Saturday, 4 May 2013

Guru Bhagwan: His Secretary and his Bodyguard (4 Stars)

It's very rare for me to review a documentary in this blog. The only one until now was "Anvil". It's not that I never watch documentaries. Only a few weeks ago I watched Trevor Macdonald's documentary about prisoners on death row in America. I didn't review it because it seemed to me like a television programme. It's a tough choice to make. What makes a documentary into a "film"? My decision is arbitrary, but the deciding factors are:

1. The documentary is in one part.
2. This one part lasts more than 70 minutes.

So, if I apply these criteria "Guru Bhagwan" is a film.
This is a subject that fascinates me. It's part of my past, when I was at at university in Berlin. In pre-unification Berlin it was common to see people in orange overalls. They were either garbage men or followers of the guru Bhagwan Shree Ragneesh. The only way to tell them apart was that Bhagwan's followers wore a necklace with his photo. A further clue was that the garbage men were mostly Turkish and male. If you saw a tiny blonde girl in orange overalls she was unlikely to be riding a garbage truck. Bhagwan's followers didn't actually have a name as a group, but they were called Bhagwans or (derogatively) Baggies. In the press the Bhagwans were referred to as a youth sect, and even though there were similarities to the Moonies (followers of Sun Myung Moon) and the Children of God (followers of Moses David) I don't think this was accurate. The Bhagwans did have communes, notably in Oregon, USA, but it wasn't compulsory to give up your normal lifestyle. It also wasn't compulsory to hand over all your money to the guru, although from my knowledge many did so. What was compulsory was that the followers were only allowed to wear orange overalls, and they had to legally change their name to a new name chosen by the guru himself. When I was studying I had a friend who was a Chemistry student, and his new name was Anand Swami Murari (Swami for short). When pressed he admitted that his previous name had been Bernhard, but he didn't like to talk about it.

Swami and I talked for hours about his beliefs. I'm sure he thought he could convert me, but my interest was on a purely intellectual level. Swami had previously been a follower of Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi (the Beatles' guru and founder of Transcendental Meditation), but he had immediately moved on after meeting Bhagwan during a vacation in India. Bhagwan's main teaching was that you should accept what you are, your being and your emotions. For instance, he said "A flower doesn't try to understand what it is to be a flower, it just is a flower". This cryptic statement might sound banal, but at the time it was a revolutionary teaching among Indian gurus. The common teaching of gurus till then had been to "discover yourself". Bhagwan taught the opposite. He told his disciples that they didn't need to find themselves, they should just be themselves. He claimed that self-enlightenment was irrelevant. He also dismissed the search for happiness. "If you feel sad you should not try to overcome your sadness, you should enjoy your sadness". He saw emotions as the core of a person's being. All emotions, including sadness, should be savoured. This might seem similar to the traditional Hindu acceptance of Karma, but it is actually a step further. A Hindu might accept being born into poverty as a result of his former life. Bhagwan taught that you should accept the feeling of hunger in your stomach, that you should "feel the hunger".

Bhagwan's most notorious teaching was that he rejected the ascetisism taught by other gurus. For him sexual desire was something positive, so he advocated free love. If a man and a woman feel lust for one another they shouldn't resist it, they should copulate and enjoy the lust. However, he rejected orgasms as a temporary high and said they should be avoided. He taught that his followers should attempt to make love without reaching orgasm, because the orgasm made the feelings of lust cease.

Bhagwan carefully avoided teaching about good and evil. For him it was all about contentment. He was of the opinion that if all men were contented, it would be an automatic result that nobody did anything to hurt others. For instance, if you feel tempted to steal something you should enjoy the feeling of greed. He said that you shouldn't actually steal it, but that isn't because stealing is bad. The reason is that if you steal you will no longer feel desire for the item. It's better to sit and enjoy the longing for it.

Now to the documentary itself. It's based on the memories of the two people closest to him, his personal secretary and his bodyguard. "Secretary" doesn't really describe the role of Sheela Silverman. She managed all his practical affairs. He withdrew and allowed her to do everything on his behalf, so it would be more accurate to call her his manager. The film shows very little of his teachings, it concentrates on the practical development of his organisation, from India to America. When I was in Berlin I only saw the positive sides of the organisation. The documentary shows the grim reality. Hugh Milne, the bodyguard, asks repeatedly "When did it start to go wrong?" He doesn't answer the question, so I'll answer it for him. The turning point was when Bhagwan moved to America in 1981. He stood at the top of the steps outside of the airplane and said "I am the Messiah that America has been waiting for". That was it. The humility was gone. He may still have been a man of wisdom, but this was the beginning of his decline.

On entering the USA the former religious movement had to become a political entity to survive, and it was Sheela who masterminded the transition. She bought a ranch for a new commune in Oregon for five million dollars, but it wasn't until they moved in that they realised it was zoned as farming land, and a maximum of six people were allowed to live on it. This was a disappointment for Bhagwan, who wanted to have a commune with 10,000 people. They solved the problem by founding a new city, which is evidently easy in America if you have 150 American citizens who sign a petition. And the city of Rajneeshpuram was founded, which rapidly grew in size. Cult members were brought from abroad by arranging marriages with US citizens. People from surrounding cities opposed them, so a stage of siege developed. Cult members were armed to defend their city. Sheela made a speech in which she said "For every one of us that you take we will take 15 of your people". The spiritual level of the commune changed. In the past Bhagwan had been a teacher. Now he told his followers that they would grow spiritually merely by looking at him, so once a day he drove round the city and waved to his followers from his Rolls Royce. Hugh left the commune in 1982. Sheela was arrested in 1985 on charges of attempted murder. In 1987 Bhagwan was expelled from America and returned to his humble roots in India.

It's sad, really. Though I would never have considered becoming a Baggie, his teachings were profound. Things collapsed so fast. The lack of humility was the seed. Bhagwan could have had a more positive effect on the world if he had remained more modest. Even after his death in 1990 he still has believers who follow his teachings. I hope they are able to accept the good and forget the bad.

This documentary was made in Switzerland, where Hugh and Sheela both live today. Although made in English, until now the film has only been released in Germany. I hope this will change soon, since it's a film worth watching everywhere, especially in America.

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