The entry ticket to the Osho Commune International in Poona, India, is a hospital certificate stating that your blood has tested negative for the AIDS virus within the past month. If you haven't brought a certificate with you to India, you submit to the needle at the local hospital. After picking up the form a few hours later, you walk several blocks to the commune through the crowded, dusty, diesel smelling streets of the city, which is located about 120 miles southeast of Bombay. You enter the commune through a gate manned by robed guards. Past that point, you are surrounded by an 11-acre Edenic world that's designed to defeat death.
The object isn't physical immortality. For commune members, beating death is a task for the spirit and psyche; they acknowledge that someday their bodies will die. Indeed, the commune's charismatic leader, Osho (previously called Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, or simply Rajneesh) died on January 19, 1990, at the age of 58 from heart disease—or possibly poisoning—after years of ill health. He had often lived high, espoused free love, ridden through flocks of admirers in a fleet of Rolls-Royces, and built one of the largest, and most controversial, communes in the United States.
The commune's philosophy of regarding death as an illusion began with him. "Never speak of me in the past tense," he told followers from his sickbed during his last moments. "My presence here will be many times greater without the burden of my tortured body." He was right: Today you wouldn't know he'd died if you listened only to his maroon-robed followers at Poona, strolling marble pathways through lush tropical forest. To them, Osho—a name that means "the Blessed One, on Whom the Sky Showers Flowers"—merely "left his body." His presence is in the air, they say. You can almost smell it, they say, like the sweet smoke from the burning ghats where they cremated his body on the night he left them. Some in the commune say they've been able to slow or stop aging and overcome disease. One 36-year-old sannyasin (follower), given the name Gopa by Osho, says she used to suffer from anorexia nervosa, the potentially life-threatening loss of appetite. It began when she was eighteen or nineteen and resisted treatment until she joined the commune and met Osho in 1976. "I'd had a mental revulsion to food that became a physical revulsion," says Gopa, formerly Melanie Brooks of Boston. "It was an endless circle. Almost from the moment I arrived, the whole charade just dropped," and she began to eat normally.
Another, fifty-five-year-old sannyasin, with the given name of Bodhicitta, was a geriatric psychiatrist in Westchester County, New York, before he began visiting the commune regularly in the 1970s."Death is the greatest fiction," he says, reflecting his belief in reincarnation. He says he can recall one of his past lives, from the Middle Ages. A third follower, sixty-three-year-old Rabiya, formerly a music teacher from New York, says aging has ceased to exist for her anymore. A seven-day meditative workshop taught her to look at herself differently. During one of the sessions, while quietly meditating on the word Osho, she says she suddenly felt an overwhelming gratitude for her own body, and "tears rolled out of my eyes." Rabiya says that time appears to have stopped for her—and with it the subjective experience of growing older. "To be in this moment and to celebrate is all we have," she says.
Celebrate is what people do at the commune, from a sunrise "dynamic meditation," including 10 minutes of jumping and shouting "Hoo," to a daily evening meditation when followers change into white robes and stream toward a giant open-air auditorium. There, they pass through metal detectors before getting inside. A crackpot once threw a knife at Osho during one of these meetings, forcing commune leaders to beef up security. After clearance, commune members march by other robed followers, who offer a formal welcoming embrace. The night meditation, called a darshan, is an odd variation on a tent revival: Disciples ceremonially wash the stage, then place Osho's white chair between two freestanding air conditioners. The chair sits empty; The air conditioners cool no one. The singing of upbeat songs, backed by a live band, alternates with periods of silence. Then a screen descends in front of Osho's chair so meditators can watch a video of an Osho talk. The evening ends in silence.
It's possible that the meticulous concern for cleanliness, tranquility, and order here is a reaction to the commune's tortured, sometimes violent history. In 1981, after seven years in Poona, Osho's people moved to the United States. At first, their 64,000-acre settlement near Antelope, Oregon, appeared to work well. Osho devotees in Poona say Rajneeshpuram, as the settlement was called, was free of drugs and crime, and the Rajneeshees worked hard to preserve the environment high in the remote Oregon desert. But local residents became alarmed as commune members moved to the village of Antelope and elected enough Rajneeshees as town officials to change Antelope's name to Rajneesh, after their leader.
