Dearly beloved, what follows here is somewhat akin to finding out the truth about the Easter Bunny. Yes, fantasies don’t exist sadly, but realities do. Billions of them in fact, each hidden in plain view behind the eyeballs of other people, animals and insects. Like your own life, each of theirs is a world unto its own too, and it’s only natural to wonder what on Earth we’re all doing here. Thus was born the search for meaning, in man at least, for I’ve yet to come across dogs or cats who’ve authored books on the subject. No, the animal kingdom doesn’t need any motivational books because those creatures simply live, and don’t we all just love them for the little joys that they inspire?
Caveman once awoke to find a ball of fire rising in the sky. Instead of fearing the Armageddon, he rejoiced. The daylight was an opportunity to settle the rumble in his tummy and, as soon as he did, the sun set. The echoes of a million creatures hiding in the darkness of night suddenly accosted caveman. Instead of reaching for his club though, caveman became enchanted by the warm glow radiating from the white ball in the sky, and those were the very beginnings of dance. He closed his eyes and swayed along with the ocean in which all of existence was floating. Caveman wasn’t confused about his purpose in life, or who to gratify. Before God, morality and the incessant stream of opinions on social media, natural man too enjoyed the liberty of taking life as it comes.
“It is everyone’s birth-right,” I heard a sage once say.
Simple freedoms like those sound just like the exotic holiday we all need from contemporary life and, I suppose for that very reason, it should also be asked if that is what we want to hear?
I began wondering about that while answering emails about a week into the Work as Meditation programme. WAM it was called for short, and saying it out loud was pretty much the experience of finding every email in my inbox begun with the salutation ‘Dearly Beloved’. Images of utopia flashed in my mind, though I come from a world in which slogans like ‘live-laugh-love’ have been turned into hashtags and bandied about like designer handbags. The meaning of things is not always clear nowadays, and that left me staring at the emails, betwixt by whether the salutations were written with a genuine sentiment or were just the social convention of the commune I was working in.
And India is a place that can be survived only if you set aside all the assumptions you have about life.
Travelling there wasn’t even on my bucket-list, yet there I was, surrounded by a billion strangers. I arrived one sweltering afternoon outside Lohegaon Airport after a journey that lasted 24 hours. All I needed was a ride to complete it, which became a problem when my taxi driver didn’t like the look of my MasterCard. I got out of the car, cursing for not having changed some currency back in Delhi. An airport official pointed me in the direction of an ATM, which happened to be offline, and led me right back to him. Literally ten paces beyond the doorway where he stood was a Bureau de Change. The official shook his head the way Indians do. Without a valid travel ticket, I wasn’t allowed back into the airport, he explained in broken English. I ignored him while whistling in broken Hindi to the clerk at the Bureau de Change, but she quickly turned away when the official grunted and pushed me aside with his rifle.
There and then I decided that India wasn’t a place to be loved or hated. It needed to be navigated. And so, with the giant airport clock ticking away, I made a seat of my backpack to let the official know that I could go nowhere else. We were stuck with each other.
A man with a thick moustache soon arrived. The airport official saluted him then, after exchanging a few words, kicked my bag as if he too thought it a nuisance. The official and I both waited for the moustache to turn the corner before staring at each other. I assumed this was the end of my protest but, to my surprise, got a grunt to say that the coast was clear. Moments later, I was standing at the Bureau de Change, having Rupees doled out into my hands. After the clerk tallied up the stack, she held on to the last note and waved it with a smile that suggested the official deserved a tip.
Ah! …until then I had assumed that he was just being kind.
In the taxi to Koregaon Park, I tossed out all the travel literature I had on India. When I asked the driver where the Agha Khan Mosque was, he replied “five minutes”, which didn’t sound like a suburb of Pune to me. Trying again, I asked where MG Road was and he replied “very long”. It struck me then that, with a billion people clogging up the roads in the world’s biggest democracy, it was more useful to quantify distance in time. Labels like kilometres, which are usually used to make sense of our world, didn’t really apply there. In India, a natural organisation has taken over. Some might call it chaos, but my driver thought of it as the country’s greatest gift.
I discovered what he meant when pointing to the opposite side of the dual-carriageway we were travelling on. He turned our little rickshaw sharply into the oncoming traffic, never mind the truck that was speeding toward us, and rolled casually across the road to the spot I had indicated. I pinched myself to ensure that I was indeed still alive, and there it was, the fresh perspectives on life that so many travel to India for. My driver threw his head over his shoulder, laughing through his tobacco-stained teeth, and told me that self-discovery was “baksheesh”. He then stuck his hand out and said that everything else in India would cost me a few Rupees.
