Second-Chance Family

Rajneeshpuram has come and gone: what keep believers bound to one another?

In 1981, Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his devotees paid $5.9 million to acquire a 64,229-acre parcel of land in Central Oregon known as the Big Muddy Ranch. Over the course of the next three years, they transformed the parcel into a thriving intentional community called Rajneeshpuram that was populated by up to twenty-five-hundred long-term residents and, for a time, was incorporated as a city.

The land purchase marked the beginning of almost five years of hostility between the residents of Rajneeshpuram (called sannyasins) and the majority of Wasco County's citizens. The cultural conflict escalated when the sannyasins launched a successful electoral takeover of Antelope, the small town close to their communal city. Tensions nearly boiled over in the fall of 1984, when a handful of sannyasins slipped salmonella into salad bars in The Dalles and poisoned more than 750 people. They planned the attack as a dress rehearsal for a secret scheme: to immobilize most of the area's voting population during the upcoming November elections for the county board, so that pro-Rajneesh representatives would be able to frame zoning laws that supported the sannyasins' utopian dreams.

A bronze statue of an antelope in front of the Wasco County Courthouse in The Dalles commemorates these years of high tension. A plaque on its pedestal reads, “To all those who steadfastly and unwaveringly opposed the attempts of the Rajneesh followers to take over Wasco County. 1981–1985.” This tribute offers a brief version of a larger, more complex story that resonates even today. Of the thousands of people who settled in Oregon to create a communal city around their guru, most had no interest in harming outsiders or taking over the county. Their stories then—and now—are about their desire to join other devotees within a spiritually focused family. Despite the group's internal power struggles, abusive dynamics, and conflicts with external opponents, the relationships that devotees forged with one another in Central Oregon have lasted over time, providing them with a support system and lifelong network—a “second chance family” of past and current devotees.

Most sannyasins at Rajneeshpuram were from the United States, although there were small contingents from western Europe, Australia, and India. They all hoped to blend spirituality and materialism in a communal city that far surpassed the scope of their group's recently closed Pune ashram near Mumbai. Sannyasins envisioned a utopia that was also a destination resort and pilgrimage center for thousands of other devotees from all over the world.

For a brief time, they were certain that they could create an extraordinary permanent community. A few years after Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh's personal secretary and organizational chief, signed the real estate contracts, Rajneeshpuram eclipsed the beautiful former ashram. Crews working around the clock constructed a huge meditation hall and a rustic open-air mall with restaurants, clothing boutiques, and a bookshop that sold hundreds of books and videotapes by and about Rajneesh. A small private airport, rows of greenhouses, and a sparkling artificial lake were also part of the landscape. From a distance, Rajneeshpuram looked like a magical place.

During his first three and a half years in Oregon, the guru retreated into private meditation and only communicated directly with a handful of personal staff members, delegating all organizational decisions and public relations to Sheela. However, every afternoon Rajneesh slowly drove one of his ninety-six Rolls Royces down the hill from his compound, silently acknowledging lines of sannyasins as they bowed and placed roses on the hood of his car.

Despite Rajneeshpuram's apparent success, outsiders often viewed the communal city as far from serene and blissful. From the moment the sannyasins settled in Oregon, they provoked external opposition. Devotees voted for local tax increases that drove retirees out of their homes in Antelope. They challenged customs throughout the state with their unrestrained verbal attacks, explicit discussions of sexuality, and flamboyant clothing in sunrise hues that ranged from deep purple to shades of orange.

Sheela viciously ridiculed Wasco County farmers, ranchers, and legislators—in fact, any outsiders who questioned her schemes. She mocked them as hicks and bigots because of their cultural insularity and their Judeo-Christian religious affiliations. Negative publicity and structured opposition grew dramatically after each of Sheela's vitriolic public pronouncements, especially following her rant on a nationally aired _Nightline_ episode, when she predicted that in a hundred years, the state of Oregon would not exist, but the city of Rajneeshpuram would flourish.

In September 1984, media spotlighted Sheela's effort to recruit more than a thousand homeless men as new residents of Rajneeshpuram. Reporters correctly speculated about her desire to swell the pro-Rajneesh voting population and control the Wasco County elections. The strategy was designed to work in tandem with bioterrorism in restaurants and supermarkets throughout the county: Sheela wanted to make sure that sympathetic voters would vastly out number opponents who were too ill to get to the polls. The scheme failed because the state monitored voter registration and challenged the recent arrivals' legal standing. The pro-Rajneesh candidates withdrew from the election and Sheela gave up her plan. Almost all of the fifteen hundred homeless visitors left Rajneeshpuram within months of their arrival.

After the election debacle, Rajneesh's physician talked to his guru about the futility of voter fraud and the damage created by seemingly endless confrontations with outsiders. He also documented Sheela's wanton spending and some of her abusive behavior toward sannyasins. Rajneesh confronted Sheela after hearing about her behavior and he began to talk privately with several devotees who opposed her.

