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Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was a spiritual leader with many followers in India in the 1970s. His message spoke to people who questioned tradition, and he offered another way in the ‘New Age’. He was a popular public figure who filled stadiums with loyal believers. People wanted to see him, meet him, be touched by his preaching.
His message spread around the world and international visitors flocked to his ashram in India, which received 30,000 visitors every year. Being in Bhagwan’s presence was a holy experience. He entranced people with his sermons about ‘The New Man’, someone who was not confined by societal constraints and stereotypes.
In 1981, things were heating up for Bhagwan in India, as he was facing criminal charges for tax evasion. There was also an attack on the ashram, as some people did not agree with what he stood for. He decided to look for greener pastures and found it in rural Oregon. His vision was to build a commune where his followers could live, practising the principals of his teachings.
With the help of his supporters, they purchased ‘Big Muddy Ranch’ – a 64,000-acre piece of land, outside the small town of Antelope. Bhagwan’s right-hand person through all of this was a young, ambitious widow by the name of Sheela Silverman, referred to as Ma Anand Sheela within the group.
Rajneeshpuram became a thriving commune, but it was plagued with controversy. During the three years of its existence, tensions rose between the ranch and the local community, and they decided to fight fire with fire…
Guru Bhagwan Rajneesh could not have chosen a better country to start his new ashram than the United States. It was the early 80s, and post-Vietnam War Americans were looking for a deeper sense of peace, an awakening of sorts. New Age philosophies were carried over from the 1970s, but many people wanted more, a connection with something or someone. Enter the wise, bearded guru from India…
They set up the new international headquarters, which they called Rajneeshpuram. The aim was to have 100,000 full-time residents within 10 years.
Bhagwan Rajneesh appealed to intellectuals who were often influential and successful people. His teachings rejected the ‘rigid ways of society’ and promised his followers a ‘new way of being‘. But to expand, the group needed money, and they relied on donations of followers. Many of them were valuable assets, town planners, architects, lawyers – together, they built the commune from scratch.
The community grew at a rapid rate. Within two years the town of 7,000 residents had multiple homes, townhouses, apartments, a library, a hospital, restaurants, malls, a post office, a town bus service and even an airstrip and several private jets. Everyone wore red or pink and could easily be identified as followers (otherwise called sannyasins) by the outside community. They all wore black beaded necklaces with a photo of Bhagwan Rajneesh around their necks.
An estimated three million dollars was spent in the construction of the town. Businesses were set up and flourished. Within the commune was a restaurant chain called Zorba the Buddha, that brought in more than $1 million a year. There was also a Zorba the Buddha disco that charged $50 cover charge – a price many people happily paid to get their jiggy on, while they were buzzing in a state of enlightenment. Chiyono, the beauty salon, made herbal lotions which were sold all over the country. Noah’s Ark was the boutique chain, and a laundry franchise Dyer took care of all shades of red for their customers.
The newspaper, Rajneesh Times, came out weekly and sold 4000 copies. 15,000 copies of the monthly Bhagwan magazine were distributed outside of the commune. Rajneesh publications: books, audio and video cassettes yielded an income of $1.1 million in 1983 alone. Then there was the campus of Rajneesh International Meditation University offered an array of courses, ranging in price from $50 to $7,500.
Rajneespuram hosted the first World Festival in July 1982, and 15,000 followers came for mass, to see Rajneesh in person and partake in mass meditation. It was also a general celebration with activities like rafting, swimming, dancing… At night the restaurants, discos and casino celebrated the cash rolling in. The festivals brought in $10million annually in donations and sales. Once everyone was at the ranch, they were invited to renounce their everyday lives and stay at the ashram, building their own utopia.
Educated people: teachers, doctors, lawyers gave up their homes, families and careers to join the group. They felt it was a revolution that they were going to change the thinking of the world. That they were the chosen ones to facilitate the change. As opposed to the fire and brimstone sermons in traditional Christian churches, Bhagwan offered a nirvana on earth, not in the afterlife. It was not an abstract projection, but a real place where people could come and live their best lives.
Days consisted of meditation, making music and dancing with feverish happiness… Nudity was commonplace, and free love was encouraged. Sannyasins had sex during group meditation sessions to reach a state which Bhagwan called “super consciousness”.
