Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh Is Indicted for Immigration Fraud

In 1981, followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh founded an ambitious religious community on a desert ranch in eastern Oregon. Plagued from the outset by local hostility and conflicts with land-use laws, the community, Rajneeshpuram, collapsed in 1985 when its leader was arrested for immigration fraud and several key figures faced criminal charges and convictions.

Summary of Event

On October 28, 1985, federal agents in Charlottesville, North Carolina, detained Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh when his private airplane stopped for refueling. Alleging that he was attempting to flee the United States, they arrested him and several followers and returned them to Portland, Oregon, to face charges of racketeering and immigration fraud. The charges stemmed from attempts to form a spiritual community eighteen miles from Antelope, Oregon. Rajneesh and some of his followers had been indicted on October 23 by a federal grand jury, just days before his arrest. [kw]Rajneesh Is Indicted for Immigration Fraud, Guru Bhagwan Shree (Oct. 23, 1985)
[kw]Fraud, Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh Is Indicted for Immigration (Oct. 23, 1985)
Rajneesh, Bhagwan Shree
Immigration fraud;Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh[Rajneesh]
Sheela, Ma Anand
Rajneesh, Bhagwan Shree
Immigration fraud;Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh[Rajneesh]
Sheela, Ma Anand
[g]United States;Oct. 23, 1985: Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh Is Indicted for Immigration Fraud[02190]
[c]Law and the courts;Oct. 23, 1985: Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh Is Indicted for Immigration Fraud[02190]
[c]Organized crime and racketeering;Oct. 23, 1985: Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh Is Indicted for Immigration Fraud[02190]
[c]Government;Oct. 23, 1985: Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh Is Indicted for Immigration Fraud[02190]
[c]Religion;Oct. 23, 1985: Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh Is Indicted for Immigration Fraud[02190]
[c]Social issues and reform;Oct. 23, 1985: Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh Is Indicted for Immigration Fraud[02190]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Oct. 23, 1985: Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh Is Indicted for Immigration Fraud[02190]
Frohnmayer, David

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh is escorted by federal officers in North Carolina after he fled Oregon. He had been indicted one week earlier for immigration fraud and racketeering.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The arrests marked the end of a controversial utopian experiment, though not the end of the movement. Rajneeshism, sometimes ironically dubbed the “rich man’s path to enlightenment,” draws upon Hinduism and other Eastern traditions. The spiritual writings of the founder, together with veneration of his person, form the core of a movement emphasizing meditation, personal spiritual fulfillment, a relaxed and fun-filled attitude toward life, and for some devotees, investment in a communal lifestyle. During the 1970’s, the movement established a large study and residential center near Pune (Poona) in India and a network of study centers in the West, mainly in Europe.

In contrast to other cults spawned by the unrest of the 1960’s, the Rajneesh movement attracted an older, well-educated population that brought with them considerable skills and capital. Adherents shunned high-pressure proselytizing, relying on more conventional marketing to spread the message. By 1980, Rajneeshism could claim thirty thousand adherents, most of them concentrated in Europe.

The movement outgrew the center in Pune. Other Indian sects mistrusted an ostensibly religious movement that sanctioned extramarital sex and seemed to cater to the needs and appetites of affluent foreigners. There were tax issues as well. In the light of these pressures, Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh’s personal secretary and effectively the administrative head of the cult, decided in 1981 to purchase land and begin building a utopian community that would serve as a permanent residence for Rajneesh and a core of dedicated followers, termed “sannyasins,” and a place of study and pilgrimage for the movement as a whole. To this end they bought a 64,000-acre cattle ranch near the desert town of Antelope (population less than 50).

From the outset, the project met with open hostility at local and state levels. Longtime residents of Wasco County, who were conservative and mainly fundamentalist Christian, strongly opposed any development that would shift the population balance and voter base in favor of outsiders with alien philosophies and lifestyles. People in sleepy eastern Oregon towns reacted, sometimes violently, after their streets were inundated with hundreds of enthusiastic young people wearing the red and orange garb of Rajneeshism and a portrait of the charismatic leader dangling from a string of prayer beads.

Support from the more liberal and populated western half of Oregon was minimal. After the 1978 mass suicide of hundreds of members of a religious cult in Jonestown, Guyana, South America, the public was extra-suspicious of cults in general. Although the Rajneeshism development incorporated many innovations designed to reduce environmental impact, its size triggered objections that were capitalized upon by the political action group 1000 Friends of Oregon.

Attempts to incorporate the new town of Rajneeshpuram were challenged by Oregon’s attorney general, David Frohnmayer, on the grounds that a town government and infrastructure tied to a specific religious sect violated the United States Constitution’s strictures on separation of church and state. The Rajneeshis challenged this claim in court. Unable to incorporate, the new town could not comply with state land-use laws. Attempts to purchase property and swing elections in Antelope itself backfired. At one point the cult began soliciting homeless people, busing them to Oregon, and registering them to vote in an effort to replace the county commissioners of Wasco County with a more favorable board.

During the years 1981 to 1985, against a background of growing hostility, outside investment and the labor of the inhabitants turned Rajneeshpuram into a thriving community, though increasingly resembling an armed camp. Rajneesh was silent, interacting with his adoring followers by touring the town in one of his many Rolls-Royce cars and leaving the governing to Sheela and a tight circle of mostly female devotees. Members of the town’s security forces paraded around with assault rifles, giving rise to rumors that weapons were being stockpiled in anticipation of a military assault on the citizens of Oregon. In July of 1985, Rajneesh resumed communicating directly with his community and began taking steps to regain control from Sheela.