I dragged my rucksack back upon my shoulders and hopped out of the rickshaw on Lane 1, Koregaon Park. There I stood a moment to behold the great black edifice…Thunder!
My quest had led me there without any clue as to what to expect, so I figured the obvious next step was to follow the ramp up to the ominous sign that read ‘Welcome Centre’. Little did I know that I was, like an unwitting Bilbo Baggins, stepping through a portal into a whole new world.
The next morning started early. Strolling along a stone pathway upon which it snowed tiny green leaves, the ancient tree-tops filtered-out the daylight into a hodgepodge of sunbeams dancing upon the ground. I imagined myself in one of those monasteries up in the mountains, thousands of years ago. Raju, the resident cat, watched me meditatively as I made the journey to the main campus. Along the way, I spied into the windows of Krishna House where classic Barcelona chairs, Apple Mac’s and colourful abstract artworks painted by the founder himself broke the stark white interior. The mosaic path ended in a plaza with a waterfall serving as the backdrop to a glass pyramid. I stopped there to take it all in. The entire campus was finished in shiny black marble tiles that ran along straight lines into a clean post-modernism vibe. It looked like a Stanley Kubrick sci-fi movie, complete with every denizen in maroon robes, but this place existed long before the future. It was the site of the original human experiment that integrated economics, community and spirituality.
Well, that’s the official story.
The true rhythm of this place was flashing at me from beyond the tall bamboo trees that walled the plaza from Buddha Grove, a marble-floored stadium. There, I caught glimpses of more maroon. People were swaying with reckless abandon to a catchy dance tune that sounded familiar, but got caught on the tip of my tongue while I watched them twirling upon their toes, arms spread out wide. The expressions on their faces told tales of joy, sorrow and every human experience in between. It was enchanting to see them so lost on an ordinary morning, like one of those quotes about ’dancing like no one was watching’ had suddenly come alive.
It was a striking contrast to 9am in the ordinary world.
That usually consists of spending an hour commuting when you could be sleeping, only to arrive at a desk left messy from having worked till late the previous night, and finally clearing it up to start all over again. Coffee, you may think, will give you the courage to endure, but a stiff drink is really what you’ll need if ever you projected that thought.
That life usually plays out as being physically at work but distracted by the milk not to be forgotten on the way home. Without focus the days get longer, which leads to dropping comatose on the couch to recover by bingeing on increasingly violent television. On a weekly basis this ritual develops into intoxicating habits that help to both forget the gruelling week and dream of a better one starting the next Monday. That pattern of life becomes fifty years of work rewarded by being incarcerated on yet another couch in an arrangement called retirement. As a long-term strategy, it’s safe, but it also sounds like the early grave many people complain about. It feels like you’re not living, and the need to escape becomes rather urgent.
That’s why 9am in the ordinary world is all about power.
Those dancers, on the other hand, were all letting go. If I told you that their dance was a meditation to transform our warring and poverty-stricken world you may smirk, but consider a typical newscast:
PEACE! Protesters shout with their fists thrown high-up in the air.
We are a culture that expresses our anger because we all know that no man is an island, and that wars affect us all economically, socially, and sometimes even personally. Our disillusionments with the world though have a life of their own. They surreptitiously turn into, say, shouting at telemarketers, who then go home to proverbially kick the dog. Expressing our anger unwittingly contributes to the wars we detest because war is simply mass anger. The influence of cause-and-effect allows resentment to multiply across the entire fabric of life as it is true that no man is an island. To recognise that we aren’t separate from the problems of the world is the first step towards change, and it relies on personal responsibility.
That was the premise on which this place was built, and it was a whole new life that was being spun out of that dance. Those dancers were manifesting the vision of a new man - one who is as wealthy as he wants to be without, but is first rich within. Zorba the Buddha is what they call it. It’s a prototype of a natural man upon whom they intended to build a new world. He reflects man’s true capabilities, and the peak of all human experience. It’s not even a revolutionary notion, just a forgotten one. Through the ages, men like Pythagoras, Lao Tzu and Rumi have all spoken about a phenomenon known as ‘enlightenment’.
Quite simply, it is the experience of being switched on.
