One of the funniest stories by the late Indian writer R.K. Narayan is a true one, set in America. The story, recounted in an essay from his book Reluctant Guru, unfolds during the author’s stint in the 1960s as a visiting professor in the Midwest, where he is treated on arrival as a sort of saint. He blames themes in his work for the confusion — the occult, afterlife, holiness — but also his Indianness. So strong was the “belief in my spiritual adeptness,” he writes, that he began to relate to his most celebrated work, the novel known as Guide, once subtitled “Story of a Reluctant Guru.” In the essay, whose title echoes that phrase, Narayan identifies with “Raju, the hero of my Guide who was mistaken for a saint and began to wonder at some point himself if a sudden effulgence had begun to show on his face.” He ends with the tale of a 4 a.m. phone call from a young Indian colleague, demanding a prediction of the fallout after a shake-up at the university. Why, Narayan asked, such a question, at such a time? “Don’t you get up at four for your meditations?” came the reply. “I thought at this hour you’d be in a state of mind to know the future.” Narayan reads the call as a new measure of just how far an Indian man can go in pretending to be superhuman. “Evidently this scientist had caught the general trend in the atmosphere,” he writes. “While I could appreciate an average American’s notion that every Indian was a mystic, I was rather shocked in this instance, since I expected an Indian himself to know better.”
In the new Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country, we observe a man who upholds this rule, though he surely wouldn’t frame his holiness as feigned: the guru known in India as Osho, and in America as Bhagwan Rajneesh. Directed by Chapman and Maclain Way and produced by Mark and Jay Duplass, the series unfolds in Antelope, Oregon, a rural town where a man and woman — Rajneesh and his right-hand gal, Ma Anand Sheela — land in 1983 to make a utopian “city” they call Rajneeshpuram. The experiment succeeds, for a time, its citizenry swelling large enough to make headlines. That is, until it turns nightmarish, with poison, AK-47s, and at the helm, Sheela, flashing smiles and middle fingers on national TV. Sheela is the unofficial star of this drama. She is a woman unlike the ones we normally see: feminine in her Princess Diana pantsuits and chic cropped hair, yet aggressive in the way of the American man, a Trump type, really. When Ma Prem Hasya, a rich woman from L.A., becomes Bhagwan’s new No. 1, Sheela becomes persona non grata. She believes the new L.A. kids want to poison Bhagwan for his money and power; she retaliates — though she never fully cops to details — with an alleged murder plot. But it’s her character that is assassinated, sent away by the courts to serve jail time and, afterward, fleeing America to live out her days in Europe.
To this day, Sheela retains her protective feelings for Bhagwan; she never acknowledges emotions of her own, beyond those experienced for him. The lying, the threats, the murder attempts — none are attributed to her needs or wants or pain. This can feel duplicitous, and may account for her reception, online and off, as a “Machiavellian supervillain,” as one recent article puts it.
Maybe I am a pre-ruined viewer. I couldn’t help presume Sheela more innocent than Bhagwan from the moment I met her. Reading later of Narayan and his colleague, I felt stunned by his insight. Even Indians can fall for the mysticism of an Indian man who looks the part. That point clarifies just why the focus on Sheela perturbs me so much: Bhagwan’s legacy informs a larger story, on what we allow a certain sort of man to get away with, in America, India, wherever. Perhaps there’s a cautiousness among sensitive folk in questioning a brown man these days. Reading reviews of the Netflix series though, I feel I am witnessing a repeat of Osho’s vanishing act, of the man behind the Oz curtain.
In ancient times, the guru worked mainly for shishyas, or students, imparting knowledge, serving the people around him. Mega-gurus like Osho are just the opposite, taking rather than giving. Still, one deduces from Wild Wild Country’s reluctance to question the implications of his legacy, Osho is exempt from reproach, no matter the lack of depth his actual filmed speeches reveal. A student of the hypnotic induction used by cults, Rajneesh perfected “the art of being vague, while pretending you are being profound,” as one critic noted in an epic, damning New Republic analysis of Osho’s empire. In this ability to elide critique, he paved the way for what one might call “having it both ways” gurus, from Sri Sai Baba, whose closed chambers held nearly 100 secret kilos of gold found after his death, to arguably the most powerful guru in India today, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev.
