A Bit of Oregon History

Below is one of my assignments that was published in the Prineville Territory magazine. A bit of Oregon history that might be interesting…

Radical Differences in Unexpected Places

Antelope, Oregon…

…now a quiet little town dubbed a “retirement community”, has quite a history. A story unravels when you look into the past that is either interesting or repelling, depending on one’s point of view. Like much of Oregon, Antelope began as a stage stop back in the days of the movement west. In its glory, Antelope was home to 170 citizens and it thrived. This was 1898 and the town and its visitors supported four hotels, seven saloons, a bowling alley; retail establishments including three mercantile shops, a meat market, one drug store, a barber shop; services of three livery stables, a blacksmith, a funeral parlor; city offices including a city hall, a jail, and a post office. “Tammany Hall” was the community center and there was one church serving the community. The church still stands today, simply called the Community Church. In 1892, the town boomed requiring a school to be built and a newspaper began publication.

A fire destroyed most of the town’s business district in 1898 and it was never entirely rebuilt. Later, a new town developed a bit north of Antelope, called Shaniko (originally established as Cross Hollows in 1879), where a branch of the Union Pacific Railroad was completed in 1900. This was pretty much the end of Antelope, as it had existed.

But what has transpired in this rural area between 1900 and now? “Who would have imagined?” “Can you believe it?” “In this place?” These are questions that many would ask when they hear the “rest of the story”.

Let’s begin with some history…

Chandra Mohan Jain was born on December 11, 1931. He was the oldest child of a cloth merchant and had 10 siblings. Mohan grew up in Kuchwada, (central) India, raised by his grandparents until the age of 7. These years were carefree and involved no forced education or restrictions. At age 7, his grandfather died and Chandra went to Gadarwara to live with his parents. Death became a preoccupation with Jain after the loss of his grandfather and a beloved cousin, no doubt influencing his interest in philosophy. He was gifted as a student, yet rebellious, and became known as an impressive, yet dreaded, debater. Chandra became an anti-theist and developed an interest in hypnotism during these early years.

In 1957 he earned a master’s degree in philosophy after entering Hitkarini College at age 19, completing his B.A. at D. N. Jain College in 1955 and his M.A. from the University of Sagar. Considered by his peers to be exceptionally intelligent and to have overcome his small-town, early-educational deficiencies, Chandra was also known to be argumentative and disruptive on campus, and thus was not required to attend classes, except to take examinations.

This man, who by graduation from his studies had already been known by different names, continued a career in teaching and public speaking. A long list of controversial engagements and scandalous doctrine were presented by him under the name Acharya Rajneesh. During this same time frame, he lectured on philosophy at Jabalpur University where he was promoted to professor in 1960. A controversial speaking tour in 1966 ended with a request that he resign from his position with the university.

Following the resignation, another lecture series, calling for freer acceptance of sexual practices brought about his title, “sex guru”. This period and these teachings were published as From Sex to Superconsciousness, again bringing more controversy.

“Neo-sannyasin” was the name of the disciples who followed Rajneesh (generally called sannyasins). The first group was initiated in Bombay on 1970. Becoming a sannyasin involved assuming a new name, wearing the traditional orange dress of Hindu holy men and the mala, a beaded necklace, which in this case, held a locket with a picture of Rajneesh. It is noteworthy that sannyasins were to follow a life of celebration instead of denial and also that Rajneesh, himself, was not to be worshipped but to be considered as an agent for change, similar to the “sun encouraging the flower to open.”

By this time, he had acquired a secretary who worked to raise support from wealthy followers. This allowed him to stop traveling and begin giving private lectures and taking private visitors. His first visitors from the Western world appeared. In 1971, a new name was adopted, Bhagwan Shree Rahneesh. This translates loosely to Blessed Sir and implies that the divine is no longer hidden, but apparent to the bearer of this name.

Bombay was not a place of good health for Bhagwan. His next move, in 1974, was to Poona, India. This property was purchased with the help of a Greek shipping heiress. Comprised of two adjoining houses and 6 acres of land, this property became an ashram where Bhagwan taught until 1981. This ashram still operates today after many years of growth and much bad press. Now called the OSHO International Meditation Resort, the ashram is described as a “lush, contemporary 28-acre campus…a tropical oasis where nature and the 21st century blend seamlessly, both within and without.”

The Oregon Commune…

041-Bhagwan-Shree-Rajneesh-OrHi-98356 Copyright Max Gutierrez

When you look into the eyes of even a picture of Bhagwan, the “guru”, what do you see? A master, a spiritual leader, an ego-maniac? Some loved him, some didn’t; some came, some went; but whatever the reasons, by 1981, there were 30,000 visitors annually hosted at Bhagwam’s ashram in India. A new secretary had taken position and Bhagwan began what became a three-year period of silence. Though it is understood that the secretary, Sheela Silverman, and Bhagwan did speak during his period of silence that commenced in April, 1981, it is also apparent that she was powerful and made a unilateral decision to move the ashram to the United States due to criticism and threatened legal action by the authorities in India. On June 13, 1981, Sheela’s husband, Marc Harris Silverman, bought 64,229 acres located across Wasco and Jefferson counties for $5.75 million dollars. This was formerly the “Big Muddy Ranch”, but was renamed “Rancho Rajneesh”. Initial reaction from local area residents was dependent on their proximity to the ranch, but ranged from acceptance to total hostility.

