

And… Death did visit him that year.

But not in the way they expected.

Raja’s grandfather. He suddenly couldn’t speak one day. The next day, no improvement. They stuffed the old man and his favorite grandson into a ox-drawn wagon and started the 32-mile trek to the closest town for help. In the back of that wagon, Raja got not just a glance — but a painfully long stare at Death. One by one, his grandfather’s faculties shut down. His breathing became shallow. It was clear he wouldn’t make it.

How did seven-year-old Raja interpret his grandfather’s gradual death, playing out right in front of him? 

At first, he felt like he had died himself. After his grandfather passed, Raja spent three days in bed, refusing to eat, telling his family that if his grandfather was dead, then so was he. When he finally did get out of bed, he realized the magnitude of what had happened: his grandfather had been the center of his world, and Death snatched him away without warning. The more he thought about it, the more he realized — to his surprise — that the experience… was freeing. Bhagwan later said that his grandfather’s death was for him the death of all attachments, all relationships. Aloneness became his nature. If he felt a relationship becoming too intimate, Bhagwan said he would remember Death staring at him in the back of that wagon.

His family moved to the town of Gadarwara after that, where Raja formed his gang that ran wild. He knew that Death could come at any moment, and he did not intend to let his fears stop him from any thrilling experience. But despite his bluster, little Raja became obsessed with death. He loved to watch strangers’ funerals, and he’d particularly pay attention to how people experienced the phenomenon of a loved one’s dying. Especially galling to him was when people talked about inane things and looked away from the body, avoiding Death rather than confronting it.

By the time he turned fourteen, his family was talking about the astrologer’s prediction again. Raja told them, if Death is going to visit me again this year, I’m going to meet it head-on, consciously. He took a seven-day leave from school, and he spent those days in an isolated temple, eating and drinking just once a day, waiting for Death to come. While he lay there, he felt himself growing absolutely fearless. Bhagwan later said that a poisonous snake slithered over his body, and he felt nothing. Flies crawled across his face, and he just ignored them.

Death never arrived in that temple, but Raja later said the experience taught him to confront and set aside his fears. “If you accept death,” he said, “a distance is created. Life moves far away with all its worries, irritations, everything.”

Seven years later, the astrologer’s final prediction came true. Death took Raja at the age of 21. 

At least, the person who had been Chandra Mohan Jain, or Raja, died. All that remained was a shell of a body, connected by a silver thread to the spiritual being that became known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. That year, at age 21, he attained enlightenment.

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Now, who knows if any of this really happened. This is the story that Bhagwan and his family and friends shared with Vasant Joshi as he put together Bhagwan’s biography, at the height of his international celebrity, when everyone was trying to figure this guy out.

It’s always hard to know what’s true or false in the Rajneeshee world. But, I do believe that Bhagwan felt that he had a special relationship with Death. He spoke about it all the time. And his insistent message was that once you accept the reality of death and stop fearing it, you immediately become more powerful. It opens possibilities that would otherwise be closed. This was a bedrock tenet of Bhagwan’s philosophy — the ultimate reason that he told his followers to cast aside their personal connections, their families, their jobs, their comfy bourgeois lives — and put themselves in his hands, on the path toward enlightenment.

Personally, I believe that Bhagwan’s own path started in the back of that wagon, when a young boy was forced to confront the trauma and brutal reality of Death.

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PART 2 - How They Came To Bhagwan

People came to Bhagwan in so many different ways. And generally speaking, he took them as they were. He didn’t care if you were an expert on Eastern philosophy and meditation, or if you had no experience in those things whatsoever. Bhagwan imposed no minimum requirements to become a sannyasin — other than a willingess to surrender to him completely.

This resulted in fantastic diversity among his followers, especially when he was first starting to gather disciples in Bombay. They ran the gamut from those who were already deeply involved in the human potential movement and encounter therapy, to people like his companion, Vivek, who stumbled upon Bhagwan at a lecture and just fell in love with him. Sheela’s the same way: although she’s Indian and was raised around Eastern spirituality, she’d be the first to tell you that she thought all the meditation and disciple stuff was kind of corny. And yet she was as devoted to Bhagwan as anybody. She too fell in love with him by just sitting at his feet and staring into his eyes.

