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The rise and spectacular fall of an Indian guru

A dream to build a vast spiritual commune ended in a blizzard of charges including attempted murder

<p>(Picture: AFP/Sam Panthaky)</p>

(Picture: AFP/Sam Panthaky)

  • Sven Davisson for Ashe Journal
  • International
  • May 20, 2013
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The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known simply as Osho) was born Chandra Mohan in the village of Kuchwada in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh on 11 December 1931.  Due to the grace with which the young boy carried himself, his family began calling him “raja” or “king.”  By his own account, he attained the state enlightenment on 21 March 1953, though he kept it a secret for many years after.  He taught briefly at a Sanskrit university and began traveling the country teaching.  By the early 60’s he was conducting large meditation camps at locations such as Mt. Abu in 1964.  In 1970, Rajneesh settled in Bombay where he began to give regular discourses to a growing number.  It was in Bombay that Rajneesh initiated his first disciples giving his twist on the ancient India tradition of sannyas.

In 1974, the movement, under the management of Ma Laxmi bought land in the Indian town of Pune, north of Mumbai (Bombay).  Laxmi was the first in a line of powerful female “personal secretaries” that would hold despotic control over the management of the business of running the religious movement.  Rajneesh and his group of early disciples moved to Pune compound, located in the Koregon park neighborhood, and established the Acharya Rajneesh Ashram. 

At the ashram, Rajneesh gave daily morning discourses (alternating Hindi and English) and held evening meetings, darshans, where he initiated new disciples and answered personal questions.  Throughout the 70’s, the ashram attracted increasing numbers of international visitors and became one of the focal points of the spiritual tourism that flourished throughout the decade. 

The topics of Rajneeh’s talks ran the breadth of the religious spectrum—from Indian teachers, through Jewish mystics to the wisdom of the Zen Masters.  He introduced several revolutionary “active” meditation techniques, designed specifically for the western mind combining exorcise and mindfulness.  In addition to a wide and varied selection of meditations, a multitude of therapy techniques and workshops arose at the ashram.  By the late 70’s the “therapists” had become something akin to a priestly class within the movement.

In 1981, another female disciple, Ma Anand Sheela, displaced Laxmi as Bhagwan’s secretary.  Under Sheela’s direction, they began searching for land large enough to establish a commune.  Laxmi was effectively banished from the ashram, sent out to search for possible sites in India.  Meanwhile, Sheela funneled several million dollars to a small New Jersey meditation center, Chidvilas.  Later in that year, Rajneesh flew to the United States on a medical visa granted under the pretext that he was to receive treatment for his back.  The group remained in New Jersey for a few months and then moved to Oregon where Sheela had purchased a defunct ranch known locally as “the Big Muddy.”  The ranch consisted of 64,000 acres (126 square miles) of Oregon desert land and very few buildings.  Though Sheela presented herself a shrewd business person, she paid $5.75 million for land that was assessed for the previous year’s taxes at only $198,000.

Over the course of the next three years, Rajneesh sannyasins would transform this unpromising parcel into a city that supported at its height 7,000 regular residents with 15,000 annual visitors (mostly concentrated into annual July-August “World Celebrations”).  The city, incorporated briefly as Rajneeshpuram, Oregon, had its own post office, school, fire and police departments, downtown malls and restaurants.  Its state-of-the-art reservoir even won an award for its innovative ecological design.

Change of this scale, of course, put stresses on the local community.  The commune residents, especially the management, were very quickly at odds with the near-by town of Antelope.  The Attorney General of Oregon, David Frohnmeyer maintained throughout that the incorporation of Rajneeshpuram violated the constitutional separation of church and state.  His action against Rajneeshpuram was still working its way toward the Oregon Supreme Court in 1985.  An “environmental” group 1,000 Friends of Oregon also fought the incorporation of Rajneeshpuram from the first public hearing onwards.  Due to the questionable standing of Rajneeshpuram and the objections of 1,000 Friends to commercial use of the Ranch, the Oregon Land Use Commission suggested that the sannyasins locate their publishing and distribution business in the closest town, Antelope.  The commune began to purchase real estate in the town and sannyasins registered to vote.  Before sannyasins relocated there, the population of Antelope, OR was 40 mostly elderly and retired.  Due to the influx of new residents, 3 sannyasins were elected to the 6 person town council.  The 3 older councilors refused to sit in the same room with the newly elected sannyasins and effectively resigned their seats.  Through default the Rajneesh followers took over the city government.  Around this time the 40 original Antelope residents attempted unsuccessfully to disincorporate the town.

