Guru's commune faces hostile community, internal problems

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh said he wanted his followers to create a Buddha field in the high Oregon desert, an environmental utopia on the 64,000-acre Rancho Rajneesh where his disciples' highest spiritual potential could be realized. But the 53-year-old Rajneesh, a self-declared ``guru of the rich'' -- whose followers have bought him a treasury of expensive jewelry and more than 90 Rolls Royces -- has been spending some time in jail in Charlotte, N.C. This week he was indicted for a string of federal charges that include unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, conspiracy, and a lengthy list of immigration violations.

Arrests of a handful of Rajneesh's disciples, and this week's arrest in West Germany of Ma Anand Sheela, his contentious former personal secretary, are only the latest chapters in a colorful four-year saga involving the guru and his disciples, who have alternately outraged and baffled many residents of Oregon.

Since the start of Rajneesh's commune here in 1981, there has been constant tension between the commune members and the residents in the outlying community. With the arrests, one question now is what will become of the commune. Some members of the commune have packed their bags and left, although many of the disciples insist that only a call from the bhagwan to follow him back to India could bring them to leave.

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Swami Dhyan John, a physician and millionaire businessman who now heads the Rajneesh Investment Corporation, said at a press conference this week, speaking to Oregonians at large, ``If you think you are going to bury us, you are not. We are here.''

But Oregon State Rep. Wayne Fawbush, a Democrat whose district includes the Rajneesh commune and Rajneeshpuram (formerly Antelope, Ore.), predicted ``troubled times'' for the estimated 2,500 sannyasins (disciples) at the ranch.

``Their spiritual leader for the second time has spirited himself off, leaving the group holding the bag, so to speak,'' said Representative Fawbush, referring to the first time when Rajneesh suddenly left India with a few of his followers in 1981 and arrived a few months later as a ``guest'' at the Oregon ranch Ma Sheela had found.

Rajneesh became known as a ``free-love'' guru in the 1970s, when thousands of Westerners trekked to seek the former philosophy professor in Poona, India.

Since arriving here in sparsely populated southern Wasco County, members of the sect have gained control of the small town of Antelope, some 20 miles from the ranch, and have also incorporated their own city, Rajneeshpuram, which now boasts a shopping mall, a hotel, a meditation university, a large cafeteria, and a meeting hall that holds more than 15,000 people.

Disputes have arisen over such issues as: a battle for the town's name (Antelope vs. Rajneeshpuram); apparent vote stacking (by the commune); use of mind-control drugs; and the impact on the community of apparent violent and sex-related therapy at the commune.

The survival of the new town Rajneeshpuram was first challenged by a lawsuit based on Oregon's land-use laws, and later by a suit filed by Oregon Attorney General David Frohnmayer. That suit stated that the city's creation violated the doctrine of separation of church and state. In addition, a group called ``Save Antelope'' is circulating a petition in hopes of putting a statewide referendum on the Oregon ballot next fall, aimed at invalidating the charter of Antelope.

At least a dozen community spokespeople, including Ma Sheela, who was the commune's investment manager, financial director, and personal secretary for the bhagwan during his three-year self-imposed silence, took flight to Europe on Sept. 14. They had been charged by the bhagwan as guilty of arson, wiretapping, attempted murder, and embezzlement of some $55 million. Ma Sheela has denied the claims.

The bhagwan's allegations, coupled with the testimony of others, have resulted in a massive investigation by a multiagency police task force, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A state grand jury currently is meeting in The Dalles (the Wasco County seat) to investigate the allegations.

Some observers say Ma Sheela's departure, Rajneesh's revelations about criminal activities at the commune (resulting in a complete turnabout in commune practices and the way disciples are to worship the guru), and the guru's arrest may have dealt a big blow to the community.

Wasco County's chief executive, County Judge William Hulse, was one of several public officials who Rajneesh said Ma Sheela had tried to poison. Looking to the future, Judge Hulse says some people ``feel that this must hasten the end of that whole encampment out there, but I don't know. Time will tell.''

In one interview since his arrest, Rajneesh said he wanted to go back to India and take his followers with him.

Many sannyasins point to their spiritual master's ``live for the moment'' philosophy when asked about their community's chance for survival. Disciples, who have followed their guru from India to Oregon, said they would follow him again.

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