The People vs the Cult | Rajneeshees in Wasco County

By Kim Andrews ::

Bhagwan (1982) praying. Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society


Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was a spiritual teacher who developed a substantial international following in Pune, India, and decided in 1981 to relocate to the United States. By June 1981, Bhagwan and his followers, called Rajneeshees, decided to relocate to the United States and purchased Wasco County’s Muddy Ranch, a location that was ideal for the creation of a private community.

Initially, the residents of Wasco County looked at the Rajneesh development as a joke but as the ashram grew so did its insularity. The cult avoided city inspectors, failed to follow zoning regulations, and lied about the reasons why the numbers continued to increase. Also, the Rajneeshees angered the press and county residents by refusing to give them access to the puram while simultaneously reaching out to community leaders and social clubs. This funneling further increased animosity between residents and Rajneeshees because it violated previous agreements. As these requests continued to be ignored, many Wasco county residents became increasingly resentful of Rajneesh power.

To the Wasco community, the Rajneeshee faction, built on peace, humility, and spiritual enlightenment, failed its objectives. Residents of Antelope witnessed displays of military-style weapons, violence, and a fleet of Rolls-Royces. These observations continued to anger Wasco residents, so they formed a committee to regain control of the area.

The last confrontation between Antelope city residents and Rajneeshees was the creation of a new town. The cult members soon outnumbered the ashram and were forced to move into the town of Antelope. The Rajneesh community, wanting to avoid further restrictions, ran for city council and won.They used their increasing influence in the city and city council to push for incorporating the City of Rajneeshpuram, formerly Antelope.

Unfortunately, the Rajneesh did not account for the ranch’s county designation. It was on agricultural land in Wasco County, so creating a new city on farmland was against state regulations. Also, the sect leaders used physical threats and violence to keep out County officials. Seeing this takeover, Wasco residents sought legal avenues to address the overreach of the Rajneeshees.

These local actions also garnered attentions at the state level. Oregon State Attorney General David Frohnmayer argued that the actions of the incorporation were illegal based on the concept that the community did not allow outsiders to enter, so therefore, could not be representative of the entire population. This position was further upheld in the State v. City of Rajnesshpuram.

As the Rajneesh movement faced pressures from internal and external forces, leaders became desperate. The exposure of these plans led to the further dissolution of the community. By late 1985, Rajneeshpuram was under siege by internal and external forces. Outside forces continued to harass the Rajneeshees through immigration investigations, voter fraud allegations, and failure to pay its bills. Internally, the followers of Bhagwan became disillusioned by the greed of its leaders, poor health of residents, and inability to accommodate neighboring communities. Eventually, Rajneesh leaders fled the ashram in the face of mounting evidence linking them to arson, attempted murder, and the poisoning of 750 Dalles residents with salmonella bacteria.

Eventually, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and several leaders were caught attempting to leave the country to avoid facing criminal charges. In order to avoid prison, Bhagwan pleaded guilty to false immigration and agreed to leave the country. His followers also disbanded and returned to regular life outside of the puram.

By the late 1980s, the City of Rajneesh no longer existed, but it left a lasting legacy. The fall of Rajneeshpuram also showed the power of the Wasco community to reassert their beliefs and hopes for Wasco County’s future.

Want more? Check out:

Music used
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Feasting on the Flowers”

Kim Andrews, Project Manager
Alecia Giombolini, Fact checker and editor