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Rajneeshpuram: A bizarre period in Oregon history

That time I met Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
Two hand chosen devotees dance with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, center right, as he arrives for a prayer meeting and lecture as an armed security guard keeps watch on the crowd of thousands at Rajneeshpuram in Eastern Oregon in 1985.

During the summer of 1985, during my time as a photographer for the Lewiston Morning Tribune, reporter John McCarthy and I spent three days at Rajneeshpuram in Eastern Oregon. 

The followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had established a religious commune in the middle of nowhere several years earlier on ground formally known as the Big Muddy Ranch along the banks of the John Day River, about 150 miles east of Portland.

McCarthy had visited as a reporter the year before and was granted a personal audience with spiritual leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh after the controversial guru emerged from a self-imposed vow of silence. 

Having studied philosophy and religion in college I was excited to see the commune with my own eyes. The place was a photographer’s Disneyland. The sight of thousands of Sannyasins dressed in purple, red and orange, a doe eyed holy man in flowing robes holding court, all playing out on a picturesque ranch in sagebrush country was bizarre enough, but add the blissful dancing devotees and guards with semi-automatic weapons and I felt like I was living in a parallel universe.  

The day of our audience with the Bhagwan, we were met by media handlers in our room at the Rajneesh Ranch hotel to have our clothing sniffed. Apparently, Rajneesh had allergies. During the inspection one of the followers asked McCarthy why he wasn’t wearing a tie? John replied, “I have interviewed presidents, governors and many other high-ranking officials and I have never owned or worn a tie!” We both had a good laugh as they stared at us in disbelief.  

The interview itself was bizarre. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had the holy man shtick down. John would ask a question and Rajneesh would go off on a tangent for 10-15 minutes in a very quiet and soothing voice as John sat in a chair opposite and a group of handpicked devotees watched respectfully from couches behind. I remember being mesmerized.  

The interview was being videotaped by multiple studio style cameras so I had to be careful to avoid blocking them. The media handlers told me later they were amused and a little worried to see me crawling around on the floor at the feet of Rajneesh while I worked, but I don’t remember the guru paying any attention to me. The Bhagwan had poor McCarthy locked in his hypnotic gaze for the whole interview.  

My take at the time, was that as crazy as the whole spectacle appeared, I felt it was an interesting experiment in communal living. The people I met seemed sincere and dedicated. It also seemed like a fairly well-run commune. Well-funded and planned. The Rajneeshees had invested an estimated $120 million into buildings, infrastructure and municipal services. I bought a Rajneesh Times T-shirt at the Noah’s Ark Boutique which was next to the Zorba the Buddha Rajneesh Lounge, City Hall and Post Office, while I was there. I enjoyed the visit. 
Little did McCarthy or I know at the time, but the commune was in the process of imploding.  

Our paper ran the story over three pages a few weeks later just as the story broke that the Bhagwan and his lieutenant Sheela were being pursued by Federal and State law enforcement for conspiracy to murder and poison members of the nearby communities in an audacious plan to install loyalists in public office in Wasco County.  

I could go on, but if you want to learn more about this bizarre time in Oregon history watch the documentary Wild Wild Country. Trailer on YouTube here: Wild Wild Country

Chris Pietsch is the director of photography for Gannett Newspapers in Oregon, The Register-Guard in Eugene and the Statesman Journal in Salem.

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