Carved into the 64,000 rugged acres of Wasco County is the Washington Family Ranch — a single-story Christian youth camp flanked by the eastern hill of Mt. Hood and the gurgling Columbia River. Complete with biblical workshops and dynamic worship activities, the recreation center fits like a puzzle piece into the rest of rural Oregon’s conservative and devoutly Christian demographic. Yet only forty years ago, the same soil that houses these family-friendly, traditional structures once belonged to one of America’s most notorious cults. The Rajneeshees, or as fondly recognized by Oregon locals, “The Red Vermin”, poured millions of dollars into the sprawling agrarian expanse to create a world both isolated from and very much a part of mainstream society. Founded by Indian spiritual guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, this neo-sanyasi movement was rooted in meditation, spirituality, and the exploration of the inner self. In a post-war society defined by mass consumerism and conformity, the Rajneesh cult grew widely popular among a generation of baby boomer youth in search of meaning and salvation. While the more eccentric characteristics of the Rajneeshee lifestyle seemed to set the cult apart from its native Oregonian counterpart, much of what made this movement attractive was surprisingly American at its core. The Rajneeshees of the 1980s not only embraced the American Dream, but synthesized and manipulated the very ideals it championed to correspond to their own purpose.
The cult was born in 1958, when Bhagwan Rajneesh acquired a following at the Jabalpur University, Madhya Pradesh. Key Rajneeshee beliefs were an intriguing marriage of both modern capitalism and social progressivism. While Bhagwan lambasted Socialist principles in his anti-Gandhi book, “Beware of Socialism”, he was equally aware of the economic and social inequalities that came with a capitalist system. In many of his speeches at the University, Rajneesh advocated the use of birth control and addressed gender inequality in marriage. From early on, there was a push-and-pull relationship between some of the most fundamental Rajneeshee principles. Members of the movement were often considered ‘sannyasins’, or Hindu ascetics who had renounced all worldly possessions. Yet the same time, the Rajneeshees denounced ‘sanyas’ in the accepted form of the word; rather than distancing themselves from the world, these new sanyasis were very grounded and welcoming of their personal desires. They sought to embody, according to Bhagwan, the “new man” — an individual accepting of spirituality yet combined with a “zest for life”. Unlike traditional Indian spirituals, the Rajneeshees embraced human sexuality and considered sex “sacred”. In fact, according to Bhagwan, “The primal energy of sex has the reflection of God in it.” (Rajneesh, From Sex to Superconsciousness).
While such radical views created a national uproar in India, they resonated well with the wave of anti-establishment rhetoric in the West. The development of rock-and-roll music, a nascent drug culture, and the punk movement was much more than the product of mindless baby-boomer rebellion; it was a sign of anxiety with the status-quo, with the lack of meaning behind mainstream society. American counter-culture during the 1970s was a “Great Awakening” of its own, with its revived focus on introspection and individuality. The only difference, perhaps, was the newfound interest in Eastern spiritual values — a far cry from the intensely Christian roots of previous religious movements. Yet the reinvented sense of identity and a renewed emphasis on individual freedoms prevailed. It was an open attitude towards life itself that made Rajneeshism appealing. The movement did not define itself as a religion, at least in its most traditional sense, yet was religious nonetheless. The Rajneeshees were united in their spirituality, yet did not accept any spiritual dogma. They were, as described by their leader, “the white cloud…nowhere to go, coming from nowhere, just being there this very moment — perfect.” (Rajneesh, My Way, The Way of the White Clouds)
The first Rajneesh commune was established in 1972 with three thousand followers from across the world. Although Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh adopted many of the traditional practices of a Hindu guru, his “free love” ideologies subverted middle-class India’s traditional family structure. Shrouded by controversy in India, Bhagwan looked to the much more liberal West as a sympathetic sphere for his movement — which he found through a six million dollar purchase of the Big Muddy Ranch in Central Oregon. His choice of the “Wild West” as a backdrop for “Rajneeshpuram” was no accident. Only fifty years ago, the agrarian frontier society was at the forefront of American culture. In a speech to the American Historical Association, professor Frederick Jackson Turner stated, “That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that dominant individualism, working for good and evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom – these are the traits of the frontier.” The prospect of cheaper land became an opportunity for economic freedom and greater social mobility. Larger-than-life showmen like ‘Buffalo Bill Cody’ became symbols of youth and adventure — the kind of rugged individuality that the Rajneeshees sought to capture. While the frontier of Bill Cody’s time was acres of undeveloped land, the Rajneeshees used the West to cross the frontier of the human mind. To them, it was the potential of suppressed human desire and inner liberation that was the unexplored territory of a new age.
