Episode 8 - Making it Legal(?)
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.
[AUDIO - INS interview] INS examiner: “ Today is Thursday, October 14; the following will be an interview in connection with the visa petition filed on behalf of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh by Rajneesh Foundation International, correct? My name is George Hunter, Immigration Examiner, Portland, Oregon.”
George Hunter was having a very strange day. He was the supervising immigration examiner for the Portland office of the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS. He’d seen a lot over the years — but nothing like the scene that unfolded on October 14, 1982.
It started that morning when about 30 red-clad followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh showed up at the U.S. Customs Building in Portland. Barking orders at them like a drill sergeant was their notorious leader, Ma Anand Sheela. “Carpet, carpet, carpet!” she yelled, prompting sannyasins unfurl a red carpet between the street and the building’s rear entrance. Another carpet was hauled inside the customs building and unrolled all the way to the elevators. Sannyasins sprang into action with portable vacuums and brooms to ensure the carpet was pristine. While men hauled a heavy cushioned chair inside the building, others polished the brass elevator doors and lined the carpet with flowers. It all had to be perfect.
The appointed time was 9:30 a.m., but the gleaming white Rolls Royce they had been expecting was half an hour late. The chaos outside the building melted into serene reverence as Bhagwan stepped out of the car and smiled at his disciples. A flute player serenaded the Master as he glided along the carpet and disappeared into the building.
It was Bhagwan’s first trip to Portland since arriving in Oregon more than a year earlier. Other than his speeding tickets, it would be his first interaction with American law enforcement. And certainly not his last. Bhagwan had applied to be a permanent resident in the United States, and now it was time for his interview with the INS.
Earlier that morning, Sheela had mustered some spiritual support. The entire commune bid Bhagwan farewell at Rajneeshpuram’s private airstrip, with music and singing and dancing. Sheela had commanded them to be 100% positive, to improve his chances of success. Bhagwan climbed aboard a brand-new twin-engine plane, waving and flashing the peace sign, reportedly wearing a $150,000 Cartier watch.
Sheela had good reason to be anxious about Bhagwan’s day with the INS. Securing her master permanently in the United States was her number one priority — more important than Rajneeshpuram, more important than her battles with Antelope, more important than anything. If Bhagwan were deported, everything that she had worked to build in America — and the massive investment she had already made at the ranch — would be meaningless. She’d be a failure.
The interview had to go well. Bhagwan and Sheela had to persuade the INS to allow him to stay permanently. They had to get their stories straight. And when it came to Bhagwan, you never really knew what was going to come out of his mouth.
In today’s episode, the first federal investigation into the Rajneeshees lurches to a start. The fate of Bhagwan, and his new commune, hinged on the work of a small crew of immigration officials. There would be many criminal investigations of the Rajneeshees in the years to come, but it all started — and really ended — with immigration. And it wasn’t just Bhagwan who got caught up in the net. The INS began to develop evidence that the Rajneeshees were engaged in a massive immigration-fraud scheme. Sheela, and the Rajneeshpuram legal department, were in for the fight of their lives.
Stick with us.
PART 1 - Bhagwan’s Immigration Problems
In May 1981, Sheela had showed up at the US Consulate in Bombay in tears. She explained that her Master’s health had taken a severe turn for the worse. It was so bad that he had stopped speaking publicly. His asthma was making it hard for him to breathe, and he coughed so hard that he slipped a disc in his spine. A non-sannyasin specialist was flown in from London, and he suggested that Bhagwan have spine surgery — a laminectomy — in the United States.
In her discussions with the consular officials, Sheela didn’t mention anything about all the groundwork she had already laid to prepare for Bhagwan’s arrival in America. The Chidvilas Center; the castle in Montclair, New Jersey; the sannyasins who were already preparing to travel there and improve the property for Bhagwan. All she said was that the Rajneeshees had a place in New Jersey that could host Bhagwan while he received medical treatment in the New York area.
