My mom left me twice to go live in an ashram. Now, as an adult, I am thankful she never took me with her.

Yahoo News/February 14, 2022

By Ronit Plank

To this day, if someone says ashram, I get the shivers. When I was 6 years old, my mother left for the one her guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh created in Pune, India, and when I was 12, she left again for Rajneeshpuram, his ashram in Oregon.

She, like his other sannyasins or followers, donned sunset-colored clothing and a black-beaded necklace around her neck, with a photo of his face dangling from the end. What I didn't know until I was grown and had children of my own is that he was also known as the "sex guru". Bhagwan espoused sex as the first step to "superconsciousness" and encouraged his sannyasins to embrace a celebratory, free-love kind of lifestyle.

My mother was on a spiritual journey and went to the ashrams with an urgency to improve herself, to become a better person and a more evolved parent, she explained to me later. She didn't want to suffer or be in pain anymore.

When I was grown and had children of my own she told me that "Bhagwan taught that children were obstacles to enlightenment." My heart stopped as all of the dots connected. It must have been so much easier to quit being a parent when your spiritual leader recommended it.

Children needed to be avoided

By the mid to late 1970s, about six thousand sannyasins — mostly Westerners — lived and worked on and around his six-acre ashram in Pune. He lectured every day, and sannyasins were tasked with whatever jobs, menial or otherwise, needed doing. Sannyasins took part in therapy groups where, in the early days of the ashram, sex and violence were documented to have been used to help followers reach "breakthroughs" on their paths to awareness.

Incredibly, given the reports of violence and sexual assault that eventually came out about life in the Pune ashram, my mother doesn't recall any of that in the therapy groups and workshops she participated in. It may be that she arrived in Pune after those methods were discontinued.

Most crucially to my story, and so many others whose parents followed him, Bhagwan felt children were to be avoided whenever possible as they made spiritual growth difficult to attain. In fact, he encouraged sterilization and vasectomies for sannyasins. The object of the game was to unencumber yourself so you could become the person you were meant to be.

Some children did live at Rajneeshpuram, but they weren't looked after much. While their parents swapped partners, participated in meditation sessions, worked on the ashram, and lined up along a one-lane road waiting for the moment when Bhagwan would drive by in one of his ninety-six Rolls Royces, hoping for a glimpse of their master, kids fended for themselves, roamed the property, and were housed separately from their parents.

Eventually, the reality of the ashram came out

Disturbing news from the ashram eventually made headlines, like the considerable arsenal of automatic weapons on the property, poisonings, and how its inner circle was responsible for the largest bioterror attack on US soil.

But there was also abject child neglect, and sexualization and grooming of children by adults. Stories of vulnerable ashram children who were mostly unsupervised have been circulating for years: children dressed improperly for the elements, sustaining serious injuries, modeling sexual behavior on the adults they saw around them, girls as young as 11-year-old in "relationships" with grown men.

Ashram life requires members to eschew their autonomy and personal boundaries, which is a dangerous blueprint for children who rely on responsible caregivers to protect them as they develop healthy boundaries and their senses of self. Add promiscuity and lack of supervision to the mix and you get nothing but trouble for children. Kids were the opposite of taken care of; the opposite of safe.

I've spoken to former sannyasins who lived on Rajneeshpuram, and they told me I was lucky my mother didn't take me to the ashram, that I was better off than the kids they saw growing up there. As much as I missed my mother, as much as her leaving twice impacted my whole life, at least I wasn't left to fend for myself or be sexually abused. I think about those kids and wonder how they are now. I hope they were able to reclaim some of what adults stole from them; I hope they found their way to safety.

This essay is partially excerpted from Ronit Plank's memoir "When She Comes Back"

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