Nick Licata remembers visiting Rajneeshpuram after Osho had left and been arrested in Charlotte, just before the Ranch closed. Published on Medium, March 23, 2018.
This month, March 2018, Netflix began a six-part documentary “Wild Wild Country” about Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his Oregon Commune, Rajneeshpuram that flourished for about four years before it collapsed in October of 1985. Bhagwan was arrested that fall with some of his closest followers while boarding a rented jet on a North Carolina airstrip to escape federal prosecution.
Before then he and his commune were often in the news for their contentious relationship with the small town of Antelope, and later with the state and federal governments as well. The leaders of Rajneeshpuram were accused of violating everything from not having proper building permits to propagating germ warfare on Antelope’s residents.
As soon as I read that the Bhagwan had fled Rajneeshpuram, I sensed that the nations largest and most well known commune was about to implode. Having studied social movements while receiving my MA in sociology, I dropped everything and raced down to Oregon to witness the final days of this grand experiment.
I found a culture of such total commitment to the idea and practice of leading a new life through embracing a Guru’s vision, that individual deviation from it was unthinkable. My following story describes how his followers dealt with the Bhagwan vanishing overnight. Up to that point their reason for being in Rajneeshpuram, which literally was in one of the most isolated areas in Oregon, was the Bhagwan’s presence.
I do not go into the details of Rajneeshpuram’s elaborate history involving sex parties, armed guards, attempted assassinations or the invitation of some 3,000 homeless people onto the commune. Wild Wild Country covers those events, providing views that are both supportive and critical of Bhagwan and Rajneeshpuram. While these events make for great story telling, I was seeking a different story; how seemingly rational people could become so enthralled in following a leader, that they dismissed the reality of the outside world until it crashed down on them.
Paradise Lost as Guru Flees — “It’s all a joke.”
Upon arriving in Portland I called Paul, an old acquaintance. He gave me advice about visiting Rajneeshpuram, the commune in Eastern Oregon founded by the Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Paul is a sannyasin, else known as a Rajneeshee – a follower of the Bhagwan. As a professional engineer, he designed the commune’s million dollar buildings. But he chose to live in his hometown of Portland working for an engineering firm rather than live and work in Rajneeshpuram.
“You should have come earlier, when the Bhagwan was talking every day,” he said in reference to the Bhagwan having broken his three and a half years of public silence to answer questions from the public. “Now that he’s gone, there isn’t much happening. He is the whole trip. Without him, it’s lost its meaning,” he said quietly and with a bit of melancholy in his voice. After a long pause he asked, “So, why go there?”
“I want to visit the place before it disappears,” I said half joking. Publicity surrounding the Bhagwan’s arrest for attempting to flee the country from a federal indictment had the press speculating on an immediate exodus if he didn’t return. Little did I or anyone else know that two weeks after my visit the Bhagwan would plea bargain with the Feds and leave the country vowing never to return. Soon after, the mayor of Rajneeshpuram would declare the commune finished and all of its assets up for sale.
Prior to arriving in Portland, I had decided to take a break from work and see for myself how people lived in America’s largest commune. And, if they would want it to continue should the Bhagwan not return. I knew religious communes had come and gone in this country. But previous groups, like the Shakers in the early nineteenth century or the Reverend Jones followers who went to South America to found Jonestown, led austere or ascetic lives. They withdrew from the temptations of the world.
This group was led by someone calling himself “the guru of the rich” and attracted many worldly professionals who, like my friend Paul, were successful in their occupations – they were not social dropouts.
The Bhagwan claims to merge eastern mysticism with western materialism. He preaches the enjoyment of life now – there is no God. With a meditation, people could feel good about making money. Unlike past isolationist groups the Rajneeshees embrace the world like the Calvinists embraced financial success during the Reformation: to conquer the world, not retreat from it; although, Rajneeshpuram itself is isolated.
Four hours after leaving Portland, I came across a small patch of buildings lost among the barren hills. It’s the town of Antelope, made famous by its stormy relationship with the commune. Almost four years ago, the first Rajneesh followers purchased the overgrazed Big Muddy Ranch previously owned by John Wayne, located twenty miles outside of town. I had always thought that Antelope had been physically taken over by the commune. But, miles of narrow winding roads separate the two.