But many others came to Bhagwan because they appreciated his message and believed in his practices. Let’s take a look how some of his earliest followers came to know and love him.

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We’ve gotten to know Bhagwan’s bodyguard, Shiva — or Hugh Milne — across the first couple episodes. Before he ever heard of Bhagwan, Shiva was already acquainted with the 1960s counterculture movement. Although he was a successful osteopath working in London, he felt an emptiness that made him want to explore things like group therapy and tantric sex. In the early 70s, he ended up at a meditation center in London, doing something he had never heard of called Dynamic Meditation. An intense Indian man stared down at him from a signed photograph hung prominently in front of the room. They were surrounded by Indian fabrics that the group leader, fresh off the plane from Bombay, had brought with her.

She led Shiva and the others through the steps of Dynamic Meditation: ten minutes of hyperventilation; ten minutes of screaming or laughing or crying or just letting go; ten minutes of vigorously repeating the Sufi mantra “Hoo Hoo Hoo”; and finally complete stillness and silence. After that, the group leader put on a cassette recording of one of Bhagwan’s discourses. As Shiva describes it in his memoir, “The melody of his words captured my enthusiasm and imagination. He was asking me to dance with him, and said it in words of love. It all made total and immediate sense.”

Shiva kept coming back each morning, doing the Dynamic, listening to new discourses, and he felt his connection with Bhagwan deepening. The lectures ranged across every important subject, but Shiva was particularly interested in what Bhagwan had to say about sex and relationships. It became clear to him that this faraway Indian guru was no celibate monk, but rather an experienced practitioner of the “intimate arts.”

In short order, Shiva wrapped up his affairs in London and flew to Bombay. He figured this Bhagwan fellow could teach him a thing or two about sex — in both practice and philosophy. He got exactly what he wished for. Not only did Shiva become a member of Bhagwan’s inner circle and his first real bodyguard, but he also gained a reputation as the “ashram stud” in the Poona years. 

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The woman who led Shiva’s first Dynamic Meditation in London, named Veena, had stumbled upon Bhagwan herself. She hadn’t been looking for a guru, or enlightenment, or sex advice, or anything like that. Veena was a South African model who’d bounced back and forth between Canada and England after college. She fell in with the beautiful people in London, hanging out at art galleries and flirting with drugs. In 1971, a man asked her to go to India with him, and she thought, “Sure, why not?” There she found a bunch of Westerners on some sort of spiritual journey that she didn’t really understand, or care about. It just wasn’t her thing.

While she and her boyfriend were at a beach, a documentary film crew asked to take their picture. A woman on the crew dressed all in red told Veena about this guy Bhagwan and how amazing he was. Veena rolled her eyes and thought how fake it all sounded.

But her boyfriend was intrigued, and he persuaded her to stop by Bhagwan’s apartment on their last afternoon in Bombay. Some Western sannyasins were hanging out, spouting things that sounded like total garbage to Veena. Bhagwan summoned the couple into his room. He started with Veena’s boyfriend, slicing into him with questions and comments that cut him to the core. Then Bhagwan turned to Veena and asked what she was looking for. As she later described it to a reporter, she responded, “I’m quite happy as I am, thank you. I’m just waiting to fly home to London.” And Bhagwan said, “Cancel your flight.”

And she did, to the surprise of her and her boyfriend. She wasn’t sure about the whole guru thing, but Bhagwan struck her as an amazingly talented psychologist and a great intellectual, and she thought she could learn something from him. But after a few days of doing Dynamic Meditation in Bombay, Veena deeply regretted her decision to stay. She found that she hated doing the Dynamic, she hated Indians, and she hated being in India. She packed her bags, but as she reached the train station a sannyasin rushed up to her with a message from Bhagwan, imploring her to come back. In his room, Bhagwan persuaded Veena to give it a little more time. The next day she returned to his room, and.. something happened there. As Veena described it to the reporter: “I suddenly went into another dimension. I sat there staring for an hour. Nothing was said. Everything fell away. I became bodyless. I sat there knowing myself, knowing I needed this man, knowing that this was what I was looking for all my life.”

