I’ve been to India many times but only once to an Indian ashram. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real Indian ashram as I didn’t actually do anything there other than be led by the nose on a controlled guided tour, which is probably not the way one is supposed to experience an ashram.
I’d never heard of the Osho Commune until I visited friends in the Indian city of Pune. Another friend had warned me that Pune was “awful”, meaning it had nothing to offer the hopeful tourist. Despite my optimism and love for all things Indian, he turned out to be right.
Visiting a commune wasn’t exactly on top of my sightseeing list.
But then, I didn’t realize there really wasn’t much else to see in Pune, other than the usual Indian urban chaos – dusty streets run amok with blaring lorries, beeping scooters, clanging bicycles, mooing cows and tuk-tukking trishaws charging in all directions. And as in every Indian city, the noxious smell of diesel blends with the pungent aroma of spices and other mysterious smells. Wafts of malodorous waste linger in the air and remain embedded in your luggage long after you’ve unpacked it back home. No majestic maharajah’s palaces or fantastic archeological ruins to be seen here.
People kept asking me if I’d come to visit the commune.
“Commune? What commune?”I asked them back.
The Osho Commune, I was told, is a world famous commune for the followers of the enlightened mystic Osho Rajneesh, who was notorious in the US for his free-loving commune and fleet of Rolls Royces, until he was busted for tax evasion in the 1980s. The commune in the US had to go, but the one in Pune remains a slick, spiritual showcase where devotees can check themselves in for a spot of soul cleansing.
I decided to check it out for myself. Besides, what else was there to do?
Not that I was a soul in search of cleansing. I just wanted to see what a real Indian ashram looked like. And this one looked nothing like what I’d expected. Forget austerity and all that spartan living stuff. The most obvious feature of this place is that its funding must come from a very generous bank account. Located in a shockingly lovely neighborhood in the city’s high rent sector, it looked more like a leafy American college campus than a center of spiritual enlightenment.
In maroon robes of various flattering styles (“the maroon color joins people’s energies,” according to Osho), the ashram’s mostly European and Japanese sannyasins (followers) wandered along well kept pathways in lush gardens, casually chatting or snacking on ice cream cones. Some could be seen weeding and gardening among the paths; others browsing in the glossy book store, or seated meditating to an echoing gong on the vast marble floor of an open-air meditation auditorium.
What was strangely impressive about this place was the slick, comprehensive marketing operation. It conducted twice-weekly tours of its resort-like facilities, complete with swimming pool and tennis courts, had a website featuring online shopping for its hundreds of books, CDs and videos; its own newspaper, a TV program, and a monthly magazine published in English, Italian, German, and Japanese.
Visitors were first corralled in the comfortable, very pleasant waiting room which played bland western muzak, and offered color brochures of the commune, trying to persuade you to fork over a daily fee to join in the fun. As the amiable guide told us, this isn’t a lot of money to participate in a rewarding, soul cleansing experience. But eventually you realize there are hidden costs for things like meditation courses.
Looking at the list of course offerings, I couldn’t imagine why I’d want to pay to take the No Mind course, where “gibberish is the technique in which you make nonsense sounds, while allowing your body to move in any way you feel in order to empty the mind.” Surely I could do that at home for free (with the door locked and the curtains closed). If I wanted to, that is.
Oh, and there was a charge for the mandatory AIDS test administered to all would-be followers. Osho’s brand of freeing the spirit is notoriously linked to touching and exploring not just your inner self, but other people’s outer selves as well, which is why no photography, video filming or children are allowed.
For the final touch, we were shown a video of Osho himself, telling us about meditation. The real Osho, the brochure stated, was “Never Born. Never Died. Only visited this Planet Earth. Left His body in 1990.”
Osho appeared in the video to be an avuncular, white bearded fellow wearing a sparkly woolly ski cap, and a disco-era robe with elaborate shoulder pads so huge they extended way beyond the video screen frame. He smiled kindly as he spoke.
“Meditation…issss….nothing,” the great master hissed.
What else he said, I have no idea. For the next ten minutes (which could have been two but seemed like ten), while he droned on and on, I was happily compiling my list of Things to Do in my head. Hmm, let’s see…buy postcards, check emails, reconfirm flight, find sandalwood soap, etc., was rudely interrupted when the video ended with a scene of a maroon clad woman dancing around a garden in joyous abandon.
I’d paid 40 rupees for the tour to find that it was nothing like what I’d imagined an Indian ashram to be. It was only later that I realized I hadn’t seen any Indian people among the sannyasins. Perhaps they had somewhere else to go?
Have you been to Pune? How did you like it there?