Osho: Godman, Cult Leader, Or Radical Philosopher? The Life & Legacy Of The Man Who Founded An Ashram Which Shook The US

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Osho, or Osho Rajneesh, is a name crowned with an unusual and ominous aura, eclipsing the drama and debauchery that often linger within prominent yogic circles and gurus.

His story traces the usual route to guru-ship: a pensive, smart, and unruly child grows into an adult through a profound spiritual experience and adopts some sort of renunciation. 

The final phase sees our guru exhibiting teachings on designs for living, and techniques for self-realization.

However, there’s something else about Osho Rajneesh.

He ran a commune in the United States, had an eye-watering collection of Rolls-Royces, and expounded radical spiritual instruction to tens of thousands of global devotees, before involvement in an ensuing scandal that shook the US throughout the 80s.

His controversial life is nowadays imprinted into the mind of anyone with a Netflix subscription. Netflix released their Osho documentary, Wild Wild Country, telling the story of Osho Rajneesh and his disciples’ prolific and treacherous escapades in Oregon. 

Amongst the worst of the charges: a mass bio-terror poisoning attack, an assassination attempt, and coercion of sexual activity between devotees.

Defamed on the world stage, there’s no denying the legacy of his movement and its negative impact. Nevertheless, Osho still has an incredibly large following worldwide, with wildly popular Osho books. 

His most well-known, “the book of secrets osho” is a distilling commentary on ancient tantric texts, in which he compiles 112 methods of awareness to bring one into the present moment.

He’s also guided millions in Osho meditation, a dynamic and active integration of multiple techniques that is still popular today. 

In this article, we’ll cover all bases on the advent of Osho:

  • His Early Life And Spiritual Experience
  • Teaching In India
  • The Drama Of Rajneeshpuram
  • His Spiritual Instruction
  • The Legacy Of Osho
students speaking to osho

Life and Background

Early Life

Born into a Jain family in 1931, Osho was the oldest of 11 children of a trader in Madhya Pradesh, India.

Born Chandra Mohan Jain, Osho lived with his grandparents until he was 7 years old. His grandfather died, and so he went back to live with his parents.

A bright but naughty student, Osho gained a reputation for having a flair for debating and public speaking, causing controversy in the classroom.

Outwardly critical of many organized religions, Osho expressed a fascination in the nature of reality, how it fits in with spirituality and ultimately how to expand his consciousness. 

In his early years, Osho explored breath control, yoga, meditation, fasting, esotericism, and hypnosis.

Spiritual Experience

At 22 years old in 1953, Osho claims to have had a spiritual experience, amounting in an enlightened state.

Osho explains his finding of the truth happened in the space he created by giving up the effort to seek his liberation. He claims the void left by his ceasing of effort was filled with energy. 

He references Patanjali’s description of samadhi, the Buddha’s description of non-self (anatta), and Shankara’s understanding of the illusion of subjective reality.

statue of buddha in meditation

Education And Discourses

Completing a university degree in philosophy in 1955, he went on to complete a masters in philosophy at the University of Sagar.

From 1958, he lectured philosophy at Jabalpur University, and became a professor in 1960.

True to his spiritual experience however, he ultimately found his calling as a meditation teacher, and by extension, a guru.

Alongside his role as professor, he would travel throughout India as “Acharya Rajneesh”, meaning teacher Rajneesh, conducting open-air lectures throughout the 60s.

These lectures at their peak would attract tens of thousands of listeners in the major cities of India, and he became a domestic household name. His discourse was controversial, and included a lot of tantric inspiration, leading him to be known as the “sex guru” in India. 

The university asked him to resign as a professor due to the public controversy, and he accepted, moving full-time into guru-ship.

On top of the lectures, he started conducting satsangs and ran intense ten-day meditation camps throughout India.

Introduction Of Osho Meditation Technique And Initiation Of Neo-Sannyas

As early as the 1970’s, Osho was teaching his meditation technique: dynamic meditation, or active meditation.This meditation style generally incorporates a period of cathartic freestyle movement, followed by a period of silent stillness. 

osho ashram students dancing

This technique is still in wide use today and has been adopted by therapeutic professionals worldwide.

