Inside Osholand: How Secrecy And Control Still Breed Within The Commune
This article was first published in MW’s June 2000 issue
Less than ten years after Osho ʻleft his bodyʼ, his commune is falling apart. His followers are fighting over his legacy — his methods of meditation, the copyright of Osho books and music, and even over his signature. Communes in other cities around the world are rebelling against the powerful Inner Circle that runs the Pune ashram. They accuse its Canadian head Swami Jayesh of being obsessed with secrecy and control. Aalif Surti, who has followed the story for many years, uncovers the chilling tale of this endgame.
To: The Inner Circle
Re: The Final Transmission
As you can tell, the end is nigh. This is the last message for now. Action starts very soon. The fire of consciousness will burn you very clean, very fast…
— e-mail sent to the Inner Circle by a former British Osho sanyasi, now a self-proclaimed enlightened mystic Ishwara Maitreya, who claims to channel e-mails from God, “the Source”.
What proof is there that Osho selected a group of twenty-one people to run the ashram after he had left his body? I wrote to the Pune ashram about two years ago, asking them for proof that Osho wanted an Inner Circle which would keep its workings secret. Does there exist a signed document with Osho’s signature approving this? Is there a tape recording? I don’t remember any discourse where He talks about an Inner Circle to take care of things after He leaves His body. The only answer I got, from Ma Shunyo of the IC, was, “Thank you for your letter”.
—e-mail posted on the ‘Friends Of Osho’ website, sannyas.net
I have just committed a criminal act. I’m flying home having just attended a meditation camp held at the Oshodham commune in Nepal. Two rows ahead of me on the Royal Nepal Airlines flight is the Osho disciple who conducted the camp, Swami Chaitanya Bharti. He met Osho in 1969, and was among the first to be given sanyas. In 1974, when Osho stopped conducting camps, he appointed Chaitanya Bharti to conduct camps on his behalf. When Osho ‘left his body’ in 1991, he left a message for Chaitanya Bharti to continue conducting camps as he had the capacity to take Osho’s message to the people. All of which should have made the Swami a venerated figure within the world of Osho. Except for one thing. In July 1993, the Inner Circle banned Chaitanya Bharti.
At the time, he had forcefully argued that the Inner Circle, formed after Osho passed away, was trying to create a monopoly on meditation. And that one man, Swami Jayesh’s all-consuming ambition was destroying Osho’s dream.
Today, seven years later, people are listening. The Osho Tapoban commune in Nepal has cut its links with the Pune commune. The Osho Chetana Centre in Bengal has refused to accept the Inner Circle’s conditions for the translation and publication of Osho’s books. After repeated disagreements, the Manan commune in Gujarat called for a meeting to decide on the scope of authority of the Pune commune. And one of Osho’s senior-most Indian disciples and head of the Osho Om Bodhisattva commune in Dehra Dun, Swami Narendra Bodhisattva, is planning to file a public interest litigation (PIL) later this year against the Inner Circle on the issue of copyright. The PIL says that the word ‘Osho’ is now a registered trademark owned by the Osho International Foundation, based in Zurich. All therapies and meditation techniques devised by Osho have a copyright, vested in the Foundation. The Foundation’s permission is necessary in order to conduct any of these therapies or meditations.
What this means is that the head of the Inner Circle, Swami Jayesh, has registered with himself, and a few unnamed “colleagues”, the copyright of almost everything connected with Osho, having by-passed the 21-member Inner Circle (almost two-thirds of whose original members have already left or were asked to leave anyway). It means he now controls, almost unchecked, a growing empire whose annual revenue has been estimated at $100 million, not counting revenue from the worldwide sale of books, audio cassettes and video tapes. What this also means is that the ten days of meditation I participated in, without written permission from the Osho International Foundation, was in violation of US copyright laws.
I am most definitely a criminal.