As the number of sannyasins increased and talk spread about building a world center for their cult - the Bhagwan had envisioned one hundred thousand followers living at the commune - the locals became alarmed. Soon they were opposing the issuance of land use permits on the ranch. The sannyasins fought back by creating a new city, Rajneeshpuram, which incorporated about five percent of the ranch. Big Muddy became Rancho Rajneesh. And, as sannyasins replaced the locals who were leaving in fright or disgust, the town of Antelope became the Town of Rajneesh [City of Rajneesh, ed.].
Rancho Rajneesh is huge, about twice the size of San Francesco. As I entered the ranch guard towers began to appear alongside the county dirt road that slices through the ranch. Images of guards with Uzi machine guns, like those I’d seen on TV surrounding the guru, flashed across my mind. I could see them peering at me. I imagined that they saw themselves as an island in a sea of hostility. For the last fifteen miles, most of the road signs had been heavily pot marked with bullet holes.
I smiled, waved and tried to look nonchalant at the man and woman entrance guards. They smiled and waved back – no guns appeared. Behind the last guard post there was fenced entrance to the town with a paved parking lot, as immaculate as any at Disneyland, spread out before a modern single story frame building. It’s the Welcome Center, known as Mirdad. Inside there was a bustle of activity as visitors registered, most were Rajneeshees visiting from one of the other 300 communes located around the world.
I filled out the various forms. Yes, I would allow my luggage to be searched for guns and drugs, and yes, I would allow my picture to be taken. A sannyasin appeared with a German shepherd and asked me to lead him to my auto. The dog sniffed inside for any illegal smokes. A quick patting down of my body was the last little formality. Their determined effort to keep drugs out provides protection from having hostile state officials, like the Attorney General, bust the commune for the possession of illegal drugs.
Friends cautioned me that even if I could get into the commune, they would charge outrageous prices for accommodations. As it turns out, the commune’s vice president announced just the week before that they would be “throwing the doors and windows open” to encourage tourism. It didn’t appear that the word had gotten out yet, considering that I was the only non-sannyasin visitor aside from a handful of journalists. But instead of paying the usual $65 a night at the ranch hotel, I landed a one-room mountain cabin in the Walt Whitman grove for $20 a night including three vegetarian meals a day and free transportation.
There are no private autos on the streets. The commune purchased eighty school buses to make the Rajneesh Buddafield Transport, the fourth largest bus system in Oregon. There are also a number of new Cutlass Oldsmobiles driven by commune leaders. It must be municipal policy to “Buy American”.
I took a bus to the sprawling ranch hotel, which is built around a couple of landscaped courtyards. In the lobby, furnished with ferns and framed colored photos of the Bhagwan, I met Marcel Bruuns of TROS, Netherland’s largest TV network. This is his second trip to the commune. In the summer he had the opportunity to interview the Bhagwan for an hour. He gave me his impressions:
“I tell you, I’ve been a journalist for over twenty years traveling the world over meeting leaders and revolutionaries. I’ve never met anyone like this Rajneesh. He looks at you and you feel that he is someone special. I could not trip him up. It was maddening.”
“What do you think will happen now that he has been arrested? How strongly attached are they to him?” I asked.
“They will follow him wherever he goes - even in death,” Marcel said looking at them walking all around us. I felt uneasy. “This could be another Jonestown. You should have seen how they cried when the news clips showed their guru in handcuffs,” he went on. “You know he is not a pacifist. He does not teach turning the other cheek like Christ.”
I surveyed the lobby. Everyone but us was dressed in red. I felt conspicuous. I should have brought my pink tie. I quickly ran through my mind a possible Jonestown scenario and then discounted it. Since the Bhagwan’s beliefs are not predicated on an afterlife, there seemed to be little incentive for suicide.
Just then a crowd gathered around the lobby TV to watch videotapes of last night’s news on the Bhagwan. There is no local radio or TV station to provide live coverage. I sat next to a sannyasin, Ma Anand Prashant. She is in her early thirties, has dark brown wavy hair and is of slight build. This is her fourth visit to the commune from her home in Perth, Australia. Like other foreign visitors, she tries to stay as long as her passport will allow her.
She is on the Rajneesh Humanities Trust program. For $400 a month she gets room and board. About a thousand of the Bhagwan’s followers are in the program at any one time. They came from around the world. I soon discovered I was just as likely to hear a sannyasin speaking German or Dutch as English.
