Episode 12 - God vs. The Universe
This is the Building Utopia podcast. We’re taking a deep dive into the creation — and implosion — of the communities that formed around the charismatic leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
Frances Fitzgerald had seen a lot of unusual things while she was reporting on Rajneeshpuram, but this had to be toward the top of the list. She was interviewing a Rajneeshee man at the ranch, sitting in a lounge talking over a couple beers, when he suddenly stood up, gathered some other disciples who were there, and made them kneel on the ground, facing one particular direction. The man started chanting something in Sanskrit. The same words that were etched on the marble slab greeting commune visitors, which translated to: I go to the feet of the Awakened One. I go to the feet of the commune of the Awakened One. I go to the feet of the ultimate truth of the Awakened One.
It was… a religious prayer. Frances Fitzgerald had already spent a significant amount of time with the Rajneeshees, and she’d never seen anything like this. She wrote for the New Yorker magazine, and she’d won the Pulitzer Prize for her book on the Vietnam War. Now she was tackling the Rajneeshees in Oregon. And just days earlier, sannyasins up and down the hierarchy had told her that the Rajneeshees had no religious practices at all. This was in line with Bhagwan’s teachings. Back in India, when he was still speaking publicly, he had called religion a form of “mental slavery,” an attempt by unenlightened people to manipulate and control others. And he had told his followers that his teachings were so revolutionary, so contradictory, that they could never be transformed into a religion.
And yet two years after arriving in America, right before Frances Fitzgerald’s eyes, Bhagwan’s spiritual movement was taking on the trappings of an organized religion. Everyone at the ranch was now required to stop what they were doing at sunrise and sunset, kneel in the direction of their Enlightened Master, wherever he may be, and chant a prayer to him. Dozens of sannyasins were named ministers in the Church of Rajneeshism. Sheela started wearing red robes at public functions, holding herself out as some kind of pope. And just a couple months after the prayers started, they published a tiny red book that can only be described as a bible.
Becoming a religion seemed to be the antithesis of Bhagwan’s teachings over the past decade. So what brought about this change, which, at least from an outsider’s perspective, seemed to happen overnight? And could Bhagwan or Sheela have anticipated that by styling themselves as a religion, they were falling into a legal trap that would ultimately destroy Rajneeshpuram?
Stick with us.
Part 1 - Becoming a Religion
Religion had been one of Bhagwan’s favorite topics during his daily, two-hour lectures at the ashram in Poona, India. He was truly a scholar of the various religious traditions, and he spent hundreds — maybe thousands — of hours expounding on organized religion, spirituality, and how he fit into it all. He posed two separate concepts: “religion” and “religiousness.” Religiousness existed only in the presence of a living master. For example, when Jesus Christ was alive, Bhagwan said that people could feel his energy and know in their hearts that he was an enlightened being. He called it a “love affair” between a living master and his disciples. That same feeling of “religiousness” existed during the lives of other masters, like Buddha, Krishna, Zarathustra, and Lao Tzu.
But when those enlightened masters died, Bhagwan told his followers that their religiousness had died with them. What followed was religion: an artificial institution created by regular people to convert that transcendent experience of religiousness into dogma and rules, used to control people. Bhagwan called religion “the corpse of religiousness” — it might look like a living thing, but it had been dead for as long as the enlightened master.
So how did Bhagwan fit in this system? Well, as we’ve already discussed, he held himself up as no different than masters like Jesus or Buddha. By being in his presence, his disciples could feel that emotional connection to him as a living master, they could take in his religiousness. But some day… Bhagwan would die, whether he liked it or not. And what would happen then? Would his disciples create a religion in his name, a “corpse” of his religiousness? Not if he had any say over it. By the time he stopped speaking publicly in May 1981, Bhagwan had made his wishes clear: there would be no such thing as Rajneeshism. Ever. He didn’t want it, and in fact, he said it would be impossible. His teachings were too contradictory, too fluid to be converted into the structure of a religion. As he put it, “Anybody trying to make a creed or dogma out of my words will go nuts!”
