The strange saga of the Rajneeshees

India seems to breed a constant stream of so-called ‘holy men’. These are people who preach some kind of religious mish-mash that followers find appealing enough to give them lots of money. They are not unlike the pastors of the megachurches in the US in fleecing the believers. The main difference is that these Indian mystics tend to run residential programs at places called ashrams where people live 24/7 while the megachurch followers live in their own homes.

Among these holy men appeared Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931-1990) in the late 20th-century who attracted a huge number of followers to his ashram in Pune, India many of whom were westerners, who adopted the orange garb of the group and took on new Indianish names. While we tend to associate ashrams with an ascetic lifestyle, Rajneesh preached that he was advocating a combination of capitalism and religion. Material things were not only not disdained, they were encouraged, along with a hedonistic lifestyle. Rajneesh himself was fond of luxury items and owned a diamond-encrusted million-dollar watch and 93 Rolls Royce cars, though he seemed to drive them only around the compound.

I watched the six-part documentary Wild Wild Country on Netflix. Here’s the trailer.

This article gives the main outline.

After establishing a devoted following at an ashram in Pune, India—and with a $5 million tax bill looming from the Indian government—the free love-preaching cult leader needed a change of scenery for him and his relentlessly devoted red-clothed followers, called sannyasins. So he charged his perpetually-smiling secretary/second in command, Ma Anand Sheela, with finding a new home for their group. She settled on the Big Muddy Ranch—a 64,000-acre property in Wasco County, Oregon, which was purchased in 1981 for $5.75 million. And there, they transformed the barren fields into a miniature city: Rajneeshpuram.

The community had its own fire and police departments, a school, a shopping mall, a boutique bookshop (that sold only Bhagwan’s books), an airstrip, and enough A-frame townhouses to accommodate as many as 7,000 people. But tensions simmered between the Rajneeshees and the locals in nearby Antelope (population: 40) and the rest of Wasco County, Oregon. Following a bombing at the Hotel Rajneesh by an Islamic militant, the cult armed itself to the teeth, acquiring over 100 semiautomatic rifles—more than the entire Oregon police force combined—and 1 million rounds of AK-47 ammunition.

Then things got truly wild. In 1984, in an attempt to overthrow the Wasco County government in their local election, the Rajneeshees began busing thousands of homeless people from around the country into Rajneeshpuram to vote, sedating them with drugged beer before expelling the so-called “street people” when things got out of hand. Sham marriages were organized as well. They also poisoned the nearby city of The Dalles with salmonella, sending 751 people to the hospital in the first (and largest) bioterrorism attack in U.S. history. And if that weren’t enough, the cult poisoned several local officials, attempted to assassinate Oregon U.S. State Attorney Charles Turner, wiretapped its own members, burned down the office of the Wasco County city planner, and plotted to bomb the county commissioner’s office.

There is no question that the local population in that remote area of Oregon were disturbed by what they saw as a non-Christian sex cult in their midst and that xenophobia drove much of their actions in trying to get the group expelled. They were able to get the government authorities on their side and this resulted in an escalating bureaucratic and legal war, involving some highly questionable actions such as arbitrarily denying voting registration to the homeless people that the Rajneeshees had bused in from all over the country in order to win local elections, even though the people met the minimal residency requirements.

It turns out that despite its six-hour length, the documentary left out a lot more than what is included and depended too much on the stories given by the ardent followers of Rajneeesh, especially his long-time key lieutenant Ma Anand Sheela (formerly Sheela Silverman) and his chief lawyer and later mayor of the town Prem Niren (formerly Philip John Toelkes). It also focuses a lot of time on the political battles between the Rajneeshees and the local population for control of the town and region and also on the infighting within the group. But in doing so, it left out crucial matters of interests such as: What exactly was Rajneesh’s core message, since he sometimes said it was a religion and at other times denied it? Where did the group get all the money for their activities? What was the nature of the group’s appeal that inspired such devotion in his followers? It also omitted key biographical information about him and his key followers so that you have little idea about their motivations.

After the documentary was shown, other former followers have come forward to tell their stories and dispute much of the documentary’s narrative. As I said, what intrigued me was the deep devotion of people to someone who seemed to me to be an obvious conman. Presumably Rajneesh must have been quite a persuasive speaker to inspire such loyalty and yet we almost never saw him speak publicly except for very brief moments. During the period covered by the documentary he was in his early fifties but he looked frail and weak and moved silently from place to place or waved to followers from one of his Roll Royce cars as it drove around the compound. When he died back in India in 1990, he was just 58. It should be noted that the group is still active.

So while the documentary in interesting for the tit-for-tat battles between the Rajneeshess and the local, state, and federal authorities, it leaves one feeling that it could have used the time to tell a much more substantive story.


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