It was always a Rolls-Royce, although a different one each day, and it would glide slowly past as they bowed and threw roses on the bonnet.
Inside, wearing robes, a tea cosy-style woolly hat, flowing grey beard and beatific smile, was the object of their devotion, the guru and mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
Once he had passed by, the crowds would return to toiling in the fields — or ‘finding their true selves’ in group sex sessions.
Rajneesh — not to be confused with the far tamer Maharishi, who was the Beatles’ Indian guru — presided over a New Age sex cult that was second to none in its embrace of ‘free love’, unorthodox meditation techniques and sheer outrageousness.
In India, he was known as the ‘Sex Guru’ and attracted tens of thousands of followers from all over the world, including celebrities, from the venerable British journalist Bernard Levin to film star Terence Stamp.
In the U.S. he was dubbed the ‘Rolls-Royce Guru’. Given that he owned 93 of the luxury cars, the title was more than fair.
His followers were often highly educated professionals ready to reject the strictures of middle-class convention and seek enlightenment first in India and later at communes in Oregon, Cologne and Suffolk.
Some left spouses and children, while others donated everything they had to the cult.
What they received in return were a bead necklace with a locket bearing the guru’s picture, a new Rajneeshi name and the great man’s thumb imprint on their forehead, giving them their ‘third eye’ of insight.
However, it was the group’s attempt to build a $100 million utopian city in a remote corner of the northwestern state of Oregon that became its downfall in the Eighties, resulting in a jaw-dropping scandal that included attempted murder, election rigging, arms smuggling and a mass poisoning that still ranks as the largest bio-terror attack in U.S. history.
The story of the Rajneesh movement’s slide from peace-and-love hippiedom into machine gun-toting, homicidal darkness is revealed in a new six-part Netflix documentary entitled Wild Wild Country.
The makers talked to key former Rajneeshis — also known as ‘sannyasins’ — including the guru’s terrifying second-in-command, Ma Anand Sheela. All of them seem nostalgic for those heady days.
The series uses some of the reams of previously unseen home-video footage shot by the movement, and has been criticised for leaving viewers to decide whether the Rajneeshis were a terrifying, murderous cult or — as some of them still insist — just a peaceful, persecuted minority religion.
The facts, say former prosecutors and other outsiders who came into contact with the toxic clan, are as indisputable as they are damning.
Rajneesh was a philosophy lecturer who, in 1970, founded a spiritual movement and commune in Pune, near Mumbai (formerly Bombay). His teachings were a bizarre mixture of pop psychology, ancient Indian wisdom, capitalism, sexual permissiveness and dirty jokes that he gleaned from the pages of Playboy magazine.
His ‘dynamic’ group meditation — performed with eyes closed and pop music blaring — involved periods of screaming, frenetic dancing, standing still, and jumping up and down shouting ‘Hoo!’.
Sex — lots of it and with as many partners as possible — lay at the core of his philosophy. He insisted that repression of sexual energy was the cause of most psychological problems.
Rajneesh argued that monogamous marriage was unnatural and advocated unrestricted promiscuity, including partner-swapping, from the age of 14.
Blessed with a captivating stare from huge, soft eyes, he was so charismatic that many of his followers — who would fill 20,000-seat stadiums to hear him speak — believed he could be a second Buddha.
But Rajneesh, born in 1931, was no ascetic mystic in a loincloth. He couldn’t get enough material possessions, collecting not only Rolls-Royces but expensive jewellery and diamond-studded Rolex watches.
He concentrated on luring affluent Westerners to his ashram (hermitage) in Pune, where he lectured in front of a 20ft-long banner which proclaimed: ‘Surrender to me, and I will transform you’.
The fees he charged for group therapies were so exorbitant that some women disciples worked as prostitutes to raise the money.
The actor Terence Stamp, star of the films Billy Budd and Far from the Madding Crowd, visited in 1976 after his girlfriend, Sixties supermodel Jean Shrimpton, left him. He stayed for several years, dropping out of society.
Anneke Wills, a British actress who had played Dr Who’s sidekick Polly, joined the ashram in 1975. ‘For the first few nights I cried into my pillow. I’d swapped my wonderful home for a mattress in a communal dormitory,’ she recalled.
