Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a bearded, twinkling-eyed advocate of spontaneous giggling as a path to enlightenment, told jokes he cribbed from Playboy and rewarded faithful followers by sending them his toenail clippings in nice little boxes. He was a charismatic charlatan from India and a huge success in the West. Thousands of North American and European devotees provided him with so much money that at his height, in the 1980s, he owned 93 Rolls-Royce limousines.
Rajneesh beat his competitors in the spirituality business by providing a unique one-stop cult, ready to service all needs. Long before university presidents and politicians made a fetish of inclusiveness, he concocted a mishmash theology that encompassed Buddhism, astrology, meditation, free sex, Tarot cards, primal scream, the I-Ching and encounter therapy. He taught that getting pickled on champagne enhanced wisdom. His ashrams even had Christmas trees.
When the subject of quasi-religious con men comes up, parents shudder at the thought of their children falling under the influence of a corrupt Pied Piper. But parents can retain some of their own dignity even while pretending to “understand” a teenager’s foolishness. Small children, on the other hand, become helpless victims when their parents abandon reason and donate themselves to a cult.
Tim Guest, now a London journalist, was four years old when his mother fell into Rajneesh’s web. In his new memoir, My Life in Orange: Growing Up With The Guru (Granta), he sees the cult’s workings through a child’s eyes. His mother unthinkingly drafted him into her madness, first marking him in public by dyeing both his clothes and hers a bright orange. With a new name, Prem Yogesh, he spent the next six years living wherever Rajneesh sent his mother — India, Oregon, Cologne and Suffolk. He studied in Rajneesh schools, ate Rajneesh-approved food, and slept in dormitories with other conscripted children. He went long periods without seeing his mother; in communal life he had 200 “mothers” but not the one he wanted.
Those who followed Rajneesh, working to enrich him while wearing his picture on a chain around their necks, tended to be well educated but gullible. Typically, they yearned to believe in something but were too cool to settle for square Father Phil, stodgy Rev. Tom, or pious Rabbi Saul. Tim’s mother grew up as a poor Catholic who dreamt of becoming a saint. Instead, she was a Marxist feminist and a psychology Ph.D. in her late twenties when she heard a tape of Rajneesh preaching: “Surrender to me, and I will transform you. That is my promise.”
Like many others, she yearned to escape materialism. Once in Rajneesh’s clutches, however, she found herself, renamed Ma Prem Vismaya, enacting a parody of capitalism. This irony dominated the lives of everyone devoted to Rajneesh. His global corporation had financial planners, real-estate specialists and expansion targets. Senior disciples fussed over the corporate logo, indulged in bitter office politics, and competed to determine who was “the most ego-less,” therefore the most enlightened.
Tim’s mom brought in money as a psychotherapist and then developed into a talented organizer. But when Rajneesh installed a new management team she was suddenly out, denounced as an egotist and a negativist. The new bosses in Oregon reduced her from leading devotee to kitchen helper, assigned to scour pots. Then they banished her to a lesser commune in Germany.
At age 10 Guest decided to move out and join his father, by then designing computers in California. His mother, having lost status, also left Rajneesh. All this happened 20 years ago, and Guest (after a druggy adolescence) can now tell his story with generosity, a certain detachment, and even forgiveness for his mother. He tries to understand that the world somehow hurt her and she needed to think she was creating an environment in which she might feel safe. Stricken with remorse, she once said to him, “We were trying to create a heaven on earth.” Instead they made a hell, for themselves and for those who depended on them, like Tim.
As for Rajneesh, he died in 1990, largely forgotten outside South Asia. His career had collapsed five years earlier, when U.S. authorities charged him with immigration fraud. He pleaded guilty, promised to leave the United States, but remained true to his own fraudulence, whining that the government knew of no other way to deal with a Jesus or a Buddha.
Guest doesn’t treat him harshly. The guilty were those who took such an obvious swindler seriously and created the environment that made him fashionable.