Episode 7: Inside the Compound
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.
Last time we witnessed the fiery battle between the Rajneeshees and their neighbors during their first year in Oregon. By the end of 1982, Bhagwan’s followers seemed to have the upper hand. They took over the Antelope city government and incorporated their own city on their 125-square-mile ranch. Today we’ll explore what the Rajneeshees planned to do with their land, and who they recruited to help them do it. We’ll see what life was like for the hundreds of commune members who toiled from sun-up to sundown each day building their Master’s utopia. And later, we’ll catch up with the big man himself. Bhagwan had entered into a silent phase before leaving India. So if he wasn’t talking… what was he doing in his secluded compound?
Stick with us.
PART 1 - The City
Say what you will about the Rajneeshees and all their antics… but you can’t dispute that they made real progress towards achieving Bhagwan’s vision in the early 1980s. To do this, the commune needed a steady supply of smart, hard-working disciples who could apply their education and skills to the task.
Take Deva Wadud, for example. He’s the Rajneeshpuram city planner we met briefly in the previous episode. [Background audio: Deva Wadud talking] Wadud is emblematic of so many of Bhagwan’s Western followers: a highly educated, open-minded seeker craving something different than the conformity he saw all around him. He started out on a traditional path, earning an architecture degree from the University of Michigan, a masters in design from Harvard, and then doing city planning in California. But when he got laid off, Wadud attended a 6-month program at the Berkeley Psychic Institute, where he learned to read people’s auras and chakras. This became his job for a couple years before he learned about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and took sannyas in India.
It’s no wonder that Deva Wadud was selected to design the city of Rajneeshpuram. Beyond his impressive resume, he was a true believer. He told a reporter that he felt blessed to have an enlightened being driving down his street every day, as a daily reminder of his highest human potential. Wadud said, “You don’t have to go on faith. He’s right there for you. Either you feel it, or you don’t.”
As the city planner, Wadud said Rajneeshpuram would be similar to the newly-opened Epcot Center at Disney World. While Epcot was a model of the technological future, Rajneeshpuram would be a model for humankind’s social potential.
The way Deva Wadud articulated his vision for Rajneeshpuram aligned nicely with the vision Bhagwan had espoused while still in India. As we’ve discussed before, Bhagwan wanted his new commune to be a large “Buddhafield” — a place where he could transmit his enlightened energy to all of his followers, and ultimately to the entire planet. The new commune would allow his disciples to get closer to God.
[Audio: BSR] “I want to create a small city, sooner or later, where people will be living totally egolessly. And the more people will be there, the more is the possibility for happenings, for miracles — because more God will be available. The sky will come more close to you.”
They all would live and work communally, as one big “liquid family,” since Bhagwan said the traditional nuclear family only crushed people, and their souls. In his new commune, men and women would casually join together and then separate freely. Children would “belong to the commune” and be taken care of by everyone.
[AUDIO: BSR] “In a commune, children can belong to the commune, and that will be far better. They will have more opportunities to grow with many more kinds of people. . . . If a hundred people live together in a commune there will be many male members, many female members; the child need not get fixed and obsessed with one pattern of life. He can learn from his father, he can learn from his uncles, he can learn from all the men in the community. He will have a bigger soul.”
There would be no churches, no rituals, no societal strictures. Politics would be forbidden, since he said they made people neurotic. Instead they would focus on their individual spiritual growth, transforming into a “new man” who lived life with joy and laughter.
Although Deva Wadud seemed in synch with his Master’s vision when talking about his plan for the city, there were many layers of bureaucracy between him and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Most notable among them was the person running everything, the president of the Rajneesh Foundation International, Bhagwan’s right-hand woman.
When Sheela talked about the plans for Rajneeshpuram, you didn’t hear a lot about using Bhagwan’s energy to transform mankind or utopian visions of a new family structure. To me, her comments often sound more shallow.
[Audio: Sheela] “Very beautiful city. A city — one which has never existed in the universe, where people live in harmony, live in love. Beautiful city. Example for the universe.”