‘But there were some wonderful people there. I was a bit bored by the free love thing. I’d had enough of all that. It was the meditation I was interested in.’
She remained there for six years before following the Bhagwan when he moved to Oregon, where she became one of thousands of non-U.S. followers who undertook arranged marriages so they could stay there.
The late Bernard Levin, one of Britain’s best-known newspaper columnists and a former Daily Mail writer, was also taken in. He stayed at the ashram in his late 40s and later wrote a string of drooling articles about the Bhagwan, describing him as ‘the conduit along which the vital force of the universe flows’.
Rajneesh’s move to Oregon in 1981 was prompted by an investigation by the Indian authorities over immigration fraud, tax evasion and drug smuggling. The group purchased a 64,000-acre ranch near the tiny settlement of Antelope, and the 7,000 disciples who moved in swamped the 50-strong resident Bible-bashing population. The two sides mistrusted each other from the start.
Rifle-toting ranchers started driving around with ‘Bag a Bhagwan’ car bumper stickers but the Rajneeshis, by force of numbers, soon won control of the town in a local election.
Antelope was renamed Rajneeshpuram. The victors set up a heavily armed ‘peace force’, practising daily with Uzi sub-machine guns on their range, and drove a Jeep with a 30-calibre machine gun mounted on it around town.
Construction began on a self-sustaining Rajneesh city intended for 50,000 residents, with scores of houses, shops, restaurants and even an airport built. But local people jointly took legal action against the development, backed by politicians increasingly convinced that the Rajneeshis were a dangerous cult.
Alarming evidence of this included a BBC documentary in which a British journalist, the late Christopher Hitchens, filmed one of the Rajneeshis’ ‘encounter’ sexual therapy sessions. Footage showed a crowd of naked men and women packed into a room, screaming and attacking each other.
Hitchens described another disturbing session in which a woman was ‘stripped naked and surrounded by men who bark at her, drawing attention to all her physical and psychic shortcomings, until she is abject with tears and apologies’.
He went on: ‘At this point she is hugged and embraced and comforted, and told that she now has ‘a family’. Sobbing with masochistic relief, she humbly enters the tribe.’ Hitchens added darkly: ‘It was not absolutely clear what she had to do in order to be given her clothes back, but I did hear some believable and ugly testimony on this point.’
Rajneesh’s own sexual needs were largely met by his long-standing British lover and care giver, an attractive long-haired brunette named Christine Wolf Smith (or Vivek, as he renamed her). Amid rumours that he had his own harem, he boasted to the media of having had sexual relationships with ‘hundreds of women’.
However, beset by health problems, Rajneesh had already stopped addressing his followers before he arrived in the U.S. He retreated into ‘public silence’, living in a heavily guarded compound and rarely venturing out apart from his afternoon spins in the Roller. He left day-to-day running of the movement to Ma Anand Sheela, his secretary, who became his official mouthpiece.
Sheela was a young Indian woman whose small stature and disarming smile hid a ruthless megalomaniac who walked around with a large handgun strapped to her hip. She would do anything to preserve the movement’s survival and her dominance.
In 1984, the Rajneeshis gathered up 6,000 homeless people from across the U.S. and brought them to live on the ranch as an apparent act of charity.
In fact, they had bused them in so they could register to vote in an election for the local county commission, which the Rajneeshis also wanted to control — so they could get their new city approved.
When the ruse was foiled by officials, the homeless were put back on buses and dumped in surrounding cities.
Sheela’s dominance was threatened when Hollywood became fascinated by the guru. Francoise Ruddy, the glamorous co-producer of The Godfather, started throwing glitzy fundraisers for him at her Hollywood Hills mansion, where guests indulged his greed for expensive baubles, including a $3 million diamond watch he had requested.
Rajneesh was also spending heavily to feed his serious dependence on drugs, taking large amounts of Valium and inhaling nitrous oxide (laughing gas) to get high. Possibly delusional because of the drugs, he became convinced that a global catastrophe was imminent. He asked his personal doctor, an Englishman named George Meredith, to supply him with drugs to ensure that he passed away painlessly.
