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Valley of Death? The Rajneesh Cult Turns to Arms

The arming of the cult raises the specter of Jonestown

Courtesy of Netflix

“A lot of people are concerned about potential violence out there now. Four months ago, I didn’t think it was a possibility. But now I do. If they continue to lose in the courts, which I’m sure they will, then we will have to be much more careful. They are getting very frustrated and will be getting more so.”

The speaker is State Representative Wayne Fawbush, whose legislative district includes the city of Rajneeshpuram, a city under growing legal siege from a variety of quarters, including 1000 Friends of Oregon, the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC), the Wasco County Court and the Oregon court system, the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the U.S. attorney for the district of Oregon, and the state attorney general.

The Rajneeshees now face the following real threats: the loss of the legal status of their city, which could result in a legal order to dismantle all or most of their buildings; the indictment and arrest of Rajneeshpuram residents, including top Rajneesh leaders, for criminal violations of U.S. immigration laws; and the possibility of the arrest and deportation of their revered leader, Bhagwan Shree (“Sir God”) Rajneesh.

“They are,” says Fawbush, “a bunch of people who have gambled and are in the process of losing. I am very concerned.”

In an affidavit filed on July 3, 1984, in U.S. District Court in Portland, INS District Director Carl Houseman revealed that the INS “is presently conducting an ongoing investigation into suspected violations of immigration laws and related criminal statutes by the Rajneesh Foundation International and related organizations and/or their members.” He also stated: “This investigation has now resulted in the preparation of an extensive investigative report which has been referred to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon for his consideration.”

According to sources familiar with the INS investigation, the violations of immigration laws referred to in the affidavit involve alleged “marriages of convenience” at Rajneeshpuram between U.S. citizens and foreign nationals. The marriages are allegedly manufactured to help Rajneeshees from other countries gain entry into the United States or remain here in violation of U.S. immigration restrictions. Says one source close to the case: “They [the INS] expect to get indictments against twenty-five to thirty of them, including at least half a dozen top officials.”

And despite its decision earlier this year—greeted with jubilation at Rajneeshpuram—to grant Rajneesh Chandra Mohan (the guru’s real name) third-preference visa status as a “religious teacher,” sources say that the INS has not abandoned its effort to deny him permanent-resident status. Perhaps taking a cue from the Shah of Iran, Rajneesh secured his original temporary visa at the American Consulate in Bombay by claiming that he needed specialized medical treatment in the United States for a back ailment. The INS would like to prove, as suggested by a January 1982 U.S. State Department report, that “Rajneesh either faked or, more likely, seriously exaggerated his alleged medical condition in order to transfer his ashram to the United States and escape tax difficulties in India.” Predicts one source bluntly: “He will be deported.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney for Oregon Bill Youngman confirms the possibility that he will present to a grand jury a criminal case against certain residents of Rajneeshpuram. Another official source involved in the investigation claims that if a grand jury is impaneled, the INS will not be the only federal law enforcement agency presenting evidence. The land-use case against the city of Rajneeshpuram, originally filed by the environmental watchdog group 1000 Friends of Oregon has been kicked up and down the Oregon judicial ladder for almost three years now. But on June 27, the Oregon Court of Appeals issued a clear opinion that, unless reversed by the Oregon Supreme Court, will essentially invalidate Rajneeshpuram’s incorporation as a legal city. The court of appeals ruled that the Wasco County Court (commission) acted improperly when, on November 4, 1981, it granted residents of Rancho Rajneesh the right to hold an incorporation election on land zoned for exclusive farm use. Both 1000 Friends and the Wasco County Court have indicated they plan to move to force the dismantling of buildings at Rajneeshpuram.

“They played real hardball,” says Henry Richmond, executive director of 1000 Friends, of the Rajneeshees. “They built as fast as they could, thinking that when the day came when their city was declared illegal, nobody would have the guts to make them take it down.”

On July 11, in a move seen by many as the first step toward achieving dismantlement of the city, the Wasco County Court voted to remove Rajneeshpuram’s Comprehensive Plan from the Wasco County Comprehensive Plan. Rajneeshpuram Mayor Swami Krishna Deva reacted to this action with belligerence.

“What I see here today,” he told the commission, “is the beginning of civil war in this county. If that is what you want, fine.”

Deva’s statement to the Wasco County Court is not the only implied threat of violent resistance uttered by Rajneesh spokespeople recently. In an interview on KGW-TV aired June 29, Rajneesh Foundation President Ma Anand Sheela (Sheela Silverman) told how she would deal with any attempt to dismantle buildings at Rajneeshpuram.

“I will be dead,” she said. “I will paint the bulldozers with my blood.” Then, in a July 5 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, quotations from Silverman implied that she would block any attempt to arrest people at Rajneeshpuram for immigration or other legal violations.

“I mean business,” Silverman said through (according to the Chronicle account) lips trembling with anger. “You will find out what will happen to you if you come here to harm me or Bhagwan or any of my people. . . . I’ll take things as they come. We are willing to die for human freedom. I have 100 percent support from my people.”

What worries people like Wayne Fawbush, as well as federal and local government authorities monitoring the situation at Rajneeshpuram, is that not only have the Rajneeshees been issuing these kinds of threats recently but, over the past several months, they have apparently been acquiring the means to act upon them.

