Religious Conflict in the Face of Regional Change: Rajneeshpuram and the Transformation of the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s

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In 1981, the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh bought a large ranch outside of the tiny town of Antelope, Oregon. Over the next seven years, the Pacific Northwest was polarized over the existence of this group. Followers clothed in red robes, often wealthy Americans but including people from the around the world, shocked the residents of Oregon through their appearance and devotion to their leader. Their settlement of Rajneeshpuram became salacious material for headlines: group sex, elaborate ceremonies, voter fraud, bioterrorism, assassination attempts against Oregon officials who sought to crack down on the group. The recent Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country brought this group back into the spotlight, particularly through the voice of the Bhagwan’s charismatic lieutenant Ma Anand Sheela.

The history of this compound has received plenty of attention from popular writers, though less from recent scholars. This paper would explore not so much the history of Rajneeshpuram itself, but rather how the reactions to it by Northwesterners reflected already existing tensions in the region over cultural and economic transformations. The white ranching communities of eastern Oregon and other conservative Northwesterners were immediately hostile to the takeover of Antelope and felt their way of life was threatened, not only by this religious group but by the other environmentalists and members of the counterculture attracted to the Northwest since 1965. Meanwhile, urban liberals in Portland and Eugene embraced the Rajneeshis under an umbrella of religious tolerance and cultural pluralism, often downplaying the very real crimes taking place there. They accused the ranchers of racism toward the newcomers. They were right about that, but it was also the ranchers who raised the alarm over the actions on the commune. That the state eventually used its pioneering land use regulations to start legal action against Rajneeshpuram brought this to an ironic head, outraging liberals who had lauded these regulations as emblematic of the state’s environmentalism and amusing conservatives who had opposed them from the beginning.

In short, the reactions to Rajneeshpuram took place in an already existing battle over who the Northwest belonged to in a moment where the white working class natural resource economy that had anchored the region since the nineteenth century was being replaced by an urban, tech and tourism oriented economy that saw greater value in standing trees and living salmon than plywood and new dams. This helped lead to the political polarization that defines the region today, with far left and far right groups battling in the streets of Portland or occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Few moments in the modern Northwest better explicate this transformation than the reactions to Rajneeshpuram.

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