Things can be copyrighted, thoughts cannot be copyrighted, and certainly meditations cannot be copyrighted. They are not things of the marketplace. But perhaps the West cannot understand the difference between an objective commodity and an inner experience. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has copyrighted Transcendental Meditation and just underneath it you will find written TM — that means trademark! For ten thousand years the East has been meditating and nobody has put trademarks upon meditations.
— Osho, Om Shanti Shanti Shanti
To say that Swami Jayesh is obsessed with secrecy is a huge understatement. The PRO of the commune has in the past stated that a journalist had a greater chance of interviewing the Pope than meeting this head of the Inner Circle. The blue-eyed, Marlboro-smoking Jayesh has neither been interviewed nor ever photographed alone. Although he entertains guests in his permanent suite at the Oberoi in Mumbai, no reporter has been able to confirm that such a resident exists. Not many people in the commune apparently know about his whereabouts either.
In 1997, a Canadian journalist, Ric Dolphin, came to India to meet “the new Bhagwan”. He never got to meet him. Dolphin did, however, manage to piece together, from childhood friends and former associates of Jayesh in Canada, a shadow of a past about the mystery man.
Swami Anand Jayesh was born Michael O’Byrne to an Irish Catholic judge in Alberta, Canada. At twenty-one, he began dealing in real estate as an apprentice to his neighbour, a property developer called Jim Martin. Michael O’Byrne obviously had an early nose for real estate and the ability to think big. Michael came in touch with Bhagwan Rajneesh through his second wife and in December 1984, he and his brother D’Arcy showed up at Rajneeshpuram, Rajneesh’s ranch in Oregon. Newly christened as Swami Jayesh, Michael quickly rose in the ranks. In less than a year, he became an insider with the Hollywood Group, a powerful but devoted group around Rajneesh comprising Beverly Hills heiresses and movie folk.
The sprawling commune had a hotel, a disco, a casino, a bus service, a landing-strip for the five-airline ‘Air Rajneesh’, and ninety-three Rolls Royces. But it was falling apart. Osho himself was in silence. His secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, had hatched a bizarre plan to poison the water supply of the nearby town, Antelope, and to kill state and federal officials. Following FBI investigations, Ma Sheela fled the ranch with forty million dollars. The Hollywood Group protectively gathered around their beleaguered Bhagwan, but none of them had much by way of business sense and O’Byrne filled the vacuum, becoming a trustee with the Rajneesh Financial Services Trust.
Once the American utopia collapsed, Rajneesh chartered two Lear Jets for Bermuda with a group of sanyasis, including O’Byrne. They were arrested while trying to change planes in North Carolina. Rajneesh was charged with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution and thirty-five felony counts; only two minor charges could be proved. Jayesh himself had a run-in with the law. An Alberta court passed a judgement against O’Byrne for the non-payment of a series of Bank of Montreal demand loans totalling $1,318,069. O’Byrne was charged with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. He was granted bail but, in April 1986, failed to appear in court and forfeited the bail amount of twenty-five thousand dollars. The complaint was later dismissed.
By the time Rajneesh returned to Pune, Swami Jayesh had become his trusted lieutenant and when Osho ‘left his body’ on 19 January 1990, Jayesh was among the lead pall-bearers at the cremation. The next day, Osho’s personal physician Swami Amrito, announced that the Master had appointed a twenty-one member Inner Circle (IC) to run the commune after his death. Jayesh was to be its chairman and Amrito the vice-chairman: “The aim of the committee is to reach unanimous decisions about the continued functioning and expansion of the commune and Osho’s work. Osho said the committee was not to be involved in spiritual considerations, but should take care of practical problems of the commune. When any member dies, a new member is to be chosen unanimously by the remaining members.” Amrito also announced that Ma Anando, a former legal expert whom Osho had appointed his ‘medium’, was preparing a full account of Osho’s ‘guidance’. It was to be made available for all to read the following day.
After I am gone, someone will start running this place like an organization. They will force more and more rules and compulsions on you. That will be the day I cut off my links with this place.
