Several early studies of former members of new religious movements (NRMs) or cults reported that participants experienced high levels of psychological distress after departure (Clarke et al. 1981). These studies have been questioned on their scientific rigor (Kilbourne and Richardson 1984). Richardson et al. (1986) suggest that means of departure is strongly associated with attitudes toward the group; those who are "deprogrammed" have more negative views. A detailed study by Wright (1987) found that defectors hold a variety of opinions, with most former members valuing their participation. Other studies also report that former devotees have a diversity of opinions about their experiences (Galanter 1989; Rothbaum 1988). In this research note we report on a study of former Rajneeshpuram residents and examine affiliation with the Rajneeshee movement and their perceptions of it.
The Rajneeshees' sojourn in Oregon began with the purchase of the
64,229 acre Big Muddy Ranch in eastern Oregon in July 1981. The
ranch was renamed "Rancho Rajneesh." Rajneesh's followers or
disciples, who are called Rajneeshees, sannyasins, or
neo-sannyasins, developed a commune, Rajneeshpuram, with facilities
of a modern American town, including a hotel, shopping center,
airport, dam, sewage reclamation plant, and the third largest public
transportation system in the state.
By 1985 several thousand sannyasins were living on the "Ranch." In November 1985, Rajneeshpuram disbanded, and the Rajneeshpuram residents, who considered the commune their home, were suddenly asked to leave and to fend for themselves. The commune collapsed shortly after many top leaders fled the state, including its charismatic leader Shree Rajneesh, also known as Bhagwan.
Several of these leaders pleaded guilty to criminal acts. It was anticipated that, due to these revelations of criminality and the methods of social control used at Rajneeshpuram, many former members would hold negative views of the movement after leaving Rajneeshpuram.
As Rajneesh's spokesperson, Ma Anand Sheela's rule of Rajneeshpuram was hierarchical and tightly controlled. Many sannyasins resented this authoritarian leadership, and after Sheela's departure, Rajneesh sought to change the movement. Sannyasins were told that they no longer needed to wear the colors of the sunrise, the special necklaces called malas, or use their sannyasin names. These three items had been the overt symbols of their affiliation.
Our research sought to examine former residents' retrospective views of Rajneeshpuram and to assess their present affiliation with the Rajneeshee movement.
Beginning in July 1986, about seven months after the large exodus
from the ranch, a follow-up study of former residents of
Rajneeshpuram was undertaken. Approximately one thousand letters
were sent. Half the letters were returned "address unknown,"
"forwarding address expired," "moved - left no forwarding address,"
or "not deliverable." This lack of valid forwarding addresses is
understandable. Many sannyasins left Rajneeshpuram hastily, and
many, after leaving the ranch, moved several times within the space
of a few months.
By December 1986, 362 former residents of Rajneeshpuram had responded and agreed to be in future follow-up studies. Of these 362 individuals, 231 responded to the second survey. The questionnaire sent with the initial letter was only one page. The follow-up survey was 12 pages, assessing beliefs, personality, and mental health. One question from our 1985 survey (see Latkin et al. 1987; Latkin 1989) was repeated, an open-ended item on relationships with Rajneesh. Answers to this question were compared to responses to the same question in the follow-up survey.
Out of the 231 respondents who filled out the follow-up survey,
60 percent were female, with 1946 as a median year of birth. The males' median year of birth was 1948.
Of those who obtained college degrees, 37.2 percent reported their highest degree as an Associate; 36.7 percent Bachelor; 20.5 percent Master; and 5.6 percent held a Doctorate.
For comparison purposes, data on previous religious affiliation and years in college are from a sample of 225 Rajneeshpuram residents who filled out a social-psychological survey in October 1985.
One noticeable difference between the two samples was the higher percent of Catholics in the 1985 survey. Fifty-four percent of the respondents to the 1985 survey were female, whereas 60 percent of the respondents to the follow-up survey were female. The median year of birth was 1948 for the follow-up and 1949 on the 1985 survey.
On the follow-up survey respondents and on the 1985 survey, the adjusted duration of time spent at Rajneeshpuram was 31 months. As marital status at Rajneeshpuram was confounded by the arranged marriages of foreign disciples to United States citizens to circumvent visa restrictions, any comparison of marital status between the Rajneeshpuram and follow-up surveys would be misleading.
In comparing those who returned the follow-up survey (N=231) with individuals who did not (N=131), there were two marginally significant differences. There was a difference on present life satisfaction; those who returned the follow-up survey scored slightly higher and were more likely to be employed, 89 percent versus 82 percent.
Table 2 presents the proportion of respondents to the follow-up who exhibited overt affiliation with the movement. The mean score on present life satisfaction on a scale of 1 - 8 was 6.32, while their retrospective rating of satisfaction at Rajneeshpuram was 7.25. This latter score differs little from a survey given at Rajneeshpuram (mean=7.14). In the first post-Rajneeshpuram questionnaire, present satisfaction correlated with overall satisfaction at Rajneeshpuram.
