Monday, April 24, 2017

Remember the Rolls-Royce guru?

A very long time ago, the family went on a vacation trip to Washington State. I wanted to see where Tom Robbins lived (and did) and poke around the tourist sights. It turned out to be dizzyingly beautiful country.

I knew I had kept a scrapbook, and that there were some crazy things in it - some of the weirdest postcards I've ever seen, and great stuff from the local newspapers. I remembered something particularly weird that I'd read in the LaConner paper. The memory of it was recently dredged up by a book I'm reading for at least the fourth time.

The article in the Channel Town Press, which I initially tried to take seriously, is about a fictional guru trying to set up shop with his Rolls-Royces and harem of wives/kids in LaConner. After a while I realized it was satire. I thought it was funny, especially Bag One's drawn-on beard (this was long before photoshop) and the Bag Dad Middle School.

It was years later that I reviewed a book for the Vancouver paper called The Promise of Paradise - a woman's intimate story of the perils of life with Rajneesh. This is the one that I keep reading over and over again. The one I'm reading right now.

Rajneesh, as in Bhagwan, the "Rolls-Royce Guru", built an incredibly wealthy worldwide empire which embodied all that is wrong with mass religion. Bhagwan's devotees had taken over a piece of land called Big Muddy Ranch near the small town of Antelope, Oregon. By the time this grotesque empire collapsed in a state of near-terrorism, the newly-created city of Rajneeshpuram was in an armed standoff with the citizens of Antelope. The erstwhile leader of the cult, a demented demigod named Sheela, was eventually charged with election fraud (rounding up homeless people to vote for sympathetic representation in local elections), poisoning hundreds of citizens, and a host of other crimes. By this time, Rajneeshpuram was being patrolled by armed guards dressed in camouflage. The utopia had become a police state. 

Thousands of people drank this particular flavour of Koolaid, in particular the author of The Promise of Paradise, Satya Bharti Franklin (given a new name, as per usual, when she joined the cult). Even as chaos and violence and death swirled around her, she kept writing about "waves of bliss" washing over her, and about how, in spite of everything (even abandoning her kids), her fourteen years with this self-righteous fucked-up power-tripping bastard had all been worth it.

I think LaConner must have felt the shock waves from this bizarre episode of cult aggression. It had all come too close for comfort, but they still had the good grace to joke about it. The piece was written only a couple of years after the meltdown became public knowledge. To quote Wikipedia: "The subsequent criminal investigation, the largest in Oregon history, confirmed that a secretive group had, unbeknownst to both government officials and nearly all Rajneeshpuram residents, engaged in a variety of criminal activities, including the attempted murder of Rajneesh's physician, wiretapping and bugging within the commune and within Rajneesh's home, poisonings of two public officials, and arson."

To me, this smacks of the "but we didn't know what was going on" claim of the German population after World War II. According to her detailed account based on private journals, Satya Bharti Franklin knew what was going on, and did not walk away from it. By then she felt a kind of paralysis which was widespread. Did they know what was going on? They knew enough.

I'm not sure why I keep reading about cults - oh, of course I do, they are bloody fascinating! These people did not question Sheela or Rajneesh or any of it, no matter how nasty or ludicrous the edicts became, but kept on humbly obeying. If they didn't, they weren't "surrendered" enough. Imagine an environment, a community, in which the ultimate goal is to surrender. To give up: personal freedom, sanity, decision-making, life. 

Anyway, I kept the Bag One clipping even before I knew anything at all about Bhagwan or Sheela or Satya Bharti Franklin, because I loved it. It was all part of the Washingtonian nuttiness I had come to cherish. 

But what of those throngs in red skirts, the faithful sanyassins who had given years of their lives (not to mention all their worldly goods) to this crazy creep? Did they just go on to some other prophet, tin god, addiction? How many of them joined Scientology? There must be a cult mind, and I must figure out what it is, because in spite of everything I have seen, it makes no sense to me at all.

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