HAF demands naming Oregon hill as ‘Swastika Mountain’


Almost 48 years of controversy centering establishment of ‘Rajneeshpuram’, a base of Rajneesh cult in Wasco County in Oregon in the United States, now new controversy has emerged in Lane County in Oregon centering naming of a hill. In a statement, Hindu American Foundation (HAF) said:

In the proposed renaming of Swastika Mountain, in Lane County, Oregon, the Hindu American Foundation calls the motivation for the renaming as rooted in ignorance about the nature and meaning of the swastika. The sacred symbol — one used by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Zoroastrians for millennia and one still actively used to this day — means auspiciousness or good fortune in Sanskrit. Similar symbols, such as the whirling log, also have positive significance for many Native American cultures.

It is a misnomer to call the Nazi symbol a swastika as they themselves never referred to it as such. Rather, their symbol was referred to as a hakenkreuz (hooked cross). 

Historically, Swastika Mountain was named for a rancher nearby who reportedly used the symbol because of its Sanskrit meaning. It was also named before World War 2, so any association with Naziism is misplaced.  

As Oregon Historical Society executive secretary Kerry Tymchuk told NPR, “What we name things, our features, reflects history, but also reflects values. And as history changes, so do values”. 

HAF supports the recognition of Native American groups in place names and geographic features, wherever appropriate. And if local Kalapuya representatives would ask that the mountain be renamed to better reflect and honor their heritage, that is a fair thing. Renaming it because of ignorance about a sacred symbol for more than a billion people in the world is not. 

The Hindu American Foundation will be submitting comments to the Oregon Historical Society asking that it take into consideration the sacred meaning of the swastika, the history and intention behind the original naming of the mountain, as well as the perspectives and wishes of the Kalapuya.

The Rajneeshpuram controversy

Tensions with the public and threatened punitive action by Indian authorities originally motivated the founders and leaders of the Rajneeshee movement, Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh and Ma Anand Sheela, to leave India and begin a new religious settlement in the United States. Discussions of this new settlement began as early as 1980, but Rajneesh did not agree to relocate until May 1981, when he travelled to the United States on a tourist visa, ostensibly for medical purposes. Rajneeshpuram was planned from the beginning as a home for Rajneesh’s followers in the United States, most of whom were told to sell all of their belongings before moving there. The decision to register as a town was made primarily so that Rajneesh could govern over his followers without attracting attention from authorities.

Rajneeshpuram was on the site of a 64,229-acre (100 sq mi; 260 km2) central Oregon property known as the Big Muddy Ranch, near Antelope, which was purchased by Sheela’s husband, John Shelfer, in 1981 for US$5.75 million, (almost US$20 million in today’s dollars). Within a year of arriving, the commune’s leaders had become embroiled in a series of legal battles with their neighbors, primarily over land use. They had initially stated that they were planning to create a small agricultural community, their land being zoned for agricultural use, but it soon became apparent that they wanted to establish the kind of infrastructure and services normally associated with a town.

Within three years, the neo-sannyasins (Rajneesh’s followers, also termed Rajneeshees in contemporaneous press reports) developed a community, turning the ranch from an empty rural property into a city of up to 7,000 people, complete with typical urban infrastructure such as a fire department, police, restaurants, malls, townhouses, a 4,200-foot (1,300 m) airstrip, a public transport system using buses, a sewage reclamation plant, a reservoir, and a post office with the ZIP code 97741. It is thought that the actual population during this time was potentially much higher than they claimed, and the neo-sannyasins may have gone as far as to hide beds and citizens during investigations. Various legal conflicts, primarily over land use, escalated to bitter hostility between the commune and local residents, and the commune was subject to sustained and coordinated pressures from various coalitions of Oregon residents over the length of its existence.

The town of Antelope, Oregon, became a focal point of the conflict. It was the nearest town to the ranch, and had a population of under 60. Initially, Rajneesh’s followers had purchased only a small number of lots in Antelope. After the activist group 1000 Friends of Oregon became involved, Antelope denied the sannyasins a business permit for their mail-order operation, and more sannyasins moved into the town. In April 1982, Antelope held a vote to disincorporate itself, to prevent itself being taken over. By this time, there were enough Rajneeshee residents to defeat the measure. In May 1982, the residents of the Rancho Rajneesh commune voted to incorporate the separate city of Rajneeshpuram on the ranch. Apart from the control of Antelope and the land-use question, there were other disputes. The commune leadership took an aggressive stance on many issues and initiated litigation against various groups and individuals.

The June 1983 bombing of Hotel Rajneesh, a Rajneeshee-owned hotel in Portland, by the Islamist militant group Jamaat ul-Fuqra further heightened tensions. The display of semi-automatic weapons acquired by the Rajneeshpuram Peace Force created an image of imminent violence. Rumors arose of the National Guard being called in to arrest Rajneesh. At the same time, the commune was embroiled in a range of legal disputes. Oregon Attorney General David B. Frohnmayer maintained that the city was essentially an arm of a religious organization, and that its incorporation thus violated the principle of separation of church and state. 1000 Friends of Oregon claimed that the city violated state land-use laws. In 1983, a lawsuit was filed by the State of Oregon to invalidate the city’s incorporation, and many attempts to expand the city further were legally blocked, prompting followers to attempt to build in nearby Antelope, which was briefly named Rajneesh, when sufficient numbers of Rajneeshees registered to vote there and won a referendum on the subject.

The Rajneeshpuram residents believed that the wider Oregonian community was both bigoted and suffered from religious intolerance. According to Carl Latkin, Rajneesh’s followers had made peaceful overtures to the local community when they first arrived in Oregon. As Rajneeshpuram grew in size, heightened tensions led certain fundamentalist Christian church leaders to denounce Rajneesh, the commune, and his followers. Petitions were circulated aimed at ridding the state of the perceived menace. Letters to state newspapers reviled the Rajneeshees, one of them likening Rajneeshpuram to another Sodom and Gomorrah, another referring to them as a “cancer in our midst”. In time, circulars mixing “hunting humor” with dehumanizing characterizations of Rajneeshees began to appear at gun clubs, turkey shoots and other gatherings; one of these, circulated widely over the Northwest, declared “an open season on the central eastern Rajneesh, known locally as the Red Rats or Red Vermin”.

As Rajneesh himself did not speak in public during this period, and until October 1984 gave few interviews, his secretary and chief spokesperson Anand Sheela (Sheela Silverman) became, for practical purposes, the leader of the commune. She did little to defuse the conflict, employing a crude, caustic and defensive speaking style that exacerbated hostilities and attracted media attention. On September 14, 1985, Sheela and 15 to 20 other top officials abruptly left Rajneeshpuram. The following week, Rajneesh convened press conferences and publicly accused Sheela and her team of having committed crimes within and outside the commune. The subsequent criminal investigation, the largest in Oregon history, confirmed that a secretive group had, unbeknownst to both government officials and nearly all Rajneeshpuram residents, engaged in a variety of criminal activities, including the attempted murder of Rajneesh’s physician, wiretapping and bugging within the commune and within Rajneesh’s home, poisonings of two public officials, and arson.


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