— Osho, Mahageeta
The Inner Circle began to fall apart within a year. Ten of its members insisted that Osho had wanted a mystery school where sanyasis could explore the esoteric. Most of the others, chosen more for their business acumen, argued that Osho had wanted a Club Med-style meditation resort where people could recharge their spiritual batteries and play ‘zennis’. Jayesh’s one-time lover, Ma Hasya, headed the former. Jayesh backed the latter. Within a year, most members of the first group had resigned or were forced to resign. By 1994, twelve of the twenty-one members had left and the IC was filled with sanyasis aligned with Jayesh, including his brother, Yogendra.
The Inner Circle was trying to create a monopoly on meditation. And that one manʼs all-consuming ambition was destroying Oshoʼs dream.
Jayesh was soon proving that there’s no business like Osho business. Estimates put the yearly income of the therapy centre, the Osho Multiversity at Pune, at forty-eight million pounds. It collected approximately $1,000 per month from the 10,000-odd sanyasis who visited each winter. And there were around five hundred other communes and centres around the world.
Swami Narendra Bodhisattva says, “The commune had bought a sick cotton mill of the Poddars worth crores in Mumbai to build a transit hotel for overseas sanyasis coming via Mumbai (which is) now on sale. After the sale, the money will be automatically transferred to a bank account in Switzerland, which is controlled by Swami Jayesh.”
“In July 1996, during the Guru Purnima celebrations, money was collected from Osho sanyasis to build a dharamshala to facilitate accommodation of Indian sanyasis visiting Pune. Four years later, neither was the land purchased nor the dharamshala built. And no one knows where that money has gone except Swami Jayesh, Swami Mukesh and Swami Amrito.”
Through all this, the commune had transformed itself into a slick resort for stressed executives looking for a quick fix. Old sanyasis began to feel unwanted. In 1993, Indians within the ashram protested against the step-motherly treatment being meted out to them. An anonymous manifesto, ‘Inner Circle Hijacked by Priests and Politicians — The Mafia of the Soul,’ claimed Indians were being pulled out of groups when international TV crews came filming the commune and that even the Osho Now News edited footage so that Indians were not seen.
At the same time, weird rules were imposed under the garb of ‘Osho Guidance’ — such as the rule instructing sanyasis to wear only maroon swimming trunks and bikinis! Chaitanya Bharti says that when he asked to see the ‘Osho Guidance’, he was told by one IC member that it was a tape-recording, by another that it was a series of notes, and by yet another that it was a thick book. “To me, their obsessive secrecy was proof enough of wrong-doing. Here, they were telling me I couldn’t conduct ten-day meditation camps because it was Osho’s ‘guidance’. And not one of them could show me this ‘Osho Guidance’ or could even prove it existed! What really angered me was that they put Osho’s name on the rules they imposed. How could Osho have left guidance for us not to meditate for more than three days outside the commune? He taught us to meditate every moment!”
The powers-that-be began to crack down on this old disciple. In July 1993, Chaitanya Bharti was told that he had been banned because he was ‘negative’. The Osho Times refused to accept ads for Chaitanya Bharti’s longer camps. To counter this, the ‘rebel group’ produced a rival magazine, Osho Space. The IC reacted swiftly, suppressing distribution of all 15,000 copies of the first issue, and banning all those associated with the magazine.
The Inner Circle then began discouraging sanyasis from visiting other spiritual masters, even disciples of Osho who were believed to be enlightened. Any declaration of enlightenment by a sanyasi, however senior, automatically implied a ban.
Chaitanya Bharti continued to conduct ten-day meditation camps independently and though the Pune commune claimed that it did not interfere, this wasn’t true. In September 1996, the trustees of the Osho Manan commune in Gujarat, having invited Swami Chaitanya Bharti to conduct a ten-day meditation camp, were warned that if the camp were held, no one from the Pune commune would come there to conduct camps in the future and the Manan commune would be stripped of its right to confer sanyas.
