OUR OREGON SAGA:
THE AMAZING SUCCESS OF THE NON-MASSACRE
Osho is in the news. The release of Netflix’s series, ‘Wild Wild Country’ has triggered renewed debate over the mystic’s decision to travel from India to America in 1981, together with the building of Rajneeshpuram, our spiritual commune, on a 120 square mile ranch in Oregon.
Media reviews have focused on whether the documentary series has accurately told the story. Most give it a thumbs-up of approval. Some say it wasn’t harsh enough on “the Rajneesh” and the disruption we caused. Others say it failed to show the loving atmosphere among Ranch residents, the huge enthusiasm with which we created our own town, and the transforming power of Osho’s ‘Wild West’ experiment.
For me, as someone who lived and worked at the Oregon Ranch from its beginning until its very end, the most surprising revelation came suddenly one night, after watching the final episode.
I realised, with a certain amazement: “Wow, I’m still alive! I didn’t get killed!”
Not only me, of course. Nobody was killed, on either side. Considering the intensity of the emotions that were stirred, the firepower of artillery on both sides and the determination of the Reagan Administration to get rid of us, that was nothing short of a miracle.
The strange thing is, I didn’t feel this astonishment while on the Ranch, in the autumn of 1985, as the controversy grew to its climax. I should have felt it, but I didn’t. I didn’t believe my life was in danger. I felt immune, cushioned by a naive belief that Osho, as an enlightened being, could handle anything and we would always find a way to come out on top.
It is only now, having watched the documentary and listened to comments from lawyers, politicians and federal officials, that I understand how close we came to a bloodbath.
Not that anybody intended to trigger a shootout. But the way the pressure built up made it almost inevitable.
I was reminded of the tragedy at Waco, Texas, which happened a few years later, in 1993, when a gun battle broke out between the followers of spiritual leader David Koresh and federal officers who were raiding his compound. After initial casualties on both sides and a siege that lasted 51 days, the FBI started destroying the Koresh ranch buildings and using CS gas. A fire engulfed the property, killing 76 members of the Branch Davidian group.
To me, surrounded by friends on the Ranch and carried along by the upbeat, cheerful atmosphere that pervaded our community, nothing seemed less likely. We worked during the day, we danced in the disco at night, we joked about the changes engulfing us.
For sure, I was surprised by the sudden departure of Osho’s secretary, Sheela, and shocked by the revelations of the crimes that her loyal lieutenants had allegedly committed.
But I was also happy Sheela had gone and appreciative of the new Ranch administration, led by a wealthy group called “the Hollywood crowd”, including Osho’s new secretary, Hasya, whom I knew personally and liked.
The drama unfolding around me seemed almost like a PR game. I watched with a kind of detached, journalistic amusement as Osho invited the FBI and state police to investigate his claims about Sheela’s illegal activities.
The cops came in and seemed friendly enough – at least in the beginning. But the atmosphere soon changed when police obtained warrants to forcibly raid Ranch buildings. At about the same time, I began to hear rumours of federal indictments being issued to arrest Osho and other commune leaders.
I went to a community meeting where Niren, doubling up as Osho’s lawyer and town mayor, advised us how to behave if, or when, a massive invasion was staged by law enforcement troops. We were to stand still, or move around very slowly, making no sudden movements, and if arrested, utter the magic words “I want to see a lawyer.”
Niren delivered his warning in jokey yet somehow serious manner, and we all laughed, maybe a little nervously. It was still a game, but not quite as funny as before.
What I didn’t know was the degree of determination and aggression with which the arrest of Osho and the destruction of our community was being pursued. This became apparent only afterwards, when I heard Charles Turner, US Attorney for Oregon and head of the operation, in a television interview, describe Osho as “a man of consummate evil.”
Turner didn’t take part in the Netflix documentary ‘Wild Wild Country’, but his deputy, Robert Weaver, was happy to recall his own involvement. He echoed the sentiments of his boss. “This was not motivated by greed, this was evil,” Weaver told the movie makers, when describing the rapid construction of the Rajneesh community in Oregon. Clearly, these federal attorneys weren’t impartial. Rather, they were trying to use the law to get rid of us. Their efforts to shut us down were driven by a Christian-based crusade against an “evil cult” that was contaminating the all-American way of life.
