When Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh arrived in the United States in June of 1981, he stepped off of a Pan Am 747 and declared, “I am the Messiah America has been waiting for.”
If you’ve binge-watched the new Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country, you know the Indian guru went on to establish the communal town of Rajneeshpuram and become a target of federal law enforcement. But Bhagwan didn’t make his famous proclamation in Oregon; he made it right here in New York City, at JFK airport. That summer, before moving on to their 64,000-acre utopia out west, Bhagwan and his followers would make their home in a 10-bedroom, Rhineland-style “castle” on the border of Montclair and Verona, New Jersey. It’s there that the cult first started rankling neighbors, as evidenced by a New York Times headline: CULT IN CASTLE TROUBLING MONTCLAIR.
That article begins: “A guru from India wheels into town in a Rolls-Royce, buys the biggest house in the community – a castle, actually – and places an advertisement in Time magazine preaching spirituality through sex.” One local resident voiced dismay about the quiet bedroom community of Montclair becoming “an international headquarters for a free-sex cult.”
The 9,000-square-foot “castle” at 22 Crestmont Road was built from 1902 to 1905 for Frederic Ellsworth Kip, a textile magnate, and his wife Charlotte Bishop Williams Kip, who oversaw the design of its 30 rooms, six fireplaces, and octagonal rose garden. Now part of a public park and seasonally open for tours, the creepy Medieval Revival mansion sits atop a hill that offers a panoramic vista of the New York City skyline to the east and picturesque sunset views to the west.
Ma Anand Sheela— Bhagwan’s impish, iron-fisted second in command, whose crimes of attempted murder and assault are well documented in Wild Wild Country— discovered the castle while she and her first husband, Marc Harris Silverman, lived in Montclair. She had moved to the leafy suburb from India to attend Montclair State College. In her memoir, Don’t Kill Him!, she recounts taking romantic walks on the secluded property around Kip’s Castle and wishing it could some day be hers.
In the mid-’70s, Sheela had opened the Rajneeshees’ first American base of operations, the Chidvilas Rajneesh Meditation Center, in a storefront at 154 Valley Road. Shortly after her first husband died, her new lover, New Jersey businessman and Bhagwan devotee John Shelfer, met the owner of Kip’s Castle while out on a jog. According to Sheela, the castle’s keeper “had run into financial troubles and wanted to sell.” Bhagwan gave his blessing and the 15-acre property was purchased for $370,000.
Back in Pune, Bhagwan’s ashram had become overrun with thousands of followers flocking from all over the world to hear his darshans, in which he called for sex to be destigmatized so that its energy could be channeled into love and meditation. (Though Bhagwan was often described as a “sex guru,” his book From Sex to Superconsciousness actually presents celibacy as the ultimate stage of enlightenment.) Meanwhile, the Indian government was demanding some $4 million in income taxes and blocking Bhagwan from buying a property he had hoped to use as a commune. Religious conservatives were outraged by the guru’s attacks on Hinduism, and there were death threats, a poisoning attempt, a firebombing, even a knife hurled at Bhagwan during one of his talks.
It’s been debated—in Hugh Milne’s Bhagwan: The God That Failed and James S. Gordon’s The Golden Guru— whether some or even all of these incidents were staged in order to give Bhagwan cover to flee to America on the basis of religious persecution. The official line was that the sickly guru needed to travel there for life-saving surgery. (Bhagwan suffered from asthma, diabetes, a bad back, and allergies that required every ashram visitor to be screened for cologne, perfume, and even body odor.) To back up this story, there was an ambulance waiting for him when he arrived at JFK. But Bhagwan paid it no mind and instead rode to the castle in a limousine. According to Milne, a devotee who became disenchanted with the cult during the guru’s two-month stay in New Jersey, the surgery never happened.
