Episode 5: Foundations in the Desert - Full Transcript
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.
The rest of this series will be all about the Rajneeshpuram commune in Eastern Oregon. When the Rajneeshees arrived in July 1981, the property wasn’t much more than mud, dust, and some ranch buildings. Within a couple years, they had 6,000 people living there.
Let me tick off just a few of their accomplishments: They brought to life hundreds of acres of desolate farmland using cutting-edge technology, ultimately producing enough vegetables, dairy, and eggs to be self-sustaining. They built a system of roads with public transportation, an 80-foot high dam that created an 300-million gallon lake, irrigation systems, an urban-grade sewer system, and artesian wells for drinking water. They built an electrical power substation.
And they did almost all of this work on their own, without bringing in outside help.
But there was far more to Rajneeshpuram than its impressive building projects. It became a political lightning rod, thanks in large part to Ma Anand Sheela’s inflammatory performance as the commune’s public face. Throughout its five years, Rajneeshpuram was in constant conflict with the people of Oregon. And inside, the commune was run almost as a totalitarian state, with internal wiretaps, plots to kill people perceived as enemies, and punishment for anyone who was perceived as “negative.” Things only get weirder from there. There are plenty of stories to come about palace intrigue, bioterrorist attacks, voter fraud, an AIDS colony, and much more.
But first, a quick refresher on how they got there. Bhagwan became Bhagwan in 1970, when he settled in Bombay and started initiating his followers as sannyasins. They agreed to wear sunrise colors to signify their move toward enlightenment and a mala necklace with Bhagwan’s image in it. They also adopted new Sanskrit names. Most importantly — they promised to surrender to their Master so that he could form them into something new. Westerners particularly took to Bhagwan’s message. As they continued arriving, he founded a sophisticated ashram in the city of Poona, India, in 1974. This was largely thanks to the tireless efforts of his personal secretary, Ma Yoga Laxmi.
The ashram became wildly popular, with tens of thousands of people coming through each year. But Bhagwan still wanted a bigger place, where he could touch even more people. Laxmi tried and failed to find new property in India. Her Master had become too controversial by the late 70s, as Indian politicians and journalists worldwide latched on to the violent encounter groups and open sexuality that Bhagwan promoted. In the background, Laxmi’s young assistant, Sheela, was gaining influence with Bhagwan. She ultimately persuaded him to build his new commune in the United States. After spiriting Bhagwan to New Jersey, and after a very hasty search, Sheela purchased a 64,000-acre property in Eastern Oregon known as the Big Muddy Ranch.
And that brings us to today’s episode. We’ll consider why Oregon was about the last place Sheela should have picked for the new commune. Then we’ll see how exactly one starts to transform a huge tract of agricultural land into a commune fit for an enlightened Master and thousands of his disciples. We’ll also compare the stories that Sheela told her neighbors and government officials in those early days with what was actually going on at the commune. By the time Bhagwan arrived, there was great confusion — and anxiety — about what exactly these “Rajneesh people” had in mind.
Stick with us.
PART 1 - The Worst Thing They Could Do
Krishna Deva’s life took a very strange turn in July 1981. Up to that point, he’d been a regular-joe sannyasin: one of the many well-educated Americans who had lived at Poona for years. Sure, he was a little higher on the totem pole because he’d worked for the ashram as a group therapy leader. But he wasn’t in the inner-sanctum — he barely knew Ma Anand Sheela during her rapid ascent to power. So he was as stunned as anyone in June 1981 when he found out his Master had snuck out of the ashram, snuck out of the country, and left all of them behind with no directions about what to do next. He stayed there at the ashram for another month, watching as it was dismantled piece by piece and shipped to America or sold off.
A month or so later, Krishna Deva — or KD as he was known — realized he needed to plan his next move. He resolved to head back to America and find a Rajneesh Meditation Center in California where he could continue living and working with other sannyasins. He hoped that his Master would soon establish the new commune he’d been talking about for years, and that KD could join him someday.
