The guru from India preached a message that promoted capitalism, materialism. meditation and sex. In his short life, he hoped for peace, but instead lived in a cauldron of controversy that included dark times in Oregon, endless legal woes, hopscotching travels around the world where nobody seemed to want him, and then ended up back in India where he began.
He was Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a mystic who preached wealth and rejected poverty and suffering. He even called himself the “rich man’s guru,” living up to it with a collection of jeweled wrist watches worth $11 million in today’s money, 93 Rolls Royces worth more than that, and a Learjet.
His religious/philosophical movement was also an umbrella for numerous other business entities that helped the money roll in.
A Rajneesh Foundation book claimed that they were not a religion, but a “religionless religion.”
Rajneesh taught that sex is a “meditative first step on the path to super-consciousness — or enlightenment.” He preached that free love and having lots of material possessions was OK, and that appealed to Westerners, who enthusiastically signed up.
It was New Age right out of the counter culture of the 1960s.
Rajneesh denounced marriage as bondage — especially for women — and having children, claiming families were prone to dysfunction and destructiveness. He supported contraception, sterilization and abortion. Some followers moved to the Rajneesh ashram and left their children behind, considering spiritual development more important than the kids.
He rejected government and religious interference in personal relationships, and didn’t like Gandhi — calling him “a masochist reactionary who worshipped poverty.”
In one of his writings he boasted that “Ours is the only religion, first religion in the history of the world. All the others are just premature experiments which have failed. And we are not going to fail, for the simple reason because we don’t have any belief that can be proved untrue. We don’t have any dogma that can be criticized.”
By the 1970s and early 1980s, the Rajneesh movement had a membership of about 100,000 followers worldwide called “sannyasins.” A poll taken in Oregon by them revealed that 70-plus percent listed their religion as “None.”
Rajneesh was born Chandra Mohan Jain in 1931 in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India, eldest of 11 children, his father a cloth merchant. Later he was also known as Bhagwan (blessed one), Acharya (teacher or guru), Shree (honorific in India) Rajneesh (boyhood nickname), and near the end of life took the Japanese Zen name Osho, an honorific for high priests.
During his growing years, he became an anti-theist and took up ways “to expand consciousness” that included breathing control, yoga, meditation, fasting, hypnosis and the occult.
Rajneesh was a troublesome student in school and college, frequently being asked to leave because of his disruptive argumentation. Through it all however, he became an outstanding public speaker, lecturing on philosophical subjects.
He rejected his parents’ wishes for him to marry. Instead he pursued an academic teaching career that included being kicked out of one university because he was considered a danger to his students’ morality, character and religion, according to historian Lewis F. Carter.
Though his lecture circuit and writings were a great success, he also ruffled feathers with his critiques. Frances FitzGerald in The New Yorker wrote that he branded orthodox Indian religions as dead and filled with empty ritual, while oppressing their followers with fears of damnation and promises of blessings.
But his tough words also won him a following among wealthy businessmen and merchants.
In 1970, Rajneesh moved to Mumbai (then Bombay), told the world about Dynamic Mediation, called his burgeoning group of disciples neo-sannyasins, who were to wear orange, red, purple or pink garb, beaded necklaces and a locket containing his picture. He asked not to be worshipped but simply considered a catalyst — “a sun encouraging the flower to open.”
Then he moved to Poona (Pune since 1978), blaming Bombay’s humid climate for him developing diabetes, asthma and allergies.
He also acquired a personal secretary, Laxmi Thakarsi Kuruwa, who adopted the name Ma Yoga Laxmi. Her ties to top India leaders enabled her to raise big money to build an ashram and support the growing movement.
New Yorker’s FitzGerald wrote that some of the early therapy groups were allowed a degree of physical aggression as well as sexual encounters between participants.
By 1981, his ashram was hosting 30,000 a year — mostly Americans and Europeans. During those Poona years, a dark side began emerging behind the curtain.
Ashram hard labor was performed by unpaid followers, supervised by leaders with abrasive personalities deliberately “designed to provoke opportunities for self-observation and transcendence,” according to Peter B. Clarke in the Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements.
Another source reported, “Some Western sannyasins were alleged to be financing extended stays in India through prostitution and drug-running.”
Government authorities at high levels started turning on his movement, and a Hindu fanatic tried to assassinate him — believing he was a CIA agent.