The Rajneeshee vision for the community was centered around spiritual and cultural exclusivity. “Rajneeshpuram is creating a Noah’s Ark of consciousness … I say to you that except this there is no other way.” (Rajneesh Foundation International Newsletter, 2, 14, 1st October, 1983) The very idea of a ‘Noah’s Ark’ indicates a sense of superiority and exceptionalism. Bhagwan’s perception of this new commune is not unlike John Winthrop’s characterization of the Massachusetts Bay Colony — the beginnings of an autonomous United States–“We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Both Rajneesh and Winthrop were fiercely proud of their own way of life. Though separated by centuries, the first ‘Americans’ and these neo-sanyasis visualized their communities as overlooking an unawakened, inferior rest of the world. “That’s something you see…too, the perception from the Rajneeshees that they were superior to the Wasco County locals, cleverer and more civilised,” noted Sam Wollaston in an interview with former Rajneeshee Ma Anand Sheela. The Rajneeshees, with their bright red clothing and Eastern meditation practices, seemed a far cry from the traditional American. And yet the very exclusivism that separated American and Rajneeshee values only brought them closer together.
Though the movement itself was designed as an exploration of the inner self, Rajneeshism’s wild popularity can be attributed to its intimate relationship with commercialism. Rajneeshees were unabashed in their ties to wealth and worldliness. In an interview known as The Orange People, a Rajneeshee supporter proudly claimed, “Our religion..is probably the only religion which has synthesized capitalism and religion together.” To fund the commune in Oregon, millions were collected by wealthier Rajneeshees in New York and New Jersey. Yet the financial success of the cult traced back to its fundamental practices, such as meditation and derivatives of traditional yoga. From the “Rajneesh Fresh Beginning Course” to the “Rajneesh Hypnotherapy Basic Course”, their spiritual programs brought in thousands of dollars. (Hugh Urban, Rajneesh, The Guru Who Loved His Rolls Royces) Instead of rejecting materialism as a hindrance to individuality or the righteousness of man, Bhagwan Rajneesh embraced it. In the later stages of Rajneeshpuram development, for instance, he instantiated the “Drive-By Blessings” — a sort of ceremony in which hundreds of Rajneeshees would gather by the roads every afternoon to place flowers on top of Bhagwan’s countless custom Rolls-Royces. This image of opulence did not undermine Rajneeshee spirituality, but rather made it more attractive than ever. In a 1982 interview with an INS officer, Bhagwan claimed, “Wealth is a perfect means which can enhance people in every way… So I am a materialist spiritualist.” The Rajneeshees’ relationship with capitalism was a key element in their balancing act between Western consumerism and Eastern religious practices. The idea of monetary gain “enhancing people” runs deep in the American vision of success. Nearly a century before Bhagwan, steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie declared “The Gospel Of Wealth”, forever immortalizing the ideology of the self-made man. Carnegie’s statement, “The man who acquires the ability to take full possession of his own mind may take possession of anything else to which he is justly entitled,” echoes Bhagwan’s own pro-capitalist ideology. The self-sufficiency that Carnegie so deeply valued was the basis of the commune in Oregon. In their own, extreme interpretation of the ‘American Dream’, the Rajneeshees “took full possession” of their own mind to build their community, complete with a police force and education system.
