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She(ela) seeks sanctuary

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Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (aka "Osho") before things went seriously downhill for the guru and his cult followers.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – “In the shadowy world of occultism it is often difficult to distinguish truth from hoax, to disentangle the true purpose from the tinsel ornaments and the bizarre trappings designed to hide it,” writes Jacques Vallée in his 1979 book Messengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults.

Vallée writes this in a chapter where he discusses seeking out the secretive, mystical Order of Melchizedek, which, when described, reminded me of a scene in the 2012 psychological thriller Sound of My Voice, which involves a “time-traveling cult leader in present-day Los Angeles who may or may not be who she claims to be.”

Vallée attends the cult meeting at a hotel in San Francisco where he is met by young people who are “intense, clean, with white shirts and long hair” and who are also deep into meditation. Having followed the “H.I.M.” flying saucer cult (which would morph into the infamous Heaven’s Gate suicide cult two decades later, led by Texas native Marshall Applewhite who saw the Hale-Bopp comet as a serious sign!), the French researcher and author is rather suspicious of the “Order” due to the “heavenly smiles” on the faces of the cult’s adherents.

“…I suddenly became suspicious of the entire group.I had seen the same smiles on the faces of so many believers who had found Perfect Bliss! At Zen meetings and Hare Krishna dances and meditations with gurus. I had observed the same vacuum in the eyes and on the lips of enraptured young men and young women, with what a French humorist has called ‘an idiotic air, relieved by occasional flashes of dullness’ ….

Interestingly, Vallée adds that his observations of this and similar cults seem to show the very same people who are “equally blissful” under the influence of many other gurus, mystics and masters. I am quite familiar with the lure of the guru and cult leader, having had family members trapped in the web of a few notorious cults in the past four decades.

So, it was quite coincidental that I happened to be reading Messengers of Deception while multi-media multitasking a viewing of the gripping new Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country about the drama that unfolded between 1981 and 1985 in north-central Oregon when followers of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh essentially took over the Wasco County hamlet of Antelope and turned the lives of the locals upside-down, as very dark and deadly things were hatched in the minds – and the “laboratory” on the Rancho Rajneesh property at Rajneeshpuram, essentially located outside the town limits of Antelope.

Yes, the locals were your run-of-the-mill, rural, conservative Christian folk who were shocked by the utter arrogance and obnoxiousness of the Rajneesh’s wild-eyed and sex-crazed sannyasins in their garish maroon and pink clothes. And then there was the “Rolls-Royce Guru”’s daily drive-bys, along with the road leading to the commune. Rajneeshism, as it was, seemed to be a precursor to the Christian "prosperity gospel" movement and spirituality having an overt, materialistic bent. This went over well with go-go 80's folks and yuppies looking for "enlightenment."

In fact, at the time, around the time of the 1984 presidential election that fall, I was getting politically involved, helping distribute signs and stickers and such for political candidates in Little Rock and Pulaski County, Arkansas, while also catching President Ronald Reagan make a campaign stop at Robinson Auditorium near Little Rock City Hall, where my dad worked. 

Around this same time, my political ideas and humor were being shaped by my all-time favorite comic strip - Berkeley Breathed's Bloom County.  A strip that ended in 1989 but is back - on Facebook!

In fact, my cartoonist pal Kelsey and I started our own political comic strips at that time (1984-85), Kelsey coming up with Scranton Village and I started Kimball Parish ("Kimball" an homage to the name of one of the hibernating astronauts aboard the U.S.S. Discovery in Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey - it was Arthur C. Clarke's novelization of the film that led me to become a writer). Kelsey incorporated a "cult" story line in Scranton Village which mirrored not only the Rajneesh cult but The Covenant, The Sword and The Arm of the Lord. In case you misse that one, the CSAL was a dangerous, far-right, Christian Identity survivalist cult in northern Arkansas (during Bill Clinton's reign as governor) that was eventually shut down peacefully by an FBI/ATF siege following a series of investigations into weapons violations and terrorist activity. This culty drama, taking place in our own state, caught our attention - and Kelsey went with it with amusing results.

In fact, the New Wave band Cabaret Voltaire named an album of theirs during this period The Covenant, The Sword, and The Arm of the Lord. It's actually pretty good!

Anyway, as the Rajneesh story gripped Oregon and the Pacific Northwest (a place where not much had happened, at least since the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helen's), I don't recall hearing a whole helluva lot about the cult in either the Arkansas Gazette (which carried Bloom County) or the Arkansas Democrat (which I was a carrier for - briefly). But I did get a lot of information about it via Bloom County and Bill and Opus's adventures there in the wilderness of Oregon. 

