By popular demand, and my own inclination, I am going to do a post on Osho! Otherwise known as “that weird religion that made Vinod Khanna run off to Oregon in the middle of his career.” Just to skip to the end for a second, it’s calmed down in the decades since and is now a kind of normal sort of meditation center. But it was very very odd for a while in the middle!
Usual Disclaimer: I don’t actually know any of the people involved, and even if I did, there is no way I would know all these details. However, the following is the general common knowledge and impression formed of these events by the film media. If you are new to the films, or somehow missed this bit of history, you may find it useful.
I’m going to do an in medias res opening for this so you can see how it came to be such a big film story. In 1982, Vinod Khanna was one of the top stars of the industry. He had been acting for 14 years, since he was 22, and had slowly climbed from playing fresh-faced younger brother of the hero roles to leads. He has been married for 11 years, since he was 25, and had two young sons, 10 and 7. He had been increasingly religious for the past few years, it was known that he went to the retreat in Pune every weekend and didn’t like to film out of Bombay any more as it would make it harder to reach his retreat.
But no one expected what happened at the press conference he called. Wearing prayer beads and sitting cross legged, surrounded by his family, he declared that he had been asked to accompany his guru into exile in America and he was leaving, with the support of his wife and sons. And then he was gone! Films left half done, co-stars and producers and directors with careers ruined, because he couldn’t wait even a few months to leave. For comparison, remember that Sanjay Dutt was sentenced to jail for 6 years, and still managed to fulfill all his professional responsibilities before he left. And so, for 5 years, Vinod Khanna was out of the life of his wife and sons, and out of the film industry.
Small odd sidenote to this, one of the many many film people who he left in the lurch with his sudden exodus from the industry was a small time producer who never quite recovered from the financial loss caused by having to scrap his Vinod Khanna project. The producer’s son saw the toll this loss took on his family and swore that he himself would never join the film industry, he would go into a different line of work. And thus Rakesh Maria joined the police force, eventually rising to become the Commissioner of Police in Bombay, and investigating both the 2003 bomb blasts and 26/11. And it might never have happened if Vinod Khanna hadn’t run off to Oregon.
Okay, in medias res over, how did we get here? Let me back aaaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllll the way up first and set up how this religious group came to be. In America, it would have been immediately suspicious. Because we like our religions with buildings and special days of the week and big public ceremonies. Anything different, and we become suspicious.
But in India, there is a different system. You can have a religious advisor who meets with you privately and gives you advice. Or whose talks you listen to on the radio or watch on TV. Or who you see in huge public rallies. Not once a week, but every day, or else only on certain holidays, or only when they feel like it. And none of this would be untraditional or suspicious just for itself. In the same way, your religious advisors “uniform” would be a simple cotton outfit and beads, with long hair and a beard. Just like in America it would be a suit during the week and a robe on Sundays.
(U.G. Krishnamurthi consciously didn’t dress in the whole “Guru outfit”, but he was still the sort of personal guru type, instead of the minister-at-church-on-Sundays type. And he was by all accounts a wonderful giving person who helped Parveen Babi keep her demons at bay, and save Mahesh Bhatt from alcoholism.)
And so the guru Rajneesh, when he started out, seemed no different from any other religious leader. He had the look, he had good advice, and people felt better after talking with him. And there was social re-enforcement for it, this isn’t the kind of thing that made people say “oh he’s fallen in with a strange crowd! I don’t understand!” Vinod Khanna following him was kind of like when Kirk Cameron started going to church so much. It seems like a kind of refreshing thing, to put something at a higher priority than fame and money. And relatable, everyone has their Guru, or at least knows someone who does (just like most people in America have their church or know someone who does).
Rajneesh had a not uncommon background for a future religious leader. Raised in a Jain family, highly educated, and a talented public speaker. He experimented with various philosophies in his youth, socialism, the INA, and the RSS, and then went on to advanced studies in college. He was labeled as disruptive in his classes, thanks to a tendency to debate the lecturer, but still graduated with distinction. And went on to be a popular teacher of philosophy, although again the university administration had concerns over him, this time because he tended to have too much influence on his students.
In his university breaks from teaching he would travel the country giving lectures on his developing philosophy. And here is where, if you are me, you start going “hey, this sounds familiar!” A big part of his philosophy was that the rich should not feel “guilty” for being rich, that socialism was a failure, that we should look to the future and trust in capitalism, and science. You will be SHOCKED to learn that he quickly acquired many very wealthy followers. You will be similarly shocked to learn that many of these followers started to give him “gifts” of money in gratitude for his teachings.
(Rajneesh in this era)
Again, don’t think “cult” at this point. Think “mega church”. Just like in America those preachers who have no formal training and often a mixed up job history, but somehow end up speaking one Sunday and find they have a knack for it. And next thing you know they have a cable show and a chain of churches and a book on the bestseller list.
Where it starts to get slightly odd is when Rajneesh started preaching a slightly controversial message, “sex is good”. It was part of his larger theme of “life should be enjoyed”. A little off of the usual religious message, but not inherently wrong.