But that’s not to say the Rajneeshees didn’t use religion when it was convenient. The Rajneesh Foundation International was the American entity that oversaw all of Bhagwan’s empire, with Sheela as its President. Its incorporation papers describe the foundation’s purpose as spreading Bhagwan’s religious teachings, which would enable people to achieve a state of religiousness. And the founding document of the city of Rajneeshpuram, the comprehensive plan, is littered with religious language. Early on, it says “The purpose of the commune is that of a religious community whose life is, in every respect, guided by the religious teachings of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.”
So, the specter of religion was always there, even from the beginning in America. And yet, if you had polled the hundreds of sannyasins living at the ranch in its first year or two, the majority most likely would have told you that Rajneeshism was not an organized religion. Bhagwan had made that crystal clear when he was still speaking.
So what happened in the two years between Bhagwan’s arrival in America in 1981 and 1983, the year that his disciples were suddenly praying in the direction of his physical body twice a day?
Recall that just months after Bhagwan arrived in Oregon, he had applied with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to become a permanent resident alien. As we discussed a couple episodes ago, he asked for special preference based on his status as a religious leader. At his interview with the INS the following year, Bhagwan used the same framework he had used in India to describe his quote “religion.” There were all the traditional religions, and then there was his movement, a new kind of religion as he put it, one that didn’t require churches, or commandments, or any particular beliefs. It didn’t even require God. His followers just needed to be willing to explore their own consciousness.. and to love Bhagwan.
You might see the problem here… Bhagwan was trying to use the word “religion” in his favor, but at the same time he said his movement was nothing like a religion. The INS examiner pressed him on this, and that may explain what came next. Bhagwan testified that he had already deputized 30 disciples, including Sheela, as a sort of “clergy,” who could induct new members into the fold through the sannyas ritual. He said that all 30 disciples were themselves enlightened… although he later clarified that there was one exception: SHEELA. She hadn’t quite hit the mark yet.
Next, the INS examiner interviewed Sheela, and he mentioned Bhagwan’s statement on the 30 clergy members and asked her for more detail. She could not provide any additional detail, instead essentially waving her hands and promising to send more information later. Based on my research, it’s not clear that there were 30 clergy members at the time Bhagwan said it was so, or that the Rajneeshees had done anything to formalize this so-called “new religion” that Bhagwan supposedly led.
Nonetheless, this line of questioning from the INS certainly caught the Rajneeshees’ attention. If the INS did not believe that Bhagwan led an actual religion, they’d never let him stay. Indeed, a few months later the INS DID deny Bhagwan’s application for permanent residence. Due to a procedural error, they reopened the case in January 1983 — giving the Rajneeshees a golden opportunity to muster the evidence to prove that Rajneeshism was real, and that Bhagwan was its leader.
On the morning of March 23, 1983, Sheela climbed the stairs to the dais overlooking… the Oregon Senate. [Audio of invocation] It was tradition at the Oregon legislature to open each daily session with a prayer — typically led by mainstream Christian clergy. But a delegation of Rajneeshees had appeared at the office of Senate president Ed Fadeley in early 1983, requesting that Sheela be allowed to give an invocation on behalf of the Church of Rajneeshism. And they asked to do it on a particular date in March — a date that just happened to coincide with a court hearing on Bhagwan’s immigration case. Ed Fadeley saw this as an effort to gin up PR for Bhagwan’s plight. But as a compromise he scheduled the first ever Rajneeshee invocation for a couple days after the hearing. Once he said yes, Fadeley received a string of requests from the Rajneeshees: they wanted to bring musical instruments into the senate chamber, they wanted to have disciples singing from the gallery, they wanted to put up a photograph of Bhagwan behind Sheela. He denied all these requests except for one: he allowed the Rajneeshees to pass out boxes of champagne truffles to Senators on the floor, which the legislators called “Bhagwan’s bon-bons.”
Before Sheela started her prayer, she presented Ed Fadeley with a wreath of leaves and flowers grown in the Rajneeshpuram greenhouse. Then she quoted from Bhagwan’s teachings, speaking on the theme of love. With her arms stretched wide, raised to the roof, Sheela gave the Rajneeshee invocation.
