In 1981, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a spiritual leader from India, and thousands of his disciples moved to Wasco and Jefferson counties. On what had been the Big Muddy Ranch, the “sannyasins” set out to build a new city, a utopian community in the desert — Rajneeshpuram.
Thousands of people from around the world gathered here to celebrate life. They worked hard and transformed the landscape. And more than a few hoped to spend the rest of their days at this place. But by 1986, they were gone.
“If you live in the country you kinda like the country to remain the way it is,” said Bernie Smith, a former Wasco County District Attorney.
Many of the Rajneeshees came from overseas, and most from urban backgrounds. They were vegetarians, now living among ranch people and small-town retirees in Central Oregon cattle country. The two cultures were foreign to each other and ultimately they clashed.
“I think there were a lot of masters and maybe doctor’s degrees out there. It didn’t mean they had any horse sense. They were pretty illogical about a lot of things,” said Margaret Hill, former mayor of nearby Antelope, Oregon.
As the Rajneeshee planners began to slog their way through the rules and regulations of local government, problems arose. As the new people encountered the slow-grinding wheels of bureaucracy — building codes, zoning restrictions and other land-use regulations — the sannyasins’ patience grew thin. Confrontation and rude behavior followed.
The Rajneeshees took over the town of Antelope. Their leadership declared the local people to be bigoted and threatening. And Bhagwan’s open disdain for Christianity did not play well in the new conservative, Christian environment.
“At some point, people stopped talking and they just started screaming. Nothing is going to get done in that environment, and nothing got done,” said former news videographer Milt Ritter.
In the span of four-and-a-half years, Bhagwan’s people invested more than $50 million in Rancho Rajneesh. They made substantial improvements to the land. Many found real joy in being close to their spiritual master and part of the Rajneeshpuram community, but they ultimately walked away from it all.
Twenty-five sannyasins were convicted of crimes ranging from arson and wiretapping to immigration fraud, election fraud and attempted murder. Ten served time in prison.
At the end of it all, Wasco County Judge Bill Hulse predicted (correctly) that somebody would write a book about what had happened there: “The people who read that book,” he said, “will think it’s fiction.”
Kirk Braun, Rajneeshpuram: The Unwelcome Society
Max Brecher, A Passage to America
e-book: http://maxbrechersbookstobuy.com/, 1993, revised and updated 2013
Devananda Day, Revise Priorities Ahead! Life on a Spiritual Path
A Reporter at Large: Rajneeshpuram I, Rajneeshpuram II, by Frances Fitzgerald
The New Yorker, Sept. 22, 1986; Sept. 29, 1986
Utopia and Bureaucracy: The Fall of Rajneeshpuram, by Carl Abbott
Oregon Pacific Historical Review, 1990
Averting Apocalypse at Rajneeshpuram by Marion S. Goldman
Department of Sociology, 1291 University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403
Second-Chance Family by Marion S. Goldman
Oregon Humanities magazine, Summer 2011
Broadcast Date: Nov. 19, 2012