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Offbeat Oregon History

When “The Rolls-Royce Guru” came to Oregon

Part Two: Arrival

On June 1, 1981, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh boarded a Boeing 747 for a flight from Mumbai to New York City.

Officially the trip was for medical treatment, and authorities were told he’d be heading back home to India afterward. But Rajneesh was not planning on returning. His movement, which had already become an international octopus with meditation centers in dozens of different countries around the world, had outgrown the Pune campus. He needed a new World Headquarters. And his new personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela (formerly known as Sheela Patel Silverman), had found one for him.

Sheela closed the deal for the property then known as the Big Muddy Ranch the following month, paying $5.75 million for it. It was 64,229 acres of Central Oregon rangeland with only the amenities one would expect a family ranch to have. And in late August, she chartered a Learjet to fly the guru in to see, for the first time, the dry landscape that was to be his new home.

It was a bit of a shock for Rajneesh, who had loved the lush greenery and tree-screened privacy of the Pune ashram. “Where are the trees?” he asked, with obvious disappointment.

He soon got over it, though, and settled in. Sheela launched a charm offensive of sorts among the neighbors, hosting a party or two at which local cowboys whooped it up. Soon Central Oregon was feeling pretty sanguine about its new far-out neighbors, and in early November 1981 when the Rajneeshees applied to the Wasco County board of commissioners for permission to incorporate a city on the Big Muddy, they got an easy, informal country-style “yes” — and the City of Rajneeshpuram was born.

It's important to stress, at this point, that the sannyasins at Rajneeshpuram were not all rich libertines in red robes punching each other in Encounter Group. Strange and morally unmoored as Rajneesh’s teachings could seem, they sounded logical and innovative and sensible to a certain kind of spiritual seeker. One could place all one’s faith in that hypnotic man and, under his guidance, transcend the individuality that so much of life’s pain is anchored to. No guilt for past offenses, no sorrow for lost relationships, no shame for the judgements of society, just being in the moment and striving toward Enlightenment. What was not to like? Worldwide, thousands had joined, and the vast majority of them were sincere, sensitive people. They also, as noted earlier, were disproportionately young people.

Not only that, but the sannyasins at Rajneeshpuram were acutely aware that they had the chance to make a new world for themselves and their children. Rajneesh referred to work as “worship,” and while that might sound like a cheap Newspeak way to get free labor out of “worshippers,” for them it was a meaningful distinction. Especially early on, Rajneeshees at the ranch “worshipped” all day with shovels, hammers, and joy. Many of them recall literally leaping out of bed and running to the workplace every morning.

“The work pace is totallismo,” wrote a sannyasin named Michael in a letter home to New Zealand, published in a Rajneeshee newsletter; “from dawn till dusk with about 150 of us working heavy machinery, laying foundations for the new Mariam Canteen, warehouse, Bhagwan’s garage, school, office block, health centre, and so on; forming the land and setting up the irrigation; putting up about 50 homes, each with space for about 14 people; gardening, cooking and on and on through each hot and dusty day till that cool shower and the queue by the keg of beer at sunset.”

When the story of Rajneeshpuram is told, this is the perspective that’s most often overlooked. Rajneesh catered carefully to rich people, and plenty of his followers were loaded with dough. But not all of them were, and the core of the experience — once you got beyond Sheela’s avaricious crew — was not about money, or sexual freedom, or shaking down the “marks.” It was about creating a new community centered on freedom from what you might call the tyranny of self. Arguably, it was a beautiful dream.

But like a lot of Utopian projects over the years, it was about to get hijacked by people who could see its potential as a personal power base.

The locals started getting to know their new far-out neighbors a little, and at first it went well. The Rajneeshees provided plenty of fodder for conversation at cafes and taverns in places like Madras and Redmond. In particular, the contrast between antimaterialist rhetoric and Rajneesh’s vast and growing collection of Rolls-Royce cars (which eventually numbered 94) raised some eyebrows, and the exclusive choice of red clothing made them instantly recognizable and a little funny-looking. There may have been the occasional rumor of violence or sex in Encounter Therapy sessions, as in the Pune ashram; but if so, they didn’t get much traction, and anyway most Eastern Oregonians are strongly inclined to mind their own business.

