In the film Last Year at Marienbad by French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, the characters enter and exit a stage play taking place in the auditorium of a baroque, nightmarish hotel in which they seem to be trapped, alternately playing the exact same roles onstage and in their ostensible real lives. Are they characters in a play or characters in a real-life story? They are, in fact, only characters in a movie.
Robbe-Grillet’s camera crew was not present at the Antelope city council meeting that I attended earlier this summer, but it should have been, for it was difficult, observing the behavior of Mayor Ma Prem Karuna and other sannyasin council members, to distinguish reality from histrionics—particularly when Karuna announced that, after serious reflection, she had decided that a proposed ordinance to set aside land within the city for public nudity was a “positive” idea.
Eckart Floether, a Rajneesh defector, says that he remembers Karuna because it was she, he claims, who tried to dissuade him from leaving the Bhagwan’s ashram in Pune (Poona), India, a few years ago. Floether had been at the ashram for several months when, according to him, certain events transpired that made him question his sojourn there, events that he has written about in his pamphlet “Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and His New Religious Movement in America,” published by the Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship of the United States. First, Floether says, during a Rajneesh encounter group called Samarpan (“surrender”), he saw the group leader, Swami Anand Rajen, have sexual intercourse with a woman who was in the midst of an emotional catharsis over the recent deaths of her parents. Then, he says, the next day, in the same group, he saw two men have sexual intercourse with another woman; as he put it in his pamphlet: “She did not, in my opinion, participate voluntarily.” Next, he says, a woman friend of his at the ashram who was pregnant informed him that, at the Bhagwan’s suggestion, she was going to have an abortion performed by a sannyasin doctor. Finally, according to his account, another woman friend of his at the ashram, twenty-eight years old at the time, told him that—again at the Bhagwan’s suggestion—she was going to have herself sterilized.
Floether says that by this point he had seen and heard enough. Unlike the characters in the strange, disconcerting hotel at Marienbad, he succeeded in escaping Pune, but not, according to him, before Karuna, then “chancellor” of “Rajneesh International University,” had used every argument in her repertoire to convince him to stay, telling him, among other things, that he didn’t understand the “context” of the events he had witnessed. (Karuna says she doesn’t remember talking to Floether and denies that any sexual intercourse ever took place in encounter groups at Pune.)
Rajneesh leaders and followers do not deny that they are in a cult; they merely assert either that, by the dictionary definition, all religions are cults or that, unlike other cults, theirs is a good one. Contemporary authorities, however, have defined cults in a very specific way: they are organizations that exist solely for the purpose of exploiting their members for the benefit of the leadership, a leadership almost always incarnated in a single, charismatic male. Unlike, say, orthodox religious sects, cults serve no genuinely useful, longterm social purpose, and for that reason they represent cul-de-sacs of history doomed to ultimate extinction. If the Rajneesh organization is a cult by that definition, then the people of Antelope can at least be comforted by the prospect of Rajneeshpuram’s inevitable demise.
Someday, in my opinion, and maybe soon, the Rajneesh cult will break asunder. Since all cults have the inherent potential to end in violence, it may end that way; or, as is perhaps more likely in this case, it may end peacefully, with the Bhagwan and his top assistants departing for a South Seas island or the Riviera. The Big Muddy Ranch will lie deserted, and the wind will whistle through its empty buildings and corroding machinery; and then, possibly, some erstwhile sannyasin may happen upon the film Last Year at Marienbad and consider the import, for himself or herself, of its final scene.
At the end of the movie, night falls upon the darkened, ghostly hotel; the music rises, and a disembodied voice, addressing an unidentified person, speaks these lines: “It seemed, at first glance, impossible to get lost here . . . at first glance . . . down straight paths, between the marble statues with their frozen gestures and the granite slabs, where you were now already getting lost, forever.”
—Oregon Magazine, August 1983
This article was adapted from The Rajneesh Chronicles, published by Tin House Books.