Back Again


PARADISE WAS LOST recently for some sojourners from society living and loving in Rajneeshpuram, Oregon. How and why it happened is a lesson for our time about ourselves.

The story began a little over four years ago, when the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh left Poona, India to establish a commune in the high country of eastern Oregon. With a small flock of red-clad followers and about $40 million, Rajneesh filled an isolated valley with a small city, replete with stores, restaurants, buses, a dam, a farm, a hotel and an airport.

Rajneesh preached free love (and free sex), and by all accounts he and his followers practiced what he preached. The spiritual needs fulfilled, Rajneesh catered to the weaknesses of the flesh as well.

"I've lived here these years where I was provided for," said Swami Sagar Chetcan, a resident of the commune. "My clothes were clean. I had clean sheets. I was fed. I had a doctor when I was ill and a dentist when I had a toothache."

"Now I'm about to go out in the world again," he said, "that success-oriented place, and it worries me."

He's not alone. At one time or another, all of us want to escape to some haven, away from our lives and our commitments. Modern society, for all its material pleasures, is too often without social support. Communities must be small if they are to flourish, but "bigger is better"--not "small is beautiful"--is the modern credo.

It would be wrong, though, to attribute our longing to escape to modern ills alone. In the late sixteenth century, Montaigne wrote: "The evil means men use in our day to push themselves show clearly that the end is not worth much. Let us reply to ambition that it is she herself that gives us a taste for solitude. For what does she shun so much as society? What does she seek so much as elbowroom?"

Montaigne's desperate solution was isolation--a community of one. But others have had a different dream. In the desert of society, they attempt to build an oasis, a Utopia, to which they can retreat with like-minded friends.

And that is just what Rajneesh's followers sought: they hoped to get away from ambition and meaninglessness and begin their lives anew. But their dream was short-lived, deflated by deceit and then defeated by disappointment.

THE END of this unhappy Utopia began in September, when Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh's chief aide, broke away from the commune with her own small group of stalwarts. Shortly after, Rajneesh announced that Sheela had plotted the murder of his physician, tapped telephones, and tried to usurp his authority.

She retorted that Rajneesh had exploited his followers, collecting more than 85 Rolls-Royce cars and treasure chests full of jewelry.

Then in late October, a Federal grand jury in Portland secretly indicted Rajneesh and his aides on charges that they had arranged phony marriages to bring foreigners into the country. Rajneesh apparently found out about the indictment, because he left Rajneeshpuram in a jet on Oct. 27. But he didn't get too far. The same day, he was arrested in Charlotte, N.C. and returned to Portland to face charges.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Rajneesh's ex-aide Sheela and her cabal were arrested on Oct. 28 in West Germany on charges made by an Oregon grand jury that they tried to murder Rajneesh's physician in a plot to seize power at the commune.

On Nov. 14, Rajneesh plea bargained himself out of the charges--and the country--for a cool $400,000 in cash. He left for India that afternoon.

And two weeks ago, Ma Prem Niren, the Mayor of Rajneeshpuram, told the commune's residents that they should plan on leaving, as the city would soon be dissolved.

SO WHAT CAN we learn from all of this? The most important thing is that it's hard--perhaps impossible--to escape from society. People take themselves to Utopias and that's the one thing they can't run away from. Horace wrote: "Why should we move to find countries and climates of another kind? What exile leaves himself behind?"

In the founding members of a new society are seeds for the old one. Among the flowers at Rajneeshpuram, sprouted some too familiar weeds: ambition and avarice. It was only a matter of time before the weeds overwhelmed the flowers.

Rajneesh's followers have ahead of them a long and difficult return to the workday world they fled. When they're settled, though, perhaps they'll tell us what they learned from their lost paradise.

If we're lucky, they've learned that since we can't escape society, we might as well stay and try to make it better.