Rajneesh & Tantra: A History

While Rajneesh wrote about many things during his life, he is best known for his modern transformation of the Asian tradition of Tantra.

By Hugh B. Urban


September 2016

tantra

Rajneesh transformed traditional Tantra by taking the preexisting sexual symbolism and making it central and "sexy."

Photo by Fotolia/PrintingSociety

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Zorba the Buddha: Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement (University of California Press, 2016) by Hugh B. Urban is the first comprehensive study of the life, teachings, and following of controversial Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho. This excerpt from chapter 3 "From Sex to Superconsciousness: Sexuality, Tantra, and Liberation in 1970s India" focuses on the way Rajneesh is remembered in western culture, as a "sex guru."

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

"The days of Tantra are coming. Sooner or later Tantra is going to explode for the first time on the masses, because for the first time the time is ripe — ripe to take sex naturally. It is possible that explosion may come from the West, because Freud, Jung, Reich, they have prepared the background […] They have made the basic ground for Tantra to evolve. Western psychology has come to a conclusion that the basic human disease is somewhere around sex, the basic insanity of man is sex-oriented. So unless this sex orientation is dissolved, man cannot be natural, normal." 

— Osho, The Book of Secrets

"The idea of sexual liberation as integral to larger social and political liberation was an underlying theme in radical and romantic theories since the early nineteenth century and became central to both the counterculture and New Left movements of the 1970s."

— Dennis Altman, Global Sex

Most people who remember Rajneesh today probably remember him primarily as the “sex guru.” Even Lonely Planet — the most widely used guidebook for travel in India — still has a special insert in the chapter on Pune devoted to the “Guru of Sex” and his sensuous compound in the upscale neighborhood of Koregaon Park. Rajneesh was also a primary inspiration for John Updike’s 1988 novel S., Mike Myers’s 2008 film, “The Love Guru,” and various other fictional accounts of dubious mystics and philandering gurus.

Rajneesh himself would later complain that this focus on the sexual content of his teachings was exaggerated and that he had only really published one book on the topic (From Sex to Superconsciousness, based on lectures from 1968). However, while it is partly true that the emphasis on the sexual nature of Rajneesh’s teachings is exaggerated, it is also true that sexual themes run throughout his lectures from the late 1960s onward. They have also been consistently repackaged and reprinted by the current Osho presses in books and DVDs such as Sex Matters (2003), The Science of Tantra (2010), Tantra: The Way of Acceptance (2011), and Tantric Transformation: When Love Meets Meditation (2012). Following Freud and post-Freudians such as Wilhelm Reich — one of his favorite authors — Rajneesh stated repeatedly that sexuality is “the most powerful human instinct,” the most driving force in human nature, and the source of both our worst neuroses and our most sublime spiritual experiences: “Sex is so important, because the whole nature insists on it; otherwise man could not continue to be. If it were voluntary there would be no one left on earth. Sex is so obsessive, so compelling, the sex drive is so intense, because the whole of nature is for it.” In many ways, Rajneesh’s teachings on sexuality are a hybrid of older Indian views of kama (desire, pleasure, sensuality) and post-Freudian psychoanalysis.

Even more importantly, Rajneesh was arguably the most significant figure in the modern transformation of the Asian tradition of Tantra in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. An extremely complex body of texts and traditions that spread throughout the Hindu and Buddhist communities from roughly the sixth century onward, Tantra does involve the use of sexual symbolism and in some cases sexual practices as a means to spiritual liberation and worldly empowerment. However, in its traditional forms, these sexual elements are neither central nor even particularly “sexy” — at least not in the contemporary sense of sensual pleasure or optimal orgasm. And yet, since the 1960s, and particularly in the United States, Tantra has come to be defined primarily as “spiritual sex,” or the use of sexual orgasm as a form of both intense physical fulfillment and spiritual transcendence.

With his popular new ideal of “Neo-Tantra” and his growing audience of American and European sannyasins, Rajneesh was one of the most important figures in this transformation. As one contemporary Neo-Tantric author, Nik Douglas, put it, “Rajneesh offered everything Westerners imagined Tantra to be: a free love cult promising enlightenment, an exciting radical community, and the opportunity to rise up in the hierarchy. […] Rajneesh slipped comfortably into the role of ‘Tantra Messiah.’ […]  Largely because of Rajneesh, Tantra reemerged as a New Age Cult in the 1970s and 1980s.” Just as Rajneesh had given completely new meanings to the words “sannyasin,” “meditation,” “ashram,” and even “religion” itself, so too, he transformed the South Asian concept of Tantra into the path of “spiritual sexualogy” that has become so widely popularized in America today. In the wake of Rajneesh’s teachings, virtually all forms of “Western Tantra” have identified Tantra with its (originally limited) sexual component and defined it as a kind of “nookie nirvana,” as Cosmopolitan magazine described it.  As such, Tantra has become one of the most striking examples of our ongoing fascination with the “exotic Orient” and our continuing tendency to imagine India as the realm of otherworldly mysticism, unrestrained eroticism, and radical otherness.

In this sense, Rajneesh and his early movement in Pune were a key reflection and profound embodiment of the larger cultural, political, and sexual changes taking place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Emerging at the height of the sexual revolution and attracting huge numbers of foreign devotees, the early Rajneesh movement was a crucial node both in the importation of the Western counterculture to India and in the exportation of Indian spirituality to all points west. Rajneesh’s open attitudes toward sexuality meshed perfectly with the sexual revolution in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe, and in turn, American and European ideas of free love radically transformed the perception of Indian traditions such as Tantra. Rajneesh’s hybrid teaching of “Neo-Tantra” has been praised by admirers as the best of both worlds and denounced by critics as the worst of both worlds, but no one can deny that it dramatically changed the popular perception of Tantra in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Finally, this unique brand, Neo-Tantra, was also a central part of the larger Rajneesh community as it grew and thrived during the 1970s in India and even more so as it spread to the United States in the 1980s. For Rajneesh, Tantra really embodied his paradoxical ideal of a “religionless religion,” or a spiritual path based on the rejection of all established institutions and aimed at the realization of divinity in and through the body itself. As he understood it, “Tantra is the religion of the body.” As such, Rajneesh’s version of Neo-Tantra would have a huge and lasting influence on virtually all forms of New Age spirituality and American popular culture, particularly what Jeffrey Kripal calls the “American religion of no religion.” However, we will see that the new community that Rajneesh created in Pune also contained its own internal tensions and contradictions; side by side with the ideals of total sexual liberation and social freedom were seemingly quite “un-liberatory” practices, such as a growing authoritarianism, paranoia, disciplinary control, and violence.


Reprinted with permission from Zorba the Buddha: Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement by Hugh B. Urban and published by University of California Press, 2016.