No one country can claim to have a monopoly of saints, but when it comes to “holy men” there is no doubting that India has cornered the market.
Gurus, Swamis, babas, Maharishis, yogis or Mahatmas – our modern age has seen an apparently endless flow of sweetly smiling, bearded figures arriving on these shores, their hands clasped as if in prayer, their colourful robes flowing above their sandalled feet.
And those “holy men” who have journeyed westward have always been guaranteed a respectful audience in this country: intelligent, well-educated men and women looking for a religion that promises serenity without the burdensome demands of orthodox beliefs.
Such a man was Major General JFC Fuller, an expert on tank warfare and a prominent member of the British Union of Fascists, who played a major role in the introduction of yoga to Britain in the 1930s. “Stop thinking,” the general urged – “and get beyond or behind consciousness and you will discover the meaning of Reality in superconsciousness.”
Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, who record these details in their book The Long Weekend, advise: “The advantage of yoga over the Catholic Church, for men at least, was that not only did it forbid the devotee to think, but he remained his own confessor, Pope and deity.”
Many of the “holy men” were bona fide Hindu teachers, such as the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, adopted by the Beatles in the 1960s as their spiritual adviser. But given the gullibility of their disciples and their willingness to part with often large sums of money, it is not surprising that the ranks of the “holy men” included more than their fair share of charlatans and conmen.
Of these the most successful was undoubtedly the notorious Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose extraordinary story has recently been told in impressive detail in the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country.
The charismatic Bhagwan hit on the simple and very profitable idea of offering his followers a “religion”, combining bogus mysticism with promiscuous sex, thereby gaining for himself a huge worldwide following. The Rajneeshis bought up a huge tract of Oregon and, to the dismay of the local inhabitants, took over the community, establishing a state within a state complete with its own armed militia.
Eventually the US authorities were forced to intervene and Bhagwan retreated to Poona in his native India in order to escape prosecution. And to prove that he had lost none of his power to attract important and influential followers, he welcomed to his ashram the cleverest, wittiest man in England, the Times columnist Bernard Levin.
In words that would have struck a chord with Maj Gen Fuller, Levin subsequently poured out his rapturous feelings for Bhagwan in the Times: “What he says is couched in language of great power and fluency … Rajneesh is not trying to purvey information but a truth that bypasses conscious thought and all that belongs to it; apart from the effect and persuasiveness of his words, the torrent that is released into the surrounding atmosphere as he speaks, there is and remains with me the profound meaning of what he was saying.”
Coming from a man who had spent most of his life exposing hypocrisy and ridiculing the pretensions of politicians and preachers, these sentiments destroyed Levin’s reputation overnight, dealing him a blow from which he never recovered.
Needless to say, Private Eye (under my editorship) made merciless fun of him (this was perhaps unfair as in the past Levin had been a keen supporter of the Eye).
I only met Levin once after that, when invited to lunch by the wealthy former Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt at his St John’s Wood residence. Levin, a fellow guest, spent most of the lunch exchanging high-flown compliments with our host, praising his choice of fine wines and seconding his low opinion of trade unions.
When the dishes had been cleared away, Wyatt lit up a fat cigar and Levin turned on me, launching into a tirade of abuse, accusing me of lying, libelling and corruption of every kind. I was taken aback by his ferocity and, quickly realising that there was no point trying to argue with him, got up, made my excuses and left. Thinking about it later, it occurred to me that I had been invited by Wyatt specifically in order to allow his friend to attack me.
Levin’s conversion to Rajneesh, which lay at the root of his assault, was no sudden leap in the dark. It came as the result of what he called his “growing awareness that an alternative reality lies elsewhere”. It was the feeling that had caused him at one time to give up his daily journalism and spend several months in retreat, looking for an answer.
His long search for enlightenment, which ended so disastrously in Poona, always made me think of Evelyn Waugh’s vision of the pagan soul as “a bird fluttering about in the gloom, beating against the windows, when all the time the doors are open to the air and sun”.