In a 1983 interview, Sheela said, “We’re all about great vegetarian food, 12 hours of work a day, a lot of fun, games and nice people.”
Many people — Sheela included — have said that Sheela wasn’t a spiritual person and she looked down on the “meditators,” as she called them, who clustered around Bhagwan like groupies. If Sheela didn’t fully grasp, or didn’t really care about, Bhagwan’s vision for his new commune — the spiritual and social experiments he wanted to play out there — did it ever have any chance of success? Or was it always doomed to failure, before a single sannyasin arrived on the property?
But people like Deva Wadud had to get down to nuts and bolts, and so will we. How do you practically transform Bhagwan’s vision — however you may interpret it — into something tangible?
The process formally started with the three-volume Comprehensive Plan for Rajneeshpuram, a document required by state law. It must have been a massive undertaking to prepare it. The plan is about 700 pages, with maps, charts, population projections, soil studies, and a proposed development code. Bhagwan’s quotations and his utopian goals are rife throughout the document. It says within the first couple pages that they’re creating a commune based on his teachings, and it contains lofty statements like: “Rajneeshpuram will be a practical and realistic demonstration of the interrelationship and interdependency of humankind with the total environment.”
Basically, the Rajneeshees proposed creating a 2100-acre city on the 64,000-acre ranch. The city would actually be three distinct areas, miles apart from each other, connected only by the county highway that meandered through the ranch. The main area was called Jesus Grove, where the original ranch buildings were sited and where most of the early development had taken place. At the time of the Comprehensive Plan, Jesus Grove already had 27 double-wide trailers, an office building, a warehouse, a machine shop, an airstrip, the massive Rajneesh Mandir assembly hall, and the Magdalena Cafeteria. Jesus Grove was where Sheela’s home-slash-command center was situated, right at a major intersection on the ranch, in the middle of everything. It’s also where you’d find Bhagwan’s compound, although it was tucked away in the hills, far from prying eyes.
The other two proposed areas comprising the city of Rajneeshpuram were called Gautam the Buddha Grove and Desiderata Canyon. They had grand plans for these areas, including a religious retreat center and conference facilities. But none of that really came to pass, and nearly all new development continued in Jesus Grove.
Deva Wadud presented the Comprehensive Plan to the Rajneeshpuram City Council on September 7, 1982, receiving enthusiastic applause from the large group of Rajneeshees who attended. Leading up to this meeting, 1000 Friends had sought injunctions to stop the city council from adopting the plan, but the local circuit court smacked them down. After the city council formally adopted the plan, it was in the hands of the commune members to build what they could, as quickly as they could, to satisfy their eager Master.
For this, they would need a well-oiled machine — an army of laborers, really, to get it done. And the machine would need to be up and running at all times. As luck would have it, Sheela had for years been grooming the perfect person to oversee it all.
[Audio: Town Hall Nov 1982 Vidya] “Who decides who does what here? Who decides? Right there, would you identify yourself please? [Laughter]
“My name is Ma Yoga Vidya. And people come in to work at the ranch and first we find out whatever their skills are, and wherever their skills are needed. And that’s where they work.
“Well what if there’s nothing for them in their skills? Say for example I’m a lawyer. Say for example I come in here and you’ve got enough lawyers? Then what?
“Well, if there are enough lawyers, then work will be found somewhere else. And actually whatever work you do here doesn’t matter. Because if you’re putting your love and joy into the ranch, that’s all that’s needed.”
Ma Yoga Vidya was a tall, sturdy blonde from South Africa, with a pointed chin and a fierce look in her eyes. She had three degrees, including a master’s in mathematics from the University of London, and she had worked as a systems analyst for companies like IBM before winding up at Bhagwan’s feet in India. With her sharp analytical mind and her corporate background, Vidya received an invitation from Ma Yoga Laxmi to work in the Krishna House administration.
