By Zachary Lynn
What is a cult?
That is a question that is certainly ever present across the United States of America. Cult is a word that is often levelled by political leaders against religious movements. Generally when people think of cults they generally will think of such movements as the Peoples Temple of Jim Jones. The Branch Davidians at Waco Texas. Charles Manson and his Family. I hope to explore via this article series the alternate history potential that exists within a number of cults.
To start, I would like to use two quotes that I feel best define what a cult actually is.
Firstly, the Oxford Dictionary Defines a cult as “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.”
Secondly, The 2012 film 'The Master' includes the below conversation between a Cult Leader and an Interviewer that establishes the core ideas of a system of belief within a cult.
John More: You can understand scepticism, can you not?
Lancaster Dodd: Yes, oh yes yes. For without it we'd be positives and no negatives, therefore zero charge. We must have it.
John More: Good science by definition allows for more than one opinion, doesn't it?
Lancaster Dodd: Which is why our gathering of data is so far-reaching.
John More: Otherwise you merely have the will of one man. Which is the basis of cult.
Is it not?
The idea being that when we are not sceptical about what we're hearing, we are entirely beholden to the will of the person teaching. The movement I shall be discussing is that of Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh, and the particular effects this movement had on a small county in Oregon.
The Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh or Rajneesh was born as Chandra Mohan Jain and began his career in the 1960s, travelling around India. He was a vocal critic of the socialist tendencies of the government of India at the time, espousing a belief that Socialism, Anarchism or Communism could only arise when capitalism had reached its maturity. He eventually settled in Poona, in 1974 and set up his Ashram, or place of spiritual teaching. This Ashram attracted people from all over the world where his followers, “Neo Sannyasins” as they were called, came to learn. He espoused values including meditation, mindfulness practice, easy laughter and creativity. He also was a supporter of sexual liberation, allowing people to have sex with whom they chose and in what way, seeking to cast off the previous doctrines held by traditional religion.
The Ashram in Poona would serve as the home for Rajneesh between 1974 and 1981. His time at the Poona Ashram would be mired with controversy owing to a number of factors. Even while the attendance and visitors to the Ashram reached 30,000 per year, allegations of drug use and prostitution by many of the western Sanyasins stained the image of the Ashram. The Encounter Groups, which were therapy sessions were sexual acts and mutual aggressive behavior were supposed to occur were rumoured to have real, actual dangerous violence. Eventually, a new government in India would allege that Rajneesh owed the equivalent of five million dollars in back taxes. As such, the desire for a new location for the Ashram was found. This, along with the replacement of Rajneesh’s Secretary of 15 years, Ma Yoga Laaksmi, with Ma Anad Sheela, as well as Rajneesh ceasing his discourse for near 4 years, would set the stage for the events that would occur in Oregon.
The Rajneeshi Community would purchase a nearly 65,000 acre big muddy Ranch called Rajneeshpuram near the town of Antelope in Wasco County Oregon. At first relations with the neighboring town were peaceful as the local residents believed that the Rajneesh community was going to be establishing a self-sufficient agrarian community. However, tensions would mount once it was learned and seen that Rajneeshpuram had become a far more complex town. It had agricultural facilities, a fire department, shopping areas, schools, lawyers, doctors, residences and even a police force (called the peace force). Really everything a small town would need, including an airstrip. However, the town, having only been zoned for agricultural use, quickly became the site of controversy.
The Rajneeshi community would engage in a series of very back and forth legal battles, political issues and even an act of bioterrorism. Of note though is that a lot of debate exists about this period and if Rajneesh was responsible for what happened. During the time in Rajneeshpuram, Rajneesh had entered a meditative silence where he did not give discourse, but instead old discourses were played for followers. Ma Anad Sheela, his personal secretary, was given power of attorney over his affairs, and it was under her direction that Rajneeshpuram was alleged to have engaged in many of the actions.
Furthermore, Rajneesh was given nitrous oxide and valium by his personal physician, and is believed to have not been in the right mind during this. Furthermore, his personal writings reveal that Rajneesh was fearful of an atomic war during this time period.
The battles between the state of Oregon and the Rajneesh Community involved the effective takeover of the town of Antelope wherein the Rajneesh community effectively bought up all the land in the town, and even managed to outvote the local residents of the town when they tried to disincorporate themselves to stop from being taken over by the community. The Rajneesh Community also bussed in homeless people to help rig further elections. The pushback against the community came from both residents of
the area, Oregon government officials and Christian groups. Issues with the community arose because of the communities open practicing of nudity and free love and the widespread drug use that was common on it.
The Baghwan would also acquire a great personal wealth. Despite the fact that he told his followers to sell all belongings before moving to Rajneeshpuram, it was believed that Rajneesh had between 23 and 95 Rolls Royce cars. There was also internal strife in the community as Ma Anad Sheela attempted to have Rajneesh’s personal physician killed.
As tensions mounted, including the armament of Rajneeshpuram’s Peace Force with assault weapons and other, legally available but still unusually high powered, weapons, several seats opened up on the Wasco county board of supervisors. In order to get their own people elected, the Rajneesh Community poisoned local salad bar and salad dressings across the town of the Dalles with salmonella bacteria, grown in a lab on the premises. 751 people contracted Salmonella. While none died, nearly 50 were
hospitalized, and this remains the single largest bio-terror incident on US soil to this day.
In the end, the Rajneeshi’s still lost the election. This, as well as massive immigration and visa fraud with false marriages occurring, finally led to a split between Ma Anad Sheela and Rajneesh. With Sheela and her compatriots fleeing the country to Europe ahead of the FBI, Rajeesh broke his silence and denounced Sheela. At this point though, the Commune was under tense scrutiny, with the FBI raiding it often for documents, uncovering evidence of voter fraud, tax fraud, a massive wiretapping operation and other allegations. Rajneesh was arrested on a number of counts, and after spending a short time in prison, was deported back to India. After this point, the commune fell apart under an intense series of legal battles. As well, allegations of child abuse stalked the commune, with children being overexposed to sexual situations, drugs and alcohol.
Rajneesh would live until the 90s, and his movement continues as OSHO worldwide. The Alternate History Potential of the Rajneesh movement is at times difficult to gauge. One interesting and potentially disturbing chance is what if Rajneesh was right. If an atomic war had broken out, perhaps during the Able Archer 83 incident, Rajneeshpuram was located very far away from many nuclear targets. Even as the world burned, Rajnesh had created a self-sustaining, well organized commune and religious force with a lot of weapons. Such a force in an apocalyptic world would have been easy to forge and build a government of a sort.
The other possibility is what if the Rajneesh movement had been able to continue to take over Wasco county. Could we have ended up with members of an alternative religious movement or cult in the state senate? Or even the US Senate? While unlikely the possibility certainly cannot be ignored.
The legacy of Rajneesh remains mired in controversy. Was Rajneesh a cult leader planning for doomsday and feeding his followers drugs? Or was he mainly the puppet of another who engaged in bioterrorism? It is a question that will likely be debated for some time.
Zachary Lynn is the Author of Three Days in Yangon published by Sea Lion Press