Episode 3: Trouble in Paradise - Full Transcript
This is the Building Utopia podcast. My name is Rusty King, and I am obsessed with the history of the charismatic leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. In this series, we’re taking a deep dive into the creation, and implosion, of the communities that formed around Bhagwan. Along the way we’ll meet some of the big personalities who supported him, and we’ll try to get inside the minds of everyday Rajneeshees.
Everything seems normal on the morning of May 31, 1981. If you’re one of the thousands of sannyasins in Buddha Hall, you sit in silent communion with your Master, who’s up on his dais allowing his energy to flow throughout the room. After more than an hour, he stands up and leaves through the back. You go about your life at the ashram — sipping tea at the cafeteria, chatting with friends, browsing pottery at the boutique, meditating, taking a therapy course, working.
But if you’re one of the 40 special sannyasins hand selected that day by Bhagwan himself, your world is about to be shattered.
You’ve been summoned to the rear of your Master’s home, called Lao Tzu, where there’s a convoy of waiting cars. Your Master walks out with his personal companion, Vivek, and one of the ashram’s top administrators, Ma Anand Sheela.
It takes you just a few moments to figure out what’s going on. After all his talk for the past couple years, after all the rumors and speculation and false starts… He’s leaving. He’s actually leaving the ashram; leaving Poona — unannounced. The new commune is finally happening.
He silently looks into the eyes of each person gathered there, one by one. It’s a soulful goodbye to his dearest followers. And then he slips into the back of a Rolls Royce with Vivek. Sheela gets behind the wheel. And then, he’s gone.
You’re sworn to secrecy before you’re allowed to mingle with everyone else at the ashram. It’s for your Master’s security, they tell you. No one is to know that he’s left, much less where’s he’s going.
But… where is he going? And why?
In today’s episode, we’ll dissect what was all going on that resulted in Bhagwan abandoning his paradise. As his dreams for the future continued to blossom, outside pressures, like the Indian government, threatened to squeeze the life out of Bhagwan’s community. We’ll also examine the efforts to find a new home for the ashram, led by two very different but equally devoted women: Ma Yoga Laxmi, and her assistant, Sheela. To the surprise of nearly everyone, Sheela was about to take Bhagwan’s future into her own hands … forever changing his life and his legacy.
Stick with us.
PART 1 - Growing Controversy
“The new commune…” Bhagwan had been talking about it ever since he arrived at Poona in 1974. Even as the ashram flourished over the next couple years, he kept coming back to the idea that he wanted something bigger, where he could touch even more people’s lives. By 1979, Bhagwan was saying that the time was now — he needed the new commune so he could form what he called the “new man”:
[BSR AUDIO] “The new commune is going to be a context in which a new kind of man can become possible. … He should be as accurate and objective as a scientist; and he should be as sensitive, as full of the heart, as the poet; and he should be rooted deep down in his being as the mystic.… My new man is going to be deep in love with life. The new commune is going to create a space, a context, for this multidimensional human being to be born. And the future belongs to this new man.”
And even beyond the “new man,” Bhagwan described in beautiful detail what his new paradise would be like:
[BSR AUDIO] “The new commune will be on a big scale: ten thousand sannyasins living together as one body, one being. … Everybody is going to live as comfortably, as richly, as we can manage. … The new commune is going to be a totally new kind of religiousness, spirituality. Nobody is going to be a Hindu, or a Mohammeden, or a Christian, or a Jain. But everybody is going to be religious…. The new commune will create every possible opportunity to rejoice, sing, dance. My new commune is going to transform work into playfulness, it is going to transform life into love and laughter.”
This vision must have sounded thrilling to the type of person who would move to India to be with an enlightened master. Bhagwan dangled these dreams in front of his followers, using the new commune as a way to keep up the forward momentum of his community. They should be prepared, he said, because the next phase of his work could come at any moment.
So what exactly did Bhagwan need that he didn’t already have in Poona? The most pressing issue was always space. Laxmi had scrambled to purchase adjoining properties and make room for everybody, but with tens of thousands of people coming to visit or live each year, it became clear they’d never get all the property they needed in the middle of a city like Poona.