“He’s so darling, so cute,” Prashant says of the Bhagwan as he is shown being led handcuffed by Federal Marshalls. Her comment seemed a bit slight for a guru or holy man. I couldn’t imagine Sister Angeline, my old Catholic high school teacher, describing the Pope as cute. Others looked distressed as they saw the screen but no one cried or seemed visibly upset. From previous news accounts, I half expected to hear grumblings about “how come the guru split without saying good-bye to anyone?” But I never heard a critical word or intonation regarding his abrupt departure (he left within an hour of hearing of his imminent arrest). Rather, Prashant sums up the prevailing attitude: “This is all so exciting. There are always surprises here!”
Getting hungry, both Prashant and I went to the cafeteria, Magdalena. Many of the buildings have names plucked from Judeo-Christian, Classical Greek and Buddhist literature. The Bhagwan liberally pays homage to anyone before him who might have had some spiritual advice. Having once been a philosophy professor and a member of his national debate team, he chops and slices through past religions like a Cuisinart. The resulting mixture has taken him over three hundred books to explain.
“Everyone eats here. There are no separate kitchens in our own living quarters,” Prashant explained as our bus pulled up to Magdalena. It reminded me of my high school cafeteria - nothing fancy, just functional and clean. Five hundred could easily eat together. Like others, we deposited our coats and shoulder bags on racks outside the entrance. We then filed past a couple of commune members; one sprayed our hands with alcohol to kill germs. The other checked to see that everyone entering either has a Mala (a necklace with a picture of the guru dangling from it) or a plastic visitor’s I.D. bracelet.
I showed my bracelet and walked by one of several tables that have huge stainless steel pots containing the vegetarian meal for the evening. Most of the food was grown on the farm and then prepared at Magdalena. It was better than typical cafeteria food – it actually tasted good. And beverages were served freely, including beer on tap.
Ma Prashant filled me in on the commune’s tumultuous happenings over the past summer. In July, the Bhagwan spoke publicly for the first time in almost 4 years. Up to that time, his personal secretary, Ma Prem Sheela, had been the only person to speak to and for him. In effect, she was in charge of the commune’s daily activities. While the Bhagwan remained silent and content in his daily drive through the commune in one of his Rolls Royce’s, Sheela was running a $100 million corporation and battling hostile public officials.
In September, Sheela and twenty of her supporters fled to Europe. The Bhagwan and Sheela then proceeded to trade accusations. Sheela accused him of not being the slightest bit interested in enlightenment but being more interested in his fleet of ninety Rolls Royces and other riches.
The guru, in turn, accused her of numerous crimes including the attempted poisoning of his personal doctor, Swami Devaraj. He also accused her of becoming power hungry and setting up a fascist state at the commune. Two weeks after she left, the Bhagwan had the Rajneesh Bible [it was called Rajneeshism: An introduction to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his religion, ed.], compiled by Sheela, publicly burned as he declared his religion to be dead. He said she tried to create a religion where there should have been none, in effect, creating a church with herself in administrative control.
In an interview he gave from his jail cell in North Carolina while I was visiting his commune, he said, “The moment I came out of silence, I finished that religion. I am not a leader; I am a friend and a guide.” Previously he had also said that he offered no creeds, dogmas or doctrines. He just gave advice. He may also be just smart. Oregon’s Attorney General, Dave Frohnmayer, filed a suit to have the municipality of Rashneeshpuram declared unconstitutional for co-mingling of church and state activities. With the commune up for sale, the Rajneeshees argued that the suit was no longer relevant. But Frohnmayer successfully argued before a Federal District court that the Rajneeshees are “no more entitled to sell a city than it is for them to own a city.”
I asked Prashant what she thought of Sheela. “I love Sheela. She did treat us like kids and we didn’t have to think. We worked a lot, twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. It was exhausting. Although once the Bhagwan started talking, we would attend his discourse every other morning, where he answered questions for a couple of hours,” she said. “Other than work there wasn’t much time for recreation,” she added with a small smile. But then she enjoyed the work, or meditation as the Bhagwan calls it. At Rajneeshpuram, to work is to meditate.
“And how is it with Sheela gone? Have things improved?” I asked.
