Book Review

The Golden Guru, by James S. Gordon, MD

This book is out of print, but I recommend it if you can get your hands on a secondhand or library copy. I’ve compared notes on it with 2 of our contributing authors, whose interpretations differ. One regards the book as objectively done and informative. The other sees it as a commitment to mystical elements of the New Age theosophist movements and mystical psychology.

Its importance? It is first and obviously a record of one of the more remarkable sociopolitical episodes in Oregon history, if not that of the whole United States. I wanted to read the book since I heard that the author is the one and same psychiatrist James Gordon, MD, of Georgetown University School of Medicine, organizer of an annual convention on “alternative” medicine in cancer and chairman of the Clinton-appointed White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy. Because it is out of print and my local library did not list it, I ordered a used copy on the Internet.

I expected to read a testimonial to the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Indian guru of the 1970s and 1980s who created the infamous settlement in Antelope, Oregon. “Rancho Rajneesh” and its sometime thousands of faithful inhabitants disintegrated amid charges and countercharges of cultism; political and sexual anarchy; a paranoid drift into militarist fascism; poisonings and attempted murder; and a near calamitous, incipient Jonestown . . . or an armed confrontation with the townspeople of Antelope and eastern Oregon. That is quite a bundle of charges.

But this is not only a testimonial. Rajneesh and his equally infamous right-hand woman and convicted attempted murderess, Sheela, were organizers of plots against the local populace as well as against disfavored members of their own staff. Gordon chronicles in detail the generation and dissolution of the Oregon ranch community, and his own initial involvement and eventual disaffection. Gordon does describe all this in detail.

But I found myself reading and understanding on several different levels. First, Gordon visited Rajneeshpuram, the ashram, in India as an investigator of religions” following a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) fellowship in which he studied cults such as Jim Jones’s but which Gordon came to recognize as “new religions.” Later he had a contract as a reporter for Penthouse magazine. So on the first level, The Golden Guru is an academic, then journalistic chronicle of the rise and fall of a cult, called recently by the euphemism “new religion.” The similarities and differences of Gordon’s two roles merge and separate—they do not become defined by a specific set of attitudes and approaches. At any rate, The Golden Guru began as an attempt at objective reportage of the affair.

Second, Gordon describes his views of Rajneesh the man. Gordon is no doubt at the same time a searcher and a seeker, sequentially reverent and disillusioned; Rajneesh rises and falls. Gordon regards him as an insightful philosophical-religious leader or a bright and manipulative charlatan—or both.

Third, Gordon sketched anecdotal descriptions of the followers (sannyasins) and their submission to Rajneesh, their reactions to Rajneesh, and to one another. Gordon presents us with what was obvious to him, but obscure to readers: Why would thousands of successful people give up savings, homes, and material comforts and stay with a stark community led by one man who demanded full and exclusive loyalty?

Fourth was Gordon’s personal odyssey and development over the 6 or so years of his involvement from 1979 to 1984–85. The book was published in 1989, so his recall and reactions may have been more fresh than stale and modified. Despite his experience’s currency, I began to notice some matters not being included. (One can often learn as much about an author or historical account by what is not stated as by what is.) Part of the suspense and attraction of the book was the expectation that certain answers would be coming after a few more page turns. But I was disappointed.

In regard to understanding the Bhagwan’s behavior, Gordon leaves out answers to these questions. Was Rajneesh an insightful, mystical Eastern philosopher who held followers through force of attraction of his philosophical insights and imaginative use of Western psychology and group dynamics? Or was he a powerhungry charlatan who mastered early the ability to quote famous authorities at the right time, paradoxical, zenlike quips, giving only the appearance of erudition? Was not he really using his talents for his own power trip? Gordon seems stumped by these questions until late in the book, when he gingerly concludes the latter, but still with a tip of the hat to the former. Gordon also believes Rajneesh’s erratic behavior was due to psychotropic drugs. Readers may get a better handle on what Gordon misses or doesn’t say. As a psychiatrist, his observations should have been keener and his conclusions firmer.

I was troubled by Gordon’s incomplete analysis of Rajneesh’s relationship to his dominatrix-assistant, Sheela, especially in the antagonistic moves against Antelope’s permanent residents. For some time Rajneesh seems to have deputized her to carry out outrageous orders—or to make them up herself. Then, suddenly, he turned on her, fired her, and exiled her. Gordon leads us to conclude that Sheela held power over Rajneesh by what she knew, then fell from grace when he got even more on her. But Gordon seemed not to consider seriously the more subtle but realistic possibility that Rajneesh was psychologically dominated by her. It makes more sense that he yielded influence and abdicated the troublesome responsibility of acting sensibly in civic matters.

Gordon acknowledged that Sheela acted from a strong power base, having damning material on him. Not until much later, after indictments were being drawn, did Rajneesh reject and fire her—when it was safer to do so. Gordon sees this part of the string, but was still baffled by Rajneesh’s not stopping Sheela months or years earlier, when she was threatening county officials, contaminating the water supply, and threatening residents with physical harm. Psychological influences, unquestioning belief, and conspiratorial paranoid collusion, it seems to me, are best explained by cult behavior. But psychiatrist Gordon, who had become a follower and advocate years before, viewed these situations through a lens clouded by his own sympathies. Herein lies the fatal flaw of the book.