As a part of his meditation camps, he began to formally ‘initiate’ neo-sannyas, or disciples into a path of self-realization and dynamic meditation.

Osho’s coining of the term “neo-sannyas” is based on the premise that no renunciation of the material world takes place, but the mental conditioning of the past.

Founding An Ashram

Osho encouraged devotion and “religiousness” but rejected religion itself. In 1974, he set up his first meditation center in Pune, India, officially creating a space to train disciples in dynamic meditation.

This ‘ashram’ attracted all types of people from around the world. 

He would give discourses every morning, alternating between English and Hindi, on the subjects of Yoga, Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Tantra, and Sufism, amongst other spiritual schools of thought.

He also spoke extensively on mystic figures that are known for their enlightenment: the Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Lao Tzu to mention a few. 

In the evening, he would hold seminars where he would answer questions from his devotees on subjects like love, emotion, and meditation. 

In addition, this center at the time offered a variety of therapies combining Eastern practice with Western psychotherapy.

It was here the Rajneeshee movement which rocked the world was born.

osho's ashram
Osho center, Pune, India”, by Mahshidr, licensed under CC BY 2.0


A foreshadowing of what was to come, the late 70s saw tensions between Osho’s devotees and the local government, leading to the closure of the center in Pune.

This crucial chapter of Osho’s life saw the establishment of Rajneeshpuram in 1980, the subject of Netflix’s critically acclaimed Osho documentary.

Known at the time as Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh, he together with his infamous secretary Ma Anand Sheela migrated the Rajneeshee movement to the United States to a deserted ranch in Oregon. 

Extremely wealthy, Osho was also known at this time by the moniker “Rolls-Royce guru”.

Throughout the 1980s Rajneeshpuram and its leaders turned the empty property into a thriving city of 7000 devotees. There was even an airport built to manage logistics!

Almost instantly, the commune became embroiled with the locals legally. 

Osho’s Rajneeshpuram was the center of state-wide conflict, involving bombing, armed militia, bioterror attacks, an assassination attempt, immigration fraud, wiretapping, voting fraud, and arson.

Here we outline some of the most outlandish acts:

#1: Bio-terror attack

In 1984, Sheela conducted a bio-terror attack in an attempt to manipulate voting in the municipal elections in Oregon. 

She had organized contamination of local eateries with salmonella bacteria to poison potential voters to reduce turnout.

picture of osho doing peace fingers
Picture of Osho Rajneesh”, by Marcel Antonisse , licensed under CC0 1.0

#2: Hotel Bombing

In 1983, a bombing of a hotel owned by the Rajneeshees took place – by a previous ashram resident. 

This bombing spurred the ashram devotees to take up (sub-machine) arms and develop a militant security operation.

#3: Assassination Attempt

In 1985, Sheela and several commune devotees plotted to assassinate Charles Turner, the U.S. state attorney in Portland. 

Beyond this, authorities also found that the Rajneeshee’s had a target list of enemies they wanted to get rid of in one way or another.

Reportedly, the commune was also known for its orgies and the advocation of drug use.

When everything came to a head in court, Sheela was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and Osho deported back to India.

Later Years And Death

After a series of visits to various countries, hostile reception, and ultimate deportation, Osho returned to the ashram in Pune, India, and took a more active role in guiding meditations. 

It was here he finally adopted the name Osho, dropping the ‘Bhagwan’ title. Osho is said to mean “Master” or high-ranking Buddhist monk in Japanese. 

Some also say “Osho” is derivative of William James’ description of the oceanic feeling at the heart of spiritual or religious experience: the “consciousness of illumination”.

By extension, the commune in Pune was renamed ‘Osho Commune International’, and it was here he died in 1990 of congestive heart failure.

people with their toes together in yoga


Philosophical Context

Osho combined aspects of many religions such as the practice of Zen Buddhism, the Hindu monistic philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, and Jain Dharma.

In contrast to many gurus, Osho taught that sex was a natural aspect of spiritual progress, incorporating tantric scripture into his teaching.

Ultimately, Osho’s teaching rests on the presumption that a seeker could attain enlightenment through detachment from the past, the future, the mind, the ego, and the self. 

