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The Rajneesh Chronicles: The True Story of the Cult that Unleashed the First Act of Bioterrorism on U.S. Soil

In India, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh incited his followers to unrestrained sexual license and encouraged them to engage in prostitution and drugsmuggling to feed his endless appetite for money . . . In Oregon, followers toiled day and night to build his fanciful city of Rajneeshpuram, while he lived in luxury and flaunted his wealth with an ever-growing fleet of Rolls Royces . . . When the legitimacy of the city was challenged in court, members of his cult launched the first campaign of bio-terrorism in U.S. history . . . while in a secret laboratory on Rancho Rajneesh, a deranged nurse attempted to create a live AIDS virus . . . Here is the whole frightening story from beginning to end, told in real time dispatches from reporters on the ground.

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  • September 2010
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Win McCormack is currently publisher and editor in chief of Tin House magazine.  He has written on political issues for a variety of publications, including The Nation.  From 1983 to 1986 he wrote a monthly column called Rajneesh Watch for Oregon Magazine, of which he was then editor in chief.  The columns won the magazine a William Allen White Commendation for investigative reporting.

“Win McCormack has put a penetrating spotlight on Indian guru Bhagwan Rajneesh and his bizarre and very dangerous cult.  An utterly fascinating work.”
—Vincent Bugliosi, author of Helter Skelter

“Dense with facts, and meticulous in its explanation of cult psychology, The Rajneesh Chronicles will turn your knuckles white as you grip it.”Willamette Week

Bhagwan’s Child Rearing
Ex residents of Rancho Rajneesh make some shocking allegations
Win McCormack and Bill Driver

“I’m a child-protective social worker,” explains a formerdisciple of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a woman who holds a BA in psychology and a master’s in social work. She told Oregon Magazine a year and a half ago that “from a sociological point of view, in my opinion, there’s a tremendous amount of child neglect going on there at Rajneeshpuram. The children are discouraged from living with their parents. They have one of the lowest priorities of any con cern. They’re given very little attention.


“Most of the twelve‑, thirteen‑, and fourteen‑year‑old girls at the ranch were having sexual relationships,” the social worker also claimed. “It was a common thing.”


Over the past year and a half, most of the sources consulted by Oregon Magazine on this subject have corroborated both the social worker’s specific allegations and her general contentions about the up bringing of children at Rajneeshpuram. Some of the sources we con sulted, however, have challenged her position and hold a favorable view of the condition of the children at Rajneesh’s central Oregon commune.


Although many of our sources have made allegations about children in other Rajneesh communities, this article will be mainly confined to child‑rearing practices at Rancho Rajneesh since July 1981, when the commune was established.


According to a 1983 report by the Concerned Christian Growth Ministries of Australia, an Australian visitor to Rancho Rajneesh in 1982 alleged: “The ranch house has been converted to the children’s house and schoolroom. Children do not have to live with their parents; they belong to the community, and pride is exuded in the ‘modern’ approach used in their upbringing. Some children were running around naked in the schoolhouse, and it is not unusual for boys and girls to sleep together. Children are encouraged to experiment sexual ly with one another, and one sannyasin said children often watch their parents’ sexual involvement—‘in private, of course.”’


A teenage girl who lived at Rajneeshpuram from the ages of eleven to thirteen said in an interview that her female contemporaries there frequently had sexual relationships with older men. She claimed she knew girls at the ranch as young as ten who had had sexual relation ships with adult men. The girl also told us that children at the ranch had to work, “the same as adults.” She claimed she knew one four-year‑old who worked carrying messages around the ranch.


Allegations made to Oregon Magazine by street people who lived at Rajneeshpuram last fall during the Share‑A‑Home program are consistent with the statements of these other former commune resi dents. One street person said he saw children at the ranch “running around kissing and hugging. There wasn’t anybody around. I thought they should be in school, but I always seen them on the street.” Another said he saw Rajneesh children “feeling on each other, kissing on each other,” and fondling each other’s genital areas He said: “They roam free, they can do what they want. . . . There was one thirteen‑year‑old girl that was going with a forty‑five‑year‑old guy. He said he did [sexual] things with her with her parents right there. They call it ‘open love.”’