Two Years Later, around eighty books from Osho’s personal library in the commune were discovered missing. Osho’s secretary for India, Ma Neelam, who was also an IC member, discovered that Jayesh had secretly taken them abroad “for safe-keeping” without informing anyone within the IC, despite knowing that Osho had insisted the books not be taken out of his library. It was this event, a source told me, that led to Ma Neelam’s highly-publicized parting of ways, though she herself has never said so publicly. Ma Neelam, Swami Chaitanya Keerti (the PRO of the commune), and another Indian IC member, Swami Tathagat, had wanted to call a press conference at this time. The trio secretly contacted a top Indian businessman and an Osho-lover, for advice. It is said that even Jayesh was wary of him because of his connections among political circles in Delhi. He advised them to remain silent and ordered Jayesh to return the books. Jayesh, never one to accept orders easily, returned the books, but without the fly-leaf containing Osho’s priceless signature paintings. None of the three Indian sanyasis spoke to the media on this issue. But all three left the commune under different pretexts.
On 6 Februrary 1999, Neelam “retired” along with Swami Tathagat, despite a last-ditch intervention by actor-MP Vinod Khanna. For many, her departure was the last straw. Swami Svatantara Sarjano, an Italian photojournalist who had been a well-known cook within the ashram for two decades, read out a statement in support of Ma Neelam during that evening’s White Robe Brotherhood meditation. For a while there was astonishment and confusion in the hall. Two sanyasis lifted him and tossed him out of the hall while others shouted for him to be brought back.
For the next few weeks, there was a wave of support from around the world for Sarjano and his ‘Lion’s Roar Movement’. But the rebellion was short-lived because its focal point, Ma Neelam, remained enigmatically silent. The media was sent a press statement in her name saying that she felt “hurt, upset and disappointed at discovering her personal situation being used for political ends”. In private, though, she continued to meet Sarjano and the other rebels. Sarjano recalls: “She felt that if she revealed all she knew, it would start a revolution and she would be at the head of it, which she didn’t want. When I told her that it was her responsibility to make a statement, she said, ‘I have left my Master’s house, his commune and my friends of a lifetime, and I’m sitting here with you having a cup of tea. Is that not a statement in itself?’ ”
A few months later, when the movement lost its momentum, Sarjano was banned from the commune. The official reason was that he had given an interview to India Today in which he had revealed that the price of food within the commune was being marked up 450 per cent despite Osho’s insistence that the commune should not seek to make a profit on food. “I was asked to apologise if I wanted to be accepted again in the commune,” Sarjano says today. “Here’s my apology: I apologise to Osho for not having the courage to speak up earlier. I apologise to all the Indian sanyasis who had been banned before me, especially to Swami Chaitanya Bharti, for not having raised my voice then. And I want to apologise to all Osho sanyasis and Osho lovers for staying within the commune and yet not doing anything against a criminal like Jayesh.”
But as the commune transformed itself into a slick resort for stressed executives looking for a quick fix, old sanyasis felt unwanted and began to seek living Masters.
There Is A Wall of silence around the commune. A month ago, the post of the PRO was discarded after the long-time incumbent, Swami Chaitanya Keerti, left for Delhi. The current head of the Press Office, Ma Richa, is on holiday. After repeatedly leaving messages on the answering machine, I get a phone call a week later from one Swami Devendra. He asks me to send him a copy of the magazine and e-mail information on its circulation and readership profile, the angle of my story, why I am writing it, and how it fits into the magazine. With amusement, I provide him the required information. There is no reply.
While AIDS may appear to be a preoccupation within the commune, it may be said that currently the most contagious disease within the commune is paranoia. An Indian member of the IC who had defended the commune in a local magazine was later asked on what authority he had spoken to the press.
“The Inner Circle is in a state of panic,” Swami Sarjano says. “They are scared of all the media attention. I got a call from the commune requesting me to sign a joint declaration with all those involved in the ‘Lion’s Roar Movement’ that there is nothing wrong going on within the commune. I set my conditions and they agreed. When I went there, Neelam was in a private meeting with Jayesh. Two hours later, she came out. She had refused. The meeting was abruptly cancelled. I have never seen them so scared.”
