Rajneesh, the Guru Who Loved His Rolls Royces

A new book recounts the hostility Rajneesh faced from the people of Oregon when the Guru and his followers set up camp in a small community.

Rajneesh. Credit: Youtube

Rajneesh. Credit: Youtube

In a remarkably short time, a great deal of money began to flow into and through the Oregon commune. Some of this came from sannyasins, including many who were willing to sell their possessions to support the ranch (such as one who recalls selling his Porsche for $20,000 to donate to the cause). A great deal of revenue also came from the many courses offered at the ranch, which ranged from the “Rajneesh Fresh Beginning Course” ($2,500) and “Rajneesh Movement Therapy” ($2,100) to the “Rajneesh DeHypnotherapy Basic Course” ($5,500) and “Rajneesh Rebalancing Course” ($7,500). And finally, a huge amount of money flowed in during the annual World Festival, which began in the summer of 1982. Admission for the seven-day festival was $509 for a place in a four-person tent or $1,804 for a room in the hotel, while the cost of the therapy groups, food and drink in the restaurant, and souvenirs, was extra. During the 1984 festival, the 15,000 people attending spent over $10 million. Overall, between 1981 and 1985, an estimated $130 million poured into the ranch. As Hugh Milne recalls, “Bhagwan said that in the new commune we would grow money on trees… Bhagwan was quite open about the fact that the primary object was to make money.”

Yet as a charismatic multinational corporation, the operations of the Rajneesh movement were by no means limited to the United States. On the contrary, the Oregon community was very much interrelated with and dependent upon a vast global network of Rajneesh centers. These included not only meditation centers and spiritual institutions but also seemingly “secular” enterprises, such as discotheques and restaurants. In all, some twenty corporations were created worldwide with twenty-eight bank accounts, including twelve in Switzerland.

As the academic Lewis Carter suggests, this global network had a markedly fluid and flexible structure; rather than a fixed corporate organisation with permanent structures, the Rajneesh movement adapted quickly to the needs of different contexts. The individual businesses within the Rajneesh Foundation served, in effect, as “empty forms” or fluid structures that might be a discotheque one week, a yoga center the next, or a health-food store the next, depending on the shifting needs of the market. “Corporate identities are used as disposable devices… created as a need of the moment arises and discarded… Specialised corporations of limited life spans can be created to provide vehicles for new activities or transfers of assets.”

Ironically, while Rajneesh presented a radically iconoclastic and rebellious message, and the surrounding American society saw the commune as a dangerous and deviant cult, Rajneeshpuram was also in some ways a striking embodiment of the global dynamics of late capitalism. The early Rajneesh movement in Pune was a kind of spiritual reflection of the increasingly decentralised and shifting dynamics of “disorganised capitalism.” Yet by the 1980s, the movement had evolved into a fluid multinational network of protean corporate structures that were perhaps uniquely suited to the dynamics of what David Harvey calls “flexible accumulation.” In the global marketplace of postmodernity, as Harvey suggests, funds can be transferred and exchanged instantaneously from any point on the planet, through a network of constantly shifting, increasingly flexible corporate structures, labor markets, and patterns of consumption:

Flexible accumulation . . . rests on flexibility with respect to labour processes, labour markets, products and patterns of consumption. It is characterized by the emergence of entirely new sectors of production, new ways of providing financial services, new markets and, above all, greatly intensified rates of commercial, technological and organizational innovation.

As a kind of “charismatic” multinational corporation with a wide array of fluid, protean forms, the Rajneesh movement was in many ways not just a reflection but the epitome of flexible accumulation, which Harvey sees as the condition of postmodernity.

Sannyasins wait to catch a sight of Rajneesh on one of his drive-bys. Credit: Wikipedia

Sannyasins wait to catch a sight of Rajneesh on one of his drive-bys. Credit: Wikipedia

“Guru of the rich”

Although he had entered into a vow of silence in 1981, Rajneesh was in many ways the fluid, protean center of this complex multinational corporation. Today, most Americans probably remember Rajneesh primarily as the “Rolls-Royce Guru,” who made national headlines because of his massive fleet of expensive cars and his daily “drive-bys” in which he drove his Rolls slowly along a road of cheering red-clad sannyasins at the ranch. Rajneesh had never made any secret of his procapitalist sentiments and his fondness for expensive objects of conspicuous consumption.

As he explained in a 1982 interview with an INS officer who asked him about the importance of wealth, “All the religions have commanded and praised poverty, and I condemn all those religions. Because of their praise of poverty, poverty has persisted in the world. I don’t condemn wealth. Wealth is a perfect means which can enhance people in every way… So I am a materialist spiritualist.”