Sheela saw the writing on the wall and left for Europe less than a year after the county elections. She was soon extradited back to the United States, where she pled guilty to a number of charges and served twenty-nine months in a federal minimum-security prison before she left the country forever.

As his community disintegrated around him, Rajneesh publicly accused Sheela and members of her circle of wiretapping, arson, attempted murder, embezzlement, and the salad bar poisonings in The Dalles. Shortly after denouncing her, the guru learned about pending federal warrants for his own arrest and he secretly departed in a private airplane. Federal authorities intercepted him and his small entourage after they landed to refuel en route to the Bahamas.

Rajneesh was jailed in North Carolina, taken back to Oregon in chains, and deported after pleading no contest to charges of immigration fraud. When he left the country, the Big Muddy was put up for sale and only a small skeleton crew of sannyasins remained in order to shut down utopia. Rajneesh traveled all over the world before reopening his ashram in Pune, now called Osho International Meditation Resort in honor of the name he took in 1989. He died early in 1990, but the movement continues with the understanding that Osho's spirit remains with all sannyasins, although he has left his body.

In contrast to Wasco County residents who often described the many ways that the Rajneeshees wronged them, the sannyasins from Rajneeshpuram barely remember their sojourn in Central Oregon even though some suffered because of their experience at Rajneeshpuram. Wealthy devotees lost hundreds of thousands of dollars that they had invested in a venture that was supposed to last forever. Workers suffered permanent injuries because of backbreaking labor on construction crews and twelve-hour days in the fields and greenhouses. Countless devotees were capriciously isolated in Rajneesh medical clinics or surreptitiously fed psychotropic drugs. A number of women could never bear children because their sexually transmitted infections had been intentionally misdiagnosed, and Rajneesh's physician was hospitalized for weeks in Bend because one of Sheela's cronies injected him with poison.

Despite these incidents, most sannyasins still believe in their guru. If they reconsider their failed communal city at all, it is with far more affection than anger. How could sannyasins so easily move on after such a shocking series of events? The following personal story illuminates the dynamics that allowed devotees to forget and forgive.

When we met three years ago, Veena, one of Rajneesh's earliest Western followers, described invisible golden threads that stitch the old crew from Rajneeshpuram into a global family. She said that some threads connect them to the invisible presence of their guru, but many more strands bind the former residents of Rajneeshpuram to one another.

The image of invisible threads resonated for Veena, because she was Rajneesh's personal seamstress for more than a dozen years. She had been a teacher and a fashion model before she encountered Rajneesh in India in 1971. After Veena became a sannyasin, she went back to England for about a year in order to help establish the guru's London center. When her work was done, she happily returned to her new home, the Pune ashram, and discovered her calling as Rajneesh's seamstress.

Sheela resented Veena's close ties to other sannyasins in Rajneesh's inner circle and envied her rapport with the guru. After she gained power in Oregon, she evicted Veena from her comfortable room in Rajneesh's compound and terminated her activities as the guru's holy tailor.

Veena was ordered to live alone in a makeshift shelter and tend rows of bean sprouts. However, a sociable sannyasin who had been assigned to check up on her helped Veena survive isolation. Sheela had told him not to talk with Veena because she was a very dangerous person, but he chatted with his charge anyway. After a few brief conversations, he totally disregarded instructions and supplied Veena with companionship, and snacks as well.

When Veena appeared to tolerate and possibly even enjoy isolation, Sheela made her the eighth sannyasin in a small cabin where the night winds whistled through cracks in the walls, and piles of blankets could never ward off the chill. Veena worked with the evening construction crew, although she was terrified of operating heavy equipment on the communal city's shadowy dirt roads. Sheela transferred her from construction to onerous job after another, but Veena's supportive friends and her unwavering commitment to her guru enabled her to withstand the relentless harassment.

Rajneesh learned about his former seamstress's ordeal from his personal physician. When the guru began to lecture to a small group that included a cluster of Sheela's wealthy critics, he summoned Veena to join the privileged sannyasins. She moved back into his compound and started to sew his robes once more, and when Rajneesh left America forever, Veena traveled as part of his entourage. She returned to the Pune ashram and worked as its director of creative arts for several years after Rajneesh's death.

In the early 1990s, Veena decided that she could not live permanently in India. She went back to England once again and rented a cottage near Croydon Hall, a sprawling country manor house that is a holistic health retreat offering Rajneesh meditations along with other spiritual practices. She teaches English as a second language, does translation and editing, and writes for various Osho-related newsletters and blogs. Sannyasins from Rajneesh's first Pune ashram, from Rajneeshpuram, and from her current British networks are Veena's family. She believes that she will inevitably find traveling companions or a place to live or work anywhere in the world, because she belongs to a caring clan.

