Rajneeshpuram

Indian philosopher and mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had a vision: he would build a Utopian city from the ground up, starting with 64,000 acres of muddy ranchland in rural Oregon.

Purchased in 1981, this expanse was to become both a fully-functional urban center and a spiritual mecca for his followers from around the world.

puram city

For this plan to work Rajneesh and his red-clad devotees (known as “sannyasins”) needed autonomous authority with which to construct their paradise.

Circumventing local land use restrictions was not a problem so long as their city of Rajneeshpuram was incorporated, which would allow them to issue their own building permits. Fortunately for them, the main requirement for incorporation at the time was a population of 150 people, which they met easily by importing more followers.

puram nature walk
One of a series of pedestrian bridges in Rajneeshpuram

Funding flowed in to support construction from a global network of lucrative communes, as well as sannyasins who sold their earthly possessions and donated the proceeds toward the effort. These devotees were also taught that labor was a form of meditation, and willingly worked long hours to make Rajneeshpuram a reality.

puram dam power water treatment
Dam construction, power station and water treatment facility in Rajneeshpuram

With devoted laborers working to dam water, build power infrastructure, and construct buildings, a city quickly began to sprout from the soil.

puram a frames dorms hotel
A-frame houses, townhouses and 200-guest hotel in Rajneeshpuram
puram lake diving
Swimming station and diving platform in Krishnamurti Lake

They built a strip mall, a hotel, a discotheque, meditation center, post office, air strip, power station, recreation structures, and more.

puram farming
Farmland in Rajneeshpuram

Carefully cultivated farmland provided organic food sufficient to support the local population.

puram post office buddha hall
Rajneeshpuram, downtown post office and opening day celebration for Buddha Hall
puram mall cafe interior
Interior of Zorba Cafe & Club in Rajneeshpuram mall

Within a few years, the population jumped from hundreds to thousands and the city expanded to absorb newcomers. A mass transit system comprised of 85 school buses crisscrossed their modest new metropolis.

rajneesh drive by
Osho Rajneesh Drive-by in Rajneeshpuram by Samvado Gunnar Kossatz

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh himself, however, preferred to get around by car. He cruised the streets every day in one of his ninety-three Rolls Royces.

Having taking a vow of silence, he delegated the everyday operations of the city to a matriarchal council. His primary spokesperson was Ma Anand Sheela, a woman who took on increasing amounts of authority.

puram brochure excerpts
Rancho Rajneesh brochure excerpts

While nearby communities and environmentalists had concerns about Rajneeshpuram throughout its evolution, those worries grew as the Rajneeshee began to harass the neighboring town of Antelope. Various intimidation tactics were employed in an attempt to take over the Antelope city council. The Rajneeshee were ultimately successful, and the town of Antelope was renamed Rajneesh.

rajneesh jet
Convair 240 N314H of Air Rajneesh in 1987 by RuthAS

Responding to threats real or perceived, Rajneeshpuram authorities formed a police force—called the “Peace Force”—and began stockpiling weapons. The city even had two helicopter reconnaissance teams.

This escalation caused further concern and led state and county officials to stall construction in Rajneeshpuram and call the legality of its existence into question.

rajneesh tent city
A tent city at Rajneeshpuram, “The Ranch’s First Festival Year 1982” by Samvado Gunnar Kossatz

Rajneeshpuram responded with more growth. Through a program they called “Share-A-Home,” Rajneeshpuram began to bus in thousands of homeless people from around the country, offering them places to live. They also encouraged them to vote in local elections. It would later come out that these new residents were drugged with a powerful antipsychotic called Haldol. Many such recruits left soon after they arrived.

In an even more desperate bid to block locals from voting a group of sannyasins poisoned a local salad bar with salmonella. No one died but 750 people became sick. To this day the attack remains the largest act of bioterrorism on US soil. To this day the attack remains one of the largest act of bioterrorism on U.S. soil (see addendum).

Investigations began to unravel the city, one allegation at a time. Multiple attempted murders, forced sterilizations and the firebombing of the Wasco County Planning Department were tied to Rajneeshpuram. As new facts and accusations came to light, Sheela vanished and Rajneesh came forward in an attempt to deescalate tensions.

rajneesh lake
Krishnamurti Lake Dedication stone along road to Rajneeshpuram by TedQuackenbush

These efforts came too late. Rajneeshpuram was in a downward spiral, its disillusioned devotees leaving in droves.

Sheela fled and was tracked to West Germany then extradited to the United States and pled guilty to a series of serious charges. Today she lives in Switzerland and runs a series of nursing homes for the elderly and disabled.

Rajneesh was convicted of more minor offenses, was fined, put on probation and deported.

He returned to India and continued as a spiritual leader under the name Osho, dying less than a decade later of natural causes.

