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Asiatic Religions in Europe - Dr Reinhart Hummel with Dr. Bert Hardin

The religious groups with a Hindu or Buddhist background that reached Europe in the 1960s and 1970s(1) came without exception by way of the United States and thus penetrated the old World in an "Americanized" form. The aspects that struck people as objectionable--the commercialization, the PR methods, etc.--were North American rather than Asian characteristics. Several features, such as the attempt of Transcendental Meditation to present itself as a purely secular technique of relaxation, were connected with the strict separation of Church and State in the USA and would probably not have come into being at all in Europe. To this extent the fact that these cults reached Europe via the USA worked against their chances of success. This makes it all the more interesting to study a movement which may have been strongly influenced by the psychological climate in North America but which nevertheless reached Europe directly from India. This is the movement led by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. This study will, therefore, focus on this movement as it is representative of more recent trends in the religious scene.

Typical meditation movements like TM and the Divine Light Mission had by the middle of the 1970s passed their peak and have since entered on a phase of consolidation. One reason for this has been the campaign against youth cults and sects which was able to uncover a whole series of internal contradictions. What was involved above all was the gulf between claim and reality. These groups not only showed themselves incapable of fulfilling the almost paradisiacal promises they made: the techniques of meditation themselves that they used were often shown to be dangerous and sometimes lacking in intellectual and spiritual content. Many leading members remained discontented and found fulfillment in movements of a more strongly Hindu character such as that led by Sathya Sai Baba.

The diffuse influence of non-organized forms of Asiatic spirituality such as yoga and Zen is, moreover, a characteristic of the intellectual and spiritual climate. Perhaps the dying out of humanist education is a reason for a monist attitude to life no longer relying on quotations from Goethe today but on passages from the Upanishads or from Buddhist writings.

Of recent years the focus has shifted from the soul to the body and geographically from India to China and Japan. What are sought today are techniques that serve the body’s physical self-awareness and development such as T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Aikido. Bringing body and soul into harmony is meant to mobilize the primeval energy of the cosmos and enable one to experience it. This means that the time is also ripe for the dervish dances from the Islamic Sufi movement and Tantra yoga with its Hindu and Buddhist origins. Tantra yoga includes the body and sexuality in the process of salvation. There is also an increase in interest in Tibetan Buddhism with its Tantric influences.

1. The Bhagwan Movement(2)

It is above all the Neo-Sanya movement led by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, at first in Poona but since 1981 in Antelope, Oregon, that bids fair to rival the Volkswagen Beetle: it runs and runs. Far from indicating the end and dissolution of the movement, the breaking up of the ashram in Poona introduced a new phase in its spread by bringing about the return to Europe and the United States of the elite of therapists and committed staff members. By 1981 the number of Rajneesh centers in Belgium had risen to seven, in France to eleven, in Great Britain to twenty-six, in Italy to eighteen, in the Netherlands to twenty-five, and in West Germany to fifty-seven. In Germany, on which our investigation will now focus, the movement’s center of gravity will in the future be the newly acquired Wolfsbrunnen castle in Meinhard-Schwebda. Here a city of Rajneesh is planned, an enormous center for therapy and growth with an abundance of handicrafts and similar opportunities for the sannyasis to translate their devotion to their master into actual work.

Previously, the largest German Rajneesh Meditation Center was Purvodaya in Margarethenried, northeast of Munich. According to its own figures, this "center for self-awareness and meditation" has shown the following increase in turnover: 1978, DM205,000 (nearly $96,000); 1979, DM725,000 (nearly $340,000); 1980, DM2,632,000 (over $1,200,000); while that budgeted for 1981 was nearly five million deutschmarks ($2,300,000). Sixty-seven percent of the visitors were between 20 and 29 years old and fourteen percent between 30 and 39, with the rest being older or younger. Eighty percent were classified as middle class (the majority teachers and students, very many from the field of social work, with the rest being officials and white-collar and manual workers). There is a certain noticeable tendency for leading members to be drawn from the aristocracy. Many of the newly opened centers operate under names drawn from the field of humanist psychology. They cannot be immediately recognized as Rajneesh centers. While the castle and its grounds have apparently been acquired for the new city of Rajneesh by the Rajneesh Foundation, most of the centers are independent. Their cohesion is guaranteed by the attitude of discipleship towards the master Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh on the part of those running them. Looked at from the point of view of organization, the Neo-Sanya movement does not fit into the pattern of youth cults and sects among which it is often counted. Its organizational structure is hierarchical but not totalitarian. Many visitors to the Rajneesh centers come because of the therapeutic groups and leave when and how they want. Alongside these Bhagwan clients there are also Bhagwan believers for whom Rajneesh is a second Buddha or Jesus. This fits in with the fluctuating character of this movement which is at one and the same time a psycho-religious movement, a syncretistic guru-cult, and an esoteric school of the mysteries.

