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

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Zorba the Buddha is the first comprehensive study of the life, teachings, and following of the controversial Indian guru known in his youth as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and in his later years as Osho (1931–1990). Most Americans today remember him only as the “sex guru” and the “Rolls Royce guru,” who built a hugely successful but scandal-ridden utopian community in central Oregon during the 1980s. Yet Osho was arguably the first truly global guru of the twentieth century, creating a large transnational movement that traced a complex global circuit from post-Independence India of the 1960s to Reagan’s America of the 1980s and back to a developing new India in the 1990s. The Osho movement embodies some of the most important economic and spiritual currents of the past forty years, emerging and adapting within an increasingly interconnected and conflicted late-capitalist world order. Based on extensive ethnographic and archival research, Hugh Urban has created a rich and powerful narrative that is a must-read for anyone interested in religion and globalization.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520286672
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/12/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 861,541
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

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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Zorba the Buddha

Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement

By Hugh B. Urban


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96177-7


"India's Most Dangerous Guru"

Rajneesh and India after Independence

I teach utter rebellion. ... If we want to change society, society is going to be offended.

— Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

Osho is the most dangerous man since Jesus Christ. ... He's obviously a very effective man, otherwise he wouldn't be such a threat. He's saying the same things that nobody else has the courage to say. A man who has all kinds of ideas, they're not only inflammatory — they also have a resonance of truth that scares the pants off the control freaks.

— Novelist Tom Robbins

From his first public lectures, Rajneesh presented himself and his ideas as radical, iconoclastic, and dangerous. Never conforming to the traditional model of a "guru" who had sat at the feet of another enlightened master in a long line of teachers stretching back into the hoary past, Rajneesh claimed instead to be a self-enlightened being, a radically new sort of guru who had no teacher of his own, but discovered spiritual awakening through his own initiative and self-experimentation. Similarly, the message he brought was a powerfully iconoclastic one, mocking the great religions of the past and challenging his followers to find their own way to inner truth. Known variously as "the fiery teacher who destroys age-old myths and beliefs, traditions and teachings" and even as "the most dangerous man in the world," Rajneesh was famous for infuriating everyone, from theologians and journalists to politicians on both ends of the political spectrum. As his first official biographer Vasant Joshi put it, he "refutes Marx and socialist ideas, criticizes Freud and Jung, cracks jokes at the people in the Vatican ... and does not disguise his contempt for politicians. The Hindus condemn him as a hedonist, the Communists belittle him as a spiritualist, the journalists describe him as a 'sex guru,' and one scholar called him 'the Hugh Heffner of the spiritual world.'"

In order to understand Rajneesh's iconoclastic religious spirit, however, we need to place him within his larger historical, political, social, and economic context, in the new state of India in the decades after independence. Rajneesh claimed that his enlightenment experience occurred in 1953, just six years after India became independent, at a time of tremendous religious, social, and political turmoil in the fledging democracy. The two nation-states of India and Pakistan had just barely been created, demarcated in large part along religious boundaries, and India was struggling to negotiate its role within the complex Cold War landscape dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union, striving to navigate a middle way between "the capitalist West and the communist soviet block."

Rajneesh's bold and at times abrasive message was in many ways a direct challenge to his Indian audience during the decades of the 1950s and 1960s. Even as modern India was shedding the bonds of its British colonial masters and struggling to negotiate its identity in relation to America and Europe, Rajneesh was calling for a more radical shedding of all bonds to any masters — political, social, or spiritual. And just as India in the postindependence era was beginning to open up to a wide array of non-Indian cultural and intellectual influences, so, too, Rajneesh was sharing his remarkably eclectic teachings, incorporating not only a vast array of ideas drawn from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism, but also elements of European psychoanalysis and philosophy. That these different influences sometimes conflicted with or contradicted one another was not really a problem for Rajneesh. Indeed, his message was in many ways deliberately contradictory, resisting any kind of system, coherent ideology, or dogma: "I am a man who is consistently inconsistent," he noted. "[Consistency] is impossible for me: I live in the moment, and whatsoever I am saying right now is true only for this moment. I have no reference with my past and I don't think of the future at all."

