POONA, INDIA -- Do not say Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh is dead. He has simply left his body. As the marble plaque over his ashes says, "Never Born, Never Died, Only Visited This Planet Earth."
People still flock to him, spiritually speaking, by the tens of thousands. No longer the world's most famous sex guru, he's now called Osho, and he's here somewhere, or more precisely, everywhere, in this Buddhafield. Disciples -- don't call them followers -- come to bask in his energy, dance, meditate, participate in the White Robe Brotherhood and find the center of themselves.
Does this weirdness sound vaguely familiar?
Picture yourself propped up in bed watching "Nightline." It's September 1985, and the evil Sheela, hot-tempered and slightly seductive, is ranting and raving at Ted Koppel and antagonizing the nation. Videotape shows a Rolls-Royce driving up the Oregon hillside. An infirm old man with a dark beanie, long gray hair and a waist-length beard smiles serenely and waves gently to hundreds of devotees who line the road, a diamond-encrusted watch sparkling from his wrist.
His Oregon neighbors don't know what to do. A few years ago, hippies bought 125 square miles of deserted land and began building a city. They imported 3,500 homeless people from around the country to vote in elections and stacked the local council with their people, then changed the name of the town from Antelope to Rajneeshpuram. Many of them were foreigners who wore funny robes and worshiped the old man, an Indian guru who hated Jesus. There were rumors of wild sex orgies, contaminated local water supplies, an arsenal of automatic weapons, electronic bugging and attempted murders.
Then, as suddenly as the commune sprang up, the controversy fades. The feds move in, deport the old man for immigration fraud and send the hippies packing. Order restored. American values protected. End of story.
After the self-proclaimed Enlightened Master left his body on Jan. 19, 1990, at the age of 58, some of his disciples got a little enlightenment of their own and launched Osho Commune International, a 32-acre, five-star meditative Disneyland in this city south of Bombay, where frazzled executives and backpacking vagabonds come for a physical and spiritual tuneup. The chief attraction is an array of classes on dozens of different types of meditation.
Osho's teachings were all about transformation, and that's exactly what's happening to his public image here. Armed with a keen sense of marketing, thousands of taped discourses in which Osho explains his philosophies and a deep belief in the man's greatness, his disciples have revised and revived the Osho mystique, glossing over his shortcomings and making him more popular in death than he ever was in life.
Press accounts have become more favorable by the year. About 10 million copies of his books -- translated into 35 languages -- have been sold, breaking onto bestseller lists from South Korea to Italy. Commune officials claim there are 750 Osho meditation centers in 60 countries, 50 of them in the United States, including 14 in California, eight in New York and one in Rockville. Officials at the commune claim Osho -- the name is a Buddhist term that means "on whom the heavens shower flowers" -- has a worldwide following of about 1 million people, about 150,000 of them so-called sannyasins, or hard-core disciples.
The jewel in the crown of what could be called Osho Inc. is the Poona commune, a cross between theme park, resort, college campus and pilgrimage center.
Visitors, who must wear red robes during the day and white robes at night, stay in hotels and guest houses outside the commune, which has four vegetarian restaurants, a lush 12-acre garden, a massive swimming pool, tennis courts and huge black granite pyramid-shaped buildings with meditation halls. Children under age 12 are not allowed.
All that's required for admittance is 20 rupees (about 60 cents) and a negative HIV test (cost: about $3) administered at the gate. (Osho preached that the time and mind suspension achieved during orgasm was the closest thing to the blissfulness of real meditation. Rather than doing the latter at the expense of the former, many of his disciples apparently think the two go pretty well together.)
The commune is clearly a popular destination for the Woodstock generation. Music and dance are constants. At 3 p.m. one recent day, everyone stopped whatever he was doing to dance, packing the walkways of the complex with free-spirited, writhing bodies. After 15 minutes the music stopped, and thousands raised their hands to the sky and screamed in unison, "O-sho!," then stood in complete silence for the next 15 minutes, like a garden of human obelisks.
The anniversary of Osho's death is the high point of the year at the commune. At last month's observance, Osho's name was shouted in chants and incorporated into songs, and his picture was plastered everywhere.
All of which begs the question: Who is Osho, or what was he? Is he a teacher, philosopher, sex fiend, savior, human-potential pioneer, charismatic cultist, pop psychologist, prophet, New Age therapist, Eastern mystic or marketing phenomenon? Most people here are reluctant to answer, saying that he is different things to different people, and that labels don't apply. He is all of the above or none of the above, as you wish, they say. He is a mirror of yourself, a gateway to a higher level of consciousness, a catalytic agent.
What is clear after a few days at the commune is that many if not most sannyasins revere him with a devotion normally reserved for major religious figures and spiritual masters, such as Jesus, Buddha or Laotzu. At the same time, people are quick to note that Osho abhorred organized religion, believing it was the root of many of the world's problems.
"He always said that he was just an ordinary person," said Deva Anando (Divine Bliss), formerly an attorney in Melbourne and Osho's personal secretary "from 1986 until he was disembodied."
She continued: "People who want a father figure turn him into a father figure. People who want a god turn him into a god. He's not responsible for our projections."
Forget that hundreds of young people submitted to sterilization at his bidding. Forget that in the '70s, his therapeutic techniques involved violent encounter sessions where people were encouraged to act out their wildest fantasies, allegedly including rape. Forget that he did nothing while his top lieutenants -- chiefly Ma Anand Sheela, his personal secretary at the time -- poisoned 750 people in a town near the Oregon commune by contaminating the salad bars of 10 restaurants with salmonella bacteria. Sannyasins claim he did not know exactly what Sheela was doing in his name, but permitted the whole sorry affair as a way of teaching them that power corrupts.