2. Rajneesh: From Rebel to Guru

Born in 1931, Rajneesh began his career not as the guru of a predominantly Western flock of disciples but as a radical critic of his own culture, as a "lonely enlightened rebel" (R. C. Prasad) against the taboos of Indian politics and religion. His official biography, however, mentions religious experiences during childhood and an experience of enlightenment when he was a student at the age of twenty-one. Obviously, he went on to experiment with techniques of meditation and similar techniques of altering one’s awareness and from 1964 onwards introduced his followers to these in meditation camps in Rajasthan. Here, too, he did not follow the usual pattern. He did not teach the usual forms of yoga but predominantly group meditation and dances that had been developed by Gurdjieff, probably relying on Sufi traditions. Parallel to his appropriation of new concepts and practices, a change came about in his own appraisal of himself. Up till the 1960s he was known to the Indian public as Acharya (teacher) Rajneesh: he finally became Bhagwan (God) and thus one of mankind’s great enlightened ones. His enlightenment should be connected with his withdrawal from public life that led to the foundation of an ashram first in Bombay (1969) and later in Poona (1974 to 1981).

While Rajneesh was still teaching philosophy, Michael Murphy and Richard Price founded the Esalen Center in California in 1962. With its remarkable blend of Western psychology and Eastern wisdom, it was the model of other "human growth centers." It was at Esalen that Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt psychology, came to rest in his old age; the pupil of Wilhelm Reich and the founder of bio-energetics, Alexander Lowen, and his pupil Stanley Keleman worked there. At Esalen Alan Watts, the champion of Beat Zen, and Baba Ram Dass, formerly Dr. Richard Alpert, the former colleague of the apostle of LSD Timothy Leary, were also able to teach their philosophies and practices inspired by the East. Towards the end of the 1960s, the first European "growth centers" appeared in London and Amsterdam, and in them the name of Rajneesh first began to be secretly whispered. It was from these places and from German psychological centers such as ZIST and AAO that an increasing number of professional and lay therapists as well as adherents of this kind of psychological culture found their way first to Bombay and later to Poona. The first generation of people who today are aged around thirty-five(3) had for the most part experimented with LSD and similar drugs as well as with techniques of altering consciousness, and were acquainted with the ideas of Gurdjieff, Reich, and others. For them, what they were able to experience at the feet of Rajneesh was the crowning fulfillment of all their previous searching. Rajneesh, who from his reading was already familiar with the concepts of humanist psychology, had for his part no hesitation over enlisting in his service Western therapists and even artists like Georg Deuter and thus turning his ashram in Poona into "the greatest human growth center of the world," as it liked to describe itself. To the extent that techniques of humanist psychology found acceptance, the Rajneesh ashram became more attractive for Europeans and North Americans. In the second half of the 1970s, this development led to the ashram becoming Westernized. There was an appreciable diminution in the part played by Indians, and perhaps it was ultimately only consistent for Rajneesh to move to the USA in 1981.

3. The Bhagwan Movement as a Psycho-religious Movement

Most seekers arrive at the Bhagwan centers because they "have problems" or want to "change" themselves; after taking part for a shorter or longer period of time in the work of the groups and the meditation exercises, they return to their normal occupations. In the introductory phase the function of the groups and the meditation exercises is above all to clear up unresolved conflicts and "unfinished business", to liberate blocked energies and let them flow once more. In Rajneesh’s monistic interpretation of the world, there is fundamentally only one energy which in the sense of humanist psychology he is able to call "bio-energy." It is "life" itself or "love" or even the "light". Most practices and rituals of meditation are aimed at making it possible to experience this energy and become aware of it. The dance meditations, known as "stop techniques," that Rajneesh had taken over from Gurdjieff do this by following phases of extreme physical exertion and hectic ecstasy by complete rest. An important ritual is the energy darshan that in traditional Indian terminology is called shaktipat, that is, the transmission of power by touch or glance. The ceremony of initiation or dedication includes, besides handling over the mala, the wooden chain with Rajneesh’s portrait, a transmission of energy of this kind by pressing the thumb on the so-called third eye. The mobilization and experience of energy is also the aim of Buddhist exercises intended to increase one’s attention and of Chinese physical techniques like T’ai Chi.

