Sunday, May 22, 2016

Hugh B. Urban's "Zorba the Buddha"

Hugh B. Urban is Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University, where he studies comparative religion, religions of South Asia, and new religious movements.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Zorba the Buddha: Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement, and reported the following:
Zorba the Buddha focuses on the life, teachings, and global religious following of the controversial Indian guru known in his early years as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and in his later years simply as Osho (1931-1990).

It is an interesting coincidence that page 99 of my book contains a long block quote from Rajneesh that was published in 1978 under the title “This is Not a Democracy.” In many ways, this quote strikes to the heart of my book. In this statement, Rajneesh was addressing the complaints of many followers of his community in Pune that violence and abuse had infected the encounter groups and meditation sessions at the ashram. After all, many young Europeans and Americans had come to the Pune ashram in search of a kind of anarchistic, free love utopia, and many found in the community a radically liberating and empowering form of spiritual practice – a “religionless religion” that creatively combined Indian meditation with elements of Western psychotherapy. Yet many were also disturbed to find forms of authoritarianism and violence at work in the community, which shocked even some who had been sympathetic to the group, such as Dick Price, the founder of the New Age spiritual center of Esalen in California. In response, Rajneesh stated quite clearly that “This is not going to be a democracy…Whatsoever I decide is absolute.” If anyone was not comfortable with the sort of boundary-breaking violence and sexual transgression in these encounter sessions, he concluded, they were “free to leave.”

This tension between radical freedom and authoritarian control is central to the Osho-Rajneesh movement from its inception. Known throughout the media as “India’s most dangerous guru” and notorious for his iconoclastic attacks on established religious and political figures such as Gandhi and Nehru, Rajneesh established a remarkably progressive utopian movement that in many ways embodied a form of post-national sodality or global community. Yet, almost from the very beginning, the movement was also frequently criticized for its seeming authoritarian tendencies, its commercialism, and its embrace of capitalism. These tensions between utopian ideals and authoritarian impulses would later come to a head when the group relocated to the United States in the 1980s and established a huge community in the Oregon desert. While remarkably progressive and ahead of its time in terms of organic farming, recycling, and land reclamation, the Oregon community quickly descended into a series of increasingly bizarre criminal activities.

These tensions have resurfaced in recent debates surrounding the current Osho movement in India and around the globe, which has been divided by intense arguments over Osho’s legacy and rights to his name, writings, meditations, and properties.

It is precisely this tension between progressive utopian ambitions and disturbing authoritarian tendencies that I think runs throughout this complex movement; and it is this deep ambivalence within this and other charismatic religious movements that I tried to highlight in my book.
Learn more about Zorba the Buddha at the University of California Press.

--Marshal Zeringue