A similar chain of events occurred with the town school board.  At the resident’s request, the sannyasins had agreed to educate their children at Rajneeshpuram and not Antelope schools.  The school tax the residents of Rajneeshpuram paid, however, continued to support the Antelope school.  Sannyasins were then elected to the Antelope school board.  The previous board had gerrymandered the school district in an attempt to keep Rajneeshpuram outside of its boundaries.  The county invalidated the election of the non-sannyasin board members, because in the redrawing of the district they had mistakenly drawn their own homes outside the new district.  Not residing in the school district they were no longer eligible to be on the board.  Again, the sannyasins “took over” by default.

Both of these occurrences and the sannyasin purchase of real estate in Antelope—the mayor herself working as real estate agent for most of the transactions—were used against the Rajneesh sannyasins.  Attorney General Frohnmeyer, state congressmen, state senators Hatfield and Packwood as well as the “concerned citizens” of Oregon viewed these actions as a take-over and argued that the aggressive sannyasins would not stop short of attempting to take over the county and then the state.  The sannyasin presence was quickly characterized as a threat to the very way of life of eastern Oregon.  Sannyasin control of Antelope was seen as a coup de tat and not the democratic process at work.  By many of the government players, the taking over of the school board was the moment that the tide turned completely against the commune and its residents.

Throughout this period, Rajneesh himself was entirely silent.  When he came to America, he had entered a silent period—never speaking publicly, instead, he said, teaching through his presence.  As the Oregon battle began to hit the national media, first appearing on an episode of ABC’s Nightline in 1983, the U.S. immigration service began arguing the invalidity of Rajneesh’s visa.  His medical visa had been renewed as a teaching visa and, the authorities argued, one could not be a teacher if one did not teach, i.e. talk publicly.  Ironically at the same time Oregon’s Attorney General was arguing that Rajneesh and his followers were a religion and as such were violating the constitutional separation of church and state.

Rajneeshpuram exemplifies both the best and the worst of modern cult phenomenon.  The collective activity of the commune residents gave rise to the greatest intentional community experiment the modern age has seen.  In an article in The New Yorker, journalist Frances Fitzgerald detailed some of the accomplishments the commune had managed by 1983:  cleared and planted 3,000 acres of land, built a 350-million-gallon reservoir and 14 irrigation systems, created a truck farm that provided 90% of the vegetables needed to feed that Ranch, a poultry and dairy farm to provide milk and eggs, a 10 megawatt power substation, an 85-bus public transportation system, an urban-use sewer system, a state-of-the-art telephone and computer communications center and 250,000 sq. feet of residential space.

On the other side, the commune was a complex business structure built to centralize absolute power in one person, Ma Anand Sheela.  She and her band of loyal supporters ran the commune with an extremely heavy hand and provided a combative public face that was readily and appreciatively displayed by the media.  By 1985 there was increased hardship and unrest within the commune itself.  Sheela and her coterie of female managers, known collectively as the “Mas,” created what Rajneesh himself would later refer to as “a fascist concentration camp.”  Upon entering the U.S., Sheela had established the religion of Rajneeshism, created a bible in the three volume Book of Rajneeshism and began to style herself a high priestess.  By 1984 she had begun wearing “papal” style robes.  Bhagwan’s own silence lent de facto support to Sheela’s transformation of the movement. 

It is without question, that power corrupted Sheela.  She described herself as Queen (and Rajneesh was her king) and started to speak of sannyasins as “her people.”  She relished confrontation and pursued rather than backed down from a fight—whether with the media, local officials, INS inspector or a fellow sannyasin.  When she spoke, it was taken as if Rajneesh spoke.  She was the metatron speaking for the silent, remote godhead.