What followed the land purchase and establishment of “Rancho Rajneesh” was a flurry of activity accompanied by uncertainty about who was really in charge and making decisions for the community. Continuing his period of public silence until November, 1984, Bhagwam had given Sheela limited power of attorney in 1981. This was revised in 1982 to remove the limits that had been put in place. By 1982, the ranch was renamed and incorporated as the city of Rajneeshpuram by a vote of the residents. In 1983, Sheela announced that Bhagwan would only speak with her. He later stated that he was kept in ignorance of the facts by Sheela.

The commune was established in Oregon with the goal of finding enlightenment, at least according to the “guru”, Rajneesh. World issues around the economy and the effects of the Vietnam War made his concepts appealing to many Westerners. Extolling sexual freedom helped too. Though health issues may have been expressed as reasons to leave India, Rajneesh faced legal matters, as well, such as tax fraud. At this point, a new place to spread the word was needed.

There is some serious reasoning to think that Sheela was not after enlightenment, rather power. As the speaker for Bhagwan, she began to make bold moves to do exactly what she wished in this rural community, while she apparently assured the guru that the commune would become the fulfillment of his dreams.

Sheela’s first big mistake was in not understanding Oregon law and the limits placed on building and population of ranch land. Exploring the law, it was determined that homes could be built for farm workers. The plan was to sell the county planners on the idea that they needed homes on the ranch for the workers who would be diligently working to restore the land that had so long been abused. It is interesting to note that for these meetings, Sheela and other members of group took off their malas and red garb in exchange for regular street clothes. They noted that they did not represent a religious organization but “simple farmers…[who] celebrate life and laughter”. The result was permission to build housing for approximately 150 workers. Routine visits to the ranch for inspection by the county revealed that houses without kitchens or living space had been built, more like dormitories. The Rajneeshees would hide mattresses during these visits to give the appearance of a smaller population.

Numerous reports published regarding the events in Rajneeshpuram give somewhat superficial details, but the Oregonian published a series of more in-depth articles in 2011. Researching jury transcripts, police reports, court records and more, reveals alarming ideas that developed and played out in the hope of turning the law to their side.

The first task was to create a city of their own. On advice from legal counsel in Portland, Sheela and her team met with representatives from 1000 Friends, an environmental group with particular interest in limiting the development of farm land. Even the bribe of a substantial contribution to their organization did not sway 1000 Friends to feel that a city was necessary, though they were in favor of the restoration of land.

Rajneeshpuram map - U of O Libraries Map of the community from U of O library.

Unable to create their own city where their own laws could be made, the next step was to infiltrate the city council by placing Rajneeshees in positions there. Of course, this would require voters who would side with these candidates. Thus began the process of bringing in what were called “America’s transients”. Teams were sent out across the nation to recruit homeless people by the busloads. They were brought in and promised food and shelter in return for their registration to vote followed by their favorable votes in the upcoming election. This worked, but later was deemed voter fraud and became the root of one of the many charges brought upon Rajneesh and Sheela. In 1983 and 1984 the population at Rajneeshpuram ranged from 2,000 to 3,000 people. Over 10 years it is estimated that as many as 6,000 people lived here and constructed nearly 1,000,000 square feet of buildings. It should also be noted that the population of the commune was not totally made up of transients by any means. There were many well-educated, professionals who happily supported the community financially and with their services.

Records indicate that there were other, even more abominable actions to try to control voter attendance at the polls and/or sway council members. These included dispersing salmonella bacteria in several restaurants in The Dalles and serving contaminated water to officials visiting the ranch. Bill Hulse, Wasco County commissioner, was hospitalized for four days and would likely have died, according to his doctors, without treatment. Ray Matthew, the other commissioner who visited, also became very ill. It was reported that these particular poisonings were an effort to insure future decisions by the county would go in favor of growth at Rancho Rajneesh. Together, these operations resulted in 751 poisonings and 45 hospitalizations.

With pressure mounting, Sheela fled the commune on September 13, 1985. Rajneesh followed suit on October 28, 1985. The flight plan of his private jet was followed and while stopped to refuel in Charlotte, North Carolina, he was arrested and brought back to Portland for trial. Things fell apart further when the “spiritual leader” pled guilty to immigration fraud and sexual abuse with minors. The movement, now under investigation by the FBI, lost many of its followers. Murder investigations, felonious acts of arson, drug smuggling and voter fraud plagued the organization. Rajneesh was deported and changed his name to OSHO. He died in 1990 of a heart attack at his ashram in India.

Today…

Ma Anand Sheela served federal prison time for her crimes and finally left the United States in 1988. She later started a home care business for the mentally disabled in Switzerland under the name Sheela Birnstiel.

