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Why Did America Forget About Rajneeshpuram?

Thousands of people lived in a rural Oregon commune for years, yet few people today remember its outrageous downfall as featured in “Wild Wild Country.”  by Hanna Olsen

April 13, 2018

It was an architectural marvel, a city that seemingly sprung from the earth. For just a handful of years in the 1980s, the disciples of an Indian guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh turned a remote, wind-whipped plot of land in Eastern Oregon into an oasis of peace, love, and, eventually, guns.

The sprawling compound — called Rajneeshpuram, Rancho Rajneesh, or simply, “the ranch” — became its own city almost overnight, with plumbing, sewers, roads, and even a shopping mall. Amid the scrub brush, there were suddenly thousands of residents, all clad in shades of burnt orange, crimson, and magenta.

But they didn’t land in a fully uninhabited wasteland.

The neighboring town of Antelope — population 46 — wasn’t about to let the thriving commune impede their right to a quiet life. Between 1980 and 1985, Rajneeshpuram was the source of heated conflict with nearby towns and even faced an armed standoff with Oregon state police. Residents were accused of ecological damage, election rigging, mass poisoning, and even assassination attempts of governmental officials.

With the release of “Wild Wild Country,” a six-part Netflix documentary detailing the beginning and end of the ranch, a brand-new group of people are being exposed to the story. Those who covered it at the time seem relieved that others finally care about what may be one of the most outrageous true stories in recent U.S. history.

Rajneeshpuram was vibrant and active during its short heyday, but once Rajneesh himself was arrested on charges of vast immigration fraud — his followers enacted extensive sham marriage schemes across the country — and his charismatic (and allegedly murderous) right-hand woman absconded to Germany, the commune dismantled itself.

One day, they were there. The next, they were gone.

A number of former members served time in federal prisons for their crimes. But in the time since Rajneeshpuram’s demise, thousands of former members seem to have disappeared back into the outside world.

Most of my friends are dead or insane or gone.

Members of the official Osho International group decry “Wild Wild Country,” calling it “bogus” and “manipulative.” An article in the Osho Times, a publication dedicated to the tens of thousands of remaining Rajneeshee followers, calls it “a government conspiracy.”

What is it about Rajneeshpuram that allowed this fascinating and, according to some who lived through it, extremely traumatic period to be so thoroughly erased from America’s collective consciousness? Where did all the residents — some of whom were so dedicated that they gave up everything, all of their material possessions, all of their property, all of their money — go?

What happened to the land?

And what happened to the Rajneeshees?

Image by Netflix.

The cultural clash between the ranch’s population and the residents of the nearby town of Antelope — a pastoral, quasi-Western retirement community with a single store — were great fodder for both local and national news media coverage at the time. Their legal battles over land use, voting, and later, numerous instances of poisoning and bioterrorism in the name of their leader were the stuff of great headlines. Even Johnny Carson couldn’t ignore it, eventually creating a parody song about the arrest of their leader entitled “Bye Bye Bhagwan.”

But Rajneeshpuram’s story is from the pre-internet era, a time before 24-hour news channels and social media provided exhaustive, and exhausting, continuous coverage. So, for Oregonians like me, the story is a shock.

I grew up fewer than 200 miles from Antelope and was born just a few years after the group unraveled completely. And although my proximity should have made me aware of it, the first time I heard of Rajneeshpuram was on an episode of the podcast 99 Percent Invisible. Aside from the occasional offhand remark — one friend’s mother was known to tell someone that “they look like a Rajneeshee” if they accidentally wore all one color — for me, the tale of the city seemingly came out of nowhere, then was quickly snuffed out and simply lost to history.

So I went on a hunt for the stories of real Rajneeshees. And despite their large numbers at the time, they are difficult to find now.

“Some of my friends are barely functioning,” admits Aaron (not his real name), a former follower of Rajneesh who tells me anecdotally that he’s noticed that Rajneeshpuram residents have a higher rate of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as suicide. At the same time, he says, “I don’t talk to a lot of people who feel victimized by the process.”

This cognitive dissonance, this gray-area feeling that there were good and bad things about being a Rajneeshee, may be behind the story’s disappearance from headlines and history books.