We enter our next phase in religious development, the part where it starts to slide into more of the Scientology-range. He set up a permanent community and stopped traveling and speaking to the public around 1971. He acquired a secretary, who had a lot of connections in politics and business circles and the money was really rolling in now. He started designating certain of his followers as better than others, giving them new names and telling them to wear matching outfits of saffron cloth and prayer beads and a locket with his photo. And he encouraged them to live a life of “celebration” rather than asceticism. Now, I don’t know what “celebration” means, but I am guessing it means doing all the things that religions usually say you should limit, like sex and other fun stuff.
And finally, going global! In 1974, the Pune Ashram complex opened, funded by a Greek shipping heiress. She was just one of many Western followers who started flooding his new “meditation center”. Rajneesh’s speeches were transcribed and sent worldwide, along with recordings and videos.
Okay, here is where we can go back to the western view of someone with a beard and prayer beads! In America, if you join a mega-church, it could be just because it seems like the thing to do, you don’t really think about it that much, and then the charisma of the leader might kind of get to you and draw you in until you are making choices for your life based on what is best for the church over what is best for yourself (for instance, donating your kids’ college fund). But if you are in America and you decide to start following a religious leader from all the way over in India who looks nothing like religious leaders “normally” look, that means there is probably something going on with you to begin with. Not that you can’t be a sincere follower, or that your guru isn’t necessarily helping you. But it makes me wonder, if soooooooo many people started finding him from other places, maybe it’s not so much that no one back home would be able to help them, and more that they were too damaged to see that some one else could help, and he wasn’t honorable enough to turn them away. And it really seems like the reason he wasn’t turning them away was because they arrived with a lot of money.
(It just kind of feels like these kids probably need something more than just a laying on of hands, if they were driven to travel all the way to India to find peace.)
And while the Ashram helped some people, it seems likely that it also harmed others. They had an arts and crafts center, a theater program, and group therapies. It was supposed to be a meditation center, but it was described as having a frenetic “carnival” atmosphere. The most alarming area was the “encounter” therapy groups. Some of them were sexual encounter groups, remember sex is good and this is the 70s after all. But the more controversial ones were the violence encounter groups. Where the violence wasn’t exactly simulated. One Westerner who was a therapist himself reported leaving with a broken arm after being locked in a room with other participants armed with weapons for 8 hours. In 1979, the Ashram declared that the violent encounter groups had served their purpose and would be discontinued.
And around this time is also where we go full “Sea Org” on the members. It’s not clear how much Rajneesh knew of what was happening, but followers were given the option of staying indefinitely at the Ashram so long as they “earned” their place. Usually through hard unpaid labor. There were also rumors that some of the Westerner followers were financing their stay through prostitution and drug dealing.
(Rajneesh would come out and give talks when he felt like it, that was as much interaction as most of his followers ever had with him personally.)
It’s not clear how much Rajneesh was involved in all of this. The center was a massive organization by this point, he couldn’t have been in every therapy group and stayed in constant touch with every follower. But that alone is damning. Surely part of his responsibility was to make sure his group never grew past a point that he could have that kind of connection. Or else he should have been more certain that those he put between himself and the general followers could be trusted to be kind and caring.
It was during this period that Vinod Khanna became his most famous Indian follower. Vinod was special (just like Tom Cruise and Scientology). He probably never saw the messier parts of the experience. I’m sure he got personal lessons from Rajneesh, worthwhile simple tasks for his service, and all of those things that make you feel like you have value outside of the sycophants surrounding you and demanding things from you as a famous person.
(Rajneesh and Vinod)
Vinod wasn’t the only filmi person to visit the Pune Ashram during this period. Pune is only a few hours from Bombay, plenty of people hopped over for a quick weekend, heard some Rajneesh lectures, checked out the arts and crafts store, maybe experimented a little in a sexual encounter group. But for the vast majority, it was just a sort of casual thing, you’d go to see what all the fuss was about, if you enjoyed yourself maybe you would come back next month or the month after next to try it again.
Vinod was the only one who really really became part of the Rajneesh community. He started wearing the mala beads and orange clothing, he would only film if he could take a break to go to Pune every weekend, he was on a whole other level than the others. But, again, it wasn’t like this was a crazy out there commune type thing. Plenty of “the best people” were visiting the Ashram. Maybe the long term residents and the westerners (who by now were the majority of the followers) were a little extreme, but the upperclass locals would go out there to hear the lessons and then take them home, just like they would with any other guru.
The big break into “okay, now it’s too much” happened when Rajneesh moved to the USA. It was either sudden or planned, depending on how you look at it. Pretty planned from Rajneesh’s side. He went on a medical Visa in 1980 with the encouragement of one of his American followers, visited an outpost center already set up on Long Island, and asked that same follower and her husband to start exploring possible permanent massive community space.
