Below is Part Four of our multi-part series on Australian cults, a look into the grim, bad, and ugly utopian communities which decorate Australia's history. Our final instalment was labeled a “sex cult” in the seventies and had a rather large commune in Fremantle, Western Australia.
The Rajneesh Movement
While The Rajneesh Movement cult was born out of its founder’s antagonism towards traditional moral values in India – and gained steam in America – one of its eventual global hot spots was Fremantle, Western Australia.
The movement was controversial from its beginnings in the 1970s, when Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, AKA Osho, urged people to rid themselves of their worldly possessions. This was even up until the height of his global fame, when he would drive around his 64,000 hectare commune in one of his many Rolls-Royce’s and deliver sermons wearing a diamond-encrusted Rolex.
The Rajneeshis, or sannyasins as they called themselves, had the moniker “Orange People” because of the sun-coloured clothes they wore. In the eighties the Rajneesh movement was labelled a “sex cult”. One piece of footage shown in six-part docuseries Wild Wild Country depicts a frenzied orgy inside the Poona ashram in India.
Watch the trailer for Wild Wild Country:
Meanwhile, Fremantle’s young university community and youth protestors were drawn to the movement thanks to the “free love” flower power pitch and the mantra to “go into your sexuality and explore it”.
Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh’s secretary in Australia, was the epitome of an outward anti-capitalist with capitalist intentions. She fast became one of the most notorious figures of the eighties thanks to her crude interactions with authority and media (she called Mother Teresa ugly, the Pope an idiot, and flipped the middle finger to paparazzi), but also for her criminal activity.
Rajneesh’s movement involved bioterrorism, election rigging and attempted murder. In a televised interview with 60 Minutes Rajneesh admitted he exploits people but that it’s not evil: “I’m a genius in exploitation,” he said.
In 1986 Ma Anand Sheela was sentenced to 20 years in a Californian prison after pleading guilty to charges of attempted murder, assault, arson, electronic eavesdropping, immigration fraud and conspiracy. She was ordered to pay US$470,000 and paroled after four years.
Her sentencing and the events that led to it was the great undoing of The Orange People. Sheela and a group of leading members from the cult’s Oregon commune carried out America’s first recorded bio-terror attack in 1984 when the group poisoned 751 people in Oregon with Salmonella.
The group had hoped the contamination of ten salad bars would incapacitate so many voters in The Dalles city that their own two candidates would win the Wasco County elections. The contamination was successful, it hospitalised 45 people, but the plan was foiled when voters still turned up in droves to vote. The Oregon commune was destroyed a year later.
It was at this point when Sheela fled to Europe. Rajneesh accused her of being the mastermind behind the criminal activity and even said she wrote his works and published them under his name. Sheela was captured in West Germany in 1986 and extradited back to the US where she served her sentence.
Now, at 70 years old and living under the name Sheela Birnstiel, Sheela runs two aged-care hostels in Switzerland. In the past she had claimed she was penniless after her sentence. This is despite allegations that she had approximately $40 million hidden in Swiss banks.
As for the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, his plans to exploit people through using their human frailty were rather successful. Despite shunning the “trappings” of wealth, his cult became a multi-million dollar operation thanks to his followers’ donations. It’s reported an estimated US$130 million was funnelled into his ranch in Oregon between 1981-1985.
Following the bio-terror attack, he pleaded guilty to two charges regarding immigration fraud, agreed to pay a US$400,000 fine, and promised to leave the US and not return for five years.
Rajneesh died of heart failure in 1990 at age 59, at his ashram in India. His final words were: “remember that you are all Buddhas”.
Since then, the media’s interest has certainly declined, but the movement itself is still active. Following Rajneesh’s death, his devotees in India renamed the commune the Osho Institute, and then later called it the Osho International Meditation Resort, which attracts around 200,000 visitors a year to its campus in Mumbai. There are also hundreds of Osho Meditation Centers in 80 countries, including Australia, in Sydney and Byron Bay.