Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh; Led Oregon Commune : Guru: Rajneesh was controversial in Orange County as well. In 1981, followers formed a meditation commune in Laguna Canyon.


The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the bejeweled Indian guru who once spread his message of free love and mysticism from a commune in central Oregon, eliciting both devotion and dissension, died Friday.

Rajneesh died in the southern India city of Poona, where he had been living in relatively modest circumstances since being deported from the United States in 1985.

He had not lectured since April and was reported to be in failing health.

“Osho (the name Rajneesh had taken since settling in India) left his body at 5:30 p.m. The doctors say it’s heart failure,” spokesman Swami Chaitanya Kirti said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.

Rajneesh’s body was carried on the shoulders of his followers to a funeral pyre built on a nearby river bank, and it was cremated, Kirti said.


He was 58 and had met with his disciples as recently as Wednesday at his Indian commune’s prayer center. He was scheduled to appear again Thursday but complained of a pain in his chest.

About 10,000 followers, mostly Westerners, were at the Poona commune when Rajneesh died, Kirti said. Another of Rajneesh’s followers, Swami Prabhod, said the devotees burst into songs and chants to celebrate Rajneesh’s departure from his earthly body.

“Everybody is singing and celebrating,” Prabhod said. Music could be heard in the background as he spoke over the telephone from Poona, 750 miles southwest of New Delhi.

Although his influence had waned in the years since he left American soil, his recent pronouncements produced almost none of the public clamor that raged in Oregon when he toured his 64,000-acre ranch clad in plush robes that were accented with costly jewels, being driven in one of his flotilla of 93 customized Rolls-Royces.

Rajneeshpuram, as the commune was called, was home to 4,000 of his disciples year-round, with thousands more swelling their ranks during the summer when young people sought out his blend of free sex and pop metaphysics.

“Explode! Go totally mad. . . . Jump up and down shouting the mantra, Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!” he would tell his devotees. “Each time you land on the flats of your feet, let the sound hammer deep into the sex center,” he wrote.

The sound also landed deeply and offended mightily the sense of propriety of his middle-class Oregon neighbors.

“I don’t think I ever wished anybody dead, but I wished many times that he would go back where he belongs,” said Jean Opray, former mayor of the town of Antelope, which was taken over by Rajneesh’s followers.

Rajneesh was controversial in Orange County as well, where followers in 1981 wrested control of a 5.2-acre property owned by the Church of Religious Science in Laguna Canyon and transformed it into a meditation commune.

Gerhard Stehr, 58, of Newport Beach was one of the Religious Science churchgoers who unsuccessfully challenged commune members in court over possession of the property. Rajneesh disciples gained control of the rustic compound when a majority of church members converted to the guru’s teachings and donated the land to him.

“He stole our church. . . . It was traumatic,” said Stehr, who has since left the Religious Science faith and all but forgotten Rajneesh.

Rajneesh’s religious movement, which at one time claimed 500,000 members around the world, had moved its headquarters to Oregon from Poona in 1981. Over the next years, the Bhagwan (a Hindi word for god), supervised the spending of more than $100 million on development of what had been grazing land into a burgeoning community. Working 12-hour days, disciples built with their own hands a city that included a shopping mall, an airport, a hotel and a city hall.

The commune became self-sufficient with vegetable farms, two lakes stocked with fish and a vineyard and orchards.

But the initial flush of welcome soon turned to conflict with neighbors and local officials.

Federal authorities said there was wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping at the commune so leaders could spy both on followers and the outside world in their purported campaign to usurp local government.

Disciples were said to be committing crimes both in and out of their retreat.

Rajneesh’s top aide was eventually convicted in an elaborate scheme that authorities say was designed to gain political control of Wasco County.

Ma Anand Sheela, the aide, fled to West Germany but was brought back to the United States where she pleaded guilty to several charges, including one of attempted murder of the guru’s personal physician.

She also said she had poisoned food at restaurants in the area, part of a plot to gain control of county government.

In 1986 she was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in the San Diego Metropolitan Correction Center but was freed last December after serving 2 1/2 years with time off for good behavior.

The Indian-born Sheela, now 39, was immediately deported.

Rajneesh himself pleaded guilty in November, 1985, to two counts of violating immigration laws by arranging sham marriages to help his foreign disciples remain in the United States illegally.

He was jailed for 12 days and then deported after receiving a suspended 10-year sentence, paying a $400,000 fine and agreeing not to return to U.S. soil for five years.

He packed his throne and left for India but quickly left there after several of his aides were deported.

He roamed the world for the next several months, finally returning to Poona where he ruled over a commune of six acres instead of his vast Oregon holdings.

A year ago, Rajneesh traded the Hindu honorific of Bhagwan for Osho, a Buddhist term that means “on whom the heavens shower flowers.”