This conscious awareness of one’s inner life ("Let it happen...") is meant to help people to distance themselves from it. Eventually they become neutral, uninvolved, impartially observing "witnesses"--the sahshi of classical Indian yoga. Awareness understood in this sense is a key to understanding Rajneesh’s thought: it does not matter whether someone renounces sexuality(4) or "accepts" it. Both lead to the goal, as long as it happens with awareness. A concept taken from the vocabulary of Western psychology is thus interpreted by Rajneesh against the background of Hindu and Buddhist ideas and elevated to become the supreme value.

The stream of energy that has been liberated by group work and meditation and is now consciously perceived has its origin, according to Rajneesh, in the sexual center, the muladhara chakra of the physiology of Tantra yoga. Most people are so "deformed" by religious prejudices and social pressures that their energy is "perverted." But "perverted energy cannot be transformed." Hence, the importance of the introductory phase in which the individual should learn to overcome his or her inhibitions and to let the stream of energy flow. Rajneesh recommends the Tantric way: acceptance and surrender. Because "spirituality and sexuality are two ends of one and the same energy," one and the same business is involved in the mutual surrender of man and woman as in the relation of master and disciple. The relationship of the disciple to the master is a "relationship of love." Like Tantrism as a whole, Rajneesh has a divided attitude towards sexuality. On the one hand, he stresses with tremendous anti-puritan emphasis the divinity of the unique power of life; on the other, he stresses the necessity for it to be transformed and transcended. What happens in practice is an increasing depersonalization of sexual relations, which is clearly experienced by many people who are plagued by problems of personal relationships as a liberating breakthrough to the knowledge that everyone is irrevocably alone and must learn not to need anyone else. Corresponding to this is the repeated emphasis on everyone being exclusively responsible for himself or herself and for his or her inner development.

What stops people surrendering themselves in trust to the master and to the stream of life he personifies is the "mind". The "mind" enables us to plan for the future or to play the "games" of the past and keeps us from living with full awareness in the here and now. Following Gurdjieff, Rajneesh emphasizes that the unawakened man or woman is only reacting like an automaton instead of living authentically on the basis of his or her own spontaneity.

4. The Bhagwan Movement as a Syncretistic Guru-cult

Rajneesh does not see himself as a guru in the traditional sense of the word, and in fact he is not one. Nevertheless, certain ritual elements of honoring the guru are maintained in the Rajneesh centers: the main feasts are Rajneesh’s birthday and the day of his enlightenment, as well as Guru-purnima, the feast of the full moon. But Rajneesh is not to be equated with the guarantor of a particular doctrinal tradition since doctrinal traditions are something he fundamentally rejects. Even in Poona personal contact with his followers was reduced to a very low level and has ceased almost entirely with his move to the United States. In this way he pays no attention to many functions ascribed to the guru by the classical tradition. Nevertheless, his person assumes an extraordinarily important role in the life of his followers. To begin with, the master is for Rajneesh the object of that surrender without which it is impossible to overcome the ego and "mind". The erotic and sexual character of this surrender is clear to those affected: it is not by accident that Satyananda uses the metaphor "becoming intimate with the master."

A consistent trait in Rajneesh’s understanding of the master’s function is his stress on absolute passivity: "No relationship exists on the part of the master because the master does not exist... If your ego is there, project it too on to the master. It is your projection."(5) What Rajneesh is describing is the condition of the person who is fully enlightened. The connection between his reinterpretation of the Buddhist ideal and his presentation of himself as a screen for people to project their ideas onto is unambiguous. Hence, there is no lack of statements to the effect that the master’s voice is fundamentally "my own inner voice." Even Rajneesh’s physical absence does not make any essential difference to this kind of relationship between master and disciple.

The trust that is continually demanded in the master characterizes the atmosphere in the Bhagwan centers and above all the work in the therapeutic groups. Readiness to abandon oneself to what happens in the group and to give up every kind of usual safeguard is demanded and guaranteed on the basis of trust in Bhagwan’s omnipresence. This means, too, a substantial reduction in the burden of responsibility borne by the therapist: he or she can stop worrying about professional prudence because Bhagwan is responsible for everything.

