Sofa Enlightenment

by Robert Broughton

Table of contents

#8 – India Calling

For some years I’d been hearing about the Bagwhan Sri Rajneesh ashram in the city of Pune, about a four-hour drive from Bombay. Rajneesh was a guru who’d attracted a large following of Westerners and his teaching was diametrically opposed to the asceticism of Buddhism.

He acknowledged the truth of renunciation but the way to attain this, by his reckoning, was to indulge the senses as often and as freely as you wish. Whatever attachments you had would fall away as long as you were aware of what you were doing, moment to moment. He taught that any kind of denial would ultimately lead to repression and so become a hindrance on the path to enlightenment. I wasn’t sure about this, but it was a curious proposition that begged investigation, and it was certainly a long way from the restrictions of the Buddhist doctrine.

I took an overnight train to Pune, and after disembarking asked a cab driver to take me to Bagwhan’s ashram. I really had no idea what to expect and as the taxi wound its way through the city I began to feel powerful emotions stirring. These alternated between great excitement and immense fear. The taxi made its way to a suburb of Pune called Koreagon Park, a very wealthy part of town where there were huge estates and beautiful mansions. One such estate had been purchased by Rajneesh’s wealthy disciples and now served as the ashram and world headquarters.

As we drove up, I was amazed to see streets filled with people from all over the world, wearing flowing red robes and various other styles of Indian clothing. Three-wheeler golf buggies and bicycles were moving in a constant stream, ferrying people to the main gate. My taxi dropped me outside, and I stood there surveying the scene. I seemed to be standing at the entrance to a medieval castle, with guards posted at huge oak gates to make sure no troublemakers entered. A quick eyeballing up and down and if you passed muster they’d wave you through. In Burma there were carved heads to ward off evil spirits, but this was the real deal. At night the gates were closed and the ashram became its own city. I asked one of the guards where I could get lodging and was told to walk a little further up the road and ask at a large building on the right.

I shouldered my bag, and a short walk later I was at the reception desk of what was obviously a makeshift hotel, explaining that I’d just arrived and needed a room for a few days. Again I got the once over and was directed to a dormitory upstairs, after of course paying the required fee. I made my way to the dorm, unpacked a few things and made myself at home. After getting the feel of my new surroundings I ventured downstairs and was given a pass to go into the ashram and also a schedule of upcoming daily events.

Back at the ashram gates I got the required nod and entered. I was immediately struck by the beauty of the place. Instead of being austere it seemed light and to generate a vibrancy. There were trees and plants everywhere and in the middle of the courtyard was a gorgeous fountain. Lots of people were milling around. Some were striding purposefully, obviously on important missions, but most seemed happy to be doing pretty much nothing, simply talking quietly or meditating. My Burmese monastery had taken some adjusting to, but this seemed too good to be true.

I sat on the rim that ran around the fountain and took in all the strange new sights. After a few minutes, a beautiful young woman in her early twenties came and sat next to me. She said her name was Andrea and that she was from Holland. In a wonderfully engaging manner she began telling me about her life and the events that had led to her being here. She then asked to hear my story and I gave her a brief outline of my life so far. From those few details she gave me a psychological profile worthy of someone well beyond her years. I found this intriguing and listened with fascination for about twenty minutes. I marveled at how someone so young could have such depth and insight. She then looked me right in the eye, smiled and said, "Do you like everything I’ve just been telling you?" I told her it was indeed very interesting. Then she said, "Good, that will be twenty dollars, thank you." I sat there blank-faced, enjoying my new friend’s sense of humor. My laughter vanished when I realized she was serious. "Surely you’re joking?" I asked. She calmly stated, "No, this is how I survive here in Pune. I meet people, talk to them and then ask for a donation." It was now my turn to look her in the eye, "Well, I’m honored to meet such an incredible con artist, but frankly I’m not in the mood to be ripped off today." With that I got up and walked away.

This incident set the tone for my entire stay in Pune with Rajneesh. In the ashram everything was beautiful: the gardens, the people, the clothes they wore, the huge "Buddha Hall" where Rajneesh gave talks, the office buildings as well as everything else. Yet, on another level, everyone was on the make. Worst of all were the children, who thought nothing of accosting strangers and demanding, not asking, for money. On many occasions I had to brush them off like flies only to be met with a tirade of abuse.

I had lunch in one of the restaurants that dotted the perimeter of the ashram and then walked back to my dorm to lay down for a little while. After a short doze, I got up and went to find a bathroom. Someone pointed to a door at the end of the corridor, so I went in and was immediately taken aback. The bathroom was not a small cubicle but a very large space in which about eight toilets had been set up. There were no partitions or screens for any of them. As I stood there trying to figure out how this worked, a man and a woman entered and each of them went to a separate toilet and began doing their thing right in front of me. They seemed totally at ease, and so taking a cue from them I took my place on another toilet and together we all answered the call of nature. By now I was beginning to realize this was spiritual living with a twist. Any preconceived notions I had were about to be shattered.

