David Honeycombe was bemused when he was introduced to the circle of friends attached to his new girlfriend in the northern NSW tourist town of Byron Bay last year.
“When they met me, they literally looked me up and down,” Honeycombe says. “They checked me out to see if I was up to scratch. These people I didn’t know asked me strange questions. They wanted to know this personal stuff that I didn’t think was any of their business.” He was especially surprised when they asked him if he was prepared to undergo an HIV test.
It took some time for the Bangalow project manager to realise he had entered the shadowy world of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
The Indian guru, also known as Osho, died in 1990. His sannyasin cult generated international headlines with its bizarre sexual rites and its audacious takeover of the town of Antelope in the US state of Oregon in the mid-1980s. After the sect was found to be responsible for what is regarded as the world’s first bioterrorist attack, Osho and other cult leaders were hounded out of the US.
Rajneesh’s legacy is conspicuous today in the verdant hills of northern NSW, where many of his American and European-born followers have established themselves. In and around Byron Bay and the nearby town of Mullumbimby, Osho’s followers, many of whom claim to be horrified by his excesses, are part of the mainstream community.
Honeycombe, whose relationship with a local sannyasin has ended, says that during his association with the sect, he became aware of several sham marriages in Byron Bay; he was a guest at one such wedding.
“They marry so foreigners can stay in Byron permanently,” he says. “I was at this wedding and everyone thought it was hilarious. It was a big joke, how easy it was to get around the Immigration Department.”
A hallmark of the 7000-strong Osho community in Antelope was the arrangement of sham marriages to allow foreigners to become US citizens by circumventing immigration laws.
Byron Shire has long been a magnet for the offbeat. Byron Bay, the shire’s biggest town, recently hosted the Whole Woman Festival, described by organisers as an “organic fluid entity”. Upcoming events include the Splendour in the Grass music festival, the Bangalow Billy Cart Derby and the YogaFest, where 108 ways of saluting the sun will be taught.
The sannyasins are the biggest of several unorthodox sects that have found a home in the environs of Byron Shire. Says Byron Shire councillor Jan Mangleson: “The Osho people now make up a very significant percentage of the population of our shire.”
Local organiser Shahido estimates that 2000 of the shire’s 30,000 residents are sannyasins. The quietly spoken Shahido, who, like other Orange People, has eschewed her given name, says: “We are a very strong force in the community but we are a force for good. We do not go around forcing our opinions down the throats of people.”
Shahido becomes animated when talking about the sannyasins’ pet hate: religion. “Osho teaches us that the churches are bad and that they should be destroyed,” she says.
The sannyasins’ antipathy towards religion has prompted churches in the Byron region to hold prayer meetings where divine intervention has been sought to force the Orange People from the shire. Former federal minister Larry Anthony, who has attended such meetings, says the sannyasins contributed to his narrow defeat as the Nationals MP for Richmond in the 2004 election. “There were other issues but the activities of these people were a factor,” he says.
The sannyasins own three large communal properties in Byron Shire – Jindibah near Bangalow, Gondwana at Tyagrah, and Mevlana near Mullumbimby – along with several small multiple occupancy holdings.
Abodes dotted across the sprawling lawns of the biggest commune, Mevlana, range from temporary sheds to opulent homes with Range Rovers parked under decks with million-dollar views. The mostly foreign-born owners pay $130,000 for a share in Mevlana. A healing centre, a spa bath where mothers with babies meet every day, and the Grand Mevlana meditation hall, funded by a $1 million donation, help facilitate an “integrated experiment in living inspired by the vision of Osho”.
Orange People own several high profile businesses in Byron Bay and the hinterland town of Mullumbimby. They include Leela Plantations, which grows extensive stands of tea trees. Crystal Castle has a restaurant and Australia’s biggest stone-carved Buddha. Osho’s House healing centre offers aromatherapy massages.
Osho’s House operator Santoshi is one of several local sannyasin leaders who lived in the sect’s Antelope community two decades ago. “It was the most incredible experiment ever,” she says. “I have no regrets about being a part of it.”
Santoshi is co-ordinating the recruitment from her Byron Bay home of hundreds of people for the so-called Anunda Healing Resort on an unidentified South Pacific island. The identity of the project’s sannyasin backers is not revealed to job applicants.
The island, with its own schools, law enforcement system and medical services, would be run in much the same way the Antelope community was before authorities in Oregon cracked down on its leaders.
Applicants for the Anunda jobs are told they will stay initially aboard a four-storey ocean cruiser, recalling Rajneesh’s declaration after he was expelled from the US for immigration fraud: “We can all live on a big boat.”
Overseas-born sannyasins continue to flock to Byron Bay. Israeli-born Rupda, another veteran from Antelope, arrived late last year. “It is simply beautiful here,” she says. “I am expanding my horizons.” Rupda was able to become an Australian citizen after marrying Nandana, an Australian sannyasin, soon after her arrival. She rejects Honeycombe’s claim that marriages between sannyasins are organised to flout immigration laws. “My husband and I love each other very much. Couples in our community fall in love and marry just like anywhere else.”
Another Antelope veteran is one of Byron Shire’s most prominent lawyers, Worth Wall, who insists he no longer has any ties with the sect. “Their guru is long dead and there is not even a cohesive community any more,” Wall says. “As soon as it developed into a cult, people like me bolted. I am an ordinary person in an ordinary family in an ordinary community.” Company records show Wall is a director of the Osho Mevlana Foundation and a shareholder in Osho company Melaleuca Properties. Wall says his involvement in the companies is inconsequential: “The foundation is just a little committee set up to run a non-functioning community hall.”
American-born Eric Freeman, one of Byron’s biggest property developers, worked as an electrician in Antelope and was one of Rajneesh’s personal favourites. Freeman, too, insists he is no longer associated with the sect. “I have personal friendships but I do not identify myself any longer as an Osho person,” he says.
Local journalist Sue Arnold has lodged several complaints with the Byron Shire Council over zoning and building approvals given to the sannyasins for their communal properties. “The shire needs to have a good look at these people instead of letting them do what they like,” she says. “You can’t have a cult of this size, with its background, operating in a small shire like this without that being very worrying. What is happening in Byron today is exactly what happened in the beginning in Antelope.”
However, Byron Shire Deputy Mayor Peter Westheimer says the sannyasins cannot be described as a cult. “They are totally integrated into the community,” says Westheimer, who lives in the sannyasin stronghold of Mullumbimby. “They add to the mix of the Byron family and they are part of what makes the Byron community unique.”
Shahido says some locals have prejudices whereby they unfairly associate local Orange People with what happened in the long disbanded Antelope community in Oregon.
“Everything is different. We are pretty much mainstream now and we fit in well here. We have bent over backwards to accommodate the concerns of these people,” she says.
Other locals are enthusiastic about the sannyasins. Town planner Chris Lonergan believes they have enriched the Byron community by, for instance, revolutionising home architecture on communes. “They have had a big impact on life here and it has been a positive impact,” he says.