She followed this up about a week later with a similar invocation at the Oregon House of Representatives. The gallery was packed with disciples, journalists, lobbyists, and public officials who all wanted to see Sheela in action. But when it came time to call the House to order, so many legislators had boycotted the invocation that the Speaker couldn’t muster a quorum. A couple representatives were finally persuaded to enter the chamber so the proceedings could begin, but they walked out again as soon as Sheela started talking. Some legislators later called the invocation “an act of political mischief rather than an act of reverence,” and worried that they were “lending credence and publicity to a personality cult.”
Two months after that, the praying to Bhagwan started — the very same prayer that Sheela had intoned at the Oregon legislature. And just one month later, during the Second World Celebration at Rajneeshpuram in July, Sheela announced to the thousands of disciples in attendance that Bhagwan would be publishing his Bible, Rajneeshism: An Introduction to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his Religion. She told the disciples: “This is the first time that an Enlightened Master has put his religion into book form. It is the first time that it has happened while the Master is still alive.”
According to one of Sheela’s top lieutenants, Bhagwan dictated his Bible to Sheela over a series of evenings, and he ordered that it be bound with a bright red cover. I got my hands on an existing copy of Rajneeshism, and it’s strange little book. It actually looks more like a pamphlet, something a Jehovah’s Witness might hand you on the subway. In substance it’s about 60 pages long, printed in a very large, somewhat—Middle-Eastern-looking typeface.
Perhaps the most interesting section is called “Why Now?” It’s an obvious effort by the Rajneeshees to get ahead of the glaring question that the INS was considering: why would a guy who so opposed organized religions now be forming one of his own? The answer in Rajneeshism doesn’t really address Why Now — it just attempts to explain WHY. Since ALL enlightened masters had religions form around them when they died, Bhagwan had decided to seize control of the process while he was still alive. This would allow him to guide his disciples in formalizing the doctrine and ensuring that it’s in line with his teachings. As to why it suddenly became so urgent that he do this in 1983, 30 years after his enlightenment — that question is never answered.
It’s pretty clever the way the Rajneeshees set this up, this distinction between religions created after a master died and Bhagwan’s living religion. Nobody could accuse him of being a hypocrite for now assuming the mantle of religion. He could keep bashing every other organized religion as false corpses of religiousness, because, as a living master, his religion was different. An editorial in the Rajneesh Times newspaper even took it a step further: “Ours is the only religion, the first religion in the history of the world. All the others are just premature experiments which have failed. And we are not going to fail.”
The religious pomp and circumstance only increased over the next year. When making public appearances, Sheela would wear a new costume, one that Bhagwan had allegedly designed himself — silky red robes with the Rajneeshpuram logo embroidered on the front, a pearl or diamond mala necklace, and a red scarf affixed to her hair and trailing down her back. Perhaps fulfilling Bhagwan’s testimony from the prior year, dozens of commune members were now formally named to the priesthood, which was divided into three categories based on whether the priest’s energy was introverted, extroverted, or both. These clergy members were allowed to preside over ceremonies that were spelled out in the Rajneeshism book, like marriages, funerals, and births. For example, it said that a Rajneeshee birth should take place in a homely room with quiet music and candlelight. In a turn that probably would have shocked disciples back in rowdy Poona, it says that the “husband” should be present for the birth, along with a church minister.
Just two years earlier, Bhagwan had declared that it would be impossible for his movement to be a religion. And now he had produced a set of doctrines that governed every moment of a sannyasin’s life, from birth to death.
So how did the lay disciples react to the news that their quirky, hard-to-pin-down movement was now being structured as a religion? Frances Fitzgerald was on the ground during the early months of Rajneeshism, and she reports that there wasn’t much celebration going on. After all, many disciples had come to Bhagwan specifically because he was NOT a religion — he was an iconoclastic, free-wheeling guru who made fun of all that stuff. Even some of the disciples who had been named to the clergy seemed bemused by it — they had no idea what their new titles meant, or what they were supposed to do.
