Recently, I watched the Netflix documentary "Wild, Wild Country", which covered the cult of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and the community he built in Oregon. It started out as a community of people following the Sannyasin Hindu religion under the guidance of Bhagwan but soon developed into power-hungry people who wanted to take over the Oregon, the country, and the world. It got me thinking: how does this happen?
Now, if we look at Bhagwan's history, we can see that he was inevitably going to develop into the malicious cult leaders we all know, such as Jim Jones and Charles Manson. After he experienced an "intense spiritual awakening" at age 21, he began referring to himself in extraordinary ways, calling himself "the messiah America has been waiting for". It is quite obvious what a dangerous character he is, yet he still racked up thousands of followers who moved with him to Oregon and more that were devoted all over the world.
Bhagwan taught dynamic meditation and was a proponent of free love and capitalism. He wanted to bring a new level of consciousness to the Western world, and as all his followers began practicing his spiritual techniques and following his philosophy. They were happy, carefree, and entirely devoted to Bhagwan.
When the Rajneeshees moved to America, I don't think it was entirely a cult level following. More like a community of people who believe and practice the same religion. They had a vision of a self-sustaining, ideal utopia and sought to create that in the valleys of Oregon. The natives of Antelope, Oregon were not accepting of the Rajneesh way of life from the start. They viewed the group as intruders looking to take Antelope from them, which is not how it started. They believed they were evil, without actually knowing anything about the religion and their way of life.
Although Bhagwan was always a dangerous figure to be so devoted to, I believe the people of Wasco County, Oregon pushed the Rajneeshees to reach the violent status they eventually did. The town tried to push them out, and because Bhagwan's primary secretary was Ma Anand Sheela, who was very resilient and did not quit, they began buying buildings in Antelope and converting them to Rajneeshee businesses. This is where Sheela and Bhagwan became extremely power-hungry, and they were willing to do anything to get it.
In 1983, the Hotel Rajneesh in Portland was bombed, pushing the Rajneeshees further into cult territory. Of course, the community wanted to be able to defend themselves, so they bought a huge collections of automatic weapons and, taking it too far, had shooters practicing day and night. They wanted to be intimidating to the surrounding population since they initially were so unwelcome to the point of violence.
As time went on, Sheela and Bhagwan become very overbearing. Sheela was a controversial political figure and made it clear the Rajneeshees were trying to take over the county, especially when they successfully voted to change the name of Antelope to Rajneeshpuram. At this point in time, the Rajneeshees can be considered a dangerous cult that is a threat to the population, causing law enforcement to officially step in.
Up until the deportation of Bhagwan and the end of the Oregonian sect of Rajneesh, the high-ranking members of the group committed multiple crimes, including poisoning, immigration fraud, and attempted murder. They became so entranced by Bhagwan and legitimately did everything he asked for and more. It was no longer about the spirituality and making the world a better place; it was about power and influence.
Only a handful of their followers truly knew where it was going. Up until the end, I think Sheela thought she was doing what was best for Bhagwan, even if it wasn't the best morally. She thought the sacrifice was worth it, and pairing that with her fiery personality, it was all taken too far.
I think the Rajneesh movement could have done great things for America if it was not taken to the point it was taken to. Maybe, if the surrounding community was more accepting and allowed them to live as they pleased, they might have been able to peacefully coexist. Or maybe, Bhagwan and Sheela would have always been obsessed with expanding their influence and control. We'll certainly never know.
Bhagwan and how followers did a litany of terrible things, but the same cannot be said about the Sannaysin religion. Being open-minded when it comes to spirituality and different ways of life is important, but also being aware of what a person or group's true intention is just as essential.