“Oh, we still work every day. But it’s different now. We have moral responsibility. I guess it’s better now, too. She’s done what she could do,” she said, referring to the incredible amount of construction and farming that occurred in the three and a half years that Sheela ran the commune.
Once a semiarid land, Rancho Rajneesh now has one thousand acres of prop land, over sixty acres of vegetables, and greenhouses producing four hundred tons of produce a year. All of this productivity is supported by a new irrigation system. The urban setting grew from a house and a barn to over $50 million in buildings including townhouses, meeting halls, school buildings, machine shops, and a shopping mall complete with a disco and ice cream parlor. An electrical substation, a sewer system and a water system were built to provide modern urban comforts.
It was this burgeoning metropolis in the middle of sagebrush gullies and desert mesas that aroused the animosity of one thousand Friends of Oregon, an old conservation group originally based in Western Oregon. Eastern Oregon residents seeking a means for ridding themselves of the Rajneeshees revitalized it. They brought suit alleging that Rajneeshpuram’s urban development conflicted with state land use laws and damaged the environment.
If this suit or the other one involving constitutional violations are upheld, all of the capital improvements are worthless since they can only be used in a municipality. The commune would then sell for only a fraction of its value. Ironically, the Rajneeshees are now fighting to save the municipal status of Rajneeshpuram so it can be sold. Rumor has it that the State might purchase it in the end for a prison site.
Sannyasins are eager to show visitors that the thousand Friends of Oregon were wrong: they point out that their urban development has not damaged the environment. All products made on the ranch are recycled for future use and the extensive bus system cuts down on air pollution. To make the brown hills greener, twenty-three thousand trees had just been purchased. And since they had stopped the main creek’s erosion through forming reservoirs and planting wild grass, the number of bird species has increased by fifty percent. It appears that indeed the land has benefited since the days of being overgrazed by the previous owners.
We took a bus from Magdalena to Rajneesh Mandir, a giant two-acre assembly hall capable of holding 15,000 people. Originally built as a greenhouse, when it was converted to a meeting hall the commune found it embroiled in another land use struggle. County authorities argued that their building permit only allowed an agricultural related structure, such as a greenhouse, because the ranch was designated as a farm. Rajneeshpuram was enjoined from erecting any more buildings until the court could resolve the issue. As we drove past townhouses and other buildings, I was impressed how much had been accomplished. In the outside world, improving cities, let alone building new ones, is usually dependent on federal block grant funds. And then again, having two thousand people working twelve hours a day for three years does keep labor costs down.
That evening there was to be a special meeting of all commune members to listen to the most recent news on the Bhagwan’s arrest. We arrived early and walked up to the door. A guard motioned that we were not allowed in just yet. We sat on the outside stairs next to another sannyasin waiting.
He turned to Prashant and said, “I don’t see why they can’t let us in. They’re not doing anything inside.” Prashant smiled at him and quietly said, “They have to learn new ways, now that Sheela is gone. They’ll learn that there is no longer any need for so much control.”
Hundreds of followers began arriving at Mandir by bus. The doors were finally opened and a sea of red sannyasins quietly entered. Swami Devaraj had just returned from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he had been arrested with the Bhagwan. Tall, blond and handsome, he reminded me of a Southern California beach boy. He spoke softly and told a number of funny stories about the arrest: “They had us in so many chains and led us past so many locked doors, you could just see how happy they were to get us. Like they were saying to themselves, ‘Oh boy we got them now and they aren’t ever going to get away.”’ The crowd roared with laughter.
After he talked, a large screen hung from the ceiling replayed coverage from local TV stations on the Bhagwan’s arrest. There was no other news; but any coverage on the Bhagwan’s arrest was shown. A disc jockey in Charlotte, North Carolina played a new song he had written: “Don’t you take my Curt from me.” The audience regaled in laughter. Another clipping showed a woman bicycling on the ranch while the voice-over told of sannyasins exiting the commune – even more laughter. I joined in. The thought of someone bicycling out of the ranch on miles of gravel roads stretched the imagination.
The levity with which all of the news was received revealed a side of the commune that I wasn’t expecting, although I suspected that they had a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor when I saw their first road sign outside of town:
“Soft shoulders, Blind curves, Steep grade, Big trucks, Good luck!” I had also spotted an official city council agenda at the Welcome Center, which had “joke” as the second item and another “joke” at the conclusion of the meeting. I showed up to listen to the jokes. Enlightened consciousness notwithstanding, the jokes were bad.