But even if they didn’t like this new religion idea, what were the disciples supposed to do? As with anything else at Rajneeshpuram, they had to surrender to Bhagwan, to Sheela, to the commune. If they spoke out or refused to participate in this so-called religion, they might be punished with a hard labor assignment, or worse, exiled from the commune. So they went along with it, praying toward Bhagwan twice a day, attending religious ceremonies on the ranch, and acting like it all meant something.
So what was really going on here with this religion? The obvious answer — the one that many Oregonians suspected all along — was it was fueled by Bhagwan’s immigration case. The INS questioning in late 1982, their initial denial of his petition a few months later — that must have sparked a drive to build a record leaving no question that Bhagwan was a religious leader who deserved preferential treatment under the law. Ranch insiders, like Shanti Bhadra and Mayor Krishna Deva, have confirmed that the immigration case lit the fuse that launched Rajneeshism.
But there may have been other factors that helped shape it into something so formal. For example, there was Bhagwan’s health. Although the Rajneeshees claimed that the Oregon climate was having a terrific effect on his asthma and his allergies — Bhagwan was obviously frail. That old man driving around the ranch each day, with the long white beard and deep-set wrinkles — was only 51 years old in 1983. He looked at least a decade older, if not two. As they spent years toiling in the sun, laying this massive foundation for Bhagwan’s commune, the disciples were surely asking themselves the existential question that Bhagwan himself had posed back in Poona — what would happen to his movement after he died? After everything they had built, with all this momentum — were they really going to just abandon Rajneeshpuram?
Frances Fitzgerald had asked a number of disciples this very question before the implementation of Rajneeshism, and the typical answer was that they would all just leave. Without the master there was no movement. As Fitzgerald put it, the Rajneeshees thus seemed to be building an expensive, soon-to-be ghost town in the Oregon desert.
The advent of Rajneeshism in 1983 was a reversal — proof that Bhagwan and his disciples were looking at a future beyond the master’s life. He created the Academy of Rajneeshism as the permanent institution backing his dozens of priests. He granted them the power to induct new disciples into the movement, independent of any authority from Bhagwan — and they would continue to do so after he died. For the first time, it seemed that the Rajneeshees envisioned a post-Bhagwan future.
Interestingly, this fits into a pattern first observed by the twentieth century sociologist Max Weber. He wrote that charismatic leaders — leaders whose authority comes from the belief that they have superhuman abilities — are often faced with the same dilemma as Bhagwan and his disciples. When the charismatic leader dies, technically their authority dies with them, since it’s all about their unique powers and the faith that people put in them. But Weber noted that charismatic authority could be preserved by transforming it into something more institutionalized, either during the leader’s life or after their death.
Weber called this “routinizing charisma” — the process of creating a structure to perpetuate charismatic authority after the leader is gone. Through this lens, Rajneeshism can be understood as not just a religion created for immigration purposes, but as a a way to ensure that Bhagwan’s movement would live on after his death. If they could build a strong institution while he was still alive, Bhagwan and his disciples could ensure that the personal sacrifice, the hard work out in the desert, the financial investment, would continue to mean something even after he was gone.
What I find most fascinating about Weber’s framework is that Bhagwan addressed it himself in the 1970s. He didn’t reference Weber specifically, but remember all his talk about how religions were corpses of religiousness? That was Bhagwan essentially bashing the idea of routinizing charisma. He believed that charismatic authority — religiousness — existed only during the master’s life. Any effort to institutionalize that authority — like by creating a religion — was a fraud. At least, that’s what he believed in the 70s.
Fast forward to 1983, when Bhagwan fell in line with so many other charismatic movements: he tried to transfer the mystical, ephemeral power he held over his disciples into a bureaucracy. His reasons for doing so were probably complex: his immigration case, his shaky health, the massive investment they had made in Oregon, perhaps some pressure from young, vibrant Sheela. But regardless, by 1983, Bhagwan had decided that it seemed prudent to institutionalize his charisma — essentially bottling it up for future use.
