Memoirs of a Spiritual Refugee

Jane Stork’s book, Breaking the Spell: My Life as a Rajneeshee and the Long Journey Back to Freedom (Pan Macmillan, 2009), is the story of a spiritual quest that led not to lightness or freedom but to darkness and imprisonment. The title is apt. For those of us who have spent time in religious cults—even if we emerged relatively unscathed—looking back it can seem as if we have been under a spell, and we can be long haunted by the mental seduction that took place. Even now, Stork admits she is still coming to terms with what she did and the consequences of the choices she made. At the time her actions had seemed so “right,” done out of love for her guru.

Stork spent nine years as a sannyasin, a follower of the Indian spiritual teacher Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Even though the term sannyasin refers to a spiritual seeker who renounces worldly desires, and includes the vow of celibacy, Rajneesh flaunted traditional Hinduism and encouraged his devotees to express their emotions and embrace desires. Stork’s story struck a particular chord with me, as for several years I was also one of these orange people—as we were called at the time—and given the name Ma Prem Sagara meaning “ocean of love.” Stork was named Ma Shanti Bhadra: Shanti meaning peace; Bhadra, grace. Such names were seductive, feeding our delusions that we were somehow divine or spiritual.

Even though I do not recall Stork, no doubt our paths crossed. I was part of the movement during the early days in Pune, India, but while Stork rapidly rose in the ranks and became a member of the inner circle, I was at the periphery of things, living independently in my own apartment outside the ashram. I found the personal growth therapies of some benefit, and even if I was rather spellbound, I had a relatively carefree time there. (Indeed, after a visit to Pune in April of 1980, Bernard Levin, one of the most respected journalists in the UK at the time, wrote in The London Times about how impressed he was with the liveliness and happiness of the sannyasins.)

It’s tempting to generalize about cults, given the often sensationalized reports in the media, but in order to attempt to explain the lure and attraction of such groups, and why it is so hard for some people to leave, a more nuanced picture is required. Critically, Michael Langone, the executive director of the International Cultic Studies Association, says their research indicates that under similar circumstances groups may harm some people and not others; that “different people will respond in varied ways to the same intense group environment: some remaining unscathed, while others are devastated.”

Stork grew up in Western Australia and the first part of the book chronicles her childhood through to her marriage and the early years of raising two children. Stork’s meeting with a professional psychologist in 1977 changed all their lives. She was seeking help for personal and marital problems and a friend mentioned a psychologist who was apparently well regarded. When Stork rang the public health offices to make an appointment she was told he was on long-service leave, but was taking calls at his home. His home was none other than Jandakot—a Rajneesh meditation center. Stork never did get the private personal counseling she had sought and soon she and her husband were doing the various meditations such as the exuberant dynamic meditation (which involved, in part, spontaneous dancing to wild music) and weekend therapy groups. Stork was soon hooked; not only did the psychologist become her mentor, but his guru became hers. She became a “mail-order sannyasin” with a new name, and she dyed all her clothes orange. With her husband Roger following in her footsteps, off she went to the ashram in Pune for a month to see Bhagwan (Sanskrit for God, a title adopted by Rajneesh in 1971), leaving their children with her parents. Returning to Perth and their new “orange family” at Jandakot, within a short time they decided to go back to India as a family to stay indefinitely, if not for the rest of their lives. Stork writes that their extreme commitment was perhaps a reflection of their inability to cope with personal problems: they were in effect running back to the “safety of Big Daddy,” to God himself who would take care of them.

Stork and her husband were both graduates of the University of Western Australia: her husband became a geologist and Stork a schoolteacher. Many Rajneeshees had impressive credentials; members included lawyers, psychologists, doctors, architects, and journalists. One survey found that 12 percent had doctorates. According to the sociologist Uday Mehta, Rajneesh appealed to Westerners by establishing a philosophical connection between Eastern traditions and the Human Potential Movement. In addition to meditation courses, a wide range of therapies, both individual and group, were on offer at the ashram. In particular, Rajneesh’s advocacy of sex as a means to enlightenment made him the most controversial of gurus, but also attractive to seekers disillusioned by the rigidity and rules of traditional religions.

I left the Rajneesh movement in 1979, shortly after the Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana. My mother had sent me a news clipping of the horrendous event (I didn’t read the newspaper or watch television during those years) and I remember thinking at the time, “my god, this could happen here.” I had also become increasingly disturbed by changes in the ashram, including the posting of armed guards at the gates. I got out just in time. What had begun as a controversial but relatively harmless group soon morphed into something much more sinister: a truly destructive cult.