I found my own foot tapping to the possibility, that is until my mind finally caught up and recognised the song being danced to was none other than ‘Hotel California’. Now I’m not one for omens. For me, tarot cards are spiritual porn. But, back in the seventies, that song led to much speculation about an actual place in California connected to Anton La Vey, author of the Satanic Bible. Its most famous lyrics are that ‘you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!’
I immediately recalled a friend who teased that she wasn’t expecting me back from India as it sounded like I was joining a cult.
Don Healy, who wrote the song, explained that it was about the excesses of capitalism, and the dark pit of meaninglessness that materialism could trap you in. The American Dream, however, remains the USA’s greatest export, as living to the standard of middle-class America is one of the most ubiquitous ambitions the world over. It is the very definition of success that many people crave, so you could say that most of the working-world belongs to a cult anyway. ‘Hotel California’ was like a warning to them, and those dancers suddenly didn’t look all that meditative anymore. I zoomed-in to see if they had their middle-fingers stuck out to the world.
“Welcome to the Osho International Meditation Resort!”
That’s how Kala introduced herself. She came from Guest-Care, and found me easily since I was the only person on campus not wearing a maroon robe. “Not yet!” she quipped from behind her oversized nerdy glasses. That was a loaded statement, one that prompted me to ask if she thought WAM was just trumped-up hullabaloo, or an actual valuable experience for her. She was at the end of a three-month stint in the programme, but instead of satisfying my curiosity, Kala just rolled her big brown eyes. She walked briskly on while I kept pace with the hard facts she was instructed to dispense.
At first, it was all practical. I learnt what to eat, where to jive, and all about the stultifying laundry process.
But then Kala painted me a picture of the place back in the seventies, when the world was first introduced to the revolutionary new meditations that simplified the teachings of Sufi’s, Yogi’s and wacky mystics like Gurdjieff. It seemed that people have always been searching for themselves amidst the noise in their heads, but as opposed to solving the problem by acquiring things that helped them to feel safe, the purpose of this place was to silence the noise itself.
On offer then are meditations that help you to resolve unconscious repressions by having you laughing, crying and silent for a week each respectively. Another called Born Again takes you back to childhood, while Gibberish is a meditation that spring-cleans your mind of all the crap you’ve gathered since. You can explore your previous lives, use art to peer into your subconscious, or simply get a massage if all that sounds too crazy.
Kala called it a ‘Mystery School’, a sort of real-life Hogwarts for muggles who wanted to understand themselves. Personal freedom was their only goal.
At the height of the ashram’s popularity however, the world was shocked by a documentary that showed naked people howling at each other in a padded room. From what I understand, it’s a therapy based on Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream, which helps to consciously relive past traumas so that they can be released from your psyche and stop bothering you. According to the documentary, black eyes and broken bones ensued.
If that’s what spiritual gurus are preaching, it’s easy to see why so many people would rather opt for a lifetime of disciplined work instead of indulging in self discovering.
One of the recent entrants on the scene, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, explained that we are so entrenched in what we believe is a sane way of life that we would rather run for the hills than experience ourselves at full potential. The things that happen at ashrams are merely activities to keep us engaged, thereby allowing some time for us to grow. I suppose it doesn’t really matter what route you take to self-discovery as, if you don’t know where Xanadu is, there isn’t much choice other than trusting the Sherpa who knows the way.
The proof, after all, is in the pudding.
And so, I took a spoonful. At the Galleria, Bupendra took one glance at me and guessed the size of my robe. POOF! I emerged from the change-room, maroon like everyone else. That’s when I mustered up the courage to ask Kala again, flat out, if WAM was just trumped up hullabaloo or actually a valuable experience for her.
Kala stopped abruptly to hit me with a Zen paradox. “This is not an ashram!” she exclaimed.
I glanced at the statue of Buddha floating over a pool of water, but he had nothing to say. Then again, he did spend his life preaching the benefits of silence.
Kala went on to evade my question again by explaining that this wasn’t a monastic community, and there was no one leading the religious retreat. It was buffet-style spirituality; the personally-responsible approach. My curiosity unsatisfied, I wondered if this was yet another fact she was instructed to dispense. She smiled, I smiled, and then Kala handed me over to Carla in the WAM office.
Damn! What were the odds of everyone I was meeting at the ashram having the same name? I must be in a cult, I mused.
Carla however turned out to be a bubbly and energetic New Yorker who navigated the complicated spreadsheets in the WAM office like Christopher Columbus. After the admin was completed, we sauntered over to the hospital next door to the ashram for ten-rupee chai and cashew biscuits. While watching a kid pull flowers out of the ground, Carla answered the question that Kala dodged.
