Rajneesh in America

I watched the 6-part Netflix documentary series entitled “Wild Wild Country” about the establishment of the settlement of Rajneeshpuram in the wilds of central Oregon. This was supposed to be a farming community of the followers of the Indian guru Rajneesh, named the Bhagwan. They had been essentially forced to decamp from their compound in Poona, India, for tax and other violations. The Bhagwan, a frail beaming, long-bearded man, usually dressed in pure white flowing robes, entrusted this move to his assistant, a 17-year-old Indian acolyte named Sheela.

This seemed quite a risky thing to do, but Sheela was bursting with confidence and hubris, and as the representative and top administrator of a new religion, she chose to move the whole religious cult to the USA and to the wilds of Oregon.  Let it be said that although she was an excellent organizer, she knew precious little about the US and although she chose an isolated area, she misjudged the reaction of the American people.

Rajneesh had written some books on philosophy and had developed what in America was called a New Age Cult, a mixture of Indian mysticism, free love, and opposition to established values.  What attracted many western youth to his cult was that they were allowed to express themselves without restraint and to engage in unbridled sexual activity and they were also expected to engage in meditation and self-criticism.  The sessions with thousands of people consisted of these 4 main aspects, always ending with the sex that went on for hours.

Sheela took a course at a College in the US and met and married an American Jew and became Mrs. Silverman.  But, her husband soon died, and played no role in the further events.  Sheela chose an area in central Oregon near a small town (pop. 40) called Antelope, where the cult bought a large unused farm.  They seemed to have unlimited money, although they depended on the contributions of their followers (called sanyasins), who all dressed in maroon or orange clothing.

Once they had bought the farm in 1981 they started moving in and developing the area, both expanding the farming and building many buildings.  To do this they had their own experts in construction, architecture, plumbing and so on.  They had their own generators and water supplies.  The inhabitants of Antelope were both amazed and frightened by the influx of strange people dressed in red passing thought their small town.  They became upset that the local authorities and the State of Oregon did nothing to check what the Rajneeshis were actually doing on their farm, now a new town called Rajneeshpuram.  They seemed to have unlimited funding, they built roads, an airfield, they had two planes and the Bhagwan had 7 Rolls Royce cars, that later became 20, all money supposedly obtained from their followers.  Certainly the locals were upset with what they heard was going on there, but they also resented that all this development was going on without any permits or checks as required by law.

A law suit was started because the Rajneeshis were supposed to be developing a farm not a city, that they said would have 10,000 people and eventually 100,000.  Because they did not have any legal right to incorporate as a city, Sheela, the manager of the whole project, found a  way around this.  They bought up property in Antelope, forced some of the people out, and took over the City Council and voted to merge Rajneeshpuram with Antelope, and then dropped the latter name.

Then Sheela made a big mistake, she went on TV and said that yes, they had taken over the town of  Antelope and they would soon take over the Wasco County.  This made people sit up and take notice and a movement started to prevent their expansion plans.  The Bhagwan had given Sheela the task of getting some Rajneeshis on the County Council.  But, she realized she did not have the votes, so she made another clever move.  She sent buses out all around the US, as far away as New York, Texas, and Minnesota, and they picked up all the homeless people they could persuade to go with them.  Some 2,000 were bussed back to Oregon, where they were given food and a place to sleep, and were registered as voters in the County.  Now she hoped she could obtain enough votes.

But before the next election, this tactic backfired.  Some of the homeless became unruly, they started fights, destroyed property, and one even tried to choke Sheela.  She had no option but to remove these anti-social elements from her “perfect” society, so she put them on buses and dumped them in the surrounding towns.  This did not sit well with the local inhabitants, who now had the homeless from all over the country dumped in their lap.  As a result of the bad feelings the hotel that the Rajneeshis owned in Portland was bombed and went up in flames.  It was at this point that Sheela started buying weapons on a large-scale and threatening that if they were attacked the Rajneeshis would fight back.  See how quickly a cult based on free love turned to violence.  It was also at this point that she started planning the assassination of several US officials.

Sheela also organized a campaign by her followers to spread salmonella over the salad bars in local restaurants so that people became ill.  But, to ensure that the Rajneeshis did not take over the county, the inhabitants did the same as Sheela had done, they bussed in people from surrounding areas and they stayed with them for a few days as required to register to vote and they then outvoted the Rajneeshis who got no representation on the County.  This was a significant defeat for Sheela.  Soon after this the Wasco County offices were set on fire.

At more or less the same time, in 1984, a group of wealthy Californians moved to the ranch, and one couple became very close to the Bhagwan, the man became his doctor and the woman an adviser.  Sheela saw her control over the Bhagwan and access to him being eroded.  By this time she had a small group of her own loyal followers and so they decamped in a plane to Germany.  In doing so she narrowly missed being arrested. The Bhagwan denounced her, claimed that she had stolen m$45 from his Foundation that she was administering, and cooperated with the police in attempting to get her extradited and charged.  In doing so he claimed no knowledge of any crimes she had committed.  He also claimed that he had never had sex with her, although this seemed unlikely since she had joined him when she was 16 and openly stated her love for him, and he preached free love.

After an investigation by the FBI, she and others were charged with the following crimes: 1. Attempted murder of the AG of Oregon and the US Federal AG (she had planned these assassinations and the US AG narrowly missed being shot); 2. Spreading bacterial infection (a bio-terror incident) in order to affect the outcome of an election; 3. Burning down the Wasco County Offices; 4. Illegal activities at Rajneeshpuram that included, an extensive secret wire-tapping system, including in the Bhagwan’s house, buying arms illegally and outfitting an army larger than the combined police forces of the State of Oregon;  5. Fleeing the US to avoid arrest.

Sheela was finally extradited from Germany to the US, where she was tried, found guilty and received a sentence of 20 years.  She now lives in Switzerland where she runs a Home for the aged and infirm.  Two of her loyal supporters received sentences of 10 years. Sheela claimed that the Bhagwan was complicit in all her crimes, but the FBI could not prove this. However, his claim that he was a religious leader was undermined by the fact that he had taken a vow of silence and had not preached in three years.  He was arrested in 1985 while fleeing to South Carolina and given a choice, either go on trial or leave the country.  Although he claimed his innocence, he chose the latter and returned to India, since no other country would allow him entry. He died there in 1990, with rumors circulating that he had been poisoned by some of this followers to obtain access to the wealth he had amassed .

In the course of 5 years he and Sheela had done irreparable damage to the inhabitants of the State of Oregon and to the trust anyone might have in such so-called “enlightenment” movements.  The Bhagwan had turned from a relative aesthete to a power-hungry leader, from wearing pure white clothes to flashy jewelry, gold watches and thick blue robes and driving around in his many Rolls Royces.  Sheela had turned from an ambitious girl to a murderous criminal.  And yet people gave up their lives and their fortunes to follow them!  It is ever thus.

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