James S. Gordon, M.D., the Clinton Administration’s appointee as chairman of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy (WHCCAMP), has written about his experiences as a student of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. His book The Golden Guru: The Strange Jouney of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Stephen Greene Press, Lexington, Mass, 1988) purports to be a psychological analysis of his teacher’s descent into authoritarianism. The book presents Gordon’s theories about authoritarianism, but it also attributes “wisdom and generosity” to behavior that most people would regard as purely malignant.
In 1979, Gordon traveled to Poona, India, at his own expense after his request for a National Institute of Mental Health grant to study Rajneesh’s commune had been quashed by the State Department, which considered the organization to be a dangerous cult similar to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple. In Chapter 3 (“Surrender to Bhagwan”), Gordon describes the “rebirthing” experience he underwent during his one-month stay:
Several days before I leave Poona . . . I have a session of rebirthing . . . I am. . . particularly anxious to see what the combination of Rajneesh and rebirthing will be like.
Rebirthers follow the theory of the psychoanalyst Otto Rank and the practice of Leonard Orr. They believe that only by reexperiencing the primal trauma of birth . . . can one undo the harm, the emotional and physical constriction, the fear and rage, that result from the abrupt transition from intrauterine peace to the cold, noisy, bright lights of the delivery room and the larger world.
The technique is, I discover, remarkably simple. I am instructed to lie naked on a mat (sometimes rebirthing is done in water) and breathe deeply, in and out, through my mouth. In Poona, to my surprise, my rebirther, a beautiful, rather distant Danish blonde, takes off her clothes as well. She sits behind me, naked except for her mala [necklace with picture of Rajneesh], on a mattress. . . .
My breathing begins to feel hoarse and raspy and my body begins to rock and flail. I know I am hyperventilating. The oxygen is accumulating and the carbon dioxide in my blood is decreasing . . . The woman touches me from time to time. . . . I am aware of some sort of raw force not exactly in her, but coming through her. It feels. . . like Rajneesh. . . . Now it is as if she is hardly there, a hollow reed, an instrument that Rajneesh is playing.
My head feels terrible, constricted as if it is being crushed in a vice. I can barely breathe. I panic for a moment, feeling like I am going to suffocate, remembering the fear that haunted the moments before childhood sleep. My God, am I imagining this? Or is this really some bodily memory, a replay of my descent through the birth canal. There is agony in my right shoulder. It is being crushed toward my chest, tearing at my upper back in the place where tension always produces pain. I am terrified. Air is rushing in as if my mouth were a vacuum. I’m, shrieking now, an unearthly sound I have never consciously made before, drying, screaming. I am flailing on the mat, squalling like a newborn, feeling my mouth open, hearing the sound and marveling, as if at the first glimpse of an ancient relic.
Gordon goes on like this for another page, then concludes:
Nature is unfolding in me with enormous power and confidence. . . . I gather myself . . . there is no pain in the knees that have bothered me for years. . . . Even my aching lower back is straighter than any osteopath has ever made it. My eyes, when I look at them in a mirror, are as clear as a baby’s.
I look up now, away from my own face to Rajneesh’s. He is looking down at me, smiling, impish, knowing. . . . I feel that he has made this experience possible, kicked my energy like some sluggish electron into a more excited, active, higher state. I feel gratitude and love, not so general now as in groups, but focused on Rajneesh, on his generosity. I feel clean, blissful, and — yes, I have to admit it — reborn. That’s why they call it rebirthing, I giggle to myself.
Defense of Violent Psychotherapy
In Chapter 3, Gordon also responds to the charges that people are being sorely injured and even killed though violent encounter therapies at Poona,. Gordon defends violence as long as it is not “self-indulgent” or fatal:
The violence had ended by the time I had gotten to Poona . . . but it still bothered me. It wasn’t that I was against fighting in groups. I knew from years of psychiatric work and my own two years’ experience in an encounter group that the potential for destructiveness was present in all of us, that some kind of controlled release coupled with awareness could be therapeutic — indeed, had been therapeutic for me. . . . Most [of the people at Poona] believed that the violent confrontations – – even their own bad bruises and broken limbs — had been a small and necessary price to pay for the freedom they now felt from past traumas and inhibitions, for the perspective they had gained on their own sadism and masochism.
I could also see that violence in a few groups might in some way have helped to exorcise the community’s latent collective violence. I knew too that spiritual teachers — Marpa with his disciple Milarepa, Gurdjieff, and many Zen masters — had sometimes used violence as a device to break down disciples’ arrogance and resistance to change, to get them to see reality, including themselves, as they were. In this context, incitement to violence or acts of violence were just another aspect of what the Tibetan Buddhists called ati yana, the crazy wisdom of spontaneous and inexplicable but appropriate action. . . .
Still I had my doubts about the value of violence in the groups. It was true that even with the hospitalizations and the two suicides, far fewer people were adversely affected than I would have expected with such powerful techniques used on so many thousands of unscreened participants. . . . In my own experience in America, violence had been controlled and contained, whereas in Poona it had . . . often become self-indulgent.
Defense of Rajneesh’s Wealth
In Chapter 5 (“The Rolls Royce Guru”), Gordon excuses Rajneesh’s ostentatious displays of wealth — which included 93 Rolls Royce cars — by classifying them as an “obsessive symptom” and later concluding that the possession of the cars was insignificant.
