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“Rajneesh gives you the opportunity to sin like 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”) 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.
(Continued in Part 2.)