Rajneeshpuram--Nature Reclaims Commune of Paradise Long Lost

Times Religion Writer

The dusty streets are deserted now.

Rajneeshpuram, once the teeming commune of 4,000 red-clad disciples of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, is just a "bad dream" in the minds of many longtime residents nearby. The leader of this ill-starred experimental paradise is long gone, having returned with his religion of personal freedom and sexual liberation to his native India.

The 64,000-acre ranch that Rajneesh followers bought for $5.75 million in July, 1981, has been up for sale for more than a year--marked down now from $44 million to $28.5 million. Many of the 300 buildings still remain on the sprawling site, despite months of sales of everything from the guru's jewelry to tents and airplanes.

But some of the structures that once dotted the sagebrush-covered hills of Rajneeshpuram are being "reincarnated" in another controversial religious community, which has quietly bought them for its own use.

Buildings Moved

Many of the portable buildings and mobile homes have been moved from Rajneeshpuram to the Royal Teton Ranch, 520 miles to the northeast in Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park. There, in the sparsely settled Paradise Valley along the Yellowstone River, these structures are being recycled for the growing settlement of Elizabeth Clare Prophet and her Church Universal and Triumphant.

The group, which recently moved to the 33,000-acre spread from headquarters in Malibu Canyon, plans a town of several thousand with a church, university, cafeteria, homes, a poultry processing plant and modular housing for employees.

Visitors at the ghost town of Rajneeshpuram recently saw a large truckload of greenhouse equipment being hauled away to the Montana location. Three people from the Royal Teton Ranch have been living at Rajneeshpuram during recent months, working with the handful of Rajneesh caretakers who remain there to transfer housing and equipment to Prophet's community.

Rajneesh was ordered to leave the United States in November, 1985, after he pleaded guilty to charges of immigration fraud, and several of his top aides were convicted of crimes ranging from attempted murder to wiretapping.

Magnet for Pilgrims

What appeared to begin as a peaceful farm commune in rural central Oregon burgeoned into celebrations of love and peace that drew pilgrims from around the world. But with the wave of criminal activities, the movement soured. And the $100 million empire--which a Portland reporter said was built on "the sweat of the faithful and the lies of the elite"--crumbled in disgrace.

Huge boulders now block the road to Mirdad , until 18 months ago the "welcoming center" for tens of thousands of the faithful and the curious.

The paint is peeling on the hotel, residence dorms, warehouses and shops. The large meeting hall--where Rajneesh devotees once danced in wild ecstasy while their master looked on with an inscrutable half-smile--slumbers in silence.

And the guru's famous fleet of 93 custom Rolls-Royces was auctioned off last year by a Texas classic car collector. Crowds used to gather here for a commune ritual, cheering and chanting as their bearded guru passed by in a flower-decked Rolls-Royce each afternoon.

Meanwhile, life for the 40 old-time residents of Antelope, the tiny town 20 miles from here that was taken over by the disciples of Rajneesh and renamed the City of Rajneesh, is nearly back to pre-Bhagwan normal.

Only a Bad Dream

"For us now it's only a bad dream, because we put it out of our minds," Postmaster Frances Dickson said the other day. "Some days we don't even think about it at all any more."

Outside the Antelope post office, however, a gleaming plaque at the foot of a new white flagpole serves as a bitter reminder of how the close-knit community viewed the descent of a freewheeling, "foreign" religious group into their midst. The plaque says:

"Dedicated to those of this community who throughout the Rajneesh invasion and occupation of 1981-85 remained, resisted and remembered."

Underneath is a well-known quote from Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

The same Burke quote adorns a plaque affixed below a four-foot-high bronze statue of an antelope on the steps of the Wasco County Courthouse 80 miles to the north. There, in the farming and lumbering town of The Dalles, a political battle was fought for control of the county government in the fall of 1984.

Taking advantage of Oregon's liberal residency laws for voter registration, Rajneesh leaders bused in thousands of homeless people to Rajneeshpuram in an apparent bid to outvote longtime Wasco County residents and thus elect Rajneeshees to office. County officials challenged the tactic, however, and the plan failed.

Montana Fears

Nevertheless, some Montana residents are concerned that the Church Universal and Triumphant might be able to control the Paradise Valley in the same way that Rajneesh took over Antelope and tried to control Wasco County. And the Montanans are seeking advice from the Oregonians despite assertions by Church Universal spokesman Ed Francis that the group plans no political takeover in Montana.

Hank Rate, a land surveyor who lives in Gardiner, Mont., a town of about 500, noted the swelling number of Prophet's followers moving into the area.

"They don't shake and rattle; they haven't got the . . . saffron robes of Rajneeshpuram. They are very cautious," Rate said. "But when you're looking at a bloc of people that's as large as everyone else here, it's scary."

Since the sudden dismantling of Rajneeshpuram in November, 1985, the guru's disciples, or sanyasins , have scattered throughout the world. The monthly Rajneesh Newspaper, now published in Boulder, Colo., recently reported that Rajneesh is living at his commune in Poona, India. Rajneesh's former top female leader, tart-tongued Ma Anand Sheela, is serving concurrent prison sentences totaling four to 20 years in a Pleasanton, Calif., facility. She pleaded guilty to charges involving the 1984 salmonella poisoning of 750 residents of The Dalles, admitting that she and others sprayed liquid salmonella bacteria on food in local restaurant salad bars.

Relief Fund

As part of the settlement with Rajneesh, $287,000 has been set aside as a relief fund for the 505 people who filed claims for the poisoning. Sheela also poisoned two Wasco County elected officials and Rajneesh's personal doctor, and masterminded a massive electronic bugging system inside Rajneeshpuram. She was also fined $400,000 and will be deported when she is released from prison.

Eleven other Rajneeshees have pleaded guilty to various wiretapping charges, and Krishna Deva, the former mayor of Rajneeshpuram, was sentenced to two years in prison for arranging sham marriages so foreign Rajneeshees could thwart U.S. immigration laws.

Swami Anand Moses of Portland is in charge of the sale of Rajneeshpuram and the few houses in Antelope still owned by the Rajneesh Investment Corp. He said sanyasins have regrouped in Boulder and Aspen, Colo., as well as in Marin County, north of San Francisco, and in the San Diego area. The last Rajneesh commune in the United States, the Utsava Meditation Center in Laguna Beach, was sold to another religious group for $900,000 last October, a spokeswoman said.

Moses said possible future uses for Rajneeshpuram, which has a water and sewer system, extensive roads and an airport, include development as a cattle ranch, a resort or a 700-bed state prison.

Pending Suit

One of the suits still pending against the Rajneesh Corp. was filed by the Oregon attorney general. It alleges that the incorporation of Rajneeshpuram as a city violated church-state separation laws.

Old-time Antelope residents are happy not only to have the pre-Rajneesh name of their town restored, but also because the Antelope Store and Cafe is no longer Zorba the Buddha Restaurant, the name the Rajneeshees gave the landmark business when they took it over.

New proprietor Don Spears, whose wife's grandparents ran the original cafe decades ago, said 15 to 20 tourists stop by each day to ask directions to Rajneeshpuram, which is no longer marked by road signs.

Asked if he couldn't do a brisk business selling maps and mementos of the ghost commune, Spears replied that the local folks "have been through hell . . . and they'd rather forget. . . . I'd feel bad about making money off other people's grief."

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