As the narrative progresses, one finally gets a handle on “where the author is coming from.” First of all, his claim to be an objective reporter does not wash. He had already attended Bhagwan groups, and early on states he was already doing the “Dynamic,” a series of mediations and exercises he does not describe, but which include wild, uninhibited dancing, that are part of the Rajneesh community of rituals. Although disillusioned with the Bhagwan, he continued to believe that a higher state of consciousness awaits those who seek and who can free themselves from bonds of social stricture. Throughout the book he lauds the subjective experience of the Dynamic, the responses to the chants, the music, the rhythms, the swaying, and the achievement of a trance state or “altered state of consciousness.”

One is left wondering emptily what the experience was like, how it affected his daily life, and whether it colored what he saw. Gordon’s attraction and allegiance to the Dynamic and Rajneesh’s revolutionary, anarchic ideology remained unchanged through the whole period of his study and reportage. One also wonders what officials at the NIMH had in mind to fund for years an investigator of a sect of which the investigator was already a part, or at least partial toward. The funding apparently supported principles of modern ethnography—participatory anthropology—a recent and unfortunately persistent fad in sociology and anthropology in which the investigator enters into the emotional states and experiences of the system under study instead of trying to describe it objectively from outside (as in structural anthropology). It was also a time of exploratory New Ageism at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which also sponsored conferences of qigong, ESP, and other “revolutionary science,” all of which were precursors to today’s fascinoma—the “alternative” medicine movement.

Straight thinkers are left wondering also, Who are the people in the NIH who waft thousands to millions of public dollars over such projects? Are they still there? Do they still believe that something new and wonderful comes with New Ageism? Do they really think they are promoting the science of the mind and brain? How did such thinking gain prominence in the top scientific institutions of the United States?

Gordon’s emotional attachments surely delayed his disillusionment with the Bhagwan. It was late and came hard. Early on he shared with the sannyasins the attraction, attachment, and force of Rajneesh’s intellect and what they describe as his love. When Gordon lined up on the rancho’s street to watch the Bhagwan’s daily Rolls-Royce drive-by, he became trancelike and swayed with the others. Later, he describes how the sannyasins were influenced by Sheela and some others in the leadership, describing their excesses and paranoia. Finally, he describes the rejection and expulsion of people asking rational questions, and the setting up of a virtually fascist community.

But even then Gordon maintained his affection for the ideology. He fondly describes the deconstruction of obedience to social and family constructions and mores, and the giving up of personal identities as precedents to creation of the new person and a new society. Nowhere does he reject that ideology. It is utopian, revolutionary, and anarchic. He implies throughout that deconstruction of society may be a positive social force, that change may be a good in itself. He makes no effort to describe what might be good, enriching, stabilizing, and maturing in a standard family or in a stable society. The Rosenman study at Harvard on the compliance of ordinary individuals with orders to hurt others and Zimbardo’s Stanford “prisoner and guard” study had long since been reported, but Gordon seems still befuddled by the gullibility of sannyasins and their rationalization of the Bhagwan’s erratic and psychopathic behavior. Gordon expresses little reference to or understanding of the basic biological imperatives of human behavior—that fascistic and sadistic potential exists in most of us—and that the function of societal structure is to mold and control this side of personality and behavior.

In a way, the book is a testament to Gordon’s personal and particular development, and insight into the political casuistry of one of North America’s most influential physicians. Look inward for experience, follow ideological radical leaders, forget all those attempts at objectivity—that is what you demand of your critics. And, don’t forget, society, with its inhibitions and regulations, be damned. Society is not discussed except as something repressive, to be derided, to be changed— revolutionarily if necessary, by “our” select enlightened few. That is the problem with this book.

He structured the book as a semi-epic, with flawed characters, a sense of crescendo action, and denouement of a morality play. The missing parts spread unevenly over the story, leaving a sense of resolution blurred. There is no comfort in Gordon’s parallax revelations, in his confused sense of right and wrong, of risk and reward. On the plus side, Gordon is a good writer, choosing words and phrases creatively. It is a good read.

Gordon wrote The Golden Guru only 10 years ago, and he has not publicly stated any change in his philosophies, perceptions of his adventures with Rajneesh, or the radical medical politics of others he has followed such, as R. D. Laing. He is now calling for revolutionary changes in medicine in his last two books, Manifesto for a New Medicine (with a title like that, can the underlying agenda be missed?) and Alternative Cancer Care.

He chairs an annual conference sponsored by Georgetown University and University of Texas at which influential professionals attempt to “make nice” with radical medical politics and scientific revisionism. Organizations that have boarded his train include the NIH and the American Cancer Society, which disbanded its committee on quackery several years ago. Gordon is a past member of the advisory council for the Office of Alternative Medicine, and is chairman of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy.

Anyone feeling drawn toward or neutral about the “alternative” medicine movement as a mechanism for change would best read this book, and become aware of the thinking and perceptions behind it and what it implies for our future.