Minisode 2: A Very Rajneeshee Holiday

Introduction

This is the Building Utopia Podcast Holiday Special. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh welcomed disciples from all religious backgrounds. But when it came to holidays — the Rajneeshees had special days of their own, full of music and dancing and wild partying. In today’s minisode, we’ll focus on how the Rajneeshees celebrated their holidays during their first year in America. And we’ll see how Sheela used the biggest holiday of the year in 1982 to advance her strategic plan for Rajneeshpuram. We’ll close today’s episode with some warm and festive words from Bhagwan himself.

Stick with us.

Part 1 - Holidays

Let’s face it: the Rajneeshees knew how to party. It was in keeping with Bhagwan’s outlook on life: enjoy it, laugh, dance, have fun, don’t take anything too seriously. In the Rajneeshee world, the biggest parties of the year fell on their three major holidays. December 11, Bhagwan’s birthday. March 17, the day Bhagwan attained enlightenment. And a holiday they borrowed from eastern religions called Guru Purnima, celebrated each July with the full moon.

In India, Guru Purnima is a day to honor teachers, academic and spiritual. If you’re a guru’s disciple, you spend the day in the presence of your Master. As far as I can tell, the Rajneeshees started celebrating Guru Purnima in 1975, the year after the Poona ashram was founded. Their parties would feature music devoted to Bhagwan, dancing, singing, and long meditation sessions. 

When Bhagwan slipped away to America in 1981, they held a small, intimate Guru Purnima celebration at the castle in Montclair, New Jersey. It was nothing compared to the Poona parties, since most Rajneeshees didn’t know where their Master was at the time, and Sheela had such a stranglehold on who was allowed to be there. Plus, she had just closed on the Big Muddy Ranch a week earlier and was in the throes of preparing for the first sannyasins to move there.

Even if Guru Purnima 1981 wasn’t a big affair, the next major holiday certainly was. Bhagwan’s Golden Birthday came six months later, on December 11. By that point he had been living on the ranch for a few months, surrounded by followers who worked hard but barely got to see him. He’d been living a quiet life since arriving at the ranch in August, squirreled away up in his private housing complex called Lao Tzu Grove. He was still in silence, as he had been since even before he left Poona, and he wasn’t making public appearances. In fact, the last time he held a real audience with his sannyasins was on the day he left India — May 31, 1981.

So imagine his followers’ delight when they learned that Bhagwan would hold a satsang for his birthday celebration. A satsang is essentially a silent communion with a master. These ceremonies replaced discourses back in Poona when Bhagwan fell into silence in April 1981. Instead of holding forth on philosophy and politics and sex and whatever else was on his mind for 90 minutes, he would sit on his dais in Buddha Hall before thousands of followers while they quietly meditated. Words were no longer necessary. He was supposedly passing his enlightened energy on to them. And now, for the very first time in America, Bhagwan would spend his 50th birthday allowing them to draw from his energy once again.

Fortunately, they had finished construction on a gathering space just in the nick of time. Among all the development at the ranch that year, the Rajneeshees completed work on the Magdalena Cafeteria. Here the commune workers received three vegetarian meals a day, prepared in a communal kitchen that one visitor from the Governor’s office described as “the cleanest I ever saw” — and he used to be in charge of the state health department.

With Magdalena complete, the Rajneeshees now had a site to welcome their Master for his first public audience in America.

[Audio: “Happy Birthday” song, 12-11-81]

Bhagwan entered the cafeteria wearing a thick white robe with a cowl, a black stocking cap, and white gloves. From the dais he bestowed them all with a smile, his hands pressed together in a namaste salutation. Then he sat on his cushioned chair and closed his eyes. For most of the sannaysins gathered there, it was the first time they had been in Bhagwan’s presence since Poona. All their backbreaking work to build his commune as fast as possible… and all they had received from him was a casual wave as he zipped by in a Rolls Royce on one of his daily drives. But now here he was, passing his energy around the room once more, give them some “juice,” as his followers called it.

