We are familiar with Buddha and how he was referred to as “The Enlightened One.” In 1981, a man named Rajneesh founded a cult in Oregon, to which his disciples called him “the blessed one.”

The Explosion

Osho Rajneesh. (Marcel Antonisse / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

According to him, Chandra Mohan Jain’s (and later on Rajneesh) quest started on March 21, 1953— his moment of enlightenment that he called “the explosion.” Like Buddha’s enlightenment, he claimed that it happened under a Moulsari tree in a block-sized park in Jabalpur. He was a good speaker and gained a following in India. The majority of them were women who regarded having sex with him as “the ultimate darshan,” or holy experience. His followers, called “sannyasins,” grew in numbers and attracted media attention and Western followers. In mid-1981, he flew to Oregon to a huge farm that he bought. The same year, Anand Sheela became his secretary, a woman who would later act as the cult’s de facto leader.

Living The American Dream

The 64,000-acre ranch became Rajneesh’s spiritual hub. It was reported that his followers were around 7,000. His followers toiled in the fields all day giving great importance to the landscaping he was fond of. They would also dress in red/orange and those colors only. They loved him so much that they donated all of their money to him allowing him to buy handmade watches and 93 Rolls-Royce automobiles, as well as private jets. You can only go so far with other people’s money so the sannyasins were involved in drug-related crimes, like drug trafficking and smuggling to finance the movement. In 1983, his assets were estimated to be $30.8 million; all of it under his exclusive control.

Followers welcome the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s motorcade during a daily drive-by (Oregon Live|The Oregonian).

One major factor that gained Rajneesh, a considerable number of disciples, as he knew just what to say. As his followers said, they fell in love with him the moment they heard him speak.

His teachings involved encouraging people to have sex with whoever they like, saying it was not immoral and one should not deny himself the urge. They also did a lot of meditation which was an important part of their religion.

In 1982, they voted to name their ranch the city of Rajneeshpuram. The tension between them and the local residents of the nearby town of Antelope escalated. Petitions were made to have their “city” removed. However, they were outnumbered by the cult’s followers.

Salmonella Attack

Rajneesh’s followers also wanted to expand in Wasco County, so to overthrow the government, they planned to incapacitate the voting population, specifically in the town of The Dalles. Their brilliant solution? Spread salmonella on salad bars and salad bar dressings in ten restaurants around the town. A total of 751 people got salmonellosis, but thankfully, no one died. Residents and local leaders suspected Rajneesh’s cult, but they didn’t have enough evidence. A year later, search warrants were issued, and copies of The Anarchists’ Cookbook and salmonella strains samples were found in the ranch.

Ma Anand Sheela

Ma Anand Sheela
Ma Anand Sheela. (Image Source: Getty / Reto Hügin / ullstein bild)

His secretary, spokesperson, and representative, Sheela, played a huge role in this whole cult fiasco. She would attend interviews for Rajneesh and was aggressive, sharp, and unapologetic in representing him and his followers. She even flipped a middle finger to an Australian journalist on camera once. When Rajneesh’s empire threatened to crumble down on his head, he came out of a four-year period of isolation and blamed everything on Sheela and called her a murderer, while calling for the authorities to investigate his own cult. Which they did, arresting multiple members including Sheela on charges of attempted murder of elected officials. As for the bioterror attack that happened in The Dalles, it turned out to be her idea after they attempted using homeless people as county voters failed. She fled to Europe in 1985 and was sentenced to three 20-year terms in federal prison in 1986. She was sent to Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California but was released after 39 months for good behavior. She then moved to Switzerland to run a couple of nursing homes, if you can believe that.

In 2018, the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country (which we also featured here) was released, including interviews with her. Another one titled Searching for Sheela in 2021 features the now 72-year-old ex-spokesperson of the Rajneesh movement.

As for Rajneesh, he himself was arrested in North Carolina trying to leave the country and was charged with 35 counts of immigration law violations.  He was given a fine, a ten-year suspended sentence, deported, and forbidden re-entry into the United States for 5 years. flew back to India after denying his involvement in the salmonella attack and was never charged. 21 countries denied him entry until he finally returned to India where his followers gave him a hero’s welcome. He continued his lectures there as his health deteriorated. In January 1990, he died at the age of 58.

The Samonella attacks on the people of The Dalles remain the most serious biological attack on U.S. soil to date.

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