The Saffron Swami
On July 29, 1983, a series of bombs ripped through the second and third floors of the Rajneesh Hotel in downtown Portland. No one was injured, apart from the bomber himself, a 34-year-old drifter named Stephen Paster. But with a bang, Portlanders became aware that something had gone seriously awry with the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's experiment in communal living.
Without the bombs, the salmonella and the semiautomatics, the story of the Indian guru and his saffron-robed disciples who settled in rural Oregon could have been the plot for a campy Disney film about seekers of peace, love and multicultural understanding: Guru Goes West. Instead, the Rajneeshees "committed the most significant crimes of their kind in the history of the United States," according to former Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer. "The largest single incident of fraudulent marriages, the most massive scheme of wiretapping and bugging, and the largest domestic mass poisoning."
In 1981, the 50-year-old Bhagwan and a handful of his sannyasins, "seekers of the truth," bought a 64,000-acre, severely overgrazed Big Muddy ranch near Antelope with the intent of creating a self-sufficient utopia of organic farming and dynamic meditation. Two years and $30 million later, more than 600 sannyasins had built a small city, complete with a post office, a school, a shopping mall and housing for 1,000 people.
A former philosophy professor, the Bhagwan wasn't big on self-denial. He had ever-increasing collections of custom-painted Rolls Royces (up to 99 at the end) and gaudy jewelry (valued at $1 million in 1985) and, by some accounts, claimed to have had more sex partners than anyone in history. The Bhagwan's mishmash of Eastern mysticism and Western pop psychology promised his adherents self-actualization through detachment. "When you become a sannyasin," he told his followers, "I initiate you into freedom, and into nothing else. I am destroying your ideologies, creeds, cults, dogmas, and I am not replacing them with anything else."
His feel-good philosophy attracted sannyasins who were overwhelmingly well-educated, affluent urbanites with every intention of remaining in the world-on their own terms. To head off boredom on the ranch, the group bought up a Portland hotel and started the Zorba the Buddha disco at Southwest 10th Avenue and Pine Street, which featured a hot scene and lousy service, since it was staffed by sannyasins who'd never waited tables in their lives.
Initially, the sect met with begrudging tolerance from Oregonians. But that changed in 1982 when they took over the nearby town of Antelope (population 47) and renamed it Rajneeshpuram. Although the move was legal, it was a shock to local residents, many of whom were retired ranchers. Suddenly Rajneeshees wearing shades of red from head to toe and large pictures of the Bhagwan around their necks held most seats on the city council and school board. The local diner became a vegan cafe. Main Street was renamed Mavlana Bhagwan Street. "All of a sudden," former mayor Alice Hensley recalls, "it seemed like our identity was gone."
After the Bhagwan took a vow of silence in 1983, his personal secretary, 33-year-old Ma Anand Sheela, became the public face and voice of the Rajneeshees. Petite, voluble and armed with a take-no-prisoners attitude, Sheela was singularly provocative. She called locals rednecks, racists and bigots. On Nightline she gave Ted Koppel the finger for cutting off her mike after she repeatedly shouted "Bullshit!" and "You are full of shit!" whenever her opponent, 70-year-old Antelope resident Don Smith, spoke.
More disturbing were Sheela's hints of potential violence. "We are here in Oregon to stay, at whatever the cost," she wrote in The Rajneesh Times. "If that means that some of our blood is spilledÉthen this is the price we are prepared to pay." The Rajneeshees had enough firepower to back up these threats. By the fall of 1984, they had amassed an arsenal that included at least 28 semiautomatic rifles and handguns and $250,000 in ammunition. In Antelope, the heavily armed Rajneesh "peace force" tailed visitors and patrolled non-Rajneeshees' homes at night with bright lights.
Words turned to actions in the fall of 1984. In an effort to overwhelm the polls at the Wasco County election, the Rajneeshees bused in 4,300 homeless people from across the country, a strategy foiled by then-Secretary of State Norma Paulus, who set up a committee of 50 lawyers to review all new voter registrations. The Rajneeshees subsequently kicked out most of the homeless, many of whom claimed they were doped with the tranquilizer Haldol during their stay on the ranch.
To keep anti-Rajneesh voters from reaching the polls, sannyasins sprayed salmonella on the salad bars at several popular restaurants in The Dalles, sending 750 people to the hospital with severe food poisoning. It was "the only case of germ warfare against a whole American city," recalls Frohnmayer. There was also a plot, which was never executed, to kill the sect's enemies, including local U.S. Attorney Charles Turner.
Meanwhile, paranoia mounted on the ranch as Sheela and a coterie of elite sannyasins ran the commune in an increasingly authoritarian manner. Jokes were mandated at the beginning of every meeting, and "Rajneeshism"-a religion that was supposed to be ethereal as the clouds and devoid of dogma-was codified in a booklet of rules and rituals. Sheela bugged rooms and telephones, arranged for an ally to stab the Bhagwan's personal physician with a poison syringe (he survived) and had another enemy quarantined with a false-positive AIDS test. The Bhagwan, who had resumed his daily talks, charged that Sheela had tried to poison him with chemicals manufactured in a secret tunnel behind his house.
By fall 1985, state and federal police, the National Guard, the governor's office, the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. Marshal's Office and Frohnmayer were in conference every morning and evening. A showdown loomed. When Sheela and her gang abruptly left the ranch in September, the Bhagwan declared himself back in charge and tried to make her the scapegoat for the sect's bizarre activities. Rajneeshees took off their red robes (saying they were Sheela's idea) and changed Rajneeshpuram back to Antelope.
It was too late. On Oct. 23, 1985, a federal grand jury issued a 35-count indictment charging the Bhagwan with lying on his visa application and, along with Sheela and six other disciples, arranging sham marriages so foreign sannyasins could remain in the United States. The Bhagwan was arrested in Charlotte, N.C., en route to the Bahamas (for a much-needed vacation, according to his followers) in a chartered Learjet equipped with a handgun, $58,522 in cash and a box containing 38 jewel-encrusted watches and bracelets. He eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of immigration fraud, was fined $400,000 and was deported to India. He died in 1990 after changing his name to Osho. All in all, 42 sannyasins were charged and two dozen convicted of various state and federal crimes.
The Bhagwan appealed to affluent baby boomers because he offered a simple plan for spiritual enlightenment without forsaking the pleasures of home. His followers, most of them high achievers, believed they weren't dropping out like hippies of the '70s. Instead, they were "dropping up"-creating a new man and a new society.
His followers believed the Bhagwan merely held up a mirror through which they could see their "true" selves. In the end, however, the mirror warped and Rancho Rajneesh resembled nothing so much as a twisted Zen koan. The more sannyasins clung to their mantra of spontaneity, authenticity and freedom, the less able they were to question their leaders-or to see where the path they had chosen was taking them.
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