Apart from religious practices, people had jobs, working in the commune’s restaurants, in vocational professions, such as nursing or teaching – in whatever way they were qualified to serve the community best. If it was decided a new arrival had to clean toilets, they did so with gratitude, because it was for the greater good of the community. It seemed harmonious to many people, but what was brewing beneath the surface?
Rajneeshpuram was very isolated, with the nearest town being the small village of Antelope. Only 60 residents called Antelope home: it had one school, one church a post office and a café. It was pretty much in the middle of nowhere and the population was mainly made up of retirees who wanted the peace and quiet of the countryside. But that was not going to last.
Antelope residents saw building materials and mobile homes being brought to the ‘Big Muddy Ranch’ and realised that something big was cooking. The land was not zoned for development. The Rajneeshees had broken their agreement to use the ranch for agricultural purposes, and many legal battles ensued.
Residents kicked back, patrolling the entrance to the ranch with firearms, shooting warning shots. Posters and T-shirts were printed with slogans like ‘Ban the Bhagwan’ and ‘Bhagwan – NOT WANTED – Dead or Alive’. The commune responded, making it clear that they were there to stay, using the ruthless and feisty Ma Anand Sheela as their spokesperson.
Although Bhagwan Rajneesh was the official leader, he was seldom seen outside of the ranch. He indulged in the adoration of his people, but more so, he loved the money they sent his way. His robes were adorned with jewels, and he had a particular affinity for diamond-studded wristwatches.
Every day, Rajneeshees lined up on a dirt road, for miles and miles as Bhagwan drove by in his chosen Rolls Royce for the day. He owned more than 90 in the end, each with a price tag of about $60,000. Appointed Sannyasins kept all of the vehicles in mint condition at a location inside the commune.
He also liked spending money, and Sheela was sent into Antelope, to buy all the properties that were up for sale. Sannyasins descended onto Antelope, moving into the newly acquired properties. It seemed like a game of Monopoly – locals were offered good money for their homes, and they couldn’t resist, so they sold. After a couple of months, they realised that the sannyasins were taking over the entire town.
By April 1982, the town of Antelope was desperate to protect their village from being swallowed whole by the commune and decided to disincorporate itself to prevent the Rajneeshees from taking over control. They would rather have no town at all than live in a town run by Bhagwan Rajneeshee. They felt that if the motivation to attach the commune as a legitimate neighbourhood of the city was taken away, the Rajneeshees would back down. However, the majority of the town’s residents were newly relocated sannyasins, so the townspeople lost the vote.
Celebrating their victory, sannyasins changed the town’s only café to another Zorba the Buddha and put up a sign at the town border, saying:
“The City of Rajneesh – Welcome to You.”
More and more sannyasins moved into Antelope, all clad in shades of red. Their nocturnal sexually charged meditations were audible throughout the quiet streets of the small town, and more conservative residents struggled to accept their new neighbours.
The people of Oregon were aware of the conflict in Antelope and kept a close eye on how it all unfolded. Rajneeshpuram had a lot of resistance, but they never backed down from a fight and often won conflicts because it boiled down to a numbers game. They hit back, claiming that they were a peaceful group and that radical Christian organisations were hell-bent on driving them out of the area.
Because the nation was still reeling shock after the Jonestown tragedy, fears were that the commune in Oregon was heading the same way. The media shone a light on their practices, calling the group a sex cult, a nudist colony.
In 1983, a hotel owned and run by the Rajneeshees in Portland was bombed. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, but it was a clear message: they were not welcome.
As things were heating up between local residents and Rajneeshpuram, the group kept growing in numbers. As a leader, Ma Anand Sheela’s power increased. She called herself the Queen and always had a firearm on her person. Her house, ‘Jesus Grove’ was shared with about twenty of her closest confidantes. After nightly visits to Bhagwan, she went home and regaled her friends with everything that was said between them. They revered him and hung on every word she repeated.
The Rajneeshees were happy in their new home and would do anything to protect the town they had built up from the dust. So they prepared for battle, taking up arms to defend their commune. They acquired thousands of automatic firearms and ammunition and commenced combat training. Sheela was fearless and announced on a TV interview that she did not believe in turning the other cheek. She warned:
“We are here in Oregon to stay – at whatever the cost. If that means some blood is spilled, then this is the price we are prepared to pay.”