In early 1981 the group uprooted from Pune for the United States, where they purchased one of the largest ranches in central Oregon and began to build on the barren 64,000 acres. Within three years Rajneeshpuram, as it was called, was transformed into a small city, including a hotel, shopping mall, casino, airstrip, and water and sewage plants. In charge of this extraordinary project was Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh’s brash secretary. Stork was brought close to Sheela when she was assigned work in the rapidly growing legal department which, by June 1982, was handling a dozen lawsuits filed by the town council of nearby Antelope. The Rajneeshees eventually bought most of the properties in the town and elected their own council, causing ripples of animosity across the state. In 1984 they annexed land without the consent of Wasco County, and Sheela came up with a scheme (evidently at Rajneesh’s urging) to take over that council as well. With a county election coming up that November, they came up with a plan to make people ill on election day so they could elect their own candidates. Salad bars at ten restaurants in The Dalles (the largest city and the county seat of Wasco) were contaminated with salmonella bacteria, resulting in hospitalization of 45 of the 751 victims. (This was America’s first major act of bioterrorism, although it was under-reported in the media at the time.)

The group began to amass an arsenal of weapons, while at the same time Rajneesh was squandering money on gold watches, expensive jewelry, and a personal fleet of more than ninety Rolls Royces—in spite of Sheela’s protests. As paranoia set in and things unraveled, there were other instances of poisoning (including fellow sannyasins) and murder attempts. Stork was part of a group of seven that plotted the murder of district attorney Charles Turner after he was appointed to head an investigation of the ranch’s activities. And after an outside doctor told them that Devaraj, Rajneesh’s doctor, was incompetent and responsible for Rajneesh’s blood poisoning, Sheela became concerned for their guru’s safety. She asked for a volunteer from a group of twenty to “get rid of” Devaraj, using an adrenalin-filled syringe. Stork offered to do it (she had also offered to kill Turner), but fortunately the attempt failed. Within weeks she fled to Germany, where others, including Sheela, had already gone. (Jane and Roger had divorced in 1983 and the children had gone with their father.) Stork recalls being exhausted and in a state of acute paranoia: “I did not recognize the person I had become.”

Extradited back to the United States in 1985, Stork was sentenced to ten years for the attempted murder of Devaraj, but was released after serving two years. She returned to Australia, noting: “All the running away, all the groups and commune living had not produced an independent human being. On the contrary, I was a helpless child in a forty-two year-old body.” She stayed with her parents for six months before traveling to Germany in order to work to recoup her huge legal debts, and where she remarried.

Frances Fitzgerald in Cities on a Hill (Simon & Schuster, 1986) says that at the end, when Rajneeshpuram was collapsing, a number of sannyasins described themselves as innocent. However, even if most didn’t know of the wiretapping, drugging, poisoning, and so forth, Fitzgerald points out they weren’t really innocent. They had doubts and reservations, which they suppressed. Many had suspicions, but acted as if they had none, concealing them not just from outsiders but themselves and from each other— the very people they claimed to “mirror” and trust. In fact, she says, the ranch was “like a hall of mirrors with no windows” where the outside world ceased to exist.

While many sannyasins left the movement, some did not. They simply placed all the blame on Sheela and her gang, even though Sheela was regarded as Rajneesh’s mouthpiece and he had said publicly she only did what he wanted her to do; Stork described Sheela as Rajneesh’s puppet and scapegoat. A few sannyasins were more philosophical and saw the end of Rajneeshpuram merely as a lesson: Bhagwan showing them firsthand how power (not his of course) corrupts. Elizabeth Puttick in the Journal of Contemporary Religion noted that while some people were quite badly damaged, many assessed their experiences positively, presenting “a moral dilemma”: the abusive behavior of perpetrators and masochistic behavior of recipients can “still be legitimated spiritually.” Abuse legitimated spiritually?

Those who were waking up, for whom the dream was over, were like Rip van Winkles coming down from the mountain, having to find jobs, a place to live, and starting all over again. This is the fate of many who leave or escape from cults.

In November 1984 Rajneesh was charged with attempting to evade the U.S. immigration laws and spent a week in jail. He received a ten-year suspended prison sentence, and was ordered to pay $400,000 in fines and leave the country within five days. After twenty countries either refused him entry or deported him, Rajneesh returned to Pune. In 1989 he took the name Osho, and died the following year at the age of fifty-eight. His epitaph reads: “OSHO. Never Born, Never Died. Only Visited this Planet Earth.” A few months prior, Vivek (English-born Christine Wollf, Rajneesh’s constant companion since 1971) committed suicide in a Bombay hotel. This news hardly caused a ripple in the movement; it was reported that she had simply “left her body.”

In 1991 Stork was re-arrested for conspiracy to murder Turner, but this time a German court refused her extradition. She lived in exile in Germany for sixteen years.