Carla came to India to enrol in WAM after being part of a small band of determined people who put their backs into a project that turned into a widely-successful dotcom. It was a moving experience to have built something so significant, but the cost of attaining the success that millions dream of made her question what the point of it all was?
“Working in New York”, she said, “was like working in New York,” and then she added, “y’know?” in that sing-song voice North-Americans have.
I understood perfectly. Nothing fails like success, and Ghandi put it into perspective well. He said that “everything you do is insignificant, but it’s very important that you do it”. That’s a drastically different take on ‘passion’, the cornerstone of western life.
Passion is, in fact, an estimated $13-billion industry called Personal Development (PD). It thrives on helping people shake off the feeling that they’re not living by offering visions of success, health and nurturing relationships. As a system, it also provides the actionable steps to achieve those visions so, in a way, PD is busy creating a new man just like the ashram aims to do. The only difference is that it’s for people who have become cynical toward the traditional establishments of spirituality that have historically been dispensing that advice. All the same, it’s just another method of finding meaning in life; one that hinges on discipline.
For it to work though, you need an ideal to keep you motivated. Without an ideal, throwing tractor tyres around in CrossFit seems pointless. Ideals then help to justify the monumental effort required to claim success in our competitive world but, as Carla pointed out, it’s easy to get stuck on the treadmill of defending those ideals to maintain the success we fight so hard for. Soon our worlds become insular and, in that way, success can become a cage. It was a rather disappointing experience for her.
What Carla was really looking for was in the hands of that naughty child, who was now being scolded by his mum. The kid turned to us with dirty hands, snot running from his nose, and clueless as to why his bewilderment had so effortlessly put a smile on our faces. He glowed with the sense of wonder we once felt as children ourselves. It was innocence that radiated from him, and the unconditional acceptance that wafted through the garden helped us to feel part of something bigger.
Think of any place where you are completely accepted for who you are and you’ll notice just how different you are in that space. There’s no substitute for connection, which is quite contradictory to distinguishing yourself through success.
Very subtly, it dawned on me that this was why Kala couldn’t answer my question. She could only give me the facts that helped me make of it what I would. Connecting to the essence of what went on in the ashram was entirely up to me.
About that, I already had an interesting encounter.
Earlier that day, I was sat down by Leelaq, who dropped my WAM application into her lap and assigned me to work in the Welcome Centre. This was the same Welcome Centre that Kala mentioned having begged to be transferred from. It was also the place where Carla helped out occasionally, and knew of a storm brewing there between staff and the coordinator that no one liked.
I protested, only to find that maroon robes weren’t the only thing that was compulsory in the ashram. My choices as to where I worked in WAM were being made for me because everyone serviced the commune in some way or the other. My inclusion in WAM depended on me toeing the line and, to encourage me, Leelaq tossed the ‘S’ word at me.
It was a big word, and typical of the controversy that plagued the Osho commune.
Their history can be summed up as challenging the Indian authorities on taxation, and then escaping to America where they transplanted the commune, only to end up being accused of the largest bio-terror attack on US soil and a conspiracy to murder amongst other mayhem. A fleet of 93 Rolls Royce’s were left as collateral damage when the whole Oregon episode imploded, and they returned to Pune claiming that their master was poisoned by Ronald Reagan’s government as the last straw in proving that their vision for a new humanity could only be enjoyed by those intelligent enough to understand it.
‘Surrender’, you see, was a rather big word. And to whom was the question?
The Zen master who established the ashram was Rajneesh, a man who people addressed as the Bhagwan, or God, long before his name was Osho. Rajneesh isn’t even his real name. It’s a moniker that translates to ’Prince of the Night’ and was given to him by his family because he was always disruptive, even as a child. So many name changes didn’t bode well for his credibility, but Rajneesh’s notoriety was on the rise long before the commune’s antics.
He penned the book ’From Sex to Super-Consciousness’, which wasn’t a book about sex, but sex does nevertheless sell, and Rajneesh’s reputation as the ‘Sex Guru’ attracted a global following. Once people arrived at his feet though, they remained in India as his devotees not for Rajneesh’s lewd impressions, but rather for his incredibly insightful words about life, you, and me.
You could say that Rajneesh was about the only Indian who didn’t shake his head the way the other billion do, and the rebellion he instigated was no joke either.