She loved the publicity and liked to be provocative. Because of her cheeky style and candid interviews, more people became interested in the story, which meant more people started reading up about Rajneesh – book and cassette sales increased and throughout the world, Rajneeshee communes sprouted like mushrooms. During this time, Oregon’s Rajneeshpuram was the international headquarters of the group and every year the World Festival brought people from all over the world. Many people chose to stay forever.
The commune was growing strong, and after taking over the town of Antelope, they hoped to increase their power throughout the greater Wasco County. When an election was announced for November 1984, they put forward Rajneeshee candidates to run against locals.
The city of The Dalles, with its 10,500 residents was the epicentre of the election. Although the Rajneeshees had managed to overpower the much smaller town of Antelope, The Dalles would be no walk-over.
They employed qualified professionals who lived in the commune to work on the campaign. Their aim was to win two of three seats on the Wasco County Circuit Court.
Soon after they launched their campaign, they announced a charitable plan, initiated by the leaders of the commune. The ‘Share-a-Home’ program promised to provide food and shelter for homeless people from all over the United States.
But the main idea wasn’t all about uplifting the poor. There was another motive behind the seemingly philanthropic campaign… Yes, sannyasins did, in fact, pick homeless people off the streets of cities all over the country and took them back to Rajneeshpuram. People were given free bus transfers and arrived at the utopian commune where they were given red clothing, food, free beer and a place to stay. There was only one condition… They had to vote for Rajneeshee candidates in the local election.
When the Wasco County clerk caught wind of the situation, the pressure was on to intervene. The county brought in a rule that rejected all new voters’ registrations. If someone wanted to register to vote, they had to be older than 18 with proof of a residential address in the electorate. In addition, they were asked to prove that they had been living there for more than 20 days. By implementing this rule, people from the ‘Share-a-Home’ program were prohibited from voting.
Rajneeshees were outraged and said that the move was unconstitutional – no person over the age of 18 should be prevented from voting in a United States local election, no matter where they lived. But no matter how much noise they made, the Wasco County Clerk did not budge.
Back at Rajneeshpuram, the new residents became restless. Many of them only came for the free food and accommodation and did not subscribe to Bhagwan and his teachings, which created problems. Some had mental health issues that needed professional care. The situation was threatening to spin out of control.
One day, Sheela was held in a chokehold by a newcomer on the main street of the commune, and her inner-circle decided they had to take measures to keep the street people in check. The sedative, Haldol, was given to them without their knowledge – it was injected into the two ‘free’ beers they were given daily. Ones that still refused to comply with the norms of Rajneeshpuram were physically removed. They were given antipsychotic drugs and transported by bus to Portland where they were thrown out and left on the streets.
William Allen, a 28-year-old man, was one of the people who were pushed out of the ranch. He disappeared, and some days later, his remains were found behind a restaurant in Government Camp (?). He had died of hypothermia after being given a fatal dose of Elavil, an anti-depressant.
His family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Rajneeshee physician, Ma Anand Puja many years later, and won.
But back at the ranch in 1984, the homeless contingent was not their biggest problem. It did not look like the Rajneeshees were going two win their desired two-seats, but they were not going to back down either. They concocted a plan to hit back where it would hurt. If the Rajneeshees weren’t allowed to vote, they were going to make sure that other voters would also be prevented.
Eight sannyasins were hand-picked by Ma Anand Sheela and her trusted inner-circle to execute a diabolical plan…
In September 1984, the city of The Dalles was hit by an unprecedented outbreak of food poisoning. People in the town became violently ill. Symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, fever, nausea, severe headaches, delirium, abdominal pain, and bloody stools were reported every day. People flooded into emergency wards. Victims ranged from babies to the elderly, no one was safe. A pregnant woman was infected and went into labour two days later. The baby was given only a 5% chance of survival but fortunately pulled through.
In the end, a total of 751 people had contracted salmonellosis, of which 45 had to be hospitalized.
Health Investigators questioned patients and found that each and every one had the same symptoms. One common thread was that they had recently eaten out in The Dalles. All up, ten fast-food restaurants were contaminated over two months. Most of the patients recalled having eaten food from salad bars.
Test results showed that the strain found in all the patients was the same, a rare kind called Salmonella enterica. It was resistant to antibiotics, so other than hydrate and monitor patients, doctors could not do much to help them.
Because many restaurants’ workers became ill, the health department ruled that the outbreak was the cause of poor hygiene practices. Nobody went out to restaurants anymore, waiters and kitchen staff resigned, and there was a sense of panic. All but one of the ten restaurants eventually went out of business, costing nine local families and their staff their livelihood.
