Nov 2, 2015

Rajneeshpuram: 30 years since the collapse of an Oregon commune

KGW Staff
November 2, 2015

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
ANTELOPE, Ore. -- It seems inconceivable in 2015 that a spiritual leader from India could bring thousands of adherents to Oregon and take over a small Central Oregon town. But Sunday marked exactly 30 years since that man's arrest, which brought to a close one of the strangest sagas in the state's history.

In 1981, the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh purchased the 64,000-acre Big Muddy ranch outside Antelope, Oregon. The price tag was $5.75 million, a whopping $15 million in 2015 dollars. A year later, followers voted (unanimously) to incorporate their ranch into the city of Rashneeshpuram. 

It featured all the civic amenities of any Oregon city -- police and fire crews, water and sewage systems, transit, an airport, retail and restaurants. 

The flamboyant Bhagwan was doted on by his followers, who indulged him his excesses that included more than 70 Rolls Royce luxury cars. Each day, as adherents would line a road along Rashneeshpuram, a smiling, waving Bhagwan would drive-by in a Rolls Royce. 

Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer would sue and try to disallow the incorporation, arguing that a religious group could not control a city. The commune collapsed before the case could wind its way into appeals courts. 

In 1984, the Rajneeshees brought in 2,000 homeless people to essentially register as voters. The sect took over the town and the local school district.

Frohnmayer's federal counterpart, U.S. Attorney Charles Turner, became the target of an assassination plot orchestrated by a cadre of Rajneeshees acting on their own. Frohnmayer was on the hit list, along with higher-ups in the cult itself. The Baghwan's own personal physician was a target. 

The plotters also were responsible for a bio-terror attack at a restaurant in The Dalles, where a salad bar laced with salmonella sickened over 700 people. 

In Portland, the sect ran a vegetarian restaurant/disco called Zorba the Buddha. They purchased the downtown Martha Washington Hotel, housing for single women at the time, turning it into the Hotel Rajneesh, which was bombed in 1983, reportedly by a militant group. 

All of this started to collapse as Turner and other government officials zeroed in the commune's dark side. In September 1985, the guru's de facto second-in-command, Ma Anand Sheela abruptly left her post, and the U.S., along with other top Rajneeshee officials. 

That November, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh pled guilty to two felonies, pay a fine and leave the country. 

Much has been written about the commune, both during the era and after. Arguably, no other body of work matches that of the Oregonian, which ran a 20-part series in 1985 and in 2011, a long-form narrative by investigative editor Les Zaitz, who worked on the earlier series. Included are personal essays written by followers who lived on the commune in the 1980s. 

The 1984 documentary will be available in four parts here after the live stream concludes. Click here for Part 1

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