The Bhagwan urges his followers to pull others towards them through an infectious happiness. He writes in his magazine, Truth and Celebration: “You just dance and sing and enjoy, and soon they will be taken over. That’s how we are going to take over the whole of America!”
Those words were written in happier days. After the Bhagwan settled with the Feds, he urged his non-American followers to leave the States. And he compared the U.S. to the Soviet Union, which he had previously declared the greatest evil in the world. No longer was “this is the only country that had any hope for humanity” as he described the U.S. – the summer before his arrest.
The next day I talked to Ma Apara, who used to be an account executive at an insurance brokerage in the posh seaside town of Laguna Beach, California, and now headed up the Rajneesh Insurance Agency. Like most members of the commune, she was well educated (one survey concluded eighty percent of the sannyasins had college degrees), white (I estimated less than five percent were nonwhite) and female (looking around, I judged sixty percent were female).
We had breakfast in the Zorba the Buddha Rajneesh Restaurant, an elegantly furnished restaurant, which I would have expected to find in Bellevue, Washington or Laguna Beach, California rather than in Rajneeshpuram, Oregon. After the waiter sprayed our hands with alcohol (a precaution to stop any spread of AIDS) and took our order, I asked her how she or anyone on the commune was assigned work.
“On the ranch there is a department, like an employment bureau, which reviews your skills and qualifications and then assigns you to a job. I had experience servicing large commercial accounts so I ended up here,” she explained.
Intrigued by the array of businesses on the ranch, I asked her who is actually in charge of the overall commune.
“There are about fifteen to twenty different corporations. The biggest is the Rajneesh Investment Corporation which owns title to most of the property in Rajneeshpuram,” she replied.
“But how are decisions made?” I asked still trying to comprehend the maze of interlocking corporations, which are all under the umbrella of the commune.
She told me: “Each corporation makes their decisions separately. There is no conflict between them and because we’re all under the guidance of Bhagwan we live in harmony.”
I had a difficult time understanding how someone who could rationally outline the insurance needs of a one-hundred million dollar operation could go on to talk about a community of heavenly bliss running the business. She assured me that there wasn’t even a coordinating committee among all the corporations. They carry on business transactions like other businesses. The restaurant buys its vegetables from the farm. The various corporations rent their autos from the auto leasing company. And so on.
“But if they are so independent why are they all called Rajneesh something or other?” I persisted in airing my doubts.
“It’s just like if everyone in Kent, Washington decided they liked the name Joe and named their stores Joe’s TV, Joe’s Supermarket, Joe’s Insurance Agency. They just like the name Joe, but that’s all there is to it,” she said laughing.
The Bhagwan is just a good old Joe. Everybody loves the guy and names everything after him. In fact, Joe (i.e., the Bhagwan) doesn’t own one nickel in his own name. Ma Apara said that the Bhagwan holds no official positions, in any of the corporations. Even his Rolls Royces aren’t really his – they belong to the Rajneesh Investment Corporation.
“We are not his followers so much as his friends,” she said. But then she explained that the word sannyasin is a Sanskrit word to describe a follower of a master. I have the feeling that I’m at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Things aren’t really what they seem or claim to be.
“Is it out of friendship that folks work twelve hours a day, seven days a week,” I asked, wondering how many people I knew would freely contribute such labor. Political campaigns came to mind, but then the mobilization of thousands of volunteers is usually only for a few hours of doorbelling, not months or years of twelve-hour workdays.
“Look, this is a meditation center. Work is a form of meditation. If you’re not involved in meditation, this place is pretty boring,” she said matter-of-factly. I looked around the barren grounds and agreed. If you had not already become part of this community of believers, there would be nothing to keep you here.
Before leaving the commune I talked to two female sannyasins, Ma Prem Sunshine and Ma Ananda Sarita, who ran the Rajneeshpuram Chamber of Commerce. Sunshine is glad that Sheela is gone. “She tried to make a religion. I’m against isms and institutionalizing a movement. When that happens it inevitably becomes exploitive. We listen to Rajneesh and giggle a lot,” she said.
