Issue #20 ‘Elephant’ has arrived, you can buy a copy from our online store or subscribe now. Available April 29…
The narrative of a westerner travelling to the East to find enlightenment – and a sense of spiritual calm and peace they can bring home with them – is a long one.
When Australian schoolteacher Jane Stork arrived in an ashram in Pune, India, it was, as she said in the 2018 documentary series Wild Wild Country, “as though a door burst open”.
She felt liberated and free. Little did she know that, in the end, that door would lead to places she never wanted to go: deceit, attempted murder, sexual abuse and chemical warfare. Stork – by then known as Ma Shanti B and a committed ‘Rajneeshee’ or ‘sannyasin’, as the followers of controversial guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh called themselves – found herself standing in a heaving room.
In her hands she clutched a syringe filled with poison.
The syringe was not for herself but for Rajneesh’s physician Swami Devaraj. Stork had orders from Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh’s personal secretary, to murder the doctor: Sheela worried that he had become too powerful and wielded too much influence over the guru.
Stork approached Swami Devaraj at a gathering, stabbed him in the leg, and walked away. Although the assassination attempt failed (Devaraj lived), it marked a moment of clarity for Stork. She had sullied the central tenet of her Catholic childhood: thou shalt not kill.
Shortly afterwards Stork left the commune (which, in 1981, had been driven out of India and moved to Wasco County, Oregon). Eventually, she disowned her Rajneeshee past altogether. Her experience, although spanning from Australia to India to the States, raises the question: Why is India considered a spiritual mecca? What attracts westerners there? And can this urge to dig deeper into oneself, often through following a holy teacher, be corrupted?
The narrative of a westerner travelling to the East to find enlightenment – and a sense of spiritual calm and peace they can bring home with them – is a long one. In 1968 The Beatles, then at the height of their fame, went to northern India in a much-publicised trip – propelling the idea to the masses of India as a place of spiritual quests and journeys.
They were there to partake in a transcendental meditation course at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram; later, they announced they were giving up drugs for the more profound experience of meditation. “I suggest you try transcendental meditation, through which all things are possible,” John Lennon wrote to a fan in a letter.
More recently, Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 book Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia follows a similar course to that of The Beatles. Gilbert was not a rockstar, was not famous, and did not do hard drugs; but her story is in many ways more relatable: the everyday person who readers, if they followed her path, could also be.
In her memoir, Gilbert, smarting after a divorce, travels around the world. In Italy she devoured pasta (“Eat”); in Bali, she fell for a fellow traveller (“Love”); in India, somewhat predictably, she found spirituality (“Pray”). But, as The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw caustically wrote in a review of the 2010 Eat Pray Love movie starring Julia Roberts: “Personal growth, spiritual journeys, emotional enrichment? Not as easy as 1-2-3.” (Incidentally, though, it has made Gilbert rich: the film and book, which has sold 12 million copies worldwide, has given her a net worth of an estimated USD$25 million).
Stork was not divorced when she went in search of her own version of “pray”, but she was bored and frustrated by the drudgery of domestic life. While she searched for enlightenment, what she found instead, as detailed in her memoir Breaking the Spell: My Life as a Rajneeshee and the Long Journey Back to Freedom, was a form of brainwashing.
When Rajneesh moved the ashram to a 64,000-acre piece of desert located outside the tiny American town of Antelope (population: 40) he envisioned building a great city. Rajneeshpuram – as the town was called – was born. Like many of his followers in India, Stork followed. It was there, in Oregon, that she committed the attempted murder. (She was convicted in 1986 and ended up serving three years in a US jail.)
Rajneesh didn’t teach that enlightenment was available through discipline and doing without (as the hermit, who chooses to reject the world, believes). Instead, so he said, free love and sexuality help humans reach sublimity. Rather than hide from the world, Rajneeshees should be part of it. Indeed, in America, Rajneeshpuram had its own press team, lawyers, camera-people, pilots, and doctors. This worldview, celebrating education, sex, and materialism – combined with meditation, individualism, and community-living – was an enticing cocktail.
