PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – In 1981, followers of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh bought a ranch in rural Oregon and established a city called Rajneeshpuram.
This set off a series of intriguing years-long legal controversies involving free expression of religion, land use and immigration that continue to resonate in present day.
The events in Oregon were recently documented in the Netflix series “Wild Wild Country,” which tells the tale from a variety of angles.
The devotees of Rajneesh, called Rajneeshees, butted heads with state, local and federal government, and drew the ire of many throughout the state. The community swelled in size, and eventually incorporated as a city.
It’s a dramatic story of loyalty and betrayal that involved fraud, deceit and even bioterrorism and assassination plots.
But internal and external tensions eventually caused the community’s downfall. In 1985, Rajneesh was deported and the 64,000 acre property was sold.
On Thursday, the U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society presented a panel featuring four notable speakers reflecting on their roles in the Rajneeshee saga.
Oregon Supreme Court Justice Tom Balmer moderated the discussion among four he called “strategic thinkers” from the affair, three of whom were prominently featured in the Netflix series.
U.S. District Judge John Jelderks presided on a number of cases related to the Rajneeshees, ranging from granting a permit for a festival, to changing names and granting marriage licenses, to signing a foreclosure decree at the end of the saga.
“Originally, I thought this was a very interesting experiment that just might work,” the judge told the audience at the First Congregational Church in downtown Portland.
Jelderks said he only visited Rajneeshpuram once, and he did so “incognito.”
“If you were perceived as being in the way of what they wanted to do, you would not have felt so welcome,” the judge said.
Despite the hostility, Jelderks said the Rajneesh leader largely complied with his orders. He also praised the quality of the legal work done on all sides, noting that the Rajneeshees had “the largest law firm east of the [Cascade] mountains in Oregon.”
“I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed to see this chapter in my life come to an end,” the judge said.
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Weaver was the lead federal prosecutor in the Rajneeshee immigration fraud case, and addressed that issue.
Weaver, who is featured in “Wild Wild Country,” said the plan to establish Rajneeshpuram in Oregon was done in completely secrecy, and required “massive fraud” against the government.
“What may have started out innocently in the 1970s had turned into a criminal enterprise by the time Bhagwan arrived in 1981,” Weaver told the audience.
Rajneesh eventually turned on his right-hand woman, Ma Anand Sheela, who was responsible for a number of crimes. When the guru accused her of committing the crimes behind his back, Weaver said he “unwittingly came to our aid.”
The charges Rajneesh levied against Sheela “opened a Pandora’s box,” Weaver said, that brought to light “crimes far more serious than immigration fraud.”
He noted that the Rajneeshees’ deliberate salmonella poisonings of salad bars in The Dalles remains “the largest domestic bioterrorism case in United States history.”
Former Oregon Deputy Attorney General William Gary addressed some of the constitutional issues around the Rajneesh community.
Despite the fact that most of Rajneeshpuram’s residents were “good people seeking enlightenment,” Gary said Sheela “functioned as an absolute dictator” who was “unbound by secular law.”
Rajneeshpuram was essentially a theocracy under Sheela, Gary said.
Swami Prem Niren, an attorney and Rajneesh devotee, spoke for more than 45 minutes, using a PowerPoint presentation to back up his claims of outright bias.
He spent his time alternating between defending his spiritual leader and attacking the government for its infringement on the civil rights of the Rajneeshees.
“The state was against us from the time we bought that property,” Niren said.
Niren features prominently in the “Wild Wild Country” series, both as an interview subject and in archival footage. He remains devoted to Rajneesh, who later changed his name to Osho.
“It’s very hard for us as unenlightened people to project our values and way of seeing things on an enlightened person,” Niren said of his guru. “He was free of desire.”
It was “crooked” people like Sheela, Niren said, who were responsible for the crimes, and not Osho.
The attorney got testy when moderator Balmer asked him to wrap up his presentation.
“I’ve talked a lot less than anybody else,” Niren said.
“That’s not true,” someone from the audience responded.
In spite of his heated words about what he saw as religious persecution, Niren said he is “not much into blame.”
“We’re all trying to wake up in our own way,” he said.