On 3 July 1982 thousands of Rajneesh devotees and friends arrived at Rajneeshpuram, “essence, or expression, of Rajneesh,” for the First Annual World Celebration, 1982. Rajneeshpuram is the new name for the 63,229-acre Big Muddy Ranch in central Oregon purchased by Rajneesh in July 1981. Long-term residents in Antelope (15 miles away), who lost political control of the town in recent elections, say they’ve been pressured by “the orange folk,” Rajneesh’s “neo-sannyasins,”1) ever since. But such pressure contradicts Rajneesh’s original view of his experiment in cooperative farming and communal living--”a vision of man living in harmony with nature, with his neighbors, and with himself.”
Whereas the Oregon state authorities granted permission for 5,000 people to attend the Celebration, the unofficial total neared 12,000. Those thousands flew in mainly from Europe on planes chartered especially for the occasion. We met people from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and even as far away as Japan, Australia, and South America. Despite so many nationalities, communication seemed simple through the Rajneesh “touchy-feely” experiences. Everywhere couples and trios were embracing, lying and sitting together, clinging, feeling.
At 8 o’clock each morning for the five days of the Celebration, a satsang (truth-teaching session) was held in the Buddha hall, a converted greenhouse. Because Rajneesh has been “silent” since April 1981, the satsangs consisted of selected readings from his discourses which total nearly 33 million words. People started arriving at the Buddha hall well before 7 o’clock to get places as close to their master as possible. The first five rows of seats were reserved for the “invited worker residents,” signifying places of special privilege. At 8 o’clock, one of the Rolls Royces belonging to Rajneesh slowly drove up to and around the perimeter of the Buddha hall while Rajneesh acknowledged his followers through tinted, bulletproof windows. Rajneesh always travels with his 34-year-old English companion, Vivek, who is said to be the reincarnation of his 17-year-old love who died many years ago. The driver was Sheela Silverman, an attractive, outspoken Indian woman who is married to an American. A former businessman and martial artist of some 20 years’ standing, John Silverman is vice-president of the Rajneesh Foundation International, a nonprofit organization of which Sheela is president. In the evident power hierarchy of Rajneeshpuram, Sheela has replaced Ma Laxmi, Rajneesh’s alleged consort who firmly directed the Poona, India ashram but seems to have totally disappeared since the move to Oregon.
With tears streaming down their cheeks after catching that first glimpse of their “god,” the dazed admirers would then return to the Buddha hall to sit in their master’s presence for over an hour. Speaking not a word, Rajneesh sat on a large reclining chair with his eyes closed and a benign smile on his face. His raised platform was surrounded by an “air-conditioned wall of pure air” to protect him because of his allergy. At the close of each session, Rajneesh would stand up, put his hands to his forehead in a farewell namaste (greeting), and bow to all his devotees, turning slowly in a semicircle. Then he would open his arms and flick his wrists and hands in a circular motion to encourage his devotees to cheer and praise him. That performance took at least ten minutes, and on the very last morning, he allowed the rush of excited followers to jump onto the platform, fall down at his feet, kiss them, and worship him.
Such a demonstration causes one to ask, Who do Rajneesh’s followers believe he is? Sheela says, “Another Buddha, another Christ.” Others say, “The Christ that I want to become,” “A reflection of the God that I want to be,” “He is the perfect master:
Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed all wrapped into one.” He is their self-proclaimed savior, the one who has pulled them from desperate lives filled with emptiness, drugs, hopelessness. Their testimonies are endless, filled with nothing but gratitude. Rajneesh gave himself the Hindi title Bhagwan which means Lord, the Blessed or Enlightened One. Whereas that claim is not incredible within the context of Hinduism, when every Hindu ultimately tries to attain godhood, it is incredible in the Christian context. Many Rajneesh devotees, however, come from Western, Christian backgrounds. One was the chaplain of Churchill College, Cambridge, another was a Baptist minister, a third a Lutheran deacon. As one person expressed it, “Why follow a dead master? Jesus was okay in his time, but now we have a live master, Bhagwan.”
After each satsang, Rajneesh once again got into his Rolls Royce and drove very, very slowly around the perimeter of the Buddha hall, waving to the adoring fans. The followers would stand in their ecstatic positions for almost a quarter of an hour after he had vanished from sight, while those in the center of the hall would rush to the podium and fall prostrate on the floor to absorb his “energy.”
After Rajneesh left, those who had not received sannyas (initiation ceremony during which the third eye is opened) were able to do so under the direction of Rajneesh’s assistant, Teertha. Some 200 to 300 new disciples were initiated each day. An initiated disciple must vow to: 1) always wear orange or red clothes; 2) wear a mala (a necklace of 108 beads with a wooden pendant bearing Rajneesh’s photo) at all times; 3) always use his or her new name, in some cases an Indian one; and 4) perform at least one hour of meditation each day.
An enormous choice of activity groups, or meditations, were available to participants, ranging from centering, dance and body awareness, Rajneesh dynamic bodywork, zencounter, tao, creativity and play, energy and the body, to relaxation and energy, harmony:
opening the heart, intuition and awareness, kyo: meditation and body awareness, Rajneesh T’ai Chi intensive, Rajneesh neo-zazen, and Rajneesh neo-vipassana. Most meditations cost $100 which was added to the admission fee of $400 for the five-day Celebration. Meals were strictly vegetarian, and 2,000 tents (four persons to a tent) served as the sleeping accommodations. Continual announcements over the loudspeaker reminded the sannyasins that tents were the only place where free and open sex could take place.
After each initiation ceremony, dynamic meditation--five stages of frenzied physical activity lasting 15 minutes each--took place in the same hall. That meditation was particularly designed to relieve stress and strain for those devotees who had come from the cities. All participants had to be blindfolded or keep their eyes closed throughout the program. The background noise was a hectic, rhythmic drumming over which the voice of the instructor leading the 2,000 to 3,000 participants could be heard. Being warned not to take all their clothes off, as the press was present, the meditators removed their orange outer garments in preparation for the exercises. Soon, at the signal to start, scantily dressed participants began throbbing, vibrating, moving, screaming, yelling, working up into amazing tantrums. The first stage involved hyperventilating; convulsively inhaling through the mouth and exhaling through the nose in fast, short rhythms. The second stage was primal screaming, and the noise level was absolutely deafening as people screamed, beat the floor, banged their bodies against each other, and generally “let go” and “got loose.” During the third stage, people put their hands above their heads and jumped up and down quickly onto their heels while shouting “hwo, hwo” in short, fast gasps. This, we were told, was to arouse the kundalini (serpent power) in each person. The fourth stage was freezing--standing absolutely still when the music stopped, not moving one single muscle. The fifth stage was one of celebration where the bodies could flow and relax to melodic music. After that very exhausting workout, those people who hadn’t passed out turned to one another and cried, moaned, laughed, caressed, and lay down on the floor.
During their leisure time, visitors could board one of the 52 school buses which were bought for the occasion to tour the ranch property, its newly planted vineyards, the cows being milked, the barns being painted. Another pride of the project was the lake with its boating, swimming, and windsurfing facilities. Groups, or meditations, were also going on in various parts of the camp throughout the day.
In the center of the residential field, several enormous marquees displayed ashram and sannyasin activities all over the world. An extremely efficient Rajneesh public relations tent showed continual videotapes of Rajneesh propaganda. An enormous boutique sold extremely expensive items ranging from Rajneesh’s 360 books, 150 videotapes, and 1,500 cassette tapes to posters, coffee mugs, bottle openers, paperweights, yo-yos, and frisbees all decorated with Rajneesh’s image. Racks and racks of clothes-underwear, swimwear, shirts, dresses, and trousers--in every shade of red were available. Unscented cosmetics were sold, supposedly due to Rajneesh’s allergy.
But his “illness,” which urgently brought him out of India, seems to have cleared up in Oregon. His disciples said that he was much, much better due to his departure from India and his arrival in a healthy environment where he can exercise regularly in his own private indoor swimming pool at his secluded private residence. Both his residence and the county road which runs through his property, incidentally, were heavily guarded by a security force who were equipped with radios, some even armed, so that visitors would not trespass or disturb Rajneesh during the Celebration.
On July 6th, Guru Purnima day (a traditional Eastern celebration when disciples gather in the presence of the Master), excitement rose as a plane swooped low over Rajneesh’s Rolls Royce six times, deluging the car, the road, and his followers with 22 million rose petals in hues of red, pink, and orange. As his car passed, followers rushed to pick up the petalsas souvenirs. In addition to his regular appearance at each 8:45 pm darshan
(a blessing Hindus believe one gets in the presence of a great man), Rajneesh was present in the early evening of Guru Purnima day. Seated once again in the Buddha hall for over an hour of silence, this time, rather than simply looking quietly on and meditating, his devotees performed for him, moving and swaying and dancing to the music, giggling and singing. They were generally filled with “festivity” which was the purpose of the evening “concert,” their gift to him. Afterwards, an enormous banquet of fruits and vegetables was served. Despite the rain, winds, lightning, and thunder that continued throughout the evening, laughter and merriment characterized the sannyasins. They expressed that even nature wasbowing to their master, acknowledging him, welcoming him, and celebrating with them all on Guru Purnima day.
The sannyasins who organized the festival did an absolutely excellent job. The logistics of managing the kitchens, food stands, sanitation, buses, garbage collection, etc. ran smoothly throughout the Celebration. Grounds were impeccably manicured, farmlands efficiently looked after. One very special oasis is called “Samadhi” where Rajneesh’s father’s ashes and those of Prince Welf of Hannover, Germany are laid. Prince Weif reportedly died in a karate accident at the Poona ashram in 1980. Sannyasins admitted that accidents do happen, and one remembered, “Yes, that was a terrible accident in Prince WeIf’s case, but it was beautiful.” The Rajneesh PR staff, however, insisted that Prince Welf’s death resulted from a hereditary brain tumor.
Apparently, it was not unusual to see sannyasins in Poona hobbling along on crutches, their legs in plaster casts, or their arms in slings. Their broken bones were the result of strenuous group meditations. In Oregon such is not yet the case, perhaps because the groups do not take place on a regular basis.
The ranch house on Rajneeshpuram has been converted to the children’s house and schoolroom. Children do not have to live with their parents or be with them: 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 sexually with one another, and one sannyasin said children often watch their parents’ sexual involvements “in private, of course.” Children are not encouraged to go to public schools, but the sannyasins have established a learning program in the elementary subjects for school-aged boys and girls.
A few experts who research cult phenomena say that Rajneesh will be active for a while but that his popularity will decline.2) Judging by the zeal and energy of his sannyasins worldwide, however, even the absence of Rajneesh will do little to affect the growth and popularity of this well-run organization. According to some neo-sannyasins, Rajneesh intends, in fact, for Rajneeshpuram to become a new age city to house over 100,000 people and cultural resources in the event of a nuclear attack. Sannyasins are trying to raise $100,000,000 to begin that project, which they hope will become a “living shrine to Rajneesh.” Rajneesh, it is believed, will warn his followers when the right time comes, and then all the communes throughout the world will collect and store their libraries. He says that “the cream of the world” are being gathered into his community where he is preparing them, through meditation, to survive and put the world back together again. Those elite are a strong people, he says, who have nothing to lose; they have lost everything already.
1) Since the traditional Hindi definition of a sannyasi is a holy man, a homeless mendicant who has renunciated emotional or mental attachment to life in this world, Rajneesh has differentiated his disciples through use of the term neo-sannyasin.2) Just how long he remains in the United States will be decided on 15 December 1982, when immigration officials will vote on whether or not to issue him a permanent residence visa.