Was it a cult or was it a religion? Who was to blame for its downfall: Rajneesh or his inner circle?

Some former adherents did — and still do — consider it a cult. Others considered it a solution to life’s problems. Some people think Rajneesh himself was the reason it fell apart. Others blame his chief of staff and proxy, a charismatic and aggressive woman named Ma Anand Sheela.

A 1994 survey of residents during and after their time at the ranch noted that some viewed their experiences as positive overall. But their positivity was related to two factors: how long it had been since they’d left Rajneeshpuram and the manner in which they left.

They’ve kind of gone back to idealizing him and seeing him as an enlightened being.

When people do talk about the Rajneeshpuram, the end of the residency period typically signifies the end of the story. Once it was all over and most of the members left Oregon for good, people took different paths. Many members were from wealthy families and were able to return home, perhaps a bit ashamed, but otherwise unscathed. They continued to travel to India, and to Nepal, searching for purpose. Some even joined the Rajneeshee communes that are still active around the world today.

A private Facebook group entitled “Rajneeshpuram Residents” has over 800 members, many of whom appear to be white, upper-middle-class individuals with Anglo last names and adopted Indian first names like Puja, Maneesha, and Pravana. Many still cite Osho — the name Rajneesh adopted after he left the ranch — as their source of education and travel to India regularly.

“They’ve kind of gone back to idealizing him and seeing him as an enlightened being,” says Aaron, who says he’s since come to realize that Rajneesh is “a charlatan.” He has no regrets, though; in spite of the fact that Rajneesh was a con artist, he says, he learned a lot of valuable skills from his teachings.

We didn’t know about the poisoning and that kind of stuff.

Like Aaron, many still revere the man at the center of it all, brushing aside much of the bad stuff. Philip Niren Toelkes, who is featured prominently in “Wild Wild Country” and acted as Rajneesh’s attorney, recently wrote on Facebook that he is still working to clear his name in the United States and that he is “deeply touched … that so many folks I haven’t known are getting Osho.”

Osho-related books are still stocked at many big-box bookstores. You can even buy a deck of Osho tarot cards on Amazon.

But the group was not entirely idyllic, though you may be forgiven for thinking it was. In a 2017 multi-part retrospective, The Oregonian admitted that much of what made the story so bizarre was never actually made public. Despite copious reports about the legal troubles and tension between Oregonians and so-called Rajneeshees, there remained many secrets that the public was simply never privy to.

Until “Wild Wild Country,” that is.

“It’s long been known they had marked Oregon’s chief federal prosecutor for murder,” reads one part of The Oregonian’s reporting, “but now it’s clear the Rajneeshees also stalked the state attorney general, lining him up for death.”

According to The Oregonian, the group was also responsible for administering poison created in their own lab to numerous restaurants and public spaces. They researched how to best poison public food sources, ultimately settling on salad bars. According to charging papers, this is how they exposed diners to a bespoke strand of Salmonella cultivated to swing an election.

Aaron, who says he never lived on the ranch but used to fly into the compound’s private airstrip to visit and worship, says the worst parts were kept hidden from the general population of the ranch.

“These were compassionate, loving people who were super smart and thought they were right,” he explains. “We didn’t know about the poisoning and that kind of stuff.”

Some members put their time on the commune behind them swiftly and completely, whether out of anger, shame, or a feeling of being wronged. In his memoir, “Growing Up In Orange,” Tim Guest details how thoroughly his mother purged Rajneesh from their life after leaving the commune.

“My mother never talked about the commune,” Guest wrote. After the collapse of the ranch, they burned their orange clothing and smashed their memorabilia.

Ma Anand Sheela. Image by Netflix.

For some residents, life after Rajneeshpuram was not easy. A man — we’ll call him Bob due to his desire for anonymity — who lived at the ranch for the entirety of its run agreed to talk with me about his time there. When it all dissolved, he says, it left many of the residents with nowhere to go, no money, and no sense of safety.

“There were thousands of people … and they were all looking at each other and they were all spun out,” he says. “It completely destroyed their soul[s].”