Her plea for help worked. Just weeks later, a consulate staffer hand-delivered Bhagwan’s visa to his entourage waiting at the Bombay airport. He’d have five months to receive medical treatment, and after that, he’d have to return to India. Bhagwan traveled to America, settled in to the Montclair castle… but he did not have a laminectomy. In fact, he wasn’t examined by any non-Rajneeshee doctor while living there. Five months later, when the visa expired, Bhagwan was living at Rajneeshpuram, as a “guest” of the ranch.
He wrote a simple letter to the INS: “Dear Sir … I have been enjoying visiting, touring and resting. I am delighted that my health is improving but my medical condition still needs constant attention. I would very much like to extend my stay in order to continue to be in your beautiful country for my health.” The Rajneeshees followed that up with a formal request that Bhagwan’s tourist visa be extended. At the time, federal law enforcement didn’t really have a reason to insist he leave. Rumors were starting to swirl about his activities in India and all the commotion at the ranch, but the extension was a reasonable request, and the INS granted it.
Right after that, Rajneeshee attorneys filed paperwork requesting that Bhagwan be allowed to stay in America forever. They asked for two things at the same time: (1) give Bhagwan’s application preferential treatment under the law because he’s a religious leader; and (2) allow him to adjust his immigration status from a tourist to a permanent resident alien.
This new application raised some red flags at the INS, especially when they compared it with his request to extend his tourist visa from just weeks earlier. On one hand, the Rajneeshees said his health was so poor that he could barely leave his house. But in this new application, in describing his duties as a religious leader, they said he did things like deliver discourses, respond to his disciples’ spiritual and personal needs, administer sacred rites, lead meditations, and officiate religious ceremonies and festivals. Maybe he used to do that stuff, but it was well-known that Bhagwan was in silence and wasn’t doing any of those things in America. And how was he ever going to perform all these religious functions if he could barely walk, could barely breathe?
Something wasn’t adding up. Extending his tourist visa for a couple months had been an easy choice. Granting him permanent residency? That would require some additional digging. The INS would need an explanation for the apparent contradictions between his various submissions. And what about this city they wanted to build out at the ranch? It was starting to look like Bhagwan had come to America with the full intention of staying permanently. If so, he and Sheela had lied to immigration officials.
[AUDIO - Sheela INS interview] INS examiner:“ …Thursday, October 14; the following will be an interview in connection with the visa petition filed on behalf of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh…”
The INS interview in October 1982 was Bhagwan’s chance to clear up these apparent contradictions. By that point, Rajneeshee leaders had made his case in formal submissions to the government. If Bhagwan stuck to the Rajneeshee story, he would say that he was in horrible shape in India, and that he came to America for short-term medical treatment. And that once he arrived, his condition improved and he realized that it would be best if he stayed. Staying would allow him to get healthy enough to pick up all his religious duties again.
But Bhagwan wasn’t the kind of guy to stick to anyone’s script.
I’ll paraphrase the interview transcript here:
George Hunter, the INS examiner, asked Bhagwan how long he had originally planned to stay in America. The answer: There was no way to know.
What about the medical procedure, the laminectomy? That’s why you came to the US, right? Nope, I had no idea about that. Sheela has all the details. I live in isolation, and don’t ask about these things.
You’ve been in public silence for the past year and a half. When will that end? I have no way of knowing.
Fortunately for Sheela, the INS also wanted to interview her, as a representative of the Rajneesh Foundation. I’ve tracked down a tape of that interview, although the quality isn’t great.
Sheela gave Mr. Hunter the official story:
[AUDIO - Sheela INS interview]: Sheela: “Ever since arrival from U.S. He was gradually looking a lot better, like his skin color started changing, his color was healthier. And then many people from the ranch came to me, also visited many people around America, saying Bhagwan is here, his health is improving, why don’t we persuade him to remain here? And I took a chance and I got lucky, hit the jackpot. He agreed.”
Sheela stuck to the script — they came to America because of Bhagwan’s health, and lo and behold he improved so much that now we want him to stay here.
But then Mr. Hunter threw Sheela a curveball:
[AUDIO: Sheela INS interview] “When you visited the American Consulate on May 4, 1981, you told the consular officer, among other things, that the Bhagwan was possibly dying of cancer, do you recall saying this?”
