For the newest votary of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, this month has been both a time to pray and a time to hype. Ma Amrita Pritam, who became a disciple just last October, was flown from her home in California to a sect center in New Jersey purposely to be near the TV networks. When she wasn’t meditating or working in the center’s boutique, she spent her time at such media shrines as the Today and Tomorrow shows and CBS radio. She dressed in distinctive orange-and-red clothing to signify the new dawn of her life, and she wore her mala, or necklace, with Bhagwan’s picture attached. In Montclair, N.J. and Poona, India—site of Bhagwan’s headquarters ashram—followers turned out press releases that made the most of Pritam’s proselytization. To Americans, who have endured the grandstanding of preachers from here to Billy Sunday, Bhagwan’s love of publicity is no surprise—but Amrita Pritam is. She was born Shannon Jo Ryan, and she is the daughter of Congressman Leo Ryan, who was killed in the Jonestown massacre in Guyana two years ago. Casual observers made the obvious conclusion: Congressman Ryan’s daughter had herself become a member of a cult.
Pritam says it’s not so. “If I thought there was any chance of this becoming another Jonestown, I’d run away,” she insists, and in fact, such comparisons seem invidious. Bhagwan, 49, has made a name for himself by advocating a degree of freedom undreamed of in Jim Jones’ cult of personality. The guru espouses premarital sex, open marriage and free will. Like Jones, however, Bhagwan preaches the abolition of the family—”the biggest threat to human progress,” in his formulation. Asked if there is a limit to her devotion, Pritam replies: “It is impossible that Bhagwan would ever ask people to kill anyone. But if he asked me to do it, I don’t know. I love and trust him very much. To me he is God. He sees more clearly than I do. But if I want to say no to Bhagwan, I’ll say no.”
Bhagwan is not a major religious figure in India, though he claims 200,000 followers in 400 centers worldwide, more than 100 of them in the U.S. His teachings are idiosyncratic, to say the least. For example: He has banned perfume and even scented soap from his ashram—reportedly because of an allergy he suffers. Bhagwan’s approach to other doctrines—disseminated through his own press office—is downright pugnacious. He has lambasted the Pope and Mother Teresa and—with singular hubris—called Christianity “a cult.”
Shannon Jo Ryan’s path to this freewheeling master was circuitous. Raised a Catholic (her parents were divorced when she was 20), she quit going to church at 14 because “it seemed like a waste of time.” She graduated from the University of California at Davis as an art major, then worked as a cashier in a Lake Tahoe casino and drifted around for a bit. She was making bread-dough Christmas tree ornaments in Burlingame, Calif. and “getting into holistic health and looking for something that had meaning” when her father went to Jonestown. After that, she says, “It was very scary for me to trust anyone. I was not open to a guru in any form.”
Then last June, while studying “transpersonal counseling” in California, she met a school chum just back from Poona. “She was very centered and grounded in herself, very loving,” says Pritam. “I wanted to go to Poona and see if I could have the same experience.” Shannon bought her ticket with part of the proceeds from her father’s life insurance. “A sannyasin [follower] told me Bhagwan was different from Jones. He wasn’t into controlling anyone,” she remembers. “And he gave me this feeling I was all right. I was loved. It turned me on.” After deciding that the guru was thoroughly without guile—”He has no ego,” she says—Pritam became a sannyasin herself. Her assigned new name means “lover of the eternal.”
Her immediate future is still fuzzy. She talks about staying at the Montclair center or doing “bodywork therapy” or “some more art activity or crafts. Bhagwan teaches us not to project too much ahead,” she says. For now, Pritam divides her time between devotions at the ashram, public appearances and playing the video Space Invaders game at a local shopping mall. “I scored 1,240 my first time,” she boasts. “Not bad for a beginner.” She has one boyfriend whom she met in New Jersey who is a follower of Bhagwan, and another “at home who is not a sannyasin.” Like Bhagwan, she professes unconcern about marriage or sex. “If you want, you can have sex just for the fun of it,” she says, “just like people do outside the ashram.”
Pritam’s mother approves of all this—with reservations. “She’s much more communicative now,” says Peg Ryan. “Some of what she says makes sense, some is far out. But she’s 29, not a teenager anymore—and it concerns me that she has no clear idea of what kind of career she wants.”
Whatever her future, Pritam has reconciled in her own mind the horror of the past and the eccentricity of the present. “At the end of the graveside ceremony for my father, a beautiful rainbow appeared in the sky,” she now recalls. “It seemed like his way of saying goodbye. That has a lot to do with the colored beads I have in my mala. The rainbow reminds me of my father.”