Today, according to sannyasins, Osho's message is simple: Have a good time.
"Our commune is a very liquid religiousness," Osho said before his death. "It is not an organization, it is just a meeting place of people who have dropped all conditionings, all religions, all ideologies ... who have decided that all the saviors have failed. Now the only way is to save yourself."
To accomplish this, Osho advocated meditation for everyone, but his technique was revolutionary, beginning not with stillness and silence but with violent activity to release pent-up energy and emotions, leading to a state of calmness in which meditation can flourish.
Devotees believe that Osho's lingering aura creates a "Buddhafield" that helps them to get into a meditative state, making this is an ideal place for people to learn the dozens of meditations he designed.
There's swimming meditation, dancing and martial arts meditation, smoking meditation, walking meditation, breathing meditation and meditation for couples. There's Mystic Rose meditation -- seven days of laughing for three hours a day, followed by seven days of crying for three hours a day, and finished with seven days of complete stillness for three hours a day. Some of the meditations are free; others can cost as much as $20 per day.
Celebration, With Video
On the anniversary of his death, about 1,200 people in white robes crowded into Buddha Hall, a half-acre white marble floor covered by a huge plastic tarp and the largest mosquito netting in the world, for the White Robe Brotherhood. It is the final meditation of the day, every day, 365 days of the year.
It started with 45 minutes of wild, euphoric dancing. At the end of each song by a live rock band, there was one beat of total silence, then a single deafening shout, "O-sho!" by the assembled crowd, arms upstretched. The Enlightened Master's chair was carried in and placed on a raised platform at the front of the hall, bringing forth more cries of his name. White balloons and colored confetti were sprayed over the crowd from an air vent 75 feet above the floor.
At 7 p.m. the music stopped, and everyone sat on the floor, eyes closed in silent meditation, for about 10 minutes. Then a huge screen rolled down from the canopy over Osho's chair, and a video from years before showed the Enlightened Master himself walking into the very same hall, sitting in that very same chair, and delivering a 60-minute discourse riddled with antisemitic jokes, wisecracks about the pope, and all the other things that sannyasins find so endearing, judging from laughter and applause both live and taped.
At the end, he led the assembly in a few minutes of cathartic gibberish -- people uttering nonsensical words and noises -- then stood and waved his hands, while the real-time audience chanted his name, "O-sho!" Finally, the video clicked off and the crowd filed out with barely a sound.
A Doctrine of Affluence
It is hard to believe the commune's claim that all of this happens every day without any central organization. Who runs the place? Who owns it? How much money do they raise and spend each year?
Swami Prem Amrito, the commune's chief public figure and Osho's personal doctor, telephoned with a prepared statement, saying the commune "is a multimillion-dollar development created by several public charitable trusts registered in India and audited by the competent authorities and, as such, is accountable directly to the public."
Pressed for financial details, he said, "We're not interested in putting out figures. It somehow always puts a weird energy around us. ... Every bit of money we have, we want to blow it on the place and make it more beautiful and larger."
Which seems to fit Osho's philosophy, as enunciated by a bumper sticker popular in Oregon in the mid-'80s: "Jesus Saves, Bhagwan Spends."
As famous as he was for advocating free sex, the thing that made Rajneesh almost a household name was the fleet of 93 Rolls-Royces reserved for him at Big Muddy Ranch, as the Oregon commune was known, and his collection of gaudy jewelry. He pitted his philosophy of affluence against the Christian ideal that the poor are specially blessed by God, arguing that poor people were too busy taking care of their physical needs to address their spiritual side through meditation.
Today, the sannyasins he was closest to -- Amrito, his doctor, and Anando, his secretary -- wear inch-wide bracelets with dozens of diamonds, sapphires and rubies that Osho gave to them. Asked how many stones were on her bracelet, Anando replied simply, "How American."
Where did all the money come from? When sannyasins paid $6 million for Big Muddy in 1981, it was 62,000 acres of overgrazed range and rugged hills. When their utopia unraveled four years later, they had built a city for 5,000 residents complete with a hotel, airport, orchards, a vineyard, a 65-acre vegetable farm, two lakes stocked with fish, plus advanced road, water and sewer systems and more than 300 buildings. After the fiasco the bank foreclosed and they walked away without a dime, facing an estimated $35 million in legal fees.
"Everybody paid whatever they had," said Swami Satyananda (True Bliss), a k a Joerg Elten, formerly a staff writer for Stern magazine in Germany who, after writing a story about Rajneesh in the mid-'70s, dropped out of journalism and became a disciple. "I threw in about $150,000, and I have no regrets."
The concept that only the rich are ready to find a paradise within perhaps explains why most sannyasins are Western, affluent and well-educated. Commune officials and press releases offer this visitor profile: Of the roughly 50,000 annual visitors, 31.6 percent are from Germany, 10.5 percent are from Italy and 8.7 percent are from the United States; 33 percent are college graduates and another 29 percent have degrees from other academies (art, music, theater, for instance); average age, 35 to 40; average length of stay, six weeks.
About 65 percent of the visitors are returnees, many of them sannyasins who typically spend about six months of the year in the West raising money so they can spend the rest of their time at the commune.
In the end, they may feel a heightened energy here. But they also remain rebels and outcasts, and they undoubtedly appreciate flocking together occasionally in a familiar place. Some outsiders will see it as harmless and beautiful, others as insidious and ugly. As Portland, Maine, Sannyasin Kavi David Cohen put it, "We found what in the East is known as a master, and all he really is is a mirror of ourselves."