Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931-1990) was a religious leader who developed a following which included many Americans at Poona, India. In 1981 he and many followers moved to a large ranch in central Oregon in the United States and there began to build a small city as a home for his devotees. His unusual form of Indian spirituality, especially known for its encouragement of free sexual activity, attracted many followers as well as considerable controversy.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was born at Kuchwada, India, on December 11, 1931, and received the name Rajneesh Chandra Mohan at about six months of age. He graduated from high school in Gadarwara in 1951 and went to Jabalpur, where he enrolled at Hitkarini College. He received a B.A. degree from Jabalpur University in 1955 and an M.A. in philosophy from Saugar University in 1957.
Filled with doubts which were spurred in part by his college philosophy courses, Rajneesh spent a year engaged in meditation and personal struggle. During this time he also suffered severe headaches. All of that came to a peak on March 21, 1953, when, he said, he was enlightened. Seven days earlier he had decided that his effort to achieve enlightenment was futile, and in a feeling of helplessness he had abandoned the search. As he described what then happened, "Those seven days were of tremendous transformation, total transformation. And the last day the presence of a totally new energy, a new light and new delight, became so intense that it was almost unbearable, as if I was exploding, as if I was going mad with blissfulness."
Following his enlightenment Rajneesh went on to finish his studies. In 1957 he received a teaching position at Raipur Sanskrit College. The next year he became a professor of philosophy at Jabalpur University. Frenetic activity, including far-flung travels around India and controversies surrounding his unconventional ideas, marked his years there. In 1964 he began to hold organized meditation camps. In 1966 he resigned from the university. He then became more outspoken, challenging prevailing ideas about such issuesas sex, Hinduism, socialism, and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1968 he jolted Indian traditionalists by giving a lecture in which he advised his listeners that "sex is divine," that through sex one could achieve the first step toward "superconsciousness."
In 1970, at Bombay, Rajneesh introduced what has come to be called "Dynamic Meditation," which Rajneesh synthesized from Yoga, Sufism, Tibetan Buddhism, and contemporary psychological thought. Rajneesh taught that meditation properly began with the body, not the mind; thus Dynamic Meditation involved such activities as screaming, shouting, and the removal of clothing. Rajneesh's disciples became extremely devoted to him, feeling deeply moved simply by being in his presence, and later in 1970 he founded a sannyas (discipleship) movement for those wanting to commit themselves to him and his work. Many who joined the sannyas movement were Western, not Indian. They adopted new Indian names, wore malas (beaded necklaces with lockets containing Rajneesh's picture), and orange and red clothing, representing the many who became sannyasin (members of the sannyas).
Rajneesh had until then been using the title "Acharya," which means "teacher." In 1971 he felt that he had outgrown that role, so he assumed the title "Bhagwan," which means "God." The change, he said, was symbolic rather than literal, indicating that his work would now not be intellectual, but a matter of direct heart-to-heart communication.
Rajneesh and the sannyasin outgrew their quarters in Bombay, and Rajneesh, suffering from diabetes and asthma, believed that Bombay's climate was a part of the reason for his bad health. Thus in 1974 they moved to a six-acre compound in Poona, 80 miles away. There at the Ashram Rajneesh welcomed ever-increasing numbers of followers, especially from Europe and the United States. Daily life there involved Dynamic Meditation, listening to discourses by Rajneesh, and working at an assigned job for six hours a day. Various psychological therapeutic practices were part of the program, and many trained psychologists were among those who joined the movement. Arts and crafts flowered, especially pottery and weaving. There were cultural activities, including a theatrical troupe. By the late 1970s, the six acres of the Ashram could not hold the growing numbers of sannyasin, and new land was secured 20 miles away. In 1979 the new commune at Jadhavwadi was opened.
But opposition mounted as well. Dynamic Meditation, with its overt sexuality, had never been fully accepted by conservative Indians, and the movement had become one largely composed of Westerners. Criticism from outside was constant and came to a peak in 1980 when an Indian opponent tried to kill Rajneesh during a morning discourse.
In 1981 Rajneesh took a vow of silence, following the example of certain other Eastern religious leaders. Now communication between Bhagwan and his followers would be purely heart to heart. That phase lasted until 1984, when Rajneesh began to give limited spoken presentations again.
Continuing opposition, some of it violent, to the movement in India led to a decision to relocate in the United States. After some searching the leaders found a venerable cattle ranch for sale in an isolated spot in central Oregon, comprising an area of 100 square miles—surely a vast enough expanse to encompass any foreseeable future growth. His followers—and soon Rajneesh himself—began moving to the ranch in 1981 and started building a city which they called Rajneeshpuram. Heated disapproval from neighbors arose at once, and both public officials and private organizations acted to restrict or remove Rajneeshpuram on the grounds that it violated the state's land-use planning laws. The prosperous commune, however, fought back in court and continued to expand its presence in Oregon, amid enormous controversy.
Finally, in November 1985, the United States charged Rajneesh with immigration fraud. He pled guilty with the understanding that he would be allowed to leave the country. After a time Rajneesh returned to a commune in Poona. Meanwhile, the community's assets—including 93 custom-built Rolls Royces—were auctioned off. Thirteen of his lieutenants were convicted of crimes ranging from attempted murder to wiretapping.
After returning to India in 1986, Rajneesh directed his followers to stop using the term "Bhagwan." After a time failing health caused him to stop giving discourses, and word came to his followers that the name Rajneesh was also being dropped. He began to be called "Osho," which he said was derived from an expression of the American psychologist of religion William James, "oceanic experience." The commune in India was thereafter called the Osho Institute and Osho Meditation Centers could be found in major cities around the world.
Rajneesh died of heart disease at Poona, India, January 19, 1990.
Rajneesh's discourses have been tape recorded for many years, and the tapes have often been transcribed into books; hundreds of those books of his teachings have been published by the Osho (formerly Rajneesh) Foundation International, and hundreds of tapes of his discourses are available. Several of his books have been published by commercial publishers; probably the most important is My Way: The Way of the White Cloud (1978). A three-volume digest of Rajneesh's teachings on many subjects is The Book (1982).
A biography of Rajneesh by a disciple, published by a major commercial press, is Vasant Joshi's The Awakened One: The Life and Work of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1982).