These gurus twist the notion of divinity to serve material ends, dismissing the concept of god even as they situate themselves as living gods. They do so through various means — Sai Baba was known to produce gold watches through sleight of hand, a masterstroke that guaranteed followers, as well as debunkers. Osho introduced a different kind of magic trick, continued by Vasudev today. Call it “simple psychological projection,” a phrase he himself used, contemptuously, to belittle belief in god. Arguably no religious tradition enshrines the act of projection as Hinduism does. Hindus see meaning in a slab of stone. Priests spend their days tending to these mute icons, washing them, dressing them, offering them food. In return, the idols technically do nothing, though the faithful would argue the work they do occurs at the cellular level — of a life, mind, soul, planet.
My experience of the Hindu act of projection occurred in a temple, perhaps the most famous in the world, known as Tirupathi. When I went I was hormonal and 14 or so, with a spotty face and resentment in my veins at having to go with my family in public anywhere. I hated the masses of people, whom I imagined stared only at me, as if they’d received warning ahead of time that a profoundly awkward teen from America who didn’t quite belong here or there would be approaching. When I learned the entire trip, the hours of driving, the subpar toilets, the extended family time, the crush of human mass — all of it was for a single moment of glimpsing an idol — I felt simultaneously in awe and contempt, of the scope of human emotion, the need for salvation, or security, or change, so strong we enter into arrangements that require imagination to make sense. We stood in a line for hours, my limbs pressed by women as if to erase me. Then I saw the idol. He is Venkateshwara, the god of my own family’s house, and so I have seen him many times before and since. But no view has been like that long-awaited one at Tirupathi. All around the sensation enveloped me, of people staring, crying, sending their needs and wants to the stone slab and seeming to gain relief in return. I felt conscripted in a double conversion in that halt in time: of the slab to a god, of myself to a worshipper.
Osho mocked the sort of projection that converts stone, but he benefited from its force. A soul in belief is a delicate thing — it can be exploited or liberated, depending on circumstances. The stone, the object on which projection occurs, remains a neutral party. A guru, a living idol, requires constant maintenance. Osho usurped the idol’s position while nursing a respect for cash, calling himself the “rich man’s guru,” and reportedly amassing more Rolls Royces than anyone in the world. Jaggi Vasudev, his closest modern analogue, opts for motorcycles. The question of how they are able to pull these cons in bright light is a riddle unsolved by Wild Wild Country, which only continues the tradition of tacit support of the “god-man,” holding his female sidekick alone under a police bulb. While Osho’s crimes live in the realm of rumor, the allegation list runs long and deep, of sins inflicted on the vulnerable, from sanctioned rape to the forced sterilization of women. Perhaps when a man looks like the popular conception of god, as bearded Indian men do, we give him a long leash; we want to believe. Then there is the global dismissal of Eastern thought as unscientific, enabling pseudo-mystics to spout nonsense and get away with it.
Watching the Rajneeshees give up their lives, only to wonder where to go when the dream of Rajneeshpuram dies, I recalled peers of theirs I have known: disciples of Vasudev, who’ve left their homes in America to work indefinitely in his ashram for free; the sisters of friends who disappeared, first into a haze of drugs, then into gold robes and the arms of the Hare Krishna movement; a friend of the family, whose loyalty to the guru known as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ran so counter to all else, her relatives fretted over who would finance her habit one month to the next.