During the later period of Rajneeshpuram, a tension arose between Jesus Grove, Sheela’s compound and Lao Tzu House, Rajneesh’s residence.  In late 1984 Rajneesh began speaking again to small groups of sannyasins invited into his house.  When Rajneesh informed Sheela he would begin speaking, witnesses report, she begged him no to.  When he finally did begin talking publicly again, Sheela spent days in her room crying.  Rajneesh’s talks were video-taped and later played to the full commune.  During the summer of 1984, Sheela attempted to cancel the public display of the talks, claiming that they were interfering with the work of building the commune.  A minor rebellion erupted and she relented, allowing the videos to be shown late at night when few of the exhausted sannyasins could manage to stay awake to view them.

Satya Bharti in her book Promises of Paradise, describes one night where the video was not shown.  Sheela announced that the tape had been accidentally destroyed.  In this talk called simply “number 20,” Bhagwan spoke out against Sheela and her management of the commune, saying that she had transformed paradise into a “fascist concentration camp.”  He also outlined his concept of a world filled with autonomous communes where no person would have absolute power. 

Ma Nirgun (Rosemary Hamilton), Rajneesh’s cook during the later commune period, relates her experiences of living in Lao Tzu House in Hellbent for Enlightenment.  Under the pretext of security Sheela ordered the construction of a large fence, complete with guard towers, around Rajneesh’s residence.  Guards armed with Uzi’s followed Rajneesh and his entourage everywhere.  No one entered or left Lao Tzu without Sheela knowing about it.  Nirgun tells of one day walking outside the house and realizing that the fence was not to keep attackers out, but to keep the residents in.  “When I got back to LaoTzu, I suddenly saw it with new eyes: a prison.  The high link fence, the gates that delivered a powerful shock; the guardhouse towering over us, manned round the clokc by two still figures holding guns—until this moment I had seen them as a deterrent to hostile outsiders.  Now they seemed to be directed against us.”  She also tells of a conversation she had with one of the sentries, a sannyasin who had previously been a friend of hers.  She asked why the sannyasin attitude toward her had grown cold and distant.  He replied, “Sheela’s orders.”  Nirgun asked if Sheela had explained her order.  “She says it isn’t good to get friendly with people you might have to shoot.”

During this time Rajneesh issued lists of “enlightened” sannyasins.  These lists were interesting more for the people that they excluded rather than included.  Sheela and her group were conspicuously absent.  It’s my feeling, that Rajneesh was using these lists as a means of destabilizing Sheela’s power, which rested ultimately on her connection to the guru.  Simultaneous with this, Rajneesh orchestrated a relationship between his personal physician Amrito and Ma Prem Hasya.  The latter was a member of a wealthy clique of Hollywood-connected sannyasins.  In this way, Rajneesh established a connection with an alternative to Sheela’s management team.

In September 1985, Sheela and a small group of core supporters abruptly left the commune for Europe.  The day of her departure, Rajneesh held a press conference where he accused Sheela of stealing millions of dollars and attempting to murder him, several sannyasins and local politicians.  He publicly repudiated Rajneeshism and his role as guru.  “I don’t give them any commandments,” Rajneesh in a 17 July 1985 interview with Good Morning America.  “I insistently emphasize that they are not my followers, but only fellow travelers.”  He also called on the FBI to conduct and independent investigation.  The FBI quickly found an extensive eavesdropping system that was wired throughout the commune residences, public building, offices and even Rajneesh’s own bedroom.  Authorities also uncovered a secret lab where, according to later testimony, Ma Puja, the commune nurse referred to by some as “nurse Men gale,” had run a poison lab experimenting with biotoxins—including HIV and salmonella. 

It was later revealed in court testimony that Sheela’s group had attempted to poison two local communities by dumping salmonella into salad bars of several local restaurants.  According to a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the true cause of the mysterious outbreaks would never have been discovered if it were not for the testimony of conspirators.  Salmonella sample disks discovered at Rajneeshpuram were subsequently matched to the strain of bacteria isolated from the salad bars.  This episode has the unfortunate distinction of being the first instance of modern bioterrorism in the U.S.  Sheela’s group also allegedly fire-bombed a county records office in The Dalles.  One of the charges most heavily investigated was the poisoning of Swami Deveraj (later Amrito), Bhagwan’s personal physician.  After the July 6 discourse, Ma Shanti Bhadra hugged Deveraj and jabbed him with a needle. The syringe contained a still unidentified poison concocted by Rajneeshpuram nurse Ma Puja.  Deveraj became gravely ill and almost died at the Madras hospital.

