“I would only believe in a God who knew how to dance.”
So opined the famously deity-suspicious philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This remained an oft-used saying of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh – the pseudonymous leader of the free-loving Bhagwan movement, the subject of Netflix’s 2018 docuseries Wild Wild Country.
Nietzsche’s quote twins nicely with a longstanding rumour that floats around the edges of drug culture: that Bhagwan’s disciples (also called Rajneeshees, sannyasins or simply Bhagwans) actually introduced MDMA to Ibiza in the mid-80s. From here, the drug supposedly coalesced with the island’s new Balearic sounds, played most famously by DJ Alfredo at the nightclub Amnesia, to sow seeds of many contemporary cultures – from electronic music and festivals to “the sesh” itself. But does the story stand up to scrutiny and did the Bhagwans help the world to dance and get high? I wanted to find out.
But before that, some history: In the 30s and 40s, Ibiza became a nexus of artists, musicians and beatniks escaping the vagaries of European fascism. Californian Vietnam War draft-dodging hippies were added to the melting point and the island became a common stop on the hippie trail. From the mid-70s and into the 80s, the island’s horny freaks and trust fund babies nurtured an embryonic club scene, with legendary venues like Amnesia, Pacha and KU serving a pleasure-seeking crowd.
MDMA, meanwhile, had evolved from still-legal preserve of progressive 70s Californian psychotherapists to the gay nightlife scene in New York, Chicago, and Dallas – the latter sold over-the-counter of the Starck nightclub. It was finally banned by the DEA in 1985, but not before the preeminent producers of ecstasy in America, named the Texas Group, had reportedly churned out two million tables in the weeks preceding the shutdown.
Forward-thinking and wildly hirsute psychiatrists were not unknown amongst the affluent Bhagwan population. Though the movement was officially anti-drugs, some members had allegedly started using MDMA as part of their therapy sessions. Rajneesh himself was said to be a nitrous oxide aficionado, and prominent figures like his second-in-command Sheela and former bodyguard Hugh Milne have claimed that he spiked wealthy sannyasins with MDMA during fundraising interviews.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Photo: Netflix
1985 marks the year Bhagwan’s Oregon headquarters-cum-city, Rajneeshpuram, was shut down amidst accusations of top brass infighting and thoroughly unspiritual conspiracies to commit bioterrorism and murder. By this time, there were hundreds of Bhagwan centres all over the world – from Ibiza to Portland, Bondi to Berlin. Many ran nightclubs and discos, staffed by sannyasins and the profits of which funded their centres or, depending on who you talk to, were funnelled back to America.
According to Matthew Collin’s history of acid house and ecstacy, Altered State, “the Bhagwan movement was entrepreneurially minded and outward-looking… It meant that people who gravitated towards it would not only popularise ecstasy, but set in place distribution systems that would result in its dissemination beyond the United States.”
So what of Ibiza?
Helen Donlon's seminal book on Ibizan freak culture, Shadows Across The Moon, says that “it is through these itinerants [sannyasins] that the use of MDMA in Ibiza’s first clubs became a phenomenon.” Trying to find a current primary source to back up this assertion, however, is like trying to find a pinger in a paracetamol bottle.
Tony D’Andrea is an amiable academic anthropologist who studied the Bhagwans in Ibiza before following them to Pune, India, where he became a sannyasin himself. He has written widely on the Bhagwan’s influence on global nightlife and said that they “were a crucial bridge between Ibiza’s 60s counterculture and the 90s electronic dance subculture”. Of the two dozen or so sannyasins I approach to comment, D’Andrea was one of only two happy to speak on-record.
Ravers on the dancefloor at Cream at Amnesia, Ibiza, 1999. Photo: Everynight Images / Alamy Stock Photo
“Sannyasins introduced MDMA to Ibiza but were not alone: The gay community, the hippie New Age scene, and the party jet-setters were also using MDMA in Ibiza around the same time,” he explains. “Drugs were just one ancillary element in their experimental lifestyle, not an economic endeavour… More often than not, scene members shared drugs for free whenever possible, which was particularly true in Ibiza.”
Maria is an English woman who lived on the White Isle during the 80s. She still resides there, but describes that decade, before Ibiza become known as a clubbing destination, as “heaven on Earth”. She had regular contact with los butanos – the sannyasins’ nickname, bequeathed by Spanish locals on account of their orange robes that made them look like bottles of butane gas.
I ask her if they brought MDMA to the island. “Yes, I would say so, but I have no proof,” she says.”It turned up at that time and they knew how to take it. Sannyasins were into drugs – that’s for sure.” Maria points out, however, that Bhagwans moving MDMA were the exception, rather than rule.
Terrence, another long-term Ibizan resident, echoes this. (Both Maria and Terence spoke on condition of anonymity so they could freely discuss recreational drugs.) “Some of the sannyasins were involved in moving consciousness–substances. But it was so long ago and most of them are dead now,” Terrence suggests. “They were expanding their consciousness, more than anything.”
Stephen Armstrong, author of the history book The White Island, tells me that some “Ibizan sannyasins took up dealing out of economical necessity when the Oregon headquarters went down and the worldwide movement crumbled. All they had was their clothes and a cupboard full of MDMA.”
Armstrong posits that they started selling to holidaymakers, who in turn started frequenting DJ Alfredo’s sets at Amnesia, later discovered on the mythical 1987 trip of the ‘Famous Four’ British DJs: Paul Oakenfold, Nicky Holloway, Johnny Walker and Danny Rampling. Rampling’s subsequent weekly Ibiza-inspired night, Shoom, started on the 5th of December that year, becoming the progenitor and kick-drum of acid house.
Turns out that we can comfortably state that sannyasins did play a prominent role in getting Ibiza jazzed on MDMA and thus are tangentially responsible for David Guetta, modern Glastonbury, and prodigious British gak habits. But in My Life In Orange, a Bhagwan autobiography by the sadly deceased Tim Guest, the author writes that American sannyasins started manufacturing the drug. I also hear this secondhand from another sannyasin source. Could it be true?
Philippus Zandstra is the co-author of XTC: Een Biografie (“XTC: The Biography” in Dutch). He says that a sannyasin was the first to deal MDMA in Amsterdam on a bigger scale in 1986, and that the ecstasy was sourced from a facility on America’s West coast. “From what I know, it’s run by sannyasins but I can’t confirm this,” he says, apologetically. “We have heard many of these stories, like you, about the Bhagwan. It’s a very strong rumour but we can’t find the smoking gun.”
It’s worth stating here just how elusive the Bhagwans generally are – by this time, I have chased a synapse-melting number of half–leads and nebulous rumours in this increasingly frenzied hunt for a primary source. As Zandstra puts it: “It’s like chasing ghosts.” And after our conversation, I realise it’s time to give this particular ghost up.
This story has one further notable hippie sidebar: that of the Harmonic Convergence, a once-in-10,000 years alignment of the planets based on the Mayan calendar. Brought to attention and evangelically organised by an art historian called José Argüelles, it gathered thousands of global third eye-seekers together from around the globe in a unified attempt to raise the global consciousness through meditation and dance.
The year? 1987 – the same year that Oakenfold, Holloway, Walker and Rampling visited Ibiza for the first time and brought rave to the UK. Maybe God was teaching us how to dance, after all.