But there’s there’s another factor that may have led to Rajneeshism becoming so formalized. This theory comes courtesy of Mayor Krishna Deva, who shared it with law enforcement as the ranch was collapsing amidst scandal and criminal allegations.
According to KD, when Sheela gave her religious invocations at the Oregon legislature in March 1983, it didn’t make a big enough splash for her tastes. She asked KD to arrange for her to give a similar invocation before the United States Senate. He traveled to Washington, D.C. and spoke with the chaplains at the Capitol. But before they would even consider the request, they informed KD that he’d need to provide some documentation about this “new religion” they had never heard of. At the time, the Rajneeshees hadn’t printed anything about Rajneeshism -- it was just an idea. KD passed their request on to Sheela, who then went to Bhagwan. Together, they decided to formalize their new religion, which they would call Rajneeshism, and they’d write a book that would become the religious testament.
As KD tells it, Sheela’s desire to give an invocation on the floor of the United States Senate was the driving factor that led to Rajneeshism becoming so formalized. The Rajneesh bible with its ceremonies and prayers and categories of priesthood — it was intended as much for the Senate chaplains as it was for anyone.
Sheela never got her invocation before the U.S. Senate, but she did stand on the steps of a federal building in Portland on August 4, 1983 and chant the words again, surrounded by microphones and cameras. She was joined by 35 disciples and a team of Rajneesh lawyers, who were delivering to the INS a stack of documents more than two feet high. This was the rebuttal evidence to the original INS decision — their evidence that Bhagwan was indeed a religious leader.
Over the preceding eight months, the Rajneeshees had done what they could to head off whatever concerns the INS might have about Rajneeshism as a religion. And six months later, it paid off: the INS recognized Bhagwan as a religious leader, which entitled him to preferential treatment.
But while they were donning their pope robes and dashing off copies of their bible, the Rajneeshees may not have been aware of a new menace watching them from the state capital, paying close attention to this new focus on religion. The Oregon Attorney General, Dave Frohnmayer, was poised to pounce.
Stick with us.
Part 2 - God vs. The Universe
Dave Frohnmayer was the very smart, very sophisticated Attorney General for the state of Oregon. Harvard undergrad, Rhodes Scholar, Boalt Hall law school, former state legislator. He’d been attorney general since 1981, but he didn’t have much to do with the Rajneeshees in their first couple years. That changed in the summer of ’83, in the midst of the Rajneeshees’ efforts to establish their religion. An Oregon state legislator wrote to the Attorney General asking for his legal opinion on a series of questions about a hypothetical city that sounded identical to Rajneeshpuram.
The main question boiled down to this: Can the state of Oregon give public funds to a city that has very close ties to a religion? Or would doing so violate the constitutional separation between church and state?
It took Dave Frohnmayer’s office six months to research these questions and issue a 60-page opinion. It stated, point blank, that not only was it unconstitutional to give state funds to a city like Rajneeshpuram, but the very existence of the city was unconstitutional. At a packed press conference in October 1983, the Attorney General made clear that the opinion was not some abstract hypothetical, but was indeed targeted at Bhagwan and his followers. He declared that his office would soon determine the appropriate legal mechanism to enforce this opinion against Rajneeshpuram.
It was devastating for the Rajneeshees. If Frohnmayer could get a court to agree with him, if the incorporation of Rajneeshpuram were voided, they would have to tear down nearly everything they had built on their ranch — tens of millions of dollars of investments. Remember, the only reason they could develop as much as they did on their rural property is because incorporating Rajneeshpuram had given them an urban growth boundary. If that disappeared, they’d go back to being zoned as Wasco County agricultural land — no place for a hotel, cafeterias, housing, a meditation university — and, oh yeah, thousands of residents. The Attorney General’s opinion, and the anticipated litigation, posed the greatest existential threat to the new commune since the Rajneeshees arrived in Oregon.
When asked for comment about Frohnmayer’s opinion, the Oregon legislator who had originally requested it said, “I believe this is the beginning of the end of Rajneeshpuram.”
He was right.
The very first words of the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution are about religion. It’s known as the establishment clause, and it essentially says that the government shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion. This clause, and a similar provision in the Oregon constitution, were the focus of the Attorney General’s opinion. He found that the mere existence of a city like Rajneeshpuram violated the Establishment Clause.
