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I did research at Rajneeshpuram, and here is what I learned

Followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh embrace during a meditation session at Rajneeshpuram. AP Photo/Bill Miller

Netflix recently launched a six-part docuseries, “Wild Wild Country,” about the controversial Rajneesh Movement that created a spiritual community on 64,000 acres of the former Big Muddy Ranch in Oregon. Back in the 1980s, as now, media focused on the group’s outrageous acts, legal confrontations and alleged crimes.

The revelations that the community’s guru, Rajneesh, made in 1985 were shocking. His personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, he said, had conspired with a small circle of about 24 people to kill state and federal officials, attempted to control a county election by busing in homeless people to vote and poisoning salad bars in the county seat, and deliberately escalated tensions with outsiders. Sheela and some of her cadre were later charged and sentenced for state and federal crimes. But many devotees told me and other researchers that they were unaware of the extent of her crimes and misdeeds until she left Rajneeshpuram. Neither was I.

As a scholar of gender and alternative spiritual movements, I visited Rajneeshpuram 10 times before it closed down completely early in 1986 and talked with almost 100 men and women who lived there. Although I was sometimes monitored, no one interfered with my research.

Away from the Netflix series’ dramatic story, what devotees told me and what I observed adds another dimension to popular conceptions of the short-lived communal city.

Rajneeshpuram, Oregon

Rajneesh inducts two disciples, an American and a West German woman in Pune, India. AP Photo

In 1981, after running into problems with the Indian government, Rajneesh closed his ashram in the city of Pune in central India and invited devotees from all over the world to join him to create an extraordinary community in central Oregon. Some Rajneeshees bought houses in the closest town, Antelope. Most, however, journeyed for another 19 miles on the winding mountain roads that led to the the plateau where Rajneeshpuram rested. At its peak, the communal city housed about 2,000 devotees.

Women and men labored together around the clock, constructing a huge meditation hall and an open-air mall with restaurants, clothing boutiques and a shop that sold hundreds of books and videotapes by and about Rajneesh. They also created a private airport, a hotel, living quarters and a sparkling artificial lake.

The devotees belied popular stereotypes of passive, easily manipulated spiritual seekers. Two-thirds of Rajneeshpuram’s residents had four-year college degrees and/or had previously pursued lucrative career paths.

These women and men talked with me about their experiences and life histories. Most men, for example, felt that they had personal relationships with their guru, even when they had never met him. They also emphasized how Rajneesh helped them access their hidden intellectual and emotional strengths.

This was interesting, but with each visit, my attention increasingly turned to women in their 30’s and 40’s whose incomes and educational attainments far exceeded the national average.

Accomplished women

Fifty-four percent of Rajneesh’s devotees were women. Many had abandoned relationships, successful careers and occasionally young children in order to create a utopia around their spiritual leader. In our conversations, they disclosed that they followed Rajneesh to Oregon because they felt that he had transformed their lives, and they wanted to continue to experience the love and affirmation that they received from their powerful protector.

Every woman that I interviewed at length had been influenced by the feminist movement of the 1970s and hoped for full economic, sexual and social equality. They wanted to live very differently from their housewife mothers. However, they were deeply disappointed when they still felt anxious and lonely despite the money and recognition that they received from their careers. They told me that they had felt forced to choose between successful careers and fulfilling marriages. They lost with either choice.

One devotee, who later made a fortune in currency trading, told me that she had to drop out of the university and her premedical studies when she married. She said, “It was sort of a Jewish ethic. Women were wives and mothers, they weren’t doctors.”

But Rajneesh asserted that women could succeed in every endeavor as well as or better than men. He applauded high levels of achievement and also emphasized the importance of traditionally feminine traits like intuition and emotional sensitivity for both women and men. He told women that they could and should integrate their personal and professional lives. He said,

“It is for the betterment of both man and woman that the woman should be given every freedom and equal opportunity for her individuality.”

At Rajneeshpuram, accomplished women were almost always assigned to jobs similar to their old ones. For example, psychologists led personal growth groups, attorneys staffed the legal department, city planners and architects designed roads and buildings, and writers and professors worked at the Rajneeshpuram newspaper, “Rajneesh Times.” Devotees described laboring alongside people who shared their ideals and cared about feelings along with productivity.

An attorney with a degree from an elite university discussed the joy of working with supportive friends and playing together at the end of long shifts. She said:

“We all say around here that work is our meditation. I feel really good…..We’re sort of in this together.”

Why women stayed

Rajneesh is greeted by thousands of his followers during his afternoon drive-by as flowers are placed on the hood of his Rolls-Royce. AP Photo/Bill Miller

The guru himself may have retreated into private meditation, delegating all organizational decisions to Sheela, but devotees still believed that he watched over them. Every woman and man wore a locket with Rajneesh’s picture and used the new Indian name that he had bestowed on them. They broke into joyful tears when they lined Rajneeshpuram’s main road to bow and place roses on the guru’s Rolls Royce as he drove by each afternoon.

In September of 1985, according to media reports, the guru privately confronted Sheela about some of her crimes. She decamped to Germany, and Rajneesh once again started his lectures. He informed devotees that his physician had told him about her autocratic leadership and the movement’s mounting debts. He publicly condemned Sheela for masterminding scores of crimes and cooperated with state and federal authorities who wanted to apprehend Sheela and her cadre.

Devotees seemed to be thrilled to hear him speak once more, although most told me that they wondered about Rajneesh’s claims of total ignorance about Sheela’s activities. I saw people protest against Sheela and cheer when her official robes were tossed into a fire. They celebrated when new movement leaders burned thousands of copies of “The Book of Rajneeshism” that Sheela designed. However, for months after the stunning disclosures, devotees that I interviewed still believed in their guru.

For a time, almost all of the women who responded to my mailed questionnaires in 1985 and 1997 or whom I kept in touch with informally tried to sustain their faith.

Former fashion model Veena, for example, was victimized by Sheela because of her role as Rajneesh’s personal seamstress and her room in his compound. Nevertheless, Veena continued to trust the guru throughout her ordeals. In 2008, when I talked with her at length in England, she was as enamored with Rajneesh and her old Oregon comrades as she had been in 1981, when she guided well-known journalist Frances FitzGerald around Rajneeshpuram.

No matter how shocked or damaged they were, devotees did not quickly abandon the close friends or spiritual practices that had transformed their lives. However, in response to the 1997 follow-up survey, very few said that they still believed in Rajneesh, or Osho, as he later came to be known. Nevertheless, they looked back on their Oregon experience fondly.

One woman left the movement after a year because she grew increasingly disgusted by Rajneesh’s revelations, but in 1997, she still remembered central Oregon fondly. She said:

“No regrets. Some understanding of the human condition.”

Most of the accomplished women returned to their old professions or transitioned to new ones. Their years at Rajneeshpuram had affirmed the importance of both work and love, and they had learned that it was possible to enjoy both. As their survey responses showed, they were certain that they left the communal city with new abilities to function anywhere in the world.

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