This story was first published in MW’s November 2010 issue
The worldwide obsession with Wild Wild Country, the Netflix documentary on Bhagwan Rajneesh’s stay at the infamous ashram in Oregon is a good time to replug our article from November 2010. It details our writer’s shitty experience inside the godman’s Pune Ashram.
It’s 9 am on a rainy September morning when I walk into the hallowed Welcome Centre of the Osho International Meditation Resort in upscale Koregaon Park, Pune. A curly-haired Indian swami scrutinises me from behind the counter and greets me suspiciously. I have been through this before — he’s the overweight Jat bouncer outside a Delhi club yelling in broken English that it’s an expat night.
I am almost tempted to blurt my rehearsed Delhi reply — “Do you know who I am?” But this is a spiritual retreat and I know that Ego is the biggest deterrent in the search for Oneself. I turn my humble self to the blonde lady next to him who returns my smile. Slush (the dodgey swami version of curly-haired guitarist Slash) butts into my breakthrough and snorts — “Aapki kya madad kar sakte hain?” (How can I help you?)
Once again, I lend my undivided attention to the blonde telling here that I am here to shed inhibitions and seek myself. Slush doesn’t like to be ignored. This time he’s a bit aggressive and switches to English — “What do you know about Osho?” I tell the blonde that I’ve heard great things about the man’s scientifically approved Dynamic Meditation Technique and would like to enroll myself to benefit from it. Slush wants me to show him an ID. He refuses my driver’s license and just when I decide to show him who the boss is, a senior swami nods at Slush to allow me access. Reluctantly, Slush hands me the welcome form and mentions the mandatory HIV test. “It will cost Rs 1510. Is that fine?” he tries his luck one last time.
I am officially a swami after investing in a maroon robe and proving myself HIV-free. The blonde, after handing over my resort pass, gives me a quick tour of the establishment. She’s only a week old in that maroon robe having signed up for the Work as Meditation programme where you get to work at the resort which, apparently, is a sort of meditation in itself. A bored burly Indian swami at the Information Centre hands me a book on Osho meditations and points me to the Osho Plaza cafe. Here I am surrounded by more marooned swamis filling up on nicotine and Goa guidebooks before heading for their next scheduled meditation session. I check the events calendar and see that it’s time for the 45-minute Dance Celebration in the Buddha Grove. Within minutes, the speakers blare mainstream cheese and it’s time to gyrate to Beyonce in the cemented grove. I think twice but finally decide against it. I was never a Beyonce fan.
Instead, I explore the resort, which is spectacular and a treat for one’s senses. Peacocks wail occasionally when you walk the paths in the rainforest greenery punctuated by the occasional waterfall and meditation space. You could really be anywhere in the world. The Osho Auditorium — a massive pyramidal structure — is another architectural marvel which looks perfect for a concert and that’s pretty much what some of the sessions seem to me. Osho believed in dancing as a form of catharsis, which is why most of the meditations are like raves minus the drugs — spontaneous gyrations to some outdated groove on a loop. At around 6 pm, there is a sudden sense of purpose in the resort. It’s time for the Evening Meeting aka the White Robe Brotherhood. I am told to have a soap-less shower, change into a white robe and silently shuffle into the eerily quiet auditorium with the rest.
Some ‘80s instrumental pop-rock music starts playing and the white robe brotherhood goes ballistic. So do I. After all, Osho wanted everyone to come to him with a non-judgmental mind. Every few minutes the music reaches a crescendo followed by an abrupt ending — a cue for everyone to raise their hands and scream “OSHO!” This happens for about half an hour after which the audience finally calms down. The auditorium plunges into complete darkness and a massive screen comes alive with a mug-shot video of a man who Khushwant Singh once called “the most original thinker that India has produced”. I am reliving a George Orwell novel. The sermon is almost hour-long where Osho talks about barbarous minds that think only of meanness and mediocrities. These are the minds that are eventually instrumental in barbarous acts by creating differences and meanness in the world. He signs off with two bad jokes that have nothing to do with the sermon. It’s another cue. This time everyone has to laugh-out-loud whether they got the joke or not. I find the jokes funny but then, strangely, so does the Iranian guy next to me who doesn’t understand a word of English. All of a sudden, Osho raises his hands.
This time the crowd is to launch into gibberish — 15 minutes of nonsensical talk or in Osho’s words — “Speak Chinese if you don’t know Chinese!” There’s a drum gong — the final cue — and this time everyone collapses “like a bag of rice”. Osho’s comforting voice booms in the darkness telling everyone to make this a life-changing moment and finally become a Buddha. The meeting’s over and you are now free to become Zorba — the social and more materialistic side of the sedate but spiritual Buddha. To encourage this, there’s a karaoke happening at the Plaza where the swamis, now in jeans and skirts, sing Hotel California-esque songs. The cafeteria doubles up as a bar and Marc — the bartender for the night — pours me a stiff one. Marc’s a Californian who looks like an ageing rockstar but is actually a construction worker with a history of drugs, alcohol and women. Once the debauchery got to him, he found himself here where he will spend 90 days of his life… without really weaning himself from the “real world”. Has it worked so far? “Oh yeah… it’s been great but honestly I thought it would be easier to score,” he winks. The karaoke is now hijacked by a bunch of girls crooning a Backstreet Boys number.
