The 1980s, Berlin. Dressed in orange and red from head to toe, a group of people interrupt the monotonous image of the grey capital’s streets.
The city is teeming with Neo-Sannyas. A movement founded in 1970 by the Indian philosopher and guru Osho, also known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, that attracted spiritual seekers of the time like a magnet.
His picture decorates the walls of the city’s bars, clubs and cafes, his followers wear it around their necks on a Mala, a necklace made from wooden beads, traditionally worn by Hindu Sannyasis – the guru is omnipresent, not just in Berlin but in many large German and European cities.
Then in her thirties, Heidi had recently divorced and was jumping from one relationship to the next, she felt like life was not leading anywhere. “It was always the same thing over and over again,” she says.
She was getting into relationships, staying in them until they wore out and was stuck in that cycle. Everything kept repeating itself in her life, everything was superficial and nothing ever really changed.
Then for a birthday, her then-boyfriend gifted her one of Osho’s books and she remembers thinking that it was written just for her. Having always had too many questions, even as a kid, she had always thought a lot about the meaning of life, with Osho and his meditations she felt she might have found someone who had the answers.
Many people from the West left to find the truth about themselves and the significance of their lives in India. Who am I? What am I doing? Am I good? The answers were said to lay within the white walls of the Pune Ashram in Koregaon Park.
Leaving for India to many offered an escape from the conformity of western life, a way to find their way back to their roots and nature and a place where they could experiment and develop themselves without being met with judgement.
So Heidi packed her bags and bought a one-way plane ticket to India. However, as more and more people left to join Osho to meditate in Pune and open ashrams in Europe, others saw a different side to Bhagwan, one that was not as pure, one that bore elements of a cult.
A Sannyasi or Sannyasini, in Hinduism, describes a person on a spiritual quest, one that has renounced the world and is living utterly free from material possessions. With the Neo-Sannyas Osho, established a counter model and attribute to the traditional, abstinent, spiritual search of the past.
The guru is said to have been exceptionally well read, possessed the power of direct energy transmission and, in contrast to many of his time, advocated modern technologies and concepts. He was not traditionally attached and did not have a problem with sex – he was, what some might have described as, a free spirit.A very long, free-flowing silver beard, is what made the thin man stick out from the masses. As the oldest of 11 children, Osho was born by the name Chandra Mohan Jain in a small village in the Indian Region of Madhya Pradesh.
After initiating his first students and followers in Mumbai in 1970, at the age of 43, he relocated and established an ashram in Pune, at the time known as Poona, where he could receive more people and concentrate on the individuals instead of the masses. It was during this time that he gave himself the title of Bhagwan which literally means ‘blessed.’
Mixing sex with Indian spirituality, Osho became notorious as a sex guru, receiving, on the one hand, a lot of negative press in Europe but also attracting prosperous Westerners by the thousand.
Sexual therapy, for example, Tantra, was offered in Pune, but it was, says Heidi, widely misunderstood and many started to come just because of it. Osho considered sexual barriers should be the first ones that someone should get rid of for their authentic essence to unfold.
He thought that sex was something to go through until it came out of your ears. Only then one could experience the next step. Of course, everyone experienced Osho differently according to their own state of mind and preferences.
“From my upbringing sex was something terrible. I learned to be more open during my time in Pune,” says Heidi.
The ever-growing influx of westerners led to the Pune ashram’s constant expansion, and by 1981 it had its own bakery, cosmetic and clothes manufacturer and a health centre all voluntarily run by the 5,000-or-so disciples staying there at any one time.
When Heidi arrived in Pune, she was given the name of Ma Prem Heidi, which translates into Mother Love Heidi, two titles that all the female disciples coming would receive. For the first few days, she did not go to see Osho, who could be seen talking every day in the grand Buddha Hall of the ashram, as she was too anxious.
In the beginning, the Buddha Hall had bars to hold the ceiling up. But because he wanted to be able to see each and every single person in the room, Osho ordered a special tent from Switzerland that held itself up only with tension – now there was no more hiding from his piercing eyes.
Life at the Ashram took its course and days were filled with meditation and therapy of all different kinds and daily assemblies at the Buddha Hall in which the guru would read and answer his closest disciples’ questions to anyone who listened.
However, when Heidi arrived in his presence for the first time, Osho had just stopped talking, so the time in the Buddha Hall was spent in complete silence, with the guru just ‘sending out his energy’ into the room.
Western-style group therapies at the ashram were a way to make money, led by experienced disciples, not by the guru himself, they would take up a lot of the days.
There was a lot of dancing and celebrating especially on special holidays such as the gurus birthday, and at night Heidi and some of her friends would sometimes sneak out of the ashram to grab a beer served in coffee pots, as alcohol was strictly forbidden.
Osho’s daily talks would happen in English for one month and in Hindi for the next. “I always still went when he would speak in Hindi, because of that atmosphere. It was kind of like after an orgasm, like floating in the air,” Heidi recalls.
The guru would sit on a chair in the front of the room, while, thousands of orange and red dressed disciples would sit barefoot in absolute silence and absorb his words and ‘energy’. When he left, he would say “Namaste” and go out.
The music would go on playing, and everyone would dance around the hall. “I was always such a nice little thing. I never knew how much power I had inside me until then,” recalls Heidi.