Both Turner and Weaver were feeling political heat from Washington DC. According to Turner’s own statements, he was being pressured by everyone, including US Senators and the White House, to find a way to remove our community.
Meanwhile, local immigration officials in Portland were reportedly enraged when they were told by their boss in Washington, Alan Nelson, not to take part in the coming raid.
According to one insider, “guys were kicking chairs” in their frustration, because the INS, the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, had felt particularly humiliated by our repeated accusations of bias and prejudice. They wanted a chance to pay us back.
This gives a clue to the intensity of feelings at that time among many American politicians and law enforcement officials. We had been so provocative, so “in-your-face” with our flamboyant lifestyle, it was hardly surprising they were upset with us. Moreover, the sight of an Indian guru driving a fleet of 93 Rolls-Royces around the Oregon countryside, while giving discourses called “The Rajneesh Bible” and dismissing America as a “hypocrisy not a democracy” did nothing to cool tempers.
Osho described President Ronald Reagan as a “third-rate cowboy actor” and we on ‘The Rajneesh Times’ newspaper joined in the fun. We published an old photo of Reagan, while he was still a movie actor, with his companion Bonzo, a chimpanzee, with whom he’d made several really bad movies. So Reagan and Bonzo were featured on our back page, with Bonzo sitting on Reagan’s knee, apparently reading a copy of ‘The Rajneesh Times’ – thanks to our creative graphic designers.
We still thought it was a game. But, without knowing it, we’d been fuelling the flames of a wildfire to critical ignition point. It was about to go out of control.
The key to the impending shootout was a decision by US Attorney Charles Turner not to agree to a procedure of voluntary surrender, whereby, after the delivery of the indictments, Osho and other accused would be allowed to travel to Portland and peacefully surrender themselves, according to a prearranged plan. At the time, it puzzled me why Turner was refusing to negotiate. It seemed like such a sensible thing to do, to avoid triggering a bloodbath.
Then, in his interview with the movie makers, Niren made it clear. He explained that one of the standard ploys of capturing high-profile targets like Osho was to make a forcible arrest, so they could use handcuffs and chains, then parade their prisoner before the flashing lights of the news media. I noticed this, later on, with the arrest of Jim Bakker, an American TV evangelist, and with the capture of Saddam Hussein, after the invasion of Iraq and the massive manhunt for its fugitive leader.
The sight of a man in chains triggers a collective response in millions of people, as they watch such dramas on their television screens:
If you’re in chains, you must be guilty. If you’re a prisoner, you must have done something wrong.
In simple, black-and-white, cowboy terminology: “Look! The good guys got the bad guy.”
God knows what would have happened if the Ranch had actually been invaded by a large police force with the intention of arresting Osho. Maybe it would have passed off peacefully, even though SWAT teams were being flown in from Seattle and National Guard helicopters were on standby, getting ready for the assault. But then again, maybe not.
The whole world is aware of the trigger-happy nature of American gun culture, not least because of recent school shootings, in which many students have been killed. In the year 2015, more than thirteen thousand people died in the United States as a result of gunshot wounds – a typical annual statistic. Law enforcement officers are not exempt from this tendency. More than a thousand people were killed by US cops in 2017, a disproportionate percentage being black people, triggering nationwide protests by African Americans.
Also, it needs to be said that the American government has repeatedly shown vindictiveness towards those who oppose its policies, even on an international level.
Three incidents come to mind:
In 1986, when French President Francois Mitterand refused to allow American bombers to fly through French airspace on their way to attack Libya, some of their bombs just happened to be dropped perilously close to the French Embassy in Tripoli.
In 1999, during Nato’s war with Yugoslavia, an American bombing raid “accidentally” dropped five guided bombs on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three people, in what was seen by neutral observers as retaliation for China’s support of Serbian leaders.
In 2003, during the Allied invasion of Iraq, a camera team from the Al Jazeera TV news station was wiped out on a rooftop by an American bomb, in what was seen as payback for Al Jazeera’s controversial screening of interviews with American prisoners captured by Iraq.
