This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1989, Volume 6, Number 1, pages 102-104. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.
Book Review - The Ultimate Game: The Rise and Fall of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
Kate Strelley and Robert D. San Souci. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 381 pages, $29.95.
This book review, by Linda James, first appeared in The Globe and Mail, Saturday July 18, 1987 and is reprinted with permission.
The Rajneesh cult sprang into the public limelight in 1981 with its bizarre and ultimately illegal takeover of the town of Antelope, Oregon. Putting salmonella virus into the county's water supply to lessen their enemies' voting power strained the tolerance of Oregonians to the activities of the orange-clad disciples of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
The resulting court case suffered lengthy delays as the Bhagwan conveniently entered a state of silent meditation. His lawyers successfully argued that they were unable to prepare a proper defense. During this time the group was led by a gun-toting headwoman called "Ma Sheela" Silverman. Ms. Sheela is now in jail convicted of attempted murder, assault, arson, and wiretapping. The Bhagwan, indicted on 35 violations of immigration law, was arrested while attempting to flee the United States; in plea bargaining, he chose extradition rather than jail. He left behind 83 Rolls Royces.
The commune in Oregon was put up for sale in 1986 and many abandoned members have suddently found themselves struggling to understand what happened and why. Kate Stelley is one of them. Her fascinating story is the subject of The Ultimate Game, a naive but revealing glimpse into the world of a successful product of the Rajneesh system -- "the mindless man," someone devoid of individual judgments.
Strelley became involved with the movement as a troubled youngster of 15. While in a drug treatment centre for heroin addiction, she fell in love with her psychiatrist, who broke every ethical rule by sneaking her out to spend a weekend in his commune. She followed him to an ashram in Poona, India, where she learned he was a disciple of a man named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
To stay with him, Strelley agreed to be initiated into the movement. She was given a new name, Ma Prem Avibha, donned orange clothes and beaded necklace, and acquired the behavior necessary to be accepted by the ashram.
She soon learned that her attachment to her lover was but one of many worldly "attachments" to be overcome if she was to reach a vaguely defined state of enlightenment. The only attachment that was encouraged was to the mysterious Bhagwan, whose every desire was to be obeyed. To be accepted by the community, to become a better person, she learned to do whatever the Bhagwan asked. To this end she was deprived of food, made to sleep in the fields, "unburdened" of her money and assigned a new lover.
When she became pregnant, she asked the Bhagwan for guidance. He told her to enjoy the pregnancy for several weeks, to feel it in its "fullness," and then to have an abortion. Attachment to a child would only interfere with enlightenment, he told her. He further suggested that she be sterilized, like most women and men in the group. She did as told.
Not surprisingly, she often reacted to such arbitrary demands with anger, fear, frustration, jealousy, and paranoia -- but she stayed in the group. Sadly, like members of many cult-like groups, Strelley came to see such emotions as only a sign of how attached she had become to "unimportant" things. Thus, she struggled to accept all of the Bhagwan's arbitrary decisions with humility and love. Slowly her ability to judge events based on her own feelings was eroded -- the "mindless man."
Strelley was not just an ordinary member of this group. She was the personal assistant of the pistol-packing Ma Sheela and part of the upper hierarchy of the cult. As such, she could see just how far obedience to the Bhagwan could go as members participated in an increasing list of illegal activities: tax evasion, wiretapping, drug running and even attempted murder.
Strelley gave nine years of her life to this movement. She shed her orange garb only shortly before the indictments were made, and the members were left to fend for themselves.
Her book is not particularly well written or edited; it is, however, an honest account of abuse and exploitation. Years of trying to rid herself of "negative emotions" have obviously taken their toll. Emotional detachment, the tone of this book, is just not appropriate when recounting such dehumanizing experiences. She tells her tale with no trace of bitterness or anger. Instead, she is wistful, even nostalgic, for the communal spirit, the "creative" energy, the "efficient" organization, the "high" of being surrounded by people who radiate positive emotions: all clearly a result of blind obedience to their leader. Her lack of emotional outrage is disturbing.
"However good or bad your experience," she writes, "it has something of ultimate value for you, whether that means jumping to a higher level of consciousness or simply building up your inner resources to tough out the worst that life can throw your way." She uses such twisted logic repeatedly to justify experiences that were painful. She was taught that there must be value in it all. And that, it seems, is what she still desperately wants to believe.
Strelley's story is a sad testament to the power of techniques practiced in many cult-like groups that convince people not to trust their own feelings and judgments. These natural feelings -- fear, anger and humilation -- are the warning systems of life -- not problems to be overcome. Distrusting such valid reactions to abusive cult-like practices enormously increased her potential to be manipulated and exploited by others. Strelley's book helps us see this danger even if she doesn't.
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1989, page 102