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Bhagwan’s Rich Folk

Rajneesh favored the wealthy, so the wealthy favored him.

Ma Prem Hasya (a.k.a. Francoise Ruddy). Courtesy of Netflix

“Money [is] easier to get from those who have it,” instructs the confidential minutes of a coordinators’ meeting at Rajneeshpuram on November 14, 1982. “If anyone knows any people with some connection with Bhagwan who have money, give the name to Mrudula to call them.”

Since the birth in the early 1970s of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s cult, quite a number of people with money have been connected with him, including Prince Welf of Hanover, Germany (who died in early 1981 as a result of an accident in a Rajneesh karate group in India), the Marquis of Bath, and American heirs and heiresses to Learjet, BaskinRobbins, and San Francisco Chronicle fortunes. Rajneesh’s earliest financial supporters were wealthy Indians in the area of Bombay, to whom he preached the doctrines of libertinism and self-indulgence that ran diametrically counter to Indian spiritual traditions. An Indian journalist once told the Oregonian: “He knew what the rich people want. They want to justify their guilty consciences, to justify their guilty acts.”

Many members of the Bhagwan’s top leadership, including all three of his personal secretaries, have also been well-to-do. Rajneesh’s first executive assistant, Ma Yoga Laxmi, who served him in that capacity from 1970 (the year he began, at her suggestion, calling himself “Bhagwan”—i.e., God—and requiring followers to wear red clothes and a mala) until she was deposed by Ma Anand Sheela in 1981, came from a politically well-connected family in Bombay. In an interview with Oregon Magazine in February 1983, Laxmi said simply, “The family was rich.” Sheela’s father reportedly was a relatively prosperous Indian landowner. Of herself, and her upbringing, Sheela once offered: “I was spoiled as a child, I was spoiled as I grew up, and I’m still spoiled.”

It was long rumored that Sheela’s family may have helped finance the founding of Rajneesh’s ashram in Pune (Poona), India, in 1974. The family is part of a large Indian business clan or caste called the Patels, some of whose members are known to be involved in activities such as smuggling, insurance fraud, and prostitution in India, East Africa, and major cities in the United States.

Ma Prem Hasya, alias Francoise Ruddy, succeeded Ma Anand Sheela when Sheela left Rajneeshpuram in September 1985 under a cloud of criminal accusations. A French native and the former wife of Albert Ruddy, a major Hollywood producer, Hasya is said to have obtained a substantial divorce settlement from Ruddy and to have donated a large part (but by no means all) of the settlement to the Rajneesh Foundation, including money that went toward the purchase of the Big Muddy Ranch in 1981. She was part of a group at the ranch dubbed by some the “Hollywood” or “Beverly Hills Clique.” Other members of the group included Dhyan John (John William Wally), heir to a large trust fund and head for a while of the Rajneesh Investment Corporation (he replaced John Shelfer, Sheela’s ex-husband, in that capacity); Swami David (David Levine), known also as “King David,” reputedly an heir to a North Carolina shoe-company fortune, who was for a while head of the Rajneesh Modern Car Trust (which legally controlled Rajneesh’s Rolls-Royce collection); and Kaveesha (Joyce E. Schlozman), otherwise known as the “Tantra Queen.”

Members of a CBS crew that had just visited Rajneeshpuram described this group to Oregon Magazine in December 1984—nine months before the group’s ascension to power at Rancho Rajneesh— as leading an indolent and pampered life there; wearing ostentatious silk and satin clothes and gold and silver jewelry; tooling around the property in their own private Rolls-Royces; dining nightly at a gourmet Zorba the Buddha restaurant; “worshipping” during the day by working in luxurious quarters on a never-finished screenplay about the cult; and receiving then-rare private audiences with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

In 1983, the group spent time at a mansion in Beverly Hills, donated to the Rajneesh Foundation by Dhyan John, trying to recruit rich and well connected Hollywood celebrities to the Rajneesh movement, primarily through Tantric sex orgies orchestrated by Kaveesha. It has been reported that one of the reasons the Bhagwan replaced Sheela with Hasya was Hasya’s greater success, through her access to Hollywood money, in obtaining new Rolls-Royces for him (he reportedly at the end had ninety-three of them, including six purchased after the blowup at the ranch in September 1985).

Also in 1983, a group of defectors from the Rajneesh cult calling themselves the “Wild Geese” (after the title of Rajneesh’s last lecture in India before leaving for the United States, “The Goose Is Out”) wrote regarding Rajneeshpuram: “Only those that give large donations of money to the organization and those with the needed technical skills are allowed to stay. Basically, Rajneeshpuram is a ‘working country club’ for the rich.” And further back, in 1979, the judge in the trial of an English sannyasin in Paris on drug-smuggling charges summarized his personal investigation of the Rajneesh ashram in Pune as follows: “Apparently one meets there the lost people of the Western World, but not those who have ‘end of the month’ problems—laborers, housewives, etc.—those who break their backs to feed their families. No, these are the rich people, not knowing what to do with their money, not knowing what to do with their lives.”

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