Even Rajneesh's own biography is something of a confusing pastiche. As Lewis Carter notes, the narrative of his life offered by Rajneesh and his followers is less a simple historical document than a kind of "reconstructed Mythos" that imaginatively re-presents his various transformations of identity, his shifting personas from young Chandra Mohan Jain to "Acharya Rajneesh" to "Bhawgan Shree Rajneesh" to "Maitreya," and finally to "Osho." In this sense, his biography is not unlike those of other new religious leaders, such as L. Ron Hubbard or Madame Blavatsky, who also fashioned a kind of "hagiographic mythology" around themselves, woven of various threads of historical and imaginative narrative.

With his iconoclastic, parodic, and paradoxical teachings and his mythohistorical biography, Rajneesh is thus not just the first truly global guru but also perhaps the first "postmodern guru" of the twentieth century. As we saw in the introduction, the term "postmodernism" has been used in wildly different and often contradictory ways; however, as authors such as David Harvey suggest, postmodernism is characterized above all by its emphasis on play, chance, irony, and indeterminacy over the ideals of purpose, design, and determinacy. And this focus on fragmentation, play, and indeterminacy extends above all to the idea of the self or subject, which is likewise seen as multiple and shifting rather than singular and homogenous. As Michel Foucault famously put it in 1966, "Man is an invention of a recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end," destined to be erased like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea. In the wake of Foucault, a variety of postmodern theorists would continue to deconstruct and dethrone the idea of a unified or "sovereign subject," articulating "an emerging post-humanist epistemic space." As Fredric Jameson observes, "Not even Einsteinian relativity, or the multiple subjective worlds of the modernists, is capable of giving adequate figuration to this process, which ... makes itself felt by the so-called death of the subject, or more exactly, the fragmented and schizophrenic decentering of this last."

Rajneesh's early following emerged almost simultaneously in the 1960s with the postmodern turn and its "incredulity toward metanarratives," along with its embrace of play, irony, and indeterminacy over purpose, design, and determinacy. Yet Rajneesh also challenged the very idea of a fixed, permanent selfhood or identity, instead calling for the birth of a "new man" who would be "a liquid human being," constantly flowing, resisting all fixed attitudes, orthodoxies, and above all religious dogmas. As we will see in chapter 2, this paradoxical ideal of a "liquid" and constantly shifting identity would become the basis for a new, equally "liquid," fluid, and flexible community in the 1970s and 1980s. All of this would make Rajneesh an extremely attractive figure in the rapidly changing young India of the decades after independence, but also one deeply threatening to those who supported the status quo.


Part of the difficulty in reconstructing Rajneesh's biography is that it is in many ways not the story of just one person. Rather, the figure that emerges from Rajneesh's narrative is a fluid, shifting, and often contradictory one, less a singular being than a kind of playful trickster who experimented with multiple identities at different moments for different audiences. As former follower James Gordon recalls, "As I listened to Rajneesh's tapes and read his books, I thought of Proteus, the elusive mythical shape-changer; of Lao-Tzu, the Chinese sage; and of Ba'al Shem Tov, whose ecstatic celebration of the divinity in daily life illuminated the eighteenth century Hasidic movement." Even his posthumous Autobiography of a Spiritually Incorrect Mystic describes Rajneesh's many personas as "the many faces of a man who never was," and these faces include his various labels as the "sex guru," the "con man," the "cult leader," the "joker," the "Rolls-Royce guru," and the "Master." In the words of Indian journalist M.V. Kamath, quoted at the end of Rajneesh's first biography, Rajneesh is such an iconoclastic figure that he is better understood not as one man but as multiple, shifting identities:

There has been no other man like this before. ... Like Whitman, Rajneesh is an iconoclast, a maverick, a hater of cant, superstition, snobbery and holier-than-thou-ism, and a lover of the good things of life. He will make a most remarkable statement of purpose and philosophy and illustrate it with the most outrageous joke or story picked straight from Playboy or Penthouse. There is no way one can compartmentalize this man. It would almost seem that he is not one man but many men. ... Rajneesh is Moses, Walt Whitman, Buddha, Jesus Christ and Ramana Maharshi all rolled into one. ... It is ridiculous to try to define this man. He challenges definition. His technique is to put everything upside down on its head ... and make you look at the world from that vantage point. He is a disturbing man because he makes you question the validity of all your principles.

Likewise, Rajneesh's biography is also a complex and shifting sort of postmodern narrative. As Rajneesh himself argued, historical "facts" don't really matter in the creation of a biography; what matters is the deeper spiritual truth and the evolution of an individual's consciousness, which may not necessarily correspond to fact in a historical sense:

The first thing you have to understand is the difference between the fact and the truth. Ordinary history takes care about the facts — what actually happened in the world of matter, the incidents. It does not take care about the truth because truth does not happen in the world of matter, it happens in consciousness. ... One day we will have to write the whole of history with a totally different orientation, because the facts are trivia — although they are material, they don't matter.

While Rajneesh initially eschewed the idea of writing an autobiography, he did include numerous personal vignettes in his lectures. Many of these were later woven into a biography by Joshi in his 1982 book, The Awakened One, and then reworked in various other official narratives. While in Oregon, Rajneesh dictated a series of anecdotes from his early life (from a dentist's chair while under the influence of nitrous oxide, according to one close disciple), which was published in 1985 as Glimpses of a Golden Childhood. In 2000, the Osho International Foundation released Autobiography of a Spiritually Incorrect Mystic, which edited and repackaged the guru's life story from the perspective of the current Osho movement. The most exhaustive and also most hagiographic biography appeared still later in nine volumes and 3,600 pages in Hindi under the title Ek Phakkad Messiah and was later published in a single, abridged English volume as The Rebellious Enlightened Master (2006). Finally, there are also a few "dissenting" accounts of Rajneesh's early life, such as the critical narrative provided by his former bodyguard, Hugh Milne. After visiting Rajneesh's family members in the village of Drug, Milne found that they had rather different recollections of the young Rajneesh, which departed significantly from the official accounts.

In sum, Rajneesh's biography is not so much a singular, linear narrative of one individual but rather a far more protean, fragmented, shifting patchwork of multiple narratives and identities. Some of these identities, according to his recollections, even preceded this particular lifetime and included past lives dating back many centuries. For example, he recalled having been a previous spiritual master in the twelfth century, who had established a mystical school in a mountainous area and then died at the age of 106 after a twenty-one-day fast.

In his twentieth-century identity, however, he was born Chandra Mohan Jain in the small village of Kuchwada, Madhya Pradesh, in 1931. Nicknamed Rajneesh, he was raised by his maternal grandparents, an elderly Jain couple, who gave him remarkable freedom and treated him as a "rajah" or king. As his biographer Joshi recalls, Rajneesh was from his earliest years a rebellious and antiauthoritarian figure, who also had a fascination with danger and the limits of mortality: "His school years are described as a period of rebellion against all authority, organizing gangs to terrorize villages and reckless 'experiments' in which he would lead or push others into life-threatening circumstances."

It is perhaps not insignificant that Rajneesh was born to a Jain family and raised during the 1930s. As Christophe Jaffrelot notes, the Hindu Nationalist movement, which had emerged first in the nineteenth century, really began to expand and crystallize as an ideology in the period between the 1920s and 1940s. The same period also witnessed increasing tensions between Hindu nationalists and Muslims, which would help lead in part to India's partition and its violent aftermath. Coming from a Jain background, Rajneesh was not only an outsider to these divisions, but also deeply cynical toward all forms of religious or political orthodoxies throughout his life.

