“In my childhood I loved to follow everybody very much. Whosoever died, I would be there. Even my parents became very afraid; they would say, Why do you go? We don’t even know that man . . .”
“I would say, ‘That is not the point. The man is not my concern. Death—it is such a beautiful phenomenon, and one of the most mysterious. One should not miss it.”’
That’s how Rajneesh Chandra Mohan (aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) describes himself as a young boy in India. In semiautobiographical works such as Dimensions Beyond the Known, The Awakened One, and The Sound of Running Water, Rajneesh portrays himself as a person who, from a tender age, was so obsessed with the phenomenon of death that he would follow funeral processions during the day and haunt graveyards at night. Eckart Floether, an ex-disciple of Rajneesh who has spent several years studying and analyzing his former master’s psychology, has—perhaps with some hyperbole— publicly characterized Rajneesh as a “necrophiliac.”
According to accounts of his life, Rajneesh’s morbid obsession commenced at the age of seven, with the death of his beloved grandfather. Here is how Rajneesh describes the profound effect his grandfather’s death had on his psyche: “It was he with whom I had my deepest relationship. For me, he was the only love object, and because of his death perhaps, I have not been able to feel attached to anyone else much. . . . I could not establish a bond of relationship with anyone. Whenever my relationship with anyone began to become intimate, that death stared at me. . . . Thus the madness of life did not affect me. Death stared at me before the thrust into life began.”
In similar autobiographical passages, Rajneesh depicts himself not only as someone who died to others and the world at a very young age but also as someone who early on died to himself and his own body. He describes a persistent will to death throughout his childhood and adolescence, culminating in his “ enlightenment” at the age of twenty-one, which he experienced as a radical disjoining of his physical body and his mind and spirit and, subjectively, as the “death” of that body.
“That day, for the first time,” he says in his account of his achievement of satori, “I saw my body from the outside and since that day the mere physical existence of my body finished forever. . . . I have never been in the body again.” Rajneesh has used his subjective sense of a complete estrangement between his body and mind to explain his alleged affliction by numerous ailments such as allergies, asthma, diabetes, and severe back pain.
Death, perhaps as much as sex, was a recurring theme in Rajneesh’s discourses during his seven year stay in Pune (Poona), India. In those discourses, Rajneesh spoke frequently and eloquently of the beauty and attraction of death and of death as a goal for his disciples—calling it, for instance, “the very center of life,” “the door to the divine,” and “the beloved.”
There have been deaths among Rajneesh’s disciples. In the spring of 1976, a follower named Vipassana died in a Pune hospital, reportedly of a brain tumor. She was cremated at the ashram in an elaborate and joyful ceremony of singing and dancing. Rajneesh called her death “beautiful” and told his disciples: “The life [on earth] you have been thinking of as real life is not real life.”
Welf of Hanover, Germany, a “royal disciple” going by the Rajneesh name of Anand Vimalkirti, accidentally received a karate blow to his head during an ashram group exercise. He then “received enlightenment” five days later when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage (Welf apparently suffered from a mild case of the Hohenzollern genetic disease of hemophilia). He was quickly cremated in an ashram ceremony again marked by ecstatic singing and dancing. Rajneesh proclaimed: “I am happy with him, and many of you are getting ready in the same way.”
Last summer, during the third Annual World Festival at Rajneeshpuram, a visiting sannyasin named Nirvesh died of an acute allergic reaction. His death was celebrated at the ranch with the usual joyous singing and dancing but without cremation. (The Rajneeshees have received permission from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to construct a crematorium that could accommodate several thousand spectators, but as yet have not built it.) A Rajneesh spokesperson announced that because Nirvesh died within a twentyfour-mile radius of Rajneeshpuram, “he has been guaranteed automatic enlightenment and will not have to be reincarnated.”
In the spring of 1982, Hugh Milne (then Swami Shivamurti), Rajneesh’s personal bodyguard for ten years, was so shaken by the apparent callous indifference of officials at Rajneeshpuram to the plight of a follower drowning in the John Day River that he left Rajneeshpuram and denounced Rajneesh and his community to the European press. Milne called Rajneeshpuram “a prison ruled by a malicious and ruthless despot.”
It is often difficult, in analyzing Rajneesh’s pronouncements on death, to distinguish when he is talking about the “death of the ego”— the condition of enlightenment he espouses for his disciples—and when he is talking about actual physical death. Some observers, however, fear that the two types of death may in the end come together for his disciples. Rajneesh has repeatedly defined the process of “sannyas” (the process of becoming a totally devoted disciple) in terms of “destruction,” “disappearance,” “death,” and “suicide.” In a typical passage, for instance, Rajneesh says that “sannyas and suicide are very similar. Suicide is a false sannyas, sannyas is a real suicide.”
According to some ex-followers, a number of Rajneesh disciples in Pune were in fact driven by the excesses of ashram therapy groups to real suicides. After one such incident, according to an ex-follower, Rajneesh declared: “Suicide is a form of enlightenment.”
Ex-disciple Floether, among others, has long feared that Rajneesh’s preoccupation with and glorification of death will eventually combine with the growing siege mentality of Rajneeshpuram to produce a Jonestown-type finale in central Oregon. Floether sees two sides to the Rajneesh story: a drive for financial power and a drive toward extinction. He says it is an open question which side will prevail.
—Oregon Magazine, October 1984
This article was adapted from The Rajneesh Chronicles, published by Tin House Books.