Well, that, and the Rajneeshees forceful attempts to take over the Antelope town council – and then the Wasco County commissioners. When their efforts were thwarted by committed pushback from Wasco County citizens, it is when things took a decidedly ugly turn, particularly under the leadership of the beautiful, menacing, brilliant and ruthless Ma Anand Sheela (aka Sheela Silverman, aka Sheela Ambalal Patel), a fellow Indian citizen and super-serious devotee of the Bhagwan who in Wild Wild Country comes off in the archive footage like a villain in a Bond film. Sheela was hated even more than the Bhagwan, it would seem, because of her merciless and cruel behavior and her dismissive behavior towards the Oregonians who were suspicious of her and the Bhagwan and their endgame.

As you learn in Wild Wild County, directed by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, the Gujarat, India native meets Bhagwan Rajneesh in India and tells of becoming transfixed by the guru. Interestingly, her parents were very supportive of their daughter joining him and his movement. Her father said she was to be with the Bhagwan. And she believed what her father said was true.

The Bhagwan saw potential with Sheela and made her the spokesperson for the Rajneesh movement and the leader of the Rajneeshpuram ashram that caused such an uproar in Wasco County over a four year period. That was until the bioterror attacks on salad bars in the nearby city of The Dalles, mysterious fires and planned assassinations, including a plot to kill federal prosecutor Charles Turner. And then there were the immigration issues, high-power rifles and other weapons, giving the commune a feeling of a community under siege. And then there was the outrageous scheme that led hundreds of homeless people - lured by the cultists - to Rajneeshpuram in an attempt to get the homeless men and women to become voters in Wasco County and tip the vote in the Bhagwan's favor. When it did not work and Sheela was nearly strangled to death by a mentally-ill homeless-man-turned-Rajneesh-dupe, the homeless were told to leave, causing further chaos and bad publicity for the Bhagwan.

Sheela stuck with Rajneesh at least until local, state and federal authorities began a serious investigation into alleged criminal activity involving the Rajneeshees. It was then that Sheela and her close confidants fled and sought sanctuary in Europe, hoping to avoid prosecution, with Bhagwan furious about it, blaming everything on Sheela, a woman who had few friends at this point. But the Feds always get their man - or woman, in this case. She would spend time in prison in Oregon before returning to Europe after spending nearly 30 months behind bars for her role in those crimes.

As the song goes: Everybody wants to rule the world! (Netflix)

As longtime reporter Jim Popkin, writing at The Huffington Post last month, noted – having covered the Rajneesh cult at the time – “On the surface a happy place with a “Zen Connection” bus terminal, “Zorba the Buddha Rajneesh Deli” and something called “Nirvana Grove,” Oregon’s Rancho Rajneesh metastasized into a dangerous organized crime ring. As Rajneesh indulged a fetish for diamond-studded watches and a caravan of Rolls-Royces, his hand-picked goon squad went to war with local detractors. Commune leaders sprayed salmonella on salad bars in a nearby town, poisoning at least 700 people in the largest bioterror attack in U.S. history. They plotted the assassination of the U.S. attorney for Oregon. And they organized countless fraudulent marriages to harbor foreign-born Rajneeshees, followers of the religion, in the U.S.

This outrageous yet underreported episode of American history is finally getting its due.”

And yet, as Popkin notes, Wild Wild Country leaves a lot of questions unanswered. What motivated a lot of the people involved in the cult? Why don't we know more about the woman doctor who allegedly cultivated the salmonella to poison citizens in The Dalles? What about all the people who were left at Rajneeshpuram after the federal raids and eventual arrest of Bhagwan Rajneesh? What happened to them? We learn about Rajneesh's late-in-life transformation into Osho and how his books continue to sell well worldwide, inspiring new generations of people to embrace the teachings of a man whose role in the Oregon scandal is utterly whitewashed. And we should note that Rajneesh/Osho died in January 1990. 

Again, the followers of the Bhagwan are a lot like the way Jacques Vallee described the cultists he reported on in the 1970's. Wide-eyed. Utterly devoted. I'm sure there is more to it than that, of course, but we only have what we see on the screen to go by.

The Way brothers do a great job putting together old film footage and allow the key, living figures involved in the cult to tell their stories. But Popkin says that people like Sheela - now an elderly woman living in Switzerland who runs a couple of nursing homes and seems to have mended her ways (while not seeming at all apologetic about her role in this story) - are allowed to not be challenged, thereby giving the doc a he-said-she-said feel and allowing the viewer to make up their own mind. 

And while the Antelope townspeople are allowed to tell their stories and are sympathetic characters, the Rajneesh crowd is also featured in this way, and maybe that is for the best. 

I urge Red Dirt Report readers to learn more about Wild Wild Country and the Rajneesh cultists in Christopher Knowles' recently-posted Secret Sun blog piece "Wild, Wild Country or the Kingdom of the Cults." Knowles really has a finger on the pulse of the seeming return to an era when cults are getting serious attention again, from the shocking tales related to the NXIVM sex cult and Quentin Tarantino's next film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is said to be examining the 1969 Manson murders. It seems as if history is sort of repeating itself. We are in a very troubled time - planetwide - and I think more and more people are searching for "answers." But are they asking the right questions?

From Wild Wild Country (Netflix).

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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