Seeing himself as an "enlightened master" also characterizes Rajneesh’s dealings with the religious traditions of mankind. He has indeed used the sacred writings of the most diverse religions as the basis for his lectures: from the Buddhist world a handful of mahayana sutras and above all the literature of Zen; from the Chinese world a series of Taoist writings; from the Indian tradition some of the later Upanishads, Patanjali’s yoga sutras, Tantric writings, the songs of the Bengali Baul, and especially the writings of Kabir; and, in addition, he draws on Sufic and Hasidic writings. It is thus above all the mystics of the different religious traditions that are expounded for his hearers and readers, admittedly in Rajneesh’s uniform interpretation; and this in itself is an astonishing expansion of the usual Western intellectual horizon that certainly accounts for part of Rajneesh’s attraction. Of course, in Rajneesh’s interpretation they are all saying the same thing, with certain nuances. Similarly, this brilliant assimilator, as R. C. Prasad calls him, slips easily into the role of the Zen master, of the Sufi sheikh, of the Hasidic rabbi, and above all into that of the great founders of religion like Buddha and Jesus. What they said of themselves ("I am the way," etc.) are transformed almost without being noticed into statements by Rajneesh about himself, and his relationship to his followers covertly becomes the main theme of the history of religion. Fundamentally, he is not the source of any new religious ideas. It is not a new idea but Rajneesh himself as the enlightened one and as master around whom the fullness of the various religious traditions syncretistically form themselves. To this extent one is justified in describing the Bhagwan movement as a syncretistic guru-cult. The idea that as an enlightened one Rajneesh is talking "on the same level" as Buddha and Jesus serves as a legitimization for interpretations that depart from traditional ones. This is, of course, particularly the case with regard to the Semitic traditions.

5. The Bhagwan Movement as an Esoteric School of the Mysteries

A fundamental principle with Rajneesh is that demands for faith are to be rejected and that all statements must be based on experience alone. Hence, in his circle it is only with a certain uneasiness and an embarrassed smile that people admit to believing in karma and reincarnation and other esoteric doctrines. Clearly, there are hopes of oneself reaching, under Rajneesh’s guidance, the status of an enlightened one.(6) The ashram is a nursery in which enlightened ones are produced, and Bhagwan is the chief "incubator". Connected with this are hopes of Cosmic proportions, because with an increasing number of enlightened ones, the "entire state of vibration of the planet" is altered. In connection with certain astrological constellations of the 1980s and the hope that the "age of Aquarius" is about to dawn, there arise expectations of a "quantum leap on the part of mankind and its being saved from a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions. Against the background of the belief that Rajneesh was a great Tibetan master who lived seven centuries ago and has now returned in order to gather his former pupils around him once again, the traditional greetings used by Rajneesh, such as "Here you are at last" or "I’ve been waiting for you for a long time," take on a deeper meaning. Also to be included among these esoteric speculations are Rajneesh’s statements about Hitler as a tool of the Great White Brotherhood who unfortunately ended by making himself independent and was thus the cause of the ruin of the Second World War. Clearly, there are more speculations of this kind circulating around Rajneesh than have hitherto been made public.

In order to understand this fluctuating phenomenon as a whole, it is important to bear in mind the wealth of different aspects under which Rajneesh presents himself. The traditions of West and East combine to provide a stream of water to drive his mills. He has succeeded in satisfying equally such disparate needs as that for psychological relief and enrichment, that of the religious experience of being dissolved into oneness with the ground of all being, and that for the attainment of esoteric secret knowledge. He has succeeded in presenting himself in the role of the psychological healer, the religiously enlightened one, and the great initiate and adept. The boundaries between the different roles are fluid, and equally fluid are the distinctions among his followers. Alongside the great mass of Bhagwan clients is the band of Bhagwan believers for whom Rajneesh has become the symbol and embodiment of cosmic life and love. And, finally, there is the elite of those who have been initiated into the mysteries of the cosmos and its future. In the immense marketplace of religions and pseudo-religions on offer, there are, at the moment, no rivals who can cover so broad a spectrum of expectations and needs.