They also needed some remoteness. Living in a dense urban area presented safety problems, particularly for the sannyasins who didn’t live at the ashram. Reports came in of people on the streets harassing, robbing, or even attacking sunrise-color-wearing sannyasins, who were associated with their outrageous guru. Security at the ashram tightened significantly in the late 70s to ensure that followers were at least safe on the ashram grounds. This wasn’t always effective. Late one night as Laxmi was leaving Krishna House, a disaffected Indian sannyasin jumped out from behind some bushes and fastened his teeth on her nose. She was rescued only when someone heard her screaming Bhagwan’s name.
The biggest security breach, though, came in 1980, when this happened, while Bhagwan was lecturing in Hindi: [AUDIO OF BSR ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT] This is the moment that a Hindu extremist jumped up, stormed toward Bhagwan shouting at him, and threw a knife that landed a couple feet away. Bhagwan urged everyone to stay calm, and then lectured for another hour while the man was arrested and taken away. After this, Shiva, Bhagwan’s bodyguard, formed a security force of fifty sannyasins trained in karate, who became known as “the Samurais.” Metal detectors were installed, and a pass system was created that identified classes of people and where they were allowed to be in the ashram. One visitor described it as having a “Gestapo air.”
Aside from space and security constraints, the other big motivation in building a new commune was to escape some of the political pressures that dogged Bhagwan. As we’ll see, the Indian government used its power to curtail his work — a vice that just kept tightening the longer the ashram was around. But to understand how politicians justified their actions against Bhagwan, you’ve gotta look at the ammunition that he just kept feeding them in the late 70s. There’s so much to choose from, but I’ll focus on the two biggest controversies that Bhagwan’s opponents latched on to: encounter group therapy, and sex.
We heard about the ashram’s “no limit” encounter groups in the previous episode, where people could do whatever they wanted to other participants to release their pent up aggression. In a shockingly naive move, Laxmi allowed a West German film crew to record encounter groups in 1978. The film that emerged, Ashram in Poona, showed a roomful of sweaty, naked, long-haired Westerners writhing on top of each other while moaning sexually; a woman being restrained while she screams in tongues; people crying and convulsing their bodies at the touch of a group leader; and a painfully long group brawl where it seems like any of the 30 or so people in the room is fair game for punching, kicking, or wrestling. At one point a man punches a woman until she collapses on the ground, and then he jumps on top of her. Laxmi thought the film would show the impactful work that Bhagwan was doing but — it just created a scandal everywhere it was shown.
Richard Price didn’t help things either. Price was a founder of the ESalen Institute in California, which many considered to be the Western headquarters of the human potential movement. While visiting the ashram, Price took an encounter group, led by Teertha, the therapist we met in the previous episode. It did not go well.
After Time Magazine called Bhagwan’s ashram the “ESalen of the East” in 1978, Richard Price felt compelled to send a letter to the editor giving his opinion. While Bhagwan was worth studying, he wrote: “The ashram ‘encounter’ group is an abomination - authoritarian, intimidating, violent — used to enforce conformity to an emerging orange new order rather than to facilitate growth. Broken bones are common, bruises and abrasions beyond counting. As such, it owes more to the S.S. than to ESalen.” Price separately wrote to Bhagwan himself, asking him to decide whether he was running a “growth center, or a concentration camp.”
In January 1979, Bhagwan announced that violence had fulfilled its function in group therapy, and was no longer needed. By no mere coincidence, just two months before that, Jim Jones had instructed 900 of his followers to drink grape Flavor Aid at the Jonestown settlement in Guyana. All charismatic leaders received intense scrutiny after that, and Bhagwan was at pains to show that he had nothing in common with Jim Jones. Toning down the encounter groups seemed to be a step in that direction, but it was too little too late. He would never really get out from under the shadow of that violence.
There was another issue at the ashram that drew a lot of attention, good and bad: sex. I’ll be discussing sexual activity and body parts here, so if you have younger listeners, use your discretion.
Bhagwan had been lecturing on sexuality and orgasms and female anatomy as far back as the late 60s, before he settled in Bombay and started taking on disciples. It earned him the nickname “the sex guru” — because he was the only one talking about stuff like that. The ashram gave Bhagwan an opportunity to finally put the concepts he’d been lecturing about into action.
And boy did they get a lot of action.
