Bhagwans with a brand

The Pioneer
April 15, 2001

Ashok Banker

I first visited Oshoville back in its heyday. This was in the late Seventies. When “Bhagwan” Shree Rajneesh was still very much in occupation and it was called an Ashram. I was in my early teens, and only just growing aware of sex and its pervasive influence on human relationships.

Mind you, I was precocious and well read for my age. In fact, I’d already broken into print with my first poems and even an article or two in local Bombay papers. So I went with a suitably sceptical attitude to the whole visit, prepared to repulse any attempt at brainwashing with rigorous logic and intellectual vigour.

But when I sat on the floor cross-legged and listened to Rajneesh deliver one of his lectures on religion and morality, I was mesmerised. I remember being hugely impressed by his knowledge of comparative theology and the Vedas, as well as his insights into moral philosophy, and his advocacy of the lifting of repressive inhibitions as a route to achieving spiritual liberation.
I told you I was precocious: I could trace every sentence or observation he made to a classical or philosophical text. I also knew that this was a man who had the magical charisma of the Great Speakers. What he said was important and illuminating. But the way he said it was far more fascinating. I was already a media critic in the making, as you can see.
The great natural talent he had for timing, pacing, emphasis, modulation, gesture, expression, could have made him an Amitabh Bachchan if he so desired. In fact, in an alternate reality, Rajneesh might have well have become a movie star or politician. Or the host of a super-successful game show, Kaun Banega Bhagwan?
Recently, on a trip to Pune, I visited the Ashram again. And of course, without Rajneesh, there’s nothing there. Just a lot of foreigners with long hair and flowing robes doing 20 different kinds of meditation and chilling out spiritually.
On the ten-minute ten-rupee guided tour, the other visitors seemed to be very curious to learn all they could about the fabled “free sex and drugs” myth. A Bengali family in particular seemed very disappointed by the absence of any foreigners meditating in the nude or any evidence of drug-induced hallucinations. I felt like telling them that the Seventies were long gone, even in India.
But watching tapes of Osho’s old lectures, I realised that my adolescent impression of the man was perfectly valid. He had a rare charisma. A personality that glowed like a beacon, illuminating the minds of all around him. And a mind that had the ability to cut through the pretensions and pomposity of most pseudo-religious belief and reach the essence.
He was our Amitabh Bachchan of religion. Our Hrithik Roshan of spiritual enlightenment. Our Lata Mangeshkar of New Age reinvention.
And there’s a big market waiting to be tapped by the next Osho. Back then, a spiritual leader like Rajneesh had to wait for people to come physically to him. At best, he could propagate himself and his views through books, audio tapes or video cassettes. All of which have severe limitations in terms of distribution and even exposure.
Today, he can reach out through the Internet. Through television, that big new Eye in the Sky which dominates our lives. Through the print media, so powerful and pervasive in the new millennium. Through the whole network of hype that now exists and didn’t exist back then.
Imagine if an Osho sprung up today. How quickly and easily his charisma could be packaged and marketed to the world. How effectively his personality could be used by shrewd PR experts to win over converts. How successfully his brand equity could be cashed in.
Around the same time that Rajneesh was gathering converts by the bushelful, a young intense actor named Amitabh was laying the foundation stones of his stardom. Zanjeer was released soon after my trip to Pune, and I still remember the new craze over AB. But it still took Amitabh years and many films to achieve superstardom. Compare that to the overnight superstardom of Hrithik Roshan, who had the entire machinery of today’s media to catapult him to fame and success.
And even AB has found a new lease of life and a new level of superstardom thanks to the same media, and his own charismatic personality, rather than through portraying great characters or roles.
The age of Personality has returned. After the “Find Yourself” days of the Seventies, the new mantra of the millennium is “Brand Yourself”. Whether it’s a spiritual guru or a movie star, a pop icon or a literary legend, personal branding is the way of the future. You’re nobody if you’re not filling the media with your presence. Talent is a necessary evil, but great PR is an essential evil.
And did I say that there’s a big spiritual market waiting to be tapped by the next Osho? Silly me. It’s already been done. By Deepak Chopra.

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