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Bhagwan’s Devious Trap

Leaving Bhagwan's Buddhafield may not be all that easy

Bill Miller/Associated Press

“If people want to leave, that is O.K.,” read the confidential minutes of a coordinators meeting at Rajneeshpuram on November 14, 1982. “No need to sneak away. . . . Bhagwan said not to worry why people left.” But does the Bhagwan really let his disciples leave his nest so easily?

Professional students of cults, as well as ex-members of the Rajneesh community, confirm that, indeed, the Rajneesh organization—unlike other, similar cult groups—does not utilize physical force either to recruit new members or to restrain followers from leaving. Rather, say these authorities, Rajneesh prevents his disciples from leaving his “Buddhafield” by trapping them in an intricate, devious web of mind control.

“The Rajneesh indoctrination process is a socialization process, involving the loss of personal identity and the dissolution of the ego boundary into the group,” explains Adrian Greek, codirector of the Positive Action Center, Portland’s major cult watching organization. “This happens, in part, through the initiation rite of sannyas, in which the new recruit is required to give up his past identity and to adopt new clothes and a new name.” Greek recalls that Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh once wrote: “The personality is not something to be protected; it is something to be destroyed.”

“The Rajneesh indoctrination process depends on certain psychological and spiritual assumptions,” further explains Hilly Zeitlin, a clinical social worker and cult expert in Berkeley, California. “The major psychological assumption is that emotional repression is the key to the neurotic bind of Westerners, and that the solution lies in the catharsis of emotional release. The Rajneesh community invites recruits to strip themselves of their psychological defenses in the name of emotional release and personal growth. But what the recruits don’t realize is that at every step of the way they are getting more suggestible to a new belief system.”

“Rajneesh and his group leaders used therapy techniques to open people up emotionally,” remembers ex-disciple Eckart Floether, who lived at the Bhagwan’s ashram in Pune (Poona), India, in 1979. “When people reached the point of catharsis, the group leader would hook them by putting a picture of Rajneesh in front of them and saying, ‘Now give your life to Rajneesh; he will take care of you!’ People were basically hooked at their most vulnerable moment.”

“These techniques lead to extreme states of vulnerability,” affirms Kathleen McLaughlin, a professor of religious studies at Lewis and Clark College who attended Rajneesh meditation and therapy groups in Pune from 1977 to 1978. “The question is: What do you give people then? Rajneesh used these techniques to blast people open and then fill them up with himself and his ideas. As you opened up emotionally, you found this very authoritarian structure there trying to take control of you.”

On the spiritual-intellectual level, says Zeitlin, the key to understanding the Rajneesh socialization process is the concept of the “double bind.” This concept was developed in the course of studies of families with schizophrenic children. The studies found that when parents overloaded their children with contradictory statements over too long a period of time, the children were driven insane.

“Rajneesh presents himself as a perfect master,”’ Zeitlin explains. “Therefore, if you see contradictions, if something doesn’t make sense to you, it is evidence that there is something wrong with you and that you need to go to a higher spiritual level. This puts people in a double bind, and the only way for them to resolve it—besides going mad—is to surrender to Rajneesh’s authority.” Floether has alleged that many disciples in Pune were driven to madness by their Rajneesh experiences, and that some were even driven to suicide.

Greek agrees that the cumulative mental stress of a double-bind situation will eventually wear down a recruit’s mental resistance. “The paradoxes and contradictions overwhelm the mind,” says Greek. “Eventually people set them aside. People reach a point where they give up and stop thinking for themselves.” Greek contends that this mental stress is compounded by the additional stress of long hours of exhausting physical labor and of repetitive lectures and meditation sessions, and also by the stress resulting from the lack of emotionally fulfilling, monogamous relationships at Rajneeshpuram.

Greek goes on to postulate that one of the principal psychological mechanisms by which Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh controls his followers is the manipulation of guilt. “They induce guilt by setting up a perfect standard for you to follow, one that is humanly impossible to attain,” Greek says. “Then, if you feel bad, it’s your own fault. The only way for you to get rid of the guilt is to work harder and try to be more perfect, which in turn leads to more guilt. You always feel pressure to change—and guilt—because you always fall short of ‘enlightenment.”’

Ex-Rajneesh disciple Roselyn Smith lived at Rajneesh’s ashram in India from 1980 to 1981, and then lived at Rajneeshpuram in the summer of 1982, until she contracted a severe amoebic infection that required her to leave. She maintains that Rajneesh hooks his followers into staying with him by making them feel badly about themselves. “Many people who come to Bhagwan aren’t helpless, hopeless drifters,” she says. “Many come because they have high ideals to which they think Rajneesh also aspires. What happens when they get there is that they are made to believe that they are failures. The Rajneesh leaders systematically break down their self-confidence until they are in a state of hopeless dependence”—a dependence reinforced, she argues, by the physical and social isolation of the ranch.

“Then, when you go back into the outside world, it’s so disorienting,” she says. “That’s why a lot of people don’t leave. . . . You can’t leave, you’re so scared. It’s a nightmare to be out on your own if you don’t trust yourself, if you have no confidence in your own decision making.” “I think it’s so unfair for people to say, ‘Oh, it’s their own fault, all they have to do is leave,”’ she says. “People don’t understand what mind control is, that when someone takes over your mind you’re powerless to leave. It doesn’t matter if you have the physical freedom to leave. You don’t have the psychological freedom.”

Oregon Magazine, June/July 1984

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