99% Invisible | Podcast Review | October 10, 2015 | By

99% Invisible Episode #184: Rajneeshpuram

Oregon’s red scare came from the Rolls-Royce Guru and his devotees.

This episode of 99% Invisible focused on Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and the contentious establishment of his intentional community, infamously known as Rajneeshpuram, in upstate Oregon. Never heard of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh? Try one of his aliases[1]: Chandra Mohan Jain, Acharya Rajneesh, Osho[2], Osho Rajneesh[3], the “rich man’s guru,” the “sex guru”[4], or the “Rolls-Royce guru.” Still not ringing any bells? Don’t worry, I have never heard of this guy either[5], and I am grateful for the 99% Invisible team for enlightening my young mind of this fascinating man and tidbit of spiritual history.

The story of Rajneesh’s successful cul….errr….New Age movement begins in India. Rajneesh was a philosopher turned guru who, “synthesized eastern and western spiritual thought and psychotherapy [to create] his own brand of spirituality,” according to the episode’s reporter, Chloe Prasinos. Rajneesh wanted his followers to be in-touch with their innate being; Roman Mars, host of the show, characterizes his attractive syncretic belief system as an embrace of sex[6], laughter, and luxury. Rajneesh had some disagreements[7] with the Indian government and was looking to expand his operation. He moved his outfit to Oregon after one of his early followers, known as “sannyasins”[8], purchased a desert ranch.[9] [10] These followers started building roads, an airport strip, schools, transportation networks, etc. to make the commune self-sufficient. (Refer to the this episode’s supplementary guide for pictures.) Rajneesh, under a vow of silence for the commune’s first few years [11], allowed a matriarchy to preside over the daily operations. He was still adored, which Hugh B. Urban attributes to his Weberian charismatic authority. Ma Anand Sheela (Sheela Silverman), an early follower, started taking a more pronounced role as the primary spokesperson.

The commune became embroiled in legal battles over land usage; their area was only supposed to be for agricultural purposes. The Rajneeshees, led by Sheela, used intimidation tactics and their local influence to begin taking over towns in hopes of changing zoning laws and legitimizing Rajneeshpuram.[12] The Rajneeshees successfully infiltrated the town of Antelope and renamed it Rajneesh. Sheela also organized the largest bioterrorism attack in U.S. history, infecting 750 people at a salad bar with salmonella to suppress voter turnout. These tactics (and many more terrible things) led to the disillusionment and an exodus of the Rajneeshees from Rajneeshpuram.[13] Rajneesh was begrudgingly deported back to India. Sheela only served two of sixty years in her criminal sentence and then moved to Switzerland.[14] Rajneesh continued to be an influential spiritual leader, best selling author, and iconoclast. His ashram in Pune, India still serves as an important tourist attraction for his teachings. The ranch has ironically become a Young Life retreat center.

The story itself was incredibly interesting because I had never heard anything about it before, but to be honest I did not like the way that 99% Invisible presented it. 99% Invisible is about design and architecture, and I can see how this is an episode of urban planning—it features talk of A-frame houses, zoning laws, and a self-sustaining city. Still, it felt too strongly narrated by Roman Mars and Chloe Parsinos, as if it were a conscious effort to make the story sound relevant to the theme of the podcast. There were three guests and some cut-up archival audio, which did help provide some context, but not a strong independent stand-alone narrative. This happened in the ‘80’s and I am sure there are tons of interesting characters out there with great and quirky stories to tell about Rajneeshpuram. Alas, that is where the all too familiar budgetary constraints and production timelines come in. Nevertheless, I think it is a great piece of Oregonian history to learn about for my East Coast ears and I have 99% Invisible to thank.



[1] This isn’t even his final form!

[2] That’s bold name Cotton, let’s see if it sticks for him.

[3] It’s like when Prince was formerly known as.

[4] Also like Prince.

[5] Seriously this dude’s Wikipedia page was daunting. My first thought was that it was larger than a lot of president’s entries. In case if you are wondering if it is larger than James K. Polk’s, don’t worry I checked. It is.

[6] Hence the “sex guru.”

[7] Taxes are optional.

[8] Rajneesh’s movement has it’s own surprisingly extensive lexicon.

[9] Ya know, kind of how the Puritans came to America, except the exact opposite of their strict belief system.

[10] Starting to sound like Jonestown.

[11] My guess is probably in the same way Vincent Gigante feigned insanity.

[12] Like in season 3 of The Wire where Stringer (Sheela) tries to legitimize Avon’s (Rajneesh) money through real estate deals. (I had 200 word analogy to The Wire for this story, it was painful to cut it to this footnote.)

[13] Waaaaaay better ending that the People’s Movement.

[14] Can you imagine a brown person getting off that easy in this day and age with those rap sheets?

About the Author

Saheel Mehta is a founding writer at Audiologue, where he likes to cover podcasts relating to science, sports, and politics. Right now, his favorite shows are The Memory Palace and Reply All. Find him on Twitter @saheelmehta, or by email at saheel@audiologue.xyz.

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