Readers Write In #41: Wild Wild Country: Rajneeshism and the limits of freedom in democracy

Posted on June 1, 2018

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Four years ago, I was on a fortnight long visit to the USA and happened to spend a couple of days in New York City.  I wish I could say I stayed in Manhattan; instead, myself and parents were put up in a hotel in Flushing.  Little did we know that Flushing was Chinese-majority and the full import of this was brought home to us when we used – yes – sign language to buy bread and pastries from a neighbourhood bakery run by Chinese people.  It was very, very cheap and also well made, thank you.  But it was only much later that I reflected on how surreal it was that in the heart of the Big Apple, my fluent English did not facilitate even the rudimentary communication required to buy bread.  I also marvelled at the tolerance of New Yorkers and wondered if something like that could happen in a major city in India because the few Chinese residents I have met in Mumbai do speak English and Hindi and are Mumbaikars in every sense.

I bring up this seemingly unrelated incident because a consistent theme that Osho/Bhagwan Rajneesh’s disciples (known as sanyasins or Rajneeshes) harp on through the excellent Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country is that it was minority-hating bigotry that made Oregonians misunderstand them and their purpose. I am not going to get into the details here for the sake of brevity (laugh, if you wish!) and would recommend either the New Republic series (https://newrepublic.com/article/147657/outside-limits-human-imagination) or The Oregonian 20 article series (http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2018/03/read_the_oregonians_original_2.html) to get a fairly exhaustive account of what the documentary is all about. But coming back to the question of bigotry, really?  I know the tiny town of Antelope is literally and culturally miles away from New York but cannot shake off the feeling that perhaps this is over simplification.  Tolerant or no, is it at all surprising that a small town of 40 old people (yes, just 40) would have felt uncomfortable about the arrival of a massive resource-draining ranch in their midst and the predatory tactics that Rajneesh’s henchmen(women), especially Ma Sheela Anand, were prepared to use to defend their radical way of life? For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with John Silvertooth’s caustic description of Bhagwan Rajneesh as a conman who ensnared rich clients in India and, upon being driven out of it, sought shelter in USA.  For all of Bhagwan Rajneesh’s accented eloquence in English, I do not find him fundamentally very different from any number of godmen that seem to spring up all the time in our remarkable nation.

But I digress; yes, the cult is truly radical.  Forget the open sex part of it.  What is even more radical is the breaking up of the family unit.  Where a section of the left fired academic arrows at the family unit, the Rajneesh philosophy not only practiced it but expected it of its followers.  Married couples joining the cult were expectedly to live separately.  Any children already born to them could accompany them to the cult but would not be brought up by them.  This seems to fly in the face of the freedom that chief personalities in the cult, particularly Ma Sheela Anand and Niren, claim it delivered to its members.  But members of the cult voluntarily accepted these conditions and also the incidents of non consensual sex and assault that ensued within the commune.  But citizens of Antelope and eventually various branches of US Govt would not take such a liberal view because to them, it was a law and order problem.

And that is really the rub of the discussion.  The cult claimed that it was the USA which offered an example of liberty and free speech to the world and that by wanting a purportedly peaceful cult gone, it was not living up to its reputation.   This seems to be a rather disingenuous excuse, I would hazard to say race-bait, to whitewash a litany of crimes, starting from illegally extending Bhagwan Rajneesh’s stay in the USA, using farmland to build a ranch to accommodate far more people (in the region of several thousands) than was permissible as per Oregon’s land use norms, infecting restaurants with salmonella, causing over 750 people to fall sick, a plot to assassinate the attorney of Oregon, etc.  It’s a long list.

However, ignore the race-bait/anti-minority side of the accusation and consider that the controversial and much maligned cult of Scientology enjoys tax exempt status in USA.  For a more mundane and immediate example, consider that once the Oregon commune gave in to the US govt and emptied out, whoever bought the ranch land sold it to Young Life, a Christian organization who, in Silvertooth’s words, run a Rajneeshpuram-like resort, only a no-sex one.  Even while acknowledging that it too is a cult of sorts, Silvertooth admits to feeling more comfortable with their presence.   Yeah, no problem whatsoever with land use anymore.

So what was it again about Rajneeshism that provoked so much discomfort in Oregon? No, not their race or at least not only their race, as my experience in Flushing seems to suggest.  But the radical way of life they sought to promote (very loudly and aggressively, I may add).  Even ‘free’ society has a set of unwritten norms of behaviour that it largely expects its members to adhere to.  When these rules are flouted with brazen alacrity and in fact the keepers of said rules are mocked as being conservative and insecure, constitutional promises of freedom get thrown right out of the window and procedural constraints are kickstarted into operation.   That this radical lifestyle existed within the cocoon of a secretive cult seemed to matter little to those who saw it as a threat to what they understood as the American way of life.  Perhaps to this extent, Bhagwan Rajneesh was not wrong in saying the USA had disappointed him.  Or maybe he just totally misunderstood what ‘freedom’ really means in the context of democratic government.   And an ill fated experiment to brutally test the limits of freedom in the freest nation on the planet met its sorry but not entirely surprising end.

– Madan Mohan, recreational tennis hack in the early morning, chartered accountant by day and wannabe writer by night

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