If there is any one recurring theme in the various accounts of Rajneesh's early life, it is his preoccupation with and experience of death. Long before postmodernists and deconstructionists in Europe began to talk about the idea, Rajneesh was fascinated with the possibility of the "death of the subject" (an idea also discussed in the Buddhist tradition 2,000 years earlier, we should note). Thus he recalled that an astrologer had predicted at his birth that it was "almost certain that this child is going to die at the age of twenty-one. Every seven years he will have to face death." So his parents were also said to have been concerned about his possible death throughout his childhood. In his youth, Rajneesh then had several actual encounters with death that would have a profound impact on him. The first was the death of his maternal grandfather when Rajneesh was seven years old, an event that left a permanent emotional scar. He recalled watching his grandfather die slowly for three days, after which he himself refused to eat or get up for three days. As Rajneesh put it, "His death became for me the death of all attachments. Therefore I could not establish a bond of relationship with anyone. ... Since then, I have been alone." A second early experience was the death of a childhood girlfriend in 1947, which pushed him into a deep state of depression that lasted several years. Preoccupied with the question of mortality, he spent large amounts of time in cremation grounds observing dead bodies and following funeral processes. "Death," he put it, "is such a beautiful phenomenon, and one of the most mysterious"; and from an early age he recalled thinking about the day of his own death.

Rajneesh was also remembered for hurling himself into life-threatening situations, such as jumping into a dangerously flooded river and leaping from a seventy-foot bridge. Yet he is also said to have been fascinated with observing others confront the fact of their own mortality. For example, he recalled holding a friend who was unable to swim under water until he became desperate, and then eagerly asked him about the experience afterward.

As a student, Rajneesh appears to have been constantly butting up against authority and getting into trouble with teachers and university administrators. At age nineteen, he began his studies at Hitkarini College in Jabalpur, but after conflicts with an instructor soon transferred to D.N. Jain College. Here he was apparently so disruptive that he was not required to attend classes but only to take exams, and so he used his free time to work for a local newspaper and begin public speaking. As Rajneesh himself later recalled, he seemed almost compelled to cause trouble and generate arguments with his instructors, even if only for his own entertainment: "With or without reason, I was creating controversies. ... There seemed even if just for fun a necessity to create controversies."

Rajneesh's first major spiritual transformation took place in the early 1950s. After a long period of intense physical and emotional distress, he underwent a profound experience that he described as full enlightenment. As he later recounted the episode, he had gone through a period of intense questing, during which he challenged and discarded all religions, philosophies, scriptures, and any other systems of truth. Krishna, Buddha, Mahavir, Jesus, the Vedas, the Koran — nothing seemed to provide a stable foundation for certainty, and he was left spiritually adrift in a kind of "dark night of the soul." As he put it, "Questions remained without any answer. ... I was as good as mad. ... I was in a deep sea. ... without any boat or bank anywhere. ... My condition was utter darkness. It was as if I had fallen into a deep well. ... My condition was full of tensions, insecurity and danger." He then went through a period of intense asceticism and physical austerity, during which he went for days without feeling hunger or thirst, running five to ten miles every morning and evening, until all those around him also thought he was mad. His distressed parents took him to one physician after another, trying Ayurvedic doctors and religious specialists.


Excerpted from Zorba the Buddha by Hugh B. Urban. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Gurus, God-Men, and Globalization

1. “India’s Most Dangerous Guru”: Rajneesh and India after Independence
2. “Beware of Socialism!” The “Anti-Gandhi” and the Early Rajneesh Community in the 1970s
3. “From Sex to Superconsciousness”: Sexuality, Tantra, and Liberation in 1970s India
4. “The Messiah America Has Been Waiting For”: Rajneeshpuram in 1980s America
5. “Osho”: The Apotheosis of a Fallen Guru in 1990s India
6. OSHO®? The Struggle over Osho’s Legacy in the Twenty-First Century
Conclusion: The Spiritual Logic of Late Capitalism

Selected Bibliography

Customer Reviews