2018-03-26 Rajneeshies: 30+ Years Later

Rajneeshies: 30+ years Later

Michael Langone

March 26 2018

During the past week I’ve been watching Netflix’s 6-part documentary on Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, “Wild Wild Country” - https://www.netflix.com/title/80145240. The series is directed by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, with brothers Jay and Mark Duplass the executive producers.

Usually, I’m disappointed by media portrayals of cults. “Wild Wild Country,” however, is worth watching, even though it recounts events that happened more than 30 years ago.

The series focuses on the establishment and eventual abandonment of the commune, Rajneeshpuram – 1981 - 1985. You can get background information and detailed histories in the following articles:

The directors have been accused of being “too balanced” by some. However, except for the directors’ neglect of the families who suffered while loved ones followed the Bhagwan, I must commend them for that balance. During the 1980s, I was aware of the controversies surrounding Rajneeshpuram and the critical reports of families and former members. This series gave me a bit of insight into the thinking and experiences of Bhagwan’s followers, including leading followers who remain loyal to this day. Osho International carries on the teachings of the Bhagwan.

In the long American tradition of Utopian communities, Rajneesh and his followers bought one of the largest ranches in Oregon, near the tiny town of Antelope, to establish a city where the “new humanity” could have a foothold. Within a few years thousands of people lived in Rajneeshpuram, as the city was called.

Rajneesh was known for his low opinion of marriage and extolling of sexual freedom. Even before Rajneeshpuram had been established, many people enamored of the human potential movement and the experimentation Rajneesh encouraged had become his followers.

The followers of the “free love guru” disturbed the conservative, mostly elderly citizens of Antelope. The film’s depiction of the escalation of an initial discomfort to an intense, mutual antagonism is an understated illustration of what sociologists call “deviance amplification.”

The film focuses on Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh’s lieutenant, because she ran the commune and was its most visible public spokesperson. As the deviance amplification proceeded, Sheela increased her control over the commune and her hostility toward the authorities and people who stood in the way of realizing Rajneesh’s vision for his city. Before the commune’s demise, it had accumulated more weaponry than all the police forces in the state of Oregon. Hundreds of citizens of Wasco County fell ill due to salmonella poisoning initiated by Rajneeshees, presumably in a dry-run of a plan to take over the county government by reducing their opponents’ turnout. And murders were attempted or planned, though none succeeded.

Though most of the commune’s residents seemed to be “happy hippies,” those who came close to Sheela’s orbit sensed the police state mentality she had created. As with other groups, there were levels of involvement, with the cultic dynamics most conspicuous at the inner levels.

Eventually, Sheela had a falling out with Rajneesh, who had become, in Sheela’s opinion, too enamored of minor Hollywood celebrities in the commune. Without warning, she left with her “gang.” An enraged Rajneesh broke a silence he had kept for more than 3 years and blew the whistle on Sheela’s crimes. Rajneesh’s vitriolic charges, ironically, gave the authorities the leverage they needed to obtain search warrants. Massive raids ensued. Charges were filed. Rajneesh was arrested for immigration fraud, made a deal, and returned to India, pledging never to come to the U.S. again. (He died in 1990.) Sheela and two of her former staff were arrested and served several years in jail.

The communal experiment failed. But Rajneesh’s teachings live on.

In prior writings I have talked about three models of conversion: the deliberative (characterized by what people THINK about a group environment), the psychodynamic (characterized by what the environment does FOR people, i.e., satisfies unconscious needs), and the thought reform (characterized by what the environment DOES TO people, i.e., manipulation and deceit). I argue that all three models apply to varying degrees in all group affiliations.

Watching “Wild Wild Country” made me think about the psychodynamic and deliberative appeals of Rajneesh and his teachings.

Though I don’t doubt that some people manipulated friends, family, and acquaintances into trying out Rajneesh, I suspect that most people came to Rajneesh because they liked what he said.

Many of the Rajneeshees interviewed for this series seemed to be genuinely happy. But they were happy like kids having a good time at camp. I thought to myself, “They are friendly, smiling narcissists.” Enlightenment is the goal. Self is the constant focus. This is so even when, paradoxically, the tactic at hand is to abandon self, for abandoning self may result in self-realization. Always “self.”

Rajneesh differed from most religious leaders because he encouraged a hedonistic attitude toward life. Rajneesh said: “Enjoy yourself. Make love. Don’t be burdened by responsibility or guilt. Have fun!” His was the kind of spirituality that appealed to a “me generation,” a spiritualized narcissism.

The “love” so many followers obviously felt for Rajneesh was, I think, a combination of the deep human need to connect to “the one” (savior, king, hero, president, tribal chief) and gratitude. I think some followers were thankful because Rajneesh’s dynamic meditation, for whatever reason, freed them from painful memories. Other followers, perhaps a majority, were thankful because he gave them permission – stamped with the spiritual authority of a god man – to pursue pleasure without considering alternatives or consequences.

I flash on one of the ending scenes of the hilarious movie, “Animal House.” A boy (about 13) is lying on his bed reading Playboy, unaware of the bedlam occurring outside. Suddenly a scantily clad young woman comes flying through his window and lands on his bed. The boy’s face lights up in the brightest smile. He looks upward and exclaims: “Thank you, God!”

For a while, Rajneeshpuram was full of happy campers, who made love, sang songs, and exclaimed, “Thank you, Bhagwan!”

In the long run, however, reality always wins, and spiritualized narcissism ultimately loses.