On both political and cultural levels, it did not take long for relations to sour between the Rajneeshees and other Oregonians. There was a sense of paranoia on both sides, with a deep disrespect for the other way of life. Locals were generally devout members of the Church, and Bhagwan never ceased to criticize and mock the Christian faith. “That is why Jesus is worshipped now and yet he was crucified when he was alive. Alive, you crucify him; dead, you worship him.” (Rajneesh, When The Shoe Fits) Under the guidance of secretary Ma Anand Sheela, Bhagwan’s ambitious right-hand woman, the Rajneeshees used their large population to sway local elections in nearby towns like Antelope. For further impact, hundreds of homeless people were bused into Rajneeshpuram and registered as voters. When the matter was later investigated, it was discovered that these same homeless voters were then sedated and displaced from Rajneeshpuram once the elections were over. The walls of Antelope’s conservative society began caving in on its members, as the Rajneeshees grew in both numbers and political power. After a bombing of a Rajneeshee hotel, a wary Sheela used the violence as an excuse for extensive militarization. The cult created a “peace force” — a reflection of their own sense of xenophobia. “The security system, which includes more than 150 officers, is intended to observe and record every movement along the only main road linking Rajneeshpuram with the outside world, alerting the Rajneesh command to the presence of anyone perceived as hostile to the group.” (Driver, Rajneesh’s Police State) This sudden demonstration of force kickstarted an arms race, with the circulation of “Better Dead Than Red” Cold War bumper stickers among Oregon natives. Relations between the Rajneeshees and locals spiraled into suspicion, nativist sentiment, and violence.
It was amidst these mounting hostilities that Ma Anand Sheela gathered a small group of followers of her own. Without the knowledge of Rajneesh or the outside world, she planned the murders of fellow Rajneeshees as well as opposing political figures. “They selected small handguns from a cache of weapons, and waited across the street from the Portland courthouse for Charles Turner, attorney general for the state of Oregon, to appear. When he didn’t, they gave up and went back to Rajneeshpuram.” (Bates, Ma Anand Sheela) To rig Antelope’s elections, Sheela’s followers planted a strain of salmonella later traced back to Rajneeshee laboratories in nearby restaurants. With enough locals violently ill from the disease, they hoped, the Rajneeshees would have a voting advantage against their adversaries. Yet suspicious journalists, combined with a disapproving United States government, uncovered this plot and forced Ma Anand Sheela to flee the country. It was the beginning of a very long end; Sheela’s departure led to a thorough investigation of the various crimes in the Rajneeshee community, including secret wire-tappings, poisoning plots, and arson.
The downfall of this movement demonstrated another unexplored aspect to the Rajneesh Movement — and to the American Dream itself. In their quest for political expansion, the Rajneeshees demonized a supposedly “inferior” group of people — individuals who had lived there far longer than the Rajneeshees had. Their conflict with the Oregonians was just another part of the frontier’s historical narrative. Those same white settlers who crossed into Western territories in search of an agrarian paradise displaced and conquered their Native American counterpart. The very stories that painted individuals like Davy Crockett as independent American heroes also depicted the Indian tribes they massacred as savages and antagonists. In the Buffalo Bill Combination, Cody would reenact the scalping of a Cheyenne warrior at Warbonnet Creek — much to the glee of his audiences. In both circumstances, there was little to no respect or understanding for “the other side”. Ambition, whether it was political or economic, justified any violation of human rights. The Rajneeshees inherited both the virtues and the vices of the renowned “Frontier Myth”; there were promises of opportunity, but at the price of violence and separatism; there were ideas of greater equality and freedom, but only through conformity and strict obedience.
Every year, teenagers and young college students flock to the Washington Family Ranch. Aside from the physical activities offered at the camp-cum-resort, there are daily group sermons — not unlike the discourses that took place on this very soil years ago. “After the Rajneeshees left … a billionaire developer from Montana … bought the ranch and ended up gifting the thing to Young Life. They call them camps. It’s more like a resort to me … it’s kind of like a cult, too,” explains mayor John Whitaker. In some ways, the echo of the Rajneesh Movement never left, even after the cult officially disbanded in 1984. The Rajneeshees, with all of their radical sex practices and flamboyant red clothing, were a distorted “fun-house” reflection of the American Dream — attractive, profound, and equally manipulative. Even in its gradual decline, the movement captured the capitalist sentiment, rugged individuality, and agrarian idealism of the time. And although their conservative neighbors feared the Rajneeshees because they may not have seemed American enough, perhaps the real cause for both appeal and concern was that the Rajneeshees were more American than they had ever anticipated.
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