Ma Anand Su served two years in federal prison for murder conspiracy. She now lives in Bulgaria and teaches the building of cob houses. Now using the name Susan Hagan, she also conducts international travel tours.

Ma Anand Ava received full immunity from prosecution by defecting and turning on Sheela. Ava Avalos has earned a doctorate and runs a medical clinic for health professionals in Botswana. She has also been published in World Health Organization publications.

Swami Devaraj, the personal physician of Bhagwan, who nearly died himself in a poison attack perpetrated by Sheela in 1985, changed his name to Swami Amrito and moved to the OSHO International Meditation Resort in Pune, India.

Swami Krishna Deva was the mayor of Rahneeshpuram and pled guilty to charges. He served two years in federal prison and relocated to California as David Knapp, handling real estate investments. With another ex-sannyasin he founded a small international charity.

The ranch itself was repossessed by the mortgage company. In foreclosure, it was later purchased by a businessman from Montana and deeded to Young Life, a non-denominational Christian ministry. Many of the buildings erected by the Rajneesh are still in use. Now known as the Washington Family Ranch, the land is again being used in a spiritual endeavor and is in operation for about four months of the year. The camp currently houses approximately 1000 visitors per season. According to recent news, Young Life is seeking rights to expand by 1500 beds and interestingly enough, this is causing some controversy. While Rep. John Huffman from The Dalles, Jason Conger, Bend, and Gene Whisnant, Sunriver, have signed on to endorse House Bill 3098, Jefferson County Commissioner, Mike Ahern, was quoted in The Bulletin as stating “To me, it just makes a mockery of the state’s land use laws.” Seems to be an echo of earlier opinions, but there is not an expectation of a repeat of previous illegal operations.

2011 marked the 30-year anniversary of the Rajneeshees move to Oregon and inspired several articles on the subject. Former residents of Rancho Rajneesh were invited to submit memories and thoughts of their time in Rajneeshpuram. In terms or memories of the Ranch, none of the published comments reflect negatively on life there. Though there are a few references to the rules, the sense of any knowing of wrong-doing or less-than-spiritual work being done is totally missing. Rather, friendship, beauty, freedom, love, blessing, caring and similar experiences that they “will never forget” are noted. These same responders referenced their feelings about the fall of Rajneesh in other ways. Shock and sadness are common threads, while being grateful for the experience, life lessons, enduring friendships and more that came from time spent there. One comment from a woman now living in California reminds us that “eternal vigilance is always required even in EDEN!” Perhaps this is the best take-away from the whole story.

Many of the past and current followers remain connected. Pages on Facebook, such as Rajneesh, OshoLover, Rajneeshpuram and more have been created where some people have happily found reunion after many years. Rajneeshees from the Oregon commune have relocated all over the world. Some remain in Oregon and the United States, and others far beyond to England, Germany, Switzerland, Africa and, of course, India.

As for Antelope, Oregon, it has returned to that sleepy retirement community. Antelope survives today with a population recorded at 46 in 2011, at a median age of 62. According to Roadside America, all that remains to mark that time of the Rajneeshees clad in bright colors is a plaque at the base of the Antelope post office flagpole: “Dedicated to those of this community who, through the Rajneesh invasion and occupation of 1981-85, remained, resisted, and remembered.”

Writer’s note…

Suffice it to say that any teachings beyond the traditional “normal” always bring controversy. It remains unclear in the end just how much of what transpired in the area near Antelope, Oregon was what Rajneesh wanted or ordered, or if it was the work of his assistant, Sheelah, during his period of silence. This is not a supernatural story about a ghost town, but a true story of something way beyond the “normal”. We live in a country where freedom of speech and religion are fundamental to our beliefs. While bioterrorism is certainly not acceptable then or now, these details are cause for us to step back and wonder just when, why, how and what might happen in our very own small part of the world. Our country has experienced terrorism at much greater loss since the time of this story, but then how can these things be measured? Loss of freedom, loss of health, loss of life at any level incurs its own wrath. All is food for thought as we continue what will always be a journey where we attempt to balance freedom, love, abundance and peace in our lives.

This is not an easy story to tell in confined space. Many books and articles have been written on all aspects of this subject and if interest is tickled by this account, more reading is suggested. To list a few books:

The Rajneesh Chronicles, Win McCormack (2010)

Bhagwan: The Most Godless Yet The Most Godly Man, George Meredith (1987)

Bhagwan: The God That Failed, Hugh Milne (1986)

My Life in Orange: Growing Up With the Guru, (2005)

Websites:

Oregon History Project – ohs.com

OregonLive – oregonlive.com

Oregon Public Broadcasting – opb.org (a video tells the story with interviews and pictures)

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4 thoughts on “A Bit of Oregon History

  1. I vaguely remember hearing of his commune. Great, fascinating article!! I read it all because I was shocked and surprised to hear of the varied machinations to gain power. Thank you for sharing!!

  2. As a native Oregonian, I remember how controversial the Rajjneesh was. That this happened in Oregon was a source if embarrassment for many residents. Very, colorful and interesting story!

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