Osho Books

Osho has a wide range of books on philosophy, meditation and other topics. To name just a few:

  • The Book of Secrets Osho
  • Living Dangerously
  • Intuition: Knowing Beyond Logic
  • Sex Matters: From Sex to Superconsciousness
  • Love, Freedom & Aloneness

Spiritual Instruction

Dynamic Meditation

The most famous Osho meditation that he shared with the world is his dynamic meditation: an intense series of stages in which you observe fully your body and mind:

“Remain a witness. Don’t get lost. It is easy to get lost.

While you are breathing you can forget: you can become one with the breathing so much that you can forget the witness. But then you miss the point. Breathe as fast, as deep as possible, bring your total energy to it, but still remain a witness.”

person with their hands together meditating with their eyes closed

Dynamic meditation happens over five stages:

#1: First Stage

A type of breath control with a focus on exhalation, with an instruction to be chaotic, intense, deep, and irregular.

#2: Second Stage

Following your body, an expression of whatever energy is within you to scream, cry, shout, shake, move, sing, laugh, etc. All the while remaining conscious of what is happening.

#3: Third Stage

Mantra chanting takes place with a repetitive body movement to push energy into your root chakra.

#4: Fourth Stage

A silent observation in complete stillness in which you witness the body and mind consciously.

#5: Fifth Stage

A stage of celebration in which you express the fruits of the practice with music and dance.

Rajneesh’s “Ten Commandments”

During the early years when he was traveling India in the 60’s, he was asked for instructions for living or “commandments”. 

a class meditating in seated posture

He explained he was against rigidly following any dogma or command, however “just for fun” noted the below:

  • Never obey anyone’s command unless it is coming from within you.
  • There is no God other than life itself.
  • Truth is within you, do not search for it elsewhere.
  • Love is prayer.
  • To become a nothingness is the door to truth. Nothingness itself is the means, the goal, and attainment.
  • Life is now and here.
  • Live wakefully.
  • Do not swim, float.
  • Die each moment so that you can be new each moment.
  • Do not search. That which is, is. Stop and see.

The Legacy Of Osho

In summary, we can say that Osho Rajneesh was all at once a Godman, a cult leader, and a radical philosopher. 

The legacy of this man is primarily rooted in Rajneeshpuram, with its crimes, power struggles and cult-based activity. At the peak of the ‘Rajneeshee’ movement, there were over 200,000 worldwide members. 

His teaching lives on in the form of practical coverage of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain spiritual teaching, distilled as Osho meditation. 

Further Information

If you’d like to learn more about Osho, check out the foundation’s website.

If you’d like to read more on prominent yogis, why not check out these other articles:

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Born and raised in London, Luke is a passionate writer with a focus on travel, yoga, philosophy, and meditation. As a certified yoga teacher having studied under a swami in Rishikesh, Luke now lives in India pretty much just practising yoga, meditating and writing articles! Luke's life arc has gone from somewhat turbulent to peaceful, and he considers yoga and meditation direct methods to sustain introspective insight to manifest peace and happiness, despite life's challenges. Luke's passion for meditation has led him to complete multiple meditation retreats, where he spent almost 40 days in silence in the last two years. He practices various meditation techniques such as Vipassana, Anapana, and Metta Bhavana, each adding to his knowledge and experience of the true self. Most recently he meditated in Jaipur, India, and before that lived for a short spell in a monastery with forest monks in Northern Thailand. To Luke, yoga is more than just a physical exercise; it's a way of life that helps him cultivate a stronger mind-body connection. As a young man with arthritis, Luke understands the importance of observing and controlling his body, and yoga has been a vital tool in his journey to better health and well-being. The practice of yoga has not only helped him manage his symptoms but has also given him a new perspective on life. Luke's love for yoga and meditation is not limited to a single tradition or practice. He's fascinated by the spiritual teachings of all types of religious philosophy, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity for their essence and wisdom. His passion for spirituality is what drives him to continue learning and growing, and share his knowledge with other people. Luke in his spare time is an avid chess player, cyclist and record collector. He also has experience with addiction, and so sponsors multiple people from different walks of life in their recovery programmes.

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