Since last February, according to numerous Oregon weapons dealers and local and federal investigators, the Rajneesh Peace Force and Rajneesh security force have acquired the following kinds of weapons: the CAR-15, a cheaper version of the AR-15, a semiautomatic version of the M-16 machine gun; the Uzi Model B, an Israeli made semiautomatic assault weapon, shorter than the AR-15, which is carried by the U.S. Secret Service; the Mini-14, a short, semiautomatic rifle; the Ruger 44 Magnum carbine; the MIA 308-caliber rifle, often referred to as a “sniper rifle”; the 357 Magnum revolver, a standard service revolver used by many police; and twelve-gauge shotguns.

The possession by Rajneeshees of at least thirty CAR-15s and Uzi Model Bs particularly worries investigators, who point out that the Portland police bureau has but fifteen such semiautomatic assault weapons. Both the CAR-15 and Uzi Model B can easily be converted into fully automatic machine guns.

“Those are assault weapons,” says one investigator. “They are only used on very rare occasions by police forces even in large cities. You have to wonder, what are they really for?”

Although Oregon Magazine was unable to obtain precise information on the quantities of weapons purchased by the Rajneeshees, one investigator says they have purchased a “vast” amount of “223” ammunition—the standard load for U.S. military weapons since Vietnam. “They have more 223 ammunition out there than all the other police departments in the state of Oregon combined,” alleges the investigator. Another investigator alleges that the Rajneeshees “have enough ammo to supply a battalion for a year.”

What will the Rajneeshees do with all the weapons and ammunition they are accumulating? Will they, as some observers are beginning to fear, deploy them against state and federal authorities in a variation on the mass cult suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, six years ago? Is this a real possibility? Listen to Antelope Mayor Ma Prem Karuna talking to the San Francisco Examiner (July 1, 1984): “At this stage, the battle may not be with guns and ammunition. But to be treated like human beings with equal rights, we have to fight every step of the way.”

Or consider the words of Silverman in the official invitation to the June 30–July 6 Third Annual World Celebration at Rajneeshpuram this year: “We are being simultaneously attacked by all kinds of fascist forces. . . . As far as our community is concerned we are determined to protest, and protest our truth and our freedom with the very last drop of our blood.”

Kathleen McLaughlin, a professor of religious studies at Lewis and Clark College, visited Rajneesh’s former ashram while on a trip to the city of Pune (Poona), India, from 1977 to 1978 and studied his meditation and group-therapy techniques and his philosophy. She is also an expert on the cult phenomenon in general; as a result of her brother being in the Hare Krishna cult, she served on the board of directors of the Positive Action Center, Portland’s leading cultwatching group. As far back as last year she was extremely alarmed by developing trends at Rajneesh’s isolated central Oregon commune.

“I think there’s the possibility that it could become more and more isolated and extremist in the same way that the Jim Jones community did,” she said then. “The Jim Jones community had that kind of progression. As paranoia and isolation developed, people got crazier and began to consider extreme actions as normal or acceptable or as the only possibility. I don’t mean to be inflammatory; I’m not predicting that. But all the conditions are there.”

Ma Amrita Pritam, formerly Shannon Jo Ryan, is the daughter of Leo Ryan, the California congressman gunned down at Jonestown. A sannyasin living at Rajneeshpuram, Pritam was quoted in a January 10, 1981, Los Angeles Times article as telling a reporter, “I’ve heard other people say if Bhagwan asked them to kill themselves, they would do it. If Bhagwan asked them to kill someone else, they would do it.” She added, “I don’t know if my trust in him is that total,” but “I would like it to be.” Expert testimony presented at the 1980 trial of a Scandinavian sannyasin in London on drug-smuggling charges suggests that true believers in the divinity of Rajneesh will indeed “do anything”—including commit murder and suicide—that Rajneesh or his top assistants order them to do.

What is Rajneesh likely to ask his followers at Rajneeshpuram to do as the American judicial system inexorably closes in on him? When Rajneesh was in similar legal difficulties in India, he simply fled the country, taking his possessions and his following with him. This time, however, for several reasons, the dynamics of his predicament appear to be quite different.

For one thing, Rajneesh proclaimed just before leaving India that he was entering the “ultimate stage” of his work, seemingly implying that he was going to make a final stand at his new commune in America. Secondly, Rajneesh is looked upon with disfavor in Europe and Australia, the only other locales where he has both followers and financial footholds. And thirdly, the Rajneesh focus on and fascination with death, long a theme in the cult’s ideology, has recently become disturbingly more pronounced.

On May 7, for instance, in the midst of some fifteen minutes of rambling, disjointed testimony before the Wasco County Planning Commission, Silverman launched into the following pronouncement: “Death is the climax of life. Death is even more beautiful. The Church of Rajneeshism has special facilities to celebrate death. To dance death when death comes because death is just as important as life.” When a sannyasin died during the Third Annual World Festival this summer, Rajneeshpuram Public Relations Director Ma Prem Isabel called death “the ultimate peak of life, the ultimate adventure.” Silverman proclaimed that anyone who dies within a twenty-four-mile radius of Rajneeshpuram is guaranteed “automatic enlightenment.”

Rajneesh himself once told his followers, “You have come to me. You have taken a dangerous step. It is a risk, because near me you can be lost forever. To come closer will mean death and cannot mean anything else.”

—Oregon Magazine, September 1984

This article was adapted from The Rajneesh Chronicles, published by Tin House Books.