It’s not that America is any worse than any other nation, when it comes to dirty tricks. But it certainly conflicts with the message of freedom, democracy and justice that the United States proudly flaunts in the faces of other countries.
Even when force seems legitimate, it often misfires. In 2010, a special US Navy SEALS team tried to rescue British aid worker Linda Norgrove, held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The raid took place at night and the American soldiers wore night vision goggles, which gave them a huge advantage over the militants. They quickly succeeded in killing many of the kidnappers. Then, at the last moment, when almost all the Taliban militants were dead, one trooper decided to blindly throw a fragmentation grenade, accidentally killing Linda Norgrove, who had broken away from her captors and was hiding in a gully.
I’m sure you get the point. Gun culture in the States is as dangerous to its own citizens and allies as it is to its foes.
In this atmosphere, the confrontation on the Oregon Ranch seemed to be heading towards a violent climax, with a high probability that somebody, either intentionally or accidentally, would trigger a shooting war.
It wasn’t just the cops who were armed. The Rajneesh Security Force had an arsenal of semiautomatic rifles and was trained to protect the community. If that force had resisted the invasion, the final body count could have been extremely high.
Towards the end of October, 1985, federal indictments against Osho were issued. Someone close to Turner tipped off the Rajneesh lawyers, who called the US Attorney and again tried to make a deal. But Turner still refused to discuss voluntary surrender.
How the decision was made for Osho to leave the Ranch is not clear to me, but apparently the close circle of sannyasins around the mystic, including Hasya, his new secretary, urged him to allow them to take him somewhere safe.
On the evening of Sunday, October 27, 1985, Osho left the Ranch, taking all the heat with him. His departure was noticed and Turner was informed.
To the American authorities, Osho was now a fugitive in flight, his unexpected departure proof enough of his guilt. Federal officials went into ‘chase’ mode and tracked the mystic’s plane as it flew across the United States. The focus of attention switched from the Ranch to Charlotte, North Carolina, where Osho was arrested at gunpoint – allegedly without a warrant – at the airport. He was believed to be on his way to Bermuda. Instead, he was taken to jail.
This was the point at which, while the threat to Osho’s personal well-being escalated, the threat to our lives evaporated. Suddenly, no one was interested in invading the Ranch. After all, they had “bagged the Bhagwan” and put him in handcuffs and chains, parading him, as they wished, before a crowd of journalists.
Much has been said about Osho’s court hearing in Charlotte and his subsequent journey back to Portland in the custody of US Marshals, so there is no need for me to go into detail here. It is suspected, as Osho himself claimed, that he was subjected to poisoning and radiation while being held in prison in Oklahoma City.
Back in Oregon, faced with charges of immigration fraud, Osho agreed to a plea bargain and was deported from the United States. With Osho gone, the Ranch became economically unsustainable and soon we were being asked to leave.
Charles Turner had been absolutely right in his assessment that, once Osho had been removed, the Rajneesh commune would collapse.
So, that was the end of our Oregon saga. As Netflix’s promotion of its documentary declares, the story is full of drama, with many unexpected twists and turns. But while the documentary focuses on the conflict, the final impression, for me, came afterwards in a different way than I expected.
As I watched the credits roll on the final episode, I felt happy and slightly astonished – to be alive.
Because nobody died, on either side. We all survived. People got upset, angry and mad. People got harassed and poisoned. People got arrested and jailed. But nobody died. Given the level of confrontation, the American gun culture and the charged emotional atmosphere, that is almost unbelievable.
Niren, as Osho’s lawyer, in one of several interviews he’s made over the years, said that the mystic’s decision to leave the Ranch the way he did, was “a real bad idea”.
Maybe for Osho, it was. But it probably saved my life and many others.
Thirty-two years later, that’s a reason to smile and feel grateful.
Author’s PS: As several readers have pointed out, Osho was the major victim of the US Government’s effort to destroy our community. If, as Osho claimed, he was indeed poisoned and exposed to radiation while in jail in Oklahoma City, and if this contributed to his death, five years later, then of course he was the main casualty.