Cancer. George Hunter had received a statement from an official at the US consulate in Bombay named Joyce Smith. Smith reported that when Sheela came to her office on May 4, 1981, she said that Bhagwan was possibly dying of cancer. Smith suggested perhaps Sheela was overreacting because her husband, Chinmaya, had recently died of cancer. According to Smith, Sheela acknowledged that might be the case, but even the possibility of Bhagwan having cancer meant he urgently needed to be examined.
Smith asked: Why the US? Why not the UK or Germany, where there’s excellent medical facilities? Sheela explained that a specialist from London examined Bhagwan and “strongly advised” them to send Bhagwan specifically to the US for treatment.
The problem was… nobody had ever said anything about Bhagwan having cancer ever again.
When Hunter confronted Sheela with Joyce Smith’s statement, here’s how she responded:
[AUDIO: Sheela INS Interview] “No, I said my husband died of cancer.”
“You mentioned nothing to the consular officer of the Bhagwan possibly having cancer?”
“No, nothing to do with cancer. What I did say to the lady that he has very bad back, disintegrated back, he may need surgery, and we had already had a doctor from London come and examine and he thought at the rate it’s going he won’t have much to live.”
So Sheela says she told Joyce Smith her husband had cancer, but nothing about Bhagwan potentially having it. Then you have Smith saying that Sheela gave it as a reason to bring Bhagwan to the US. This contradiction became very important to American immigration officials. The INS later claimed that Sheela misrepresented Bhagwan’s medical condition, including his possible cancer, to score him a tourist visa.
It’s certainly possible that Sheela exaggerated Bhagwan’s condition and threw in the specter of cancer. By the time she spoke with Joyce Smith, she was on a headlong trajectory toward the US, having bought the New Jersey castle and persuaded Bhagwan to move there. There was no turning back, as far as she was concerned.
To be fair, it’s also possible that Joyce Smith just misremembered, or misstated that conversation with Sheela. I would imagine Smith received some pointed phone calls in 1982 asking “Why on earth did you let this guy into our country? You had to know that he was planning to stay here?” If she were looking for a way to defend her decision to grant the visa, well… throwing in cancer wouldn’t hurt.
And about that non-sannyasin doctor from London, the one who examined Bhagwan at Poona and supposedly said he needed a laminectomy in the United States. The INS talked to him. He said that Bhagwan’s slipped disc would result in some discomfort, but that’s pretty much it. A laminectomy was an option — but not required — and the doctor had suggested that if Bhagwan proceed with the operation it should take place somewhere outside India. But he never specified America. As for Bhagwan’s asthma and diabetes — the doctor reported to the INS that both were manageable.
Two months later, the INS handed down its decision on Bhagwan’s application for permanent residence. Denied. They would not grant him preference as a religious leader, and they would not adjust his status as a tourist. He would have to leave the country.
The basis for the INS decision was two-fold. In terms of being religious leader, they noted that Bhagwan hadn’t carried out any religious duties for the past two years. He was in silence, in isolation, not really seeing anybody or doing much of anything. The INS also noted false and misleading statements in connection with Bhagwan’s initial application for a visa. In other words, they felt that Bhagwan came to the US intending to stay, intending to establish his new commune — and the claims about his urgent medical needs were just a pretext to get him here.
It was a catastrophic decision. Sheela was enraged. She said the INS based its decision on lies and false information.
Bhagwan was more sanguine. He told a reporter, “I had been expecting this all along. This is the only way they could treat a Jesus or a Buddha.”
But the Rajneeshees were clever people — especially their lawyers. They found a procedural error in the INS decision. That written statement from Joyce Smith that said Sheela talked about cancer? The Rajneeshees had never seen it, or had an opportunity to rebut it. In fact, they didn’t get a copy until 7 days after the INS rejected Bhagwan’s application. This snafu was enough to require the INS to throw out their initial decision and reopen the case. They weren’t going to reconsider the medical stuff, but they would continue probing whether Bhagwan should be given permanent residence as a religious leader.
Over the coming year, Rajneeshees staged huge protests against the INS, and submitted boxes and boxes of materials supporting Bhagwan’s application. Ultimately, in February 1984, the INS recognized Bhagwan as a religious leader. It was a day of celebration at Rajneeshpuram, with a huge party at the Rajneesh Mandir assembly hall that featured wild music and champagne toasts.