California is where KD had really flourished as a young man before encountering Bhagwan. He’d started out life as David Knapp, a nice Jewish boy from Highland Park, Illinois. He did well in high school, lettered in football, swimming, track. As soon as he graduated, he was off to the University of Southern California. I imagine he was pretty popular there, with his tall athletic build, twinkling blue eyes, and benevolent smile.
KD’s plan to go to law school got derailed as soon as he took a psychology elective. He was fascinated by the workings of the human brain and the healing power of therapy. He threw himself into this new field, attending grad school to become a counselor while working at a halfway house for emotionally-disturbed young adults. They promoted him to director of the therapy program, and now here’s this 20-something kid supervising 50 counselors.
And then KD took a step that would have a profound echo in his life a couple years later — an experience that would be music to Sheela’s ears. He decided to start his own group home for about a dozen teenage boys fresh out of juvenile hall, or who had no families of their own. To make it happen, KD became an expert on land-use regulations, zoning laws, and dealing with county bureaucrats and nosy neighbors. He even got his realtor’s license to help him navigate these choppy waters.
He never could have guessed how this experience would shape the rest of his life.
Like most psychologists at the time, KD had a passing familiarity with the human potential movement and things like encounter-group therapy. He’d heard about an ashram in India where they combined Western psychology with Eastern philosophy — and he decided to check it out during a round-the-world trip.
He ended up spending two months at the Poona ashram, canceling the rest of his travels. KD was captivated by all the different group therapies, and Bhagwan’s message about breaking down barriers and becoming fully realized. He took sannyas and became Krishna Deva. After returning to the US just long enough to liquidate all his assets, he came back to the ashram to help run some of the therapy groups.
Fast forward a couple years and Bhagwan leaves India and KD decides to return to America. Before heading to California, he stopped by the castle in Montclair, New Jersey, where his sannyasin girlfriend was living. There he chatted with a Rajneesh attorney, who told him that Sheela had just purchased the Big Muddy Ranch in Oregon. KD predicted they’d have some zoning problems if they planned to build the new commune there, based on his prior experience. This was enough to get KD a personal meeting with Ma Anand Sheela.
He received a pile of Oregon land-regulation books and was invited to get to work immediately. As KD flipped through those books and got up-to-speed on the zoning laws that would affect the commune, he probably wondered, Of anywhere in America, why would you buy property in Oregon?
To try to understand some of the seemingly-insane things that the Rajneeshees did over the next four years, you have to start with land-use laws. It’s really the beginning and the end of the Rajneeshpuram story.
So let’s talk hypothetically. Imagine it’s 1981 and you’re running a spiritual organization with tens of thousands of members from across the planet. Your number-one priority is to establish a large commune where everyone can live close to their spiritual Master, in peace, with minimal outside interference. The commune will be entirely self-sufficient — everybody who lives there will work long days to make the community thrive. You’ll grow your own food, generate your own electricity; you’ll have schools, medical facilities, an airport, a public transportation network. You’ll build a hotel for visitors, and a meditation university, and a massive holy space where everyone can sit in your Master’s presence. The location for this new commune needs to be remote, but also lush and beautiful. That’s what your Master expects.
In short, the land that you buy needs to fulfill all these functions. So in your rush to find this property, under searing pressure from your Master, do you stop to consider the legal obstacles you might face?
This is where people like KD, who understand zoning laws, come in handy. Zoning’s pretty basic: a local unit of government — usually a city or a county — designates private property for a particular use: residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural. The goal is to group together similar types of property and keep incompatible ones away from each other. Like, you typically can’t drop a factory in the middle of a residential neighborhood. That’s thanks to zoning.
But there are places in the United States that have no zoning whatsoever — where you can buy a huge tract of land and basically do whatever you want on it. Let’s take… I don’t know… Crook County, Wyoming, as an example. If you’ve ever been to Devil’s Tower National Monument, you were in Crook County. As a matter of state policy, Wyoming leaves land-use planning entirely up to each county. If a county wants to regulate how private land can be used, it can implement zoning. Or it can go the way of Crook County, which has rejected zoning. If you own private property outside a municipal area, you’re welcome to do what you want on your land, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. Crook County doesn’t even have a building code, it doesn’t issue building permits, and it doesn’t inspect final construction. It’s about as hands-off as you can get when it comes to private property use.
