For Love and Money

Remembering Here&Now

Part two of Max Brecher’s: ‘A Radically New Look at Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and a Controversial American Commune’.

Read part 1: The Zaitz Alert

How did The Oregonian frame the Rajneesh story? What were its working hypotheses and points de départ in its nearly 90,000 word, 20 part series, “For Love and Money”? While the basic message was relentlessly humped home in practically every oxygen sucking sentence and syllable, it wasn’t explicitly spelled out until nearly a year later in an article called “Dissecting a Sect”.

On The Road Again - Oregonian

Written by fellow Oregonian Ron Lovell, “Vivisecting a Sect” would have been a more appropriate header. Because at the time of the 13 month research (beginning in the spring of 1984) and publication ‑ between June 30 and July 19, 1985 ‑ the city-commune and sannyasins were still very much alive and kicking.

“The first goal was to follow the money trail, which was ‘what any prosecutor would do,’ says [Dick] Thomas”, who at the time was an assistant managing editor. [1] Prosecutor? Okay, so this was not to be “the biggest investigation [emphasis mine] ever undertaken by the newspaper”, as advertised in the article, but, rather, the biggest prosecution. In other words, not a fair and balanced pursuit of what’s going to set you free after first pissing you off.

What’s the difference between a prosecution and investigation? Something like this. Zaitz said “we heard from the start that they were involved in drug traffic, that some of their income came from it. We spent a lot of time on this aspect but could find no evidence in the United States of any link to illegal drug traffic.'” [2] In an investigation you say what you looked for and what you did ‑ and didn’t ‑ find.

For example, I looked for a direct link between the Vatican ‑ specifically, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ‑ and the conspiracies against Rajneesh in the US. And while I discovered a lot of circumstantial evidence indicating that there might have been a link between one and the other, I didn’t come up with anything I or anyone else should think of as proof.

In a prosecution, like The Oregonian articles, then and since, you only mention what reflects badly on the prosecuted. Thus there was no mention of the reporters finding no evidence of drug trafficking. It remained, as Aristotle used to say, exo tou dramatos ‑ literally, out of the drama, or out of the question.

There were other slants and “oversights” too numerous and complicated to mention. Like what happened in the wake of Rajneesh’s night flight to Charlotte. Government sources were keen to project the fleeing-justice and -the country scenario. The ultimate destination, according to them, was Bermuda. And The Oregonian, specifically Zaitz and his partner in slime, James Long, were aiding and abetting that publicity campaign.

Long interviewed one of the Oregon pilots for pungent details of what happened. [3] But he either neglected to ask anything about the alleged Bermuda leg of the trip or print the answer. Fortunately for us and a more correct version of history, Swami Satyam Anando, a sannyasin who came to work for The Rajneesh Times the day after his master’s arrest, was less remiss.

He drove out to Hillsboro, just outside Portland, to interview Premier Jets pilots Gary Nicholson and Andy Andrews. “When asked if they were intercepted by military aircraft, as was reported in some of the early press accounts of the flight, Gary [Nicholson] responded with a flat ‘Negative!'” [4]

When asked whether there was ever any plan to fly onwards to Bermuda or somewhere else out of the country, Nicholson said there was no way he could fly to Bermuda, and no way he would.

It’s not that Bermuda is beyond the 1500-mile flight range of the Lear [24]. Flying over the Atlantic, Gary said, requires high frequency navigation communications capability, and that’s not installed in his company’s plane. Plus, in order to leave the country, it is first necessary to clear U.S. Customs.

The more recent difference of vision with Ma Anand Bhagawati and her friends also never appeared on The Oregonian‘s radar screen. And perhaps most importantly, there was no mention of what didn’t happen. Namely, that despite all the warnings that Rajneeshpuram was a powder keg ‑ another Jonestown type disaster in the making ‑ the sannyasins eventually evacuated central Oregon without spilling a single drop of blood ‑ theirs or anyone else’s. No mass suicides and murders that so many self-anointed “cult experts” had been solemnly predicting, and possibly secretly hoping for, for nearly a decade.

In The Quill article Dick Thomas noted that the series had the full support of top management from the start. That included a separate Radio Shack TRS 80 with a 15 megabyte hard disk drive (another 15 megabytes was added later on) and an escalating budget eventually weighing in at $250,000. [5] By the summer of 1985 “the team had collected 25,000 pages of documents and compiled information on 4,400 people. By spring 1986, it had collected 40,000 pages of documents.” [6]

Sociologists Barry van Driel and Jacob van Belzen, who usually make their living teasing out the subtle assumptions and hidden agendas in texts ‑ what the French call the sous-entendu ‑ were rather amazed by the candidness of The Oregonian reporters in The Quill article. [7] They wrote:

“Although this paper focuses on the media role in opinion formation, the media have also been a more active party in some controversies surrounding the new religions. For example, the May 1986 issue of The Quill, a monthly magazine for professional journalists, discussed The Oregonian‘s influence in the Rajneeshpuram incidents. This issue of The Quill carried the caption “Bagging the Bhagwan,” which reflected The Oregonian‘s success, through a $250,000 investigation, in discrediting the movement’s commune in Oregon and helping bring about its downfall. It is interesting to note that journalists of The Oregonian and editors of The Quill stated explicitly their own perceptions of the Rajneesh movement, something that can otherwise be measured only with difficulty by content-analyzing newspaper articles. Indeed, in this article it became obvious that editors and journalists shared the stereotypes and suspicions of the general public, and that these suspicions guided them when selecting or gathering relevant information. For example, The Quill‘s editor evidenced a clear anticultist stance with remarks like “Human beings are ever willing to exchange the uncertainties of a free-will existence for the certainties involved in blindly following a charismatic leader”. [8]

So, finally, according to The Oregonian management and authors Les Zaitz and Jim Long (with Scotta Callister as editor), what was the whole truth about Rajneesh and Rajneeshpuram? It’s in the title. One expert on the subject pretty much summed it up.

“‘Money is definitely the underlying reason for the entire organization, I would say,’ said Steven James Sobel, 39, who worked as a security guard on the ranch in 1982 and even became a sannyasin for about four months. ‘I would say Bhagwan is concerned with, possibly, humanity, but I would say Sheela and Jayananda and all the rest of those people are concerned with millions of dollars.'” [9]

And since The Oregonian had saddled itself with the crowd pleasing chore of following the money, its readers were dragged into a sounds like an annual report ride. Paragraph after paragraph and page after page of lists of organizations, when they were set up and where, and income and outlay down to the penny. And a dreary litany of the same recurring names ‑ Ma or Swami So and So, aka …, from such and such. Her father was a banker. He used to play ice hockey. I wonder if they would have been quite so nit picking had they been writing about Father Joe, Sister Mary, Pope John Paul II or Mother Teresa (aka Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu with Albanian origins and Indian citizenship).

And testimony from this bank manager, insurance agent, used car salesman (some of which were Rolls Royces), ex-employees, critics who had been sued for rabble rousing vilifications and, of course, the all pervasive “former sannyasins”. That’s why Zaitz had reflexively written “former sannyasins” in that email to Ma Anand Bhagawati. Because over the years he had chewed the fat with so many of them. In fact, for the most part, they were the only kind of sannyasins willing to have anything to do with him.

Some of those former sannyasin tales are both touching and credible ‑ at least as far as their perceptions of reality are concerned. And readers can well understand why seeing things as they did, they would feel betrayed and hold a lasting grudge against the top management at Rajneeshpuram ‑ notably Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh’s secretary ‑ and by extension Rajneesh himself.

For example, the German sannyasin who thought the whole organization had a lot of explaining to do. “‘First they had to explain why Bhagwan moved and left all his people back in India,” [Ulrich] Muller said. “Because he had promised them, ‘You can live here for all your life and you will become enlightened if you do what I say.'” [10]

Anyone who thought those premises were written into the small print of the sannyasin contract was pretty much missing all the books, chapters and verses. Because as far as I can see ‑ and I’m certainly no take my word for it expert on the matter ‑ the only promise Rajneesh made to his people on the path was something akin to the mystic notion of kenosis ‑ emptying. The utter dismantling and demolition of their egos, those socially constructed and maintained layers of conditioning and personalities that prevented them from seeing and being in what Christians call God and Rajneesh reality.

“Yes, I am a killer, in a way. I have to kill you because that is the only way for you to be reborn. I have to cut you completely from your past, I have to destroy your biography. Then only, the new can arise.” [11]

A lot of the other so-called inside track talk is pure self aggrandizing hooey. Such as the tales stemming from “Michael Barnett, 55, also known as Anand Somendra, a therapy group leader who had earned a special place in Rajneesh’s heart during the Poona years”. [12] That “special place in Rajneesh’s heart” might have been how Barnett recalled and related his relationship with the master to the ever fact checking reporters, but anyone delving into the historical record will arrive at a more nuanced and accurate portrait.

For Barnett was ‑ and for all I know still is ‑ a world class egomaniac. In the Poona ashram years he was competing with other group leaders to be the best, and with Rajneesh to be the guru. At one point it had leapt so far out of hand that he wrote, “Beloved Master, If you were here right now, I think I would hit you. If you don’t recognize me soon and start saying yes to me instead of no, I am going to have to kill you.” Rajneesh responded: “Somendra … thank you, Somendra. I also will need a Judas; otherwise the story will remain incomplete.” [13]

So money was obviously an important theme in the Rajneesh story. At least as far as The Oregonian team read ‑ and wrote ‑ the script. The underlying motive for that dogged and dogmatic approach is not immediately obvious, even for those who, like me, have long studied these things. Fortunately, sociologist James Beckford has lent us a helping hand and the proper pair of glasses.