The people of The Dalles suspected the Rajneeshees had something to do with the outbreak but had no idea why they would do it. The election was still months away, so no one thought that had anything to do with it. It seemed like a frenzied suspicion, and in a way, it divided the town. Others felt another group had caused it, hoping to frame the Rajneeshees.
Either way, when election time rolled in, residents of The Dalles showed up in force. Everyone who could legally vote did so – it was the only way to stop the Rajneeshees from taking over their town as they did in Antelope.
And it worked – Rajneeshpuram withdrew their candidates, and local The Dalles candidates won the election. For a moment, it seemed that things would return to normal.
But the mass-outbreak had left the townsfolk with lingering suspicions, and an investigation was launched by the Oregon Public Health Division and the Centres for Disease Control. One year after the attack, they were able to confirm that it was not poor hygiene that caused the outbreak – food had been contaminated.
Congressman James H Weaver accused the Rajneeshees in a speech in the US House of Representatives of…
“…sprinkling Salmonella culture on salad bar ingredients in eight restaurants.”
Oregon journalist, Leslie Zaitz, published a series of 20 articles about the investigation into the Salmonella outbreak, exposing many details about what went on beyond the gates of Rajneeshpuram. Sheela and her trusted followers did not like this and included them on their steadily growing hit-list.
Sheela was becoming more and more paranoid and met her inner circle in her private bedroom or in hidden chambers. A bookcase opened into an underground room that had access to an escape tunnel. If law enforcement arrived, or if there was any other threat, they would have been out of there, without looking back.
Security increased in Rajneeshpuram, and many residents of the ranch owned firearms. Necessary training was provided, and it seemed like they were raising an army. Sannyasins were brainwashed and made to believe that the world outside of their compound was out to destroy them, and they had to take extreme measures to defend themselves and their way of life.
But it wasn’t only a case of Rajneeshees against the world. There was also friction within the group. Sheela claimed that she was a tigress and warned sannyasins not to go against her. If she suspected someone of talking to the press or plotting against her, she would summon them to her home. Inside Jesus Grove, they would be given truth serum before they were interrogated. On one occasion, a man called Felton Walker revealed a plot to kidnap their guru, Bhagwan Rajneesh. Like the homeless people, Felton was also removed from the commune and left at an undisclosed location.
Another group that was rising strongly within the ranks of the cult was a group of investigators referred to as the Hollywood Faction. They bought a house in LA where they held parties and fundraisers, and told people about Bhagwan Rajneesh. The ex-wife of a Hollywood producer, Ma Prem Hasya, brought them all together and often spent time at Rajneeshpuram.
With them, they brought a massive influx of cash, and because they showered Bhagwan with expensive gifts, he welcomed many of them into his home. Hasya married Bhagwan’s physician, Swami Devaraj, and together they were Bhagwan’s closest friends. This infuriated Sheela, as she was used to being the guru’s most trusted envoy. She launched a covert investigation into Hasya and her friends and believed that they were plotting to kill Bhagwan and seize control of Rajneeshpuram.
In turn, Rajneeshees became suspicious of Sheela, and she lost a lot of support. Information about the mass-poisoning made them realise that perhaps the group was not the peaceful haven they thought it was. Things were not what they used to be.
It was one year after the outbreak in The Dalles when Sheela realised her number was up. On the 14th of September 1985, together with a delegation of about 20 top-ranking Rajneeshpuram residents, she left the ranch. Among the deserters was a scientist and physician, Ma Anand Puja (well, Diane Yvonne Onang), head of the Rajneeshpuram medical clinic. Only after they left, did the rest of the cult learn what they had been up to.
Two days after their departure, Bhagwan Rajneesh broke his vow of silence and called a press conference. He turned on his once-were loyal followers, denouncing Sheela and accused her and others of various crimes, including a planned assassination of a U.S. Attorney, Charles H Turner in Portland.
Bhagwan called Sheela and her group ‘a gang of fascists’ who used his silence to their advantage. He implied that they had embezzled $50 Million from a Swiss bank account. He said he could not prove it, seeing as he did not have access to the account which was set up to receive donations from European communes. The guru asked authorities to investigate.
On the 2nd of October 1985, a task force of 50 members, made up of agents from the FBI, Oregon State Police, Immigration and the National Guard executed search warrants in Rajneeshpuram. They located the commune’s laboratory and found evidence that Puja experimented with harmful bacteria and poisons. Hers was essentially a bioterrorism lab.