After the satsang, a Rajneeshee band played hits like “Drinking From Your Wine, Bhagwan.” [Audio: “Drinking From Your Wine Bhagwan,” 3-21-82] The birthday celebration ended with the Rajneeshee jam to end all jams, the one we briefly heard them singing in Episode 6 during the “Town Hall” taping: “Yes Bhagwan Yes.” [Audio: “Yes Bhagwan Yes,” 3-21-82]

After that, Bhagwan smiled again, slipped into a Rolls Royce with his companion Vivek, and drove back up into the hills, into seclusion, at Lao Tzu Grove.

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His next public appearance came three months later on Enlightenment Day, in March 1982. It was a very busy time at the commune. The April vote to incorporate Rajneeshpuram as a city was quickly approaching. Sheela and her team were scrambling to get enough legal voters on site. To complicate things, the governor of Oregon, Vic Atiyeh, spoke on a radio program about the Rajneeshees:

[Atiyeh Radio Audio] “And it would seem to me that — I’m thinking now personally — you know, if I moved into a neighborhood and people didn’t really like me, the best thing to do is to move out. But they persist there. … On a personal level, would a Vic Atiyeh rather have not seen the Rajneesh come to Oregon? Sure. Sure, in the sense that it’s created a tremendous amount of emotional trauma and deep concern by long-time Oregonians. I’m born and raised in Oregon and of course my loyalty is to Oregonians. I’m provincial, I’ll admit it. I have great respect and great regard for Oregonians. And sure, I hate to see that happen to Oregon citizens.”

These comments from the Governor freaked out the Rajneeshee leadership. Sheela lashed out in the Oregonian newspaper, saying that the governor’s statements supported bigotry and prejudice. And yet, amid all this worldly conflict, it was time to celebrate the day Bhagwan departed his physical body and became enlightened. His followers came together for another satsang — his second public appearance in America. [Audio: “Thank You Bhagwan,” 3-21-82]

It was around this same time that the Rajneeshees began laying the foundation for their biggest celebration to date — the same foundation they used to expand their city, by no mere coincidence.

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At a March 10, 1982, meeting of the Wasco County Commissioners, the Rajneeshees first brought up the idea of what they called a “World Festival.” They intended to welcome 3-5,000 Rajneeshees to a five-day celebration that summer, which would fall over their annual Guru Purnima party on July 6. The Oregon State Police quickly got involved and started holding regular meetings with Jay and Sheela to discuss security and health concerns. The Rajneeshees ended up hiring a private security firm, Project Centurion, to help ensure everyone’s safety.

Local efforts to stop the festival were a bust. Both Wasco and Jefferson Counties rejected legal challenges. Most importantly, the Rajneeshees convinced the local governments that the temporary facilities they intended to build for the festival, like tents and dining halls, were not governed by state land-use laws. This would be critically important in the big-picture plans for Rajneeshpuram.

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The festival itself was July 3 to 7, 1982. Each day included a satsang with Bhagwan in the morning, a dynamic meditation session, a live music concert, and the broadcast of taped discourses that Bhagwan gave in India. The big day itself, Guru Purnima, July 6, would also feature an evening darshan, or audience, with Bhagwan. I’ve uploaded the full festival brochure to our website, and it’s definitely a fun read. For one, it is insanely complicated. Visitors could register to attend just the five-day festival, but they were STRONGLY encouraged to stay longer, with packages lasting up to 25 days. They offered all sorts of meditation programs, like “Dance and Body Awareness” and “Harmony: Opening the Heart.” The commune would also handle booking your travel to Oregon. So on the registration form you had to indicate the dates you’d be staying, the meditation programs you’d be attending, the accommodations you’d need, your airport of departure, and your smoking preference. Keeping track of all this information for the 5,000 people who ended up coming to the festival must have been a nightmare.

