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Agriculture's Edge

RSS By: Chris Bennett, Farm Journal

Covering all things agriculture; high-brow, low-brow and all points in between.

Farmland and cults a nasty mix

Jul 08, 2014

Cults love farmland. Stick a cult leader with a pained look, greasy beard, saffron robe, and 10 pounds of beads in an apartment complex – and he and his 10 followers will be given a paddy wagon escort to the nuthouse within weeks. It’ll be a life sentence of Nurse Ratched and saltpeter. But stick him on farmland and his dour expression will disappear. He’ll be wearing a Cheshire grin and draped in even heavier beads; declaring free love; keeping an army of crackpots hanging on every cosmic pronouncement; and hauling in enough cash to choke a dozen donkeys.

Case in point: In 1981, in one of the most bizarre episodes in U.S. history, the Rajneeshee cult bought 64,000 acres of farm and ranch land, and hatched an unparalleled scheme of bioterror, assassination and voter fraud.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh built up a solid cult following in India during the 1970s by promoting the sensual over the ascetic. (Sort of a more sex, less meditation approach. It made all the other cult leaders wonder why they hadn’t thought of it first.) When he decided to go big-time, his main lackey, Ma Anand Sheela, found 64,000 pristine acres in Wasco County, Ore., where Rajneesh could feed his ambition, erect a city and house thousands of disciples: buy it, build it, bask in utopia.

Life on the "farm" was good for Rajneesh. He set up shop on the spread, serenely surrounding himself with a Peace Force brigade that patrolled "Rajneeshpuram" with Uzis and a mounted .30-cal. machine gun. He also enjoyed a few toys – 93 Rolls Royces were kept in waiting. (Nothing like a little opulence to break up the toil of meditation and blessing the masses.)

From Slate: "Some 7,000 followers moved onto the ranch, where they all wore red, worked on the communal farms and helped build the community. Rajneeshpuram grew to include a 4,200-foot airstrip, a fire department, restaurants, a public transport system using buses, and a sewage reclamation plant. It even had its own zip code: 97741."

 

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But karma can be a stubborn beast. When toady Sheela bought the land, she didn’t reckon on government regulations and building codes. Rajneeshpuram could only grow so big – no permits, no shining city.

What to do? From Les Zaitz’ excellent account in The Oregonian: "The Rajneeshees found that the law did allow some new homes, but only for farmworkers and their families. Sheela homed in on that exemption when she met with Wasco County planners in summer 1981 … They told the assembled officials they planned to operate a farm commune. Workers would be brought in to restore abused rangeland. They needed dwellings to house the workers."

The city planners weren’t buying the story and when they asked if the Rajneeshees were religious, Sheela threw out the old fail-safe line, taking cover in agriculture, "We are simple farmers." (Ich ben ein farmer.) When the farming ploy was rejected, Sheela unleashed what many consider the wildest attack on local elections in U.S. history – sort of a Sherman’s March on Wasco County government. They would try to gain control of the board of commissioners by rigging the vote and electing one of their own through Salmonella politics.

From The Atlantic: "They hatched a two-pronged plan. First, the Rajneeshees would try to depress turnout among regular voters by poisoning thousands of residents with Salmonella, thus incapacitating them on Election Day. Second, the group would round up thousands of homeless people from nearby cities, entice them with promises of food and shelter, and register them to vote."

Their first option was poisoning the county water supply, but they weren’t sure of the logistics. (Sheela had built a makeshift lab in Rajneeshpuram to concoct viruses, bacteria and toxins.) They also considered flying an airplane (with a full load of bombs) into the county courthouse. Instead, the Rajneeshees chose a hands-on method in September 1984. From The Atlantic: "… teams of two left the compound, traveled to nearby restaurants … and, when nobody was looking, poured Salmonella-tainted liquid on items in the salad bar. The Rajneeshees hit a total of 10 restaurants, as well as a handful of other public areas. Within hours, emergency rooms were flooded with sick patients. A total of 751 people were stricken with Salmonella poisoning in what is still the largest bioterrorism attack in American history. Miraculously, no one died."

They kicked off the second part the plan by chartering buses in cities across the U.S. and bringing in several thousand homeless men with promises of beer and plenty to eat. The homeless scheme imploded when the Rajneeshees discovered "many of the homeless had serious mental problems." (Pot, meet kettle.) According to Zaitz, the Rajneeshees were reduced to adding tranquilizers to beer served to their homeless guests in an effort to maintain order.

When the Rajneeshees tried to assassinate the U.S. attorney for Oregon and the state attorney general, the legal noose finally tightened. Sheela was later collared and sentenced to 20 years – serving two.

Rajneesh threw Sheela under the bus, essentially claimed to be an enlightened dupe, and got off with deportation. He’d been too busy enjoying the latitude of free love, motoring in his fleet of Rolls, and of course – being a "simple farmer."


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