Laxmi put Vidya in charge of people at the ashram. In particular, she was responsible for ensuring that everybody who worked for the ashram had a job and that everything that needed doing was getting done. It was essentially human resources. She was the one you went to if you hated your job or your coworkers. She might help you find something else. Or she might snap at you, question your surrender to Bhagwan, and send you on your way. Vidya developed a reputation for being a cold, tough manager.
But she did warm up to one of her Krishna House co-workers: Sheela. As Sheela transitioned into Laxmi’s role, she kept Vidya at her side as a trusted aide and confidante. At Rajneeshpuram, Sheela made Vidya the president of the commune — the person in charge of everyone living there. When a new sannyasin arrived at the commune, Vidya’s office would be one of their very first stops.
But getting invited to be a commune member was no small feat, especially in the first couple years. Remember, there were probably tens of thousands of sannyasins in the early 1980s, but only a couple hundred were allowed to live at the ranch. It wasn’t like Poona, where people could just show up at the ashram unannounced to take a few courses while staying at an offsite villa. At Rajneeshpuram, if you were there — you had been selected to be a commune member. And that meant you worked, doing whatever the commune told you to do. You were really there by the grace of Sheela, Vidya, and other commune coordinators.
We’ve discussed how Sheela used the move to America as a way to reboot the Rajneesh organization. She selected who came to New Jersey and lived at the castle with Bhagwan. This allowed her to carve off some of the Poona old guard who had been loyal to Laxmi. At Rajneeshpuram, her control extended to every detail, down to each person who was allowed to live there. She and Vidya would review questionnaires submitted by interested sannyasins and select people based on the skills they needed, among other things.
In that clip we heard earlier, Vidya said that it doesn’t really matter what she assigned you to do, since the work itself isn’t important — it’s the love you put into it, and into the commune. If that type of language rings a bell, it’s because the idea goes all the way back to Bhagwan’s Kailash Experiment in the early 70s, where sannyasins like Shiva were sent to work in horrible conditions in rural India as way to surrender to their Master. That thread carried all the way through to Rajneeshpuram, gaining steam as it became clear to administrators that they could demand round-the-clock labor from Bhagwan’s followers.
Those who were given the privilege of living at the commune encountered an atmosphere that was very different from Bhagwan’s previous commune in Poona. Men vastly outnumbered women at the ranch for the first couple years, presumably because men at the time were more likely to have the engineering and construction skills they needed. Now, you’d still find women driving heavy equipment and working outside in subzero temperatures alongside their male counterparts. But you were more likely to find them in the laundries, the kitchens, and doing administrative work.
The gender imbalance at the ranch — and the notorious Rajneeshee libidos — created what one female sannyasin described as a “meat market” atmosphere at night. Men who had been quiet meditators in Poona became rowdy beer drinkers in Oregon, as if the rugged environment and the hard labor had transformed them. Some men aggressively pursued sex with the women there, and made known to Sheela that if she wanted to keep them happy, she had to bring in more women as soon as possible.
It’s surprising they had any energy left for sex after working 12 to 15 hour shifts each day, with short meal breaks but otherwise very little free time. They might get half a day off every other week. But, again, work was worship to the Rajneeshees. Bhagwan had said that labor should be joyful, filled with laughter, a way to move along their spiritual path. And according to firsthand accounts of people who did this for years, many Rajneeshees really felt that.
[Audio: Sannyasin] “The Bhagwan asks that we meditate at least once a day. There are like 108 different meditations that are available to do. And for us now at this point on the ranch, work is our meditation. [Laughs] 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
They describe a sense of joy doing the most mundane tasks. Satya Bharti, the famous sannyasin author we met in our first minisode, describes in her memoir how much she loved working in the laundry room for months on end. If she ever started to question what on earth she was doing with her life, she’d remember that Bhagwan was a master and Rajneeshpuram was his mystery school. It wasn’t her place to question his designs — she had to trust him. She had to surrender. That was the whole point of the place.
Years later, after she had left Rajneeshpuram, Satya wrote that the commune leaders used guilt as a tool to keep sannyasins in their places. Sheela and Vidya often reminded commune members how lucky they were to be living at Rajneeshpuram. There were thousands of people who were begging to be close to Bhagwan, who would gladly take their spots. Don’t be a squeaky wheel.
