The Netflix’s series “Wild Wild Country” has reawakened public interest in Osho and, in particular, the mystic’s decision to leave India and travel to America in 1981, where his disciples built a town for 3,500 people on a ranch in Oregon.
For me, as someone who lived on the Ranch, from its very beginning until its dramatic end, the most surprising revelation of the documentary came suddenly one night, after watching the final episode.
I realized, with a certain amazement: “Wow, I’m still alive! I didn’t get killed!”
Not only me, of course. Nobody was killed, on either side. Considering the intensity of the emotions that were stirred, the number of weapons on both sides and the determination of the Reagan Administration to get rid of us, that was nothing short of a miracle.
The strange thing is, I didn’t have the feeling of danger, while living on the Ranch, in the autumn of 1985. As the controversy grew to its climax, I should have felt it, but I didn’t. I didn’t believe my life was at risk.
It is only now, having watched the lawyers, politicians and federal officials recollect their parts in the drama, that I understand how close we came to a bloodbath. Not that anybody intended to trigger a shootout. But the way the pressure built up made it almost inevitable.
In September 1985, the events unfolding around me seemed almost like a PR game. I watched with a kind of detached, journalistic amusement as Osho exposed Sheela crimes and invited the FBI and state police to investigate.
The cops came in and seemed friendly enough – at least in the beginning.
But the atmosphere soon changed when police obtained warrants to forcibly raid Ranch buildings. At about the same time, I began to hear rumours of federal indictments being issued to arrest Osho and other commune leaders.
I went to a community meeting where one of our lawyers, an American sannyasin called Swami Prem Niren – who, by the way, featured prominently in the Netflix series — advised us how to behave if, or when, a massive invasion was staged by law enforcement troops.
We were to stand still, or move very slowly, making no sudden movements, and if arrested, we had to utter the magic words “I want to see a lawyer.”
Niren delivered his warning in jokey yet somehow serious manner, and we all laughed, maybe a little nervously. It was still a game, but not quite as funny as before.
What I didn’t know was the degree of determination and aggression with which the arrest of Osho and the destruction of our community was being pursued.
This became apparent only afterwards, when I heard Charles Turner, US Attorney for Oregon and head of the operation, in a television interview, describe Osho as “a man of consummate evil.”
Turner wasn’t interviewed by the Netflix film-makers, because by the time they visited Oregon he was old, retired and close to death (he died in 2018 before the documentary was released). But his deputy, Robert Weaver, was happy to recall his own involvement. He echoed the sentiments of his boss.
“This was not motivated by greed, this was evil,” Weaver told the movie makers, when describing the creation of the Rajneesh community in Oregon.
Clearly, these federal attorneys were less than impartial. In fact, they were trying to use the law to get rid of us. Their efforts to shut us down were driven, at least in part, by a Christian-based crusade against an “evil cult” that was contaminating their all-American way of life.
But there was another, equally powerful factor involved: Turner and Weaver were feeling political heat from Washington DC. According to Turner’s own statements, he was being pressured by everyone, including US Senators and the White House, to find a way to destroy us.
Meanwhile, local immigration officials in Portland were reportedly enraged when they were told by their boss in Washington, Alan Nelson, not to take part in the coming raid on the Ranch.
According to one insider, “guys were kicking chairs” in their frustration, because the INS, the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service, had felt particularly humiliated by our repeated accusations of bias and prejudice.
They wanted a chance to pay us back.
This gives a clue to the intensity of feelings at that time among many American politicians and law enforcement officials. We had been so provocative, so “in-your-face” with our flamboyant lifestyle and hard-hitting comments, it was hardly surprising they were upset with us.
Moreover, the sight of an Indian guru driving a fleet of 93 Rolls-Royces around the Oregon countryside, while giving discourses called “The Rajneesh Bible” and dismissing America as a “hypocrisy not a democracy” did nothing to cool tempers.
The danger increased when Charles Turner refused to agree to a procedure of voluntary surrender, whereby, after the delivery of the indictments, Osho and other accused would be allowed to travel to Portland and peacefully surrender themselves.
At the time, it puzzled me why Turner was refusing to negotiate. It seemed like such a sensible thing to do, to avoid triggering a bloodbath.