On the other end of the land-use spectrum, there are states and counties that regulate all private property, whether it’s in the middle of a city or way out in the sticks. These are places where local officials have the full authority to stop you if they don’t like what you’re doing on your property.
A prime example… is Oregon.
When Sheela and her husband Jay bought the Big Muddy Ranch in Eastern Oregon in July 1981, I doubt they knew much if anything about the state’s particular attitude toward land development. If they had, it’s hard to imagine they would have gone forward with the purchase.
In the 1960s, Oregonians started to see something they really didn’t like: an influx of new residents, who settled on the fringes of cities like Portland and Eugene. This created the beginnings of a suburban sprawl that pushed into rural areas of the lush Willamette River Valley. Farmers along the valley saw this as a threat, and they found surprising allies in the citydwellers, who were concerned that Oregon’s natural beauty and environment were at risk. They all looked at places like Southern California as cautionary tales, where bloated city boundaries pushed against each other, squelching all the rural areas in between.
This anxiety led the Oregon legislature to pass SB 100 in 1973, a broad state-wide land-use planning law. The effect of SB 100 is to create compact urban areas and preserve all the non-urban land in between. The law achieves this by requiring counties and cities to create land-use plans which are then approved by a state agency.
Of particular interest to us here, every urban area in Oregon must define its growth boundary: the limited area where new housing tracts, shopping malls, and other urban developments can go. Beyond that boundary, such developments are forbidden. So you can’t just buy a plot of land in the middle of the desert in Eastern Oregon, far from any existing urban area, and start building stores and restaurants and dormitories.
At least, you can’t do so without engaging in legal warfare with state and county officials.
So as the person in charge of buying property for the new commune, if you think about zoning… you need basically every type of land: agricultural for the farms, residential for sannyasins’ homes, commercial to run your book publishing among other things, and industrial for your power plant. And you can’t just move in to an existing town that has all this zoning in place — since you’re trying to avoid outside meddling.
In this scenario, faced with this dilemma, wouldn’t a libertarian paradise like Crook County sound like exactly the sort of place you’d want to go? Where you could buy a remote piece of land and develop it however you want? And at the same time, wouldn’t you scratch heavily-regulated states like Oregon off the list altogether?
Maybe Sheela didn’t know about Oregon’s strict land-use regulations. Or maybe she found out when it was too late, when the deal was already underway and Bhagwan was eagerly pushing for it to happen. Even if she had wanted to, I don’t think Sheela could have pulled the plug on the deal without enraging her Master and perhaps losing her job.
There’s another possibility. Maybe she just didn’t care what the law said. Sheela was never one to concern herself with legal formalities. She believed that with hard work, persuasion, and Bhagwan’s charismatic power backing her up — she could make anything work.
Enter KD and the pile of land-use books that gets shoved at him in July 1981, after the ranch had already been purchased. The directive from Sheela was straightforward: Learn the laws. Figure out how we can use them — and work around them — to achieve Bhagwan’s vision. A couple days later, KD was on a plane headed West: not to California as he had planned, but to Oregon.
For the next four years, Oregon would be his home, and by the end — his personal nightmare. KD would rise to become one of the most recognizable public faces of the Rajneeshees in Oregon, the mayor of the city of Rajneeshpuram. He was drawn in to Sheela’s inner circle, where horrible plots were hatched. He became the type of person who lied to journalists and government agents. Who smeared salmonella around a Wasco County courthouse bathroom. And then he crashed to the ground as quickly as he had risen, becoming a refugee from Rajneeshpuram, an FBI informant in witness protection, an admitted felon.
But before all that, KD landed in Oregon and made his first trip out into the high desert to see the mess that Sheela had gotten the Rajneeshees into. What did KD find when he arrived at the Big Muddy Ranch? How did he and the others start to transform the desolate property into Bhagwan’s new paradise? And what stories did they tell suspicious neighbors who started to notice all the commotion?
We’ll address those questions and more after the break. Stick with us.