This fear is infectious. Last year, a colleague from another magazine visited Pune to cover the rebellion. The following day, she received blank calls in her hotel room and a mysterious phone call falsely informing her that her meetings had been cancelled. “I can’t talk on the phone, my phone is tapped,” Swami Narendra Bodhisattva tells me when I telephone him in Dehra Dun for an interview. This year, a journalist entered the commune posing as a theatre artiste. “It’s spooky,” she later told me, “I have interviewed people inside Arun Gawli’s den, and it was easier than this. This is like a cult. No one here is willing to talk!”
“This is like the Nazi regime,” Swami Utsav says. “You are afraid to talk to your own children for fear of being banned.” The former World Bank engineer had rebelled against the bias towards whites in 1993. He later joined hands with the 12,000-strong Patit Pawan Sanghatna in initiating an enquiry regarding discrimination, among other issues, within the commune. Sandeep Khardekar, state coordinator of the Patit Pawan Sanghatna, refuses to meet me in Koregaon Park. He picks me up from a “safe” location fifteen minutes away and takes me into the basement of an office across the street. “When I began the agitation against the commune,” he explains, “I began receiving calls from many top-level ministers ‘advising’ me not to pursue it. When I didn’t listen, they cut ties with me. Then I began receiving threatening phone calls.”
From a bulging file stuffed with articles and correspondence, he unearths a letter from the home minister’s office in Mumbai. “They say that that they are enquiring into my allegations. But there is nothing to ‘enquire into’ because all my charges — foreigners over-staying, drug-trafficking, hawala-dealings — have been proved time and again by the police. Now I believe only public pressure will work. Whatever pressure I have put on the state government, the police or the commissioner has not helped. They have contacts in high places.”
After the interview he telephones his source, who he refuses to name. Talking in rapid-fire Marathi, he appears increasingly excited. Fifteen minutes later he puts down the phone with a gleam in his eye. “Chaitanya Keerti has turned against the commune.” I tell him I find it incredible that a person who loyally defended the Inner Circle’s decisions against the rebels for ten years would suddenly speak out against it. Khardekar assures me, “He’s not with Jayesh, Mukesh or Amrito anymore. He’s secretly working from Delhi and is behind the current eruptions in the ashram. Now if only I can get him to go on record …”
Unbelievable as it sounds at first, Khardekar’s ‘source’ is correct. When I e-mail Keerti I receive a detailed reply about his disagreements with the IC. “When I came to know about the signatures,” he writes, “I did become very disturbed. Also because something very big happened and without the knowledge of the full Inner Circle, which meant that now the entire Inner Circle was not required to take such big decisions [collectively]. Instead of leaving the commune like Ma Yoga Neelam did, I decided to stay on. I wrote to the Inner Circle’s members, saying that they should show maturity and say goodbye to Neelam in a dignified way if she wants to leave, bring the signature paintings back where they all belonged … and so on. There was no written response to my letter, but some IC members did take the trouble to explain things to me. But I was not convinced. I had a lot of patience though; I kept arguing and fighting on many such issues. Other issues were of copyrights and royalties. This continued for a whole year.”
I tell him that Swami Chaitanya Bharti has said that he holds Indians such as Keerti and Neelam responsible for the current plight because they kept silent. He replies, “Making me and Neelam responsible for the current situation is throwing too much responsibility on two individuals. The Inner Circle has twenty-one members, five are Indians. Do the five IC Indians and other Indians in the commune have no responsibility? I was never part of the IC. The function of the spokesperson is [merely] to make the decisions of the commune known to the world. When I came to know that there was no harmony in the decisions, especially when Osho’s secretary Neelam left the commune, I did start objecting to some decisions. Do you think it is comfortable for you to continue to remain somewhere where you are disagreeing almost daily about most things?”
Finally, I ask him whether he has seen the mysterious Osho ‘Guidance’. He deftly sidesteps. “All of Osho’s guidance is available in his discourses for the whole of humanity,” he replies. “For other practical things for the centres in India, his publication work, he sent instructions through Ma Yoga Neelam. You should interview her.”