“Consequently [,] the case against some cults hangs on the decision whether or not they fall within the class of ‘religion’. Opponents of cults therefore try to show that cults do not display the defining characteristics of a religion, but are better classified as economic or political enterprises with only a veneer of religious identity.” [14]

What about the second prong ‑ the first, actually ‑ of their pulling out all the stops prosecution? What were their helpful and transforming insights on that whole spectrum of emotions we call love ‑ from eros to agape, sex to superconsciousness? Not much, really, except to imply that what sannyasins experienced wasn’t what The Oregonian team and its across the board normal readers would recognize and accept as true mature love. It was instead the “Love-struck” [15] infatuation of cult followers. [16] Brainwashed losers who had succumbed to the wiles and guiles of a body snatching, soul stealing guru from the East.

In The Oregonian‘s hands, the whole Rajneesh story boiled down ‑ or was boiled down to ‑ two key character types: scammers and dupes. The first group had their feet very much on the ground and hands in everyone else’s pockets. The second their heads in the clouds and eyes filled with stars. And it was now the avowed mission of the biggest newspaper in the Northwest to expose the one and liberate the other.

What about the spirituality factor that had got me going? The Oregonian reporters didn’t show the least interest in and feel for that subject. Every reference to Rajneesh and his vast oeuvre of discourses is merely another opportunity to leer, sneer and smear. [17] And yet they had the temerity to pounce and pronounce on a spiritual leader and what went on around him. It was as if the terminally tone deaf were impersonating state of the art music critics, and no one was calling their bluff. [18]


[1] Ron Lovell, “Dissecting a Sect”, The Quill, May 1986, p. 9
[2] Ibid., p. 16
[3] James Long, “U.S. agents observe jets taking off, track flight to Charlotte”, The Oregonian, October 29, 1985
[4] Swami Satyam Anando, “Just an ordinary flight”, The Rajneesh Times, November 1, 1985
[5] Ibid., p. 11
[6] Ibid., p. 12. When I brought up the series with Bob Oliver, former chief legal aide for Governor Vic Atiyeh, he said that most people who had read it at the time were disappointed, because “they didn’t really say anything that wasn’t pretty well known by well informed people anyway.” When I wondered why The Oregonian reporters hadn’t turned the series and their other writings into a book and made a bundle, Oliver was skeptical. “Mm mm. I don’t know. Maybe he might not have made a bundle if it’d been … [if it] hadn’t been better than his articles.”
[7] The Oregonian journalists had earlier refused to discuss the matter with the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). “Last summer The Oregonian in Portland ran a twenty-part series on Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers, the Rajneeshees. On their attorney’s advice, the three reporters who wrote the series declined to discuss it with CJR. For at least a year, or until the statute of limitations expires, the reporters have been advised to remain silent out of regard for the Rajneeshees’ reputation for litigiousness.” (Leslie Brown, “The Cult Beat”, Columbia Journalism Review, November/December, 1985, p. 46f)
[8] Barry van Driel and Jacob van Belzen, “The Downfall of Rajneeshpuram in the Print Media: A Cross-National Study”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, March 1990, p.77
[9] “For Love and Money”, Part 15, July 14, 1985. All future references to these articles will be by part number and date.
[10] Part 16, July 15, 1985
[11] Rajneesh, The Beloved, Vol. 2, Chapter 4, July 4, 1976
[12] Part 11, July 10, 1985, but also passim. The reporters are particularly enthralled with Barnett’s use of the term “Dowager Duchesses” to describe Sheela and other members of Rajneeshpuram’s top management.
[13] Rajneesh, The Dhammapada, Vol. 9, Chapter 10, February 20, 1980
[14] James Beckford, “Politics and the Anti-Cult Movement”, The Annual Review of the Social Sciences of Religion, 1979, p. 176
[15] Part 6, July 5, 1985
[16] Part 18, July 17, 1985
[17] In his latest series Zaitz wrote, “In India, he [Rajneesh] worked as a small-town philosophy professor until he found enlightenment paid better.” (“Rajneeshees in Oregon ‑ The Untold Story”, Part 1, April 14, 2011)
[18] Leslie Brown (see note 21 above) didn’t say what he thought about The Oregonian series and whether or not its reporters had complied with some of the standard tips for journalists dealing with “cults”. Such as, “But there are ways around that wall of silence, reporters say. One is to talk to defectors ‑ people whom Michael D’Antonio, religion writer for Long Island’s Newsday, likens to government officials willing to leak a story. Defectors, just like others who leak stories, have to be regarded warily, D’Antonio and others point out. They have their axes to grind; they are sometimes psychologically damaged from their experiences in the sect.” (“The Cult Beat”, Columbia Journalism Review, November/December, 1985, p. 46) And “At the same time, D’Antonio argues, that religious tolerance and a genuine curiosity about what a sect believes are essential. ‘I think reporters fail to understand how important religion is in people’s daily lives,’ he says…. ‘I think being curious is important. Understanding something about religion is important.'” (p. 46)

 

MaxMax Brecher is a communications specialist living in Amsterdam. Besides  A Passage to America, he is the author of 9 more books. 

 

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