PART 2 - The Farming Front
When you think of Oregon, you might imagine the verdant Pacific Northwest, with its soaring fir and redwood trees, mild temperatures, lots of rain. And as your plane lands in Portland, in the far northwest corner of the state, that’s what you’ll encounter. But the Big Muddy Ranch in Eastern Oregon might as well be on another planet. To get there, you’ll leave behind the forests and the rain, threading east through the Cascade Mountains. The mountains absorb most of the moisture from the Pacific Ocean winds, leaving only dry, warm air to the east. Despite the limited irrigation potential out there, you’ll still find some ranching and some dry-land farming at the higher elevations. Tiny towns serve the ranchers and the farmers, with a main street that’s usually made up of a couple stores, maybe a cafe and a filling station, maybe a post office and a school and a couple churches.
One such town is Antelope. If you think of Oregon as the front of an envelope, Antelope is the top left corner of the mailing address. It was, and still is, a tiny town: just 39 residents in 1980 — mainly retirees who enjoyed the slow pace and low taxes. It was made up of just two streets with frame houses and lawns, two churches, a school, and a cafe.
Antelope also happens to be the closest town to the Big Muddy Ranch, separated by about 18 miles of county roads. When Sheela and Jay bought the ranch, they probably didn’t realize how much Antelope would matter when it came to their plans. They would soon learn that they needed Antelope. They would also come to learn that the feeling was not mutual.
On your way to the ranch, you zip through Antelope before turning onto the county road that winds up through the hills. The dust is unbelievable — clouding the windows, clogging the air vents, requiring passengers to cover their noses with handkerchiefs. The landscape you can see along the way is almost lunar: barren, overgrazed land dotted with the very occasional scraggly juniper tree.
By the time you pull up to the ranch headquarters, you’ve already been on Rajneeshee property for about half an hour. It can be difficult to picture the scale of the Big Muddy Ranch: 64,000 acres, plus an additional 17,000 leased from the Bureau of Land Management. Altogether that’s about 125 square miles. The numbers don’t really do it justice. The ranch was bigger than the cities of Baltimore or Orlando. You could almost fit six Manhattans on the Big Muddy Ranch.
When Sheela bought it, the ranch had just an old farmhouse, a barn, a machine shop and a garage. To that she added some double-wide trailers for business operations and to house some sannyasins. There were about three dozen people there by the time KD arrived in late July 1981. Mainly Americans, mainly people that Sheela thought could put in the physical labor required to build the infrastructure for Bhagwan’s new commune.
It was immediately apparent to newcomers like KD that that the glorious days of Poona were over. The flowing orange robes were gone, replaced with rugged jeans, western-style shirts, and cowboy hats — all in sunrise colors, of course. There were no discourses, no meditation groups, no multi-day orgies — just day after day of back-breaking work. And people who had been rockstars at the ashram, like Bhagwan’s former bodyguard Shiva, were now just driving excavators and planting crops, dirty and exhausted like everybody else.
They had a lot to get done in that first month: build and reinforce roads across the property; put up additional housing so more sannyasins could join them; prepare for Bhagwan’s arrival. But there was one priority that rose above the others: get the farming operations expanded as quickly as possible.
See, farming was the centerpiece of Sheela’s plan for at least the next couple months. The Rajneeshees would use farming as a sword and a shield: an excuse to bring in additional “farmers” and a reasonable explanation for the large-scale infrastructure they were building. As the person tasked with obtaining permission for this new construction, KD was about to have his first brush with the whirlwind of half-truths and deception that would define Rajneeshpuram in the years to come.
When Sheela and Jay bought the ranch, they didn’t go around telling people that they planned to bring an army of orange-clad people to live communally and worship an Indian guru. They certainly didn’t say they planned to build a city to support all the sannyasins who lived there. The story presented to outsiders, at least at first, was that Sheela was a rich widow who wanted to try her hand at farming. To the extent the Rajneeshees sought building permits or brought in new people to the ranch — it was all to support the farm.
They had good reason to fall back on this story: all of the Rajneeshee property was zoned for agricultural use. So any new development that went on the ranch had to be somehow tied to farming — at least on its face. KD would go to county officials for building permits for new housing, armed with great explanations for why they needed more ranch hands. And Jay wrote a letter to the Wasco County Planning Commission on August 2, 1981, explaining why they needed 42 people on the property: 10 workers for the berry fields, 10 for chicken farming, 6 for grapes, five for water resources, four for the orchards, four for making fences and corrals, and three for the dairy farm.