Thousands flocked, first to the ashram in India and then to Oregon. It was only when Stork left did she fully confront its darker side. Kylie, her daughter, was sexually abused; group sex and partner swapping was common (footage in Wild Wild Country shows what seems to be a ferocious, violent, animalistic orgy); pregnant women, according to Stork, were told to abort babies. Stork herself was later sterilised at orders of “the Bhagwan”, as their leader was called. Meanwhile, Rajneesh lavished in riches, ending up with 90 Rolls Royces (earning him the nickname the “Rolls Royce Guru”), a private Learjet, and a sparkling diamond watch.
As Stork has said: “It does feel as though I spent a very long time asleep in a dream.”
Rajneesh, later known as Osho, passed away in 1990, having been driven out of America by authorities for immigration fraud. He died back in his ashram in India, aged just 58. Today, the commune still functions without him. And it is big business. His books have been translated into dozens of languages. Courses in Pune at the Osho International Meditation Resort include OSHO Laughter Meditation and “Squeeze the Juice of Life”.
Celebration of sex – mixed with the promise of the spirituality it will bring – remains a drawcard.
“Sex is raw energy,” Rajneesh once declared. “It has to be transformed, and through transformation there is transcendence.” Put into practice, as Vice journalist Noa Jones describes in her 2015 article titled, I Charged My Sexual Energies at the Osho Meditation Resort in India, meant being instructed to “feel the energy” through humping and howling.
The Osho ashram is, of course, just one of many retreats in the vast spiritual supermarket in India. There it costs 1,950 Indian rupees (just under US $28) for a day pass. Some ashrams are even cheaper, simply asking patrons for donations. But others have hefty price tags. Examples include the Atmantan Wellness Resort, also in Pune near Mumbai, which offers a “journey of self-discovery”. Staying there a week can cost a cool US $9,940. Per person.
This is, of course, nothing new. For centuries holy men, or institutions which have claimed to offer direct access to God or a route to spirituality, have cashed in. Indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church saw sinners reduce their punishment in the afterlife through payment. In the Middle Ages, monasteries welcomed the wealthy into their gates, in the process building gorgeous gardens and exquisite buildings, places to rest away from worldly woes.
The rich and famous, too, have always been attracted to travelling to the East to find something missing in their often busy, high-pressured, and materially-focused lives. In his book A Secular Age, author Charles Taylor argues that our intensely individualistic era – in which we are responsible for discovering our own internal path – has led to a “spiritual super-nova, a kind of galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane”.
In 2018, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey attended a silent retreat in Myanmar – tweeting about the process on his return: “During the 10 days: no devices, reading, writing, physical exercise, music, intoxicants, meat, talking, or even eye contact with others. It’s free: everything is given to meditators by charity.”
In a breakdown on a Twitter thread, Dorsey admitted he wore his digital watch, as well as a sleep tracker, (both in airplane mode, mind you) in order to measure how his body reacted to the meditation. “My best meditations always had the least variation in heart rate. When I wasn’t focused, it would jump around a lot,” he wrote.
But as Ephrat Livni notes in Quartz: “The problem with this – apart from indicating Dorsey’s inability to truly detach from technology – is that it misses the point of the very practice he was engaged in. Spiritual practice can’t be measured, not in quantifiable terms, and the notion of ‘best meditations’ is problematic… In other words, there is no physical measure of ‘success’ in meditative practice. And Dorsey is quite intent on characterising his meditations as more or less successful, best and worst.”
“True humility doesn’t advertise itself or call attention to the good deeds of the doer,” Livni continues. “Dorsey’s revelation seems mostly to serve himself, to fortify the ego he ostensibly seeks to dissolve.”
That brings us to a problem: how do you spread the word if remaining humble and silent is a true form of letting go of ego? Worse still, spiritualism, as Buddhist monk Chogyam Trungpa recognised in his 1973 essay Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, can be sold: “Ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even spirituality.”
That is a message worth bearing in mind when watching Wild Wild Country. True, for many, the teachings offered something new. Philip Toelkes (a.k.a. Swami Prem Niren), then a high-flying lawyer who later became Rajneeshpuram’s mayor, recalls meeting a friend returning from the ashram: “He was transformed. He had lost 20 years – his face has lightened up. He would smile like a kid.”
“I am simply saying one thing,” Rajneesh told his followers. “That I was asleep, now I am awake. You are asleep. And you can be awake also.”