When a new sect with strange and unfamiliar beliefs bursts onto the scene, it almost invariably meets with hostility (most of it from the old sects with strange and familiar beliefs). And depending on the nature of the newcomer, there are two common responses. It may stress its own virtue and righteousness all the more strongly, wearing its persecution as a badge of pride. Or it may become bitter and apocalyptic, denouncing its enemies as God’s enemies and warning of a day of reckoning. Those sects that travel farthest down the latter path often end up waging acts of terrorism or going out in a blaze of suicidal glory.
But oddly enough, the teachings of the sect before it’s forced to make this choice don’t predict what the decision will be. Such is the moral of today’s post on a particularly strange and curious sect.
The guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was born Chandra Mohan Jain in 1931, to a wealthy Jain family in the Madhya Pradesh state of central India. By his own account he was an intelligent and well-educated young man, but rootless and lacking a sense of purpose. Around the age of 21 he fell into a spiral of depression, which he later claimed was finally lifted when he suddenly had an experience of enlightenment:
The moment I entered the garden everything became luminous, it was all over the place – the benediction, the blessedness. I could see the trees for the first time – their green, their life, their very sap running. The whole garden was asleep, the trees were asleep. But I could see the whole garden alive, even the small grass leaves were so beautiful…. The whole universe became a benediction.
After a brief stint as a philosophy professor, he found his calling as a lecturer, traveling across India to give sermons critical of socialism and traditional Indian religion, which he viewed as empty and ritualistic. In their place, he preached his own unique blend of ecstatic mysticism, universal love, and “dynamic meditation” that alternated periods of silence with jumping, shouting and dancing. It was an unoriginal blend of ideas, albeit one which seemed harmless enough. But most controversial of all, he spoke openly about sex, which drew the wrath of conservative Indian authorities even as it made him more popular.
In the 1970s, he opened an ashram in Pune to promote his teachings. It was popular from the beginning, attracting wealthy patrons and devotees from around the world. But the more attention and followers Rajneesh attracted, the more hostile attention he got from India’s conservative Hindu government, which harassed and impeded him. Land use permits were denied, tax violations were assessed, tourist visas to visit were refused; a Hindu fanatic even attempted to assassinate him.
In 1981, deciding enough was enough, and perhaps taking a cue from the increasing numbers of Western tourists at his ashram, Rajneesh packed up and moved to the United States. His secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, bought a large ranch in rural Oregon, and Rajneesh’s followers flocked to the site, turning it into a bustling town of 7,000 almost overnight. Rajneesh himself was of course the focal point, although by this time he rarely lectured in public anymore and had acquired a taste for luxury, as evidenced by his diamond-encrusted Rolex watches and fleet of custom Rolls-Royces. Every day, hundreds of his disciples lined up alongside the road to get a glimpse of him as he drove past. (It also emerged later that he had developed a drug habit, becoming addicted to Valium and nitrous oxide.)
The Rajneeshis’ relations with their neighbors, however, soured even more quickly than they had in India. Their land-use plans stated that they intended to use the ranch as a small farm, but as more and more followers arrived and more buildings were constructed, it soon became apparent that they were building a town. Rajneeshis also moved into the neighboring town of Antelope and began purchasing lots and registering to vote there. When the Antelope city council denied them a permit to run a mail-order business, the Rajneeshis voted en masse for their own candidates, packing the council and effectively taking over the town. The ranch was also incorporated as a separate town called Rajneeshpuram.
By this point, the Rajneeshis had become aggressive and litigious, filing libel suits against critics and busing in devotees to stage counterdemonstrations when they were picketed by local churches and community groups. Their private police, the “Peace Force”, controlled security in Antelope and Rajneeshpuram and publicly displayed semiautomatic weapons. Sheela, Rajneesh’s secretary, had become the public face of the movement and was caustic and abusive toward its critics in media interviews, calling them “bigoted pigs”, “fascists”, and “full of shit”, as well as making thinly veiled threats.
The biggest remaining obstacle to the cult’s expansion was the Wasco County land-use commission, and in November 1984, several county commissioners were up for reelection. Sheela and other senior Rajneeshis hatched a plan: by exploiting a social program called “Share-a-Home”, they had several thousand homeless people bused in whom they hoped they could persuade to vote for their own candidates. But that was only half the plot. In a more horrifying step, they ordered samples of Salmonella typhimurium bacteria from a medical supply company. Rajneeshi doctors cultivated the bacteria, then went to The Dalles, the county seat, and deliberately spread the bacteria on salad bars at local restaurants. The intent was to sicken anti-Rajneeshi voters so that they would stay home on Election Day. (see also)
But this act of bioterrorism, however malevolent, failed to achieve its goal. 750 people fell ill with salmonella poisoning, and about 50 required hospitalization, but there were no deaths. Forewarned local officials enforced voter registration laws, and an angry electorate turned out in droves, overwhelmingly defeating the Rajneeshi candidates. At the time, however, no one realized the salmonella outbreak had been an intentional act.
In September of 1985, Rajneesh himself gave a press conference, one of his first public appearances in years. He stated publicly that the salmonella poisoning was intentional, that it had been masterminded by his followers, and that Sheela and other top cult officials, whom he denounced as a “gang of fascists”, had fled the country. Stunned local officials swooped in to investigate, and found a fully-stocked bioterrorism lab in the Rajneeshi compound. Even more alarmingly, they found evidence that the group had been planning to assassinate numerous public figures who had been hostile to them, including U.S. District Attorney Charles Turner and Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer. The plan had progressed to the point of buying guns, choosing specific Rajneeshis to fire the fatal bullets, and renting an apartment to serve as the base of operations.
By this time, law enforcement had arrived en masse. Rajneesh himself was arrested on board a private plane in North Carolina in October, apparently attempting to flee the country. He was never charged in connection with the bioterrorism or assassination plots, though state officials believed he had known about them. Instead, he was charged with conspiracy to violate immigration laws by arranging sham marriages to get citizenship for his non-U.S. followers. He pleaded no contest and was deported to India. Sheela and other top Rajneeshis, meanwhile, were arrested the same month in West Germany, deported, and pled guilty to felony charges of conspiracy, assault and attempted murder. Without its leaders, the Rajneeshi cult rapidly dissolved, and Rajneeshpuram was abandoned and bankrupt by 1987. Rajneesh resumed his lectures in India, though he took pains to be less controversial than he once was. These appearances became less and less frequent as his health declined, and he died in 1990.
Until the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, the Rajneeshi plot was the only organized bioterror campaign waged against the United States. One would think that such a prominent association with that degree of evil would end one’s career as a guru. But amazingly, despite being both disgraced and dead, Rajneesh himself has bounced back – this time under the name of “Osho“, the posthumous head of a thriving publishing empire churning out self-help books, videos, and seminars based on his teachings. The whole awkward cult-compound/drug-addiction/bioterrorism thing is tactfully omitted from these materials, of course.
The Rajneesh cult’s story, like other cults that collapsed in disaster, shows the peril of following gurus. Even when the initial teachings seem harmless, people who give their absolute obedience to a single leader are all too easily exploited for evil ends – and absolute power over one’s followers is a dangerous temptation that even good people find hard to resist. It also shows how easy it is for true believers to ignore criticism and whitewash the reputation of their beloved leader, even after he’s fallen prey to that temptation. This is a point that atheists would be well advised to remember the next time we hear an argument about how some other cult leader or self-proclaimed prophet proved the truth of his words by his supposedly unimpeachable morality.
Other posts in this series: