The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh: An Indian Commune in Oregon

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This self-proclaimed prophet came to the U.S. from India and formed a colony he called Rajneeshpuram in the central Oregon desert near the town of Antelope.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was born in India with the name Mohan Chandra, on December 11, 1931. He was a philosophy professor by profession. He began lecturing in 1964 and left the university to lecture full time in 1966.

In 1971, he changed his name to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. The word “Bhagwan” meant lord or god and “Shree” meant sir. He founded an “ashram,” where the adherents practiced “human potential psychotherapy.” His followers were known as “sannyasins.” His ashram became extremely popular and overcrowded. He needed more space, but the Indian government would not allow him to continue because of land use regulations. The government also canceled his tax-exempt status and billed Rajneesh for several million dollars in back taxes.

He sent his assistant Ma Anand Sheela to the United States to look for property that was remote, warm, and large enough to support several thousand people. Rajneesh purchased the Big Muddy Ranch near Antelope in Wasco County, Oregon. The ranch was located in a warm and dry climate, was far from a major population center, and had 64,229 acres. Antelope had 136 people at the time. The next nearest town was Madras, with 2,235 people.

Rajneesh applied for a medical visa, claiming he had cancer and needed treatment that only the United States could provide. Rajneesh arrived at the Big Muddy Ranch on August 29, 1981.

The commune would officially be known as Rajneesh Foundation International. When they first arrived, Rajneesh told the locals he intended to operate a small farm and religious commune with no more than 50 workers. But within a month, he applied for zoning permits that allowed about three dozen trailers to move to the property. In no time, the colony had 170 people. Rajneeshpuram was incorporated in November, having 20 more than the minimum needed for incorporation.

Though the townspeople didn’t approve of the converts, they seemed fairly harmless at first. It looked like just another commune reminiscent of the 1960s “free love” tradition. But in December 1981, a group called 1000 Friends of Oregon disputed the incorporation of Rajneeshpuram, approved by Wasco County. The group declared that Rajneeshpuram violated the 1973 land use laws that were used to preserve agricultural resources and to allow urban development only in existing urban areas. Nothing came of this dispute, but it did bring attention to the commune.

Rajneesh didn’t worry about the legality of his actions. He put his converts to work building new structures. He established his own city council and it granted itself building permits. It also voted to annex 119 acres of land adjacent to the main complex.

Rajneesh came under fire for not consulting government agencies required by law. The Land Use Board of Appeals ruled that the Wasco County Court did not correctly follow land use laws when it allowed Rajneeshpuram to be incorporated. 1000 Friends of Oregon sued Rajneesh to stop from further construction. But nothing resulted from this legal action.

Sources:

  1. “Roadside History of Oregon,” Bill Gulick, Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, MT, 1991.
  2. “Great Moments in Oregon History,” Win McCormack and Dick Pintarich, ed., excerpted from Oregon Magazine, Portland: New Oregon Publishers, Inc., 1987.