Sarah T., a body therapist who had been practicing in California, went to the Shree Rajneesh Ashram in Pune in June 1978, after reading some of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s books and attending workshops at the Pragit Rajneesh Meditation Center in Berkeley. A robust, good-humored woman, she thought she saw in Rajneesh’s message the way to fulfill ideals of intimacy and community that had long seemed to elude her.
The ashram was situated on a lush, four-acre piece of property in the center of Pune called Koregaon Park, where maharajas used to live. Sarah found the scene entrancing. “To see 7,000–8,000 people all dressed in red,” she remembers, “was amazing.” It was also exotic. “There were wild birds in the air, and all the sounds and smells of India. There was this one tree on the property, and these green parrots, and every night, when the sun was going down, all the parrots would go to the tree. There would be 20,000 birds in that tree, all squawking. And then, just as the sun disappeared, all the birds would get absolutely quiet.
“It was really something. Just the effects of India. You’d go through an amazing experience just getting off the plane there.”
The Shree Rajneesh Ashram, once styled by Time magazine as the “Esalen East,” offered a full range of the Eastern meditations and Western humanistic psychotherapies that the human potential movement growth center at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur had popularized. A typical day at the ashram began with “Dynamic Meditation,” an “active” meditation supposedly specially developed by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh for Westerners. Dynamic meditation is described by Rajneesh follower Ma Satya Bharti in the 1980 book Drunk on the Divine: “A technique developed by Bhagwan that begins with 10 minutes of deep fast breathing, followed by 10 minutes of catharsis, then 10 minutes of the vigorous repetition of the HOO, 15 minutes of silence and stillness and, finally, 15 minutes of celebration [singing and dancing].”
Says Sarah: “People would get real spacey from doing these meditations. They would also get very emotional. They’d cry all the time. They’d become real obsessed with the process that was happening to them as a result of this meditation. And also feel more and more connected with Bhagwan while they were doing it.
“It would open you up more to your feelings, your deep, hidden feelings—because these meditations are very powerful, and are designed to open you up, especially your pelvis, which is where the body stores emotions, not just sexual energy. The pelvis is where the emotional body is held. So with dynamic [meditation], you’re jumping up and down, and you’re yelling ‘Hoo Hoo Hoo,’ and pounding that energy into the sex center. So you start feeling, really feeling. ‘How many times did you cry?’ If you say that you’re doing meditations that made you cry every day, weep, and really get in touch with your feelings—only a sannyasin would understand the process that you started going through; only someone who’s been through the process would understand. So then there’s a bond, an attachment to the group. Because I couldn’t very well say to very many people, ‘As a result of this group where I got beat up, I really experienced something.’ Most people would be just absolutely horrified!
“I spent five days in bed in a state of total bliss. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t drink. I was in a totally altered state to the point where people would come into the room and just sit down and go off into meditation. You’re not connected with the earth anymore. You’re up in the sky and there’s that space where you just kind of even out and you’re in an altered state. These meditations took you into an altered state.”
A new initiate’s first group experience at the ashram was usually the “Enlightenment Intensive,” described by Ma Satya Bharti as follows: “A combination of the Zen technique of concentrating or meditating on a koan—in this case, the question ‘Who am I’—and Western communication techniques. A strictly structured, three-day group at the ashram.”
Says Sarah about the Enlightenment Intensive: “It really pushed you past all limits. It was the first group that people were usually given to do and it was meant to be a beginning group, but it wasn’t like a beginning group at all; it was a real difficult group. A sannyasin killed himself once in that group. They kept it quiet, but he jumped off a balcony he got so freaked out.
“It was a Zen technique, actually. But they would take like two hundred people at a shot—a huge, huge group. And it was a residential group. You didn’t leave the place for three days. It began very early in the morning, and they rang a bell and you found a partner and sat down across from this person and you would say, ‘Tell me who you are.’ And for five minutes you would stay totally receptive, just listen to what the person was saying, not make any facial expressions whatsoever. Then another bell would be rung, and the person would say to you, ‘Tell me who you are.’ And this went on from sunrise till eleven o’clock at night. At eleven o’clock you did dancing meditation. You ran an hour and then you passed out. If you could sleep. I didn’t sleep for three days, except for a couple of hours. And after the group was over I didn’t sleep for another couple of days, I got so wired from it.