Shortly before her exile to the sprout hut at Rajneeshpuram, Veena told a well-known journalist, Frances FitzGerald, that being a sannyasin was like falling in love. She is still enamored with Rajneesh and also with her comrades. Most of the former residents of Rajneeshpuram, like Veena, continue to adore their spiritual master and the other devotees who have experienced the best and worst of times together.

Veena's story illustrates the ways that sannyasins' strong bonds with each other helped them weather Sheela's vengeance and the subsequent death of their spiritual master. Most devotees who participated in the communal city for at least two years still keep in touch. Some live together or in close proximity and others use social media to stay connected to their comrades from the Oregon days. They are Facebook friends and they blog, Skype, and Tweet. Some still travel to the Osho Meditation Resort, although their visits tend to be short and infrequent.

The guru's former seamstress gets news about periodic reunions through old friends and on dedicated Internet sites like Sannyas Wiki and Sannyas World. There is also a special website for several hundred adults who fondly remember their childhood escapades in the communal city or at one of the much smaller Rajneesh centers elsewhere. All of the websites have a contemporary focus, but sannyasins from Rajneeshpuram are major contributors, writing about their love for Osho/Rajneesh and for their comrades.

Despite the plausibility of Veena's story, it is still hard to understand how most sannyasins could edit their memories of the tempestuous Oregon years and move on from the shocking events. Many different influences shaped their responses. However, their faith in Rajneesh was the foundation for their extraordinary loyalty and optimism, just as it was for Veena.

For one thing, the majority of sannyasins who lived at Rajneeshpuram remain certain that their guru was unaware of Sheela's bioterrorism or the many ways that she harmed hundreds of his loyal followers. They are far less sure about his complicity in other crimes: recruiting potential voters, violating land use codes, or arranging convenient marriages between Americans and foreign nationals. However, they dismiss those crimes as minor transgressions that never directly hurt anyone.

Sannyasins also venerate Rajneesh as a profound spiritual teacher. His ideas and charisma attracted them to his movement and provided a collective worldview that still shapes their lives. Commitment to their guru and his teachings became a mutual experience that helped devotees bond with one another. Even former sannyasins who departed from the group acknowledge that Rajneesh and his approach to spirituality changed them for the better by enabling them to access their personal authenticity and the sparks of divinity within them.

Past and present sannyasins revere Rajneesh's teachings—a spiritual stew that blends ideas from many philosophers, religious figures, and psychologists who emphasize living in the moment and enjoying every aspect of life. While he was alive, Rajneesh also provided sannyasins with personal counseling about work and love. And they had many opportunities for intense spiritual experience through practices like meditation, ecstatic dancing, and tantric sex.

Most devotees at Rajneeshpuram shared similar backgrounds: They were baby boomers like Veena and had also turned their backs on professional possibilities or established careers in order to fully accept Rajneesh's spiritual guidance. Their average age was thirty-five and almost 70 percent had degrees from four-year colleges; slightly more than half of these college graduates also held advanced graduate or professional degrees.

For many of these people, their achievements rarely brought them pleasure, because they often felt that their parents manipulated them into becoming hard charging professionals or pliant Stepford wives. As children and young adults, devotees were told what they ought to feel and do, and they were rarely queried about what they really desired. Sannyasins' parents seldom offered them unconditional, sustained emotional support. On the other hand, Rajneesh seemed to accept and personally nurture each sannyasin, promising that his teachings could transform their lives.

Rajneesh group therapy, which was part of most sannyasins' introduction to the movement, encouraged participants to break away from damaging family relationships and destructive emotional patterns, while they substituted new bonds to their guru and their fellow spiritual seekers. As they talked with other devotees about their painful personal histories and their future choices, sannyasins established close emotional connections to one another. They renounced their pasts and gradually joined together to seek personal and spiritual enlightenment.

Their new support system helped sannyasins distance themselves from their old emotional wounds and forgive the relatives and former friends who had once troubled them. After they fully committed themselves to the Rajneesh movement, many devotees reached out to their parents and even sent invitations to visit them in India or Rajneeshpuram. In therapy groups and in their close friendships, sannyasins had learned psychological strategies that allowed them to move beyond their past difficulties and those skills also helped them recover from the events in Central Oregon.

After the chaotic Oregon experiment, most sannyasins felt like sisters and brothers who had been through a disaster and come out whole. Today, if they talk about Rajneeshpuram at all, they usually describe the enduring bonds that grew out of living, worshipping, and surviving together. A decade after the communal city disintegrated, I asked a sannyasin what she wanted outsiders to remember about her vanished community. She urged me: “Tell people that we are loved. Osho [Rajneesh] loves us and we sannyasins love each other!”

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