Bhagwan said that he suspected her tests had something to do with the mass salmonella outbreak in The Dalles. And he was right on the money. Investigators found bacteria matching the contaminant check language responsible for poisoning – it was the exact same, rare type of salmonella that had caused more than 700 people unimaginable pain and trauma.
Through witness statements, investigators learnt that Rajneeshees dressed in plain clothes before going into The Dalles, so no one knew they came from the ranch. They carried small spray bottles, containing salmonella in water and sprayed it onto the food and sauces at salad bars throughout the town. They wanted to prevent residents from voting in the local elections.
Authorities were puzzled: if the election was only in November – why were the people poisoned in September? The answer was rather chilling: the mass salmonella outbreak was only a rehearsal, to see how effective it would be – how many people would be hindered. Puja and her helpers had made an attempt in August too, but it didn’t seem to work quite as well. They had sprayed the contaminant on vegetables at a supermarket, as well as door handles at the local courthouse, but it resulted in only a handful of sick people.
In November, they were targeting the town’s water supply but fortunately did not succeed. The initial plan to spread Typhoid fever was also uncovered. If the Rajneeshees had gone ahead with it, it would have resulted in many deaths. They opted for mass-poisoning instead of mass-murder.
The Mayor of Rajneeshpuram, Swami Krishna Deva (well, David Berry Knapp) realised that he was on his own. Sheela and her gang had deserted him to face the music of many accusations alone. He decided it would be the best course of action to step out of the commune and turn State witness. He told authorities precisely what went on inside the cult, what Sheela and her followers had done, what they had attempted.
He stated, that Sheela:
“…had talked with [Bhagwan Rajneesh] about the plot to decrease voter turnout in The Dalles by making people sick. Sheela said that he commented that it was best not to hurt people, but if a few died not to worry.”
Most of the conspirators claimed they were under the impression that orders came directly from Bhagwan, as Sheela always consulted him regarding big decisions. Exactly how much he actually knew about the poisoning plot, remains unclear.
The Rajneeshees had moved away from being a religious cult and became a structure that more resembled an organised crime family. The list of crimes unearthed during the investigation was staggering. Voting fraud and drug smuggling was only the tip of the iceberg…
During the search of Rajneeshpuram, authorities discovered that the entire commune was wiretapped: homes, public spaces, even Bhagwan’s private quarters. Bear in mind that the commune housed more than 7,000 people, it was a significant community. All their conversations were monitored without their knowledge. Thousands of conversations were recorded, and tapes were stored by people working for Sheela. They also read all incoming and outgoing mail. This was the largest operation of wiretapping ever uncovered within the United States. People joined the commune, thinking they would be free, yet they were more controlled than ever before.
The INS uncovered multiple cases of immigration fraud within the commune. The Rajneeshees arranged more than 400 green card marriages so foreign members could stay in America. They followed the same pattern: an American and a foreign sannyasin would leave the commune and don civilian clothes to set up a fake life in a city far away from Oregon, like Houston. They lived together for a while, then got married, to appear authentic. Once the paperwork was done, they’d return to the ranch and join their actual partners again.
Crimes became increasingly dangerous over time. In August 1984 two Wasco County officials were given water during a visit to the ranch. Both got violently ill and had to be hospitalised. As it turned out, the water contained the same strain of Salmonella that was used to poison the people of The Dalles the following month. The implication was that Puja had seized the opportunity to use the men as guinea pigs.
On January 14, 1985, the Wasco County Planning Department office was set on fire. Inside were all the files of disputes between the Rajneeshees and the surrounding community. The fire caused tremendous damage, destroying a significant number of the county’s files and records.
Law enforcement also uncovered multiple murder plots. Sheela’s faction had a hit list with the names of at least ten politicians. Journalist Les Zeits was also on the list for simply doing his job as a reporter. Secret handwritten documents revealed an assassination plot of Oregon’s U.S. Attorney Charles Turner in Portland. He had been appointed to investigate illegal activities within the community of Rajneeshpuram.
A group of four Rasjneeshees in plain clothes were lying in wait at his place of work, ready to shoot and kill him. Lucky for him, they had to abort the mission when everything did not go according to plan.