Dr. Hummel has served as a pastor in Schleswig-Holstein, as the principal of a theological college in Kotapad, India from 1966-1973, and since 1981 as the director of the Evangelical Center for Worldview Issues located in Stuttgart, Germany.

Translated by Robert Nowell. Printed by permission of Concilium. The article first appeared in Concilium. Heft 1/1983. I 9. Jahrgang, s. 26-31. Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, Bischofsplatz 6, D-6500 Maintz, BRD.


1. See Reinhart Hummel, Indische Mission und neue Frommigheit im Westen (Stuttgart, 1981). 2. See R. C. Prasad, Rajneesh: The Mystic of Feeling (Delhi, 1978).

3. See the seven interviews in Swami Satyananda, Im Grunde ist alles ganz einfach (Frankfurt, 1981). Satyananda is the monastic name of Jorg-Andrees Elten, former well-known reporter for Stern magazine. This also includes references to further literature.


4. For Rajneesh’s attitude to sexuality, see above all Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s Book of the Secrets, vol. 2, Discourses on Vigyana Bhairava Tantra (Poona, 1975).

5. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Mein Weg: Der Weg der weissen Wolke (Berlin, no date), p. 261.

6. For what follows, see Swami Satyananda, the work cited in note 3, pp. 128f, 116f.
Inside the Ashram

The following are excerpts from an interview with former Rajneesh devotee Eckart Flother. The interview originally appeared in the Volume 5, Number I issue of Forward magazine and is reprinted here with their permission.

Forward: What was it that drew you to Rajneesh?

Flother: Having been a very successful journalist in Germany, I (still) felt that something was missing in my life. I traveled to India and was referred to Rajneesh by various people I knew from Europe whose opinions I respected. I went to the ashram in Poona (and) found the master a very fascinating, charismatic man who gave answers to the questions of our lives. I found it interesting to meet spiritual people who, on the average, were not dropouts but well educated. These were people between 25 and 45 who created an environment of understanding, love, and charity on a pretty high level. It was a community which lived and worked together without competition. This, for me, was something totally new--an environment created by people who were trying to express a new kind of life.

Forward: What was your experience like as a sannyasi in Poona?

I was very amazed at the time to find that being a disciple and belonging to a community felt very good. It seemed as though life in the ashram had no tension. There was no competition. We were all surrounded by fellow believers, and our philosophy was that life should be playful. The ashram was a playful environment for people who voluntarily abandoned the world. From my point of view today, I realize that the reality that was created in the ashram was a false reality because it did not cope with the question why things in the world are going as they are, and it did not want to accept the fact that to live in reality means to struggle with the issue of being human--which means, I think, to deal with joy and despair. What we did was, in a way, to live in a "blissed-out" life in a nonreality. I would now say that this was a deception.

Forward: Why are people attracted to Rajneesh?

Flother: The attraction is that people who have tried to change a certain pattern of their lives for years are totally changed, sometimes within a weekend workshop, and they feel that this cannot happen in normal society. What they assume is that some magic or spiritual power has done this job and, of course, Rajneesh claims the credit for it.

Forward: You have stated that Rajneesh is a drug. Could you describe what you mean by that?

Flother: Rajneesh is serving the same purpose as a drug. A drug helps a person to escape from the reality he is living in, and Rajneesh is doing exactly this. He helps (people) leave the life situations where they have to confront their own realities, struggle with them, make up their minds, and so on. He helps them to "snap out", to leave their reality, and he creates exactly the same bussed-out and non-real state a drug would normally create. His meditation techniques are producing energy rushes which have effects that are similar to those of drugs. People who have been initiated by him feel that he has opened the third eye in them and that his energy, which is considered to be the cosmic, psychic energy, has rushed through them.

Forward: What led you away from Rajneesh to Jesus?

Flother: As I was getting more deeply involved with the ashram, I had a very extraordinary experience. On one of those hot, humid Indian nights filled with mosquitoes, I was sitting in my hotel room reading Rabi Maharaj’s book, Death of a Guru. Suddenly, I saw a brilliantly shining being standing in the room1 and he said to me, "l want you to become my disciple" I went to Rajneesh and told him what had happened to me. As I was talking to him about this experience, I saw that Rajneesh was very irritated and even startled as he looked at me. He was unable to speak. At that moment I could see that he was not a master like Jesus Christ, as he claims. It was at that time that I decided to become a disciple of Jesus.