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Bhagwan’s Mind Control

An ex-disciple describes Rajneesh brainwashing methods.

Cathy Cheney

“Before I left for Pune [Poona, India], I was a very capable, articulate, professional woman,” claims Roselyn Smith, a forty-one-year-old social worker who was known as Ma Prem Sugatha when she followed the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. “When I got back I was in a totally hypnotic state. I was absolutely helpless.”

Although Rajneesh officials categorically deny that they practice mind control in any form, some ex-Rajneeshees, as well as some professional counselors who have studied the Rajneesh organization and interviewed ex-members like Smith, think otherwise. Smith believes that she was the subject of a very sophisticated program of mental manipulation while a member of Rajneesh’s “pseudo-religious, totalistic cult.”

Adrian Greek and Josh Baran, counselors in Portland and Berkeley, California, respectively, who deal with the social readjustment problems of ex-cult followers, think after recently interviewing Smith that her perceptions of her Rajneesh experiences are accurate. Greek and Baran say that the experiences she describes are similar to those described by other former members of the group.

Smith, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University and a master’s degree in social work from Arizona State University, was a tenured instructor in psychology at Aims Community College in Colorado in 1980 when she decided to journey to the Bhagwan’s ashram in Pune, India, to seek enlightenment. In her first week at the ashram, she recounts, she plunged into a four-day “breath therapy” group in which participants did “slow, deep, forceful” breathing for hours on end in order to achieve a state of emotional regression and catharsis. On the third day, she says, she went into a cathartic state—“an altered state, like a trance”—that lasted for about four hours. “I went through a regression where I felt like I was a baby again,” she recalls. “When I opened my eyes I saw this huge poster of Bhagwan. I looked at him and felt he was a savior, an incarnation of love.”

Smith’s next experience at the ashram, she relates, was a five-day “intensive enlightenment” group. Greek considers the enlightenment intensive to be a virtual paradigm of the Rajneesh “resocialization” process. In an enlightenment intensive, Greek explains, participants spend up to seventeen hours a day, in five-minute intervals, alternately answering and listening to a partner answer the question “Who Am I?” Participants change partners every forty minutes and are not allowed to have any contact with nonparticipants on days the group is in progress. Greek thinks the exercise “plunges people into their unconscious and cuts them off from past support systems without letting them establish any real relationships in the present” a result that, he says, is the very foundation of mind control.

Smith says that her next experience at the Pune ashram, that of floating in a Rajneesh “samadhi” (enlightenment) tank—a lightproof, windproof sensory-deprivation tank filled with heated saltwater and resembling a coffin—was much more disorienting for her than the enlightenment intensive. Smith says she floated in her assigned samadhi tank for an hour a day on two consecutive days, until she went into a “deep, penetrating catharsis” in which she sobbed uncontrollably for five straight hours about a herd of horses she saw brutally slaughtered as a child. Smith calls this cathartic experience “a nightmare.”

“You’d think by this point that with all my training in psychology I’d realize I was tampering with something dangerous,” Smith says. “But I believed Rajneesh was an enlightened master and that he knew what he was doing.” Smith had taught a course on mind control at Aims Community College.

Smith says that the capstone of her indoctrination at Pune was a fourteen-day “insight group.” It is this type of group, under the designation “encounter group,” whose free-for-all sexuality and shocking physical violence are portrayed in the film Ashram, made by a German ex-sannyasin. After the worldwide publicity surrounding the mass cult suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, in November 1978, ashram officials proscribed further violence in the encounter group and changed its name, but Smith says that verbal abuse and orgiastic sex were still common in the group when she went through it.

“The purpose of the insight group,” in Smith’s opinion, “was to break you down completely, to destroy any remnant of self-confidence or self-trust you had left, any sense at all of your own integrity.” Smith says that by the end of the insight group she was “in a total state of mind control. I was,” she says, “a goner. A total follower. A fanatic.”

Smith left the Pune ashram in the spring of 1981 on vacation. Soon after her departure, the Bhagwan, whose Rajneesh Foundation had recently been assessed millions of dollars in back taxes by the Indian government, also departed. Smith (who was unable to get a professional teaching or social-work job while wearing the red garb and mala of a sannyasin) worked as a massage therapist for a year in order to raise the money to go to the new ashram in Oregon. She reached Rajneeshpuram in June 1982, only to leave two months later when she contracted a severe amoebic infection. After leaving the ranch, she sought medical care and psychological counseling in San Francisco.

Smith says that, even with the help of expert counseling, it has taken her well over a year to begin to recover from the Rajneesh experience. “After those groups, I had no trust left in my own decision making,” she says. “It can sometimes take years for ex-Rajneeshees to regain a sense of self-confidence and self-worth,” says Baran.

Smith also says that she is “very ethically concerned” about what may be happening to followers at Rajneeshpuram, which she says is “in some ways like a gulag . . . the closest thing to a concentration camp I’ve ever seen. Most of the public has no idea of what’s really going on there,” she alleges. “They don’t realize what mind control is, that when someone takes over your mind you’re absolutely helpless. . . . I had techniques used on me that were far more subtle and more powerful than I could have ever comprehended. I’m an example of how powerful those techniques are.”

Oregon Magazine, March 1984

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