Bhagwan and the boy

16th January 2004 at 00:00
Tim Guest grew up with hundreds of parents.From the age of six he lived in communes based on the teachings of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, where he and his mother were encouraged to surrender their attachments as part of the Bhagwan's worldwide "family". For children, this meant largely unsupervised freedom, alongside the adults' daily programme of chanting and meditation. But it also brought anxiety and feelings of displacement. Tim, given the Sanskrit name Yogesh, lived in India, the US, Germany, and the Medina commune in Suffolk. In this extract from his memoir, My Life in Orange, he recalls his child's-eye view of a movement that combined Eastern mysticism, therapy and sexual freedom with an alternative approach to education

In the last issue of the Rajneesh Buddhafield European Newsletter, April 1982, there is an interview with Prakash, the first Medina schoolteacher.

"I look at these kids and the freedom they have," he says. "It's so beautiful. It takes me back to how closeted and imprisoned I was as a child. Today they were having sex education class, and they were really embarrassed about it. I just talked to them about my sexuality, and they were there, open and listening.

"I really love being with kids. Part of it is that I grew up really quickly and missed out on that childish stage, and the kids give me that space where I can be a child again."

To teach 30 kids, they needed to get the school registered with Her Majesty's Schools Inspectorate. My mother dug out her educational psychologist PhD certificate, and one morning Prakash told us we needed to be extra well behaved and to stay in the schoolrooms today. The inspectors were coming. After that things were more organised; it seemed harder to just slip off and do your own thing. Two of the older kids went to outside schools, where they occasionally got beaten up - but they also had Saturdays off.

In May 1983, Her Majesty's Inspectors came to examine the Medina school.

After some deliberation they decided it was a boarding school; they wrote recommending certain changes. Ma Satayam, who ran the school, wrote to the Department of Education and Science pointing out that many of the children's parents lived on the property. On December 30, 1983 a letter arrived conceding the point, and the registration of the Medina Rajneesh school was confirmed. In the first issue of The Rajneesh Times, Ma Anand Poonam spoke with glee about how different Medina was to "preconceived notions". "We do not fit into existing concepts because we are something unique, individual. This makes things a bit difficult for bureaucrats."

Bhagwan's attitude to the practicalities of schooling was simple: teach the important subjects, English and maths. On no account, he said, were we to be taught the useless subjects, especially politics or history - a fact which had to be hidden from the inspectors. For the rest of the time, Bhagwan said, the children should be allowed to play and to learn from each other and the adults around them. ("The curriculum," the RBEN article explains, "is a natural balance between the traditional three Rs: Riting, Reading and Rithmetic, and Bhagwan's three Ls: Life, Love and Laughter.") His attitude to education in general was more sophisticated; he said it should encompass not just facts and knowledge but also life. A good education, he said, should give a solid grounding in wisdom and in love.

"The educational system should teach you the art of living," Bhagwan once declared. "It should teach you the art of loving, it should teach you the art of meditation, it should teach you finally the art of dying gloriously."

The policy of the Medina school, explained to all the kids on the day they arrived, was that, except for the essential skills, we were never to be forced to learn anything. English and mathematics were compulsory; all other lessons were optional. If we wished, we could spend the other school hours in other departments: in the design studio, helping with the Letraset; in the garage, fixing cars; in the computer offices, next to the high shelves packed with books and tapes, trying to make concentric circles on the screen look like a spaceship's hyper-drive; or - because no one followed us up to check - sliding in our socks along the freshly buffed first-floor landing of the main house. I tried all these things. In practice, though, I almost always took myself away to the same place: behind the sofa on the landing halfway up the stairs in the main hall of the main house.

I would run across the gravel up to the main house, through the back door, into the dark green of the corridors lined with green glazed tiles (the cement between the tiles placed at the perfect width for spinning wheels of a Matchbox car as you ran). Just inside the door on the left was the Medina switchboard. Sometimes I hung out in the doorway, watching whoever was on switchboard duty - an adult, or sometimes an older kid - put calls through with the flip of a switch. Usually I dropped into the kitchens, further along the corridor, to make myself a Marmite sandwich. I couldn't cut the bread straight so I always made the slices four inches thick just in case, cutting the bread as fast as I could - "Hey, Speedy Gonzalez," someone would shout to me over the Eurythmics or the Pointer Sisters. "Where you going? That another doorstop sandwich you got there? You gonna keep doors open with that?" Then I'd run up to the stairs in the main hall. Halfway up the carpeted stairs, making sure no one was looking, I'd swing over the back of the sofa with my book in one hand and the doorstop sandwich in the other. There, in the gap between the sofa and the bay window, I'd settle for the rest of the day. I heard people talking as they walked past, but no one ever looked over the back of that sofa to find out I was there. I read Willard Price adventure books, science fiction novels, short stories: I spent half my time in tropical countries, and the other half on Mars.