The buzz word used around the commune was “negativity.” Sheela HATED negativity. The quickest way to get kicked out of Rajneeshpuram was to be negative. She’d tell them at public meetings: no grumbling, no signs of dissatisfaction. The only way to fulfill Bhagwan’s dream is to be 100% positive at all times. And it wasn’t just a state of mind they were looking for: negative physical conditions like illness and exhaustion just weren’t allowed. You were expected to be positive and work through it.
If there were to be too much negativity at the ranch, Sheela issued the ultimate threat, worse even than getting expelled: If Rajneeshpuram didn’t work out — fine. Bhagwan would just leave them all behind, taking only 7 or 8 special disciples with him. Everyone else would be left on their own.
You can hear some of Sheela’s attitude in this 1982 television program, where she scoffs at the idea of paying her labor force.
[Audio: Sheela on Town Hall program] “For now, you don’t get paid in money. Is that true of everybody here? Is that correct Sheela?
“Yes, it’s very correct. Here the question is not of payment. What we are doing is of a meditation. And meditation is always out of abundance. It is an overflow. Overflow of one’s energy. And for overflow, you do not require to be paid. You are just grateful that you’ve got this opportunity to put that energy somewhere in a creative work.”
To ensure that people remained grateful, remained positive, Sheela installed a network of coordinators — essentially middle managers, loyal to her — who policed the commune for negativity. Since she was busy doing PR and politics and managing the international Rajneesh movement, Sheela deputized Ma Yoga Vidya, the stern South African, to be the chief enforcer on the ranch. Vidya used an iron fist to get this done. Satya remembers Vidya laying on her office floor, since she had a bad back, surrounded by terrified sannyasins who had been summoned for a dressing down. She would rip into each person for their perceived transgression, their failure to surrender to the commune, their lack of devotion to Bhagwan. It would continue until they were crying and begging her to let them stay. They would surrender. They would do better. They would do… whatever she asked.
Sometimes Vidya would show them mercy. But other times she would send them packing, telling them they didn’t know the first thing about surrender. Satya Bharti’s relationship with Bhagwan and Vidya went all the way back to Bombay — and even she was convinced on multiple occasions that Vidya was about to expel her for something she had said or done. Once, Satya suggested to another commune member that Sheela’s home should get its own washer and dryer, to avoid the risk of getting mud on her designer clothes while they were being transported outside. This seemingly innocuous statement got reported up the chain until it reached Vidya’s ears. She ripped into Satya for being on a power trip and challenging Sheela’s authority to decide how her own laundry should be done.
Clearly, the point of all this was to keep commune members in their places. Some would call it a form of brainwashing, designed to prevent them from questioning — and ultimately challenging — the leadership. And it worked. Commune members learned to keep their heads down, to focus on their jobs, and to surrender to whatever was thrown at them. And if they did so, many have reported that they experienced real joy while working at Rajneeshpuram. If they avoided Sheela’s gang, if they didn’t get in trouble, they were free to laugh and worship and bask in their proximity to Bhagwan all day long. They lived in a place with 100% employment, free medical care, free housing, free food. It was utopia for them, in a way.
We’ve been talking a lot in the past few episodes about Sheela and her moves. But what about the guy on top? He’s been in silence since India, not saying a word to his followers, apparently leaving Sheela to fight with the neighbors and lay the foundations for his commune. So… if he’s not lecturing, not holding audiences… what has Bhagwan been doing?
We’ll find out after the break.
PART 2 - The Master’s Den
Tom Stimmel receives a bizarre phone call in November 1982. On the other end is Ma Prem Isabel, who runs Rajneeshpuram’s press office. She asks in her lilting Chilean-French accent whether he’d be interested in an audience with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Stimmel is a reporter for the Portland Oregonian newspaper, and he jumps at the opportunity. Everybody in the state is buzzing about this strange guru hidden away somewhere on this big ranch, never speaking, appearing in glimpses only while driving one of his many Rolls Royces on the county roads.