But it was just one victory in a continuing battle. Here’s the Rajneeshee spokesperson, Ma Prem Isabel:
[Audio] Isabel: “As far as Bhagwan’s case is concerned, the INS after dodging the issue for a year trying their best to deny it have finally recognized that Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh is a religious leader. And the step that is still pending is something called an adjustment of status. And they’re holding on that, I don’t know for how long can they continue to hold. There’s rumors from so-called government sources quoted in many different newspapers saying that he’s going to be deported, that indictments are in the offing, and all sort of things. We’re still waiting. I mean, we will welcome any kind of open investigation instead of these underground rumors and suspicions.”
Being declared a religious leader only gave Bhagwan preferential treatment. The INS hadn’t yet determined whether to make him a permanent resident. And they were in no hurry to make that ultimate decision. Bhagwan continued living in legal limbo — allowed to stay in the U.S. for now… but subject to deportation if the INS decided he should go.
Here’s Sheela reaction on the delay:
[Audio] Sheela: “But because he’s a religious leader, and everybody’s platform in this fascist area is Rajneeshee persecution, the way Hitler’s platform was Jewish persecution. Everybody’s jumping on the bandwagon.”
Reporter: “And that’s the only reason for the delay?”
Sheela: “That’s the only reason for the delay. I see no reason why there should be any delay. He’s a man of the religion, world-renowned man of the religion of one kind only.”
By the time the INS granted Bhagwan religious preference, the Rajeeshee legal team had even bigger fish to fry when it came to immigration. A new phrase had been floating around Oregon: “sham marriages.” Coming up after the break, we’ll see why the INS started investigating dozens of foreign sannyasins who had married Americans and sought permanent residency in the U.S.
It all started with a father’s letter to Ronald Reagan’s White House…
Stick with us.
PART 2 - Sannyasin Marriage Fraud
It was a beautiful ceremony, and really a banner day for the commune as a whole. The public face of Rajneeshpuram, the mayor, Krishna Deva, was marrying Ma Aruna Bharti, an Indian woman who had served as a cook at the Poona ashram. Presiding over the ceremony was none other than Sheela, the high priestess of Rajneeshism. In her typical style with these things, Sheela peppered jokes throughout her remarks. “Marriage is a three-ringed circus,” she told the couple. “Engagement ring, wedding ring, and suffer-ring.” Later, she said, “The only way to save a marriage from divorce, is not to show up for the wedding.”
After they exchanged vows, Sheela proclaimed: “So now you are married. Keep it that way, at least for a while!”
Four years later, Krishna Deva — or KD as he was known — was sitting in federal prison. While he did his time, I wonder if he ever thought back to that day. To Sheela’s stupid jokes, and the guests sipping champagne and dancing on the lawn. Did he reflect on the journey that brought he and his wife together? He met Aruna Bharti in the summer of 1980 while they were living at the ashram in Poona. They became lovers, and soon he proposed. But first, she had to divorce her Indian husband, and that would take a while. In the meantime, KD moved back to America and met up with Sheela and became the mayor of Rajneeshpuram. He’d stay in touch with Bharti by sending love letters and calling her. Finally, with her divorce completed, Aruna Bharti arrived in America and they were married in September 1982.
At least, that’s how KD had described their relationship in a sworn affidavit to get his wife’s green card.
The wedding made the front page of the Rajneesh Times newspaper. In an accompanying picture, Aruna Bharti is beaming, with her hand flung up in the air in celebration. Sheela is next to her, looking pleased as punch. As for KD… well, his lips are pressed together in something you could call a smile. And he’s looking not at his new wife, not at the camera, but he’s squinting at something far in the distance.
KD spent 18 months in prison — in part because of the decision he made on that day. His decision to enter a marriage that was a total fraud.
In reality, KD barely knew Aruna Bharti. He certainly wasn’t in love with her. Sheela came up with the idea that KD should marry her so she could legally move to Rajneeshpuram with her children. He agreed to go along with it. Whatever it took to get Bhagwan’s disciples gathered together in one place. Sheela and KD constructed a romantic backstory, and the couple fabricated love letters as evidence. They did talk on the phone every now and then while Bharti was still in India, just to add some credibility to their story.
