Goa, Aids and the Sannyasin Community


Goa, Aids and the Sannyasin Community

by Harideva (first published in Viha Connection)

(Please note that this article does not neccessarily represent the views of the Editors of Sannyasnews, but we do feel it deserves coverage and discussion)

I usually stay in Goa over the winter months. It’s real easy to be healthy there, hanging out on the beach, and feeding on Goa’s homegrown cuisine of fresh vegetables, fruits, and delicious fresh seafood. Physical and emotional intimacy is easily shared in that tropical dreamland of sand and sea, with beautiful weather and no real worries. There’s a real Shangri-la atmosphere.

That changed last winter when we found out that one of our well-known Goa regulars had tested positive for HIV two years before, but had kept this a secret as he continued to sleep around. This guy also had a longtime girlfriend, from whom he had successfully kept his secrets: the secret that he had HIV, that he knew it, and that he was sleeping around. And, by the way, he insisted on never using condoms! This guy, a sannyasin, had also recently declared his enlightenment (to all of our amusement), and was busy securing disciples and polishing his satsang skills. The whole charade had gone on for two years until his girlfriend – who had worked with Byron Katie and learned her insistence on checking out stories – realized that she too had been collaborating in the cover-up. By the time she tearfully approached me with her story, she had already decided to step out of the lies, separate from the guy, and clean up the mess she felt she had made for herself.

When I heard this story I was blown away, but I also realized that it’s surprising that this kind of story hasn’t happened more often in our community. Actually, I think it’s some kind of a miracle.

After this, the beach was abuzz with talk of who might have slept with whom over the two past years, and who might be at risk of infection. Because of the closeness of our beach community and the amount of time we spend seeing each other, we usually don’t miss the signs of who’s fucking whom. We started to figure out who might have been infected; however, nobody contacted those friends who were in other countries and might not be aware of the story. I took it upon myself to do so. I started emailing the few friends that many of us suspected had slept with this guy. I wrote to them, saying as sensitively as I could that if they had indeed slept with him they should immediately get tested.

I received posts back from two people. One said that she had not in fact slept with him, and the other told me that it was none of my business. I replied to her that it was my business when it involved what I saw as, for all intents and purposes, attempted murder. It was also very interesting that a few of this guy’s Italian friends closed ranks and stopped talking to me and anybody who was calling him to task. I started thinking about how strange this all was. I was seeing all of the intrigue, lies, and cover-ups that are usually reserved for a serial-murder drama, and all from people who are sannyasins. I felt that they should have had more understanding of the seriousness of HIV infection than “normal” people, many of whom are unconsciously aiding the spread of the disease by using a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Some time in the early ’80s Osho gave us His guidelines on AIDS prevention. He said that it was a scourge that would take its toll on two thirds of the world’s population. I believe that we as a community have not been touched by this disease in the devastating ways many other communities have, because Osho called our attention to it so early on. Maybe it is because we have been spared from AIDS taking root in our community for so long that many of us have become lax about following safe-sex guidelines and using other preventive measures against infection. So many seem to have fallen into a collective denial of the danger of infection, and have dropped personal responsibility for their own health and that of lovers and friends. If this continues, I think it is only a matter of time before AIDS will start hitting many of us.

As far as I know, these days there are only a few Osho gathering places where HIV testing is still enforced. I have talked to many center leaders, and most of them said they are not testing or asking for test certificates. I am in favor of proactive testing in private clubs such as the Meditation Resort, the Humaniversity, or other meditation centers, but only for active participants – not for the casual visitor. I feel that Osho’s direction on mandatory testing is good because we tend to deny the dangers to ourselves and get lazy and unconscious. However, it must be said that in many countries discriminating against someone with HIV is illegal, even for a private club, so it is not always possible to have such a policy.

What I have seen for years through the extensive interviewing I have done as a therapist – and the even more intensive questioning of friends I did when this issue exploded in Goa this year – is that most people are not practicing safe sex all the time. It should be noted that if you practice safe sex 95 percent of the time you are not practicing safe sex. Safe sex is only safe if it is done 100 percent of the time. In addition, things can go wrong: condoms break 5 percent of the time, oral sex with bleeding gums can lead to transmission via blood, etc. Regular testing is also needed to lower the chances of being infected through such other routes, if having sex outside of a monogamous relationship.

At the Humaniversity in Holland, many years ago, we did an experiment with safe-sex practices. We divided our community of several hundred friends into two groups. One half of the group was informed that they had HIV, and the other was informed that they did not have it. With the instructions to practice safe sex, we watched to see how well we could protect the community. Within days, several instances of the safe-sex guidelines not being followed had occurred. Knowing how common lapses in good health practices are, I suspect the same could be true for many centers. To me, this stresses again the responsibility of the individual to protect him- or herself.

Perhaps the old belief that AIDS infections are limited to gays and intravenous drug users has helped those of us not in those categories to think that it’s okay to drop protective practices once inside our “tested zones.” Many may also believe that it is mostly an African and Indian problem, but anyone who has kept themselves updated with news of the spread of AIDS will see reason – increasing reason – to stay safe. AIDS is indeed everywhere, and not limited to any particular sexual orientation or behavior. Human nature being what it is, we can’t all feel that we will remain “lucky.” I believe that we all have blind spots and moments of denial, and while many of us have been very, very lucky indeed, I wonder how long this luck will continue.

Here are some assumptions that I have heard friends say while researching for this article:

“ Sex within the sannyas community is safe. We don’t have people who are in high-risk groups.” This is false.

“ I feel I’m safe because I’m with someone who hasn’t been with anyone else.” The fact is, this often is not the case. People sometimes lie, and their behavior can change in the heat of the moment and when on alcohol or drugs.

“ Getting tested every five years is more than enough.”

Here is some recent information on testing, which I took from several leading health websites:

Antibodies develop four to six weeks after infection, sometimes much later. You need to wait at least 13 weeks after exposure for reliable results. You need to get tested again every six months to continue reducing the chance of a false negative. No test is actually 100 percent accurate or reliable. There are antibody tests and viral tests for HIV. There are two main types of HIV, HIV-1 and HIV-2. There are 11 subtypes, or “clades” / “genotypes” of HIV. The Eliza test can detect most HIV-1 subtypes. Viral load tests can detect and quantify subtypes of both HIV groups.

And here is some current information on infection rates:

About 25 percent of the 1 million people infected with HIV in America don’tknow they have it. About 7.1 million people in South and South East Asia have HIV. In many countries, especially those in West Africa, it is overwhelmingly a heterosexually transmitted disease. Worldwide, in 2004 the number of people living with HIV was 39.4 million, the number of people newly infected with HIV was 4.9 million, and the number of AIDS deaths was 3.1 million.

Here are my suggestions for what we as a community, and as individuals, should be doing to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS:

• Take personal responsibility for your own health by practicing safe sex.

• Speak up if you see anyone putting you or your friends at risk.

• Honestly share your past sexual and health issues with your lovers.

I’d like to finish by remembering one of my best friends, Prabhu. After ten years of suffering through the various stages of AIDS, this 240-pound, ex-basketball player was down to 98 pounds. We talked on the phone a few weeks before he died. He told me, “Harideva, I was so arrogant before. I felt that I was a sannyasin and my being with Osho meant that I somehow had a guarantee that nothing would ever touch me. Hari, I was so stupid. I was so asleep in my trips. I guess that I’m dying now…and you know, everything touches me…” I lost my friend a few weeks later and was reminded, yet again, of how fragile we all are.

Just imagine you are a Buddha and act accordingly!