In the early 1980s, an Indian guru homesteaded a tract of ranchland in rural Oregon, building a utopia equipped to withstand both HIV and American hypocrisy. Armed with free love and even freer enterprise (and guns), the Rajneeshees and their ostensible leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (nowadays more popularly known as Osho), delivered equal measures of chaos and titillation to the American public, and in particular to their Oregonian neighbors. The rise of the Rajneeshpuram community and its eventual dissolution (because what utopia lasts?) punctuate Netflix’s documentary series Wild Wild Country, a dizzying romp through attempted political assassinations, election rigging, culture wars, orgies, drugs, bombs, bioterrorism, and, as I explore in this essay, marriage fraud.
Marriage is a centerpiece of the fourth episode of the series, in which Charles Turner, then the US Attorney for the District of Oregon, accused American Rajneeshees of having entered into sham marriages with foreign nationals for the purposes of obtaining immigration benefits for them. Twenty years earlier, the passage of the Hart-Celler Act had transformed marriage into one of the central mechanisms of American immigration policy. As marriage became tied to both domestic entry and citizenship, US officials began to police the boundaries of this institution more stringently.
Watching Wild Wild Country, you’re often left with the feeling that you’re witnessing an aberration, an errant whirlpool in the flow of American history. Or maybe, a psychological thriller in which you’re meant to identify with the conman, and even admire the con. What I want to suggest instead is that the confrontation between the US government and the Rajneeshees provides us with a uniquely American meditation on the question of what it means to be truly married, what it means for a marriage to be a sham, and how we might know the difference.
This is an idea that I’ve developed while working through the largest archive of materials related to Rajneeshpuram, housed in the library at the University of Oregon, where I happen to teach anthropology. The many materials in the archive, in particular those collected or authored by journalists, sociologists, and psychologists, gave me insight not only into what happened in Rajneeshpuram, but also into how Rajneeshpuram has been studied. These are the kinds of questions they asked: Why did normal people find Rajneesh’s personal brand of charisma so appealing, so much so that they parted with their friends and family, their possessions, their very identities? How did his antinomian gospel of wealth and pleasure sink its hooks into the American psyche? Among these scholars and journalists, a clear consensus formed: to study Rajneeshpuram required that you study it as a cult.
Now, as a scholar of South Asia, I must point out that back in India, Rajneesh and his disciples were taken to be merely one charismatic religious group among many; it was only by entering into the terrain of American religiosity, it seems, that they had become a cult. Within this logic, Rajneeshpuram could only be understood through concepts and insights developed in relation to the study of other cults. Jonestown and the Unification Church (which I will discuss below) became ciphers for decoding Rajneeshpuram, which in turn became a cipher for Aum Shinrikyo, the group involved in attacking the Tokyo Subway with sarin gas in 1995.
I came to think of this as something like a comparative cultology. As I read through archival records related to Rajneeshee immigration cases in particular, I began to develop an intuition about this style of thinking: comparative cultology operates like a lie detector, and like any good lie detector (and even bad ones), it separates what it takes to be truth from what it takes to be deception. The thing to remember, though, is that lie detection depends on baselines, the truthful response against which the lie reveals itself. In making use of comparative cultology, US state and federal officials established a rather unusual baseline against which Rajneeshee deception could be laid bare: the American marriage.
In immigration offices as far apart as Portland and Bombay, interviewers frequently asked Rajneeshee couples whether they believed in marriage. In Portland, a Rajneeshee recalled entering a room stacked with Rajneesh’s books, where an immigration officer quizzed her about her beliefs and whether they corresponded to Rajneesh’s philosophy. Rajneesh, he insisted, was against marriage; so how could you really be married?1
As Rajneeshees themselves frequently pointed out during these interviews, Rajneesh’s take on marriage was less a clearly articulated stance and more an amalgamation of often contradictory, koan-like utterances. On one hand, he seemed to suggest that marriage was the engine of both social and political life, one that “keeps thousands of things going on: the religion, the state, the nations, the wars, the literature, the movies, the science; everything, in fact, depends on the institution of marriage.”3
On the other hand, Rajneesh also elaborated an idea of marriage as a stepping stone, an exercise in being with another and letting them go, moving beyond the nuclear family and embracing the larger commune. In his own words: “If you have fallen in love with a family, you have to go beyond that love. Otherwise that very love, that very attachment, will not allow you to enter into the greater whole.”4 Marriage, in this sense, was a means to a more all-encompassing sociality. As the previously mentioned Portland-based immigration official admitted, Rajneesh had said anything and everything that could be said about marriage, with little regard for consistency. “It’s all gobbly gook,” the official lamented.5
But if we read Rajneesh’s words in light of his almost dogmatic refusal of dogma, we might conclude that he was for marriage, but also, against it. Either way, many Rajneeshees publically refused these allegations of marriage fraud. In building their defense, Rajneeshee lawyers began to document what they identified instead as a pattern of religious discrimination on the part of immigration officials. According to transcripts and testimonials collected by these lawyers, Rajneeshee couples were consistently interrogated by immigration officials about their beliefs and observances, their sexual behavior and extra-conjugal liaisons, largely, it seems, to illuminate the hypocrisy if not outright inauthenticity of their marriages. If the Rajneeshees had initially threatened a conservative sexual order through their free love, they were now threatening the state itself by the opposite means, through their assumption of a politics organized around the (potentially sexless, and therefore fraudulent) conjugal pair.
