Rajneesh cult: Arson, attempted murder, drug smuggling, vote fraud, et cetera
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh — born in Poona, India, as Rajneesh Chandra Mohan — founded the Rajneesh Foundation International in 1974. He was one of the most controversial of modern gurus, in large part due to his take the “freedom to do whatever you want” view of life.
Bhagwan (“The blessed one”) earned a degree in philosophy, a subject he then taught for ten years before setting up his commune.
The commune, later at times referred to as the “ultimate cult based on sex,” attracted many educated Westerners who donated large sums of money.
Bhagwan was a skilled orator and a prolific author. He left behind hundreds of books and taped lectures which have allowed his followers (fractured though they are) to continue to market his teachings.
His own sexual preferences, a liking for pretty young women, were central to the cult’s lifestyle, which promoted a total lack of inhibitions. Like most cults with links to Eastern traditions, the Rajneesh utilized the emphasis on “self” to encourage his followers to reject the constraints of their past and adopt a free-love philosophy.
In reality the Rajneesh was “brainwashing” his followers by forcing them to work long hours and then take part in disorientating meditation sessions which would often result in a free-for-all orgy.”
– Source: Sarah Moran, The Secret World of Cults. p.38
In 1981 he was deported from Oregon under a bevy of serious criminal charges associated with his ashram, or spiritual community.
Many people were unfamiliar with the story of this cult — which committed the first act of bioterrorism on U.S. soil — until the recent Netflix hit documentary, Wild, Wild Country.
[A]lso called OSHO and ACHARYA RAJNEESH, original name CHANDRA MOHAN JAIN, Indian spiritual leader who preached an eclectic doctrine of Eastern mysticism, individual devotion, and sexual freedom while amassing vast personal wealth. […]
In 1981 Rajneesh’s cult purchased a dilapidated ranch in Oregon, U.S., which became the site of Rajneeshpuram, a community of several thousand orange-robed disciples. Rajneesh was widely criticized by outsiders for his private security force and his ostentatious display of wealth. By 1985 many of his most trusted aides had abandoned the movement, which was under investigation for multiple felonies including arson, attempted murder, drug smuggling, and vote fraud in the nearby town of Antelope. In 1985 Rajneesh pleaded guilty to immigration fraud and was deported from the United States. He was refused entry by 21 countries before returning to Pune, where his ashram soon grew to 15,000 members. In later years he took the Buddhist title Osho and altered his teaching on unrestricted sexual activity because of his growing concern over AIDS.
– Source: Rajneesh, Bhagwan Shree, quoted from an earlier edition of this Encyclopedia Britannica entry
[…] the only known successful use of biological weapons in the United States was by the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh cult in 1984. The group contaminated salad bars in 10 restaurants in The Dalles, Ore., with Salmonella Typhimurium, causing several hundred people to become ill.
– Source: Biological and Chemical Warfare Q and A, ABC News, Sep. 24, 2001
Hinduism is not> by nature a proselytizing religion, however, in part because of its inextricable roots in the social system and the land of India. In recent years, many new gurus, such as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Satya Sai Baba, have been successful in making converts in Europe and the United States. The very success of these gurus, however, has produced material profits that many people regard as incompatible with the ascetic attitude appropriate to a Hindu spiritual leader; in some cases, the profits have led to notoriety and even legal prosecution.
– Source: Hinduism Outside India, From an earlier edition of this Encyclopedia Britannica entry
In 1988 thirty years after taking the title, “Bhagwan,” (which means “the embodiment of God”) Rajneesh admitted the title and his claim to be God were a “joke.” “I hate the word… I don’t want to be called Bhagwan (God) again. Enough is enough. The joke is over,” stated Rajneesh saying he was really the reincarnation of Buddha and claiming for himself the new title of “Rajneesh Gautaman the Buddha,” (Star Telegram, Dec. 29, 1988; Sec.1, p. 3). Later he took the title, “Osho Rajneesh,” a Buddhist term meaning “on whom the heavens shower flowers.” (Ibid, 1/20/90).