But once they got married, they went on living separate lives. They gave the appearance of being total strangers, to everybody… except the INS.
The Rajneeshees had no qualms about using the institution of marriage to advance their own goals. It started back in India. As we’ve already discussed, one of the reasons the Indian government started putting heat on Bhagwan’s ashram was the strange influx in marriages between Westerners and Indians or members of the British Commonwealth. These marriages ensured that sannyasins could stay at the ashram without having to worry about tourist visas — which the Indian government had started to scrutinize and reject.
One person married in India was Satya Bharti, the famous author we’ve met in prior episodes. In her memoir, she describes Laxmi, Bhagwan’s first secretary, yanking her out of her bedroom and hauling her down to the Krishna House office. There, she found an odd collection of male Indian sannyasins and Western women, looking awkwardly at each other. Laxmi pushed couples together based on their heights, to make sure they looked good together. Then a sannyasin priest did a quick marriage ceremony, and they celebrated with cake and photographs. Satya reports that Bhagwan later saw the photos and said, “My people are wonderful. Such perfect actors. Anyone would think they were deeply in love.”
By the time the Rajneeshees arrived in Oregon, they had become more sophisticated in planning fraudulent marriages for immigration purposes. There was a well-oiled machine in place to arrange them — and Sheela put it right to work.
It’s easy to see the problem she needed to solve. Rajneeshpuram was to be the new Poona, the new central gathering place for all of Bhagwan’s followers to live and worship. But his disciples came from all over the world, with a minority coming from America. And nearly all of the people running the ranch were foreigners. Sheela had a green card from her marriage with Chinmaya, but her top lieutenants were from England, South Africa, Australia, the Netherlands. They came in on tourist visas, but once those expired they needed a way to stay permanently.
Marriage was once again the perfect tool that would allow Bhagwan’s community stay united.
Especially in the early days, Sheela’s team was looking for American sannyasins who were single and thus could immediately marry a foreigner and start the green card process. Interested sannyasins would fill out long applications detailing their skills, their citizenship, and their marriage status. Commune leaders would use this paperwork to decide who would come to the ranch, and who would be getting married.
This shuffling often involved hasty divorces. For example, one of Laxmi’s top assistants at Poona, a Dutch woman named Arup, had married an Indian man at the same rushed ceremony as Satya Bharti. But in America, Arup divorced the Indian man and married an American sannyasin — all within the same week. Marriages between two non-Americans were worthless to the commune. Same with marriages between two Americans — they might be encouraged to divorce and marry foreigners. Better to have four sannyasins in the country, than two.
Between 1981 and 84, there were 40 sannyasin marriages recorded in Jefferson County alone. But the Rajneeshees didn’t want to raise suspicions with the local county clerks, so they also flew many couples to wherever the American partner was from to get married there. The couple would show up at the courthouse wearing civilian clothes, giving their birth names, trying to hide their Rajneeshee-ness. The newlyweds would immediately file paperwork seeking permanent residence for the foreign spouse.
Back at the ranch, though, most of these couples had little interaction with each other, and they almost never lived together. KD says they kept two sets of records on where everyone lived at the ranch. The public set of records, available for inspection if needed, reflected that each “sham marriage” couple shared a residence. The other, secret records, showed where everyone actually did live. Couples were told to keep some belongings at their supposed residence, in case the INS ever raided the ranch.
Indeed, the specter of an INS raid or investigation loomed over Rajneeshpuram. A sort of war room was set up at the ranch where couples would spend hours asking each other questions, memorizing facts about the other, and concocting their romantic backstories. That way, if the INS interviewed them, they could try to pass as credible couples.
And it soon became clear to the Rajneeshees that an INS raid was certainly possible.
But before we get to that, first we need to remember how odd it was that Rajneeshees were getting married at all. Remember what Bhagwan thought about the institution of marriage?
[AUDIO - BSR Discourses] “A marriage is a bondage, sannyas is freedom. A marriage is a chain – it is law. Sannyas is liberation – it is love.”
