The Only Life – Osho, Laxmi and the inner Extinction Rebellion
Strung like pearls along the thread on one woman’s extraordinary life are insights into the fundamental questions of our age: what can bring us early twenty-first century humans, enmeshed in destruction of our planetary home, in wars and strife, back to an understanding of our inter-connectedness with the whole? What can cure us of the sickness within that causes us such anguish? How, ultimately, can each us of us embrace our inevitable deaths, without fear and in the knowledge that we have lived our short lives to the fullest?
Maxwell, like any the historian, uses the past to illuminate the present and, in his case at least, a future that he fears for his grandchildren. But he is no dry intellectual; for half his long life, like the subject he writes about, he has walked the path of devotion – the ‘all-but vanished land’ in his memorable words – and been the disciple of a living Master, Osho.
Master, guru, roshi, pir – the words seem to come from a place Maxwell aptly categorizes as “contaminated by religious extremism”. Cults, brainwashing, blind obedience – is there any translation acceptable to the majority who have no direct experience of such a person without these implications? Disciple still conjures images of robes and sandals, not exactly appropriate gear for a life in the biotech/computer age, unless you fancy half-starving in a field while your crops fail because of global warming. And meditation – still blurred to our vision by the slur of navel-gazing and by its latest, well-heeled incarnation as mindfulness. Maxwell’s long years with his Master Osho allow him to explode these myths surrounding the Master-disciple relationship and the nature of consciousness and to present the truth of them as uniquely relevant to our doom-laden present.
These are the pearls that emerge slowly throughout the book as a well-born Indian woman, from a comfortable business family of nineteen-sixties Bombay – who locks herself in a room as a young girl to force her family to allow her to go to school; who calls her uncle’s bluff when he threatens suicide unless she drops her opposition and agrees to get married – becomes the leading disciple of a controversial Master, his right hand woman running his notorious ‘free love’ ashram, before falling from grace and being expelled from his community.
They are expressed in Laxmi’s own words, as well as in relevant quotes of Osho’s and in Maxwell’s concise and transparent reflections on his own experiences as disciple and meditator. He describes himself as a finger, pointing at Laxmi, who’s finger points in turn at Osho, who’s own finger points at the moon. “Don’t’ suck my finger, look where it is pointing” as the zen saying has it, and we thereby arrive at the only fruitful translation into words of the wordless truth of our existence that Osho himself recognized by the end of his life: zen.
For as we read of the gradual deepening of Laxmi’s devotion to her Master, we discover with her that the whole master-disciple relationship is an ever-changing, paradox-ridden zen koan, a riddle that can’t be solved by thinking it out, and that brings you back to the riddle that is yourself. Early on Laxmi has out of body experiences in Osho’s presence but is told that they are mere distractions; as a result of her own sartorial choices he enforces the wearing of orange clothes and a locket with his portrait as a condition on all who wish to be accepted as disciple; once she is in a unique position of power in his ashram she is held up as a paragon of surrender (“Whatever she says just do it, right or wrong”) by a Master who later explains “Even I am fallible” and “You have to consciously remain the master in every situation, whether you obey or disobey”.
Ultimately the finger points at the moon, and the perceptive reader will note that none of this Eastern mysticism has so far penetrated to the heart of those fundamental questions outlined above. Nor do the particulars of happenings half a century ago, in the unique setting of a small city on the Deccan plateau, attended by at most a handful of tens of thousands of people, seem of obvious relevance to addressing them today.
Maxwell’s underlying purpose throughout his telling of Laxmi’s story is to insist that they most urgently do. The moon towards which Osho, for all his admitted and celebrated inconsistencies, consistently pointed and towards which Maxwell and Laxmi follow his gaze, is our true ‘Buddha nature’. Our minds or egos (habitual patterns of thought) blind us to it; and it is the technique of meditation that leads to its realization and is the sole antidote to our World’s troubles. Maxwell brilliantly sums up how it is our unconsciousness, our “cellar full of toxic, rusting junk” that lies at the root of our suffering and our destructiveness. Laxmi was acutely aware of this early in her life and it was the intensity of her frustration at her sense of life as a meaningless struggle that lead her to Osho. “The master is awakened and he sees you are asleep. He says, ‘I am not here to erase your individuality, I am here to erase your ego, the unreal you, the false you…….when you surrender to the master….it is your surrender that transforms you. He does nothing yet you are transformed”.
