Tim Guest’s upbringing as a child of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh ‘free love’ movement in the Sixties left him anything but spiritually enlightened
One afternoon in 1979, when he was four, Tim Guest found his mother up to her elbows in the bath, dyeing all her clothes orange. This proved to be the first sign of a long enthralment to the Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who preached a mishmash of traditional meditation and Western therapies – primal scream, gestalt, bioenergetics, getting drunk, and sitting in a circle watching your lover have sex with someone else.
Not long afterwards, Tim’s mother carted him off to Bhagwan’s ashram in Pune, beginning a childhood dressed in the colours of the sun and lived in communes, mostly the Medina Rajneesh in Suffolk, but also in Oregon and Cologne. While Tim’s mother meditated, joined encounter groups that were designed to push her beyond her psychological and spiritual boundaries and explored her sexual energy, Yogesh, as he was now known, looked on in bemusement and loneliness.
Until he was 10, Yogesh’s life was dominated by a man he only saw twice, an avid collector of Rolls-Royces (he had 93 when his worldwide organisation fell apart in 1985), who made pronouncements from a dentist’s chair, often while high on nitrous oxide. Guest’s memoir of these years, My Life in Orange, is a measured, understated attempt to recall how it felt to have 200 mothers and 200 fathers while all the time longing only for one.
Guest bends over backwards to understand what Bhagwan’s many, mostly Western, mostly young and university-educated followers found so seductive. He maintains a moving sympathy for his mother, who was evidently an intelligent and capable woman, despite her dismal failure to recognise that Bhagwan’s message was claptrap and damaging to her child.
This distance has been a long time coming, he explained when I met him. ‘I started the book in 1996, when I was 21 and very angry. Part of the process of writing has been to learn restraint about what happened, to find a kind of gratitude.’
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A kind of gratitude? He was a child who had no one to tuck him in at night, who slept with pieces of Lego in his bed, hanging on to the few precious, knobbly things that were his, because all the toys were communal. His mother made clear that her first priority was to promote the cause of a man who was a charlatan. When she arrived in Pune, before she was too deeply immersed, she discovered that someone had written ‘flowery blurb’ on the back of her letter applying to become a sannyasi. Yet she appeared never to query what she was doing.
‘Things did work out,’ Guest says by way of explanation. ‘We’re still here, and we came out with something we wouldn’t have had otherwise. We all value the bonds of friendship and family more for having nearly lost them.’
Guest’s parents never married and their attempt to live together foundered when he was eight months old. The way he tells it, his mother’s strict Catholic upbringing was a poor preparation for the times, leaving her both with a longing for spiritual transcendence and a legacy of fierce sexual repressiveness that made little sense to a young woman in the late Sixties and early Seventies.
‘The attraction of someone who said, “Do whatever you want, because that can be the path to enlightenment” was enormous. A lot of it was sexual.’ There was no monogamy for Bhagwan’s followers, although Guest’s mother had a long relationship with a sannyasi known as Sujan – before and afterwards called Martin – to whom she is now married.
At the beginning, sex was promoted as celebratory, joyful. (Later, as the movement became more paranoid, Bhagwan decreed that Aids had been sent to wipe out two-thirds of the human population: sannyasi mothers must stop kissing their children, while commune kids who sucked their thumbs must wear rubber gloves at night). All this exploration of sexual energy was bound to have a darker side. Watching your lover borrowed by someone else might offer an opportunity to practise your detachment, but what if the detachment didn’t kick in? There were many injuries in the encounter groups.
Fourteen- and 15-year-old girls were often initiated into sex by visiting group leaders. This was, of course, undertaken lovingly, with the best intentions because, as one victim explained after being raped again in order to confront her terrors, how could anything that happened to you in the ashram be bad?