The follow-up surveys were returned from 16 to 24 months after Rajneeshpuram had disbanded. At this time, 68 percent of the former residents reported living with other sannyasins, and 49 percent meditated, which was a former requirement for sannyasins. Respondents report that they frequently thought about Rajneesh.
Percent of Respondents who Reported Wearing Colors of the Sunrise, use of Sannyasin Name, and Frequency of Contact with Sannyasins (N=231) (*)
|Usually||61.0||Sometimes||64.5||Few Times a Week||40.1|
|Barely or Never||32.1||Never or Rarely||11.8||Few Times a Month||25.3|
|About Once a Month||8.3|
|Less Than Once a Month||6.9|
* Percentages rounded.
Included in the survey administered at Rajneeshpuram and the
follow-up survey was the open-ended question "please describe your
relationship with Bhagwan." This question was asked before and after
the breakup of Rajneeshpuram. The responses were coded by the key
theme in the opening phrase.
If the first phrase was subsequently contradicted or if the remainder of the response incorporated a persistent and dominant theme that was different from the first phrase, then the response would be coded by the dominant theme.
If there was no key theme in the first phrase, then the whole response was coded for a general theme.
Three coders established the themes by an iterative and consensus process and then proceeded to code the materials (Strauss 1987). Coding issues were resolved by consensus.
The themes derived from the two surveys, which were coded separately, are presented in Table 4. The question on relationship to Rajneesh was included on approximately half the first surveys (N=110). On the follow-up survey, the first 193 surveys returned were coded.
On both surveys the vast majority of descriptions were positive. The predominant themes were those of teacher or master, and love or love affair. Few individuals harbored unfavorable sentiments toward Rajneesh. Many responses had multiple themes.
One respondent, who was coded under the rubric "love" wrote, "I admired, respected, and loved the master of Rajneeshpuram, as I do today. Bhagwan is an infection that has settled in my heart... often disturbs me... also keeps me aware of the important things in life. Single most important person in my life."
Although most respondents viewed Rajneesh favorably, there were a few who expressed feelings of anger and bitterness. One man reported that this relationship with Rajneesh was, "Very intense. Mixed up at best. At times I think he is on a global ego trip. That he needs sannyasins as much as (some) sannyasins need him. He is a phenomenon, but nevertheless a human being with ego, etc. Enlightenment is nothing but wishful thinking. Maybe he is a dreamer par excellence."
Out of all the surveys the harshest statement was that of a woman who said, "He loved people with money and gave them lots of attention. He is an antisocial personality, and even if he is enlightened he's still the same rotten personality." The woman who gave this response also indicated that she had been in psychotherapy. According to Richardson et al. (1986), her negative views might be due to the labeling that occurred in psychotherapy of her experience in the movement.
There were systematic differences between the two surveys. On the second survey there was a greater tendency for respondents to report that they felt distant from Rajneesh; such as one individual who stated, "Right now, I feel he is my teacher, but I feel like he is off in the distance... I used to feel very strongly that he is my master and I am his disciple but I'm not so sure anymore of that. I feel our closeness has been diminished, but I still love and respect him and am grateful for the light he has shed upon me."
The theme of personal responsibility for one's life and personal happiness was more prevalent in the second survey than in the first. Another difference between surveys was that in the second there were numerous reports of feeling grateful to Rajneesh. Those who reported that they were grateful varied in their attitudes toward Rajneesh. The responses varied from, "No other human being has given me so much," to "grateful . . . yet hate his personality; his lies and his manipulations. I never loved him as many did. I remain fascinated by him."
Many respondents reported a diminution in their feelings toward Rajneesh. One individual stated that "my relationship was strong... now I have little connection." A similar response was, "I am not zealous now... Bhagwan's impact was profound on me... an era in my life that has passed." Others indicated greater change in their relationship, such as the response, "I still 'feel' when I see a picture of Bhagwan... I became disillusioned after what happened at the ranch."
The eight participants who did not affiliate with sannyasins, use their sannyasin name, or wear colors of the sunrise did not exhibit hostility in the descriptions of their relationship with Rajneesh. One of the eight stated that he had no relationship with Rajneesh except "the enjoyment of watching a man as a master actor."
In a final set of analyses, the opinions of those who believed that Rajneesh was aware of the criminal activities at Rajneeshpuram were evaluated. Respondents who stated that they "strongly disagreed" with the statement that implied Rajneesh was unaware of Sheela's criminal activities were compared with the other respondents. There were no statistically significant differences between these two groups on reports of living with other sannyasins, frequency of use of sannyasin name, or frequency of contact with other sannyasins. The only statistically significant difference was that this subgroup thought less often about Rajneesh.