But that large attendance number, and the reported $15 million that the festival grossed, must have come as a huge relief to Bhagwan and Sheela. They’d been disconnected from most Rajneeshees for more than a year at that point, surrounded by only a couple hundred sannyasins selected to live and work at the ranch. They may have had concerns about Bhagwan’s continued appeal after being in silence, and being sheltered away for so long. He was also in a totally different environment now, a country that perhaps didn’t hold the same spiritual appeal for his seekers. And yet, they came from all over the world to be with their Master. [Audio: “Bhagwan I Surrender To You,” 7-6-82]

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The festival’s first day kicked off at 8:30 am in Rajneesh Mandir, the quote-unquote “greenhouse” the Rajneeshees had built that just happened to be large enough to hold 15,000 people. Bhagwan appeared in a white Rolls Royce that morning driven by Sheela. His disciples clapped and cheered and cried as he entered the building. On the stage, he sat with his hands clasped together while music played and a disciple read passages from his discourses over the years. From various positions around the hall and outside, khaki-wearing security guards surveyed the audience and the skies with binoculars.

A couple days later, on Guru Purnima, a bomb went off at the ranch. A flower bomb, that is. A twin-engine plane swooped by multiple times to drop a quarter-million rose petals on Bhagwan’s Rolls Royce as he drove alongside a line of thousands of sannyasins waiting to greet him. When a journalist asked Sheela how much the flowers cost, she just smiled and said “Plenty.”

Speaking of Sheela… do you remember Kate Strelley? She’s the girl we met in Episode 2 who arrived at the Poona ashram to find her boyfriend but ended up becoming a sannyasin, working as Sheela’s assistant, and getting sterilized as a teenager. Kate had left the ashram before Bhagwan came to America, but she remained a sannyasin. The World Festival gave her an opportunity to reconnect with her old boss, who she hadn’t seen for years. In her memoir, Kate writes that Sheela had changed in significant ways since Poona. Now, Sheela was dark, paranoid about her enemies, and obsessed with politics. This “new Sheela” was hard and withdrawn. As far as Kate could tell, the old Sheela she had known at the ashram was gone forever.

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The lasting impact of the First World Festival was to help the commune expand. The Rajneeshees used the festival as a pretext to build some “temporary facilities” that became permanent fixtures at the ranch. For example, they received a permit to use the greenhouse, Rajneesh Mandir, as a temporary gathering spot. But it became the permanent gathering spot — essentially the cathedral for Rajneeshism. They built a temporary sewage treatment system for all the festivalgoers, including water lines — and that all stayed, and was used for future housing developments on the ranch. And all the wooden platforms that the commune built to hold tents — became the bases for A-frame homes that blossomed across the ranch in the years to come.

The World Festival became an annual event on the Rajneeshee calendar. Rather than celebrate Guru Purnima with the full moon in July — whenever that happened to fall — they decided to make July 6 “Master’s Day” and keep that as their regular holiday. For the next couple years, the World Festival would be a time of great change, great excitement, and great chaos at the ranch. Some of the most daring — and ridiculous — plots that Sheela and her companions hatched seemed to pop up around the festival. And sometimes they were even executed during the festival, like when one of Sheela’s closest lieutenants tried to kill Bhagwan’s personal doctor. But that’s a story for a later time.

Part 2 - Peace on Earth and All That

We’ll close today’s episode with Bhagwan’s thoughts on Santa Claus.

[Bhagwan Audio] “The very, very last question. IS SANTA CLAUS ENLIGHTENED? If he is not, then who will be? Enlightenment is fun. It is not a serious thing. Santa Claus is a Buddha, is a Christ. Santa Claus is the humor, and enlightenment is humorous. It is nothing serious: it is joy, it is fun, it is delight.”

Closing

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 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.

Happy holidays — and see you next time.

[Audio: “Love Life Laughter,” 7-6-82]