In 1981, followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh purchased a large ranch near Antelope, Oregon to found a U.S. commune. However, over the course of just a few years, the commune fell apart amidst allegations of immigration fraud, attempted murder, and bioterrorism attacks. Instead of spiritual enlightenment, followers of Rajneesh (known as Rajneeshees or sannyasins) found themselves embroiled in a land use controversy and legal scandal. Rajneeshee leaders ended up trading commune life for prison life.
Though Rajneesh himself, claiming he had no knowledge of the criminal activity plotted and carried out by his assistant and several other commune leaders, avoided prison by entering an Alford plea on immigration charges. The terms of the guru’s plea deal involved a 10-year suspended sentence, deportation, and a $400,000 fine.
The 64,000 acre Oregon compound, formerly known as the Big Muddy Ranch, was renamed Rancho Rajneesh. Commune residents voted to incorporate the ranch as a city, Rajneeshpuram, in 1982 as a way to circumvent restrictive land use laws that restricted the number of people who could be housed at the ranch.
Commune members later tried to take over Antelope after their attempts to form a city at the commune failed. A 1984 vote to amend the city’s charter was successful and the name was changed to Rajneesh. The vote the following year changed the name of the city back to Antelope.
Around 2,000 commune members were living at Rancho Rajneesh at one point. Rajneesh, who spent considerable time in seclusion while his assistant Ma Anand Sheela managed the operation, would tour the ranch to greet sannyasins in one of the 93 Rolls Royce automobiles that had been purchased by followers.
It gets weirder.
Aside from land use problems, the commune also had a serious problem with immigration. Some of the commune’s residents were not U.S. citizens and ran into trouble obtaining visas. Marriages of convenience were arranged in an effort to circumvent immigration laws. Rajneesh himself also had immigration problems which he attempted to resolve by unsuccessfully applying for resident status as a religious worker. Apparently immigration officials were skeptical of his claims to lead a religion while sitting in silence. Rajneesh’s immigration application was finally approved several years later.
Rajneesh thought that the end of the world was soon coming through either nuclear war or an AIDS epidemic. Despite a free approach to sex, Rajneesh required his followers to wear condoms and gloves, as well as to avoid kissing, if they engaged in sex. The curious thing about the condom requirement is that it occurred during the 1980s before condom usage was widely accepted for AIDS prevention.
The commune ended up gaining notoriety for launching the first confirmed bioterrorism attack in the U.S. In an effort to affect county elections, commune members infected diners in The Dalles with salmonella. The attack was reportedly a trial run for a plan to poison the city’s water supply with salmonella.
After Rajneesh’s deportation from the U.S. he was turned away from a number of other countries before finally returning to India. Rajneesh died in India in 1990 at the age of 58. His cause of death was reportedly heart disease, though Rajneesh, his doctors, and his former attorney all suggested that he was poisoned while in prison.
The U.S. commune is now a Christian youth camp. Rajneesh’s ashram in Pune, India, now known as the Osho International Meditation Resort, remains a popular tourist destination.