“This would be an appearance only,” Isabel cautions him. “Bhagwan does not give interviews.” They agree upon an 8:30 pm audience time.
But one doesn’t simply traipse into Bhagwan’s home — especially an outsider. Stimmel spends a day touring the ranch and hearing about all they’ve accomplished and dining with Ma Anand Sheela at her house. As the audience time approaches, the reporter is stunned when they hand him a bar of unscented soap and a bottle of unscented shampoo, and instruct him to take a shower. “Bhagwan is very sensitive to odors,” he’s told. They also give him some clean, unscented clothes to wear… which just happen to be orangish in color.
Isabel drives the freshly-scrubbed reporter up to Bhagwan’s secluded compound, surrounded by a manicured lawn and juniper trees and carefully-lit landscaping. Stimmel joins Sheela’s husband Jay, and a couple others who kneel in a waiting room while Sheela disappears through a door. Half an hour later, she beckons Stimmel to follow her down a set of corridors. They enter a simple room with nothing but linoleum flooring, pecan wall paneling, a wing-backed chair, and a table. And, of course, an enlightened Master, wearing a gray robe and stocking cap.
Despite Isabel’s warning, Tom Stimmel can’t help but ask Bhagwan a question. After all, he’s the first reporter in America to have this opportunity. Wouldn’t it help relations between the commune and the rest of Oregon, he asks, for you to appear publicly and speak every now and then?
Bhagwan indulges him, and answers. And answers. And… answers. He rambles on for 40 minutes in a low, barely-audible voice, talking about religiousness and faith and Jesus. Stimmel can’t understand all of it, and can’t even hear all of it. But Bhagwan’s ultimate answer seems to be, “I don’t need to speak publicly, because I’ve already said everything.”
With that, the audience is over. Having asked just one question and received an undecipherable answer, Stimmel is escorted out of the home and off the premises, left to write a short article about his strange encounter with the guru.
More than a year earlier, Rajneeshees at the Poona ashram had been preparing for a momentous day. Most people there hadn’t seen or heard from their Master for a couple weeks, ever since a chicken pox outbreak led him to cancel his daily lectures and evening audiences. But April 11, 1981 was the day things were supposed to go back to normal, the day they expected Bhagwan to begin a new series of lectures. He’d be back up on his dais in Buddha Hall, answering their questions about philosophy and relationships, rambling on about Indian politics, making crude jokes. They just had to be patient.
But the night before his big return, April 10, Sheela gathered all the ashram department-heads to a meeting, where she poured them glasses of wine, practically shivering with excitement. Bhagwan was about to enter a new stage of his work, she told them. The ultimate stage. He had told Sheela that his next appearance would be on May 1 — but he would not speak a word. Instead, he would sit in silent communion with them, on that day and every day going forward. He was done speaking publicly. She should spread the news around the ashram, but Bhagwan told her to convey it with the same sense of joy that he felt about this new era. The ashram came alive that night with singing and dancing as the news spread.
And that’s how it was in Poona for the month of May 1981. Each morning, Bhagwan sat in silent communion, or satsang as they called it, with his eyes closed, transmitting his energy to the gathered sannyasins.
By the end of that month, Bhagwan was on a plane to America, where he retreated even more from his disciples. He held satsangs only a couple times a year, on special days like his birthday. His public silence went on for more than three years, from May 1981 to October 1984.
As we’ve discussed before, Bhagwan’s words were his currency. For him to be silent is like if a pro basketball player refused to touch a ball. Now, to be clear, Bhagwan didn’t stop speaking altogether. He still talked to Laxmi and Sheela about administrative matters. He still talked to his long-time companion, Vivek, and his physicians, and his household staff. He would occasionally speak with other close intimates like Deeksha, who ran the kitchens at the ashram, and Mukta, the Greek heiress who did his landscaping, and Shiva, his bodyguard. But to the vast majority of sannyasins, Bhagwan was now an entirely silent presence.