But years later, KD testified that all the building permits they applied for in those early months had a quote “second, underlying false motive … to be a part of what would be the ultimate community for the disciples around the world.” In other words, when KD applied for a permit to house, say, 10 new people, they would actually cram many more people into that space. And some of the “farm” buildings they were constructing were actually intended for other purposes. The most glaring example of this is the two-acre solar greenhouse the Rajneeshees built — which just happened to double as an assembly hall for up to 15,000 people.
The people of Wasco and Jefferson Counties weren’t idiots. To the contrary, when it came to farming and how to use the land, they knew a LOT. And locals — especially the ranchers whose property bordered the Big Muddy Ranch — were very curious about what this Indian woman and her red-wearing colleagues all planned to do out there. If the Rajneeshees were under any delusion that they could build a huge commune without anybody noticing — the locals quickly smashed that belief.
The neighbors may have been particularly interested in Sheela’s plans after some of her grandiose statements showed up in the press. Shortly after arriving, she told a reporter: “This ranch has been abused for many years. Everyone took things out of the ranch but didn’t put anything back to nourish the land. I want to turn it all green.”
The locals knew how inhospitable the Big Muddy Ranch was for farming. The land hadn’t been worked for over 20 years. According to Shiva, who was an early arrival at the ranch, most of the soil was graded as nearly solid rock, good for only minimal agricultural use. Jay said that only about 7% of the total property was suitable for cultivation. This was caused by a combination of severe overgrazing, lack of rainfall, sparse vegetation, and flash floods.
Naturally, the more the Rajneeshees boasted about their grand farming aspirations, the more skepticism they received from locals about their true intentions. This forced people like Jay to go on the defensive. Here he is on a May 1982 television program:
[Jayananda audio] “[W]hen we took over that ranch, it was really a ranch that was a cattle ranch and really didn’t have any kind of facilities to support our level of activity at all. The original farmhouse that was there probably for 60 years dumped its sewage right into the stream alongside of it. There has been an awful lot of activity down there, and that activity really has been to build an infrastructure, to build a working system down there to support what we feel to be a population necessary to farm the land down there. It’s all new; it’s quite a bit different than what people down here recognize as a farming operation. But it shouldn’t… at least our feeling is that their feelings shouldn’t really enter into our planning. We want to set up a self-sufficient community.”
These somewhat condescending answers did little to quell local curiosity. And it only increased when Sheela purchased two commercial lots in the town of Antelope within a month of arriving. In a news program, KD explained why the Rajneeshees had to dip their toes in Antelope:
[KD audio]: “Yes my name is Krisha Deva, and the basic situation on the ranch is as you know is that it’s exclusive farm-use zoning. And what that means is that we have no ability to put any kind of commercial use on the ranch, and we have also only one telephone line last summer. So initially what we came to Antelope for was communications.”
The Antelope property not only allowed the Rajneeshee leaders to stay connected with the outside world, but it also served as a sort of welcome center for new arrivals to the ranch. People like KD, arriving for the first time, would stop in Antelope before making the long trek to the Big Muddy. This gave the people of Antelope a clear view of the steady stream of scarlet-clad people flowing up into the ranch.
Sheela employed some tricks to try to divert their attention, like making a big production of buying cowboy boots in a local shop so people didn’t notice a group of sannyasins passing through town. She rented a dance hall and invited all the local farmers to a party with free food and drinks. She schmoozed with officials in Wasco and Jefferson County — the two counties that the ranch spanned. She played the role of a rich housewife, becoming friendly with the locals and trying to convince them that she’d be a good neighbor.
At the beginning at least, Sheela admits she was less concerned with the legalities of what they were doing and more concerned about public opinion. She thought that if she could quietly build the commune’s foundation and gradually allow sannyasins onto the ranch, locals might warm to them. But she maintains that she was honest about her intentions in those early months: she really did want to build a farming commune — an “ecological experiment,” as she called it — out in the desert. Her only omission, she says, was not admitting how many people she expected to live there eventually.