Going back to what Rajneesh knew when about what was going on, he may not have known about all the sex trade and drugs and violent encounter groups and forced labor, but he apparently had some awareness that it was nearing time to “get out of Dodge” as it were. And so with the Indian authorities coming closer and closer to shutting down the Pune center entirely, Rajneesh up and left town. Which was the first most of his followers and the Indian authorities learned about this whole new home in Oregon, which had been carefully prepared for him.
(The tent city that they started with)
Okay, this bit gets really really messy! There are legal cases on top of legal cases and land use disputes and sewage rights and all that fun stuff. Essentially what happened was that one of Rajneesh’s American followers purchased 64,229 acres of land in Oregon claiming he would found a small agricultural community. And then within a few years, 7,000 people had moved in, complete with a police department, fire department, electrical system, and everything else. Plus, they were 7,000 people who had traveled from all over the world to be able to live with and follow the teachings of a magnetic religious leader. It was just not the kind of thing people were used to in rural Oregon! Oh, and one of those 7,000 people was Vinod Khanna. He worked as a gardener.
(“Rajneeshpuram” as it came to be built up)
Meanwhile, Rajneesh himself had entered a “period of contemplation”, living in a trailer and only communicating with a few select followers. Which meant that his most aggressive followers were allowed to take over control of everything that happened. Oh, also he became obsessed with Rolls Royces, at one point owning 93 of them. His followers hoped to raise money to give him another 272, so he would have a different one for every day of the year.
(This was as much as his followers saw of him, his car driving past while they lined the roads)
In 1985, Rajneesh finally came roaring out of seclusion to disavow his most faithful followers and give out a long list of all their crimes, including for instance a bioterror attack on a small nearby community when they spread salmonella in hopes of effecting a local election. At first these seemed too insane to be serious, but the authorities investigated anyway, and by golly they were true! His top followers were arrested. And Rajneesh went through a big public burning of his books and various other paraphernalia, declaring he should no longer be thought of as a religious teacher. Rajneesh himself was also investigated and brought in and out of court on Visa disputes. He finally returned to India where he was given a hero’s welcome. And then he immediately left again and started traveling the world looking for a comfortable place to stay. Geneva, Uruguay, Nepal, and more, all refused him Visas and he had to leave after brief stays. Until he landed back in India again in 1987, and finally returning to the center in Pune.
But it was a better simpler place now. Perhaps to signify that, Rajneesh took a new name, Osho, and the center in Pune came to be known by the same name for short, “Osho”. Followers were encouraged to stay offsite and live independent lives outside of their time in the center. The dress code was gotten rid of, no more fancy titles and status based outfits. Rajneesh went back to giving regular talks to the public on a regular schedule, now mostly focused on zen and meditation, no more sexy sex and money stuff. There was a little bit of excitement right at the end of his life, when he suggested his deteriorating health was due either to poisoning by the US authorities while he was in prison (radiation in his mattress), or to an evil magician at his evening services. And then he died, most likely of complications related to diabetes.
So, that’s Rajneesh and Osho! Started out as a charismatic and brilliant speaker, gained a following and enjoyed and sought enormous wealth, lost control of his followers and his community became increasingly toxic, remained willfully blind to this to the point of traveling around the world to a place where he could live in total luxury, finally started to get an idea of what was happening, and re-focused his community turning it back into a harmless and helpful place devoted to meditation and self-help.
And it continues today! Osho is still a massive center in Pune, a landmark, lots of people from around the world travel there. And occasionally if you read the film news you will see that a wedding or prayer meeting or other filmi/religious event is held there. Or sometimes some film star will just be over there for the weekend, for a bit of a break. It’s now sometimes called a “meditation center and resort” instead of an “Ashram”.
(here’s John Abraham, visiting for the weekend)
Oh, and Vinod Khanna returned home in 1987. Although his wife officially supported his decision to leave, you will probably not be surprised to learn that the marriage ended in divorce. Even if it’s for spiritual enlightenment, it’s still not a good thing to leave your wife with two young sons and pop back into their lives 5 years later.
Rahul Khanna, Vinod’s older son, and Akshaye, the younger, both became actors. But they also both became almost obsessively private. Even today in interviews, they avoid any personal questions especially about their childhood. Rahul briefly dabbled with mainstream Hindi work, but seems to be happier doing international work. Most recently he is a recurring guest star on the critically acclaimed cable series The Americans. Akshaye came close to being a major star, then slowed his output and started taking character roles and smaller parts, before finally leaving the industry entirely for 4 years. And then returning as the villain in Dishoom. Neither brother has married, or had children.
(here he is with his two boys before he left. Notice he is already wearing the Rajneesh Mala beads and locket)
Vinod Khanna, meanwhile, returned to India and his career and was almost able to pick up where he left off. He had several more hero parts throughout the late 80s and 90s, then took a break around ’97 and returned in father roles, where he is still working today. Oh, and he got married again in 1990, having two more children. Whose childhoods he presumably did NOT flake out on and return only when they were well into their teens.