Now, Guest says carefully, he thinks the Medina children ‘would say that the sex, at the time, was a thrill. But looking back, they feel that if not wholly abusive, it was at times a little inappropriate.’ When the worldwide movement was summoned to headquarters in Oregon for a celebration lasting several weeks, all the children were left to their own devices, as usual. Inevitably, with so much sex around, many of them decided to explore their own sexual energy. Tim’s response was to withdraw.
Aged 10, he phoned his mother (he was in Suffolk; she had been banished to Germany for displaying ‘negativity’) to announce he was leaving. Even his longing to be close to her couldn’t keep him there any longer. He decided, despite their rather distant relationship, to move in with his father, a computer programmer living in San Francisco.
Not long after, the worldwide movement (there were now 126 sannyasi centres in Europe, including 22 in the UK and 43 in West Germany) began to implode. There were allegations of fraud, mass poisonings, assassination attempts. A plot was uncovered to fly an aircraft into a building in the US. One of the increasingly paranoid inner circle admitted in court that she had ‘a bad habit of poisoning people’.
Tim Guest’s mother returned to England and he came back to live with her and attend Haverstock School, a comprehensive in north London. She burned her mala, the string of beads with Bhagwan’s picture on them, and all the other relics of her old life. Foundering, still in search of an iden tity, she changed her name a few more times before settling back on the original Anne. She and Martin went through an ecstasy phase, when they believed they were beings from another planet and ‘UFO books began to pile up in our living room’.
Tim had a rough adolescence. ‘In my mid-teens, I drank and took a lot of drugs. I nearly lost it.’ He opens his book with the story of another child, who hanged himself at one of the Bhagwan’s communes in Devon. He says in the book, and repeats to me, that he feels that child could have been him.
‘I hated my stepfather because, although he and my mother had been together for years, our paths had never crossed. We’d had access to her at different times. But he was the one who physically stopped me when I tried to leave. She had made a vow that, whatever it took, she would do her best to try to sort out the damage that had been done.’
Anee has read his book.’She was very supportive about the writing of it. She knew something had been hurt in our family. I’d say she’s embarrassed now about what feels like a period of folly, but she also feels that it was necessary.’ In the book, he recalls her once telling him: ‘I got lost. I would just give myself away to the moment. I didn’t have a substance that kept me anchored in the things that mattered.’
It is difficult, I say, to understand why she didn’t have more doubts at the time, like when she first arrived in Pune, and there were women sniffing people’s armpits at the gates to make sure a) that they were clean and b) that they weren’t wearing deodorants that might aggravate Bhagwan’s allergies. ‘She did have doubts, both about the direction things were going, and about her relationship with me, but she was getting a lot out of it. And she felt what they were doing was important. It’s easy to be cynical now, but they were trying something that hadn’t been tried before. They believed they were finding an entirely new way of living.’
Bhagwan was largely uninterested in children – he advocated sterilisation for his followers – and thought they would best attain enlightenment by being left alone. Schooling was haphazard at Medina Rajneesh, but Guest took refuge in reading and ended up doing well academically: he went to Sussex University to study psychology and subsequently took the creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia.
Today, he lives in east London with his girlfriend, whom he has been seeing for four years. He says he is unaware of his childhood having had any particular impact on his ability to conduct relationships, although his careless upbringing has made him cautious about parenthood, ‘aware of what a massive thing it is to take on a child’. His attitude to people in groups, however, ‘is more complex. I love living with groups of people, and I love going on holiday in groups’.
My Life in Orange, though slightly patchwork in its construction, is an absorbing piece of writing, all the more compelling for begging as many questions as it answers and for the author’s refusal to ask for pity. There are many moments that betray its heart. One of the adult sannyasis’ favourite encounter groups involved pretending to be in a boat, from which they had to throw one another overboard, which required them to demolish each other’s characters. In 1983, with two weeks off school for Christmas, the Medina children invented their version of this game. They built a boat of pillows and duvets and sat in it watching television from morning to late at night. They didn’t allow any adults in and, if one of them fell out, they’d cry: ‘Shark’, and haul them back on board.