“Despite the monastic simplicity in which rank-and-file members live,” Richard Delgado, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, has written, “cults demonstrate great interest in amassing material wealth. Because new members are often required to donate all material possessions to the organization, each member potentially represents a sizable increase in the cult’s treasury. Heirs and children believed to be likely future recipients of family wealth are especially cultivated and recruited.

“Apart from the resources they represent at the time of joining, each new recruit represents a valuable resource through his anticipated future income. . . . At the top levels, the leaders live in luxury, surrounded by servants, Persian carpets, antique furniture, and limousines. The obvious economic orientation of much cult activity renders the cult’s religious claims vulnerable to charges of insincerity.”

The claim of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh to be a religious leader unconcerned with worldly affairs seems, on its face, especially vulnerable to charges of insincerity. Rajneesh commands an intricate and highly lucrative worldwide financial empire. Two of the main pillars of this financial edifice are a complex corporate structure that is virtually immune from all forms of governmental taxation and a corps of fanatically devoted followers willing to fill his corporate coffers through donations of large amounts of cash and with the productivity of their own cheap labor.

From his earliest days as a cult leader, Rajneesh has shown a clear preference for the wealthy. Rajneesh officials have often bragged of the disproportionate number of millionaires (such as ex-disciple Pat Lear, heiress to the Learjet fortune) and extremely wealthy professionals among the Bhagwan’s disciples. Rajneesh himself has put it pointedly: “That the materially poor can ever become spiritual is out and-out absurd.” According to reports about Rajneesh’s ashram in Pune (Poona), India, poor Indians who approached the entrance gate were unceremoniously turned back by Rajneesh’s elite corps of karate-trained guards. Patrice Zerbib, a journalist for the French publication Actuel, once described the Pune ashram in the following terms: “It’s very expensive to have a room at the ashram. The outward signs of wealth are fabulous: in front of the ashram are automobiles, motorcycles, etc. Rich people, no one works. It’s difficult to keep up.”

Apparently, it is also difficult to keep up at Rajneeshpuram. Many sannyasins aspiring to live and worship (work) at Rajneeshpuram reportedly must pay a hefty admission fee of $5,000 and up, and usually must also pay a monthly fee of $500 or more. Even then, according to ex-followers, the Rajneesh hierarchy may not be satisfied. One exfollower reports attending a meeting at Rajneeshpuram at which Ma Anand Sheela cajoled and browbeat those present to contribute every last possible dime, from their own resources or from family or friends, to the Rajneesh treasury. Rajneesh followers throughout the world “worship” for little or no remuneration. In Australia, according to The Australian magazine, Rajneesh disciples have toiled “sixteen hours a day, six days a week” to develop a network of Rajneesh businesses that includes a chain of Zorba the Buddha restaurants, a chain of Rajneesh hotels, and a national building company called Oregon Builders and Renovations. In West Germany, according to the Associated Press, Rajneeshees operate a highly successful string of discotheques (estimated annual turnover: $1.1 million). According to the AP, German officials are concerned that Rajneeshees are being exploited by having to work long hours in the discos for “pocket change.”

At Rajneeshpuram, followers generally “worship” twelve hours a day, seven days a week. They are provided with room and vegetarian board and one set of red-colored clothing. Their “room” often consists of a small space in a crowded trailer with six to twelve other residents and little or no privacy. Meanwhile, according to ex-followers, the living quarters of top Rajneesh officials are spacious and luxuriously appointed. Rajneesh himself resides in a mini-oasis compound, complete with private swimming pool, in a secluded section of the ranch. Adrian Greek, the leading cult expert in Oregon, has characterized “Rajneeshism” as a “slave system with an aristocracy at the top that receives most of the benefits.”

In some instances Rajneesh followers unable to “keep up” have—allegedly sometimes with the implicit sanction, if not encouragement, of Rajneesh officialdom—turned to crime. In Asia, followers of Rajneesh were notorious for their involvement in the prostitution trade. In the German city of Essen, according to the AP, local officials have accused the Rajneeshees of importing drugs and prostitution into their Ruhr district city. Here in America, there is evidence of involvement by Rajneesh followers in striptease, masturbation shows, and prostitution in San Francisco.

Before Rajneesh fled his deteriorating legal and political situation in India for the constitutional protections of the United States, there was a rash of arrests of his disciples for international drug smuggling at European and Canadian airports. In two of these cases, in order to get reduced sentences the accused followers pleaded brainwashing by Rajneesh’s cult. At one of these trials, a witness testified as follows about the moral atmosphere in Pune: “Good and evil, legal and illegal: that no longer has any meaning. . . . One does anything to stay in Pune: steal, swindle.”

In the summer of 1983, three Indian followers of Rajneesh were arrested by the Bombay police and charged with attempting to smuggle hundreds of thousands of American dollars from the Rajneesh Foundation in Pune into Rajneeshpuram. One of the three admitted that he and a number of other sannyasins had also smuggled sizable amounts of foreign exchange purchased on the Indian black market to Rajneesh contacts in America.

A writer for the Illustrated Weekly of India once asked the following question about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh: “So what is he—a con man or a saint? More likely,” he answered his own question, “he is neither. More likely he is a crafty businessman who recognizes a good thing when he sees it—the good thing being gullibility.”

Oregon Magazine, December 1984

This article was adapted from The Rajneesh Chronicles, published by Tin House Books.