I thought about what Ma Prashant had said the day before: “We do as he says. These are the best of times, because we know now that we are his disciples.” There is quite a draw to the Bhagwan whether one calls it religion or not. If there is no religion, there certainly is adulation of the guru and subservience to his wishes. I thought about all of his followers wearing red clothes and dangling his photo from around their necks. Not even the Moral Majority folks wear medallions of Jerry Falwell. The irony of such behavior is that the Bhagwan’s philosophy expounds the virtues of the individual. Beware of Socialism is the title of one of his books displayed at Mirdad. On the liner jacket he is quoted: “The individual cannot be sacrificed for anything.”
I asked Sunshine what she thought about the recent events. She explained, “It’s a great sensational story. The television stations are playing to their Christian audiences. Bhagwan is the false prophet to them. And Reagan is taking advantage of it. People can say, ‘They did get the Guru this year.”’
As she talked I noted that most of the chamber of commerce staff were women. I asked her if women dominated the commune’s management.
“Under Sheela eighty percent of our managers were women, but that is changing. Now, it’s about seventy percent,” she said. “Bhagwan was concerned about tidiness and cleanliness, so he felt that warren [women, ed.] would provide better managers. Bhagwan says that women are more nurturing and they are also perfect nags,” she says smiling.
Managers were called “Moms” when Sheela was in charge; they became “coordinators” after she left. It was through the Moms that Sheela wielded her influence. When leaving, she asked the Moms to depart with her. Most refused.
Ma Anand Sarita was one of the first sannyasins to move to the ranch with Sheela to help found the commune. Sarita is from Riverside, California and she would look perfect in a Southern California setting with her long straight hair and strong angular features. And yet, she hasn’t been back to Riverside since she left. Like many other Americans I talked to on the ranch, she had been with the Bhagwan in India.
For the first year and a half at Rajneeshpuram, Sarita was Sheela’s housekeeper. Now, she’s responsible for the commune’s public relations. Since she knew Sheela so well, I asked her opinion about the rift between the Bhagwan and Sheela.
“I feel that things are one-hundred percent better now that Sheela is gone. She became corrupted by power and made a mess of things,” she said and then repeated what others have said about not wanting a religion to be established.
From everything that Sarita and others have said, Sheela derived her power totally from the Bhagwan. If she became corrupted by the power bestowed upon her by him, I wondered what good was his spiritual guidance? It’s a question that the public has resoundingly decided without a doubt: “Yes, this man is a huckster.”
For sannyasins living at the commune a corruptible Bhagwan is an unfathomable one. He is the teacher and they are his students. You may not always understand your teacher, but you trust that he has more knowledge than you. And like a teacher, he is always testing them, like having them dress in red. He wanted his followers to stand out, to experience a new way of relating to the world. And then one day he called a halt to the test.
Sarita told me how the Bhagwan made changes all the time: “He told us that we needn’t wear red one morning at his public discourse. I was there and he said it almost as an afterthought, like it hit him just at that moment.”
After Sheela left, Bhagwan started to make some other major changes. He asked his followers to put away their guns, which were always evident when he appeared in public. He also sought to make peace with the residents of Antelope by requesting his followers not to vote in the next election and thereby relinquish control of the town.
I asked her what it meant to be a sannyasin. She said the word originally stood for someone renouncing the world in search of a higher spiritual existence. A person would walk away from family and friends, don an orange robe and seek alms with a wooden bowl. The Bhagwan however preaches that poverty is not a piety. Consequently, the Bhagwan coined the term neo-sannyasin to describe someone who lives in the world to the fullest and who is not burdened or corrupted by it. Sheela was someone who became corrupted because she took it too seriously, according to Sarita. On the other hand, the Bhagwan retains a carefree detachment reminiscent of the literary character, Zorba the Greek. Sannyasins call the Bhagwan, Zorba the Buddha.
It must have been this detachment that allowed the Bhagwan to leave Rajneeshpuram, Oregon and the U.S. without fighting the charges against him. And yet, the week before he left, the Bhagwan said over national television, “I am absolutely certain about being victorious in the courts of America…so I am not going to leave this country. I am going to fight for American constitution.”