Documents found in Sheela’s home also outlined the attempted murder of Bhagwan’s doctor, Swami Devaraj. Sheela had ordered Australian-born sannyasin, Catherine Jane Stork who took the name Shanti Bhadra, to stab the doctor with an adrenaline-filled syringe. Shanti B, injected Devaraj with the hypodermic needle during a celebration in the commune, almost killing him in front of thousands of people.
Here’s an exert from the cryptic notes. The doctor is referred to as ‘D.R.’:
“Sees D.R. get up. Shanti B near him when he stands up. Other 3 in back. D.R. foaming at the mouth. Put him in ambulance. Takes him to RMS. Havidasi told Ava that D.R. said that someone injected him with something. Shanti B real excited that day… D.R. injected with high dosage of adrenalin.”
Sheela later claimed that this was necessary, as she had reason to believe the physician was drugging Bhagwan, causing a slow journey to his imminent death. Rajneeshpuram residents refused to accept this and felt Sheela had acted out of jealousy and wanted to remove the person that was closest to Bhagwan, so she could triumph over him and his wife, Hasya.
After Sheela’s departure, Bhagwan Rajneesh knew she would stay informed about events at the ranch. He knew how to get to her and did the exact thing she wanted to prevent from happening: he appointed Ma Prem Hasya from the Hollywood faction as his new personal secretary and president of the Rajesh Foundation. She was the polar opposite of Sheela, not feisty and provocative. He main aim was to restore peace within the commune and fix the public perception of the cult by addressing the media in calm and understated interviews.
Meanwhile, Sheela and her followers were hiding out in West Germany. They had rented out an entire guest house, paid for with donations made to the Rajneeshees. Sheela sold her story to German magazine ‘Stern’ and posed in the nude, supporting her argument that she literally had nothing to hide.
U.S. law enforcement had gathered enough evidence to start making arrests. On the 28th of October 1985, Sheela, Puja and Shanti B were arrested in Germany and held in a German prison while authorities negotiated an extradition agreement. The three women arrived in Portland in February 1986, three months after their arrest.
Back on American soil, they were indicted for the attempted murder of Swami Devaraj, as well as assault (for poisoning Judge William Huse during his visit to the ranch) and also the second-degree assault for poisoning The Dalles Commissioner Raymond Matthews. Other charges included: wiretapping, arson and immigration fraud.
Sheela and Puja were held accountable for their roles in the mass-poisoning of The Dalles. The incident became known as the “1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack” – to date the most significant incident of biowarfare within the United States of America.
Dr Michael Skeels, Director of the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory at the time stated,
“We lost our innocence over this … We really learned to be more suspicious … The first significant biological attack on a U.S. community was not carried out by foreign terrorists smuggled into New York but by legal residents of a U.S. community. The next time it happens, it could be with more lethal agents … We in public health are really not ready to deal with that.”
On July 22, 1986, Sheela and Puja entered Alford pleas for the Salmonella attack and the other charges. In U.S. law, that means the defendant denies guilt but accepts that damning evidence against him or her would result in a guilty verdict, thereby avoiding a drawn-out trial.
For their crimes, they received sentences ranging from three to twenty years, to be served concurrently.
Shanti Bhadra (well, Jane Stork) was convicted of the attempted murder of Swami Devaraj in 1986 and served almost three years in prison. She was also convicted for her role in the conspiracy to kill Oregon’s U.S. Attorney Charles Turner and sentenced to time served and five years of probation.
Whenever the cameras were on, Sheela gave them precisely what they wanted: more controversy. She denied the embezzlement accusations Bhagwan made and said that HE was the one who had changed his vision of Rajneeshpuram. According to Sheela, he wanted to change the group to become a doomsday cult. She went so far as to say that Bhagwan was a fraud and that he pumped ‘laughing gas’ into the auditoriums where he held his discourses making his followers believe it was his message that made them ecstatically happy.
Sheela only served 29 months and Puja 39 of their 20-year sentences in a minimum-security federal prison. After their release, they fled to Switzerland to avoid further charges. They set up a nursing home, taking care of the elderly.
U.S. law enforcement realised they had to arrest Bhagwan Rajneesh to put an end to it all. The most substantial charges against him would be related to immigration. There was a heightened sense of paranoia and fear at the ranch, not knowing when authorities would come and take their leader. Many were prepared to sacrifice their lives to protect Bhagwan.