I find myself getting used to the maroon robe and the bohemian ashram. Maybe even secretly enjoying it. The early morning Dynamic Meditation lives up to its reputation and feels like an hour on the treadmill with some soul-searching added for extra benefits. Most of Osho’s meditations are packed with ancient meditation techniques from all over the world, making him — in the words of one of his former disciples — “a greatest hits compilation artiste!” Many Osho-ites move on to more intense meditation techniques and no-frills lifestyles while the Osho International Meditation Resort remains a sort of easy entry into spirituality, kind of “Spirituality for Dummies”.
At 9.30 am, I am called in for a Welcome Session — a quick talk through the philosophy and activities at the ashram. Along with about 11 other newbies, I am led by a rather delightful but hungover Australian Osho veteran into a room where, once again, we are all asked to sway to some bad tunes. My group — roughly aged 21 to 60 — includes Irish, Iranian, Israeli, Australian, Spanish, French, American and a few Indians. The leader gives us a run-through of Osho’s teachings of religious, political and socialist non-conformity and the need to start breaking free of the layers that modern society imposes upon us. It’s a just cause although most of what Osho advocated — atheism, search for self and capitalism — has long since happened and brought with it, its own share of problems. I am convinced that Osho is like David Lee Roth — perfect only for that time and era and worth a listen once in a while.
A tongue-in-cheek and almost self-deprecating “Welcome Video” produced by some resident Osho members sets the mood after which we are led back to the Welcome Centre. Here the Indian men in the group are ushered to a corner where Slush reappears — this time with an elderly Indian sanyasin, Ma Sadhana. A longstanding spokeperson of the Osho Ashram, Sadhana launches herself onto us by accusing every Indian male on earth to be chauvinistic, desperate and cultureless. “You treat your women badly. How come none of you have your wives or sisters with you? I’ll tell you why — because you want them to stay in the kitchen. You want your women to stay at home while you go out and seek other women,” she barks. After the earlier light-hearted initiation session, I wonder if she’s just riding the tide and laugh at her “joke”. Bad idea. She snaps at me — “That kind of stuff is not tolerated here. This is an international resort with its own rules even though it’s in India. The foreigners here should be left to themselves.”
She then looks at Venkat, a 23-year-old soft-spoken NRI software consultant from Chennai and a seasoned Osho disciple. “I know you have a fascination for gori chamdi (white skin),” she says pointing to her wrinkled skin for added effect. “You will see foreign women here and I know you will want to hang out with them, talk to them and maybe even stalk them. I know your meditation will be focused on women in bikinis,” she looks at an aghast 30-year-old T L Mazumdar, an accomplished Bengali musician who lives between India and Germany. “I don’t want you guys to talk, look, socialise or even be near any foreign women. If I hear of any such thing, you will be kicked out. Stay away from the white people.” She exits leaving behind a traumatised generation of global Indians who’ve probably experienced as much wealth, decadence and urban life as the rest of the inmates in her swank resort.
I look at the Aussie leader for some sort of support but he simply shrugs. Clearly she’s the boss around here. It’s a long day from hereon and the whole spiel about self-awareness and losing one’s social conditioning doesn’t make sense anymore. “I’ve never been through such a humiliation. I used to be a regular here and am returning after five years of recovering from a serious accident. The least she could do is a background check,” says Rajesh — a 34-year-old astrologer from Mathura — almost in tears. I buy him coffee and agree with him. Clearly there have been cases of harassment in the ashram caused mostly by desperate Indian men but stereotyping by nationality still qualifies as being racist (reverse). Ironically, it also stands against Osho’s philosophy. I am reminded of the barbarous mind sermon the day before.
Post dinner, there’s a party at the Plaza where, over a few drinks, I decide to bring up the morning event with my new friends — Emil, a financial consultant from NYC and Robert, a tech-geek from DC. They both landed here out of sheer curiosity having scoured the web for a place in India where you could “chill and get spiritual”.
“Don’t let it get to you, man. Get the most out of the meditations and forget about the witches,” says Robert as he gets a drink for the Israeli girl sitting next to us while I ignore her as per protocol. I see the Indian guys huddled around a table almost scared and pretending that the frivolity around them doesn’t exist. I see Slush clearly working the Zorba in him with some “gori chamdi” over a vodka. I see Venkat in his neatly ironed new clothes standing alone in a corner at complete unease with himself. I see the Iranian man massage an Israeli woman in jest — while their friends share the harmless joke. I hear the burly Indian swami — now drunk — ask a French girl to join his empty table and learn about yogic powers. I am paranoid that Ma Sadhana is watching me right now, waiting for me to make some kind of wrong move. I feel it’s time to get the hell out of this place. Emil and I get into an auto, head to the nearest bar and drink ourselves silly with a bunch of youngsters who discuss girls, money, sex, religion, politics and war. “Who wants Osho, man?” says an elated Emil and gets his picture clicked with the “homies”. “Anyway the music sucked!”
Illustration by Kunal Kundu