The relationship between sex and conjugality can be gleaned through the materials assembled by the Rajneeshees for their defense. Examining them, we can also begin to see more clearly how comparative cultology enters the picture, and not only for scholars and journalists, but also for the US government, and for Rajneeshees themselves. Among the defense materials was a memo written in 1983 by Robert Ackerman, a US immigration officer stationed in Seoul, Korea. In his memo, Ackerman noted that a few months earlier, the Reverend Moon, the charismatic leader of a neo-Christian group known as the Unification Church (popularly, and pejoratively, referred to as “Moonies”), had officiated over a mass marriage ceremony, for which the group was infamous. Ackerman explained that marriage partners were chosen by church officials, and he added that married couples further required church permission to consummate their unions and cohabitate. As additional evidence of the suspiciousness of these marriages, Ackerman alluded to a particularly vexing couple: “She speaks no English and he no Korean.”6
In his memo, addressed to the Washington, DC, headquarters of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Ackerman pointed to a 1975 decision of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in the case of Bark v. INS, in which, he wrote, “the court defines a marriage as ‘sham’ if the ‘the bride and groom did not intend to establish a life together at the time they were married.’”7 Ackerman staked his argument on the meaning of intent. In the case of marriages performed within the Unification Church, he claimed that:
participants have relinquished their “intent” to the dictates of the church. The fact that they must have “permission” to consummate the marriage and “permission” to reside permanently together relegates the parties to mere “actors” in a marriage scenario … It is inconceivable that Congress intented [sic] to convey immigration benefits upon parties who merely “performed” a marriage ceremony but who have relinquished the “freedom” of intent to reside together as man and wife, whenever, wherever, and however they may choose … When the parties lack the individual prerogative either to consummate the marriage or to reside permanently together, the marriage becomes merely a “paper transaction” … The “marriage” is therefore a “sham” entered into for the purpose of conferring immigration benefits. To relinquish these basic human elements of a marital union is to forfeit any claims of eligibility for benefits …8
For Ackerman, a marriage conducted through the Unification Church was quite literally a scenario that has been performed by actors. This was a theory of sham marriage as stagecraft, bereft of the intent that underlies real marriage. By contrast, a real marriage required a certain measure of freedom in relation to questions of sex, cohabitation, and procreation. According to Ackerman, such freedom could only be enacted through resistance to the Church’s rules.
He would later write to the DC office about another case, in which he learned that the couple had consummated their marriage and cohabited prior to Church approval. This couple begged him not to inform the Church of their behavior. In his eyes, this act of defiance suggested that their marriage was valid. But the couple also informed Ackerman that they were waiting to have children, as mandated by the Church. Waiving their right to reproduce at will “leaves their marriage in a questionable status,” Ackerman concluded.9 His idea of a real marriage was one that was spontaneous, romantic, and, in a sense, transgressive—in other words, one that was properly American. This was his baseline for lie detection.
The fact that Ackerman’s memo emerged during the discovery proceedings for the Rajneeshee marriage fraud case suggests that US immigration officials had been looking to the Unification Church mass weddings as precedent in their investigation of Rajneeshees. This, of course, would be a clear example of comparative cultology in action. But the memo also offered Rajneeshees a piece of evidence in their argument about religious discrimination. In this sense, comparative cultology was not simply a means to understand so-called cults, but a means by which the Rajneeshees could then understand the ways in which they were being understood and treated by the US government. Inadvertently, comparative cultology had produced a kind of feedback loop, a way for those under study to study how they were being studied.
We might say that a sham marriage was one that threatened to reveal the sham of marriage itself, or at least, of its powerful investment in the pretense of freedom.
In an effort to clarify its stance, the INS circulated Ackerman’s memo to its regional offices along with a plea for cultural relativism, pitched in terms of “the wide variances in customs of marriage throughout the world.”10 The DC office further noted that Unification Church marriages were “apparently consummated, though generally after a wait of 40 days instead of immediately as in our culture. While the strong controls exerted over marriage by the Church are strange to American society,” they opined, “they are not that unusual through the world.”11 Here, a particular imagination of American marriage was pitted against the variety of marriages elsewhere. For a moment, the logic of comparative cultology (in which all cults act similarly) had been displaced by an almost anthropological logic of cultural difference, albeit one that had been distilled into a binary contrast between freedom and control.
