Mar 24, 2017

When the Rajneeshee sex cult turned Fremantle orange

Fremantle was a major hub for the Orange People movement.
Brendan Foster
MARCH 24 2017

Former Rajneeshee member Avi says being part of the religious movement in Fremantle in the early 1980s was like going to a theme park every day but with bucket loads of sex.

The 63-year-old was a devotee of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho, who was an Indian self-help guru who attracted thousands of followers from around the world with his talk about sex as a path of superconsciousness.

Somewhere between a holy man and a showman, Bhagwan combined eastern mysticism and western capitalism and urged his disciples known as Sannyasins, or Orange People, to cast off their worldly possessions.

Fremantle became a major hub for the movement with hundreds of mostly young and university educated people, flocking to the port city to expand their religious dimensions through sex.

"You could compare it to the 60s and the flower power – it was very open and very much about sex," he said.

"He (Bhagwan) said go into your sexuality and explore it and don't be trapped in relationships.

"You were orange and you wore a mala with his photo on it but it drew a lot of criticism at the time."

Avi said he first became drawn to the religious movement after visiting India in the late 1970s after quitting his job as a child psychiatrist.

When he talks about his first and only meeting with the Bhagwan, he is suddenly rendered catatonic.

There is an eternal pause and I could almost hear the words percolating in his head.

His silence is both captivating and unnerving, before his whispers the word serene.

"He was very serene, quiet...there was nothing in the way," he said. "No ego.

"What he wanted to create was to combine Zorba and the Buddha.

"Zorba was this big character and full of life and vitality and the same time meditative and serene.

"He wanted to blend the western Zorba aspect and yet have that quietness and meditativeness of the Buddha."

By the time the Bhagwan moved from his ashram in Pune, India, to a palatial range in central Oregon in 1981, his message of free love and mysticism was eliciting devotion beyond the guru's wildest dreams.

The Indian mystic had previously shunned any trappings of wealth, but soon his range became a money-making racket with millions of dollars from Rajneeshee strongholds overseas, including Fremantle, funnelled into his Oregon range.

Orange-clad disciples were "encouraged" to sell off their possessions including their houses and it's reported an estimated $130 million poured into the ranch between 1981-1985.

One of the images rolled out in the media was the Bhagwan's $7 million worth of Rolls Royce's parked in the remote, dusty valley of his 64,000 hectare range.

The Indian mystic would make his daily drive around his property in one of his luxurious cars, while thousands of followers crowding the roads throwing flowers at him.

Despite being ridiculed in the media for his opulent lifestyle, Avi believed the cars had no meaning to the Bhagwan.

"You lose the bigger picture when you focus on that and the bigger picture is all this is materialism and none of it was important," he said.

"I know of, but I don't know people who gave property... people gave up their properties to the commune and that was invested in things.

"What really is important is your journey."

Avi quit the cult in 1985 shortly after the Bhagwan's chief assistant Ma Sheela came to Fremantle.

She became famous for pronouncing "tough titties" in a 60 Minutes interview in 1985 when it was suggested the Orange People were not welcome in Pemberton.

Sheela herself quit the commune shortly after cryptically saying "God's secretary is not easy." She was later sentenced to four and a half years in prison after pleading guilty to charges of attempted murder, assault, arson, electronic eavesdropping, immigration fraud and conspiracy.

"I didn't like her," Avi said.

"They way she treated people I didn't like. So when she came to Freo I decided I was out."

Sohan Hayes was just five when he was shunted off by his parents to the Rajneeshee commune called Shanti-Sedan in the outskirts of Forrestdale in the early 1980s.

He still has vivid memories of wild meditation sessions where people screamed, convulsed and rolled around on the ground to reach a place of inner peace.

"Some were just in knickers and not much else," he laughed.

"I remember being transfixed and then just walking away.

"We were just on the periphery of what the adults were doing so it was kind of wild.

"There was nothing perverse, it was only when we came out and back and into normal schools that it got hard.

"We had a weird name and we ate weird food and we were outsiders."

Mr Hayes is co-curating an exhibition at the Fremantle Arts Centre called Orange, which explores the legacy of Sannyasins in Fremantle, particularly those experienced by the kids in the movement.

The show features light works, sculpture, interviews with Sannyasins, a Rolls Royce with spirit radio, video, multimedia works and a virtual reality dynamic meditation room.

Mr Hayes said he went through a dark period in his youth, trying to comprehend why his parents left him to explore their spirituality in India.

"I've come to terms with that... there was a lot of anger as a young child and a teenager and that was feeling like my parents weren't present," he said.

"But they've given me all this freedom to be creative."

Just as quickly as the movement arose, it disappeared from Fremantle after Sannyasins lost "faith" amidst claims of corruption and murder allegations coming out of the Bhagwan's Oregon ranch.

Mr Hayes said one of the aims of the exhibition is to debunk the long-held myth people devoted to the Bhagwan were all just disillusioned hobos and hipsters.

"I think it tries to dispel the myth Sannyasin were a bunch disenchanted westerners looking for an alternative in the east and somehow they were from broken families," he said.

"I think a lot of them really intelligent professionals who were sincerely looking for something. It was an amazing period of time and an amazing ambitious adventure and they really went for it. I think that is to be held up.

"And it looked like they had a f**en great time."

Orange: Sannyas in Fremantle runs at the Fremantle Arts Centre from April 1 to May 21.

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