Frankly, many people came to the ashram for sex. Even if that isn’t why you came, from all accounts, sex was a natural byproduct of being in such a charged environment, full of young, scantily-clad, open-minded people. And sometimes you didn’t have much choice — Bhagwan might assign you to take tantric group therapy, which was essentially a multi-day orgy — regardless of whether you were single or married. He thought marriage just led people to want to possess their spouses — and group sex could help dissolve that part of your ego.
One consequence of all this sex was, of course, pregnancies. Now, Bhagwan didn’t want a bunch of babies at the ashram competing for his followers’ attention, and he had a solution. Take Kate Strelley as an example. We met her last time as a 15-year-old arriving in Poona. She became pregnant while working for the ashram, and she sent a note to her Master, asking what to do. Bhagwan’s suggestion to her was that she get an abortion… and get sterilized at the same time. She was … a teenager. And she did it.
The ashram leadership encouraged abortions and sterilization, and they became common procedures. To some, getting sterilized was a badge of honor — a way to physically prove your surrender. And there was a certain logic being passed around: You’re here to be with Bhagwan, so why not be with him totally, focused 100% on his message and your growth. A child would just distract you from all that.
Bhagwan turned up the sexual atmosphere even more in February 1979, when he introduced “energy darshans.” At these evening ceremonies, accompanied by flashing lights and tribal music, he would touch a group of women he had selected, called “mediums,” who would writhe and dance and transmit his energy to everyone there.
Bhagwan said that all energy is sexual. Perhaps that’s why, to be a medium for his energy, you needed to be an attractive young woman, preferably with large breasts because, as reported by Shiva, Bhagwan said: “I have been tortured by small-breasted women for many lives together, and I will not do it in this life!” At least one former medium reports that her “training” involved kneeling nude before Bhagwan in his bedroom, facing Vivek, while he masturbated her. He was supposedly charging her with sexual energy.
Of course, these sorts of stories spread far outside the ashram walls. All the talk about brazen sexuality and sterilizations and broken arms at encounter groups became perfect ammunition for Bhagwan’s political opponents. For reasons you can imagine, he was never exactly “popular” with politicians…
[BSR AUDIO]“But politicians are the lowest as far as intelligence is concerned. They are the most inferior people in the world.”
…but at least he had Laxmi, who tapped her family’s connections to give him some political cover. She had a personal relationship with India’s long-standing prime minister, Indira Gandhi. Bhagwan heaped praise on her at his lectures — something he never did for politicians. This relationship seemed to be good enough to allow Bhagwan to pass under the radar for the ashram’s first couple years.
Unfortunately, the political tides changed in 1977, when Gandhi’s party lost control of Parliament, and her bitter rival, Morarji Desai, took over. Desai was an 81-year old socially-conservative traditionalist. Bhagwan couldn’t stand him, and had supposedly said as much to Desai’s face.
The feeling was mutual. Part it was political: Desai knew that Bhagwan supported Gandhi and had been harping on Desai and his party for years. But Desai also had a philosophical disagreement with Bhagwan over his teachings, which were just too radical for him, and he was one of the many Indians disgusted by his use of the name “Bhagwan,” which he took to mean “god.”
So, with this new prime minister and more conservative government, what did Bhagwan do? Tone down his message? Keep a low profile? Try to appease Desai?
[BSR AUDIO EXCERPTS] “Morarji Desai represents all that is rotten in human past. … Morarji Desai is a poor politician; he knows only the language of ambition. … Morarji Desai is a male chauvinist. … He can only think in terms of the past. He has no idea that we are living in the twentieth century. He is not a contemporary man at all; he belongs to some past century which no more exists. … I don’t call him Morarji-bhai Desai, I call him Mediocre-ji-bhai Desai.”
Honestly, I don’t think he could help himself… Giving his opinion and being provocative were in Bhagwan’s DNA. But now all the controversial things he said were transcribed and printed and distributed around the world.
As we’ll see, Desai’s hammer of retribution came down hard and fast.
Coming up after the break, Bhagwan’s bombast and unusual practices finally catch up with him. He’s about to learn that his dream of the new Indian commune is in Morarji Desai’s hands. We’ll also catch up with Laxmi, who’s stuck between her Master’s demands and the government’s roadblocks. Later, we’ll strap ourselves on to Ma Anand Sheela’s rocket as she rises from a quiet kitchen worker to the high priestess of the entire ashram who propels Bhagwan to the next chapter of his life.
Stick with us.