Over a year after the departure of Rajneesh from the United
States, former members of the Rajneeshpuram commune were questioned
about their relationship to Rajneesh. Although some respondents
reported that they felt distant, the majority reported a high
positive regard for Rajneesh.
Most sannyasins indicated that they believed that Rajneesh knew about Ma Anand Sheela's illegal activities, yet most maintained a deep, personal connection with him. The predominant themes that summarize their relationship to Rajneesh were those of gratitude, teacher, master, love, and a special bond with Rajneesh.
Only a few respondents reported that they were disillusioned, and even those who harbored negative feelings toward Rajneesh felt that living at Rajneeshpuram was a great experience and were grateful for it. These data coincide with Wright (1987), who found that 67 percent of defectors from new religious movements felt "wiser for the experience."
The differences in responses from the first to the second follow-up indicated that members' relationships with Rajneesh had become less intense.
There are several explanations for this change. After Rajneesh was arrested, the leadership was unable to control Rajneesh's image. Under these conditions he may have begun to appear more human and less godlike. Another explanation is that of charismatic leadership (Hunt 1991). The nature of Rajneesh's relationship to his disciples might have been unstable, and without his presence the emotional bond between Rajneesh and his disciples began to dissipate. A third explanation is that activities unrelated to the movement became more important after leaving the commune, and therefore Rajneesh was no longer the central figure in their lives.
Respondents reported a wide range of levels of affiliation with the movement. There was no evidence that once outside the protective confines of Rajneeshpuram members made a sharp break and disavowed their affiliation.
The continued association may be due to their method of exit, the locale, and the belief system. Richardson et al. (1986) make the distinction between disengagement from communal versus noncommunal settings and report that withdrawal from noncommunal organizations is less traumatic. The Rajneeshee movement was communal, but after Rajneeshpuram it became less communal and much more decentralized. This change in organizational structure also may help to account for the lack of a strong shift in perceptions after leaving Rajneeshpuram.
Richardson et al. (1986) and others have demonstrated that labeling is an important determinant in reports of perceived experience with new religious movements. In our study participants were not labeled by themselves or by nonmembers as defectors. This lack of labeling also may help to explain why respondents were generally positive about their experiences.
It is likely that former Rajneeshpuram residents' opinions of the movement were more positive than if they had become cut off from other Rajneeshees and were surrounded by individuals who lack understanding of their experiences. The positive regard for Rajneesh may have also been related to affective ties with friends in the movement.
The reports of frequent contact with other Rajneeshees suggests that the group continued to fulfill affective needs and provide social support. Others have found that defectors maintain positive regard for members (Wright 1987). Beckford, in his study of ex-Moonies (1985), found that a major problem for defectors arises when they return to their parental home, where they are pressured to disavow their former group and lack a well-developed friendship network. As most Rajneeshees continued to live with other Rajneeshees both stressors would be, in part, alleviated.
In general, perceptions of the movement and Rajneesh were robust. Even after Rajneesh's ignominious flight from the United States, his followers did not have a sudden change in attitude, nor did they exonerate him from any wrongdoing. One common explanation for favorable attitudes of former members of new religious movements is to invoke the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1967); that is, in order for members to reduce feelings of dissonance they praised and overrated their experiences.
Our data suggest that respondents could acknowledge inconsistencies. Wright (1987) also found that former devotees had complex views of their experiences in new religious movements.
The positive responses exhibited by former Rajneeshpuram residents are consistent with their beliefs about human nature. The Rajneeshees believed that all life events can be used as learning experiences. The authoritarian structure of Rajneeshpuram and the disbanding of the commune were regarded by many as opportunities for learning and self-understanding.
Another adaptive belief was the view that all being is transitory; nothing is permanent. Many Rajneeshees' beliefs overlapped with New Age beliefs or a mystical meaning system (Wuthnow 1976). This overlap may have aided in adjusting to life outside Rajneeshpuram, for their beliefs would not appear bizarre or aberrant to the subculture of non-Rajneeshees who are also mystically inclined.
The survey data support the position that retrospective assessments and social interaction play a strong role in crystallizing of experience of new religious movements (see Beckford 1985).
In conclusion, 16 or 24 months after the breakup of Rajneeshpuram most former residents who were surveyed continued to think about Rajneesh almost every day and were living with other sannyasins. Most reported that their present relationship was positive, and only a few respondents expressed anger or hostility toward Rajneesh.
The relation between Rajneesh and his disciples has been permanently altered. After returning to India in 1987, where he took the name "Osho," Rajneesh died in 1990. In light of Rajneesh's charismatic leadership, it will be interesting to see in the ensuing years if disciples' affiliation with the movement strengthens, dissipates, or remains the same.