Rajneeshpuram, Oregon's most infamous ashram: The backstory
Bad health, a bad reputation and a big tax bill drove Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh out of India and into Central Oregon
Part 1 of 4 articles about Rajneeshpuram. (click to see Part 2)
The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh during the era of his first
Poona ashram, before coming to Oregon. (This photo is
a site at which an excellent and detailed biography of
the Bhagwan can be found.)
By Finn J.D. John — May 8, 2010
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 1970s – he was merely a philosophy teacher.
In an age that looked worshipfully at Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings, this young fellow swam against the tide. He felt Gandhi, and socialists in general, glorified poverty too much. How, he wondered, was India to rise above its grinding, dehumanizing poverty without capitalism, without a striving for physical things?
God in everything, including your wallet
In contrast, what this teacher taught was that physical prosperity was good, not bad, because God was in everything physical – including the cash in your wallet and the Aston-Martin in your driveway – and that we have but to awaken ourselves to Him to see the world in a whole new way, and feel at peace with it, regardless of how much of it we own and control personally.
As you can imagine, this message held great appeal for those who were wealthy and wished to remain so without feeling bad about it.
A controversial ashram in India
The teacher set up an ashram near his hometown in Poona, India, in 1974. People would come to hear his discourses and to meditate with him in groups. Grateful plutocrats showered him with riches and gifts.
At the Ashram, the teacher mixed the spiritual traditions of India with a number of the human-potential psychotherapies that had been developed in the 1960s and 1970s at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif. These included things like primal therapy, gestalt, and – most notoriously – encounter therapy.
Becoming "The Sex Guru"
He was rich, well loved by his followers. But he had also become very unpopular with the locals in Poona. Thousands of well-heeled Westerners who had flocked to his ashram were constantly offending Poona residents with disrespectful and promiscuous behavior and appearance on the streets of town. Some of the less wealthy among those Westerners were financing extended stays in India by engaging in drug running and prostitution; some of them got arrested, and it’s still unclear whether the ashram was directly involved in their activities.
The locals had started referring to him as “the sex guru.”
A Grand Mal Seizure style of meditation
There were more serious issues as well. In his “active meditation” groups, people flailed and thrashed and screamed – the idea being to get the body so busy that the mind could free itself to seek enlightenment. Onlookers found this alarming, like watching someone have an epileptic seizure.
To make matters worse, one of those groups, called “Encounter Group,” had become notorious for acts of violence and sex – and, even worse, combinations of the two – among participants during sessions. Some of these events were severe enough to require medical intervention. In his account, McCormack suggests that these acts were a planned part of Encounter Group, intended to open people up to their suppressed emotions and vent them, and that participation in Encounter Group was used like a rite of passage into the ranks of true initiates; if this is true, the teacher had become, under both Indian and American law, a criminal. (It’s worth noting, though, that McCormack’s account makes no secret of his point of view, which is hostile to the sect.)
Government cracks down; teacher's health cracks up
This may also have led to the Indian government’s decision in 1974 to yank his tax-exempt status and send him a bill for several million dollars in back taxes.
By now, though, tax troubles were the least of the teacher’s worries. His health was failing; his allergies were worsening and he’d developed diabetes. He needed to move someplace dry anyway; why not skip the country and keep his tax money? He just needed to find a place with wide open spaces and a tradition of leaving one’s neighbors alone.
Central Oregon looked perfect.
"Call me 'Bhagwan.'"
By this time – 1981 – he had abandoned his old name, Chandra Mohan Jain, and taken on the name “Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.” “Bhagwan” is Sanskrit for (more or less) “Blessed One,” “Shree” is roughly equivalent to “Mister,” and “Rajneesh” is a nickname of sorts that he had acquired in childhood, meaning “moon.”
A group of his disciples found the perfect place for him – a bargain at just $6 million. It was a huge ranch in central Oregon on the John Day River, near the tiny hamlet of Antelope. After they bought it and rechristened it “Rajneeshpuram,” the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh snuck out of Poona, got on a jet airliner, and a short time later became – physically, though never legally – an Oregon resident.
(Sources: Gulick, Bill. “A Roadside History of Oregon.” Bozeman, MT: Mountain Press, 1991; McCormack, Win. “The Rajneesh Story,” Great Moments in Oregon History: A Collection of Articles from Oregon Magazine. Portland: New Oregon, 1987; www.osho.com)
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