Rajneeshpuram was dissolved and its valuables auctioned off, including its founder’s collection of luxury cars. Its land and buildings now fall under county jurisdiction.

rajneesh young life
Campers play in the pool at a Young Life camp at Washington Family Ranch in central Oregon via Wikipedia

The meditation hall is now a sports complex and the old hotel a dormitory, all serving Young Life, a Christian teen camp. It remains a place for religious seekers, just not the kind who want to build a Utopia on Earth.

puram currency card

Advertisement for "Rajneesh Busters" t-shirts, circa 1981-1985, In Religion collection [manuscript], Mss 1517
Advertisement for “Rajneesh Busters” t-shirts, circa 1981-1985, In Religion collection [manuscript], Mss 1517, via the Oregon Historical Society #ba025241

Correction: The radio story says that the Rajneeshee poisoning of a nearby salad bar was the largest act of bioterrorism committed on U.S. soil; the largest acts of bioterrorism were the intentional transmissions of infectious disease by early American colonists to Native Americans, as with William Trent’s gifting of smallpox-laced blankets to two Native American chiefs visiting Fort Pitt in 1763. We regret the error.

Credits

Production

Reporters Chloe Prasinos and Steven Jackson spoke with reporter Milt Ritter; former Rajneeshpuram resident Ma Ananda Sarita and Wasco County planner Dan Durow. Lead image and additional images provided by Yogi unless otherwise noted.

Music

This episode features music from Humeysha. “Burma Between You and Me” is your new favorite song.

Comments (24)

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  1. Very interesting episode. My grandparents and some family friends were some of the victims of the salmonella poisoning in a restaurant in the city of The Dalles.

  2. Julio Cedano

    Great episode, shows the ways we can go around existing policies to create, in this case a small city that didn’t have a good end to it. What is the song midway of the podcast?

  3. J.M. Aileron

    What perfect symmetry that it’s now a Young Life site. Some things never change, they just get shined up for the next batch of willing sycophants.

  4. George

    Matt Groening used this guy and his organization/cult into an episode of The Simpsons called The Joy of Sect when the Simpson family falls under the spell of a charismatic leader who drives around in a Rolls Royce like this guy.

  5. Brian

    Great episode. I grew up in Portland during this time and heard about this as it unfolded on the radio news, but I was a kid and it’s nice to revisit what happened. In addition to those memories, this episode reminded me a of “The Mega Maharishi”–a local wrestler in the “heel” role who would don the red robes of Rajneeshpuram and rile up the crowd in the 80s:

  6. This episode was so fascinating to me, especially since I had just submitted a proposal for some potential work in the neighboring Sherman County. Going to be visiting this area tomorrow and hopefully more in the future.

  7. What was the song that was mentioned at the end of the podcast I can’t find it anywhere, or maybe I keep misspelling it?

  8. Sw. Prem Pravas

    I first arrived at Rajneeshpuram in August of 1984, shortly before the Share a Home program began. I was there for about three months in the fall of ’84. My last time at Rancho Rajneesh was October 1985, after Bhagwan’s middle-of-the-night attempted escape that landed him in a North Carolina jail wearing an orange jumpsuit (surprised you didn’t mention that) and shortly before it was all dissolved.

    Your account is fairly balanced, but like so many in the media, you focus on the big news story and mostly miss what this movement was really about. No, building a utopia wasn’t the big goal of the group. That was just another stop along the way.

    Yes, some of the people who had been around longer than I put their hearts and souls into it and were disappointed to see it all fall apart. But a popular joke among sanyassins was about someone who falls off a building and halfway to the ground says, “So far, so good.”

    It was about being spontaneous, overcoming the things that hold us back, and accepting life. As you mentioned, Bhagwan took ideas from all the religions as well as modern psychology and turned them into his own teachings. I benefited greatly from my time as a sanyassin. And I didn’t have to give up all of my personal belongings. Maybe some did that, but almost everyone I knew still had their stuff and their lives.

    I knew nothing about what was really going on with Sheela and her cronies, but most of us knew that things weren’t right at the top.

    Also, your story makes it sound like all or most of the homeless people brought in were drugged, but that was not what I saw. I worked with many of them on the farm and ate with them in the dining rooms. For some of them, their time at the ranch was a life-changing experience.

    Thanks for letting me relive those magical days a little bit with your mostly well done story. And thanks for posting the photos here. I still have my Rajneesh Currency Card, too.

    If you want to do a followup story on life at the ranch among those of us who weren’t involved in the criminal activity at the top, let me know. I’d be happy to share my perspective.

  9. Riddler

    Weird that you didn’t discuss that Young Life is either a cult, or right on the edge of being a cult. Your story made it sound like an innocent summer camp, when we all know it’s reputation is very different than that. I’m here for the often invisible truth, and don’t think it wise to gloss over the controversy surrounding this group. You don’t have to agree with it, but it at least is worth noting.

  10. Trevor Keen

    This cult camp was described by Christopher Hitchens in his book “God is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything”. It’s sad that ownership of the camp just seems to have been passed from one small cult to a much larger one. Couldn’t it just be a nice vacation resort?
    From Young Life’s Wikpedia page:
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  11. Anonymous

    This may be overly picky, but while it is certainly important to recognize the genocide and war crimes committed by European colonizers of the Americas, I think the addendum is not technically accurate. In 1763, the US did not exist, so it was on US soil. Again, certainly worth noting, and something that we do far to little in the US (especially compared Canada), so thank you for recognizing it, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say in North America…

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