At the castle, Bhagwan took up residence in a couple of attic rooms while a few dozen sannyasins, as his devotees are called, worked exhausting 19-hour shifts in order to “improve” the dilapidated mansion. According to Milne, its beautiful mahogany paneling and just about everything else was painted white, to the horror of the Historic Houses Association. Another former follower, Kate Strelley, wrote in her memoir, The Ultimate Game, that one of the cult’s higher-ups, Deeksha, sheetrocked the walls and covered the floors with linoleum. The castle’s precious Tiffany stained glass windows didn’t fair any better:
The story, as I heard it later, was that a sannyasin was standing on the landing of the main staircase one day saying, “What a beautiful stained glass.” And Deeksha ran down to the tool shed, picked up a mallet, walked up, and smashed the window to pieces in front of the person. Her lesson was, “Drop this whole attachment [to the house].”
While the sannyasins toiled around the clock, their guru racked up speeding tickets while taking joy rides in a Rolls Royce Corniche convertible that had been shipped from India. In Montclair, the armored car was extended into a limousine, given bulletproof tires, and outfitted with inlaid jewels, a television, VCR, and telephone. “Also there were ejector buttons to activate tear gas canisters and several compartments to accommodate weapons,” a garage manager told the Business Journal of New Jersey. It was the first of some 85 Rolls Royces Bhagwan would own.
The sannyasins had been sworn to secrecy about their master’s presence, lest it attract media attention. Soon enough, one of them caught a photographer for a German magazine on the grounds. “The Stern photographer abandoned his car,” Milne wrote, “and ran into the adjoining building, a monastery, where he requested religious sanctuary. Police cars and lawyers turned up, and finally he was forced to hand his film to Sheela.” (The Salvatorian Fathers Monastery still occupies an adjacent castle-like building.)
By September of 1981, when the Times article ran, neighbors had caught wind of the cult’s presence (red and orange dyes were rumored to be turning up in the washing machines of local laundromats) and were fighting its application for tax-exempt status. In a prelude to the INS investigation that would eventually drive Bhagwan out of the country, one local “intended to ask authorities to check the resident status of any aliens in the group,” the Times reported.
In an attempt to reassure neighbors, one of the sannyasins acknowledged that “unrestrained sexual encounter sessions,” as the Times euphemistically put it, took place at the Pune ashram, but insisted the Montclair castle was merely a distribution center for the group’s publications and tapes.
Whether or not they were restrained, sexual encounters at the castle were unorthodox. Since there were five men to every woman, Sheela dictated that “any female sannyasins who did not have a regular boyfriend would have to make herself available to the unattached men,” Milne wrote. “She would now have to agree to sleep with any man who asked her—this was the new surrender.” The men, in turn, were told that they “could approach any women they wanted, and be put on a waiting list.” The “share-a-woman program,” as Milne called it, came to an end after a herpes outbreak. (Years later, during the AIDS scare, Bhagwan would prohibit oral and anal sex, and even kissing.)
Neighbors also complained about the Rajneeshees’ evening music group. “Though the music was amateurish, and we were doing no more than singing songs and playing a few instruments,” Milne wrote, “they concluded that we were doing indescribable things, and termed our efforts ‘goat sacrifice music.’”
By this time, Sheela was already trying to sell the property. It wasn’t big enough to hold the many followers who had started flocking to New Jersey when they caught wind of the Baghwan’s presence, and he had never really intended to stay in the area. (He once told his followers that “American psychiatrists have deduced that only 18 per cent of the population of New York City can be said to be mentally normal.”) Sheela had found a ranch in Oregon that would be able to house followers by the thousands. By January of 1982, only seven members remained in the castle. Montclair’s township manager told the Times that residents were “relieved the group is leaving the town.”
Needless to say, Kip’s Castle– also known as Monks Castle– has earned its requisite entry in Weird NJ, but its Rajneeshee pedigree isn’t exactly touted by Essex County. The Kip’s Castle Park website merely states that after the death of Charlotte Bishop Williams Kip in 1926, “the estate was sold and went through several owners. The building and grounds fell into a state of dilapidation until, finally, the law firm of Schwartz, Tobia & Stanziale purchased the property in 1985.”
Essex County bought the property for $5.6 million in 2007. Ironically, given that Bhagwan once proclaimed, “I would like marriage to disappear completely from the world,” the castle’s first floor can now be rented for weddings.