That’s all it took. Veena became a Dynamic Meditation leader, a Rajneeshee recruiter, and during the Oregon years in the 1980s, she was a commune spokesperson. Bhagwan trusted Veena enough to send her to London to open the very first Rajneesh Meditation Center outside India. There she captured Shiva and so many others, who ended up making the pilgrimage to Poona.

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Some of Bhagwan’s disciples gave up literally everything to be with him. There are many examples of this in the stories of former sannyasins, but Satya Bharti leaps to my mind.

Raised in a wealthy Jewish family on the East Coast, Satya married as a teenager and had three children by her early 20s. But she found her marriage to be stifling and loveless, and she and her husband separated while the children were still young. For the first time, Satya felt free to be herself and date men that she found exciting. Her writing career took off, as she published poems in literary journals and started on a novel. 

And then her life changed completely at a tea party in 1971, where she chatted with a woman in an orange robe and a necklace bearing Bhagwan’s image. She had just returned from India, where she’d met the guru and taken sannyas. To Satya, this woman with no makeup, no expensive clothes — looked absolutely radiant. She invited Satya to try Dynamic Meditation at her house, but she warned her that sometimes it took a few sessions for it to “click.” 

But Satya? As she put it in her memoir, before that first meditation session was over she was crying hysterically, and had regressed to her childhood, and felt like she was learning to walk for the first time. After that, she hunted down all of Bhagwan’s available discourses. Like with Shiva, his message ensnared Satya immediately. When he talked about people living in self-constructed prisons, and his desire to help them open up to the world and worldly experiences - he was speaking directly to her. 

Over time, the meditation seemed to help Satya dissolve her psychological blocks, although it came at a price: the sessions were emotional torture, causing her to scream and writhe around and relive early traumas. But afterwards… she felt bliss and aliveness.

Satya took sannyas in August 1972, at a Rajneesh Meditation Center in upstate New York. Bhagwan and Laxmi had concocted a creative mail-order system where prospective disciples could write to him in Bombay and receive a mala necklace and a new sannyasin name through the mail. With her new identity, Satya dyed all of her clothes orange and taped Bhagwan’s picture above her bed. This enraged her boyfriend, who said she had to choose between sleeping with him or sleeping with Bhagwan. 

She chose Bhagwan.

Within months of taking sannyas, Satya felt drawn to visit her Master in India. But there was one pesky problem: her three children, aged 6, 9, and 10. Her ex-husband agreed to take the kids for a while so she could go… but as the trip drew closer, Satya decided it would be in everybody’s best interest if her husband took full custody of the children. Whether consciously or not, Satya was setting the stage so that she had the freedom to stay at her Master’s feet as long as she — or he — wanted. No attachments back in America forcing her to return. She could surrender entirely to him.

As she discusses in her memoir, Satya found lots of ways to rationalize her decision at the time, and over the following years. It was better for the kids. They could avoid a messy custody dispute. Her son wouldn’t have an overbearing mother in his life. But ultimately… Satya lived apart from her kids for 13 years without really knowing why she did it. It felt inevitable. Bhagwan’s energy, the way it was shaping her life and making her a better person, was compelling her to leave her family behind.

Who was she to stand in the way of that powerful force?

Years later, Satya Bharti wrote a fantastic memoir about her experience with the Rajneeshees, called The Promise of Paradise. She wrote it as a way to explain to her children why she left them to follow Bhagwan. And even then — even after she claims she had been poisoned by Rajneeshees in India, and put on a “hit list” to be killed if she left the organization, and spied on, humiliated, pushed around — Satya says the only thing she regretted about the whole experience… was the pain she had caused her three children.

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PART 3: How to Make a Rupee

Being a sannyasin wasn’t cheap. It certainly wasn’t free. To be a disciple at Bhagwan’s first ashram in Poona, you either became an ashram worker, laboring around the clock for no wages, or you paid for everything, including housing, food, and therapy courses. Beyond these living expenses, sannyasins were also encouraged — regularly, and strongly — to make donations to the ashram. This was especially the case for those with the personal means or family wealth to make significant contributions. Laxmi and her staff were relentless in hounding well-off sannyasins for money.

But what happened to the people who didn’t have enough  money pay what the ashram expected? Some found money by just asking around and cobbling together what they could from those willing to give it. Some set up cottage industries, like making clothes, giving Tarot-readings, drawing up astrological charts, baking cookies. Some became sex workers, camping out in the lobbies of swanky Bombay hotels until they had enough money to come back to Poona. 