By now the paranoid Sheela was bugging key personalities in the group, including the guru. Eavesdropping on Rajneesh’s death discussions with Dr Meredith, she convinced her closest allies that the doctor was colluding in their master’s death and had to be killed.
Jane Stork, an Australian disciple, jabbed a miniature hypodermic needle containing adrenaline into the doctor’s left buttock but he survived. ‘I felt like Joan of Arc, who was going into battle,’ she says in the documentary. ‘It was all about keeping the Bhagwan alive.’
But the doctor’s name was only one of those on a hit-list of cult ‘enemies’ drawn up by Sheela. It included local journalists, officials and the U.S. Attorney for Oregon, Charles Turner.
She knew Mr Turner was planning to charge the group with immigration fraud over the sham marriages it arranged so foreign members could stay in America.
Jane Stork again agreed to be the assassin, waiting all day outside Mr Turner’s office with a revolver. He didn’t appear. Other officials were also staked out but the murder plots were scrapped.
Rajneesh’s girlfriend, Vivek, was also targeted. She later told the FBI she believed Sheela once gave her a poisoned cup of tea that sent her heart-rate racing and made her deeply nauseous.
The cult had its own biological warfare laboratory and some targets were sent contaminated boxes of chocolates. A judge almost died after eating one.
A pilot who worked for the group’s ‘airline’, Air Rajneesh, also claimed that Sheela made him drop a ‘bomb’ from his plane over a courthouse. The local planning office was set on fire.
As relations within the group deteriorated, one night in September, 1985, Sheela and a small group of allies fled the ranch and went to ground in West Germany.
Furious at her desertion, Rajneesh broke his four-year silence and publicly accused her and her ‘gang of fascists’ of various serious crimes, including three attempted murders and embezzling $55 million in funds. He suggested she had left out of sexual jealousy because he wouldn’t sleep with her.
‘She didn’t prove to be a woman, she proved to be a perfect bitch,’ he said.
She hit back, branding the movement a ‘gigantic con’ practised by a man not remotely interested in enlightenment.
However, Rajneesh’s allegations allowed the FBI to descend on the ranch, where they found a secret bunker under Sheela’s home
containing 10,000 tape recordings from her mass bugging operation, plus an arsenal of unregistered guns intended for a Rajneeshi ‘hit squad’.
As they questioned disciples, the Feds turned up even more devilish plots. In a bid to incapacitate non-Rajneesh- supporting voters in Antelope, the Rajneeshis had tried to poison the water supply of the nearest large town, The Dalles, by introducing beavers, on grounds that they carried harmful bacteria.
When the beavers proved too big to be slipped through the reservoir’s covers, they were shoved into food blenders and their liquidised bodies poured into the reservoir instead.
It didn’t work — but in a trial run for a more extensive effort to incapacitate voters, Rajneeshis contaminated food on display at salad counters in restaurants across the town with salmonella. More than 750 people fell seriously ill and a few, including a newborn baby, almost died.
Sheela and seven others were extradited to the U.S., where they were convicted of conspiracy offences including assault, attempted murder, arson, mass poisoning and illegal wiretapping. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison but served only 29 months before being released and deported. Jane Stork was also jailed. Two British disciples, Susan Hagan and Sally-Anne Croft, were charged with plotting to murder U.S. Attorney Charles Turner and served two years of six-year sentences.
Prosecutors were only able to charge Rajneesh with immigration fraud. They feared a bloody shootout with his heavily armed defence force if they tried to arrest him but Rajneesh obligingly fled in a Lear jet. He was caught when it landed to refuel just before leaving America.
The guru agreed to a plea deal and was deported. He returned to Pune, renamed himself Osho, and died aged 58 of heart failure in 1990.
Today, there are still small numbers of Rajneeshi devotees around the world.
In the years since the cult’s heyday, former members have exposed ugly truths about the free-love culture: some women were raped, abortions were sometimes enforced and nearly 90 per cent of disciples had a sexually transmitted disease.
Insiders have also admitted that Rajneesh had some very unsavoury views, including being a fan of Hitler and euthanasia.
In a final irony, the Oregon ranch that was once a haven for free sex is now a Christian youth camp where evangelical young Americans are taught the virtues of sexual abstinence.