They had identity crises, unsure of what to think after following the guru so closely. They had fully committed to Rajneesh as their life’s purpose — so what was next for them?

“Most of my friends are dead or insane or gone,” Bob says.

In addition to the lives that were forever altered by Rajneeshpuram, the state of Oregon faced real economic and political consequences for many of the group’s experimentations.

Many of the foundational members were “the best and the brightest,” Aaron says, thanks to a recruiting effort to ensure the ranch was populated with smart, wealthy people. Bob confirms that many of them “had Master’s degrees.”

But in order to gain greater political clout, the group made a particularly embarrassing misstep.

It completely destroyed their soul.

The group bussed in thousands of unsheltered people from around the county, scooping them up off the streets with the promise of a place to live, a hot meal, and two beers a day. While the commune’s leaders pledged that these individuals were brought in to help them get a fresh start in life, the purpose of their presence was for a more strategic motive: They were brought in to become voters to help Rajneeshpuram become a powerful political entity in the region.

But when the formerly houseless residents arrived at the polls, local government turned them away; and when they entered the camp, they became rowdy. To keep the peace, the Rajneeshees separated these disenfranchised people from the rest of the group, drugged their beers with sedatives, and made them listen to chanting.

Later, they were jettisoned, rather unceremoniously, in part because many of them were still reeling from the trauma of homelessness and having a difficult time adjusting. Some were reportedly dropped off in various nearby neighborhoods under the cover of night.

Few people know what happened to them afterward. Some assume they just hitched back to Portland, where they might have stayed. The city’s homeless population expanded substantially in the late 1980s — by as many as 2,000 in a single year — although the connection to the Rajneeshee “street people” purge cannot be directly proven. Anecdotally, though, that kind of influx would be consequential for the area’s social services, as well for the people who were now stranded in a new place with no support system, no safety net, and no money.

Their project also had an environmental impact. The residents of Rajneeshpuram kept very busy creating an entire city where once there was nothing more than harsh terrain. They built roads, irrigation systems, and a functional sewer. They manipulated the local landscape, changing the watershed and potentially damaging the groundwater supply, according to a 1993 economic impact statement released by the local land management authority.

The environmental and economic impact, though concerning at the time to groups like 1000 Friends of Oregon, has seldom been revisited.

Ma Anand Sheela and Rajneesh. Image by Netflix.

Why the story of Rajneeshpuram disappeared from our collective consciousness is up for debate. But the outrageous story’s peaceful end could be a reason it has been largely forgotten.

Once state and local government had gathered sufficient evidence of the Rajneeshees’ immigration fraud, attempted murders, and bioterror attack, they began to close in on the commune, memories of the Jonestown Massacre fresh in their minds. The residents of Rancho Rajneesh were also well armed; they had enough automatic weapons and other artillery to outgun the state police. The moments before they raided the Rajneeshee compounds was a particularly volatile time, and local law enforcement agencies prepared for the worst.

But in the end, Rajneesh himself was apprehended after he fled cross-country via his private jet. The residents of the ranch left without a standoff. The situation fizzled rather than exploded.

As quickly as the entire saga had started, it was over.

Perhaps that’s why this chapter of Oregon’s history was so easy to leave behind. Close to a decade before the deadly, disastrous standoffs at both Waco and Idaho’s Ruby Ridge, Rajneeshpuram was raided and dismantled without a hail of bullets.

Today, there’s very little information about its aftermath to collect, as long as its survivors refuse to talk or can’t be located. And, so, it’s quiet.

At least, it was, until “Wild Wild Country” captured the public’s attention.

Thanks to the extensive journalism of The Oregonian and the widespread popularity of “Wild Wild Country,” many more people now know about one of the stranger moments in Oregon’s — and America’s — recent history. More are pondering the role of religious zealots and how local politics can become international news.

More people are wondering about how such a thing could happen, and what they’d do if it was their group.

Or their town. Or themselves.

Top and share image by Netflix. 

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Why Did America Forget About Rajneeshpuram? Thousands of people lived in a rural Oregon commune for years, yet few people today remember its outrageous downfall as featured in “Wild Wild Country.”