Occasionally, struggling sannyasins would be summoned to the Krishna House office and told that they must return to their home country to save up money, and return later. This would come as devastating news, since the disciples believed that being close to Bhagwan improved their spiritual growth and their chances of attaining enlightnment. And now they were essentially being exiled for lack of money.

But according to ashram insiders, the leadership sometimes had ulterior motives for sending these Western sannyasins home. Satya, who ended up working at the ashram for years, says that nearly everybody traveling to the West was asked to smuggle contraband in their luggage. In Satya’s case, when she visited America it was $100,000 in traveler’s checks. Per Sheela’s instructions, she was to deposit the money in her own bank account and then immediately transfer it to strangers around the world. She wrote this off at the time as a common occurrence even beyond the ashram: people finding ways to sneak money out of India.

It was harder to write off the ashram’s other major export. Sannyasins returning to the West might end up as drug mules. There are reported stories about sannyasins arriving in Europe with large amounts of drugs, but there’s still debate about whether or not the ashram leadership was in on the smuggling. Laxmi did reach far and wide for donations, and she didn’t fuss too much about where the money was coming from. So it’s possible she just turned a blind eye.

But, according to some first-hand accounts, the leadership actively participated in a drug smuggling operation intended to bring in large amounts of money. Kate Strelley, who we met in Episode 2, worked in Krishna House under Sheela, so she had a front-row seat to observe these transactions. She writes in her memoir that ashram staff would select vulnerable Western sannyasins who might be amenable to becoming a drug mule, and then call them in to the office and tell them they had to return to the West… and couldn’t come back until they had lots of money. 

And then… lo and behold… a local dope dealer would approach the dejected sannyasin and offer an amazing opportunity: carry a “briefcase” back home with you, and you’ll get a big chunk of cash in return. It will be enough to allow you to hop right back on the plane and return to your Master — and make a sizeable donation to the ashram. It was engineered to be a perfect deal for everybody: the dealers got their drugs safely to the West, the sannyasins got to return immediately to Poona, and the ashram received the proceeds from the deal.

The offer was difficult to refuse — especially for those intoxicated by Bhagwan and desperate to be close to him. Kate Strelley says a lot of sannyasins did it.

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Shiva writes in his memoir that Laxmi and Bhagwan knew about the drug running. He writes that when a disciple was about to make a drug run, he would get Bhagwan’s blessing by going to him for darshan and asking “whether it was a good time to go to Thailand.” According to Shiva, Bhagwan knew this was a code, and he would provide the sannyasin with auspicious dates to make the trip.

The smugglers knew to trim their hair, put on regular clothes, and say nothing about Bhagwan while they were moving drugs out of India. In fact, some former Rajneeshees have said that it was obvious who was about to transport drugs to the West because they suddenly had short hair and clean appearances. The threat of getting caught was very real, and nobody wanted to draw more negative attention to the ashram. In the late 70s, three swamis were arrested in Yugoslavia with 50 kilos of marijuana tucked into the frame of their minibus. They refused to name Bhagwan, and Satya says they were given a hero’s welcome when they returned to the ashram. 

But in 1980, three English sannyasins were arrested in Paris transporting drugs… and they flipped fast, saying that group therapy had “brainwashed” them into becoming criminals.

When the Rajneeshees moved to America in the early 80s, Sheela made a big production of banning all illegal drugs at the new commune. Visitors were subjected to searches of their bodies, vehicles, and luggage, and were asked explicitly whether they had any drugs. If so, they’d be barred from entering the property and might be turned over to the police — even for tiny amounts of marijuana. This came as a shock to some of the free-wheeling, free-loving, former hippies who had swelled the Rajneeshee ranks in the 70s. 

As we’ll see in future episodes, the ban on drugs was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Sheela’s dramatic reforms for Bhagwan’s community. Maybe in the past, sannyasins depended on things like drug running and prostitution to stay close to their Master. But in Sheela’s new commune, the only currency would be grueling labor — and the willingness to surrender entirely… to Sheela.

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Building Utopia is researched, written, narrated, and produced by me, Rusty King. 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.