It sounds like the plot of an action movie: After Bhagwan Shree (Sir God) Rajneesh arrived in America in 1981, he declared he would build a utopian farming commune in the rural town of Antelope, a Central Oregon community with a population about the size of a high-school classroom. But in years to come, it would become increasingly obvious that Rajneesh was building a cult, and was hellbent on creating an army to carry out his criminal bidding.
Few have as intimate of an understanding of the cult’s sinister leader as local author, journalist and Tin House founder Win McCormack. In his recently published book, The Rajneesh Chronicles: The True Story of the Cult That Unleashed the First Act of Bioterrorism on U.S. Soil (Tin House, 336 pages, $14.95), McCormack presents a detailed timeline of the group’s disturbing exploits, including the poisoning of Wasco County officials and citizens during election season in an effort to sway voting results. Though there are contributions from other sources, the book is largely an assemblage of McCormack’s articles from his time as editor in chief of Oregon Magazine, where he published his column “Rajneesh Watch” from 1983 to 1986.
Through hypnosis and the abuse of Eastern meditation practices, the Bhagwan was able to exercise authoritarian mind control over his disciples, turning spiritual seekers into helpless minions. Police later learned that in order to feed Rajneesh’s appetite for money and power, his followers were forced to surrender all their material wealth to him and engage in drug smuggling and prostitution. According to McCormack, Rajneesh was entertained by his ability to manipulate others, once saying, “This is my circus and I enjoy it.”
The Rajneeshees were infamous for intimidating the public and stockpiling weapons—even participating in gang rape and infecting the public with a potent strain of salmonella. This much was verified in 1985, when an implosion of the group’s leadership gave the FBI enough evidence to raid Rajneesh’s compound. McCormack also gives readers insight into the Bhagwan’s grand attempt to cultivate and release a live AIDS virus upon the world to fulfill a self-proclaimed apocalyptic prophecy.
Dense with facts, and meticulous in its explanation of cult psychology, The Rajneesh Chronicles will turn your knuckles white as you grip it. Or if you’re just interested in the crazy guy from India who was infatuated with Rolls Royces and nitrous oxide, it’s a good read for that too.
READ: Win McCormack’s The Rajneesh Chronicles is available now in local bookstores.