Then, in his interview with the movie makers, Niren made it clear. He explained that one of the standard ploys of capturing high-profile targets like Osho was to make a forcible arrest, so they could use handcuffs and chains, then parade their prisoner before the flashing lights of the news media.
The sight of a man in chains triggers a collective response in millions of people, as they watch such dramas on their television screens: If you’re in chains, you must be guilty. If you’re a prisoner, you must have done something wrong.
A senior counsel to the INS, Mike Inman, confirmed this attitude in another interview, recalling a conversation with Turner in which the US Attorney for Oregon asserted “I want to storm the Bastille!” Meaning, presumably, he wanted to stage a full-scale invasion of the Ranch.
In this atmosphere, the confrontation seemed to be heading towards a violent climax, with a high probability that somebody, either intentionally or accidentally, would trigger a shooting war.
The whole world is aware of the trigger-happy nature of American gun culture, not least because of recent school shootings, in which many children have been killed. It is an astonishing fact that more civilian Americans have been killed in gun-related incidents in the past 50 years than all the American soldiers who have died in all the wars of American history.
It wasn’t just the Oregon State police and FBI who were armed. The Rajneesh Security Force had an arsenal of 50 rifles and pistols and had been trained to protect the community. If that force had resisted the invasion, the final body count could have been extremely high.
Towards the end of October, 1985, a grand jury issued federal indictments against Osho, granting federal officials the authority to arrest him. Someone close to Turner tipped off the Rajneesh lawyers, who called the US Attorney and again tried to make a deal. But Turner still refused to discuss voluntary surrender.
How the decision was made for Osho to leave the Ranch is not clear to me, but apparently the close circle of sannyasins around the mystic, including Hasya, his new secretary, urged Osho to allow them to take him somewhere safe.
On the evening of Sunday, October 27, 1985, Osho left the Ranch, taking all the heat with him. His departure was noticed and Turner was informed.
To the American authorities, Osho was now a fugitive in flight, his unexpected departure proof enough of his guilt. Federal officials went into “chase” mode and tracked the mystic’s plane as it flew across the United States.
The focus of attention switched from the Ranch to Charlotte, North Carolina, where the plane landed and Osho was immediately arrested at gunpoint at the airport. He was believed to be on his way to Bermuda. Instead, he was taken to jail.
This was the point at which, while the threat to Osho’s personal well-being escalated, the threat to our lives evaporated.
Suddenly, no one was interested in invading the Ranch. After all, they had “bagged the Bhagwan” and put him in handcuffs and chains, parading him, as they wished, before a crowd of journalists and TV cameras.
Osho was held in jail for 12 days and finally arrived back in Portland, where he was granted bail. Faced with charges of immigration fraud and the prospect of a lengthy trial, the mystic’s lawyers agreed to a plea bargain and Osho was deported from the United States. With Osho gone, the Ranch became economically unsustainable and soon we were being asked to leave.
Charles Turner had been right in his assessment, which he’d conveyed to other federal and state officials, that once Osho had been removed, the Rajneesh commune would collapse.
So, that was the end of our Oregon saga. As Netflix’s promotion of its documentary declares, the story is full of drama, with many unexpected twists and turns. But while the documentary focuses on the conflict, the final impression, for me, came afterwards in a different way than I expected.
As I watched the credits roll on the final episode, I felt happy and slightly astonished – to be alive. Because nobody died, on either side. One of the street people, bussed into the Ranch in October 1985 to influence a local election, is said to have died of exposure, while being bussed out again a few weeks later – he apparently mixed his medication with alcohol and fell asleep in the snow on Mount Hood. But his death wasn’t due to combat or conflict.
Indeed, if there was a conflict casualty, it was Osho himself. After leaving America and experiencing an increasingly severe but mysterious illness, the mystic claimed he had been poisoned while held in prison in Oklahoma City. This may have contributed to his death in January 1990, at the age of 58.
In one of several interviews he’s made over the years, Niren, as Osho’s lawyer, said that the mystic’s decision to leave Ranch the way he did, was “a real bad idea”.
Maybe for Osho, it was. But it probably saved my life and many others.
Thirty-three years later, that’s a reason to smile and feel grateful. s