Another street person interviewed by Oregon Magazine after he left Rajneeshpuram said he witnessed a boy and girl, three and four years old, with their genitals exposed, simulating sexual intercourse. He said the girl’s mother was present while this was happening, and that she said: “It’s OK, that’s how you have fun.” Still another street person claimed that he saw a man “sexually molesting” a ten‑year‑old girl on a crowd ed bus at Rancho Rajneesh.


“I didn’t like what I seen,” he said, “and the woman I was with [a Rajneeshee] didn’t like it either. She finally went over there and told the girl to sit with us. Nobody else said a word.”


Some sources have reported that they witnessed physical neglect of children at Rancho Rajneesh. Two adults who lived there said they saw young children running around outdoors during the winter with out adequate clothing. One said she saw a completely naked four-year‑old girl playing outside in December. The other described the fate of a boy about two years old at the ranch:


“The first accident he had was when he fell down a stairway and really banged himself up badly. The next I can remember, he was run over by a pickup. The poor little thing, one side of his face was nothing but blood and pus and swollen and bruised. It was terrible. The only thing that saved him was the mud was so deep. He was out there amid the machinery all the time. It’s a wonder he didn’t get killed.”


Former disciple Susan Harfouche has described in print (“Memoirs of an Ex-Sannyasin,” Oregon Magazine, December 1983) a “little two‑year‑old baby I used to see wandering around the ranch by itself; bewildered big eyes, fingers in mouth, no smile, dirty, neglected.”


A 1982 report by Fred Kaatz, then manager of agency licensing for the Oregon Children’s Services Division, found the condition of chil dren at Rancho Rajneesh to be far better than the above descriptions suggest. Kaatz (who according to his report spent “several hours” at the ranch, “mostly in the company of from one to five leaders of the commune”) stated flatly: “I saw no evidence of what I considered abuse, neglect, or exploitation of children.” Kaatz did learn that chil dren as young as five were living apart from their parents at the ranch, but said in his report that this was by the children’s own choice.


University of Oregon psychology professors Norman Sundberg and Richard Littman, who are conducting an ongoing study of children at Rajneeshpuram, provisionally have reached similar, positive conclusions. Littman and Sundberg, who have not yet published their findings, administered a well‑accepted personality inventory test to children at the ranch. According to Littman, the results show the chil dren to be “better adjusted” and to have a “higher sense of themselves morally and intellectually” than is average for other American chil dren who have taken the test. He and Sundberg have formed “very favorable” personal impressions of the Rajneesh children’s emo tional and intellectual well‑being. They have not attempted to gather any data concerning possible sexual involvement by children at the commune.


A mother who recently returned from the ranch told Oregon Magazine that she found her daughter, who has lived with her sannyasin father in Raj neesh’s commune for seven years, in both India and Oregon, to be “really a very normal thirteen year old. She seemed vital, and definitely had her wits about her.” However, the mother complained that her daughter’s living quarters were off limits to her during her visit. She also said that her daughter, who was enrolled in the commune’s School without Walls program, was working as a scheduler at one of Rajneeshpuram’s restaurants while she was there.


In March, the Rajneesh School District temporarily lost its state basic school support when State Superintendent Verne Dun can concluded that the “school without walls” benefits a religious organization. The program, which involved students in hands‑on learning at various corporations at Rancho Rajneesh, was abandoned after Duncan’s ruling. Basic school support was reinstituted after the Rajneeshpuram School District decided to drop the hands‑on learning program and resume traditional classroom teaching.


What is the truth about the treatment and condition of children at Rajneeshpuram? Commune officials have a stated policy of refusing to answer Oregon Magazine’s questions. But some clues might be found in Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s publicly expressed attitudes about children and child rearing in general.


Rajneesh has long opposed childbearing by his followers, arguing that children consume so much of their parents’ energy that having them would impede his disciples’ quest for enlightenment. As a result, followers who become pregnant routinely have abortions, and many reportedly have been sterilized (see “Bhagwan’s Strange Eugenics”). Rajneesh’s attitude toward children seems to pervade all his commu nities. Sally Belfrage, an English writer who studied at his ashram in Pune (Poona), India, wrote: “Children are considered so objectionable that you can hardly believe that everybody was once one.”