“It does something very deep to you inside, telling who you are to all these people; and you get to feeling lighter, emptier and emptier. And there are also moments of madness when you feel like you’re going to go crazy.”
Sarah’s first actual therapy group at the ashram was a “Tao Group.” It was supposed to be led by Swami Prem Amitabh, aka Robert Birnbaum, but he was in America at the time; Swami Prem Siddha, aka Dr. Leonard Zunin, a California psychiatrist and author of a book called Contact who was later active in the Rajneesh Medical Corporation at Rajneeshpuram, was substituting for him. Ma Satya Bharti describes the Tao Group in these words: “An unstructured group which focuses on what one is doing to prevent the free expression of one’s being. Participants are thrown into spontaneous situations and encouraged to allow themselves to express freely their emotions, fears, expectations, disappointments, joys and to stay with the flow of events that follows as a consequence of this expression.”
Says Sarah: “It was a five-day encounter group, and there was a lot of violence throughout the whole group. But it was on the fifth morning, the morning session of the last day that I got involved in it. The group leader told the men in the group to beat this woman up because she hadn’t been participating. And they started to beat her up—eight guys and one girl. And I just couldn’t stand it. So I went over and I grabbed this guy and pulled him away from her. And he backhanded me, and I went flying. And we had been friends in the group, you know. I just couldn’t stand to see it happening, so I went back again and I pulled him away from the woman again, and he turned on me and just really beat me. I had never been in a fight before, didn’t know how to fight. Especially with this really strong man. He was real strong.” Sarah says she emerged from the Tao Group with two cracked ribs, a concussion, and a subconjunctival hemorrhage in each eye.
Sarah also did a group with Swami Anand Rajen, an English psychologist who was another of the top Rajneesh therapists in Pune. The group was called “Samarpan.” Ma Satya Bharti says: “Samarpan means surrender: to surrender to one’s own being. By following one’s impulses, by letting go, one grows in trust, awareness, sensitivity, vulnerability, receptivity, innocence, love. The purpose of the group is to create the space where this can happen.”
Sarah says: “There were twenty people in the group. It was another residential group; you couldn’t leave. They brought food to you. No one wore any clothes. Rajen walked in and sat down on a pillow and just stared out into space. That went on for two or three days. We just sat there absolutely paralyzed with fear. Finally he came out of his meditative state and said, ‘I’m going to tell each of you what your trip is.’ And he went around the room, and I can remember the terror, you know. Because it wasn’t coming from a kind, loving kind of place. It was like we were going to be unmasked in front of all these strangers. That was the feeling. And he went around in the circle and told everybody what they were sitting on, emotionally, what was going on with them, and then the group absolutely exploded. Just exploded. Fights in every corner. I remember Rajen telling this one swami to rape a woman, and he did. And he had such control over this woman that she allowed it to happen.
“You’d been sitting in a confined room for three days, and somebody would just glance at you. Or you’d watch somebody and how they were behaving, and they’d remind you of your father or, you know, something that had happened to you at some time in your life. And you’d just flip into a place where whatever was going on inside of you would start coming out. No matter what it was, things would come out of you.
“On the third day I can remember standing out on the balcony, and I wanted to jump. I felt so bad I wanted to jump off the balcony. Somebody came up to me and said, ‘What are you thinking?’ And I said, ‘I’m thinking that I’d really like to jump.’ And there were a whole bunch of people who agreed that suicide looked really comfortable at that point, compared to the way it felt in the group room.
“These groups would break you down. A friend of mine came up and got me one night because her roommate had just come out of an encounter group. The girl was terrified. She was like in a catatonic state, hysterical, I mean—I didn’t know what to do with her. I worked with her, got her calmed down, but I mean, I had never experienced—I still have never experienced—anything like the state I saw that girl in. I mean, you just would—it would tear everything out of you. Open you up so wide and make you so vulnerable that you could be told anything and you would believe it. Whatever that group leader said to you, it was like God was talking through him.
“Not all of the groups were violent. A lot of them were meditative or energy groups. But those that were encounter groups—you didn’t do those and not come out changed. It would be impossible to go through that experience and come out the same way you had gone in.”
This article was adapted from The Rajneesh Chronicles, published by Tin House Books.