PART 2 - Laxmi & Sheela
The story of Bhagwan leaving Poona is really a story about Laxmi and Sheela. For years, Laxmi was Bhagwan’s public face, enforcer, administrator, and right-hand man. She’d meet with him one-on-one every single day to talk through the ashram’s business and take down his commands. Of course, when it came time to find a new home, she was the one Bhagwan trusted to travel around India looking for property. But this distance from her Master created unexpected problems.
The main problem was that she had been grooming a smart young Indian woman named Sheela to be one of the ashram’s top administrators. Laxmi didn’t realize that Sheela had a plan of her own for Bhagwan, and the longer she was away, the more power Sheela accumulated.
First, we’ll take a look at what Laxmi was dealing with in India, and then we’ll get to know more about Sheela and reconstruct the moves that literally put her in the driver’s seat when it came time for Bhagwan to leave.
Laxmi received a cascade of bad news throughout the late 70s. First the government revoked their tax exempt status. Officials said they were concerned about all the commercial activity at the ashram, like the book publishing. In a decision that would echo in the United States a few years later, the government determined that Bhagwan was not the head of a religion, but just a guy who spoke about important subjects, and brought in a lot of money doing it. The ashram received a bill for millions of dollars in current and back taxes.
And then the immigration problems began. Morarji Desai’s foreign offices would deny visas to foreigners who wanted to visit the ashram — an effort to dry up the source of new bodies — and new money. And then ashram staff who had overstayed their visas started to get notices, and then convictions and fines unless they agreed to leave the country.
But the most decisive psychological blow came when Desai’s government used all its power to block Bhagwan’s dream of the new commune. And the main person absorbing that blow… was Laxmi.
For her, fulfilling Bhagwan’s dream had always been a matter of just finding a big, secluded space, somewhere in India. She’d done it in Poona; she could do it again. In Gujarat, the state in northern India where she’d been raised, Laxmi found a palace for sale with 20,000 acres. Purchasing the palace turned out to be no easy task, though, as it involved negotiating with the owner, the local community, and the state government. The latter two categories made the purchase virtually impossible, but Laxmi didn’t understand that until years later, after the Indian bureaucracy had crawled along and she had nearly worked herself to death to make it happen. The ashram didn’t help matters at all when it put out a strident press release from Bhagwan telling the people of Gujarat to “Get ready! I am coming with my whole world of orange people,” and threatening to bring 100,000 sannyasins within 10 years.
While the Gujarat negotiations played out, Laxmi looked in other places, like the Himalayas. She again found several abandoned palaces from the old maharajas, but as soon as the sellers found out who was interested, the prices shot up to exorbitant amounts that she wasn’t willing to pay. She also learned along the way that the Indian government wouldn’t allow the ashram to relocate close to any border, supposedly because it feared that dangerous people could use the ashram to sneak in and out of the country.
Laxmi pursued a local option, at least as a short-term strategy. In January 1978, she rented a 300-year old fortress near Saswad, 21 miles south of Poona. She billed it as the “new commune,” and 6,000 sannyasins traveled there in a convoy to check it out. People started fighting over which dirt-floor room would be theirs.
Enter Morarji Desai. Just like in Gujarat — the Rajneeshee plans for Saswad required government approval. Desai’s government did nothing. Indira Gandhi, running for re-election, agreed to help if she became prime minister again. But when she did return to office in 1980, after Desai was ousted.. she apparently had a change of heart. Laxmi camped out on Gandhi’s doorstep in New Delhi for six months, but Gandhi kept putting her off until it became clear that she would not be sticking out her neck for her old friend.
So Gujarat was a bust, Saswad was a bust. Everywhere that Laxmi looked, there was just too much resistance to Bhagwan. She tried to explain this to her Master, but he became less sympathetic and more frustrated as his plans kept being deferred. He complained that the ashram was becoming “stagnant” and “suffocating.” In early 1981, Laxmi said his private behavior changed: he stopped reading, which had been his great passion. He barely paid attention to Laxmi when she spoke with him. Bhagwan… seemed depressed.
In March 1981 he stopped giving discourses, supposedly because of a chickenpox outbreak at the ashram. And then a couple weeks later, Bhagwan announced that he would no longer speak publicly at all. When asked about this later, he said it was because he had already said everything he needed to say, and he could communicate with his followers without words. However, I can’t help but think back to his 34-day silence when he first moved to Poona, where he basically stopped speaking because he just wasn’t happy.
