Feb 1, 2021

Where We Live: The Rajneesh in central Oregon

Hannah Button
July 18, 2016

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — One of the most bizarre chapters in Oregon history came with the arrival of a religious cult called the Rajneesh.

Their story, which involved taking over a central Oregon town and orchestrating the first domestic bio-terrorism attack in U.S. history, is a lasting part of where we live.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh preached a message of free love, meditation and living in the moment. He was known for his daily drive-bys in a fleet of Rolls Royces.

“So I say to you, this is the first religion, and perhaps the last religion,” Rajneesh previously said. “There may not be any need for any other religion.”

In 1981, Bhagwan’s followers, known as Rajneeshees or Sannyasins, built a communal city from the ground up on the 64,000 acre Big Muddy Ranch in Wasco County. At it’s height, Rajneeshpuram had nearly 7,000 people from all over the world.

The Rajneesh were led by the combative Ma Anand Sheela, Bhagwan’s personal assistant who threatened anyone she perceived as enemies of the Rajneesh.

There is a Digital Exhibit on Rajneeshpuram at Pacific University in Forest Grove

In 1984, the Rajneesh poisoned salad bars in The Dalles with salmonella to incapacitate voters so Rajneesh candidates would win elections in Wasco County.

An estimated 751 people became sick and 45 were hospitalized in what’s still known as America’s largest bio-terrorism attack.

Two Rajneesh officials were convicted of attempted murder in connection with the attack. Ma Anand Sheela fled to Europe but was extradited back to the U.S. She was released from a California prison in 1988.

Bhagwan was deported and died in 1990 at age 58.

His teachings are still observed in parts of India and other places around the world.

Rajneeshpuram is now a Christian youth camp, and the former commune has become a footnote in Oregon’s history.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in a file photo from the 1980s (KOIN)
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