In September, Sheela and her close associates abruptly left for Germany. Rajneesh, aware of being investigated for immigration fraud, attempted through lawyers to surrender at a remote location rather than provoke an assault by armed federal agents on Rajneeshpuram. The immigration fraud charges were based on Rajneesh having arranged sham Marriage;sham marriages between U.S. citizens and foreign sannyasins. He was charged by federal prosecutors in Portland on October 28 with criminal conspiracy and making false statements to officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. He accepted a plea bargain, pleaded guilty to two counts of immigration fraud, and paid a $400,000 fine. He also paid $4 million in investigative costs to the state of Oregon, $5 million to the state’s victims’ fund, and $500,000 to the restaurants involved in a Salmonella salmonella outbreak. He also agreed to leave the United States for ten years.

Investigations following Rajneesh’s arrest, and Sheela’s flight to Germany, had uncovered a web of illegal activity instigated by Sheela, including wiretapping and surveillance, misappropriation of funds, and cultivating pathogens for possible biological terrorism. Sheela was subsequently convicted of causing a salmonella outbreak in The Dalles, Oregon, by ordering deliberate contamination of salad bars frequented by Wasco County commissioners, and of attempting to murder Rajneesh’s personal physician by jabbing him with a hypodermic needle containing an unidentified toxin. She served three years in a federal penitentiary before being deported.

Rajneeshpuram closed and was subsequently sold to pay off the judgments against Rajneesh, Sheela, and others. Rajneesh returned to the community outside Pune in India, after failing to gain entry into several other countries around the world. He changed his name to Osho, founded a new movement, and kept a very low profile. He died of natural causes in 1990.


At its height, the Rajneesh movement attracted roughly 200,000 members worldwide, of whom a maximum of 7,000 lived at Rajneeshpuram in Oregon and perhaps 20,000 visited the ranch for festivals and retreats. For most, the movement represented an interlude, disappointing in that it failed to deliver the hoped-for spiritual utopia but not entirely without value. Few thought that they had been brainwashed or traumatized. Since the commune attracted mainly single adults and discouraged starting families, none of the accusations of Child abuse;and Rajneesh movement[Rajneesh movement] child abuse and corruption of minors that plagued so many alternative communities accompanied this movement.

On July 13, 1986, a monument was dedicated outside the Wasco County Court House. Beneath the statue of a stately antelope read the inscription “Dedicated to all who steadfastly and unwaveringly opposed the attempts of the Rajneesh followers to take political control of Wasco County: 1981-1985.” The ranch, having fallen into disrepair, soon housed a Christian youth camp. The local sense of having heroically staved off the “red tide” of alien cultists, strong during the 1980’s, faded with time.

The episode helped channel mainstream liberal opinion in Oregon into an emphatically secular direction. Opposition to an intentional religious community, originally fueled by Christian fundamentalism and xenophobia, became transformed into a civil rights issue. State attorney general Frohnmayer became president of the University of Oregon system, seeming assurance that the prevailing intellectual view will consider the judicial destruction of Rajneeshpuram and seizure of its assets by the state of Oregon to be a triumph for American freedom of religion.

Voices of dissent spoke as well. Apologists for the sect, which still has a worldwide following, maintain that they consistently tried to work within the law, that the objectionable acts were the responsibility of a small group of people surrounding Sheela, and that the federal government was trying to provoke an armed confrontation such as occurred at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, several years later, in 1993.

The various claims and counterclaims concerning incorporation of Rajneeshpuram leave unresolved the question of whether a nonmainstream religious sect with a nontraditional life philosophy can even operate in the United States. Some people argued that if a religiously mandated lifestyle violates existing community zoning ordinances, and the U.S. Constitution prohibits incorporating communities based on a religious beliefs and practices, religious freedom is seriously compromised. Rajneesh, Bhagwan Shree
Immigration fraud;Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh[Rajneesh]
Sheela, Ma Anand

Further Reading

  • Braun, Kirk. Rajneeshpuram, the Unwelcome Society: Cultures Collide in a Quest for Utopia. West Linn, Oreg.: Scout Creek Press, 1984. A countercultural view of the land-use battles between Rajneeshpuram representatives and the locals of Antelope, Oregon.
  • Davisson, Sven. “The Rise and Fall of Rajneeshpuram.” Ashe Journal 2, no. 2 (2003): 1-21. Explores repressive state actions and treats Sheela’s offenses as a reaction to outside pressure. From an alternative spirituality publication.
  • Goldman, Marion. Passionate Journeys: Why Successful Women Joined a Cult. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Tells the story of the Rajneeshpuram commune through composite portraits. Places emphasis on the motives of sannyasins.
  • Richardson, James T. Regulating Religion: Case Studies from Around the Globe. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2004. This general study includes analysis of court challenges to Rajneeshpuram.
  • Strelley, Kate, with Robert D. San Souci. The Ultimate Game: The Rise and Fall of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. San Francisco, Calif.: Harper & Row, 1987. Personal story of an English woman who was a follower of Rajneesh in Pune and Oregon.

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