In 2004 her son (who along with her daughter had settled in northern New South Wales) was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Stork decided to give herself up in the hope the arrest warrant could be lifted so she could fly to Australia before returning to the United States to face sentencing. This wish was granted and she spent two months with her son before the court hearing. During the hearing, Stork apologized to all those who had been hurt by her actions, by the choices she had made, and concluded, “Many others have fared much worse, and some have even paid with their lives for their involvement with Bhagwan. Many are suffering still. I am one of the lucky ones.” Judge Malcolm Marsh said he believed Stork had seen the error of her ways and had suffered in prison and also from the loss of family companionship. He explained, “The victim of a delusion is the last to see the deception.” There was a circle of hate that had formed in and around Rajneeshpuram, but “there is more to breaking the circle of hate than justice alone,” he said. “There are times where justice trumps mercy. There are other times when mercy trumps justice…we have such a case here.”

While Stork is now free, others are not. People still abandon critical thought to seek nirvana, still surrender their minds to gurus, even those exposed as charlatans, liars, and hypocrites. (Including the guru of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love. Though Gilbert didn’t reveal her name in the book, it has been established that the female guru is the head of Siddha Yoga, a group with its own well-documented scandals and abuses of power.) Not all gurus are harmful, of course, but one should be wary of those saying they are God incarnate, who expect to be worshipped and treated as such. Invariably they end up exploiting their followers.

While Rajneesh was clearly charismatic, he was no god figure. Ronald O. Clarke, a former professor of religious studies at Oregon State University, argues that Rajneesh’s self-professed claim to be enlightened and to have permanently dissolved his ego was the product of “a delusional system associated with a narcissistic personality disorder.” Anthony Storr in Feet of Clay (Simon & Schuster, 1996) believes that in the early days, Rajneesh’s discourse showed he had special insights and something valuable to teach, but he degenerated into “a monster of greed,” a telling example Lord Acton’s famous claim that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The Pune ashram is now called the Osho International Meditation Resort. Billed as “a paradise where all your emotional, bodily and spiritual needs are met,” it is visited by thousands of people each year. There are now Osho centers all over the world. In Australia, Antelope veterans have settled mostly in northern New South Wales. Santoshi from Osho’s House in Byron Bay says Rajneeshpuram “was the most incredible experiment ever. I have no regrets about being a part of it.” On the other side of the world, however, at the base of the flagpole outside the Antelope Post Office there is a plaque that reads, “Dedicated to those of this community who throughout the Rajneesh invasion and occupation of 1981-1985 remained, resisted, and remembered. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Stork’s account is both moving and disturbing, and makes for compelling reading. It is an extreme example of the madness and mayhem that can erupt in fringe religious groups. It is also a reminder of what can happen as a result of peer influence and group pressure. Unsurprisingly, Swami Chaitanya Keerti, editor of Osho World, says Stork’s writings are the “outpourings of an embittered person.” Rather than bitterness, however, there is forgiveness in this book, not only towards those she has hurt but also herself. And at the end, Stork is a grieving mother, her heart torn asunder with the loss of her son. Her book won’t win any literary awards but stories like these need to be told, if only to provide an antidote to the those who legitimize guru-abuse on dubious spiritual grounds, or as some kind of “crazy wisdom” beyond ordinary morality and convention, and to the narcissist New Age memoirs (Eat, Pray, Love, and The Secret) that women, especially, love to devour.

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  • Danny Rose

    Well written Mary, will share. I read much of Íf The Shoe Fits’ back in mid eighties when first arrived in Maleny, and found it uplifting, despite the local followers being in emotional shambles. Recently met a follower who insisted Baghwan was poisoned by ‘The Authorities’ for undermining the Constitution.

  • Ben

    I was taken to Pune when I was 15 in 1979 by my late father who was a sannyasin and absolutely hated the ashram.It reminded me of the film Logan’s Run. There was considerable pressure on me to join,go to groups,’surrender’,stop using my mind ;as the sign at the entrance of the ashram said’leave shoes and minds outside’ . .
    I was quite well read for a 15 year old and had read many of Bhagwan’s books but thought at the time ,why should I worship someone just because I may agree with something they say..
    I was told ‘you’re thinking with your mind.;you need to drop the mind,,surrender’ My retort to that was ,I am my mind and despite feeling threatened,wouldn’t surrender. There was a price to pay for that and I could see some advantages to joining but I wouldn’t be bullied by anyone or not be true to myself.

    All the jumping through hoops to get to the ‘here and now’ when I already was seemed ridiculous to me.
    I found many sannyasins completely selfcentred ,lacking in compassion to the poor and blind to the suffering right in front of them. They were too busy working on themselves,trying to be good enough.
    Perhaps coming from the punk generation was the saving of me.