The new Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country* has reignited interest in the Rajneeshees, a religious sect that committed, as former Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer said, “the most significant crimes of their kind in the history of the United States . . . The largest single incident of fraudulent marriages, the most massive scheme of wiretapping and bugging, and the largest mass poisoning.” Here are nine things you should about this largely forgotten group and the effect they’ve had on America.
1. The Rajneesh movement is a religious movement based on the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931–1990). Disciples of Rajneesh are sometimes referred to as Rajneeshees, neo-sannyasins, or sannyasins. (Sannyasa is a form of asceticism in Hindu philosophy that denounces worldly concerns and embraces asceticism. In contrast, neo-sannyasins embrace the world and denounce only the “ego.”) They were once expected to take Hindi names, wear a mala (i.e., an 108-beaded wooden necklaces with Rajneesh’s portrait), and wear clothing limited to shades of red and orange (a feature that earned them the nickname “orange people”). The movement reached its peak in the 1970s and early 1980s, with a global membership of about 100,000.
2. Born in 1931, Rajneesh (born Chandra Mohan Jain, and before his death known as “Osho”) was a prolific speaker and writer (more than 600 of his discourses were published) whose primary teaching was the promotion of a “new man” who would experience complete inner freedom through accepting and surpassing desires. The most consistent thing about Rajneesh’s teachings, though, was their inconsistency. “Ours is the only religion, first religion in the history of the world,” he said in one of his own publications. “All the others are just premature experiments which have failed. And we are not going to fail. For the simple reason because we don’t have any belief that can be proved untrue. We don’t have any dogma that can be criticized.”
3. What attracted so many Westerners to Rajneesh’s teaching was his embrace of materialism and sexual hedonism. Rajneesh referred to himself as the “rich man’s guru” and was ostentatious in his displays of wealth. He often wore jeweled watches (worth $1.1 million in today’s dollars) and owned a fleet of 93 Rolls-Royce cars. Early in his career, he also began to teach that sex is a meditative first step on the path to superconsciousness, or enlightenment. He believed that embracing sex is “theism” and equated “atheism” with the belief that sexual acts are sinful:
Sex is divine. The primal energy of sex has the reflection of godliness in it. It is obvious it is the energy that creates new life. And that is the greatest, most mysterious force of all. . . .
If you want to know the elemental truth about love, the first requisite is to accept the sacredness of sex, to accept the divinity of sex in the same way you accept God’s existence—with an open heart. And the more fully you accept sex with an open heart and mind, the freer you will be of it. But the more you suppress it, the more you will become bound to it. The measure of your acceptance is the measure of your deliverance. The total acceptance of life, of all that is natural in life, will lead you to the highest realms of divinity—to heights that are unknown, to heights that are sublime. I call that acceptance, theism.
I regard those precepts which keep man from accepting that which is natural in life and in the divine scheme as atheism. “Oppose this; suppress that. The natural is sinful, bad, lustful. Leave this; leave that.” All this constitutes atheism, as I understand it. Those who preach renunciation are atheists.
4. In 1981, the Rajneeshees bought the property known as the Big Muddy Ranch in central Oregon. Although they initially claimed to have bought the property to start an agricultural commune, over the next three years they developed it into the theocratic city of Rajneeshpuram. The newly created city housed thousands of residents, and had its own fire and police departments, restaurants, malls, a 4,200-foot airstrip, an unsanctioned casino, and the third-largest public transport system in the state of Oregon. A dispute over land use led to tensions with the nearby small-town of Antelope (pop. 40). In response, the Rajneeshees bought up property in Antelope, took over the city council, changed the name, and incorporated it with the commune.
5. Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer issued an opinion in 1983 that the city of Rajneeshpuram violated the constitutional separation of church and state because it was directly controlled by the the religion and the religion’s leaders. The Rajneeshees responded by attempting to gain more power through taking control of the governance of Wasco County. Since Oregon law allowed anyone who had been in the state for 20 days and intended to stay to register to vote, the Rajneeshees traveled across the United States recruiting thousands of homeless people to move to their commune. The addition of so many street people, many of whom had mental health issues, quickly caused serious problems in Rajneeshpuram. To keep them under control, the city initially gave the homeless beer spiked with an antipsychotic drug. When that didn’t work, they took the homeless to various parts of Oregon and dumped them on the street.
6. In another attempt to sway the Wasco County election, the Rajneeshees carried out the single largest bioterrorist attack in U.S. history. The plan was to suppress voter turnout on election day by causing many of the residents to be too sick to go to the polls. In a test run, the Rajneeshees gave two county commissioners glasses of water contaminated with Salmonella enterica. They later went to several restaurants in The Dalles, Oregon, and sprayed salmonella in salad dressings and in the salad bars. As a result of the attack, 751 people contracted salmonellosis, resulting in 45 being hospitalized
7. The group would later be charged with a broad range of crimes, including arson (i.e., burning down the Wasco county commissioner’s office) attempted murder (they tried to assassinate U.S. State Attorney Charles Turner), and the largest immigration fraud in U.S. history. State and local officials were eager to arrest Rajneesh but feared it would lead to massive shootout and serious bloodshed. (Feeling besieged after a Rajneesh-owned hotel in Portland was bombed by an Islamic militant group, the followers at Rajneeshpuram acquired more semiautomatic weapons (about a hundred) and ammunition (e.g., a million rounds of AK-47 ammo) than every police force in Oregon combined.) Before law enforcement authorities could arrest Rajneesh, though, he attempted to flee to Bermuda on his private jet. He was arrested while his plane refueled in North Carolina and later deported. His departure lead to the shuttering of Rajneeshpuram and the eventual bankrupting of the city.
8. The Montana-based billionaire Dennis R. Washington bought the land at Rajneeshpuram in 1991. In 1996, he donated it to the Christian youth ministry Young Life. The camp, now known as Washington Family Ranch, hosts thousands of teenagers every summer
9. The Rajneeshees had a profound, albeit indirect, effect on religious freedom laws in the United States. In 1990 the state of Oregon denied unemployment benefits to a employee who was fired for violating a state prohibition on the use of peyote, even though the use of the drug was part of a religious ritual. As Garrett Epps note, the “story of Rajneeshpuram sheds some light” on why the state’s attorney general, Dave Frohnmayer, pursued this case all the way to the Supreme Court. The backlash to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Employment Division v. Smith led Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which has been cited by the courts in protecting the religious liberty of closely held corporations (e.g., Hobby Lobby) and non-profits (e.g., Little Sisters of the Poor).
*Although the documentary is a well-produced artifact of historical importance, it contains objectionable material, including foul language, brief nudity (i.e., nude dancing and sunbathing), and implied violence (though this is largely described and not shown on-screen).
Other posts in this series:
Football • The Opioid Epidemic (Part II) • The Unification Church • Billy Graham • Frederick Douglass • Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders • Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease • Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State