Rajneesh Movement

A spiritual sect characterized by its utopian community and a notorious bioterrorism attack in the U.S.

Religion: New Age
Founder: Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho)
Founded: 1970s
Location: India, later expanded to the United States (Oregon)
Other Names: Osho Movement, Neo-Sannyas Movement, Rajneeshism

The Rajneesh Movement, founded by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho), emerged in the early 1970s as a new religious movement with its headquarters established in Pune, India, in 1974. This movement, known for its spiritual enlightenment teachings and emphasis on sexual liberation, gained both fame and infamy for its radical practices and the controversies that surrounded its community​​.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, born Chandra Mohan Jain in 1931, began his spiritual journey by conducting a series of meditation retreats funded by investors, attracting followers who became known as neo-sannyasins, or Rajneeshees. These followers, diverging from traditional ascetic practices, were encouraged to live fully without attachment to the material world, signified by their adoption of ochre-coloured robes and a new name, indicative of their allegiance to Rajneesh. In 1974, Rajneesh established an ashram in Pune, which served as the spiritual center of the movement, before moving to the United States in 1981 and founding Rajneeshpuram in Antelope, Oregon​​.

Rajneeshpuram was envisioned as a utopian community free from judgment, where followers could live in peace and work towards the construction of their ideal society. This 64,000-acre ranch transformed from a barren desert to a vibrant commune with its own infrastructure, including an airport, malls, a public transport system, and environmentally sustainable farms. The movement’s success in creating a self-sustaining city was a testament to their dedication and the charismatic leadership of Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh’s secretary and the administrative head of Rajneeshpuram​​.

However, the establishment of Rajneeshpuram was not without its challenges. The movement’s attempts to integrate into the local community of Antelope led to significant tensions, exacerbated by cultural differences and the Rajneeshees’ aggressive expansionist strategies. These tensions culminated in the largest bioterror attack in U.S. history in 1984, when followers contaminated salad bars in The Dalles, Oregon, with salmonella in a bid to influence local elections. The attack resulted in over 700 illnesses but no fatalities. The incident led to a federal investigation that ultimately implicated high-ranking members of the movement, including Ma Anand Sheela, who was convicted and served jail time for her role in the attack​​.

Following the bioterrorism incident and subsequent legal battles, Rajneesh attempted to flee the United States but was arrested and charged. The movement faced intense scrutiny and legal challenges, leading to the eventual dissolution of Rajneeshpuram. Rajneesh returned to Pune, where he continued his teachings until his death in 1990.

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