– Source: Guru Rajneesh Dead at 58, Watchman Expositor, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1990
Followers of Rajneesh were known as Sannyasins.
Sannyasin is a Sanskrit word that describes someone who has reached the life stage of sannyasa, or “renouncement of material possession.”
A sannyasin has turned away from all material possessions and emotional ties. They now live only to perfect their understanding of the spiritual world. This is seen as a state of sacrifice that leads to final liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth, or moksha.
For many advanced yogis, becoming a sannyasin is the final stage of yoga practice. They can devote themselves wholly to the pursuit of the spiritual understanding that comes from yoga.
– Source: Definition at Yogapedia
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Research resources on the Rajneesh
- Old Bhagwan, new bottles “A ‘new’ spiritual guru turns out to have a past that includes lavish spending, orgies and bacterial terrorism.”, Salon.com, Oct. 20, 1999
Ever wonder what ever happened to the guy whose religious followers were linked to the only episode of domestic mass bioterrorism in America? Well, in the case of the late, notorious Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, old renegade sex gurus never die. He just “left his body” somewhere in India in 1990 and later emerged as a thriving, modern-day publishing machine known as Osho.
Rajneesh’s flock caught much of his meditative bon mots on tape, and now incessantly recycle these ponderings as spiritual wisdom under the author name of Osho.
- The Rajneesh cult Elliott Miller, Christian Research Institute
Rajneesh is a self-proclaimed spiritual rebel who thrives in the controversy that he has created, particularly in India, by his “trainings” (such as the “tantra” group, and the often violent “encounter” group) and his denunciations of respected religious and political leaders. Tal Brooke, a former devotee of the popular Indian guru Sai Baba, after visiting Poona effectively summed up the scene there:
An object of media fascination and horror, Rajneesh is known for his bizarre revelations on sex. He has constructed a vision of the New Man that repudiates all prior norms and traditions. Man, by Rajneesh’s thinking, is the hedonist-god, fully autonomous (barring the inner voice of Rajneesh), and free to carve out the cosmos in his own image. He is the sovereign pleasure seeker, self-transcender, who owes nobody anything. The family is anathema, children extra trash. And so long as the Neo-sannyasin has the money the fun ride continues. Afterward, however, he or she is usually a non-functional casualty. Homicides, rapes, mysterious disappearances, threats, fires, explosions, abandoned ashram children now begging in Poona’s streets, drug busts — all done by those amazing hybrids in red who believe they are pioneering new and daring redefinitions of the word “love.”
Christians working in a Poona asylum confirm such accounts, adding the breakdown rate is so high the ashram has wielded political power to suppress reports
- The Rise and Fall of the Rajneesh Cult, by Win McCormack, New Republic, April 12, 2018. In the early 1980’s — when the Rajneesh cult ‘invaded’ a part of Oregon, Win McCormack (now editor in chief of The New Republic) wrote a series of articles in Oregon Magazine. These articles became the basis for his book, The Rajneesh Chronicles: The True Story of the Cult that Unleashed the First Act of Bioterrorism on U.S. Soil. This article consists of excerpts from that book.
- The Story of a Truly Contaminated Election Columbia Journalism Review, Jan/Feb 2000
The only proven incident of bioterrorism the United States has ever experienced, we learned, was a bizarre plot by the Rajneeshees, a religious cult, to steal a county election in Oregon in 1984. The Rajneeshees, followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a self-proclaimed guru exiled from India, had moved into a ranch in rural Wasco County, taken political control of the small nearby town of Antelope, and changed its name to Rajneesh. Next, the cult sought to run the whole county by winning the local election in 1984.