If comparative cultology could slide into cultural difference, the opposite could also happen. A particularly telling episode in the investigation of the Rajneeshees involved an unnamed American woman and her Indian husband interviewing at the US consulate in Bombay for a visa.12 According to the woman’s testimony, the first official they met with spoke of Rajneeshees ordered into mass marriages with foreign nationals, including Indians, in order to bring them into the US. Here too, as with the Unification Church, the concern was articulated in terms of marriages conducted collectively and lacking intent. The question of freedom emerged more clearly in a subsequent interview a few weeks later, in which the couple was asked about Gerald Emmett, an American Rajneeshee who had written an affidavit in support of the couple:
“So he’s the one who arranged your marriage?”
The woman reported that she was flustered by this question, and that before she could respond, the interviewer continued:
“Oh, I didn’t mean that. We have to deal so much here with the question of arranged marriage, it just slipped out.”13
At the bottom of the printed testimonial, a note written by someone who was most likely a Rajneeshee lawyer declares: “Apparent attempted trick question.”14
But what precisely was the trick? A marriage, as the participants in the scene described above knew well, could be arranged in at least two ways. In India, an arranged marriage referred to an agreement worked out between families, usually along lines of religion and caste and involving the exchange of money and goods. The marrying pair often had little say in the matter. But in the context of immigration fraud, an arranged marriage could mean one that was fixed, faked, or set up, a marriage perpetuated to fool the US government and obtain immigration benefits. In other words, stagecraft.
In either type of arrangement, freedom is often beside the point. The logics of comparative cultology and cultural difference bleed into one another. More broadly, my sense is that the establishment of marriage as a cornerstone of US immigration policy in the 1960s gave rise to a feeling that the veracity of marriage—and more broadly, the meaning of marriage—had begun to come under threat from the sheer variety of marital arrangements.
In other words, if marriage is always some kind of arrangement, then the possibility of stagecraft and performance could always sneak back in. Of particular concern were those forms of marriage that laid bare relations of authority, exchange, and benefit (be it an Indian arranged marriage or a Rajneeshee marriage), which were taken to be antithetical to an American ideal of romantic, freely chosen marriage. In this sense, we might say that a sham marriage was one that threatened to reveal the sham of marriage itself, or at least, of its powerful investment in the pretense of freedom. If Wild Wild Country is a story about fraud and deception, it is one that demonstrates our peculiarly American commitment to the con.
My thanks to my undergraduate research team at the University of Oregon, and in particular to Janelle Drew and Lisa Kwan, as well as to the always helpful librarians and staff in the Knight Library’s Special Collections and University Archives. Finally, my gratitude to Mara Green, Ben Platt, and Stephen Twilley for their comments on earlier drafts, and to Sarah Kessler for her patience and encouragement.
- Affidavit by Swami Devageet (“Exhibit B”), December 31, 1983. Rajneesh Legal Services Corporations Records, Undated, Series I, Collection 260, Box 19, Folder 5, F1303 INS: Alleged Marriage Discrimination Witness Statements, vol. 1, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon (hereafter: “SCUA-UOL”). ↩
- Rajneesh Neo-Tarot Deck, 1983, Rajneesh Artifacts and Ephemera Collection, Series I: Artifacts, Collection 275, Box 12, SCUA-UOL. ↩
- Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Tao, the Golden Gate: Discourses on Ko Hsuan’s “The Classic of Purity,” vol. 2 (Rajneesh Foundation International, 1985), p. 227. ↩
- Rajneesh Neo-Tarot Deck Booklet, p. 43, 1983, Rajneesh Artifacts and Ephemera Collection, Series I: Artifacts, Collection 275, Box 12, SCUA-UOL. ↩
- Affidavit by Swami Devageet (“Exhibit B”), December 31, 1983. Rajneesh Legal Services Corporations Records, Undated, Series I, Collection 260, Box 19, Folder 5, F1303 INS: Alleged Marriage Discrimination Witness Statements, vol. 1, SCUA-UOL. ↩
- Memorandum concerning Unification Church “Marriages” from Robert L. Ackerman, p. 2, January 25, 1983, Rajneesh Legal Services Corporations Records, Series I, Collection 260, Box 19, Folder 4, F1302 INS: Agency Memos regarding Marriages, SCUA-UOL. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Memorandum concerning Unification Church “Marriages” from Robert L. Ackerman, Addendum, January 25, 1983, Rajneesh Legal Services Corporations Records, Series I, Collection 260, Box 19, Folder 4, F1302 INS: Agency Memos regarding Marriages, SCUA-UOL. ↩
- Memorandum concerning Memorandum of Robert L. Ackerman, April 1, 1983, Rajneesh Legal Services Corporations Records, Series I, Collection 260, Box 19, Folder 4, F1302 INS: Agency Memos regarding Marriages, SCUA-UOL. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- INS Offices: Bombay, Rajneesh Legal Services Corporations Records, Undated, Series I, Collection 260, Box 19, Folder 5, F1303 INS: Alleged Marriage Discrimination Witness Statements, vol. 1, SCUA-UOL. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