So how does an enlightened master fill his days when he’s got no lectures on the calendar, no private audiences with his disciples, no official duties to carry out?
For one… he was driving. There’s no question that Bhagwan loved cars and the freedom they offered him. While in Poona he had upgraded from a Chevy Impala to his first Rolls Royce, which transported him the 150 yards from his home to Buddha Hall. In New Jersey, he hit the Garden State Parkway like a madman. And once he got to Oregon, he started developing a true Rolls Royce collection. There were at least two waiting for him when he arrived at Rajneeshpuram, and plans were being made for more. They soon built a huge garage to hold them all, and a shop where they could apply custom paint jobs, like rainbows and stars. By the end of 1985, Bhagwan had nearly 100 Rolls Royces at his disposal.
So what’s up with the luxury cars? It’s a question that obsessed the American public in the 1980s. From all the interviews I’ve read with Sheela from that period, she seemed to be asked more about the cars than anything else. And her answer was usually the same: “Why so many Rolls Royces? Why not? Why shouldn’t my Master have the very best? If I could, I’d buy him 1000 Rolls Royces.”
But what was the point of having so many cars? Was there a point? The Rajneeshee party line was that Bhagwan used his Rolls Royce collection as a device to provoke the American public. We know he loved to stoke controversies. He’d done it in India by promoting open sexuality and criticizing conservative religious beliefs and attacking politicians. His tactic in America was to drape himself in conspicuous wealth. The message — in line with Bhagwan’s teachings — was that wealth is spirituality, is something everyone should aspire to. Unlike the Pope or televangelists, who praised the poor while sitting on enormous fortunes, Bhagwan was putting it all out in the open, in an effort to shock people into a new consciousness. Yeah, I’m rich and I’m enlightened. What’s wrong with that?
The pill you have to swallow along with this view is that Bhagwan didn’t really care about the cars, but only the reaction they provoked. For me, that’s a hard pill to swallow. It seems more likely to me that Bhagwan just loved luxury cars and wanted as many as he could get. He was known to be a compulsive collector, with his massive library, his collection of Mont Blanc pens and Rolex watches. Sheela claims that she had to keep buying Rolls Royces for her Master because he demanded it, without any care for where the money came from or whether it would harm Rajneeshpuram’s development. And other ex-sannyasins have said that Bhagwan would talk in private for hours about Rolls Royces, specifying the exterior and interior colors he wanted, and even the upgrades like a diamond ashtray. If there was a spiritual or pedantic purpose for the cars, in my opinion it wasn’t the primary reason that Bhagwan had so many.
There was also an income-generating aspect to the car collection. To be technically accurate, Bhagwan didn’t own anything. The Rajneesh Foundation International and the various trusts and corporations underneath it, owned everything in Bhagwan’s orbit. This included the Rolls Royces, which were ultimately owned by the Rajneesh Modern Car Collection Trust. This tax-exempt trust held the title to the cars and — interestingly — leased them out to sannyasins. For example, one sannyasin named Sikha leased seven cars from the trust for payments totaling $100,000. But that didn’t mean she got to actually drive a Rolls Royce. Nobody was allowed to drive the cars but Bhagwan. So if you “leased” a Rolls Royce from the trust, you were just making a donation.
Occasionally, there would be an opportunity for a fortunate sannyasin to actually buy a car from the trust. Of course, the price tag would be way over market value, since their Master’s tuchus had graced the seat.
Each afternoon at Rajneeshpuram, Bhagwan would get behind the wheel of one of his cars, along with Vivek and maybe one or two other intimates. After a short jaunt through the ranch, he’d hit the county roads and head to the town of Madras, about 30 miles away. A black truck with flashing yellow lights would drive ahead, ensuring the way was clear and safe. Upon reaching the Madras city limits, the convoy would turn around and head right back to the ranch.