To understand the Attorney General’s opinion, we need to explore the structure of Rajneeshpuram. Picture four boxes, one on top of the other. The very top box we’ll call the church. It’s really the Rajneesh Foundation International — the grand-daddy of the Rajneesh organization in America — a tax-exempt, nonprofit, unabashedly religious organization run by Sheela. The box just below that we’ll call the investment corporation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of church above it. The investment corporation was run by Sheela’s husband, the New York banker Jayananda, and it owned the Big Muddy Ranch. The third box is the commune, another religious organization that essentially operated everything at the ranch — the businesses, the housing, the cafeterias, the transportation system. The commune leased all the property on the ranch from the investment corporation. The fourth and bottom box is the City of Rajneeshpuram — a public, municipal corporation that occupied a tiny fraction of the ranch.
To tie this all together, moving up our four boxes: The city subleased its property from the commune, which leased the entire ranch from the investment corporation, which was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the church at the top.
The ultimate question posed in the Attorney General’s opinion is: if the state gives public funds to the city, at the bottom of this chart we’ve constructed, isn’t that money exclusively benefiting the church, at the top? And if so, does that violate the Establishment Clause, the separation between church and state?
It wasn’t just this organizational structure that led the Attorney General to conclude that the state could not give money to Rajneeshpuram. All of these entities were totally enmeshed with each other, making them virtually indistinguishable from the church. You can see this by just looking at the people on the top. Sheela was president of the church, and on the board of directors for both the investment corporation and the commune. Her husband Jayananda was president of the investment corporation, a senior executive in the commune, and for a time was the police chief of the city of Rajneeshpuram. Krishna Deva was the city mayor, the general manager of the commune, and an official spokesperson for the church. And every person who served in an official capacity in any of these entities was a Rajneeshee.
Another factor was that Sheela had the sole authority to decide who could live in Rajneeshpuram, and she restricted it to church members. Think for moment about how odd that is. If I wanted to live in, say, Portland, I could just buy property there. I wouldn’t need to ask say, the Catholic Archbishop, for permission. But if I wanted to live in Rajneeshpuram, I would have to get permission from Sheela, the Pope of Rajneeshism — a person who, technically speaking, had nothing to do with the city of Rajneeshpuram. She held no public office, wasn’t a city employee. And even if Sheela did give me approval to move in, there was no property for me to buy — it was all owned by the investment corporation, and leased by the commune. The best I could do is live in communal housing, operated by a religious entity.
The fact that one entity owned all the property perhaps created the largest problem for the Rajneeshees. They tried to analogize their situation to Mormons in Salt Lake City, or Catholics in Boston — where there was an undeniable religious presence in those cities, including in the government. But the difference is that the Mormon Church, for example, doesn’t own all the property in Salt Lake City. Private owners do, who might be Mormon, or they might not.
Based on all these factors, the Attorney General determined that any state money going to Rajneeshpuram did not benefit the public, but only benefited the Church. And all these entanglements between church and state made the very existence of Rajneeshpuram unconstitutional.
One month after issuing his opinion, Dave Frohnmayer filed suit, in a case called State of Oregon versus The City of Rajneeshpuram. The complaint asked the court to declare that Rajneeshpuram was not a legitimate city, that the State of Oregon need not give it any state funds, and that the city’s incorporation be declared null and void.
Again, you have to take a step back to realize how truly remarkable this lawsuit was. The State of Oregon was asking a court to wipe one of its cities off the map — a city that, in late 1983, had more than 1,000 residents.
The Rajneeshees threw all their legal firepower at defeating this lawsuit. Among their various arguments, they pointed at the second clause of the first amendment to the constitution: the clause stating that the government shouldn’t prohibit the free exercise of religion. It was an argument the Rajneeshees used in many of their fights in Oregon — they were religious minorities, the victims of bigotry and discrimination. The attorney general responded that they could keep practicing their religion however and wherever they wanted — they just couldn’t own a city and expect to receive government benefits.
