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Bhagwan’s Final Year

Farewell to a charlatan and false guru.

Associated Press

In January and February 1985, Ma Anand Sheela and other top Rajneesh officials (including many of the same disciples who would suddenly leave Rajneeshpuram the following September) conducted a well-publicized series of globe-trotting visits to Europe, Australia, and the Far East. It was later revealed that in December 1984, Sheela had married a Swiss sannyasin named Dhyan Dipo in Zurich and later obtained a backdated divorce in Nepal from her former husband, Swami Jayananda (John Shelfer).

On February 19, Sheela returned to Rajneeshpuram from India, where she had failed to obtain an audience with newly elected Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and announced that she would leave immediately on another extended trip. She said she had a major plan in the works, promising, “It’s going to top the Share-A-Home program. I never do less than what I have done before.” She denied in an interview that the purpose of her travels was to scout out a new home for the cult.

On February 28, Oregon Congressman Jim Weaver went on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and, in a speech entitled “The Town That Was Poisoned,” indirectly accused the Rajneeshees of having caused the salmonella outbreaks in The Dalles the previous fall. “Is there a madman lurking in The Dalles?” Weaver asked. “The poisoning was an insane act, an act of violent hatred, carried out with subtle means.” Weaver then went on to recapitulate the history of the conflict between the Rajneeshees and other residents of Wasco County, emphasizing that, “the Rajneesh Medical Corporation has a well-equipped laboratory at Rajneeshpuram.” Rajneeshpuram Mayor Swami Krishna Deva responded to Weaver’s speech with the threat that “fifteen Oregonians will die for every Rajneeshee who is killed in any attack on the sect.” An Associated Press dispatch ridiculed it as a “rambling and incoherent speech delivered to a nearly empty chamber.”

Sheela spent most of March and April in Australia, where Rajneesh followers were attempting to develop the Karri Valley resort, near the town of Pemberton in Western Australia, into a major tourist spot and commune for Rajneesh children. Her association with Jay Harmon, a well-known Australian entrepreneur and Rajneesh follower who was majority owner of Karri Valley, kept her in the news there, as did her provocative comments on television. In one interview she called Australians “uglier than kangaroos.” Just before Sheela’s departure at the end of April, the shire council in Pemberton rejected the Rajneesh plans for Karri Valley, and the Australian minister of education ordered the new Rajneesh school there closed.

There was news back in Oregon, as well. On May 24, a federal grand jury in Portland awarded $1.7 million, including $1.25 million in punitive damages, to former Rajneeshee Helen C. Bryon, deciding that Sheela had defrauded her of $310,000 in India. On June 3, the Rajneesh Foundation International filed suit in federal court charging the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service with violating the Rajneeshees’ constitutional rights and asking for an injunction to prohibit further INS investigations of the group. Sheela announced she had been informed by a source in the U.S. Attorney’s Office that a federal grand jury indictment against her and the Bhagwan was imminent. She predicted that they would be arrested sometime between June 11 and July 27.

On June 30, coinciding with the opening of the fourth Annual World Festival at Rajneeshpuram, the Oregonian launched a twentypart investigative series about the cult. The articles portrayed a movement in decline, troubled by shrinking financial resources and dwindling numbers of followers. The series revealed, among other things, that Sheela and her brother Bipin, a non-Rajneeshee, had personally profited from the purchase of the Big Muddy Ranch in 1981, and showed how Sheela’s overbearing behavior had helped undermine Rajneesh’s movement around the world.

The theme of the festival was “Bhagwan Speaks Again.” At the end of October 1984, when the Share-A-Home transient recruitment program ended, Rajneesh had broken his three-and-a-half-year “vow of silence” and begun speaking publicly again. Until the June-July festival, however, most of his public discourses were delivered to a small group of disciples called “the Chosen Ones” (the same group, also known as the “Beverly Hills clique,” would ascend to power at Rajneeshpuram after Sheela’s abrupt departure the following September).

In July, Rajneesh launched a major public-relations drive, appearing on ABC’s Good Morning America and holding his first full-scale press conference since coming to the United States. He labeled himself “the rich man’s guru” and said, “This is my circus. I enjoy it immensely.” Asked about the takeover of Antelope by his followers, he replied, “If a few people decided to make a dead city alive, why should I interfere?” He also said his followers would never coexist peacefully with their neighbors in Oregon.

On July 19, the Rajneeshees filed suit in U.S. District Court accusing state officials, including Governor Vic Atiyeh and Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer, of conspiring to drive them out of Oregon. Rajneesh continued giving press interviews and making vituperative comments throughout the rest of July, August, and early September. He said at one point, “I would rather be attacked than ignored.”

