Offbeat Oregon History
When “The Rolls-Royce Guru” came to Oregon
August 10, 2023 | View PDF
By Finn J.D. John
Part One of Five: Inception
Once upon a time in India, a man lived. He would go on to become one of the most influential thinkers in new-age thought, but at this time — the early 1960s — he was merely a philosophy teacher, and one of the thousands of gurus living and discoursing in that land of gurus. His name was Chandra Mohan Jain.
But even then, just a few years out of graduate school, Jain was different.
To call him charismatic would be a colossal understatement. By all accounts, this man could look into your eyes and speak to you for a half hour, and you would hurry home to sell all your earthly possessions to stay near him.
He was charismatic enough that, by 1966, he was drawing big enough crowds and making enough cash on the speaking circuit to quit his teaching job at the University of Jabalpur, seven years after taking it, to focus on his “side hustle” as an independent guru.
(It is actually possible that leaving the university wasn’t his choice, by the way. Academics will be quick to recognize the significance of the seven-year mark. Someone may have slipped Jain the word that he would be denied tenure if he stayed.)
In any case, once Jain focused his full attention on the guru industry, the world seemed to fall at his feet. The field was very crowded for would-be gurus in India; but Jain — now calling himself by his boyhood nickname of Rajneesh, meaning “moon” — rose quickly through its ranks to become one of the most successful and well-known.
He did this with a combination of oratorical skills, philosophical insights, personal charisma, and finely tuned instincts for how far he could go in taking controversial positions without sparking a backlash. At his conferences, lectures, and meditation camps, he criticized some of India’s most revered institutions — Hinduism, Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, traditional morality, and the guru system itself. People heard him, heard the certainty in his voice, looked into those hypnotic eyes, and joined his movement on the spot.
As far as religion went, Rajneesh taught that every person was a religion unto him- or herself. Rather than looking outward to some sort of external dogma or prescribed code of conduct, one should look inward, deep inside, throwing off expectations and becoming consistent only with one’s own deep identity. There was, he said, a divine core inside each person, and where that core lies, there is God. Nothing outside matters; when you get right with “you-god” on a path to enlightenment, your relationship with the outside world and other people becomes far less important. Obligations? Optional. Guilt? Illegitimate. Compassion for others? Usually desirable, but not always.
It’s obviously very different in most ways, but the philosophy of Chandra Mohan Jain had a few things in common with that of philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand. And like Rand, there was a lot there to like if you were a wealthy person seeking a personal philosophy or a path to spirituality that didn’t ask anything from you, require you to share your bounty, or make you feel guilty for being fortunate in life.
As with Rand, there was also a lot there to like if you were young and frustrated with the demands and constraints of society. Jain taught that the impulses and urges that most faith traditions expect young people to resist are simply part of life and should be indulged, not resisted, so as to reduce their forbidden-fruit appeal. The path to desirelessness was through indulgence, Jain taught.
And as with Rand, there was a core sense of elitism there. It was not as blatant and offensive as Rand’s “makers versus takers” paradigm, but it was there — and it would become especially obvious later on: A sense that the wise sannyasin was a special kind of human and that the laws and morals of the ignorant rubes of the outside world had no legitimate authority over him/her.
Slowly at first, and then more and more rapidly, young and/or wealthy Westerners started to discover this startlingly different guru. His message resonated with them even better than it had with the wealthy of India.
That was especially true after 1968, when, after moving to Mumbai, he started discoursing on sex and love. Sex, he said, was a divine force, a form of worship of the god within, a step on the ladder to enlightenment.
“The primal energy of sex has the reflection of God in it,” he said, in a discourse transcribed for publication later as From Sex to Superconsciousness. “It is obvious: it is the energy that creates new life. And that is the greatest, most mysterious force of all.”
That sounded well, and very academic, but as a practical matter, it translated into urging people to ditch all their cultural and religious norms and taboos around sex.
“Rajneesh gives you the opportunity to sin as you’ve never sinned before. Only he doesn’t call it sin,” wrote John Ephland, an ex-follower of the guru, in an article for the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, a Christian organization best known for crossing swords with the Transcendental Meditation movement in the 1970s. “The path to desirelessness is desire.”
It was in Mumbai that the guru changed his name, taking the title Bhagwan (“Blessed One”) and Shree (“Master”) Rajneesh. This would be a thing among Rajneeshees until the end — each newly added sannyasin was given a new Hindi name and new clothes colored in various shades of ocher or red.
Rajneesh continued getting more popular, and finding enough space to host his meetings and meditations became a challenge in the city. So he started looking for a place with more room, and in 1974, some of his followers found a private 4-acre enclave in Koregaon Park in the port city of Pune, on which to build the Shree Rajneesh Ashram.
This worked out really well for Rajneesh, at least at first. Now that he had an actual campus, Rajneesh was able to really put on the kind of show that took his attractiveness to Westerners to the next level.
It was at Pune that Rajneesh’s movement really hit its stride, especially after 1975 when “therapy” groups were added to the meditation groups offered there. This was an attempt to court more Westerners, and it worked great. However, some of the therapies were … unconventional. The most notorious one was Encounter Therapy Group, which met in a windowless room with padded walls in the basement of a building called the Krishna House. Participants screamed, thrashed around, and attacked one another during sessions. There were rumors around Pune that they even engaged in sex acts during Encounter sessions.
In 1979 the ashram announced that violence would no longer be used as a means of emotional catharsis in therapy groups — thereby confirming that it previously had been.
Also, locals in Pune by 1979 had come to consider the ashram a public menace. They called Rajneesh “the sex guru” and resented the thousands of young well-heeled Westerners that filled their town, offending the locals with disrespectful and promiscuous behavior and engaging in drug trafficking and prostitution to raise money for extended stays. Obviously, not all the Western followers were lascivious party hounds and criminals, but some of them were, and the ashram was not showing itself to be very serious about policing them.
But no amount of bad press, it seemed, could slow Rajneeshism’s growth. The movement soon outgrew the Pune ashram. Four acres sounds like a lot until you break it down: It’s a square of land 417 feet on each side. Many modern supermarkets are more than four acres inside.
Followers started looking for a new place, with room to grow. But by this time word had gotten around India about this renegade guru and the gang of obnoxious young Westerners who had flocked to his banner. They could not find anyplace in India that was willing to have them as neighbors, and so things kept on as they had been, crowded into their little four-acre campus.
Moreover, there were some legal troubles on the horizon too. The Indian government, in 1974, officially revoked Rajneesh’s tax-exempt status. The entire time the Pune ashram had been growing by leaps, they had been fighting with the government over this tax bill, and it was increasingly evident that they probably would lose.
Plus, the guru’s health was failing him. He had developed diabetes and back troubles, and his allergies were worsening. He needed to move someplace dry anyway. Why not just skip the country entirely, keep the tax money, and never return? He just needed to find a place with wide open spaces and a tradition of leaving one’s neighbors alone.
Someplace like … central Oregon.
(Sources: “Rajneeshpuram,” an episode of Oregon Experience produced by Eric Cain and Nadine Jelsing and aired Nov. 19, 2012, by Oregon Public Broadcasting; “Beyond the Ranch: Rajneesh Revisited,” a three-part series by Cory Frye published July 8, 2018, in the Corvallis Gazette-Times; the Portland Oregonian’s 20-part series on Rajneeshpuram, published June 30 through July 19, 1985, and 5-part series by reporter Les Zaitz published April 14, 2011)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.
Continued Next Week