Ma Neelam is, true to her reputation, friendly on the phone. She hears me out patiently but politely declines to discuss the issue in the media, though she’s willing to discuss other matters. I jokingly suggest that she should write a book. “Maybe I will, but not this year,” she says, laughing.
The Commune, they say, has lost its heart. “The Osho School of Creative Arts within the commune has been shut down for almost a year,” one sanyasi reveals. “The music department has also not released any new albums for the last three-four years. If a musician wants to create an album, he has to pay the commune to do so, and the rights remain with the IC. Even if he performs a song from that album in a private concert, he has to pay royalties. Not even sanyasi musicians are willing to accept such absurd conditions. But the Inner Circle doesn’t care. They say that the music albums reach thousands, they want to reach millions. They are hypnotised by numbers … big numbers.”
But the numbers are not coming to Pune. Therapies at the Osho Multiversity are down to half. Even the Tibetan Pulsing Group, which at one point was earning the commune £40,000 per day, has left en masse for Italy. Now there are rumours that the Multiversity itself might shut down within a year. The fiasco at last year’s millennium celebrations showed just how far out of touch the Inner Circle is from the close-knit world of the sanyasi. The commune stated that they expected 40,000 disciples from all over the world to attend. Hotel rooms were booked by commune insiders from the start of the year in expectation of a black-market rate during the month-long celebrations. The actual number of sanyasis who came, according to a restaurateur, was barely five thousand.
And this summer, the streets of Koregaon Park are bare. Sophiya’s, a cosy second-hand bookshop that depends almost entirely on Western sanyasis, hasn’t had a single customer for days. “I don’t know how I’ll be able to cover my rent,” its owner says apprehensively. “Even last year, the peak season lasted barely two months. The landlord across the street has all his nine rooms empty. Yeh log kya kar rahe hain, kuch samajh mein nahin aata.”
Barely Two Days before I dispatch this article, the following e-mail appears on the ‘Friends of Osho’ website. It is written by Swami Chaitanya Keerti:
My concern is that three people sitting in some New York office and declaring themself as Headquarter (sic) is very dangerous for Osho’s publishing work as far as India is concerned. From NY, they can control everything safely and I don’t know who will be controlling. The names are not known to me. They are not public. Up to July last year, I was [a] trustee of Osho International Foundation in India and did not know who were the trustees in USA or Switzerland and who gave them the rights. Even today I don’t know. This is [a] very serious situation. We have been trusting everything thinking that they are Osho lovers and all the rights got transferred to USA, and all Osho signatures, paintings, which were always kept in Laotzu House, went to New York secretly. Now, even if you fight them in courts, there are no chances of bringing the rights back. Courts in America are [a] very, very expensive affair. From where will the money come to do all that?
All other things are being done, like removing Osho photos, changing to normal street clothes to create a smoke-screen so that the people forget about the real issues of copyright and patent which have been successfully registered in the USA. So forget everything and worry about how to bring the rights back to India where they belong. Here everybody is concerned and confused what to do. Finally everybody says let’s forget all this and meditate. It is a long story and I am a slow typist so I leave here.
Love to you,
On My Final Evening in Pune, I’m with one of Chaitanya Bharti’s disciples on a building terrace overlooking the fields and princely mansions of Koregaon Park. “There is another viewpoint to the entire situation,” he says. “The living master has gone. Now disciples are fighting over the carcass. It is time to move on.”
Chaitanya Bharti now runs a spiritual music company, Oorja Music, which creates music “based on Osho’s vision of music, dance and meditation”. At the insistence of those close to him, he now plans to start a commune of his own on land he has been offered in Nepal and India. He says that Osho’s true work will continue in this way. “What is Osho’s work? Marketing Osho’s books and tapes is not it. His real work is to awaken people. Disciples all over the world who have worked on themselves will awaken and continue Osho’s work. It cannot be stopped by any Inner Circle. Even Osho cannot stop it now.”
Image courtesy: Carlo Silvestro