With the move from India to Oregon, however, Rajneesh’s tastes had evolved from gold cuff links and jeweled watches to high-end automo- biles. His first two Rolls-Royces were a Corniche and Silver Shadow, which were shipped from the Pune ashram to the Oregon ranch; and these were soon joined by an expanding fleet of cars that would eventually number ninety-three. The cars became part of an almost surreal form of “drive-by darshan” or viewing of the guru, in which Rajneesh would slowly drive down the city’s central avenue while thousands of red-clad sannyasins waved, cheered, and played instruments in throes of joy:

Each day at 2 o’clock Bhagwan drove at walking pace along the Ranch’s central street. Along each side of the length of the road, standing sometimes twenty deep, sannyasins gathered to sing and wave their arms… People played trombones, banged drums, waved their arms, craning their necks to get a better look… One by one sannyasins stepped forward to place long- stemmed pink and red roses, stripped of thorns, on the bonnet of his car. Occasionally Bhagwan took his hands off the wheel to press them together in reply. (Tim Guest, My Life in Orange.)

 Bhagwan’s fondness for Rolls-Royces and daily drive-bys even made its way into popular newspaper comic strips of the 1980s. In the comic strip Bloom County, the character Opus asks a sannyasin, “Say, brother… uh, how about refreshing me on this Rajneesh business?” The sannyasin replies: “Well, Rajneesh is the truth, and the truth is the light, which is life. Life’s truth, light, and happiness. Which is wearing red pajamas and blowing kisses toward the Bhagwan’s 72 Gold Rolls Royces.”

Finally, Opus concludes, “Whoa! By golly… that does make a lot of sense.” (Guest)

Rajneesh himself later described his own conspicuous display of wealth as a kind of joke. While many spiritual leaders of 1980s America were making vast amounts of money (we need only think of Christian preachers such as Jimmy Swaggart or new religions such as the Church of Scientology), Rajneesh was perhaps the only one to not only embrace and display his tremendous wealth but also make fun of it in the very same breath. This unapologetically commercial attitude was embodied in a famous bumper sticker sold at the Rajneeshpuram annual festival: “Jesus Saves, Moses Invests, Bhagwan Spends!” In a way, this is pure Rajneesh: shrewd humor, self-parody, and outrageous embrace of consumerism all in one. Indeed, even his own habit of collecting Rolls- Royces could be an object of self-parody and an opportunity for a funny but oddly telling bit of satire:

People are sad, jealous, and thinking that Rolls Royces don’t fit with spirituality. I don’t see that there is any contradiction… In fact, sitting in a bullock cart it is very difficult to be meditative; a Rolls Royce is the best for spiritual growth.

Beyond its function as a display of conspicuous consumption or parody, however, Rajneesh’s fleet of cars appears to have served a more practical and serious purpose. As The Oregonian reported, the ownership of the cars was transferred from the Rajneesh Foundation International to the tax-exempt Rajneesh Modern Car Collection Trust in 1982. The trust served as a tax-exempt conduit for donations from wealthy sannyasins who “leased” the cars for as much as $6,000 a month; in 1982 alone, $498,784 flowed into the Rajneesh Investment Corporation through this convenient conduit.

Rajneesh with his disciples in 1977. Credit: Wikipedia

Rajneesh with his disciples in 1977. Credit: Wikipedia

Trouble in paradise: early tensions with the local community

From the very outset, the ranch ran into serious problems in its negotiations with the local community and government. While Rajneesh had imagined building a utopian community or “Buddhafield” of thousands of sannyasins, it turned out that the ranch was zoned for agricultural purposes with a maximum of just six residents allowed to live there. Thus when a government inspector arrived for a visit, the group had to use the cover story that it was a farming cooperative, and the numerous other sannyasins hanging around were mere visiting farmworkers and not permanent residents. Yet within two months of its establishment, over 200 sannyasins were living on the ranch, which started arousing complaints from the locals.

A watchdog group called the 1000 Friends of Oregon, dedicated to land-use laws, advised the Rajneeshees that the non-farm-related uses of the land should be located in an already existing urban area with a designated urban growth boundary. In response, the Rajneeshees turned to the nearest city, the small retirement town of Antelope, and started buying up as much property as they could—which was quite a lot, since as much as 50% of the property was for sale. “They bought up everything available, even the store,” recalls Ritter. Their rapid push into Antelope, however, quickly alarmed the local residents, who were mostly either longtime residents or retirees and saw the Rajneeshees as bizarre, un-Christian hippies with a strange-looking guru who was launching an “invasion” of their town. On April 15, 1982, the city council held an election to “disincorporate” the city of Antelope, with the aim of stopping the Rajneeshees from taking over and using the city to further their plans.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 1.45.58 PMHowever, with the new population of sannyasins, the vote failed. And not long after, sannyasins were elected to three of the six seats on the city council and also won the mayor’s seat, with the write-in candidate Karuna. By 1984, now completely in charge of the city, the Rajneeshees voted to change its name from Antelope to Rajneesh, and even to change street names to those of famous philosophers and religious teachers, such as Gurdjieff Road, Ouspensky Road, Ramakrishna Street, and so on. They also took over the local school system—renamed the Rajneesh International Meditation University—as the Antelope schools became increasingly dominated by children of sannyasins.