On Monday night, September 16, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh held a press conference attended by representatives of the international news media. He made a series of sensational accusations against Sheela, including charges that she and other top officials of Rajneesh organizations had engineered an outbreak of salmonella food poisoning in The Dalles and had conspired to murder his doctor, dentist, and personal companion.

He subsequently accused Sheela of trying to poison him. “Sheela and her gang turned my commune into a fascist concentration camp,” he charged, explaining that, “because I was not in contact with my sannyasins, I was not aware of what was being done to them.” He claimed to have told Sheela, “You have become addicted to being famous, and that is a worse drug than any drug in existence.” He also said that his followers had been “ugly to take over Antelope,” and asserted that he now desired peaceful relations with all Oregonians.

The previous Friday, after returning from another worldwide junket, Sheela had summoned select disciples and announced that she was leaving the commune, explaining that Rajneesh had become more interested in Rolls-Royces and expensive jewelry than in the community or his disciples. She resigned from her position as head of Rajneesh Foundation International and was replaced by Ma Prem Hasya, one of the Beverly Hills clique.

On Saturday, Sheela and a few other top disciples, after receiving a warm send-off at Rajneeshpuram, flew on Air Rajneesh to Seattle, where they caught a flight to London-Frankfurt with connections to Zurich. By Sunday, other top Rajneesh officials had resigned their positions and left the ranch. This exodus came just as a federal grand jury was stepping up its investigation of commune leaders for racketeering and possible criminal violations of U.S. immigration laws.

Members of a multiagency law-enforcement task force sent into Rajneeshpuram after Rajneesh’s press conference found evidence of an extensive wiretapping operation and an apparent biological warfare laboratory. The laboratory was found to contain such books as Deadly Substances, Handbook for Poisoning, The Perfect Crime and How to Commit It, and Let Me Die Before I Wake, as well as numerous articles on assassinations, explosives, and terrorism. Investigators also unearthed evidence of a top-secret research project by the Rajneesh Medical Corporation to develop a live AIDS virus in the laboratory, and observers recalled that Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had predicted in the spring of 1984 that two thirds of the world’s population would die of AIDS within ten years.

Rajneesh, who had initiated the investigation, soon complained that the investigators were trying to “destroy” his commune. The investigators complained that they were being stymied by a lack of cooperation from the Rajneeshees. Reporters poured into Rajneeshpuram from all over the world, turning the scene into a media circus.

At the end of September, Rajneesh announced that his followers would no longer be required to wear red clothes or the “mala,” the 108- bead necklace with his picture. Then, after 4,000 to 5,000 copies of the Book of Rajneeshism were burned in the commune’s outdoor crematorium in an elaborate nighttime ceremony, he proclaimed the end of the Rajneesh “religion.” In interviews with the German magazine Stern, Sheela denied all of Rajneesh’s accusations, including the charge that she had been intending to set up a home for AIDS victims in the town of Rajneesh (Antelope). She said of the Bhagwan, “I think that even if one would spend a fortune to study professional publicity, one couldn’t learn as much as I have with Bhagwan. He personally rehearsed with me gestures, glances and movements of the mouth. And he never ran out of ideas. He had an acute sense of when journalists started to get bored.” She claimed that the proposal for an AIDS clinic in Rajneesh was one of his publicity ideas, and that she had told him it was crazy.

On October 28, after learning that the federal grand jury in Portland had issued a sealed indictment against him for violating U.S. immigration laws, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and a coterie of followers attempted to flee the United States to Bermuda in two chartered Learjets. Arrested by federal marshals in Charlotte, North Carolina, when his plane landed to refuel, Rajneesh was charged with thirty-five counts of violating immigration law and one count (later dropped) of attempting to flee the country in order to avoid prosecution. Soon after his arrest, Sheela and two other former top Rajneesh officials were arrested in West Germany.

On November 7, Rajneesh was brought back to Portland, where he was released on $500,000 bail after pleading not guilty to the immigration charges against him. However, a week later, on November 14, he returned to federal court in Portland and pleaded guilty to two of the thirty-five charges—that he originally entered the United States fraudulently and that he had conspired to abet phony marriages between American and foreign disciples so the foreign disciples could remain in the country. He was given a ten-year suspended sentence, five years probation, and a $400,000 fine, and was ordered by U.S. District Judge Edward Leavy to leave the country. He left, bound for India, immediately after the hearing.

Oregon Magazine, December 1985

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