The True Story of the The Rolls-Royce Guru
If you're like me, you might consider cars to be an interest that you follow religiously. It's a lot less common, though, for a car to be an important tenet of a religious group. However, such was the case among followers of the guru Osho; known earlier in his life as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and commonly referred to as simply the Bhagwan. His views on the ideal human lifestyle were intriguing, controversial, and sometimes just downright strange. But one of the Bhagwan's most unusual beliefs had nothing to do with sin, mysticism, or the afterlife. In fact, it was his taste in cars that raised many eyebrows in the area surrounding Rajneeshpuram, Oregon.
A New Life, A Better Way
Rajneeshpuram sounds like it would be more likely to be the name of a city in India, but it was actually a community in the middle of the United States. It was a religious commune on the edge of Wasco County, Oregon. It was founded by the Bhagwan in the 1980s as an agricultural community for his followers. As many as 7,000 people lived in Rajneeshpuram, most of whom were college-educated.
The Rajneesh movement was centered around many existing principles from other religions, including meditation, prayer and community. One of the most notorious aspects of the movement was the belief in free love, which led many outsiders to speculate that the movement was little more than a sex cult.
Whatever your opinion on the Rajneesh movement was, one aspect of it that could not be denied was its commercial power. The Rajneeshees, as the followers were known locally, built a corporate empire in Rajneeshpuram and on the international scale. The commune was raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue at its peak.
Rejuvenate the Spirit of Ecstasy
The huge inflows of revenue made the Bhagwan a very rich man. Portraying himself as an enlightened being, the Bhagwan decided that the only car in which he would be seen was a Rolls-Royce. But he wasn't merely content on owning one. So he bought ninety-four of them.
The Rolls-Royces became a symbol of sorts for the Bhagwan, and he wasn't afraid to show off his desires. Many of his cars had been adorned with custom artwork--a ghastly proposition for Rolls-Royce purists.
It was believed that the Bhagwan enjoyed the comfort of the Rolls-Royce, but that the main reason that he bought them was to reward himself and his efforts to build Rajneeshpuram. The Bhagwan became somewhat of a cult of personality--very well-respected by his followers, and mysterious and enigmatic to outsiders. Yet nobody could deny the commercial success of the Bhagwan's teachings, which obviously did not see materialism and spiritualism as mutually exclusive. But the Bhagwan didn't keep his riches strictly to himself. Rajneeshpuram continued to thrive, and it seemed like the members of the commune could live happily into the foreseeable future.
But that was not to be. Rajneeshpuram fell about as quickly as it rose, and made world history in the process.
The Bhagwan had no direct control over the operations of Rajneeshpuram. Instead, he gave those duties to his personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela. Sheela was known as a fiery woman--often savagely speaking her mind on various issues between Wasco County, the State of Oregon, and Rajneeshpuram.
Sheela's caustic manner did little to help the relationship between the Rajneeshees and the surrounding communities. But the Rajneeshees had strength in numbers, and began taking over the political institutions of the county under Sheela's direction. Their first target was the adjacent town of Antelope, OR. The Rajneeshees installed their own candidates in the town's election, and persuaded Rajneeshees to vote. Because the Rajneeshees far outnumbered the Antelope townspeople, the Rajneeshee candidates won, effectively taking over the town. This angered residents, who felt that the Rajneeshees were unfairly diverting funds from their town.
Tensions reached a boiling point in 1983, when the Attorney General of Oregon declared Rajneeshpuram an illegal city, on the grounds that it was a religious institution that violated the Constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Through the appeals process, the city's status was left in limbo for years after the initial ruling. But it became clear that Sheela would stop at nothing to increase the presence of the Rajneeshees in Oregon; even if it meant that lives were at stake.
In October of 1984, a mysterious outbreak of salmonella in the town of The Dalles, Oregon made nearly 750 people violently ill. Public health officials had, at first, chalked it up to a case of poor restaurant sanitation, as everyone who got sick had eaten at a local restaurant.
But the outbreak was far more nefarious than a mere accident. The Dalles is the seat of Wasco County, the same county that Rajneeshpuram belonged to. After months of rumours and speculation, medical investigators were able to tie the particular strain of salmonella to a sample inside the clinic at Rajneeshpuram. From there, investigators discovered a disturbing plan laid out by Sheela and her inner circle. The plan consisted of Rajneeshees spreading salmonella culture on salad bars in local restaurants in The Dalles. It was believed that this was a test run for a much larger attack in November. The belief was that this attack would sicken the townspeople during the county election; which would guarantee that the Rajneeshee candidates would win.
This was, in effect, the first bioterror attack on American soil.
Later, it was revealed that Sheela and her inner circle had initiated a plot to assassinate a U.S. Attorney who was investigation claims of immigration fraud among the Rajneeshees. Sheela would be convicted of charges related to both offences, spent 2 years in jail, and was deported to Switzerland.
Although the Bhagwan kicked Ma Anand Sheela and her close associates out of the commune, it is unclear how much the Bhagwan knew of the terrorist plots drawn up by Sheela and her inner circle. But he apparently realized that he was facing more imminent personal danger from the U.S. Customs officials, so he attempted to leave the United States on his personal jet. When he stopped to refuel in North Carolina, immigration officials were waiting for him. The Bhagwan decided to plead guilty to nearly 40 counts of immigration fraud, and was deported to India, where he died in 1990.
After the Bhagwan was deported, Rajneeshpuram disbanded, and the once-thriving commune became a ghost town. The Bhagwan's collection of Rolls-Royces was sold off, and it is unclear how many of them still exist today. The Rajneesh movement is still alive and well worldwide, but followers now refer to the Bhagwan as Osho. Either way, it is unlikely that anyone else will ever have as large, bespoke and mysterious collection of Rolls-Royces ever again.
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