The daughter of the late Rep. Leo J. Ryan (D-Calif.), who was killed in Jonestown, Guyana, two years ago by followers of cult leader Jim Jones, has become a devoted follower of a cult leader in India and has accepted him as "Bhagwan," or God.
In some respects, the two cults bear striking similarities.
"I've heard other people say if Bhagwan asked them to kill themselves, they would do it," Shannon Jo Ryan told a reporter. "If Bhagwan asked them to kill someone else, they would do it. I don't know if my trust in him is that total. I would like it to be, and I don't believe he would ever do that."
Ryan, 28, said she considers the Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, "a present-day incarnation of Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed." But she said she sees no irony in her allegiance to him after what happened to her father, nor does she believe there are any parallels with Jones and his Peoples Temple.
"What Jones created was a prison and what Bhagwan has created is a way out of the prison of ordinary life," she said. "Just total freedom is what he is all about. Jones was trying to control people, while Bhagwan is trying to give people control of themselves."
The soft-spoken graduate of the University of California, Davis, returned from Rajneesh's retreat in Poona, India, during the Christmas holidays and candidly discussed her relationship with him during an interview in the living room of her mother's home here. She wore a colorful beaded necklace with a picture of Rajneesh handing from it.
And she said that although it "frightens" her mother, Margaret, when she talks of returning to Poona, she plans to go back later this year.
"I was against having a guru, of having somebody be my leader and tell me what to do," she said of her introduction to the Rajneesh movement through a friend in Berkeley, Calif. "I didn't feel like putting myself into a vulnerable position to somebody like that. I guess a lot of it had to do with what happened to my father in Jonestown. I didn't want to take any chances."
But once in Poona, she said, she found she was not being pressured to "surrender to anybody" and was told that she was "free to leave anytime." She said she began to experience a kind of spiritual growth that she felt had been missing from her life and for that reason decided to take "sannyas" -- in effect, becoming a follower of Rajneesh.
Ryan's father and four other persons were gunned down in a Peoples Temple ambush on Nov. 18, 1978, after going to Jamestown to investigate reports that Jones' followers were being held there against their will. One day later, Jones led his followers in a mass death ritual in which 911 persons, including Jones, died.
After the Jonestown massacre, U.S. consular officials in India were ordered to visit the Rajneesh retreat and retreats of a number of other gurus with significant Western followings to measure the potential for a similar disaster.
A consular official in Bombay concluded: "I don't think we have any Jim Jones here, but if one of these guys (gurus) suddenly turned sour, his followers would do just about anything he asked. That's the unsettling thing."
Rajneesh, 49, is by far the most controversial of India's modern gurus, mixing a radical blend of Eastern spiritualism with contemporary group encounters and therapy that advocates full emotional expression, including uninhibited sex. For that reason, he has earned a reputation as the "free sex guru" and has outraged the highly puritanical mainstream of Indian society.
His appeal is predominantly to Westerners, and according to Tyler Marshall, the Los Angeles Times' New Delhi correspondent, there are 5,000 to 6,000 people at his retreat in Poona, 100 miles east of Bombay, most of whom are in their 20s and from Western America, Germany and Britain.
Marshall said the common thread running through most of the followers he met was a deep disillusionment with their previous lives.
Shannon Jo Ryan was in a serious auto accident in 1977 and said that during a long convalescence, she had time "to look at my life and see how unsatisfied I was with it."
Afterward, she became interested in spiritual healing and studied at the Whole Life Center in Palo Alto, Calif. Later, she enrolled at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, Calif., to study psychology. Her degree from UC Davis was in art.
Once in Poona, she said, it became clear to her that she wanted to become a full-fledged follower of Rajneesh. But she said she was fearful at first of "what people were going to say about it when I got back home, that there would be comparisons [with the Peoples Temple]." Thoughts of her father were never far from her mind, she said.
"He would do things that might be considered dangerous -- not that this is dangerous -- but dangerous in the sense that it's controversial. I felt that by doing it in spite of the controversy would be showing the kind of courage that he showed in the things that he did. It would be a tribute to my father to be who I am in spite of controversy, rather than to go along with what makes more sense in the eyes of most people . . .
"The most immediate thing I got out of the experience there was a real sense of freedom to not try to fit something. I'd been trying to conform to what society wanted me to be and it just didn't fit. . . . I can be more expressive of myself now, can express my emotions more easily. I can express relationships with other people. a real sense of excitement came out of it."
She said her plans to return to Poona depend on how soon she can save the money for the trip, despite the misgivings of her mother, who was divorced from Leo Ryan after 22 years of marriage. "She didn't understand and was a little bit apprehensive but trusted me enough to know I wouldn't do anything stupid," Ryan said of her mother's reaction to her first trip to Poona.
But Ryan said it is "so clear" that the Rajneesh movement is " not at all what he [her father] was fighting against in Jonestown. I just don't believe that what happened there would ever happen with Bhagwan. It's not a cult. It depends on your definition of cult, but to me a cult is something that controls your mind and kind of runs your life . . .
"I think there are some cults that are really destructive of people. What I saw in Poona was not destructive for anybody."