“To be a husband is ugly, to be a wife is ugly; it is institutional, it is legal. It is a kind of contract. Marriage IS ugly.”
“Marriage is needed because love is missing. If love is there profoundly, marriage will not be needed. What is the point of marriage? That is putting legs on a snake, or painting a red rose red. It is unnecessary. Why go to the court?”
Bhagwan was all about destroying institutions, including marriage, and the nuclear family. He wanted his disciples to be free of obligations foisted on them by society. Relationships should be fluid, changing every day if the whim struck you.
Bhagwan’s dim opinion of marriage became well known among the American media and government investigators. So if Bhagwan said marriage is pointless, how did the Rajneeshees defend this sudden surge in Americans marrying foreigners? Sheela said they married out of respect for the prudish American sensibilities. In a letter to the State Department, she wrote that sannyasins “who love each other may want only to live together, but society frowns on that arrangement. If one of the lovers is from another country, the only way that the lovers can stay together is for them to marry.”
At his October 1982 INS interview, Mr. Hunter pressed Bhagwan on his views of marriage. Bhagwan said that sannyasins were free to marry if they wanted, but they shouldn’t think of them as lifelong relationships, since, I quote, “Nothing can be lifelong in this life. Only bogus and hypocritical things can be lifelong.”
In 1981, Edwin Meese III was a high-ranking counselor to President Ronald Reagan — a national security advisor, member of the cabinet, and trusted confidante. In just a few years, he’d become Attorney General of the United States. But before that, he received a letter from an anxious father. His daughter had joined an organization called the Rajneeshees and had cut off all ties with her family. He suggested that the federal government investigate this cult. There might be some immigration law violations worth looking into.
Meese sent the letter on to the INS, which duly opened an investigation out of their Portland office on October 20, 1981 — just three months after Sheela purchased the Big Muddy Ranch. A couple days later, an INS criminal investigator, Tom Casey, was touring the ranch property, jotting down license plate numbers and noting all the foreign accents that he heard.
After just a month of investigating, Casey had formed some opinions that he documented in a memo. Reading them now, you can sort of understand why the Rajneeshees later claimed the INS was on a witch hunt to find any reason to drive Bhagwan out of the country. You can also see that they weren’t great at concealing their intentions. Casey wrote, based on his one-month investigation, that Bhagwan and his closest associates were “opportunistic charlatans” deriving a “handsome income” from the disciples. He believed Bhagwan intended to stay permanently in the United States by any means possible, and that the INS would find itself flooded with green card petitions.
Casey was forced to step up his game as the foreign marriage bonanza began. He reportedly burst into Sheela’s home early one morning and demanded to see her. When she finally came out of her bedroom, he grilled her, Mayor Krishna Deva, and other Rajneeshee leaders for hours. He wanted to know the whereabouts of 80 foreign sannyasins that he suspected were living at the ranch. In an affidavit detailing the encounter, Krishna Deva wrote that Casey also demanded to see detailed records on everybody there on visas, and that if they didn’t cooperate he would thoroughly investigate every single foreign sannyasin. The response from the Rajneeshees — which became their mantra over the years — was that each person dealt with their own immigration issues, so the ranch had no centralized file of immigration documents.
That, of course, was a lie.
By 1983, the INS issued an internal immigration bulletin stating that 95% percent of Rajneeshee marriages were believed to be phony. Another bulletin accused them of engaging in “wide-scale marriage fraud.”
But despite the scale of the problem, the INS didn’t really throw much weight at it. Tom Casey was the only investigator assigned to the case for the first year. And even four years after it started, the INS told a federal judge that it hadn’t even determined the scope of the investigation yet. The Oregonian newspaper ridiculed the INS, calling their response that of a “clumsy bear, just beginning to stir from a long winter’s hibernation.”
The investigation dragged on, and in the meantime the government delayed issuing green cards to the newly-married foreigners. The Rajneeshees pummeled the INS with criticism. Swami Prem Niren, the lead Rajneeshee attorney, said the investigators were just searching until they found something — which wasn’t a proper investigation. In 1983, 42 Rajneeshee couples sued the INS to force it to decide their pending applications. The suit claimed that the INS was discriminating against the Rajneeshees.