The amazing story of the Wasco County election scandal was revealed to the conference’s riveted participants by Leslie L. Zaitz, an investigative reporter for The Oregonian, and Dr. John Livengood, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control. To win the county election, the Rajneeshees planned to sicken a good portion of the population in the town of The Dalles, where most Wasco County voters live. Their weapon of choice to keep local residents from voting was salmonella bacteria. Cult members decided to test the use of salmonella and, if successful, to contaminate the entire water system of The Dalles on Election Day. First, the Rajneeshees poisoned two visiting Wasco County commissioners on a hot day by plying them with refreshing drinks of cold water laced with salmonella. Then, on a shopping trip to The Dalles, cult members sprinkled salmonella on produce in grocery stores “just for fun.” According to reporter Zaitz, that experiment didn’t get the results they wanted so the Rajneeshees proceeded to clandestinely sprinkle salmonella at the town’s restaurant salad bars. Ten restaurants were hit and more than 700 people got sick.
- Wasco County Sheriffs Includes a recounting of the Rajneeshees involvement in this Oregon community
In 1981, Wasco County school children learned a new word: Rajneeshees. Even before the start of the school year, a few lessons on this strange East Indian word and what it meant. Followers of the nomadic Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh purchased the rambling, 64,229 acre Big Muddy Ranch in Wasco and Jefferson counties in July of 1981 as the central commune for the Bhagwan and his devoted followers.
At first, the residents of nearby Antelope viewed the sudden appearance of the red-clad Rajneesh disciples, known as Sannyasins but more commonly referred to as Rashneeshees, as nothing more than a curiosity. It wasn’t long, however, before they realized the seriousness and full intentions of the Rajneesh movement, or “invasion,” as some locals preferred to call it.
While the Bhagwan’s chief aide Ma Anand Sheela was declaring the movement’s plan to operate a simple farming commune in the desert, his other disciples were busy in the background developing grand plans for a huge resort city for up to 100,000 Rajneeshees.
Within a matter of weeks, construction began on a number of buildings within the newly-christened Rancho Rajneesh, including a shoppng mall, restaurant, a resort-like motel and commune service offices. In many cases, Bhagwan followers moved ahead without securing proper county building permits.
In the meantime, new recruits continued pouring into the desert commune -many of them wealthy European and American followers who were more than willing and able to finance the Bhagwan’s movement.
But the Rajneesh movement began to falter in October 1981 when two months after arriving at Rancho Rajneesh, the Bhagwan applied to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for an extension of his visa. Immigration officials began a full-scale investigation into the activities of the religious sect, focusing on the guru’s intent in coming to the United States and a pattern of suspect marriages between the U.S. citizen and foreign followers.
The investigation turned up information that the Bhagwan and his followers left India in the spring of 1981 owing the Indian government more than $6 million in unpaid taxes. An Indian tax court voided the Rajneesh organization’s tax-exempt status and assessed millions of rupees (Indian currency) in back taxes.
But the movement forged ahead in the Oregon desert. In April 1982, Rajneeshees, voting as a bloc, managed to secure enough votes to take over the town of Antelope, which was renamed Rajneesh. They also voted to incorporate Rancho Rajneesh — the former Big Muddy Ranch as the town of Rajneeshpuram.
- ‘Wild Wild Country’: Is Subject of Netflix Doc Really a ‘Sex Cult’? By Elizabeth Yuko, Rolling Stone, April 11, 2018. This article puts much of the reporting on the popular Netflix documentary series in much needed perspective.
Though the six-hour series may seem like a lot, in reality, much was left on the cutting room floor in favor of focusing on some of the more sensationalized aspects of the group. Footage of what appears to be an orgy in the first episode is part of a 1981 documentary called Ashram in Poona, allegedly filmed in secret in India. Much of the media coverage of sannyasins — from the early 1980s and today — honed in on these segments of the documentary, referring to the group as a “sex cult.” But according to several former residents of Rajneeshpuram, this is a misrepresentation and argue that Wild Wild Country leaves out or breezes past many more important aspects of life as a sannyasin.
“When you watch the hundreds of lectures that Osho gave, sex plays a very small part,” Massad 1 explains. “His main message about that was that repressing sex does not make you a more spiritual person, as is so often depicted in traditional religions.”