It was time to move on. Rajneesh set his sights on America, and also made perhaps his greatest mistake — he replaced Ma Yoga Laxmi with Ma Anand Sheela (Sheela Silverman).
The whole operation moved to central Oregon in 1981 and bought the 64,229-acre Big Muddy Ranch south of The Dalles, telling locals it would be used as an agricultural commune. Instead, they built a theocratic utopia called Rajneeshpuram
Thousands of Rajneeshees came to live there, setting up their own fire and police departments, restaurants, malls, 4,200-foot airstrip, unlicensed casino, and the third-largest public transport system in the state — including airplanes.
They swamped the nearby small town of Antelope with its 40 people, easily outvoting them on everything, and annexing it to the commune.
Then worse things started to happen.
The immigration status of many of the foreign nationals at Rajneeshpuram was questioned by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and was answered by a mass wedding to American citizens. The INS didn’t buy the scam and an avalanche of legal actions followed.
Oregonians increasingly opposed Rajneesh’s utopia, right up to the state legislature and governor’s office, calling it “an alien cult.”
Fighting back, Ma Anand and a circle of conspirators plotted to incapacitate voters in the upcoming 1984 Wasco County elections by spreading salmonella bacteria in 10 local restaurants. It was America’s first bioterrorist attack.
No one died, but 751 suffered food poisoning.
They also brought in thousands of homeless to pad the voter rolls.
In the following year, Ma Anand and conspirators compiled an assassination hit list of nine people that included U.S. attorney for Oregon Charles Turner and Oregon Attorney General David B. Frohnmayer who were prosecuting them. Also on the list: Rajneesh’s former secretary Ma Yoga Laxmi.
The assassination plot was eventually called off and no one was harmed. A team of law enforcement agencies investigating the food poisoning case learned about the aborted plot later.
In September, Ma Anand fled the country, but a year later was caught in West Germany, extradited and brought back for trial.
She received 20 years, but served only 29 months in a minimum security prison, then moved to Switzerland, married and now runs two nursing homes.
Meanwhile, in Oregon a grand jury investigation brought charges of widespread immigration fraud against the commune, and 21 were indicted.
It wasn’t until 16 years later that the case finally went to trial. None of the 10 defendants received more than a five-year sentence. Ma Anand was already long gone.
Rajneesh was arrested in 1985 in North Carolina as he was about to fly out of the country in his Learjet, and spent 12 days in jail. After a plea bargain, he was deported and started looking for a new home. After being rejected by 21 countries, he returned to his ashram in Pune, India.
He was only 58 when he died of multiple health woes. Officially he had a heart attack, but his group — that survives to this day — blames it on his being poisoned while in American jails, causing him to be “living in the body that had become a living hell.”
His epitaph reads, “Never born, never died; only visited this planet earth between December 11, 1931 and, January 19, 1990.”
His Oregon venture was a paradise lost.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Now it’s Christian…
The Rajneeshpuram land in Oregon, site of so much trouble and criminal activity, was bought by Montana billionaire Dennis R. Washington the year after the Guru’s death and given to the Christian youth Young Life Ministry. The land is now called the Washington Family Ranch that hosts thousands of teenagers every summer.
Quote from the guru…
“The total acceptance of life, of all that is natural in life, will lead you to the highest realms of divinity — to heights that are unknown, to heights that are sublime. I call that acceptance theism.”
— Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
Guru Bhagwan Rajneesh, who incorporated Buddhist philosophies, claimed that he had a spiritual enlightenment on March 21, 1953 when he was 21 and sitting under a tree. That’s exactly what Gautama Buddha did sometime during the 4th to 6th centuries B.C.
Rajneesh Shree Bhagwan’s Oregon commune committed “The most significant crimes of their kind in the history of the United States … The largest single incident of fraudulent marriages, the most massive scheme of wiretapping and bugging, and the largest mass poisoning.”
— David B. Frohnmayer, former Oregon Attorney General
Was Rajneesh also guilty?
After Ma Anand Sheela fled to Europe on Sept. 13, 1985, Rajneesh “accused her of arson, wiretapping, attempted murder, and mass poisonings,” implying he knew nothing about all the crimes. During those two years of criminal activity, he stayed out of the limelight in a period of “public silence,” letting Ma Anand run Rajneeshpuram. How much he knew and when is still a mystery.
See the whole story in the Netflix documentary “Wild, Wild Country.”
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