Because the school hours at Medina were never strictly observed, sometimes our tuition consisted of playing stick-in-the-mud on the front lawn or British bulldog out on the grass in front of the kids' hut. I quickly discovered that you could get away with saying you were going to fetch something and spending the rest of the day playing on the upper floors of the main house, or deep in the forest, or out on the front lawn. The other kids, too, began to navigate their way around this new landscape, on their own, or in groups of three or four: across the lawns, between the trees, along the gravel paths, through the rooms and corridors of the main house, and out into the sun. Our parents were saving the world, but saving the world took time. While they danced, rolled their heads, swayed their arms, flailed their malas (necklaces), beat cushions, broke down their social conditioning and set themselves free, we filled our lives as best we could with the things we found around us.

For a while some of the kids tried to find out each other's original names.

Majid's name, it turned out, was "Barnaby Birch", like the silver trees with peeling bark down towards the old lake. He was teased mercilessly by some of the older kids - B-b-b-Barnaby B-b-b-Birch! - until I could see he regretted telling anyone. Some of the other kids, like me, still had their English names. Next in line to be teased; we also agreed that it would be fun to see what names Bhagwan would pick for us. We discussed it, and a few of us decided to write off to get Indian names.

A few weeks later I was slumped on a beanbag in the kids' hut playroom with my legs outstretched, focused on a book and trying not to be distracted by the kids running into each other with huge cushions clasped to their chests, when Sharna handed me a crisp white envelope. I tore it open. The letter was typed on thick, cream paper; Bhagwan's wide signature was scrawled like a rose-garden across the bottom.

Beloved Tim, Here is your new name.

Swami Prem Yogesh (Love) (One of the names of God.) Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

Clutching the envelope in my hand, I ran out of the door and into the sunlight. Tiptoeing across the gravel garages, then on to the grass, I ran down towards Hadiqua'a to tell my mother. There was no one in the hall so I ran in without slowing down, straight on up the carpeted corridor. At my mother's group-room I stepped over the pile of shoes and paused. There was a sign stuck over the door's round window: BELOVED...MOTHERHOOD GROUP IN PROGRESS. PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB.

I pressed my ear against the door. There was the faint sound of sobbing. I stood up on tiptoes to pull back the corner of the sign then pressed my nose against the glass. Rows of women, 20 or so, sat cross-legged or propped up with their arms, looking towards the row of windows with fir trees pushed up tight against the glass.

Under the windows, I recognised my mother. She was sitting out in front of the rest of the group. Another woman, her head bent forward so her long straw-coloured hair hung down on to the carpet, was shaking. My mother - her head still tilted, her face calm - said something; the woman sitting in front nodded her head then shook some more. I stepped back from the door and knocked loudly three times. After a moment I pushed my nose up against the glass and knocked again. Some of the women looked round. I stared at them until they looked back up to the front. I could see my mother look up, then look back down at the crying woman in front of her. I knocked once more, then lowered myself on to my heels and stepped back. I settled into the cavern under the coats piled high on the coat rack to wait for my mother to come. Finally the door opened a crack. My mother slid her head around. "What is it, love?" she said.

I'd had enough of waiting. I sulked. I hid the letter behind my back; I said nothing at all.

Because I spent most of my time outside them, I barely remember the Medina schoolrooms. In September 1982, after the blackboard-eraser incident (a girl had managed to provoke "one loving, non-violent sannyasin teacher" into hurling a blackboard eraser across the classroom. The teacher was moved to the cleaning department), Sujan was put in charge of the school.

I had seen Sujan around. Sometimes he and I met on Sunday mornings in my mother's bed. For the first few months I had also seen him working as a gardener shovelling compost and pushing a wheelbarrow around the Medina grounds. When he was transferred to the school, he taught the older kids' class. I was in the younger class, and I yearned to be promoted to the senior classroom across the hall, until one morning I walked in to have a nose around and I saw what Sujan had written about me on the board: "Mary lent Yogesh a book, and Yogesh lost it."

