An excerpt from White Star’s recently published book, ‘The Experience of the Ultimate’.
It is 1985, just before the fall of the experiment Rajneeshpuram and the shocking revelations of the crimes of Sheela and her gang. Lino has been living on the Ranch since the beginning, and just been “punished” by Sheela, Vidya, Su, and Durga who run the Ranch, and demoted from the Peace Force (a VIP job) essentially for rebelling against them, to a telephone operator. She just realized that 1984 is the title of the Orwellian book, and this certainly was an Orwellian nightmare!
It soon becomes clear talking to the other operators that they’re all being punished too. They’ve all had positions of power within the commune and defied or answered back to Vidya and Sheela in some way. If I had any doubt I’m being punished, it’s confirmed. I don’t like Sheela, Vidya, Su or any of that gang. And it feels wrong what they are doing. They are turning this Paradise into something ugly and petty and controlled. I can no longer ignore it. I walk down the streets of Rajneeshpuram and I can see the weirdness everywhere. We’re overrun with security and sannyasins spy on each other to report those that aren’t “surrendered to the commune”, in other words aren’t working their butts off and kowtowing to Sheela, Su and Vidya.
It’s starting to feel like a cult. Sheela continues to aggravate the press. There are more and more sannyasin Peace Force officers carrying guns. I can’t shake the feeling that I want to leave and should before everything crumbles. The local political situation is a tinderbox: Oregonians hate us, the press maligns us, the government thinks we’re a dangerous cult, Sheela and Vidya are petty, paranoid and malicious. I’ve known all this for a while, but it’s like I’ve been wearing rose-colored glasses and I’ve taken them off and can see things for what they are.
But Arjava doesn’t want to leave. “You may well be right about it all crumbling,” he says good-naturedly. “It’s happened before. I never really thought this place would last, but as long as Bhagwan is here I want to be here. But as soon as he leaves, as he probably will if it gets too bad, we’ll leave. I’ll take you to the South of France. You’ll love it there; it’s so beautiful!” He especially doesn’t want to leave because Bhagwan is giving public discourses now every morning in Buddha Hall. I hardly ever get to go, because our operator shifts are so demanding, but when I do it’s a blissful event, enough to counteract my yucky job for a while.
Bhagwan is also giving press conferences in Sheela’s house in the afternoon. It’s like he wants to counteract Sheela’s negative effect. He’s charming and funny at these press conferences and reporters fall in love with him. Occasionally, now, a good, cheerful article on the Ranch slips into a newspaper. I’m invited to a few of these press conferences along with a handful of sannyasins that are close to Bhagwan and I laugh along with the reporters. Perhaps the tide is turning, I think hopefully.
The press conferences are even more ecstatic than the discourses. For every discourse a few Ranch workers are invited, and we line up outside Sheela’s house waiting for him, like it’s an extra Drive-by. He gets out of his car and slowly walks down the line of sannyasins, his hands folded in namaste greeting, looking each of us in the eyes and smiling at us. He gives a lucky few energy darshan, directing his hands at them while they laugh or dance or shout with ecstasy. After he gives the energy darshan to people, some follow him, dancing and laughing with joy. He often gives me energy darshan. I think it’s probably Bhagwan who puts in personal requests for who will attend these events, or the Big Bitches would never let me go so often.
My mom visits the Ranch again and we both go to the afternoon press conference. I’m a little nervous, because in almost every single one I’ve been to, Bhagwan has given me energy darshan and I’ve gone out of my skull in bliss. I’m afraid he’ll do it to me in front of my mom and she’ll think I’m a nut case. When he gives me the energy darshan, I scream and shout while powerful ecstatic energy pulses up my spine. My hands flail over my head and then I go into such a deep trance that I don’t even realize half the time that I’m dancing after him as he continues down the line of people.
This time, however, he walks by me, though, looking the other way and I’m both relieved and disappointed. Then he suddenly turns around, and with a mischievous grin faces me and gives me energy darshan. It’s as though he knows what I am thinking. The energy whips through my body and my chakras like electric shocks and I scream in ecstasy. I dance after him joyfully, forgetting all about my mom. Not until he’s in his car and gone do I remember, “Oh, my God, my Mom!” I turn around. She’s right next to me, her eyes shining with joy. She has danced after Bhagwan too! “Oh!” she says in wonder. “That’s what devotion is!” I hug her. She has her own spiritual teacher, Roshi Sasaki, but Zen is not a devotional path and she’s glad to have had the taste and I’m glad to share something so special with my mom.