There is another way to look at Bhagwan’s changing behavior in 1981. Most of what I’ve just described comes from Laxmi’s point of view… but around this same time, a subtle power shift was brewing at the ashram’s top level. While Laxmi was running around the country, her assistant Sheela was starting to gain Bhagwan’s confidence. He invited her to meet with him daily at Lao Tsu to discuss the ashram’s business. This had been exclusively Laxmi’s role for years — one that she had jealously guarded.
It’s certainly possible that what Laxmi saw as Bhagwan retreating into himself in 1981, was really just her Master turning away from her… and turning toward this beautiful young woman, full of exciting new ideas, who now had his ear.
Sheela will be a central figure for the rest of this series. The reason is clear: from the moment she became Bhagwan’s top lieutenant, she was the singular force shaping everything in Bhagwan’s world: his followers, his communities, and his public image. If you know anything about Bhagwan, you’ve probably heard of Sheela. You can picture her in her heydey, the early 80s — a young Indian woman with short, perfectly-coiffed hair and huge intense eyes that lock on to whomever she’s speaking with, whether she’s laughing and joking, or challenging and belittling. Let’s get to know Sheela.
She was born Sheela Patel in 1949 in northern India, the youngest of six children. According to Sheela, her father was a well-off industrialist and land baron who had gone to Oxford at the suggestion of Mahatma Gandhi. In reality, he was a small businessman and farmer who had traveled to England but lived a modest life in India. Her older siblings emigrated to America, and she followed them at the age of 17 — even though she didn’t know a word of English.
Just before she had left for America, Sheela’s father took her to hear a couple gurus speak. One of them was Acharya Rajneesh and, although he made an impression, she continued with her trip. While attending Montclair State College in New Jersey, Sheela fell in love at first sight with Marc Silverman, an American grad student. He didn’t want to get involved with Sheela because he’d been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease a couple years earlier and had been given only two more years to live. But as their love intensified, they decided to just “go for it” and got married in 1969.
In 1972, while visiting family in India, Sheela mentioned Rajneesh to her father, who offered to take her to see the man who now went by “Bhagwan.” At his Bombay apartment they met a small, friendly gatekeeper, Laxmi, who allowed them to go in and see Bhagwan, even though they didn’t have an appointment. Sheela sat at Bhagwan’s feet, and, she writes in her memoir, “Everything was dissolving around me… I was looking in his eyes and just disappearing… That moment he became my lover. That was it.”
Within weeks, Sheela took sannyas and became “Ma Anand Sheela.” Her husband later joined her, becoming “Chinmaya.” They became ashram residents around 1975. She started working in the kitchen before becoming a receptionist at the Krishna House office. While everybody else at the place was fawning over Bhagwan, Sheela would lay prostrate at Laxmi’s feet in traditional devotion. Her respect for the ashram’s administration impressed Laxmi, as did Sheela’s ability to get results, and fast. Sheela tells a story in her memoir about an evening when Laxmi was concerned about not having enough money to make a payment the following day to expand the ashram. Sheela found out how much Laxmi needed, and the next morning she stood in front of the Lao Tzu gates and asked everybody who came out of discourse to lend money to help buy the new property. Before lunch, she had more than enough.
This inspired Sheela to create the unofficial ashram bank. It started with Sheela sitting on the steps of Krishna House with a tin box full of cash for foreign exchange. Soon, according to Sheela, the bank was turning over more than $100K daily, and it ensured that the ashram always had more than half a million dollars in liquid cash available. With this feather in her cap, Sheela became one of Laxmi’s assistants.
Other than her boss, Sheela was one of the only Indians at a high level within the administration. This gave her an important role: dealing on Laxmi’s behalf with Indians from the outside, like vendors and politicians. Sheela sat right next to Laxmi at her wide desk, absorbing everything her boss did to run the ashram.
Laxmi organized things so that one hand never knew what the other was doing. Each department reported to her, and people working in those departments were told to keep their business private. Sheela took a page from Laxmi’s book. She built up her own team of loyal assistants, like Kate Strelley, and required them to keep her work strictly confidential. Unlike Laxmi, though, Sheela developed a reputation for her sharp elbows, and her tendency to punish people who didn’t scurry around to please her. It became known that once you crossed Sheela, she would never forget it.