I didn't trust these teachers. I particularly remember storming out of classrooms; that happened all the time. I remember one teacher took great offence at my tendency to leave the classroom without asking and my refusal to close the door behind me. He used to shout and scream when he got angry, and I'd steel myself in response, then raise my eyebrows and walk out anyway. When I left the room and he didn't shout at all, I'd wait outside the room with my ear cocked. If no one said anything I'd come back a minute later to slam the door as hard as I could. I felt I learned more from reading my books than from the stupid games we played. While they were making pots and drawing with finger-paints and singing "Heads, shoulders, knees and toes", I read books about galaxies and stars, poring over the pictures of constellations and nebulae. All gold is formed in supernovas, I read once; every piece of gold, including my mother's mala rim, was formed long ago in an exploding star. That seems too good to share with anyone.

As the children of the commune, our role was to run free, to be uninhibited, to say yes, to look beautiful, innocent, uncorrupted. For our hair to billow out in the wind, as we ran. But some of us were not always like that.

Brushing my hair, folding my clothes, taking care of myself - all the things I used to do with my mother - now made me feel sad. I began to avoid doing them. Behind the sofa I read Where the Wild Things Are; it seemed a similar transformation was happening to us. The walls faded, a jungle emerged instead from the horizon. Like Max in the book, I grew horns - or the sannyasin equivalent. Sannyasins (followers of Bhagwan) said a great big "Yes" to everything - yes to laughter, yes to singing, yes to work, yes to sharing, yes to surrender. I began to say "No". No one was happy about it. I took off my shoes and ran wild. I stopped turning up in the schoolrooms, or I would turn up and sulk when asked to do things. When the adults said things and I didn't listen, or I lost something that they wanted, they would all say the same thing - "Hellooo? Earth to Yogesh?" - pretending I was an astronaut in orbit, outside the pull of gravity and difficult to reach.

I began to run everywhere on tiptoes. I refused to care for myself. My nails grew long; my hair was unkempt. When I wet the bed, I pretended I hadn't. When I was discovered, I refused to change the sheets. I refused to dance, refused to sing, refused to celebrate, refused to finish what I started; refused to go on a surprise outing because it meant I would have to spend 20p I didn't want to spend. Refused to stop whipping my way systematically through the crowds of daffodils that lined the forest in front of the kids' hut. I refused everyone, not just the adults. I refused to smoke. Refused to play kiss-chase. Refused to spin the bottle. Refused to respect plants. Refused to leave my shoes at the door, refused to leave my mind at the gate. Refused to love everyone unconditionally. Refused to suffer.

My Life in Orange by Tim Guest is published by Granta Books, pound;12.

Copyright Tim Guest 2004


Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, born Mohan Chandra in 1931 in central India, became a professor of philosophy at the University of Jabalpur in 1960. By 1966 he had resigned to become a full-time travelling speaker. He promised disciples (sannyasins): "Surrender to me and I will transform you" and adopted the name Bhagwan ("the blessed one"). He advocated rejection of the past, family and organised religion, surrender to the unknown, "dynamic meditation" and alternative therapies such as encounter groups. His followers wore "the colours of the sun" - orange, red and purple.

His first community, or ashram, in Pune near Bombay, was set up in the mid-1970s; Tim Guest and his mother (who had changed her name from Anne to Vismaya) arrived in February 1981. By December they were at the biggest commune in the "British Buddhafield", at Medina Rajneesh in Suffolk, with more than 400 adults. Tim's father, John, joined them the following year, but left after a few months.

In 1982 the movement had 575 meditation centres in 32 countries; by 1984 there were just 19 worldwide. Tim and Anne spent time in Cologne and at Bhagwan's US base in Antelope, Oregon (pictured), briefly renamed Rajneesh City until some of the sannyasins were charged with embezzlement and attempted murder.

In November 1985, Bhagwan admitted conspiracy to arrange sham marriages and concealing his intent to live in the US, and returned to India with a 10-year suspended sentence. Medina closed and Tim and Anne were reunited in north London (he had been living with his father in California, she in Germany) in time for Tim's last two terms of primary school. A month before Bhagwan died in January 1990, Anne re-met Sujan (Tim's teacher from Medina, now called Martin) and they married two years later.

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