Escaping the Bhagwan

The Age, Australia/April 11, 2009

For nine years Jane Stork was a devotee of "sex guru" Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who in the 1970s and '80s led a cult known for their orange clothes and free love.

Along the way she surrendered her name and identity as a suburban West Australian housewife and mother to become Ma Shanti Bhadra - a woman prepared to do anything, even murder, for her master.

In her new book, Breaking the Spell: My Life as a Rajneeshee and the Long Journey Back to Freedom, Stork writes about how she got sucked into the cult and finally broke free after being jailed for an attempt to kill the Bhagwan's doctor.

She also provides an insight into the mind of the Bhagwan and his mouthpiece Ma Sheela - who famously pronounced "tough titties" in a 60 Minutes interview in 1985 when it was suggested the Orange People were not welcome in a local town.

Stork was introduced to the Bhagwan's teachings through a psychologist she was seeing because of personal and marital problems. The psychologist worked in the public health system but had just returned from Pune, India, where the Bhagwan had established an ashram, a place of religious retreat. "I didn't even notice that (the psychologist) was wearing a long orange robe and had a string of beads around his neck," she writes. He became her mentor, and in 1978 Stork followed his footsteps, and those of many other Australians, to Pune. She was later joined by her husband and children, Peter, 10, and Kylie, 8.

Stork says she was attracted to the Bhagwan as a reaction to the guilt of her Catholic upbringing and because of the lack of rules and regulations in his teachings.

But she soon found that the ashram was not all it was cracked up to be. Stork felt uncomfortable with many aspects of life there, including the group sex and partner swapping, as well as deliberate moves to fragment families and drive a wedge between husbands and wives, parents and children.

About 87 per cent of residents had a sexually transmitted disease and women who became pregnant were told by the Bhagwan to abort and sterilise, Stork says. She and her teenage daughter were both sterilised.

"Women would write (to the Bhagwan) saying 'I'm pregnant. what should I do?' He would always say 'abort and sterilise'," she says.

"He used to speak so lovingly about children, yet behind the scenes everybody's getting sterilised. There were no children born in the ashram."

In 1981 the Bhagwan left Pune for the US, where he put his followers, including Stork, to work building a massive Rajneeshee city in Oregon. At its peak it had 4000 residents, putting it on a collision course with the local community and authorities. It was in Oregon that the Bhagwan's excesses came to full bloom as he funnelled money from Rajneeshee communes around the world into Oregon. He amassed huge wealth, which he squandered on gold watches, jewellery and a collection of more than 90 Rolls-Royces.

"When he went to America, I feel as though he absorbed the American way of life: consume, showiness. He became a star, a showman," Stork says. "Mostly (his followers) didn't even notice. When a transport came in with two or three Rolls-Royces it was a covered transport. "I don't think they noticed, 'oh today he's driving a red Rolls-Royce and tomorrow it's white'."

Things began to unravel in 1985 when Kylie was sexually abused on the commune. At the time Stork believed the allegations were lies perpetrated by the enemies of the Bhagwan. "I just dismissed it as 'these people out there, they're just against us and trying to mess us up'," she says.

Stork had also become a member of one of Ma Sheela's inner circle. Charismatic and feisty, Sheela was hugely influential in the organisation, Stork says. But she was also the Bhagwan's puppet and scapegoat, and ultimately his fall-woman.

Sheela convinced Stork and other members of her inner sanctum that the Bhagwan's enemies were out to get him, and the group began to hatch plans for a pre-emptive strike against those who would harm their spiritual leader.

"That kind of paranoia built up all the time but it really started to crystallise in 1984," Stork says. "It was all this crazy talk, and then all of a sudden (we were) in Texas and New Mexico buying weapons."

Stork writes how the group discussed killing district attorney Charles Turner, and later how she made an attempt on the life of the Bhagwan's doctor with an adrenalin-filled syringe. Fortunately the attempt failed, and it marked a turning point for Stork, who left the commune for Germany with Sheela soon after.

But the law caught up with her, and she was extradited to the US in 1985 and sentenced to 10 years' jail for attempted murder.

She was released after two years and returned to Germany, but was re-arrested in 1990 for conspiracy to murder Turner.

This time Germany refused to extradite her, and Stork began the long, painful process of coming to terms with her past and moving on.

Today, a slight woman of 64 with a neat grey bob and a string of pearls, Stork says she has finally left her life as a Rajneeshee behind her.

"To come to terms with that much self-delusion is really difficult," she says. "It's a long, slow, painful process."

Stork says it is wrong to describe her as the victim of brainwashing by an evil cult. "I think I brainwashed myself," she says.

"The Bhagwan had one line: the good disciple follows what the master says, the good disciple doesn't think … but it wouldn't have happened if I didn't want it to happen."

Stork says she has no contact with Sheela, who was also jailed but can be seen on YouTube singing the Bhagwan's praises.

As for the Bhagwan, who died in Pune in 1990, Stork believes he trod the ground somewhere between holy man, showman and conman.

"But I'm sure he didn't give a stuff about doing good and helping people," she says. "He didn't care at all for his people. They were just a nuisance, they were part of the show."

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