Kate Strelley thinks that Sheela’s confidence came from her belief that she knew how to best take care of Bhagwan — even better than Laxmi did. And the more that Laxmi was away, the more Sheela was able to exert her own influence on the ashram and on her Master.
That brings us to Bhagwan’s departure from Poona.
Why did he abandon all the people at his ashram, abandon his home country, and move to America in June 1981? Like so many things in the Rajneeshee universe, the answer to that question depends on who you ask and when you ask them. I’ve compared the various stories, I’ve looked at contemporaneous documents… and I’m here to tell you: there is no clear answer. The biggest complication is that Bhagwan and Sheela seemed to have no problem stretching the truth whenever it served them.
The official Rajneeshee story at the time was that Bhagwan’s health had deteriorated to a point that he had to leave India. It wasn’t just his allergies and his asthma, which were exacerbated by pollution and dust and the climate. Bhagwan also suffered from a slipped disc in his spine, which, according to sannyasin doctors, required a laminectomy that he could only get in the United States. Sheela presented this case to US immigration officials and it scored Bhagwan a tourist visa in May 1981.
Sheela’s story changed significantly after she had split with the Rajneeshees. In her memoir, Sheela wrote that she wanted Bhagwan to move to America not because his health but because she missed the West, and all its luxuries and conveniences. She grew to hate India and found everything there annoying and frustrating. She also suspected that Bhagwan would be much happier in America. He wanted his ashram to be modern and have the latest technology, but it was really difficult and expensive to get that in Poona.
We’ll talk about Bhagwan’s health issues and how they related to his immigration status in later episodes — but based on his failure to seek any outside medical treatment after he arrived in America, I think it’s safe to say that his health was just a pretext to get him there.
So what was really going on here? How did the plans for America come about? Well, let’s look at this from Sheela’s point of view: By the late 70s, she could see that a new commune in India was extremely unlikely, given all the external resistance they were receiving. She also could see that Laxmi’s star was fading with Bhagwan. And we know that Sheela was getting fed up with India and longed to return to the West.
But before she could persuade her Master to give up everything and travel across the globe, she’d need to lay some groundwork first. And that’s exactly what Sheela did.
With Bhagwan’s blessing, Sheela and Chinmaya had founded the Chidvilas Rajneesh Meditation Center around 1973 in Montclair, New Jersey. As we discussed in a prior episode, there were dozens of Rajneesh Meditation Centers that popped up across the world in the mid-70s. The ashram authorized sannyasins to open these centers to sell Bhagwan’s books and recordings and draw in new followers. But they weren’t operated or controlled by the ashram. And that’s how Chidvilas was set up once Sheela and Chinmaya moved to the ashram in 1975: Sheela chose two American sannyasins to run it in New Jersey.
But over time, Sheela began to take more and more control over Chidvilas, until she and her staff at the ashram were effectively running it. With Sheela’s guiding hand, Chidvilas became more wealthy, and more important to the ashram. American sannyasins who wanted to make a donation to the Rajneesh Foundation in India were told by Sheela’s team to make out the check to Chidvilas instead. The donors assumed their money would go right to the ashram, but in reality Sheela controlled those bank accounts and could do whatever she wanted with the money. At least some of it was donated, under the Chidvilas name, not in the names of the individual donors. And some was used to supply the ashram with valuable items from the West, like typewriters and videocameras.
But to any outside observer — including to people at the ashram like Laxmi — it seemed like Chidvilas was taking off on its own. Sheela’s assistant, Kate Strelley, says they went to great lengths to conceal from others that Sheela’s team was running the center. They even maintained a secret set of files, called the “S-files,” which were never to be shared with anyone outside of Sheela’s immediate staff.
So why did Sheela need to secretly control a successful American meditation center? Chidvilas was a way for her to amplify her connection to the West — a connection that became more and more valuable as the prospects of staying in India diminished. Bhagwan knew Sheela had founded Chidvilas, even if he didn’t know she was running it. He knew she could tap its resources when the ashram needed it. As Chidvilas gained power, so did Sheela.
The fact that Chidvilas was in America, as opposed to India, served another important function for Sheela. If she could persuade Bhagwan to travel to America — using Chidvilas as the tool to get him there — there’s no way he would keep Laxmi as his personal secretary. She knew nothing about America. Laxmi’s connections and history and deep knowledge about how things work in India would be worthless there. But in Sheela, Bhagwan had somebody who had lived there, was married to an American, and had founded the most successful Rajneesh Meditation Center in the country.