Planning his arrest became a major operation – as authorities did not want the situation to escalate into a mass shoot-out. They were aware of the arsenal of weapons on the ranch and knew the Rajneeshees were ready to fight fire with fire. The National Guard was put on stand-by, and multiple agencies were involved in planning the arrest. There was a definite sense that a storm was brewing…
A neighbouring farmer who had been asked to keep a vigilant eye on the commune reported that he had seen two leer jets arrive at Rajneeshpuram and take off shortly after. It was significant evidence: as the prized passenger aboard was none other than Bhagwan Rajneesh. He had fled Oregon in one of his private planes, and there was no telling where he was headed. Investigators tracked down the plane and followed it as it made its way to the East Coast. They had gathered enough information to predict that his intended destination was Charlotte, North Carolina. So that is where they waited for him. As soon as the plane hit the runway, US Marshalls took control of the situation. They found Bhagwan inside the plane, hiding behind a seat, and arrested him on the spot.
Back in Rajneeshpuram, thousands of sannyasins gathered to watch their handcuffed guru on live TV and could not believe that he would have deserted them. On his plane were many valuables and a large amount of cash, enough to set him up comfortably somewhere else.
In a strange turn of events, Bhagwan was not taken back to Oregon straight away. Instead, he was carted all over the country for two to three weeks, made to stay in various prisons. This erratic journey took its toll on the guru, and he decided to enter an Alford plea and agree to leave the United States. He received a 10-year suspended sentence for immigration crimes, was fined $400,000 and was deported to his native India. He was never charged with any of the crimes regarding the bio-terror attack on The Dalles.
Not long after Bhagwan ran away, the commune on Big Muddy Ranch imploded. As he was leaving with his bag on his back, a German resident said that “with the old man gone, it’s over here.” Families left the commune to start over somewhere new, friends said goodbye for the last time, and before long, the residents clad in red were a thing of the past.
The people of Antelope could reclaim their town and restore it as best they could. Rajneesh signs were painted over, and their home was called Antelope again. It was never the same, though, as many people chose to leave forever when the Rajneeshees took over.
A company called Washington Construction purchased Big Muddy Ranch for $3.6 million in 1991. The Washington Family Ranch was donated to Young Life, a Christian youth organisation in 1996. Young Life runs summer camps, and retreats and residents of Antelope say they no longer feel under threat.
When he arrived back in India, Bhagwan Rajneesh was welcomed as a hero by his followers. He returned to his ashram in Prune were he continued spreading his message. Many previous Rajneeshpuram residents followed him there, making India their new home. Bhagwan made public appearances and blessed crowds with his smile and hands, and as years went on, he did not have public discourses anymore.
Towards the end of 1987, Bhagwan publicly stated that he believed his ill health could be attributed to his time spent in U.S. prisons. He suffered from nausea and fatigue and pain and claimed that he was poisoned. His allegations were investigated, but no evidence could be found.
In December 1988, he changed his name to OSHO, Japanese for a religious teacher, a title usually used by a Buddhist priest.
His followers are still active around the world, his books are for sale, under the label OSHO. His ashram in India is called the OSHO International Meditation Resort. It is only one of the hundreds of active OSHO Meditation Centers around the world.
Netflix released a six-part docu-series by Jay and Mark Duplass that delves deep into the whole organization of Rajneeshees with first-hand accounts of vital role-players. If this story interests you – check it out.
OSHO passed away in January 1990 at the age of 58, although he seemed much older behind his long grey beard. His trusted doctor, Swami Devaraj, was by his side when he passed on. His ashes are kept at his ashram in Pune, with a plaque saying: “OSHO / Never Born / Never Died / Only Visited this Planet Earth between / Dec 11 1931 – Jan 19 1990.”
OSHO’s message was unique, pulling from both Eastern and Western philosophy. His style was unconventional, and he sometimes seemed to have poked fun at the notion of being a guru. He freely cussed during his discourses and used humour to mock conventional norms of society. His unconventional ideas included the idea that sex was the first step on the path to what he called “super consciousness.” His followers were given license by their spiritual leader to explore free love and do what they pleased.
He admitted to not taking things too seriously and set up Rajneeshee’s 10 commandments ‘Just For Fun’. Although many people support his beliefs, others question his validity as a guru. Was he genuinely concerned with his followers’ happiness, or was he perhaps nothing more than a shrewd businessman who saw an opportunity to extract millions of dollars from his community by merely telling them what they wanted to hear?
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