I work up the nerve to go the Ramakrishna department, a relatively new department that handles work assignments. I complain about my job. The woman I talk to won’t budge or reassign me, saying it’s so difficult to train new operators. I know that’s bullshit because I’ve seen operators screw up and get canned instantly and a new person trained overnight. At last, I convince the woman to give me one day a week working on the truck farm. Neehar puts me in the greenhouse there, growing Bhagwan’s personal food. Only a few people are allowed in this greenhouse because it is only for Bhagwan. To the outside it’s called ‘Experimental Vegetables’, in case some infiltrator tries to poison his food or something.
I feel like I’ve come full circle because that’s the first job I had in Dadu, the Farming Department several years ago. I thoroughly enjoy my one day down there, puttering around in the greenhouses, but when it ends, and I’m sent back to the operator booth, I close up inside again.
Bhagwan’s discourses seem to hint at his unhappiness with the hierarchy on the Ranch. Some of the “older” sannyasins that have been with him in Poona, India say that they hear he has specifically spoken out against Sheela. Something definitely feels like it’s brewing, like a volcano about to explode.
One morning that volcano feeling is particularly strong in me. I keep feeling like something very strange is going to happen. And boy, does something happen. Suddenly, the whole Ranch is agog with startling news. Sheela, and her cronies including Vidya, Durga and a dozen others have left the Ranch for good. She has snuck away in the middle of the night, leaving a note saying she’s resigned and nobody knows where she has gone! Goodbye Big Bitches!
Many people, who apparently like me, hate her, are cheering and celebrating in the streets. Everyone catches the mood, and it’s like a huge cloud has lifted off the Ranch. People stop working and the Ranch comes to a standstill as sannyasins pour out of buildings and laugh and cheer and gossip. Some even spontaneously start dancing.
People march up and down the street arm in arm singing; “Ding Dong the witch is gone, the wicked witch, the wicked witch. Ding Dong the wicked witch is gone!” But quite a few also look worried and perturbed or even angry. It’s chaos. An announcement is made, and everyone is called to Buddha Hall. Bhagwan will be coming to speak to the commune and address this recent development. We operators literally shut down the phone system so that we can all go.
Bhagwan’s revelations are shocking. Not only has Sheela left, she’s taken millions of dollars, embezzled from the Ranch. But what’s even worse is that Bhagwan claims that Sheela and her gang have tried to kill his doctor and some of his caretakers through poisoning. He says his room was bugged, and he has been kept a virtual prisoner. He says that he’s started speaking again because Sheela has been misconstruing his wishes and that he’s giving press conferences because he didn’t like the way Sheela was acting towards the press. He says Sheela has poisoned or attempted to poison other commune members! He says she attempted to murder some politicians. He says there were bugs in the hotel, people’s private living spaces and Central Dispatch. He says every phone call that came into the Ranch was recorded by secret devices and later listened to.
I’m completely shocked and dismayed. I stumble out of the discourse feeling like throwing up. The celebratory mood of the Ranch turns into widespread misery and shock as sannyasins stand around crying. Some leave the Ranch that day, packing their suitcases and taking the next bus out. No work gets done as we all process this horrible information.
The FBI comes into the Ranch, ostensibly to get more information about Sheela and her crimes, but perhaps they also lump us all together and think we’re all guilty and it’s a little frightening to have them here.
I know Sheela was paranoid, and the bugs seem right up her alley, but capable of murder? I can’t wrap my mind around that. I wander around the Ranch like a zombie in shock. I realize that if Central Dispatch and the phones were bugged, then Sheela and gang had been listening to me discuss my personal life with my fellow workers. I feel violated. I had complained about them endlessly, and the fact I had to do so many night shifts. No wonder they had it in for me.
I wonder, if everyone hated Sheela so much, why we worked so hard for her, a bunch of hippies and spiritual wanderers who had been hanging out in India not doing much of anything. I wonder if it really was Bhagwan’s vision to create this ridiculous failed experiment, or if it was just Sheela’s. I know the answer though to as why we all worked for her. We wanted to be here… to be able to see Bhagwan every day at the drive-by… we wanted to be here for the festivals, and the discourses and the blissful, happy Utopian energy we created amongst ourselves. We had all dropped out of society in one way or another, and we wanted to create our own society. We had no idea it was going to mirror the same old shit that is everywhere and that there really is no escape from it.
It’s been a powerful lesson. I am humbled, disillusioned and accepting of it all at once. I’m only 23 and yet, I feel like I have just learned several lifetimes of lessons about power and greed. The world is not ready for Utopia yet, it is clear. Not even from the spiritual groups. The spiritual groups all become cult-like, whatever religion they are. They can all deny it, but they all, including Christianity, have aspects of it.
Excerpt from White Star’s recently published book.