The following morning I showed up early to get a good seat in the Buddha Hall to hear Bhagwan’s daily discourse. This was an exquisitely beautiful place, with a polished marble floor and a large tent-like canopy with no sides. Before being allowed to enter, however, everyone had to be frisked, go through a metal detector and pass the sniff test. Bhagwan apparently had allergy problems and no one was allowed in who was emitting anything like perfume or any kind of body or clothing odor that would upset him in any way. The metal detector prevented anyone coming in with a weapon. Bhagwan’s radical philosophy attracted its fair share of detractors, one of whom had stood up one morning and thrown a knife at him.

At the front of the hall was an elevated stage with a chair on it. At the appointed hour a white Rolls-Royce would drive up and Bhagwan would emerge, hands clasped together in the traditional Indian greeting. A ramp had been specially constructed so that when he stepped out of the car he simply glided across the stage to his chair. One of his assistants then handed him a clip board with notes on it, from which he would draw the day’s discourse. It was soon apparent he was a compelling, articulate speaker with extraordinary charisma. He seemed to radiate peace and joy and yet there was something in his voice, a certain accented way of pronouncing the letter "S". Any word that ended in an "S" would be drawn out, "sssssssssss". It reminded me very much of the hissing of a snake and, although chilling, it was undeniably riveting.

The seated throng listened to the discourse in total silence. You could have heard a pin drop in the hall. We were all warned against making any sound or movement and guards were posted at various places, ready to remove anyone who so much as sneezed or coughed. Naturally this occurred at least a couple of times during each meeting. Strange antics would sometimes ensue. One morning, about halfway through the discourse, one of Bhagwan’s disciples, whom he called "sannyasins," stood up and started yelling at the top of his voice: "I can’t take it anymore! I can’t take it anymore!" He was quickly pounced on by a number of guards and dragged screaming from the hall.

Some of the ways in which this ashram functioned were no different to the ways of the world. One of the maxims that I quickly had to contend with was "it’s not what you know, it’s who you know." As a neophyte, it took me a few days to catch on to this. Beautiful young women seemed to move up in the hierarchy very quickly. For the more pedestrian types like myself things moved a little more slowly. As I was no stranger to wheeling and dealing, I soon secured myself a place in another dorm closer to the ashram.

Within the extended community around the ashram a great variety of lifestyles was possible. Some people were living like beggars in small bamboo huts down by the river, whilst the jet set enjoyed the plush, four star Blue Diamond Hotel in town. I had no money concerns as I still had some of my inheritance, but I did make the mistake of telling this to a couple of sannyasins over dinner one night. Their interest in me to this point had been perfunctory. Having heard that I was financially solvent they suddenly began treating me as their new best friend. I played along with this for awhile and then grew tired of it.

One thing I’d noticed about these people was their ability to make you feel connected with them. It was not uncommon to meet someone, spend thirty minutes with them, and achieve a level of intimacy that would take months, maybe even years, to achieve in everyday Western society. After such conversations, we would hug, embrace very warmly and go our separate ways. When I’d see the same person in the ashram the following day they’d look right through me as if we’d never met. These people were very much "of the moment." Unaccustomed to this and initially confused by it, I began gradually to figure it out. These people had learned to drop many of the social games that were barriers to intimacy in our society. Yet they were unable to deal with the vulnerability that this inevitably brought up in them.

It was a rude awakening to realize that these so-called "meaningful" encounters were not contributing to my peace of mind at all. Despite this, I felt there was something to be learned in Pune, so I decided to stay on. Part of Bhagwan’s global appeal was the fact that he was the first master to successfully synthesize both Eastern and Western healing modalities. When he spoke he drew from all the modern psychologists, and within the ashram itself there was an extraordinary smorgasbord of psychic delights to be had. On any given day it was possible to practice Vipassana meditation from the Buddhist tradition, take a workshop in gestalt therapy, do martial arts yoga, massage, and on and on it went.

For all these sessions fees were charged, small by comparison to what one would pay in the West but a large sum of money in Indian terms. This had the effect of precluding most Indians from the workshops. It was obvious that a river of money was cascading into this place. In the words of one Cockney devotee I met, Bhagwan had "a nice little earner." Just how much money was involved no one will ever know, but the Rolls-Royces, aircraft, real estate and various grand schemes I saw everywhere were evidence of an organization with deep pockets.

