Rajneeshpuram and Cults

If you watched the long, long Netflix series about Rajneeshpuram, you saw many portions of an interview with Philip Toelkes.

Toelkes left a successful law career to follow Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and never looked back.  He exudes comfort and self-assurance in his interview, as do some other Rajneeshees.

As the television series ends, Toelkes tells the camera that the Rajneesh (now known as Osho) was “all about freedom.”

Let’s unpack this thought.  If you had gone to Rajneeshpuram in the early 1980s, here is what would have happened:

— You would be given a new name.  Toelkes became Swami Prem Niren.

— You would be issued new clothes in the “colors of the sun,” ranging from pink to orange to red to maroon to purple.  You also would be given a long beaded necklace, called a mala, that featured a picture of the Bhagwan.

— You would be assigned living quarters and eat at communal meals.

— You would work (called “worship”) 10 hours or more for seven days a week with breaks for meals and for an afternoon lineup with all the other sannyasins to watch as the Bhagwan/Osho was driven past in one of his many, many Rolls Royces — this to honor a spiritual leader who had not spoken publicly since before he left India.

— You would be expected to give whatever money you had to the greater project.

In short, your personality would be submerged into the group identity, and your life would be organized for you, 24-7.

Maybe the dynamic breathing and dancing and sex and exhortations to joy were great.

But it doesn’t sound like freedom to me.


Win McCormack, now the editor of the New Republic, reported on Rajneeshpuram from Oregon in the1980s.  Recently, the magazine has run relevant pieces of that work, grouped by topics that include “Police State,” “Mind Control” and  “Money Machine.”  A lot of good stuff there.


The cult was sex-positive (to put it in the nicest light), but it was child-negative, favoring abortion and sterilization.  One boy who spent his early childhood among sannyasins in Oregon and Europe was Tim Guest, whose mother joined and whose father did not. Guest’s autobiography, “My Life In Orange,” juxtaposed stories of free-range childhood with memories of sadness and abandonment.  This Observer review covers the high points.  Tim Guest died of a morphine overdose in 2009.


Another of the sannyasins interviewed in the Netflix documentary, Jane Stork (Ma Shanti Bhadra), also wrote a book, “Breaking the Spell,” about her experiences in India and Oregon.  A review of the book in an Australian paper discusses the writer’s change of heart after she had been drafted to join murder plots and after her daughter had been abused sexually.


We still read of the cults of the 1960s and 1970s.  They grew out of the human potential movement, which had its basis in psychotherapy and eastern philosophies.

It is true that most people have benefitted from those therapies and from mindfulness and meditation.

But the few exceptions were pretty awful.  Here are two cases that share elements with the Rajneeshpuram story.

Synanon, which began as a 12-step program for narcotics addicts, attracted a thousand or more people over time in California but managed only to rehabilitate about 70 drug abusers.  It evolved into an increasingly rigid religion led by founder Charles E. Dederich. Synanon-the-church bound members for life, separated parents from children, broke down personalities in nasty group sessions, gathered an arsenal and attacked people who left or others who helped people to escape.  Famously, Dederich deputized two members to put a rattlesnake in the mailbox of an attorney representing a woman who had left the group.  The lawyer survived his bite, but Synanon imploded not long afterward.

Jonestown began as the People’s Temple, a large Christian congregation led by Jim Jones in San Francisco. Jones was politically popular until he was not, at which point he took more than 900 followers to establish an agricultural community in the middle of a wilderness in Guyana, South America.  There were the usual abuses, and in late 1978 a California congressman named Leo Ryan came for a visit.  As Ryan was leaving, Jonestown goons shot him dead. Afterward, Jones convinced his followers to drink cyanide-laced punch in a ghastly mass suicide.

Congressman Ryan’s daughter moved up to Rajneeshpuram a few years later.  She is believed to have given her inheritance money to that cult.

One thought on “Rajneeshpuram and Cults

  1. Just simply remarkable … no words! This seems to echo the famous stanza, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Okay!!!


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