Laxmi’s transformation begins. “Who am I” burns in her for weeks after one of her out of body experiences. Soon after she becomes someone who for the rest of her life only refers to herself in the third person. “Love has happened” she tells her mother after returning from an early meeting Osho. “Laxmi is in the driving seat. Now this mind purrs along according to traffic conditions….she feels a part of the whole, sometimes. Not all the time”, she tells her sister.
How many of us can say as much as that? We walk on paths we don’t truly see because our minds are careening around regrets for the past or anxieties for the future; our emotions burst uncontrollably out of us to our shame; our constant search for oblivion in the form of drugs or acquisition masks our terror at our mortality. Our lives are in Maxwell’s words “a dream world of fear and desire, attachment and mistrust, frenzy and inertia”. Laxmi’s life illustrates the way out of the circles in which we are caught. And disappointingly for believers in half-day mindfulness seminars at corporate headquarters, the way out costs.
“Laxmi is not concerned with enlightenment,” Laxmi tells a fellow-disciple, “her play is His work”. While her personal path of meditation, devotion, was very much of its time and place, under an Eastern sky and in the presence of a living Master steeped in the traditions of the East, the lifting of the veil of her ego, the unreal Laxmi, under what she chose to see as blows from her Master’s zen stick, follows a pattern with universal relevance.
From being “powerful, high spirited, devoted and cherished’ she falls to a place of “indignity and exclusion”. Well, who hasn’t been there, even if not quite so melodramatically put? And who of us hasn’t found blame the knee-jerk response? Life has a way of disappointing our expectations, other people have a nasty habit of not behaving according to plan. Laxmi could have blamed herself for disobeying her Master (even though she did this ultimately out of concern for his wellbeing); she could have blamed the members of the ‘palace coup’ that ousted her; or Osho for being so infuriatingly inconsistent, so apparently oblivious to the machinations around him, so dangerously unconcerned about the threats to his fragile health posed by those determined to manipulate him or indeed blindly obey him.
Instead she allowed her ego to be cracked open and glimpses of her true nature to shine through. It is the extraordinary strength of her love for him, even when banished from his presence that allowed her to respond with gratitude and acceptance. Years later she told a friend who was insisting that Laxmi deserved better treatment from her fellows: “Laxmi needs no recognition. She’s just a body and a mind who was lucky to meet a rare and beautiful being.” Calling on Osho’s name is enough to give her the strength to endure a harrowing and physically violent interview by US Immigration officials and to leave it with an eruption of joy “His grace! His play! What a lot Laxmi has to learn!”
The intensity of such devotion to her Master is echoed in our modern ‘Western’ cultures only by the intensity with which romantic love and marriage are pursued as idealized goals. And in these secularized versions of devotion the opportunities are many for transcending ego, clearing out the cellar and realizing that kindness and love are the only ultimately satisfying responses to the world outside our skin.
So far so good but “Begin with meditation and end in love”, Osho tells his disciples. Perhaps it was one of his famous tongue-in-cheek remarks, or perhaps he contradicted himself next day but Laxmi, like most of us, found love first. It was her great fortune that the object of her love was able to point her towards meditation. Osho invented a dozen new techniques and revitalized a hundred traditional others to offer his disciples and the Future a palette from which to choose. For those of us without an easily available master to remind and inspire us, we have no recourse except to a technique of meditation that works for us.. For me the essential message of Laxmi’s life and of this book, is that as many of us as possible recognize that we have no option, if we wish to avoid global suicide, but to choose one and prioritize it over the repetitive stream of thoughts that passes for our everyday consciousness. This is the true inner Extinction rebellion.