In India, Rajneesh had been known as the sex guru, in America he was becoming known as the Rolls-Royce guru. He had always liked good and expensive cars and certainly he must have enjoyed even more the notoriety and confusion, the anger and envy, that his possession of so many — so absurdly, unnecessarily, outrageously many — of them aroused. Just as he enjoyed provoking the Gandhiites and ascetics in India, so he loved sticking it to America’s puritans.
In displaying his wealth so conspicuously, in ignoring accusations of selfishness, Rajneesh was mocking the preconceptions of his New World audience, who — particularly the Christians — who tended to associate spirituality with poverty, modesty, charity. He was telling them they were deluded, that wealth was “immensely spiritual,” a precondition for spirituality. Poverty was worse than useless, and voluntary poverty an inverted form of pride. He would, some time later, declare himself “the rich man’s guru” and condemn charity as a tool for enslaving the poor and a salve for the guilty consciences of the rich.
It seemed to me that at the same time Rajneesh was, a bit more subtly, putting us on. His display of wealth was a lampoon of the far greater wealth and power of the Pope and man of America’s TV evangelists. They acted humble, if not poor, kissing the earth and praising the impoverished, emphasizing their own humble beginnings. In so doing, he seemed to be saying, they showed themselves to be hypocrites. Rajneesh was, he would have us believe, at least honest. He praised the wealth he enjoyed, condemned the poverty he avoided. A popular ranch bumper sticker read: “Jesus Saves. Moses Invests. Bhagwan Spends.”
I found that my reactions to the cars were always changing..Initially I was repulsed. . . . Later in an analytic frame of mind, I classified Rajneesh’s collecting as a symptom that had existed since childhood. I remember reading that when he was a boy his mother had sewn extra pockets in his pants so that he could collect more stones from a nearby beach . . . . later he collected books, then fountain pens, then hats and towels, then watches…and now finally, cars. Always the best and most expensive.
It was, I concluded, a fixation.. The prepubescent boy’s obsessive collecting — a kind of sublimated, anxiety-ridden greed — was preserved in the middle-aged man . . . perhaps when he was satiated . . . the watches and cars would lose their meaning, too. . . .
One morning I awakened and imagined a beneficent Bhagwan accumulating Rolls-Royces to show people that infinite wealth was available. All we had to do was live like the lilies in the field, trust existence in each moment, and everything would be given. The Rolls-Royces were simply symbols that those of us too stupid to get the message of the Sermon on the Mount might understand.
Another time I focused on Rajneesh’s ethnicity. How many Indian men had I seen who lavished more attention on their Rolex than on their wife? Rolls-Royces? Every maharaja worth the name had owned at least one. The motor car that was the pride of the colonizing British was the ultimate status symbol for the colonized. Tajneesh was simply one-upping all of them.
Then, on another occasion, it hit me that the Rolls-Royces didn’t mean anything at all. All the meanings that we were attributing to them were only reflections of our psyches. The cars were what Indians call a leela, a play. Their showy presence was merely a clever reminder that the whole of existence is just a play.
Defense of Rajneesh’s Unethical Recruiting Activity
In the Fall of 1984, the Rajneeshees recruited hundreds of mentally ill and drug-addict street people to come to Oregon to vote as part of their plan to take over their section of rural Oregon through the ballot box. (Rajneeshees also inoculated salad bars with salmonella bacteria to keep local residents away from the polls.) Recruits were bussed to Oregon and subjected to Rajneeshee discipline. Some were drugged with Haldol. The Oregon Psychiatric Association and Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield spoke out strongly against the Rajneeshees, saying that they were manipulating these vulnerable people and often holding them against their will. Gordon was involved as a NIMH researcher, he claims — in Rajneesh’s recruiting efforts in Washington, D.C.! In Chapter 7 (“The Share-A-Home Campaign”), he defends them:
Psychiatry’s record for dealing with the desperately needy and the homeless has been dismal. I can understand questioning the program [by the Oregon Psychiatric Assn] and especially wanting to learn from it, but accusations made without evidence have a hollow ring. The program, in spite of its inequities and exploitativeness, does seem a great improvement over what these men have been offered in city and state mental hospitals and shelters. Those who stay are functioning, useful members of a loving community. They seem to have a real opportunity to change.
Lessons Learned from Rajneesh
In the book’s Epilogue, Gordon sums up what he has learned from his nearly 13 years as a student of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
Nevertheless, during the last twenty years, the wisdom and generosity of the ideal Rajneesh offered have helped his sannyasins and me and many more people to see the generous, spontaneous, celebratory aspects of ourselves. His vision of a loving, cooperative community dedicated to the creation of new men and women living in harmony with their own nature and the natural world have provoked and inspired us. Similarly, his self-absorption, and self-deception, his destructive, controlling actions and his sannyasins’ collaboration in them, can help show us our own willingness to be self-absorbed and destructive, to be controlled individually and in groups, and to deceive ourselves. The contradictions in Rajneesh and in his sannyasins remind us that the ideals to which we aspire and the flaws which we fear are both already present in us.
For me, it is not finally a question of agreeing or disagreeing with Rajneesh, of praising or condemning him or his sannyasins. It is, rather, a matter of learning from him and them, of appreciating his remarkable talents and gifts and recognizing his perverse uses of them, of seeing myself in him and his sannyasins, of using his extraordinary story and strange, as yet unfinished journey as a mirror for my own.
Do you think Dr. Gordon is fit to advise the President on how to restructure our health-care system and research priorities?
Mr. Curry is a consumer health activist who resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
This page was posted on February 26, 2002.