The goal in Pune was to find oneself, says Heidi. “I learned that everything is inside of us”, she explains. Osho was of the opinion that this could only be learned through meditation. “You have to come out from underneath all the thinking we do. If you really wanna live, you can only live in the here and now.”
Heidi says that she learned to love herself for who she is in Pune, that everything she had been looking for was already inside her. Then again she says, Osho contradicted himself every single day, that is, Heidi explains, because he did not take himself too seriously, he was of the opinion that opinions could change every day.
“Rajneesh’s teachings were full of intentional lies and unintentional falsehoods, which were born out of his own ignorance, gullibility, and Indian cultural conditioning. His psychic presence, however, was 100 per cent real and extremely powerful,” writes Christopher Calder, another former disciple, in his testimony of the time.
Whenever Heidi ran out of money in India, she would go back to Germany to work until she could afford another trip, though there were reports of others that made money in prostitution and smuggling to stay in the Ashram longer.
Back in Munich, there was now a Bhagwan Ashram, as the movement was spreading, and after a few times in India, she started working there as a disciple. None of the employees were paid, but rewarded with shelter, food and care. She then left to open the Rajneesh beauty salon in Munich together with hairdresser Sandesh, where she hung a big picture of Osho up on the wall, a common practice of Sannyasis.
In 1981 Osho moved from Pune to the US to handle the poor state of his health, which had collapsed in his thirties, and to escape paying an Indian income tax bill that was coming his way.
Collecting funds from his Sannyasins all over the world, his ‘right hand’ Ma Anand Sheela in 1982 bought the terrain of the big muddy ranch on the outskirts of Antelope, a village in the county of Oregon, as well as a couple of houses inside the town.
The Sannyasins started building a new ashram the size of a city, fully equipped with a school, airport, hospital, and transport system; they also joined Antelope’s council.
“It was the most amazing place on earth,” says Heidi who visited Oregon and decided to finally accept the Indian name of Bhavya. In 1984, through a vote and to much protest of Antelope’s residents, the city was renamed Rajneeshpuram, and by 1985, 7,000 Sannyasins had made the permanent move.During this time Osho headlined through the commune in Oregon as well as his lavish lifestyle and habits. With more than 90 Rolls Royce cars, diamond watches, expensive shades and gowns, he cost the commune millions of dollars.
“As most human beings who are treated as kings, Rajneesh (Osho) lost touch with the world of the common man,” writes Calder. Osho did not only look like the guru of the rich, he was rich.
People that had all the money and material in the world and that still were not able to feel fulfilment came to see the eccentric Osho, looking for something more in life. Many of those people also gave money to Osho and the commune, though it is not clear under exactly what circumstances.
Heidi, says that she once gave two precious rings to the commune, and thought about it more as ‘her contribution’ than anything else. “All the religions together have made man as poor as possible. They have condemned money so much, and praised poverty so much that as far as I am concerned, they are the greatest criminals the world has known,” writes Osho in From Death to Deathlessness.
The 70s and 80s were a time when many cults popped up, and people were afraid of them. Cults are often connected to power, but Heidi says no-one ever forced her to do or participate in anything. Everyone experienced Bhagwan differently, for her, being part of Bhagwan was a positive experience, but naturally, this does not apply to everyone.
Some people did go mad inside the ashrams, and other former disciples have recounted crimes like prostitution, sterilisation, drug running and smuggling.
However the commune was not universally popular, and had many opponents in Oregon, who objected to the idea of an Indian commune with a reputation settling down amongst them. Heidi remembers that one year, the commune wanted to invite the homeless of the region for Christmas, but the nearby town of Salem stopped them.
Cults are often associated with groups or individuals that have power over their members’ opinions, movement and religious freedom. Another prominent factor within cult communities at the time was violence. Events like the mass murder of Jonestown in 1978, naturally had people on edge and worried about groups that were hiving off, and being different.
A salmonella attack, committed by members of Osho in 1984, eventually dragged the commune into bad light. 751 people in the city of The Dalles, got infected with salmonella which had been planted in salad bars around the city – it was the first bioterrorism attack of the US and was seemingly organised to incapacitate voters for the Wasco County elections.
Ultimately Osho was arrested in 1985 due to apparent immigration offences. Rajneeshpuram ceased to exist without him, and the ranch in Oregon fairly quickly went back to its old state.
Some of the wooden houses built by the commune in the 80s can still be found in the village of Antelope, where, according to 2016 records, only 48 people still live.
After a short stay in jail, Osho had to leave the US and went on a world tour of unsuccessful attempts to be permitted residency in countries around the world until he eventually returned to Pune. Osho died there in 1990 at the young age of 58 with heart failure listed as the official cause of his death.
With him died the Bhagwan commune as it existed.
Sannyasins continue to live out their beliefs, but they do so mostly by themselves, though the Osho International Meditation Resort in Koregaon Park exists to this day.
Heidi still has her Mala, it reminds of a time when a free-spirited guru helped her get to know herself and gave her what she refers to as the ‘best time of her life’.
“After all,” she says, “all of our lives are a little bit of a joke, they are not to be taken too seriously.”
Featured image by Heidrun Reichel