It was about how humanity organised themselves. You simply can’t expect to earn a living and still go home to bake your own bread. It’s just not practical, so we are all interdependent on each other for a decent standard of living. To facilitate that, the ancient world divided themselves into four classes of society.
The priests supplied religion as the law, as governments do today, and that was supported by an economy kept in motion by the merchant class.To protect the interests of all, warriors were charged with keeping order, as policemen do today, and the last division was the slave class who serviced the needs of the entire community in exchange for their basic needs.
Western movies reflect this social stage of humanity well. If you trotted into town on your horse, you’d find a row of retail stores on one side, the saloon on the other, and a church at the end. This layout reflects the human needs for implements, relationships, and meaning respectively. All of it was overseen by the sheriff, whose offices were located right up front. Order was the raison d’etre of human society back then, naturally because going back to scavenging in the bushes was too difficult.
Rather rebelliously, Osho challenged the very core of this structure. He pointed out that religion has always been administered by ordinary men who’ve only claimed to be God’s vice-regents on Earth but, thus far, no God has arrived to claim humanity as His creation. And so, in practice, the idea of God was not merely an instrument of control, but was also one rife with abuse.
Osho also wasn’t the only one to note that a belief in a god wasn’t a requirement for humanity’s wellbeing. Buddha too fought the Brahmins, the priest class of his time, on the same principle. If you listen carefully to other men like Krishnamurti or Eckhart Tolle, they too are saying that quality of life is lost by outsourcing our hopes for success, peace or love, to the great guy in the sky. They too advocate personal responsibility rather than looking up to the heavens and wondering if Charlton Heston is looking back at you.
To Osho, the idea of a God was merely a projection of the human mind for its need to survive, and was why the concept of God was riddled with the very basic contradiction of being astonishingly merciful and kind on one hand, yet undeniably vengeful on the other if His system of morality was not conformed to. You can see now why there was a need for sheriffs in the ancient world.
There’s a difference between believing in an idea and an actual knowing. Test it out right now by asking yourself if you are, in fact, holding this text with your hand, or just believe that you are?
That sort of provocation is what made Osho, and other enlightened men of his ilk, so compelling. They were talking about what was real as opposed to the fiction of beliefs. While I cannot say whether Osho was enlightened or not, I don’t think it really matters all that much when you consider that he was a man who was unapologetically himself.
That’s the personal dignity we all want for ourselves.
It was also something that hit me like a ton of bricks while in the company of friends whom I’ve endeared for many years. I crept up to the door to surprise them with a fancy new drink I had as a treat for them, only to find them whispering rather unflattering things about me inside. Boo! I surprised them when their conversation was over. They instantly cheered the bottle I brought along with me and, after filling everyone’s glasses, I sat down alongside them with a smile. By then, I understood why they were my friends. All of us had that ugly mask stuck over our own faces, and since then, integrity has fascinated me to no end.
It was the mystery I had come to this ashram to solve since my quest had thus far proven religious morality to be an inadequate tool for the job. Religion frames life by the polarities of good and evil, heaven and hell, or closer to home, pleasure and pain. But a binary compass is ineffective to navigate a life that constitutes a myriad of greys. Even my three-year-old nephew knows that. He once quipped, rather frankly I might add, that eating his ‘Zoo-Biscuits’ before his chicken meant that both would still go down the hatch anyway. It was an astonishing insight into how our personal truths can’t ever be borrowed, not even from the Pope.
Really, in life, who else is there to rely on besides yourself?
And that’s when I began to appreciate clarity, rather than the confidence we so often are encouraged to cultivate, as the ultimate power in life. For all the babble thrown around as to the meaning of life, it’s actually a very simple thing. It is asking what to do with yourself every single morning when you wake up, as no one ever knows if their eyes will open again after closing them the night before. Those little decisions turn into our lives, and how we repeatedly answer that one simple question becomes the life we create. The meaning of life is what we choose to do, and that depends entirely upon your interpretation of things. Confidence then is not the appropriate tool to navigate life with. Clarity is.
Perhaps Leelaq too couldn’t see that, by having me surrender my choice, she was asking me to pretend that this place was still the master’s commune while it really was a business built around the teachings of the deceased Osho. Without his guidance to surrender to, this place wasn’t the same. I imagine that those who joined cults like Jonestown probably had more clarity than I was faced with, but sometimes we all have to do what we need to do in order to take responsibility for ourselves. And so I paused before answering Leelaq, to consider absorbing the risk, and differentiate between what was real and what was not.
END OF FREE CHAPTER.
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