Zorba the Buddha

Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement

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Hugh B. Urban
  • Berkeley, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , January
     2016.
     264 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520286672.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Early on in his 2015 study of the Osho movement—a New Age spiritual community centered on the teachings of Indian guru Osho (formerly Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, among other aliases)—Hugh Urban describes a chapter of the group’s history as almost “made-for-Hollywood” (2, quoting The Atlantic). The passage reads as prophetic in 2018, when there has been a major revival of pop cultural interest in Osho/Rajneesh, due to the hit Netflix documentary series, Wild, Wild Country: a compelling portrayal of a community’s descent into violence, which nonetheless does little to describe Rajneesh’s teachings or account for their apparently enduring appeal.

Revisiting Urban’s scholarship in this cultural moment provides a healthy corrective. Urban covers some of the same chronological ground as the series—the Rajneeshpuram period (1981-1985) when Rajneesh and his followers built a utopian commune in Oregon that took a paranoid and destructive turn (culminating in the largest incident of bioterrorism committed on US soil). However, he also provides deeper context for Rajneesh’s emergence as a thinker and provocateur in India, the history of the first Rajneesh ashram in Pune, and the later vicissitudes of the Osho movement, which has been riven by legal struggles over the rights to its founder’s name and teachings. 

Urban’s book is engrossing, if at times repetitive. Ultimately, it makes a strong case that the Osho movement at its best has been a “postnational sodality” (73-74)—prefiguring in many ways the kind of global subcultures that have gathered around other spiritual leaders, film stars, and pop music idols in the years since—while also being at its worst violent and totalistic. In all instances in Urban’s telling, it has reflected and even produced some of the most characteristic features of its era.

Urban begins with an account of the founder of the movement, Rajneesh/Osho; the figure that emerges is complex and elusive. On the one hand highly problematic—Rajneesh appears to have laid the groundwork for the authoritarian and hyper-commercialized forms his spiritual community would eventually take—he is also impish, thought-provoking, and genuinely funny. The early Rajneesh’s spiritual teachings, though presented in a flamboyant style, emphasize notions of the immanent divine within each person and the capacity for self-liberation. In these respects and others, they appear to partake of insights that are familiar from the literature of religious experience. (In Rajneesh’s description of enlightenment as “trying to reach somewhere you are already” (36), there is more than a little of William James’s “You are saved now, if you would but believe it.”)

Likewise, while Urban links the Osho movement to contemporaneous trends toward neoliberal capitalism and commodification, he does so without condemning the movement on this basis alone or appealing to ahistorical notions of a “pure” religion that precedes the market. If many accounts tend to regard the melding of spirituality and consumption in New Age religion as a form of hypocrisy, Urban shows that there was at least nothing duplicitous about it in Rajneesh’s case. Rajneesh from the start described himself as a “materialist spiritualist” and a “rich man’s guru” (72). 

Urban also includes a fascinating section on Rajneesh’s early polemics against socialism, which presaged India’s neoliberal reforms of the 1990s. Rajneesh was not alone among Indian gurus of his era in promoting capitalism (recall Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi sounded “like a General Electric engineer” on this subject). In Rajneesh’s case, however, the critique of socialism seems to have been nuanced and paradoxical—at times defending a form of materialism that seems more marxist than acquisitive. He commends some of India’s major industrial families, for instance, for “producing the capital [that] will make for greater distribution of wealth” (58). There are surprising echoes here of Marx’s theory of the material preconditions for socialism.

While these features of Urban’s account add dimension to a figure who is at risk of being cast as a bogeyman, it does little to explain the totalistic direction that Rajneesh’s movement eventually took. Urban notes that the organization of the ashram in Pune was already displaying autocratic tendencies in the 1970s (as Rajneesh proclaimed at the time, “whatsoever I decide is absolute” (99). Urban’s chief explanation of this is simply that neoliberal capitalism embodies many of the same contradictions (194)—that is, a stated ethic of individual self-empowerment often goes hand-in-glove with harsh disciplinary corporate cultures and an extensive state apparatus of policing, incarceration, and surveillance.

This does less to account for the Rajneesh movement’s trajectory, however, than it does to raise similar questions about neoliberal societies. In order to accomplish the former, Urban would have been well served by engaging with some of the literature on the psychology of totalism. This might have shown how an apparently liberatory doctrine of “breaking all the barriers” (70) can also function as a “thought-ending cliché” (Robert Lifton’s phrase) that silences individual moral objections to a group’s behavior. 

Another question that Urban’s book leaves open is the reason for the continued fascination with the Rajneeshpuram story in popular culture. Urban cites John Updike’s novel S. (Knopf, 1988)He might also have mentioned Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Three Continents (William Morrow & Company, 1987), in which the “Rawul” at the novel’s center spouts a jargon reminiscent of Rajneesh’s. 

An element perhaps of this interest is the Rajneeshpuram story’s capacity to mirror the excesses of our contemporary experience back to us, whether in the 1980s or today. We can see in it not only the familiar truth that a liberatory ideology often provides no protection against totalism, but that neither does irony. The wry and non-literal Rajneesh managed to birth a movement that perpetrated very real harms. In our present moment of alt-right “trolls” and the political movements that take their cues from them, a self-styled “spiritually incorrect mystic” like Rajneesh serves as a salient reminder that atrocities too can be committed with tongue in cheek.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Leach is Policy Analyst for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hugh B. Urban is Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University, where he studies comparative religion, religions of South Asia, and new religious movements.

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