Apr 12, 2018

Beware those who think they can build utopia

David Aaronovitch
The Times

April 11, 2018

The Rajneeshees, now starring in a remarkable Netflix series, showed the dangers of being self-absorbed and self-righteous.

Jane, an elegant woman in her early seventies with a gentle Antipodean accent, is describing how she once tried to commit murder. It was back in 1985 when she and her two children were living on a commune in the United States. The group she was in had got it into their heads that their guru's doctor was planning to help the master commit suicide. The idea was that the plot should be pre-empted by the doctor being injected with poison. "Someone said 'Who will do it?', when somebody spoke and said, 'I will do it'." Pause. "That was me. That was my voice." And so, feeling "like Joan of Arc", she sought the doctor out in a crowd of revellers and stabbed him in the buttocks. He survived.

Back then Jane was Shanti Bhadra, a sannyasin, or follower of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a fiftysomething spiritual leader from India. More than 30 years later she was telling her story to the makers of the most remarkable documentary I've seen for some time, Wild Wild Country, which began to air on Netflix recently. It's an account of how thousands of the followers of the Bhagwan, a free-love, free-market guru, tried to establish a utopia in the state of Oregon, and ended up as accessories to attempted murder and bioterrorism.

The sannyasin were famous for wearing orange or red clothes and if you're over 45 you may have met some back in the day. My most illustrious columnist predecessor on this newspaper certainly did. In April 1980 the great Bernard Levin visited the Bhagwan's ashram in Poona (now Pune) in India.

It was like Sir Simon Rattle endorsing the Eurovision Song Contest. "They [the sannyasin] have shed their chains, and they demonstrated their freedom easily and unobtrusively," he wrote, eventually concluding, "I came away impressed, moved, fascinated, by my experience of this man (or God, or conduit, or reminder) and the people ('be ordinary and you will become extraordinary') around him."

The year after Levin's journey, the Bhagwan and his followers decamped for Oregon. Led by his secretary, a small, fiery woman called Ma Anand Sheela, they had bought the 60,000 acres plus of the Big Muddy Ranch, a livestock farm outside the tiny town of Antelope, whose population was then only 40. It was "the Promised Land", where the faithful would build a city of 10,000 people called Rajneeshpuram.

Taking advantage of state rules that allowed people to set up their own self-governing towns, hundreds of Orange builders, architects, engineers and would-be farmers arrived to build the new Shangri-La. The footage of their efforts is like the pictures of the building of the Soviet Union by Heroes of Socialist Labour.

With the Bhagwan being spiritual in his rooms, leadership came from Sheela — intelligent, charismatic, practical and driven. And with a populist's talent for identifying enemies and motivating friends.

But there was a problem. No one had consulted the locals. Cults were not popular; it was only a few years after the mass suicide at Jonestown. Bewildered at first, then scared, then angry, the Oregonians began to organise against the new city and to lobby state legislators to block its growth. So Sheela responded by buying much of Antelope. The Rajneeshees bought the café and the garage. Soon they had a majority on the town council. They renamed the town Rajneesh and changed Main Street to Bhagwan Street. They made love noisily at night. "My aunt," recalled one Antelopean, "was not pleased with that."

Now the sannyasin were in conflict with the administration of Wasco County, the area where Rajneeshpuram was located. Sheela doubled down. Guns were bought and worshippers trained to use them.

But unless the Orange people could win the vote to appoint new county commissioners, Sheela believed the new city was doomed. So she took action. First she had (and I am not joking) 6,000 homeless people, mostly men, bussed in from all over America, with an eye to getting them to vote in the next county elections. This supremely cynical act was depicted as a great kindness, but the newcomers (many of whom had significant mental problems) were given sedated beer to drink to keep them docile. And when the county refused to register these new voters, Sheela organised the eviction of many of these now useless men into surrounding towns and villages.

Through all this the sannyasin sang and danced and meditated and imagined their lives to be better than anyone else's. As they did when, in an apparent attempt to deter turnout, the leadership arranged for salmonella to be sprayed over food in restaurant buffets in the county, leaving more than 700 people sick. As they did when Sheela and Jane and others conspired to murder the hostile state attorney for Oregon, who luckily failed to turn up outside his office on the day he was supposed to die.

In the end the internal splits caused Sheela and her comrades to flee Rajneeshpuram by plane. At that point the Bhagwan came out of seclusion and denounced her. She had been Lady Macbeth and Livia rolled into one and had done all the bad things. Like communists in 1956 the sannyasin reacted with naive shock. One told cameras, "When you think that you know things, you feel safe, right? And I felt that I knew things. And now in this moment I know that I don't know them."

Are there some universal lessons here, in this declension from Levin's "extraordinary" people to the prison sentences that the Rajneeshpuram leaders ended up serving? One should be the dangers posed by those who are both self-absorbed and self-righteous, who imagine that they alone have the keys to the kingdom and that those who oppose them do so only out of moral weakness or failure. People who cannot see beyond their own goodness rarely manage genuine understanding of others.

And the other lesson may be that legal rights and moral rights are different. The Rajneeshees believed that the law gave them the right to start utopia in someone else's world. Any opposition, therefore, was illegitimate. But there is a big difference between what is legal and what is right.

Jane served some time in a German prison but was wanted in the United States. When her son was dying of a brain tumour in Australia she couldn't visit him for fear of extradition. She returned to Oregon in 2006 to face the US courts. Despite the fact that she had both conspired to murder and attempted murder, the judge sentenced her to time already served. "Sometimes," he said, "justice is stronger than mercy, but sometimes mercy overrules justice and we have such a case today". That judge had what the utopians didn't. Empathy.


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