Reportedly, most, if not all, of the approximately fifty children liv ing at Rajneeshpuram (out of a fluctuating total population of about 2,000) were born before their parents became disciples of Rajneesh. Regarding such children, Rajneesh has said: “The children will not belong to the parents but to the commune. Once children no longer belong to people, they will be more human.” His general child‑rearing principle is “Leave the children alone,” and he has suggested in lec tures that the younger the age at which people become sexually knowl edgeable, the sooner they will be able to overcome the sexual repress iveness of society.


In one discourse, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh waxed eloquent: “Let the children see, play, enjoy. While their parents are making love, let them be there. Let them be part of it, let them watch. . . . Let the children know. Let the children know many people loving. They will become more rich.”


Jim Phillips, a father who filed suit in San Mateo County, California, in 1983to prevent his ex‑wife from taking their then nine‑year‑old son to live at Rancho Rajneesh, comes down on the harsh side of the de bate about life for children there. The judge in the case initially ruled that the Rajneesh mother could take the boy to the ranch for a four week trial period. At the end of the four weeks, the judge seemed inclined to extend the time limit of the boy’s stay. After a private conference with the boy in his chambers about the boy’s experiences in Oregon, however, the judge suddenly changed his mind and ruled that the child could not visit “any Rajneesh ashram or ranch or any place under the control of the Rajneesh Foundation” for longer than forty‑eight hours at a time. The judge said in his ruling: “The lifestyle of the mother at the ranch is totally controlled by the Rajneesh group and is totally alien to the lifestyle of the minor when he is with his father.”


Says Phillips: “I looked at the judge’s face when he came out [from talking to his son], and I knew that he finally understood what’s really going on up there at that ranch--that it’s a kiddie‑land for adults, and the children are getting screwed over.”
Oregon Magazine, May 1985




Bhagwan’s Power: The Human Potential Movement Gone Awry
Evil outside the limits of the human imagination
Win McCormack

“It’s an amazing phenomenon,” says Sarah T. (a pseudonym), a former disciple of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. She is referring to the movement she left a few years ago when she became exhausted and ill from overwork. “And I think people still don’t get that what’s happen ing up there [at Rajneeshpuram] is very, very powerful—more so than they’re giving it credit for being, even at this point. Because every person who’s a sannyasin, every person who’s up there in Oregon--particularly now—is a very different kind of human being than you meet out here [in the secular world].


“They have extraordinary gifts as people. They have extraordinary personal power. They have extraordinary capabilities and abilities, because they’ve learned to go beyond all limits.”


Sarah, a therapist whose professional discipline falls generally un der the rubrics of the closely connected humanistic psychology and human potential movements, first became interested in Rajneesh when she read a book of his collected discourses called The Book of the Secrets.In those discourses, originally delivered in Bombay in the early seventies, before the establishment of the ashram in Pune (Poona), India, Rajneesh drew parallels between the theories of the humanistic psychology and human potential movements and his interpretation of the Eastern sexual philosophy and practice of Tantra, which all share the theme of liberation from the emotional and sexual repressiveness of society. Sarah says that after reading the book she was “gone--right away I started having mystical experiences.”


“I had the feeling,” she remembers, “that this is what I had been looking for my whole life. And that I had come to the end of my jour ney. That this was it. Reading the book was like having somebody express my innermost feelings.”


The academic humanistic psychology movement, launched in 1961 by, among others, psychologist Abraham Maslow, sought to forge an alternative to the two dominant trends in contemporary psychology: Freudian psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Maslow believed that too much attention had been devoted in traditional psychology to patho logical behavior, and not enough to healthy individuals who were able to “actualize themselves” and to attain and live from what he called “peak experiences.” In 1962, the Esalen Institute was established in Big Sur, California, to offer experiential workshops designed to help people realize their “human potential” (the phrase comes originally from Aldous Huxley, an early ally and inspirer of Esalen). Human potential theorists, seeking ways to counteract what they saw as peo ple’s harsh psychological and social conditioning, found parallels among the emotional opening‑up process of Western cathartic psychotherapies, the peak experiences described and advocated by Maslow, and the altered states of consciousness produced by Eastern methods of meditation (and also by psychedelic drugs). The union of Western psychology and Eastern religion became one of the human potential movement’s goals.


