What that Rajneesh Documentary Leaves Out

Coincidence: I wrote this the same day that Win McCormack’s masterful summary of his investigative reporting on the Rajneeshis from 1983-1986 was posted. It completely confirms the speculations I’ve assembled here based largely upon my own cult experiences. It also damns the Way’s efforts to near irrelevance. For a fuller picture and citations, I encourage you to read it here.
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I’m glad that Rajneesh doc was made and is out there, but I have to object to the notion going around that it adds to a general understanding of cult dynamics. It doesn’t.
 
It can’t. What the Way brothers have made is an intoxicating Bollywood Western, minus the choreography. Yokels vs. invaders stage a culture war on a battlefield of orgasms and guns, fuelled by diamonds and drugs and the budget of the DA, played out against pop abstractions of orientalist woo and Americanist fantasies of freedom.
 
The Bhagawan is dangerous, we know, we KNOW… but who can resist goggling and chuckling at this swindler wearing his assortment of tea cosies and Star Trek priest robes, stoned on his upscale IKEA throne? And then there’s Sheela! OMG Sheela! Cooking up salmonella special in her Jesus Grove kitchen. Now the Swiss are letting her take care of old people! OMG! And so on.
 
For me, the prurient high point was the retired DA saying:
 
And so they blended up the beavers, and poured the blended-up beavers into the water supply.
 
The Ways are in their 30s. They made a baseball doc previously. This might be why the last word they give to the endearing Marlboro-man rancher Bowerman is a jovial “It’s like a ball game! Somebody wins, somebody loses, and life moves on…”.
 
I wouldn’t expect the Ways to be drawn to or equipped for the task of the victim-centred narrative. But that’s what we need if learning about cults is what we want.
 
If you read reviews that laud their “objectivity”, consider this short list of big things they left out:
 
  • The effects of joining the Rajneesh movement on members’ families and prior attachments.
  • The effects of arranged marriages and divorces and forced migration.
  • The effects of ashram life on the children born or brought into the organization.
  • The money that members were required to give, and how the 30K “working members” of the Rajneesh movement worldwide — according to Sheela — were paid virtually nothing. For years. What it meant for 99% of them to hitchhike or drive out of the Oregon desert with a few bucks of gas in their tanks and the clothes on their backs, while the leadership scatters over the earth with trunks full of diamonds and gold.
  • The drug trafficking and prostitution by which members paid their passage to various communes and then fees when they got there. (Citations in Falk.)
  • Strongly-encouraged sterilizations of members. (ibid.)
  • Interviews with ANY of the 6K homeless people exploited by the org.
  • More than glancing reference to the 10K audiotapes that contain evidence of battery and sexual assault committed amongst members. Law enforcement obviously didn’t have the resources to investigate these fully. So do these just disappear into another shot of the Bhagwan’s vacant gaze while the opera music rises? I guess so.
Consider this last point for a moment. They seemed to be saying that the tapes were of private domestic exchanges. What we have to do, however, is put that together with the somatics of public ritual.
 
If you saw that sequence in the 2nd episode that featured footage of dynamic therapy from the German filmmaker’s hidden camera, you witnessed physical and sexual assault, sanctioned through the guise of spiritual catharsis.
 
The camera, of course, presents the scene as an oddity that will provoke a sex panic amongst all those normies in overalls and suits. The media others the members as dangerous because of heterodox behaviour that could spread like a virus.
But the deeper truth is that the members are first and foremost dangerous to each other. They are being stimulated to exert control over each other as part of the top-down dominance hierarchy. Fearing the members’ behaviour from the outside is premised in part on believing that it is chosen, consensual. Not only is that premise either weak or false, but it fails to account for the fact that the members undertaking that “meditation” every day may be living in a state of perpetual volatility, if not trauma.
 
When I was a member of Endeavour Academy from 1999 to 2003, a similar dynamic meditation occupied the central hours of every day. Our sessions weren’t as explicitly violent as the Pune footage shows, but they did feature heavy body contact that was often rough and/or sexualized, despite the ideological understanding that “we were not bodies”. The leader commonly hit and rubbed up sexually against members — women and men both, but with the women he often mimed gestures of intercourse. Everybody laughed. I understand now that the laughter was defensive, but it was conflated with ecstasy.
 