Initially, the Rajneeshees approached their new control of Antelope with a sense of humor and playfulness—for example, by passing a resolution that every city council meeting must include the telling of at least one joke. And sometimes this playfulness had a certain bite to it—for example, when they placed their garbage dump, called the Adolf Hitler Dump, next to Antelope’s community church.

However, few of the locals found any of this very funny. On the contrary, all of it was met with growing fear, hostility, and often quite aggressive rhetoric from the town residents. When the Rajneeshees arrived in 1981, the town of Antelope had a population of just thirty- nine people, most of whom were retirees and Christians. The sudden presence of hundreds of red-clad, long-haired young people from all over the world with a strange guru and seeking to buy up local property— perhaps not surprisingly—made the residents extremely nervous and generated widespread fears of a “takeover” or worse. This was, after all, just a few years after the mass murder/suicide of Peoples Temple— another new religious movement with a utopian communal ideal—in Guyana in 1978, which created widespread fear that this could be yet another “cult crisis” in the making. According to ranch foreman Robert Harvey, already in January 1982 rumors circulated in the area that “the Rajneeshees sacrifice children and that’s why there are no kids down on the ranch… The Rajneeshees have to steal kids from other people so that they can sacrifice them.” According to an open letter from a local resident addressed to “senators, congressmen, judges and the president,” many in the community were deeply concerned about “the godlessness that goes on down there” at the ranch:

That cult, with their ways of coming in and buying up the land, have destroyed the old ways of life here in Oregon… and who knows what next? They could multiply like rabbits and take over the whole state. And they are not even Christian. They have these strange ideas and beliefs that are not pure and native Oregonian.

At least one Oregon senator did in fact respond to local residents’ pleas for an investigation into the Rajneesh community. In June 1982, Senator Hatfield began to express his fears about the “cult,” which was rumored to have to engaged in all manner of disturbing transgressions, including “group sex involving sadomasochistic elements” and perhaps even “violence and loss of life.”

Anti-Rajneesh T-shirt, from the Rajneesh Artifacts and Ephemera Collection, University of Oregon. Photo by Author

Anti-Rajneesh T-shirt, from the Rajneesh Artifacts and Ephemera Collection, University of Oregon. Photo by Author

Growing number of local critics

Just as the ranch was beginning to mass-produce T-shirts, bumper stickers, malas, and other merchandise to promote the commune, so too the growing number of local critics of the movement began to produce anti-Rajneesh merchandise. The University of Oregon Library’s Special Collections has preserved a number of fascinating artifacts from this period, including “Nuke the Guru” T-shirts, featuring Rajneesh’s face superimposed on a mushroom cloud, anti-Rajneesh silver coins with the slogan “Bye Bye Bhagwan,” and even a mala made of bullets and beads, designed to mock the necklaces worn by sannyasins. The anti-Communist motto “Better dead than red” started to reappear on bumper stickers, and one could even buy customised versions of Rajneesh caps showing a picture of Bhagwan branded with rifle crosshairs on his forehead. Flyers circulated during this period encouraging hunters to “bag a Red Rat” (i.e., a Rajneeshee), and warned that the Rajneeshees are

“known carriers of many known and unknown diseases. The [Department of Environmental Quality] has ruled that the carcass can not be left where the animal has been bagged, as it is a proven fact that the coyotes, vultures and carrion eaters will not touch the filthy carcass. If not disposed of the stench would be an intolerable pollutant… These Red Rats are loaded with crotch crickets and are very troublesome to remove from the carcass.”

Other flyers enthusiastically urged local hunters to “get your Guru tags now” with the motto “Let’s Bhang Wan Today!” Meanwhile, gun sales in Oregon reportedly doubled. Not surprisingly, this helped fuel the Rajneeshees’ own growing paranoia and contributed to a kind of escalating, feedback loop of fear, suspicion, and aggressive rhetoric between Rajneeshpuram and the local community throughout the next few years.

Excerpted from Zorba The Buddha, by Hugh Urban, Professor of Comparative Studies, Ohio State University. Published by University of California Press.