On the day I arrived in Rajneeshpuram, Ma Prem Anuradha, the president of the Rajneesh Commune, expressed a similar attitude in the commune’s newspaper, Rajneesh Times: “I certainly don’t think it’s the end of Bhagwan or of the commune.” Swami Dhyan John, president of the Rajneesh Corporation, said in the same article: “This commune is the major expression of Bhagwan on this planet. To me, there are only two things of great value on the planet. One is him, and the other is this commune. He’s gone, the commune remains – and it remains strong and solid. We have enough money to keep this community running. The cash flow situation is good and getting better.”
The commune had attracted fifteen thousand visitors, mostly sannyasins, that past summer to celebrate one of the four celebrations held each year at the ranch. These events provide a huge influx of dollars. At the same time, the commune has been trying to encourage non-Rajneeshee tourism on a more continuous basis.
And yet, while talking with the various residents during my visit, like Sarita, they hedged their bets. I expressed my concern to her that the impressive physical improvements and the sophisticated organization of Rajneeshpuram would be for nothing if the commune were to disband. She disagreed. For her and many of the other disciples, proximity to the Bhagwan overshadowed any collective worth of the commune without him.
I wanted Sarita’s own opinion about the future. I was tired of listening to her repeat a variation of whatever the Bhagwan wants is fine with me. I asked her if the commune should continue. Since it is such remarkable example of a community working together, shouldn’t it exist to serve as an example of the Bhagwan’s teachings? If she said yes, then I felt that she and others would be placing themselves on an equal footing with the Bhagwan by giving the commune some value outside of his mere presence. Sarita looked hard at me, almost as if she sensed a debating trap, and slowly said with the confident voice of a teacher repeating instructions to a student, “I don’t think of the word should.”
Her words captured the paradox of this place: the commune was not really a community. The residents had no desire to determine their own future. The apparent equality among all sannyasins – in their outer garments and in their shared living spaces – palls under the influence wielded by the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and those nearest to him like Sheela. The whole issue of whether they are a religion is irrelevant. They don’t need a church when they have a guru.
Power flows from the top down. That’s why a Sheela can one day be the holy interpreter and the next day a fallen angel. Those closest to the Bhagwan, who is seen as the ultimate truth, determine what is right. I found no group process, which could weigh various opinions to reach a final decision.
Rajneeshpuram had a city council that took votes. It had a land use planning commission, which made sensible growth plans for the ranch. It had corporations that operated efficiently and made profits. Individuals, who not only dressed alike, which was a superfluous element in their beliefs, but sought the ultimate truth from one person and only one person, ran all of these organizations.
At each morning’s satsang, the commune meditation session, the sannyasins gather and bow before a picture of the guru repeating aloud three phrases in Hindi:
I go to the feet of the awakened one, the awakened consciousness.
I go to the feet of the commune of the awakened one.
I go to the feet of the ultimate truth of the awakened one.
The morning after such a satsang, the mayor of Rajneeshpuram declared, “The property is available. Rancho Rajneesh is for sale.” In light of the Bhagwan leaving, he said it was almost a “non-decision.”
On leaving the ranch I looked back across the valley and felt a sense of awe at the physical improvements that had been made and at the level of cooperation that had been achieved by so many people. But I had this feeling that they were all playing minor roles in the Bhagwan’s play.
The Bhagwan may start a commune somewhere else. Many of the Rajneeshpuram residents will probably follow him to the new place. Others will either drift off’ to other Rajneesh communes or fall away from the religion altogether. The physical legacy of Rajneeshpuram will probably be transformed into some type of state institute or corporate venture. The spiritual legacy will be tied to the Bhagwan.
But the legacy of the commune - “a self-sufficient community where people can at last live in unity…a living example to America and the world” -as their press release said, will be shallow if not largely forgotten one. However as the Bhagwan said his was “the only religion with a sense of humor,” so the collapse of Rajneeshpuram might be seen by the sannyasins in that fashion. Sheela had said, “I think life is a joke for Rajneeshees. Entire life is a joke. This commune is a joke.”
Post Note: Sheela was arrested and later convicted for her part in a conspiracy to poison 751 people with salmonella to suppress voter turnout in their local county election. Bhagwan pleaded guilty to immigration fraud and returned to India, where he died in 1990. There are still thousands of Rajneesh followers worldwide.
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Nick Licata is the author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. He has been a Seattle Council member for 18 years and was named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation.