The shocking 'Orange People' cult which tried to steal an election

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If you ask Australians of a certain age what they remember about the Rajneeshees, a cult nicknamed "The Orange People" because of the orange and red clothing they wore, a lot of them will mention the group’s deputy leader Ma Anand Sheela ("Sheela" for short) and her appearance on 60 Minutes in the mid-1980s.

Reporter Ian Leslie interviewed her, and was being clear that the Rajneeshees, who had a habit of infiltrating and overtaking towns around the world, were not welcome in Australia.

“Sheela whatever your plans are, we don’t want the Rajneeshees. We don’t want the Orange People in our town” said Ian.

“What can I say” responded Sheela, who was notorious for deliberately aggravating already tense situations. “Tough titties”.

Ma Anand Sheela. Source: AP
Ma Anand Sheela made waves with her appearance on Australia's 60 Minutes. Source: AP

The unusual cult is the subject of the fifth episode of Yahoo News Australia's Cults Unpacked series.

It’s unusual for the second-in-charge of a cult to be better-known than its leader, but the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh – Sheela’s boss – was pretty interesting himself. Together, the Bhagwan and Sheela were an attention-seeking juggernaut.

Originally a professor of philosophy, the Bhagwan realised that philosophical statements delivered with big eyes, a long beard, a guru vibe and an armchair were like crack to middle class white people with money to spare.

To distinguish his group from others, he abandoned the traditional guru tropes of poverty and silent meditation and instead encouraged humour, sex, very very loud meditation, and – for himself – the acquisition of Rolls Royces.

Leaders preaches that 'wealth is good'

While the Bhagwan preached that wealth was good, he really meant that wealth for himself was good, and that his followers should give him all their money.

His target number of Rolls Royces was a nice round 100, which he almost reached, and his ashram even sold souvenir bumper stickers that read "Jesus Saves. Moses Invests. Bhagwan Spends".

Rajneeshees devotees sing and play music. Source: Getty Images
Rajneeshees usually dressed in orange from head to toe. Source: Getty Images

The Bhagwan preached that the release of sexual energy was the well-lubricated road to enlightenment, and he encouraged his followers to have the loudest, wildest, freest, most spontaneous sex they could, with as many people as they liked. As a result, Rajneeshee communes were absolutely chock-full of STDs.

All this grotesque wealth and rampant sex meant that quiet communities tended to get a bit sick of big Rajneeshee communes settling in their towns.

Cult ventures into tiny US town

The cult started in India, and when the Indian government revoking their tax-free status, the Bhagwan figured he could make more money in America and sent Sheela to find him some land.

She popped halfway across the world and chose a spot just southeast of the town of Antelope in Wasco County, Oregon. Antelope had a population of just under 50 people, with an average age of 60 years. Party town.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh at the cult's base in Oregon. Source: Getty Images
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh takes part in festivities at the Oregon base. Source: Getty Images

Make no mistake: Sheela is not someone you want to piss off, but if you ignore all the very awful things she did and basic human decency isn’t important to you, she is legitimately someone you might want to hire. Sheela got shit done.

Under her direction, the ranch she’d bought was transformed - what had formerly been dust, mud and weeds became a lush, green, organised, arable paradise growing its own food, and it attracted followers in their thousands.

"Rajneeshpuram" grew into a small city with its own shops and airport, and the townspeople of Antelope were very pissed off about it.

By this time the Bhagwan had taken a vow of silence – it’s pretty easy to avoid answering your critics that way – and only communicated through Sheela, so all of the cult’s decisions and strategies were coming from the scrappy deputy. And Sheela did NOT like locals telling her what to do.

Cult members rejoice. Source: Getty Images
Cult members were prone to exhuberant celebrations of their faith. Source: Getty Images

Deputy works to rig local elections

Sheela’s main legacy comes in the form of steps she took to influence local elections in her favour – she figured that if the Rajneeshees dominated county politics, the locals would have to stop trying to run them out of town.

There are two ways to rig an election. First, Sheela wanted to have as many people as possible voting for Rajneeshee-friendly candidates. Secondly, Sheela wanted to have as few people as possible voting for the opposition.

For the first goal, the cult drove their 85 buses to nearby big cities and offer homeless people a deal – three meals a day and a bed at the commune in exchange for their votes in the county elections.

The technique was initially successful and around 4,000 homeless were transported to Rajneeshpuram. 

Two cult members embrace. Source: Getty Images
Orgies wre prevalent at cult events. Source: Getty Images

Unfortunately, the Oregon Secretary of State was onto the scam and the homeless people, no longer needed, were dumped by the cult members in nearby towns.

To achieve the second goal, of having as few people as possible voting for the opposition, Sheela launched the cult deep into criminal territory.

Targeting ten restaurants in the county that had salad bars, cult members were despatched to sprinkle salmonella all over the exposed food and into the tubs of salad dressing.

Hundreds of people fell ill, but by this time locals realised they had to turn up to the elections in massive numbers, and they did. Sheela’s plan was foiled.

As so often happens in cults, paranoia mixes with a lust for power and leads to the end of their potency.

As time passed, Sheela worried that the Bhagwan wanted to replace her, and tried to get followers to murder those she suspected of wanting to take her position, like the Bhagwan’s doctor.

When that plan also failed, Sheela realised her time was up and fled to Germany.

The Bhagwan started speaking again and invited investigators in, blaming Sheela for anything incriminating they found. She was arrested in 1986 and went to jail for attempted murder.

When investigators searched the Rajneeshee compound, they found evidence of the largest wiretapping operation the state had ever seen.

Bugs were found in the Bhagwan’s chair, in multiple telephones around the city, in more than 30 of the community’s resident and guest rooms, and in its restaurant.

It was the end. Due to his practice of marrying off followers who outstayed their visas, the Bhagwan was busted for immigration fraud. Rajneeshpuram residents ceased operations and left.

After her release from prison, Sheela moved to Switzerland where she runs two aged care homes. If I was a resident, I would avoid eating the salad.

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