To be clear: the story Sheela was telling people in August 1981 about building a small farming commune was a complete and total lie — the first of many that Oregonians would be asked to swallow over the coming years. The only reason Sheela bought the Big Muddy Ranch was to build Bhagwan’s Buddhafield and convene the thousands of sannyasins scattered around the globe after Poona was abandoned. The plan was to build the infrastructure to support this large community. The plan was to have Bhagwan move there as quickly as possible and stay in the US permanently.
There was no Plan B. Sheela wasn’t looking at other property for the commune. The Big Muddy Ranch was it.
It seems that Sheela drastically underestimated how long it would take people to figure out her real plan for the property. By late August 1981, local reporters and national outlets like the Los Angeles Times had figured out Sheela’s connection with Bhagwan. They started asking whether she planned to build a massive spiritual center on the ranch, which she denied. On August 30, the Portland Oregonian newspaper ran its first article about the Rajneeshees in Oregon. Sheela admitted that she planned to build “Rajneeshpuram,” meaning City of Rajneesh, and that it would have a school, a medical center, a library, and plenty of housing for the farm workers. But she wasn’t yet calling it Bhagwan’s new commune, and she said her Master hadn’t even been “invited” to the ranch yet. When the reporter spotted two covered Rolls Royces outside Sheela’s home, she laughed it off and called them “her toys.”
Bhagwan arrived at the ranch before the article was even published.
The way Sheela tells it, she was visiting Bhagwan at the Montclair castle in August when he told her that he would be moving to the ranch in two days. She tried to put him off so they’d have more time to prepare, but he wouldn’t budge. Sheela phoned the sannyasin responsible for building Bhagwan’s house. When the poor woman realized Sheela wasn’t joking, she started bawling. His house — a triple-wide trailer — had been put in place just a couple days earlier. The foundation wasn’t finished, the utilities weren’t connected, there was no landscaping… Sheela told her: just get it done. He’s coming.
Dozens of sannyasins worked around the clock from that moment forward to get the house ready for their Master’s arrival. Gardeners planted shrubs and threw potted plants everywhere they could, and someone rigged a sprinkler to the back of a tractor and towed it up and down the roads near Bhagwan’s house to try to tamp down all the dust.
Sheela chartered a private jet to fly Bhagwan from New Jersey to Oregon. She reportedly instructed the pilot to fly low when they got to Eastern Oregon because she didn’t want Bhagwan to see the verdant forests around Mount Hood, 100 miles in the distance, and think that the ranch was similarly green.
Bhagwan arrived at the ranch amidst a fleet of Rolls Royces, and he was greeted by the entire sannyasin work crew sitting on his newly-sodded lawn. Sheela says they all looked so beautiful to her - tan from their long hours working the land, wearing freshly-washed clothes, smiling and crying as they welcomed their Master to his new home. He sat with them in silence for about five minutes, then went into the house with Sheela and Vivek. A couple minutes later, Sheela burst out onto the balcony and cried, “He likes it!” to cheers from the crowd.
At least, that’s the way Sheela tells it. Another ex-sannyasin reports that Bhagwan was disappointed by the dry terrain and the lack of trees. Bhagwan loved trees. One of his favorite things about his home in Poona had been all the trees that enveloped him there. In Oregon, he apparently saw this sad trailer situated on a bare hill on this dusty ranch, and he was not happy about it.
Whatever Bhagwan thought — the ranch was to be his home for the next four years. And from the moment he arrived, the pretense about a quaint farming experiment was out the door. It was time for Sheela and her deputies to kick it into high gear and start planning for the orange flood.
Next time on Building Utopia, tensions with the locals come to a boil as it becomes clear that their new neighbors aren’t being exactly straightforward with them. This leads the Rajneeshees to take a very aggressive step: incorporating part of their ranch as a city. Although it seems like the answer to many of the problems they’re facing… they certainly can’t anticipate the headaches it will cause them down the road.
We hope you join us next time.
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 subscribe, rate, and 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. If you have any questions or comments about issues we’ve covered in this series, I’d love to hear from you.
See you next time.