The Rajneeshees really had only one legal victory along the way. Early on, they successfully transferred the case from state court, where the Attorney General had filed it, to federal court. Defendants often do this because they think they’ll get better treatment in federal court — where the judges are appointed to life terms by the U.S. president — versus state court where judges are often elected for terms, and perhaps more susceptible to local pressures. The Attorney General clearly wanted this case decided locally, so it was a win that the Rajneeshees got it before U.S. Judge Helen Frye. But after that, Judge Frye handed them defeat after defeat for the next two years.
The lawsuit had a massive psychological impact on the Rajneeshees living at the commune. Some described a “siege mentality” erupting after the suit was filed, which fueled anti-government paranoia, militarization, and perhaps nudged the Rajneeshees closer to a violent confrontation. Sheela began referring to the Attorney General as Herr General Frohnmayer, a religious bigot. And in 1985, when Sheela allegedly drew up a list of people who needed to be killed for the commune to survive, Dave Frohnmayer’s name was on the list.
The Rajneeshees used the courts to punch back in June 1985, when they filed a sprawling federal case against dozens of public officials: the attorney general, the U.S. Attorney for Oregon, INS officials, the Oregon secretary of state, Wasco County commissioners, and more. It alleged that all of the state and federal officials were engaged in a conspiracy against the Rajneeshees. They called the case “God vs. The Universe.” Mayor Krishna Deva described it in a phone call with the federal mediator, John Mathis.
[Audio - KD and Mathis, 6/21/1985] KD: “Today we filed a lawsuit… alleging basically violations and harassment that have been coming from the Department of State, INS, and Department of Justice…. That went in today, you’ll probably be hearing about that one.”
KD and the commune president, Ma Yoga Vidya, held a press conference on this same day to publicize their lawsuit. Vidya said, “These people have conspired to exterminate the religion of Rajneeshism and the community in Rajneeshpuram.” KD said that the government actions were an effort to “persecute, demolish, murder, kill, eliminate” the Rajneeshees.
Speaking of murdering and killing, KD later testified that by the time God vs. The Universe was filed, Sheela had instructed him to investigate what sort of security the United States Attorney, Charles Turner, had around him. And, in fact, right after the God vs. The Universe press conference, Ma Yoga Vidya had changed into civilian, non-Rajneeshee clothes, and traveled to Charles Turner’s home to scope it out.
As for Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer, it’s not clear whether the plans to murder him moved beyond the stage of just including him on the list of potential victims.
Judge Helen Frye issued her final order in the Attorney General’s suit in December 1985, more than two years after it was filed. Based on the undisputed facts before her about Rajneeshpuram’s corporate structure and the religious nature of the various entities, Judge Frye sided entirely with the Attorney General. She held that the recognition of Rajneeshpuram as a city granted governmental power to a religion — which violated the constitutions of the United States and Oregon. As such, the state didn’t need to recognize it or provide it with any money. And she declared Rajneeshpuram’s incorporation null and void.
If that decision had come, say, one year earlier, while Rajneeshpuram was still running strong — who knows what would have happened. But the way it played out, the order came after Sheela had already fled America, after Bhagwan had already tried to escape the country and been forced back to Oregon in shackles, after long-time commune residents had packed up their meager belongings and dispersed around the world. The Rajneeshees were already in the midst of selling off the entire ranch, and everything on it. For reasons we’ll cover as we close out this series, the fate of Rajneeshpuram had already been sealed in the months before Judge Frye handed down her order.
But even so, it was the final nail in Rajneeshpuram’s coffin. Even if the Rajneeshees hadn’t engaged in so much criminal activity, even if Sheela and Bhagwan hadn’t left the country, the First Amendment lawsuit filed by Attorney General Frohnmayer ensured that the Rajneeshees would find no shelter in Oregon.
Building Utopia is researched, written, narrated, and produced by me, Rusty King. If you’re enjoying the series and want to support the show — please write a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening to this.
For more insights on Bhagwan and his followers, including photographs and source documents, check out our website, BuildingUtopiaPodcast.com.
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