It’s notable that Endeavour had many ex-Rajneeshis in it. Some of them were socially prominent. It was the next thing to do for them. This was the late 90s; many of them had been in similar communities since Oregon imploded in 1985.
This is something we should keep in mind when we think about influences in yoga and meditation communities of the early 2000s, when things started to mainstream and gentrify. Do a little digging, and you’ll find that many A-list yoga personalities have backgrounds in these groups. Then, just think about who might emerge from the 70s-80s cults with enough of their confidence and charisma intact — and also having spent their formative years disqualifying themselves from mainstream professional life — to take leadership roles in new yoga groups.
I’m not bringing this up to foster paranoia, but rather consideration. Of course people change, mature, and grow in kindness and self-reflection. But this process is rarely seen, and hard to measure. I counted some of those ex-Rajneeshis as some of my closest friends. One in particular I loved dearly. He taught me how to cook for three hundred people at a time. I still have some of his psychedelic paintings on my wall. My little boys stare at them in wonder.
But it pains me to say that could not trust this friend, or any other ex-cult member, in a teaching role in the fields of yoga or Buddhism or meditation unless I had a clear sense from them that they had transparently digested and healed the cult-wiring of their brains and nervous systems in such a way as to be able to provide students safer spaces than we had.
 
Four things I can report from my own Rajneesh-lite experience:
  1. Your “performance” of ecstasy (real or contrived) within the group meditation session was directly related to your social rising and falling within the group. Your capacity to physically express oneness with or domination over the group translated into social and even financial opportunity outside of the session. If you’ve never been in such a mosh pit, you can start thinking about those group activities as being non-verbal dominance rituals that test the position and resolve of participants.
  2. If you were a young woman in that melee, you were targeted for sexual attention. Some gained social and even spiritual capital from this to the extent they presented themselves as welcoming.
  3. THESE HOURS DOMINATED YOUR ENTIRE DAY AND MADE YOU INCAPABLE OF INDEPENDENT ACTIVITY. When Rajneeshis describe being “emptied” or “mindless” at the end of the session, you have to think about what comes next, how easy it is for them to go pick vegetables or clean toilets without thinking about where they are or  whether they’re being paid.
  4. The experience cannot be shared with people outside of the group. The session is so strange it cannot be described without deep self-consciousness or shame. The central part of your day, the material reason that you are in that group at all, has the function of isolating you, while, paradoxically, purporting to show you your oneness with all humanity and the universe. This isolation-through-oneness causes severe internal splitting, a cognitive dissonance that compounds daily. I believe that this somatizes in very distinct ways. I remember that in my group we would commonly speak of feeling intense internal “pressure” that would discharge in severe headaches or periods of near-catatonia. We had a narrative about these sensations being evidence of a “transformational crisis”. It was understood that the sensations would intensify until we “popped”, which might look like a seizure in the middle of the session room that could last anywhere from minutes to an hour, and was generally followed by days of radiant dissociation. We would say that the person had “gone to the other side”.

The meditation is a highly effective opiate, and it holds people in a kind of labour and agency stasis. Also, it is so fucking stressful that of course you look happy when you’re scrubbing vegetables. “I just love being here in this community” is a partial statement. It needs to be qualified by “I’m also so relieved no one is screaming at me right now, or that I’m not jumping up and down with no sense of self.”

Think about what it means for 10K people to be engaged in a daily ritual that expresses and routinizes their positions within a somatic hierarchy, and then mobilizes their excess labour for centralized profit. Think about parents caught up in this daily cycle, and how they are or are not energetically or emotionally available to their children.
 
If you watch Wild Wild Country, I encourage you to think about these things, because the doc won’t ask you to. The doc wants you to wonder about Sheela’s mental health, how Sunny can keep permasmiling. The Ways want you to get all verklempt with Niren as he wells up remembering the great genius delicate sensitive man — THE GREATEST MAN WHO EVER LIVED NO THAT’S A FACT I’M A LAWYER — and the great project and the great possibility that failed… but maybe it didn’t really, because wasn’t it all a test and play of consciousness? [Sheds more tears.]
 
I hope that you were all able to hear the abstraction and objectification with which these humiliated honchos uttered the word “sannyasins”. As if they were still speaking for the group. As if everyone would still be on the same page. As if they were actually hiding their complicity, and their wounding.
 
It was really moving to hear about how much Jane was able to understand and recover, but even with her it doesn’t appear she was asked about the mass suffering at the heart of the group. It’s too bad — I have the feeling she understands some of it.
 
Think of everyone they could have interviewed. The Ways have said that they didn’t want to gum up the narrative with too many talking heads. Fair enough. Clinical psychologists probably depress Netflix rankings. But when you focus on four ex-leaders you give up a lot in exchange for flash. You get the self-absorbed musings of the privileged. Those for whom it more or less worked out.
They could have interviewed a single child who grew up there. A single homeless person lied to and kidnapped and then fed narcotics in his beer when he started to get anxious. Or just a single woman or man who now names her experience in dynamic meditation as assault, and is now working with complex PTSD. I can assure you many are out there. 
 