By 1985, commune leadership had split into factions and was embroiled in dark plots for power. Amrito, a forty-six-year-old British physician and a commune spokesperson, recalls that as the community began to falter, someone tried to kill him. He was sitting in one of the public areas of the commune when he felt a sting from behind—he speculates that it was a shot of adrenaline—and minutes later he collapsed. He spent two weeks in a hospital. Rajneesh's chief assistant, Ma Anand Sheela, subsequently pleaded guilty to crimes that included an attempt to poison Rajneesh's personal physician, and to poisoning two Wasco County, Oregon, officials. She also pleaded guilty to charges of arson, electronic eavesdropping, immigration fraud, and conspiracy. She later said she had pleaded guilty to protect Osho. For his part, the commune leader received a five-year suspended sentence and agreed to pay a $400,000 fine in a plea bargain after he was indicted on illegal immigration charges. Federal prosecutors said he had arranged sham marriages to permit foreign-born followers to live in the US. As part of the settlement, he agreed to leave the country. He moved back to India in 1986 to begin what some followers call Poona II.
Today, local residents say the community is quieter than it used to be in Poona I days, when late-night commune parties kept the neighbors awake. Some sannyasins seem chastened; Poona I's libertine sexual attitudes have been replaced by Poona II's requirement for an AIDS test. Others are convinced of plots against them. Amrito still argues that Osho was actually killed by being exposed to radioactive thallium during a brief incarceration in the US. A large number of followers seem to be involved in the workaday task of publishing Osho's writings, which fill some 600 megabytes of the commune's computers. Other daily activities, like psychic body readings, seem pleasantly mundane, like the New Age music that tinkles through the bamboo forest. Overall, the Poona II lifestyle resonates in several ways with current medical beliefs about how to live longer. All meals are vegetarian. The dawn "dynamic meditation" provides some moderate aerobic exercise, and throughout the day there are frequent opportunities to keep stress in check through meditation or a visit to the commune's two-story health center for a massage, acupuncture or other treatment. The staff of the "International Academy for Healing Arts" practices a mixture of Eastern and Western medicine, offering American exercise machines for fitness and, for minor ailments, Indian herbs (serious illnesses are treated at the nearby hospital).
Amrito argues that the gentle daily regimen is strong protective medicine against aging. He points to a study published in The Lancet by Dean Ornish, M.D., of the University of California at San Francisco, and others. It shows that the combination of a very low-fat vegetarian diet, moderate aerobic exercise, stress-management training, group support, and a smoke-free environment can actually reverse even severe coronary atherosclerosis. Ornish reported that significant unclogging of the arteries can be seen after just a year of such healthy living. No one knows whether the 2 million people claimed as followers by the Osho commune are healthier than the unenlightened. The commune doesn't demand adherence to diet and exercise; Anyone is free to come for just a day after paying a small entrance fee. Most followers don't reside on commune property. During their stay, they rent apartments in Poona or live in hotels. Most come and go from jobs back home that enable them to save enough for a repeat visit. Only about half of the thousands of visitors annually stay on for more than two months at a time. But even short stays, adherents say, provide the opportunity to recharge with Osho's spirit.
Is Osho alive? Whether he's survived death or not, he's left his followers some wisdom on how to age: "Everybody grows old," Osho said."Very few people grow up. Growing old is a horizontal process. Just moving in a line, you will reach from the cradle to the grave, but you have moved horizontally... Unless you start to grow vertically—upwards—to the height of consciousness, you are not growing up." With a little tolerance for flapdoodle (and perhaps a blind spot to the commune's troubled past), it's not hard to find something to like in the bizarre, irreverent life of Osho. "Even idiots grow old," he said. "Only Buddhas grow up."
Osho's beliefs spread far beyond the commune. They led to a nationwide movement that focused on wholistic health. Learn more about the man who started the commune, Osho himself, and his beliefs in Zorba the Buddha: Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement.
Zorba the Buddha: Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement by Hugh B. Urban
Zorba the Buddha is the first comprehensive study of the life, teachings, and following of Osho. While many Americans know him only as the "sex guru" or the "Rolls Royce guru," he was arguably the first global guru of the 20th century. Hugh Urban's volume presents a rich and powerful narrative about some of the most important economic and spiritual currents of the past 40 years.