Bhagwan was a crazy driver by all accounts. In Oregon he received tickets for speeding and improper passing, and he was known to drive off the road on occasion. One time, the Mayor of Antelope, Margaret Hill, happened to be driving by when it happened, and she stopped to offer help. Bhagwan reportedly ignored her and just walked away. Vivek later told Bhagwan’s bodyguard Shiva that she was certain they were going to die in the accident and that it had terrified her.
If he was hoping his drives would provoke a reaction — Bhagwan got it. Some locals reportedly harassed his convoy and once even fired a gun at the escort car. A local minister set up a daily protest at the Madras city limits which grew in popularity. Oregonians would sit there waiting for Bhagwan to arrive, then hurl invective at him until he turned around and drove away.
When he wasn’t driving, Bhagwan spent nearly every moment of his Rajneeshpuram life at his home in Lao Tzu Grove. Lao Tzu was a secluded compound of four buildings and trailers connected by corridors. By 1982, Bhagwan’s home had an indoor pool, a medical wing, and a guard tower. He lived there with a rotating cast of attendants and household staff, including Vivek, Shiva, his doctor, his dentist, his cook, his cleaners.
So what did he do up there to pass the time? It depends on who you ask.
According to Bhagwan’s own statements at the time, he spent his days at Lao Tzu sitting in his room by himself, meditating on spiritual matters. He testified in a 1984 deposition — trust me, we’ll talk about that in a later episode — that he didn’t watch television, didn’t read the newspaper because he wasn’t concerned with worldly affairs anymore. He left the day-to-day running of the commune and the international Rajneeshee community to Sheela and her coordinators. His only remaining involvement was a time slot he made available to Sheela each night from 7-9 pm, where she could come to Lao Tzu and consult him on spiritual issues.
So that’s how Bhagwan described his days. Is it true? Let’s dig into it.
First off, Bhagwan’s biggest hobby in India had been reading, and there’s no question that he did give that up around the time he fell into silence in early 1981. This is pretty remarkable, for a guy who had bragged about reading 150,000 books, who had an exceptional recall of what he read and who dripped literary references into nearly all of his discourses. Sheela says Bhagwan told her at the time that his eyes were getting bad, he was getting headaches from reading, and that — really — he had read enough so it wasn’t a big deal to let it go.
But contrary to how he testified at his deposition, it seems that Bhagwan found other ways to stay connected with the outside world while living at Rajneeshpuram. Shiva, his bodyguard who lived at Lao Tzu for a while, installed a video screen in Bhagwan’s room, and he says three sannyasins were tasked with providing a constant supply of movies for their Master to watch. Favorites included Patton with George C. Scott, and The Ten Commandments, both of which he watched repeatedly. He later fessed up to this while being interviewed by a reporter.
[Audio: BSR discourse]
“I READ SOMEWHERE THAT YOU LIKED PATTON AND THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.
“Ten Commandments I liked, as a film!
“YOU DIDN'T LIKE THE BOOK!
“No. `Commandment' -- the very word -- is not for me.”
Keeping up with the news was also part of Bhagwan’s routine, but here’s where things get controversial. Bhagwan testified multiple times that he lived like a monk in his room without any care for worldly concerns. Frankly, that wasn’t true. Nothing makes this more obvious than Bhagwan’s lectures in 1984 and 85, after he started speaking again, when it’s clear that he is very up-to-date on world events. People close to Bhagwan have said that he closely monitored all the news about himself and his commune and played an active role in shaping the Rajneeshpuram PR efforts.
Sheela writes in her memoir that Bhagwan taped every television appearance that she made, and he would review them with her at night to provide his critiques. He choreographed who she would talk to and each inflammatory statement she would make. She says Bhagwan’s goal was to attract curiosity about the commune and gather more followers and more donors. You would think Bhagwan got what he wished for with Sheela:
[Audio: Sheela interviews]
Sheela: “One time.. I tell you what…”
Ted Koppel: “I’ll tell you what, Sheela you’ve A. You’ve had your opportunity to speak. B. If you’re going to use obscenities you’re going to forfeit any opportunity to speak. And C. I said that Mr. Forbish would have the final word. If you’re not quiet, we’ll just cut the microphone off. In that case we’re going to cut your microphone…”
Sheela: “My master teaches me if the truth antagonizes, it’s perfectly okay. It is your network who has put obscenity and profanity to provoke the state of Oregon.