Rajneesh, in the words of one observer—social worker and cult expert Hilly Zeitlin—“picked up all the pieces of the human potential movement.” Rajneesh’s juxtaposition of avant‑garde Western thera pies, such as primal, gestalt, and encounter, with such classic Eastern meditations as kundalini yoga and zazen lured hundreds of thousands of Western disciples to his ashram in Pune in the 1970s. After reading The Book of Secrets,Sarah’s next step was to attend a “Let‑Go” weekend at a local Rajneesh center. The workshop involved participa tion in massages, therapy games, encounter groups, and meditations from 5:00 a.m. until midnight. The effect of the Let‑Go weekend on Sarah was even more profound than her reaction to Rajneesh’s written word had been.


“I stopped thinking,” she says. “I was driving back home and there were all these twinkly little white lights on the windshield. I was seeing things. I don’t know even now what was going on.” Not long after ward, Sarah was on a plane to Pune.


Rajneesh and his group leaders in Pune took the various cathartic therapy and meditation techniques associated with the human poten tial movement far beyond their usual limits of duration and intensity. Groups in which participants did deep, strenuous, yoga‑style breath ing exercises--exercises that can overoxygenate the brain and cause dizziness and nausea--would last for hours a day over several days. The ashram’s therapy groups became notorious for episodes of emo tional, physical, and sexual violence. Sarah reports that she suffered physical injuries, including two cracked ribs and a concussion, in an encounter‑type group in Pune.


“You see,” reflects Sarah in retrospect, “some people like to be on the edge. It’s much more exciting than the monotony of everyday life. It’s like a drug. It’s a high. And you think that you’re moving forward. These people really believe that this is Jesus Christ up there, OK? That is the beginning. And he’s providing them with experiences, with situations that are taking them past anything they’ve experienced in their lives previously. There’s a rush to that, that I’ve never found anything to equal. It’s like playing a game of death—your death.”


One of the criticisms of the human potential movement has been about its tendency to overemphasize the human potential for good and to underplay the evil, or dark side, of human nature. The word evil has also been used by observers to express their feelings about the motivations of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.


In her 1983 book, Miles from Nowhere, A Round‑the‑World Bicycle Adventure,writer Barbara Savage describes her experience of visiting Rajneesh’s ashram in Pune and hearing him denounce Mother There sa, who had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her charita ble ministrations to the poor of Calcutta. Rajneesh called her a “sexual pervert who gets her sexual satisfaction from touching lepers.” Sav age says that she stood up in the audience to protest Rajneesh’s tirade against Mother Theresa, but that “one of Neesh’s strongmen grabbed me and literally threw me back down on the floor. After that,” she writes, “I was too frightened to move.


“I sat there and watched and listened to the man rave on,” Savage continues, “and I was suddenly overwhelmed by a great sense of evil. I mean that. I truly felt as if I was surrounded by this massive evil force. I tell you, Rajneesh was emanating evil. I was terrified beyond words. When the meeting was over, I fled.”


Nathaniel Branden, a well‑known humanistic psychologist in Los Angeles, had a similar reaction to some of Rajneesh’s published dis courses, particularly certain passages in The Mustard Seed. In an October 2, 1978, letter to a friend at Rajneesh’s ashram, Branden wrote that Rajneesh “explains and justifies the slaughter of millions of Jews throughout history on the grounds that the Jews killed Jesus.”


“Since I first began listening to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s cassette tapes, and reading his books,” Branden told his sannyasin friend, “I have been fascinated. Among all the Indian thinkers I have read, he strikes me as clearly the most brilliant. At the same time, almost from the beginning, I have had the growing feeling that this is a man who is deeply, deeply, deeply evil—evil on a scale that is almost outside the limits of the human imagination.


“The greater a man’s brilliance, the greater number of truths he has insight to,” Branden concluded, “the more dangerously destructive that man has the power to be—if his core is evil.”
Oregon Magazine, August 1985