When costs are high, you find buyers in the desperate. My closest brush with a guru came in 2008, as I suffered severe anxiety after the illness and death of my mom. Seeing anonymous people on a train sent me into a state, a spiral about how we were all on a ride toward a terrible end: get sick and die. One train ride, the sight of a sad-looking man made me bend over and puke, like some darkly comic children’s doll, string pulled. A friend suggested I look into Isha Yoga, the global organization run by Vasudev. In a Delhi cafe, I met an employee of his to decide if I should join the movement, a girl of Indian heritage from Detroit. In a voice stripped of cadence, she told me she and her mother dropped everything to move into an Isha ashram. The two women had been plagued by depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts in the States — no more. Later, a boyfriend I’d brought to the meeting went over the details of it with me: the lameness of the actual pitch, which centered on a video clip of Vasudev telling a joke about a crow, the principal allure of which was his technique of repeating lines over and over until you think of nothing else; the handing of the keys of the lives of two women to a man; the similarities between my position and theirs — also strung out on meds, depressed, occasionally suicidal. I changed my mind, I didn’t want this cure anymore. Even as my friend, the one who’d recommended Isha, swore by the results, the changes in her struck me as more worrying than hopeful — she’d acquired habits she claimed made her feel stronger, of breathing, meditation, and dietary changes, but she seemed to soften at the core, drawing ever nearer to the guru, quoting him at all times, feeling unwell at the slightest deviation from his prescriptions. He seemed to hold her strength, not her.
I suppose this is the hallmark of gurudom that bothers me, how the guru’s — or temple’s or televangelist’s — income model relies on subservience to function. More often than not, a woman becomes the lead subservient, trained already by the world to help men get theirs. She does a fine job of it, as Sheela did, until she slips up, gets emotional, and is cast aside, mocked as jealous and ugly and needy, becomes a secondary character, so when she tells her own story years later, it is behind a screen of feigned disinterest in her emotional self, a numbness developed over years of being told his needs supersede all else. The lesson of the guru is about the capacity of any ordinary human to imagine perfection, and manifest it. But then, what good is a guru who operates as some therapists do, on a fixed timeline, six sessions and then you’re done, a sense of your own strength in your pocket to take with you? That sort of man might make enough money for two cars, not 100 — more than any other Rolls’ owner in existence, as the Bhagwan did in his day. He might get one hot lay in his life, not an infinite supply. Much more fun to keep the myth alive — you can get away with so much.
During his time in the Midwest, Narayan recounts a lecture he gave to an American seeker, in which he suggests a difference between the needs of members of the developing and developed worlds. “Your search is for a ‘guru’ who can promise you instant mystic elation; whereas your counterpart looks for a foundation grant,” as he puts it. “The young person in my country would sooner learn how to organize a business or manufacture an atom bomb or an automobile than how to stand on one’s head.” It is easy, as Narayan did, to dismiss followers of Indian gurus as First World brats, Americans addled by excess to the point of destructive dependencies, if not on pharmaceuticals, than on bearded Indian charlatans. But on my latest trip to India this year, I found a new tenor in the conversation around Jaggi Vasudev. I was Narayan, disappointed by fellow Indians falling for the sham. A family friend with whom I once spent pleasurable hours mocking the hypocrisy of the Isha godfather now told me he’s come around to, as he put it, “a great speaker.” An aunt said the same, that his oratory skills can’t be denied, if you see him go at it on TV. I wondered at my judgment. Had I been wrong, a know-it-all kid? Later, at the airport, a copy of Cosmopolitan stopped my 180; in it, a profile of Vasudev centered on the motorcycles, his actual words void of anything beyond a self-promotional zeal, no hint of interest in enabling the independent functioning of fellow human systems, so much as a celebration of their dependency on him. I tore out the story, thinking I might write about him, then threw it away when the sight of it brought only anger, at the thought of the women I’ve seen swallowed into his empire.
The interplay between economic and religious systems is a long one, and involves the failure of one to strengthen the other. The foundation grant too, comes with its own set of costs, its own demands on faith, requirements for subservience. Osho loved capitalism, and hated Gandhi for idealizing poverty; in the end he proved the ability of a capitalistic leader to strip others of their resources. Christian evangelists hungry for numbers know to target low-caste Indians, castoffs of a system that has done badly by them. One wonders which, if any, system actually empowers the individual, the vulnerable, the homeless man, the suicidal woman. The membrane separating the promises of East and West, mysticism and corporatism, feels suspect. We are all, it seems, seeking something still.