Reporter: “But it came out of your mouth.
Sheela: “No. It didn’t come out of my mouth.
Reporter: “I heard it.
Sheela: “I’ll tell it now. Your network can go and jump in a lake. Take your microphone and leave.”
But despite her approach with the press, Bhagwan thought Sheela was too mild. He confirmed this after he started speaking publicly again. Here he is at a discourse in July 1985, answering a question from Ma Prem Isabel. We’ve met Isabel before: she’s the beautiful Chilean sannyasin who dated Shiva, accompanied Laxmi to America, and invited the reporter Tom Stimmel to visit Bhagwan.
[Audio: BSR discourse]
“Q: DURING THE TIME YOU DIDN'T SPEAK, SHEELA WAS SPEAKING ALL OVER THE PLACE, AND MANY PEOPLE GOT OFFENDED WITH HER COMMENTS. AND EVERYBODY ASKS, "HOW COME SHEELA IS YOUR SPOKESPERSON? HOW COME SHEELA MAKES THOSE STATEMENTS? SHE IS ANTAGONIZING PEOPLE." WOULD YOU SAY SOMETHING ABOUT THAT?
“A: I was also very much offended by Sheela. [Laughter] Whenever she came back, I hit her hard, because she was not the way I would like her to be — really outrageous! She was falling below the standard. And I was continuously telling her, "Don't be worried, we don't have anything to lose. We have to gain the whole world and nothing to lose. Be outrageous!" … I have been sharpening her like a sword. Go, and cut as many heads as you can. Isabel, I agree. I was also offended.” [APPLAUSE]
Not only did Bhagwan prod Sheela into being more aggressive in her public relations, but he defended her when others within the commune questioned her tactics. Early on, Krishna Deva, the Mayor of Rajneeshpuram, begged Sheela to be more conciliatory in the press and with their neighbors. After multiple conversations, she got fed up and hauled him before Bhagwan himself, who chastized KD and commanded him not to question Sheela since she was acting at his direction.
If all of these stories are to be believed — including Bhagwan’s own words — he was well aware of what was going on in the outside world, especially as it related to the perception of Rajneeshees in America. He could see this objectively by watching the news and reading the newspaper. But how much did Bhagwan know about the internal workings of Rajneeshpuram? This gets harder to determine, since he had closed himself off from nearly everyone. He had one real conduit of detailed information about how the commune was being run: Sheela. How much Bhagwan knew about and controlled Sheela’s activities — especially as she starts hatching criminal schemes — is a complicated question that we’ll keep coming back to as events unfold.
In addition to driving, watching movies, and keeping up with the news, Bhagwan developed another hobby that we’ll be discussing next time. His health issues — like the asthma, the allergies, the back problems — continued to plague him in America. It was no secret that Bhagwan had a medical suite installed at Lao Tzu, where he could receive treatment from his personal doctor and nurses.
But not everybody knew about the dental suite he had installed. Or his daily trips there. Or what happened to him when his personal dentist slipped on the gas mask and pulled out a notebook.
Next time on Building Utopia, Bhagwan’s health issues are front-and-center as the Immigration and Naturalization Service starts sniffing around the ranch. Is he in America for medical purposes? Is he a religious leader? Should he be kicked out?
And it’s not just Bhagwan they’re interested in. Something is starting to look suspicious about all of these hasty marriages between American sannyasins and foreigners who now live at the ranch.
Later, we’ll see how the Rajneesh empire expanded throughout America and the world, including restaurants, hotels, bakeries, and discos. One of these enterprises falls victim to a vicious terrorist attack, and suddenly armed security is at the forefront of Sheela’s game plan.
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 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.
If you have any questions or comments about topics we’ve covered in this series, I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me through the website, or find Building Utopia on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
See you next time.