None of this was my concern at the time as I had enough to pay my own way and wasn’t about to be cajoled or intimidated into giving everything I owned to them, which, if one desperately wanted to be part of the inner circle around Bhagwan, was expected of one.

Bhagwan wanted to free Western society of the guilt that had been foisted upon it for centuries by Christianity. Guilt was also evident to a smaller degree in Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism and, as a result, his message received a wide audience all over the world. Free sex was advocated, with Bhagwan himself often arranging the couplings.

I decided to experiment with the free sex game and began to spend a portion of each day organizing various dalliances. A chance remark one day about the long lines at the medical clinic brought a response from a woman that gave me pause. She explained that venereal disease was rampant, but because it was easily treatable it was looked upon no more seriously than a common cold.

Occasionally I would glimpse the glorious state of oneness that lay beyond the thinking mind, so I knew that I was more or less on track spiritually, despite the various misgivings I had. "Take what you need and leave the rest," became my motto. This ashram was a spiritual circus, with thousands of seekers from all over the world doing all they could to shake off the conditioning that modern society had foisted upon them. All manner of cathartic exercises were available to them to free their rigid bodies and minds. Yet to find the freedom so eloquently described by Bhagwan would take a leap of faith and trust that very few were either willing or able to make.

I decided to experience everything I could and signed up for a number of the therapeutic workshops. The first one was called "Early Life Issues," and it was a ten day intensive. On the first day I entered the room where it was being held I noticed that the walls were padded, an indication that we were in for a quite a show. I felt a mounting anxiety and had a sudden urge to get out of the place as fast as I could. Realizing I couldn’t do this and save face, I stayed and the feeling slowly subsided.

There were about twenty of us in this group – an even split between men and women – as well as three group leaders. The first instruction was to remove all clothing, and as we did this a sound system was turned on and loud music began pulsating through the room. The leaders began dancing wildly and beckoned us to follow. After about fifteen minutes everyone sat down and one leader, a former clinical psychologist from England, asked people to express what they were feeling. As we were all victims of varying degrees of emotional suppression it took a couple of days before people began to freely express themselves. However, once the floodgates were open, there was no holding back. Tears, rage and lust all poured forth in copious quantities. Fortunately many of the group leaders were from extensive psychology backgrounds in the West and were skilled at handling people in these vulnerable states.

We were also encouraged to explore our sexual feelings and to act on them. I’d also heard talk that in the early days of the ashram violence was sometimes acted out and on occasion bones were broken. I was relieved that they had apparently evolved beyond this. The groups were encouraged to develop intimacy by bypassing normally accepted modes of social interaction. Sexual expression was also encouraged, but this was something most people, myself included, had difficulty with. Peeling away inhibitions that had been in place for most of one’s life was not child’s play.

If the group leaders detected any sexual tension between participants they would encourage them to explore it and live it out, then and there. It was quite common for the entire group to be witnessing all kinds of sexual acts between different people, and at the end of each day we were given "homework" assignments. Group leaders would pair people up who had similar issues to work on and those people would spend the night together. The groups were actually a way of loosening people up and in this way served as a basic introduction to Bhagwan’s work. On many occasions I witnessed people curled up on the floor in a fetal position in the midst of tremendous emotional release. A leader would then softly chant "Bhagwan, Bhagwan, Bhagwan" into their ears. On one occasion I was the recipient, but being "force fed" love in this way was not my cup of tea, as I told the English psychologist.

Many people also became workshop junkies and could only be themselves in the context of a workshop. Learning to bring what was learnt in those groups into the broader context of everyday living was a different challenge altogether. The people who seemed to be getting the most out of life at the ashram were those who’d done group workshops for the first few months and had then moved on to other areas and programs.

Rumors were constantly flying around that Bhagwan was going to leave the ashram and go to another country. Nothing ever seemed to come of it, and eventually I tired of listening. Then in the summer of 1981, after I’d been there for about six months, he suddenly failed to appear one morning for the usual discourse. Later on that day it was announced that Bhagwan had in fact left for America to start a new commune there. This created a great flurry of activity and excitement amongst everyone. People had to quickly make decisions about what to do now that the Great One had departed without so much as a goodbye wave. Some elected to return to where they’d come from, while others frantically tried to find American people to marry so that they could get into the United States and stay.

My choice was to leave Pune and travel to Dharamshala in the foothills of the Himalayas and reconnect with Buddhism. Whilst there were certain aspects of Bhagwan’s teachings that I liked and used, I didn’t trust his organization. This proved prophetic when a few years later it was torn apart by internal politics and he was kicked out of America. He returned to India, a somewhat bitter and angry man, claiming that the US government had poisoned him.

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