The government’s response was that they couldn’t issue the green cards because there was an ongoing criminal investigation. They noted that every sannyasin who was a party to the lawsuit was a criminal suspect for marriage fraud. That included people very high up on the Rajneeshee ladder, like Arup; Sheela’s accountant and right-hand woman Savita; and Bhagwan’s top therapist since the Poona days, Teertha.
The federal judge ordered the INS to decide the pending applications within four months. Then an appellate court gave them another six months. But by then, the green card applications were pretty much moot. Bhagwan was back in India. Sheela was on the lam in Europe. And the foreign Rajneeshees who had clamored to be in America close to their Master — who had been willing to lie and marry people they barely knew — had no reason to stay. Quietly, sannyasins caught flights out of the country, leaving behind the dream that had brought Bhagwan, Sheela, and thousands of others to America.
One post-script to today’s story: The INS investigation into Rajneeshpuram relied heavily on confidential informants. These included concerned parents, ranch neighbors, and disaffected former sannyasins. Of all these informants, one of the most valuable had to have been Confidential Government Informant P-25. You may remember we first met her in Episode 2 when we explored the free labor force in Poona.
[Audio: Deeksha Interview] “They have to cut the vegetables in a particular way. It’s ridiculous when you think. Who cares, you know if you cut the carrots round or straight?”
Informant P-25 was Deeksha, the tough Italian sannyasin who ran the kitchens at the ashram. Deeksha had been a force of nature in Poona, having built up a huge, loyal work crew and become close with Bhagwan. Remember him talking about her in his discourse?
[Audio: BSR Discourse] “Deeksha is crazy! … Her craziness is her quality -- that's why I have chosen her…”
Deeksha also led the vanguard preparing Kip’s Castle for Bhagwan’s arrival in New Jersey. You may recall, she’s the one who destroyed the historic home’s beautiful interiors and replaced them with linoleum and white plaster. But how did she go from being in Bhagwan’s inner circle to telling his secrets to the INS?
Deeksha had a rocky experience in America. She later claimed that she had become disillusioned with her Master the more time she spent with him. She saw a man who was no longer interested in spiritual improvement or helping his followers, but only in money. She alleged — and Sheela later said the same thing — that Bhagwan took large amounts of Valium and was incoherent for much of his private time. She claims to have heard him say horrible things about his Jewish disciples, and to espouse his admiration for Hitler, who he called a “genius,” and Goebbels, who he called “the greatest practitioner of mass persuasion.”
It’s not clear what exactly happened when she got to Rajneeshpuram, but some sort of power struggle emerged between Deeksha and Sheela, with Sheela of course being the victor. Deeksha fled to Europe where she lived in hiding for years, fearful that Sheela would come after her. After all, Deeksha knew where all Sheela’s bodies were buried, so to speak.
Only Deeksha knows why she felt compelled to volunteer information that would help bring down Bhagwan’s American experiment. Maybe it was because she hated Sheela. Maybe it was her disillusion with the man she had called Master for 10 years. But for whatever reason, Deeksha became an INS informant, spilling the beans on everything she saw while working at the highest levels at Poona and New Jersey. Of particular interest to the INS, Deeksha said that she knew of only one legitimate marriage among all sannyasins. She herself had entered a fraudulent marriage to stay in India. She also told the INS about Bhagwan’s medical problems and indicated that he was seriously overstating them.
And she didn’t stop with the INS. Deeksha called sannyasins who left Rajneeshpuram and told them many of the same things. She wanted them to know what she knew about Bhagwan — he was a fraud. She even spoke at length with the Oregonian newspaper for an investigative series it published in 1985. Within months, the ranch had collapsed and Sheela and Bhagwan were living in disgrace.
Deeksha had a recurring nightmare in her last years at Poona. She dreamed that she felt a great danger looming over the ashram, and she ran through the grounds and all the way to Bhagwan’s house to warn him. But when she entered his room, he was already sitting bolt-upright, staring directly at her. And just by looking in his eyes, she could tell that he was the danger.
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 the show, I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me through the website, or find Building Utopia on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
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