- Bhagwan: The God That Failed, by Hugh Milne, who was the Bhagwan’s personal body guard. One reviewer says, “What we get in this book, then, is a cautionary tale urging us to see through and avoid spiritual charlatans who are trying to create an aura of specialness and mystery around themselves. There are lots of these people all over the place. What they say may be right yet what they represent is the exact opposite of what they preach.” Library Journal writes, “Filled with sex, scandal, and tragedy, it reads well, but one never gets a feeling for either the people running the movement or for those who participated in it. Milne, who spent years as an aide and bodyguard to Bhagwan, never addresses the question of motivation: Why did thousands of educated Westerners throw away years of their lives, endure privation and disease, and ultimately beggar themselves in the service (worship?) of an Indian guru?” But another reviewer points out that Milne writes, “What had begun as the dawn of a new age, a glorious spiritual movement, already had the makings of a fascist nightmare. All my dreams of showing people how to live in love and harmony seemed to be vanishing. I was doing nothing more than working myself into a state of nervous exhaustion… We were being used as slaves under the guise of spiritual surrender.” (Pg. 201)
- Breaking the Spell: My life as a Rajneeshee and the long journey back to freedom By Jane Stork.
For Jane, what started out as a journey seeking spiritual enlightenment began to descend into darkness as she sacrificed her marriage and children, and eventually – through a monstrous act of attempted murder – her freedom. After serving time in the US, Jane started a new life in Germany, but soon realized she could never truly be free until she had faced up to the past. With an international arrest warrant hanging over her head, and a son who is gravely ill, Jane finally does so with devastating clarity.
– Source: From the book description
- The free-love cult that terrorised America — and became Netflix’s latest must-watch By Sam Wolfsun, The Guardian, April 7, 2018. One of countless (glowing) reviews of the Wild Wild Country documentary series.
The cult that formed was as paranoid as scientology, as bizarre as Jonestown, and as controlled as the Manson family. Yet until the release of Wild Wild Country, Netflix’s latest hit documentary series directed by brothers Mclain and Chapman Way, it had not entered the cultural conversation in the same way as those movements. Now it seems people can talk about little else. The six-part documentary, available to view now, scored 100% on the review site Rotten Tomatoes, and received even more glowing endorsements from other filmmakers, including Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning director of Moonlight, who tweeted: “I’m on my second watch of Wild Wild Country. I’ll probably make it through a third.” The film has spurred hundreds of articles revisiting the events as other journalists attempt to get in touch with former members or relive their sannyasins experiences.
The tenor of the excitement around the show isn’t just about the intimate footage the directors have unearthed, or the fact they secured in-depth interviews with nearly all the cult’s living leaders. Viewers also seem to be shocked that they didn’t already know this story. Jenn McAllister, a YouTuber with more than three million subscribers, had a typical reaction of those not yet born during the period: “I can’t believe that happened in the US and I never knew until now.”
– Source: Sam Wolfson, The Guardian
- My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru, by Tim Guest, currently a London-based journalist. Tim’s mother joined Bhagwan’s community when he was six years old. They “were given Sanskrit names, dressed entirely in orange, and encouraged to surrender themselves into their new family. While his mother worked tirelessly for the cause, Tim-or Yogesh, as he was now called-lived a life of well-meaning but woefully misguided neglect in various communes in England, Oregon, India, and Germany.” (From the book description). Essentially, these are the recollections of someone who grew up in a cult as a child. Reviewers note that the memories of a young child, recalled years later, may not be all that reliable. Those looking for a ‘tell-all’ description of the free-love community would be disappointed. Others note that the second half of the book, in which the author describes the after effects of life in a cult on his family, is much better than the first.
- The Rajneesh Chronicles: The True Story of the Cult that Unleashed the First Act of Bioterrorism on U.S. Soil, by Wim McCormack. The author won a William Allen White award for his investigative coverage of the Rajneesh cult from 1982-1986. A reviewer of this book said, “Dense with facts, and meticulous in its explanation of cult psychology, The Rajneesh Chronicles will turn your knuckles white as you grip it.”
- Sunny Massad (aka Ma Prem Sunshine), one of the former sannyasins interviewed in Wild, Wild Country ↩