In Pune, Rajneesh had become known as “the sex guru”; in Oregon, he quickly became known as “the Rolls-Royce guru.” People often saw him driving around in one of his big luxury cars; he wasn’t a very good driver, but he was a fast one, and he occasionally got into crashes. Drivers who waved at him as they drove by got treated to the alarming sight of him taking both hands off the wheel and both eyes off the road to do a “namaste” salute back as his three tons of English steel careened past at well above safe highway speed. Few waved at him twice.

And at first, that was as bad as it got. All seemed to be going smoothly. But trouble was already on the horizon for the commune, and it wouldn’t take long to arrive at their door.

The first big problem was centered around a mistake Sheela had made before buying the Big Muddy: she hadn’t done any research into Oregon’s land-use laws. These, as it turned out, were some of the most restrictive in the nation, and they were aimed at preventing exactly the kind of thing the Bhagwan’s crew had in mind: the conversion of farmland into new urban and suburban spaces.

And Sheela’s charm offensive hadn’t won over some of the locals. A month after Rajneeshpuram was incorporated, three nearby ranch families got together with a land-use watchdog group, 1000 Friends of Oregon, and filed an appeal with the Land Use Board of Appeals, seeking to invalidate the county’s decision to allow the city’s incorporation.

Naturally, this played poorly with Sheela and Rajneesh. A clumsy attempt to bribe 1000 Friends made things worse, and from this point on, the commune was more or less in a cold war with the rest of Oregon.

While the appeals courts kicked the case up and down the line from local courts to the state supreme court and back, development continued at Rajneeshpuram. The city issued hundreds of building permits and dozens of business licenses, established a police force, and installed utilities for water and sewer service.

The land-use challenge was bad enough for the commune, but was probably survivable. Then as now, it’s hard to make a case that running cattle at one head per 40 acres is a higher and better use of the land than a self-sufficient semi-urban community surrounded by an organic farming operation. If land use had been the only issue, the parties would probably have soon come to some kind of an agreement that let Rajneeshpuram continue in exchange for some mitigation work and common-sense restrictions on zoning and land use.

What really became a problem, and what made such an agreement impossible for the state or 1000 Friends to consider, was the pattern of dishonesty that quickly became apparent among the leaders at Rajneeshpuram.

Put simply, the top sannyasins considered state and federal laws to lack any legitimate authority over them.

So any time a law conflicted with what the Rajneeshee leaders wanted to do, the choice they made was whether to pretend to obey the law or to defy it openly. Following the law in good faith seemed to be strictly optional.

Throughout the time the Rajneeshees were in Oregon, the law would be used a lot as a weapon against those who felt themselves to be bound by it; but the commune’s leaders never for a moment considered it legitimate. And that became obvious very quickly as non-sannyasin Oregonians started interacting with the group.

There was also a clear sense of contempt, a sense that the commune’s authorities (and especially Sheela) considered non-Sannyasin Oregonians to be categorically a bunch of ignorant, small-minded hicks who should be easy to manipulate or dupe. This came through, loud and clear, in media appearances and interviews, and it started to change the perception of the commune from “harmless weirdos” to “offensive and probably crazy weirdos.” Before long, 1000 Friends started discovering that its land-use fight with Rajneeshpuram was solid fund-raising gold. Donations poured in, reinforcing the battle lines.

The next serious source of trouble came when Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer noticed that the city of Rajneeshpuram was operating under something similar to Sharia Law — the government of the town was the religion of the town. So in late 1983 Frohnmayer sued to get Rajneeshpuram’s incorporation overturned on separation-of-church-and-state grounds.

Meanwhile, Ma Anand Sheela was talking to the media every chance she got. Oregonians were starting to get very used to seeing her on TV categorizing them all as “ignorant bigots” and worse.

By the end of 1983 or so, the Rajneeshees could see that there was a real possibility they would lose the fight to keep Rajneeshpuram incorporated as a city. Also, because the state of Oregon considered Rajneeshpuram illegitimate, the FBI had cut off the Rajneeshpuram Peace Force’s access to the National Crime Information System database, which Sheela’s crew had found super useful for digging up dirt on political enemies.

So they decided to take over a town that was already incorporated and transfer their energies over to that.

Their eyes turned, naturally, on the closest town to the ranch: Antelope, population 43.

(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

 

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