BY: SINEAD MULHERN
Nearly 30 years ago, one of America’s most dangerous cults was at its peak. When one man presented himself as a guru and established a following of wealthy westerners, he left his home in India to set up a new home on a ranch 200 miles away from Eastern Oregon. His 64,000 acres cost six million. The intention: bring the followers, set up housing, establish a city of people who would worship and work for him. He told Oregon authorities he was purchasing the land for farming.
His followers knew him as Acharya Rajneesh or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Born in India in 1931 under the name Chandra Mohan Jain, he grew up in India and became a small town philosophy professor in the 1960s. As years went on though, he started to talk about a religious experience, claiming he had achieved enlightenment. Those were the early days. As Rajneesh gained momentum, he would use the attention to found a cult. His followers would be known as Rajneeshees or Sannyasins.
Many of his followers were instructed to have sex in front of him in order to discard their phobias
In the beginning, though before it grew into a cult, Rajneesh had a monastery in Poona. He appealed especially to westerners, teaching them about tantric yoga. His followers (a large portion of them North American celebrities) supposedly believed Rajneesh to be the “guru of the vagina.” He allegedly slept with several of his female disciples, taught his followers out of the ordinary sexual practices telling them it would cure them of unrelated phobias, and instructed couples to have sex in front of him.
That was before taking his practices to the U.S., where he had a partner—Sheela Patel, a young woman from a well-to-do Indian family. She was a natural leader with a knack for negotiating. They set their sights on Oregon where they purchased their “farm land.” They set up housing for what authorities thought were to be farm workers. In reality though, they were just getting ready for the flock of followers, which grew into a city with a population of 2,000 Rajneeshees.
They dressed in red, worked without pay and idolized their long-silver-bearded leader who would sit in front of them, silent. The cult was at its height for the four years between 1981 and 1985. A typical day was a mash-up of work, meditation, drugs, prayer and sex. For Rajneesh and Patel, it was also a money-making scheme. Rajneesh is reported to have owned rolex watches and 93 rolls royces all acquired from the exploitation of his followers.
Then things got worse. The guru wanted to grow his empire. He was also dealing with a backlash from Oregon government and citizens. They were suspicious of the activity happening on his land. They wanted them out. So he pushed back. He devised a plan to put his followers in local government—a plot to grow his following and have a position of power in Oregon. He also wanted revenge against those who were making life difficult for him. Many of the evil doings of Rajneesh and his cult were under wraps until 25 years after the collapse of his cult.
Rajneesh owned 93 Rolls Royces, all acquired by donation from his followers.
First, he came up with a murder scheme. He sent Rajneeshees in to the hospital where local politician James Comini was staying. They were to slip poison into his IV. The plan failed when they found that he wasn’t even hooked up to an IV. Years after this plot became known, Oregon citizens found out that they also stalked others in government.
Then, in September of 1984, three years after the cult was established, the clan pulled their most evil stunt ever. As part of their scheme to get into government, they poisoned Oregon voters. The followers left their rural range and headed into populated areas slipping salmonella into salad bars and restaurant ingredients. When the first incidents of salmonella were reported, it seemed to be a case of restaurant negligence. But as more and more people were found to have salmonella poisoning, officials noticed something was very wrong. There were 700 cases of the poisoning in the area—far too many for it to be considered a coincidence. They traced the incident back to the cult member dressed in red. It is still known as the largest incident of bioterrorism on U.S. soil.
Years later it was discovered that this was just a practice run for their ultimate plan: to slip poisoning into Oregon’s water supply. While the Rajneeshees’ evil doing may have seemed isolated to cult outsiders, that’s not true either. Anyone who caused a fuss inside the ranch was at risk. Years after the cult deteriorated, it came out that there were internal murder schemes on the ranch as well.
It’s thanks to that attack that the cult collapsed. Patel was sentenced to ten years in prison for the poisonings. Rajneesh was deported. Patel served the first three years of her sentence before she too was deported off U.S. soil. Rajneesh died young in 1990. As for the ranch, that was converted to a Christian camp. It didn’t stay that way. A fire in 1996 destroyed all the structures created by the Rajneeshee cult.