In October 1985, Rajneesh himself was on a private plain headed secretly out of the country accompanied by his physician Amrito and new secretary Hasya.  The plane was seized while refueling in Charlottesville, North Carolina, and all on board were arrested.   This began a long process of returning him to Oregon to face immigration charges for allegedly arranging sham marriages.  Rather than flying him to Oregon, federal authorities opted for driving him across country.  For several days during the journey, even his attorneys did not know where he was.

Within a month, Rajneesh was again on a plane headed out of the country having entered an Alford plea to two counts of immigration fraud.  He briefly returned to India and then onto Kathmandu.  This began what his followers term his “world tour” which included refusals from more than 17 countries and forcible deportation from two, Greece and Uruguay.  He and his followers maintained that the resistance of countries to allow his entrance was due to secret behind-the-scenes pressure from the Reagan administration—a charge not entirely lacking in credibility.

By the end of the Oregon experiment 25 sannyasins were charged with electronic eavesdropping conspiracy, 13 immigration conspiracy, 8 lying to federal officials, 3 harboring a fugitive, 3 criminal conspiracy, 1 burglary, 1 racketeering (RICO), 1 first degree arson, 2 second degree assault, 3 first degree assault and 3 attempted murder.  A complex series of plea bargains followed.  Sheela was fined $400,000 and ordered to pay $69,353 in restitution.  She was sentenced to concurrent prison terms of 20 years for the attempted murder of Sw. Deveraj, 20 years for first degree assault in the poisoning of county commissioner William Hulse, 10 years for second degree assault in the poisoning of commissioner Raymond Matthew, 4ý years for the salmonella poisoing, 4ý for wiretapping and 5 years probation for immigration fraud.  She served only 2ý years in a federal medium security prison and was released for good behavior in December 1988.  Ma Puja also received concurrent sentences: 15 years for the Deveraj murder attempt, 15 for the Hulse poisoning, 7ý for the Matthew poisoning, 4ý for her role in salmonella poisonings and 3 years probation for wiretapping conspiracy.  Puja also served only 2ý years of her sentence.  Like Sheela, she served her sentence at the federal prison in Pleasanton, CA and was released in December of 1988.  Rajneesh was charged with one count of criminal conspiracy (RICO) and 34 counts of making false statements to federal officials (INS officers).  He entered his plea on two counts of immigration fraud and  agreed to pay $400,000 fine.  He was given a 10 year suspended sentence and ordered to leave the country and not return for a minimum of 5 years.  Rajneesh corporations agreed to drop all appeals to the ruling that Rajneeshpuram’s incorporation was unconstitutional, abandon all claims to the money and jewels impounded in North Carolina, to pay $400,000 to the State of Oregon in compensation for investigative costs, $500,000 to the settle the claims of four restaurants who suffered losses due to the poisonings, an additional $400,000 to the restaurant owners, $5 million to the Oregon state victim’s fund and to sell the ranch.  In exchange Dave Frohnmeyer agreed to drop all RICO charges against the corporations.  (Carter, pp. 236-238)

Sannyasins in India finally reached a settlement with the Indian government concerning back taxes on the Pune ashram and Rajneesh returned to his homeland.  Through the late 1980’s, Rajneesh dropped off the spiritual radar.  He dropped the title Bhagwan and, later, even the name Rajneesh.  His followers began calling him simply Osho, a Japanese honorific used when referring to a Zen master. 

In 1989 Bhagwan again stopped talking publicly due to his failing health.  His final discourse ended with the last word of the Buddha, samasati, “remember that you are all Buddhas.”  In that year he instructed his followers to build him a new marble bedroom following his detailed design.  He spent only a short time in this new space, before saying he preferred his old bedroom.  In January 1990, Osho passed from his body instructing his physician to place his favorite socks and hat on him.  When asked what they should do with him after he died, he said simply, “Stick me under the bed and forget about me.”

Full Story: The Rise and Fall of Rajneeshpuram

Source: Ashe Journal

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