All he had to do was surrender… to her…
With all these steps carefully laid out, Bhagwan agreed to do just that. Sheela jumped into action and the Chidvilas corporate board minutes reflect the early efforts to prepare for Bhagwan’s arrival. In January 1981, while Sheela was visiting in New Jersey, the board resolved to engage in “farming,” and to search for suitable land. Before this, all Chidvilas had really done was sell books and videotapes — and suddenly they’re searching for a huge property.
The next month, the board started looking for a new Chidvilas headquarters in New Jersey that would house 50-70 people. This would serve as Bhagwan’s temporary home while they searched for the new commune. In April 1981, Chidvilas signed a contract to purchase a castle-like home in Montclair, New Jersey.
With the plans now solidifying, Sheela finally told a small group of trusted confidantes that Bhagwan was moving to America. She swore them to secrecy, and told them that they were to be the vanguards, some traveling there early to prepare the castle for Bhagwan, and others holding things together at the ashram during the transition. It’s not clear at this stage whether even Laxmi knew about the plans. According to Sheela, Bhagwan told her not to tell Laxmi, for reasons of his own.
Sheela didn’t just keep her plan secret — she baldly lied about it. At huge assemblies in Buddha Hall, she announced that the ashram was moving to northern India. The Rajneesh Foundation sent a letter to all meditation centers on May 13 saying the same thing. At the same time, Sheela was securing a passport for Bhagwan and working with the US Consulate in Bombay to get his tourist visa.
Why all the secrets and lies? Well, the ashram had to maintain the story that Bhagwan was just visiting America. By spinning this yarn about northern India, Sheela could credibly tell immigration officials that her Master would soon be back in India. She also kept her plans secret from most sannyasins because, according to her, she wanted to find and set up the commune before everybody arrived. And by no mere coincidence, this reboot of Bhagwan’s community gave Sheela unprecedent control over who would be welcome at the new commune, and who would not.
The American consulate ultimately cabled the US State Department and said, essentially — we know how controversial this guy is, but we have no reason to deny the application unless you tell us so. In the absence of any response, the consulate granted the visa on May 30, 1981.
That brings us to where we began. The day after his visa was granted, Bhagwan sat in silent communion with his followers like any other morning. And then Sheela whisked him away to Bombay. She had arranged it so that Bhagwan’s car could drive right onto the tarmac and up to the waiting Pan Am 747. It was a regularly-scheduled commercial flight to New York, but Sheela had booked the entire first class cabin, on the plane’s upper deck. A small army of sannyasins had already scrubbed everything with non-scented cleaner and draped the cabin in pristine white. Sheela helped her Master settle in for his first ever flight. She poured him a glass of champagne with an irrepressible grin on her face as she navigated her Master exactly where she wanted him.
I wonder what Bhagwan thought about as his plane taxied toward the runway, as he prepared to leave behind all the people he had worked so hard to gather and nurture in India. How was he sure that people would pick up and follow him across the world — again? And what did he think was in store for him in America? I bet he also had a sense of relief — leaving behind a hostile government, a spiritual establishment that would never accept him, and huge unpaid tax bills.
Maybe Bhagwan took some comfort thinking about the person he left behind to clean up his mess. Down on the ground, a forlorn face watched his plane shoot down the runway and leap into the air, taking her Master to an exotic land she didn’t understand.
Laxmi had been allowed to come to the airport, but she was not invited to America.
Next time on Building Utopia, Bhagwan becomes the master of Montclair, New Jersey. We’ll see how his followers set him up in style in his castle, and we’ll hurtle along on his terrifying thrill rides around New York City. For her part, Sheela wastes no time finding the perfect property to build Bhagwan’s new utopia, where he can create the new man. We’ll see how she found it, and consider some of the important questions she may have failed to ask before signing a $7 million dollar purchase agreement.
We hope you join us next time.
Building Utopia is researched, written, narrated, and produced by me, Rusty King. For more insights on Bhagwan and his followers, including photographs and source documents, check out our website, BuildingUtopiaPodcast.com. If you have a unique perspective on any of the issues discussed in this series, I’d love to hear from you. See you next time.