Finally, since the buzz over this doc has erupted, I’ve seen several earnest and naive convos cross my feed about how cult analysis discourse is alienating, it defames all members, etc. Or that analyzing this cult is structurally racist — as if Osho was somehow drawing on a venerable tradition, instead of actively abusing traditions and getting turfed out of India in the process. As if his first victims weren’t Indian. Yes it is important that we not perpetuate colonial stereotypes of evil sex yogis, but that’s a small part of the mix here, even though the Ways want you to focus on it.
 
The complaints are always abstract; they never make mention of the obvious harm and suffering produced by an organization like this. This too is the fault of the documentary bias. WWC plays up the culture war angle, which is like candy to the “civilizational struggle” addiction that certain yoga people seem to be nursing. Rajneeshpuram was not about spirituality, anymore than rape is about sex. It was about power.
And please don’t tell me that without Osho we wouldn’t have the sweet sweet tunes of Deva Premal and Miten, and so everything’s even-steven and that the dark produces light or whatever. There’s plenty of folks who make good music without the aid of gun-addled sex and doomsdays cults.
 
Those who came out of Rajneeshpuram and then enjoyed good and productive lives are the beneficiaries of privileges that had little to do with the cult. They may in fact have socially and psychologically benefited from having been able to come through the chaos armed with an unearned experience of invulnerability, and then reinforced by leaving with an unearned story of perseverance-and-triumph.
If you want the fuller story, find the silent and silenced majority.

8 Comments

  • Matthew. Hello. From the point of an ex Hare Krishna who has spent the last 5 years ‘transparently digesting and healing the cult-wiring of their brain’ (I have never seen it summed up so succinctly!), thank you for this post. So much in it describes what I very often try to say but am unable to that I am surprised I haven’t discovered your writing earlier. Yes, where are the stories of the people who got hurt? How am I still being told by current members that nobody did get hurt, when we know the opposite is true? At least for Rajneesh communities there are all these hours of interviews. We have nothing, because people are simply too broken to not internalise their leaving as their own failing. Out of all the tens of thousands who have joined and left I know of a handful who are critical and active, and many of those focus on scandals rather than their own healing,

  • Thank you. Pithy, concise, precise. Faux sentimentality needs exposure. The damaged are many and lack voice.

  • Thanks for this Matthew. It is thought proving but what I don’t understand is why people would you or anyone else would be drawn circles like these. I have felt incredibly disaffected but no matter what I could have never deluded myself, even when homeless, to have taken more than just the food for example from the Hare Krishna’s. The importance of the Netflix doc is not that you agree with either side or seeing any of the people redeeming; the central question is our constitution and freedom. The rule of law should not be flexible or only protect Mormons and Christian. If people want to join escatic organization, however stupid they may seem to me and destroy their lives that’s up to them. What are you suggesting laws against cults?

    • You’re right. People are free to believe whatever they want. And there’s low correlation between beliefs and criminality. A cult isn’t defined by beliefs but by tactics. The first among which is to play upon your statement here that delusion is somehow self-inflicted. People don’t join cults because they are deluded, but because they are deceived. And anybody can be deceived.

      Some Rajneeshis engaged in criminal acts, a few were prosecuted. But there are no laws against systems of influence that strip away the agency of individuals. Nor could there be. What we have instead is the power of education.

  • Matthew,
    I totally agree. After watching WWcountry I looked up on youtube some of the old documentaries about Rajneesh. There was one German fellow who spoke about how a couple of his friends literally went insane from the therapy sessions and there were some sketchy deaths at the poona ashram and the bodies/evidence was quickly burned in a funeral ceremony. They also made a lot of money smuggling drugs and running prostitution rings using female members apparently. Also some sketchy child sexual abuse.Didn’t mention that in WWC.
    I also feel like they really were not clear about osho himself. How much did he know and directly order? Who the fuck was this guy? I get the feeling that just like in the doc, during his life he got away with a lot of shit.
    Me and my wife know someone personally who was sterilized at the oregon center. We also spent 10 years in a yoga ashram(cult?!-we’re not sure!). Thanks for this post

  • Just finished watching the documentary and couldn’t agree more with this blog. As a teenager in 1987 I hung out with some of the Rajneesh kids in an ashram that was also an ice-cream shop in a big North American city, All the kids had stories of being sexually abused by adults and by other kids yet they all didn’t really consider it abuse, it was very bad.

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