DURING THE LAST 13 years I have explored the teachings and practices of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a charismatic Indian religious teacher who initiated tens of thousands of highly-educated Western disciples and many more of his own countrymen. Known in America as the "Rolls Royce Guru," Rajneesh turned a 64,000-acre piece of Oregon desert into a communal oasis and took over the nearby small town of Antelope before he was expelled for immigration fraud from the United States.

Initially, I greatly admired Rajneesh's cathartic meditation techniques and his writings. Later, I was deeply troubled and disillusioned by the authoritarian turn his movement was taking. Today, I have mixed feelings about this man who is a con man as well as a great teacher and synthesizer.

I was a student and investigator, but not a follower. My mixed feelings about Rajneesh, however, mirror those of many who once were his sannyasins or disciples. One such sannyasin was Anna Forbes, an intelligent, energetic and lovely 32-year-old financial analyst who had been Rajneesh's disciple for years when I first spoke with her three years ago.

She had been coordinator of his ashram security in India, an editor of his books and an administrator on his 64,000 acre Oregon commune, but more recently Forbes had testified to federal and state authorities against Rajneesh and his assistant, Ma Anand Sheela. Forbes had told me of her disillusionment with Rajneesh's love of power and wealth, about the sterilization procedures to which, at his urging, she and hundreds of others had submitted.

She had spoken to the authorities about illegal marriages and currency fraud, of funds pried from disciples and of coercion of neighboring Oregonians. She says she talked to authorities about misconduct at the commune because she felt furious at the man in whom she had invested years of her life and her hope for living in a loving meditative multinational community. She had believed that Bhagwan -- the self styled "blessed one" -- was a teacher of the caliber of Jesus and Buddha, and now she felt betrayed.

When I spoke to her more recently, her view of him was more complicated. "He was a man," she said, "who had a satori {a realization} and a number of mystical experiences." She felt he had enabled his disciples to learn about themselves. Some, she said, were healed of physical illnesses and many had "psychic experiences." But, she continued, more sad now than angry, he had failed the spiritual test that Jesus and other great religious leaders had passed: "He went for power." The Master became the "master scammer."

In the mid-1970s when I first heard of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, I was a research psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health. I was then beginning a study of "cults" or as I, hoping to maintain objectivity, preferred to call them, new religions. I was spending time with the leaders and followers of several dozen out of the several thousand such groups -- learning their rituals, dogma and meditations, sharing their food and lodging and asking questions about their experiences and their motivations.

I was discovering significant commonalities among groups that appeared very different. Most of those who joined these new religions were looking for the kind of transcendent experience that they had not found in the faiths they had grown up with; for the reassuring embrace of a loving family and coherent community; for the authoritative guidance of a sure and wise teacher, and for a purpose that would give meaning and shape to their lives.

On the other hand, there were significant differences among the groups. Most, like the Hare Krishnas and the Unification Church, emphasized a return to tradition and authority and appealed predominantly to people in their late teens and early 20s who were in the process of separating from their own families. Other groups, including the Tibetan Buddhists, the Sufis and Rajneesh's, generally were attractive to older, more sophisticated persons and promised them increased peace and self-reliance through meditation. Of all the leaders, Rajneesh was the most interesting to me.

Unlike most of the Eastern gurus who appeared in the 1970s and '80s, Rajneesh was a thoroughly modern man -- as much at home with Marx and Engels and humanistic psychology as with the mystical traditions of the East. Indeed, he used Marx and Maslow, Plato and Heidegger, Freud and Beckett and Lenny Bruce, Playboy jokes as well as Zen and Sufi teaching stories, to make telling critiques of political and religious, psychological and sexual orthodoxies.

In the daily lectures he gave in Bombay and later in Poona, where in 1974 he established an ashram, he presented Buddha and Jesus, the Baal Shem Tov of Hasidic legend and the Hindu Krishna as thoroughly modern spiritual psychologists. All these teachers he said had been rebels against religious and social conformity. All had, in Rajneesh's reading, the same basic message: "Go inside. The kingdom of heaven is within. Celebrate the divinity of your own ordinary lives."

Though I appreciated the man, his meditation techniques and his teachings, I never became Rajneesh's disciple. When I visited his ashram in Poona I could feel his love of power and found myself deeply troubled by the authoritarianism that lay just beneath the peaceful surface of his community.

Other people, as bright and well-educated, as idealistic and as eager to know themselves as I, did join. His concept of the new man as meditative as Buddha and as joyous as Zorba the Greek -- "Zorba the Buddha" Rajneesh called him -- seemed ideal to them. His ashram in Poona, with its mixture of psychotherapy and meditation, mystical authority, anarchic free love and hard work, seemed the next step beyond the communalism of the 1960s -- the new utopia. For them, becoming Rajneesh's sannyasins, accepting his guidance in all things, living in his presence, seemed the surest way to find and be themselves.

Anna Forbes, who learned of Rajneesh shortly after I did, was typical of the intelligent, adventurous people who did join. In the mid-1970s, Forbes was a peace activist, a historian and a feminist. She had taught women's history and had been vice president of her university's NOW chapter. She had been married and divorced and was in Mexico teaching English when she first heard of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Forbes says she felt a need to take a voyage into herself that would definitively alter the fearful and selfish, limited and anxiety-producing ways in which she sometimes found herself relating to her friends and family, her political goals and sexual experiences. And, she says, like tens of thousands of others who would journey to India, she sensed almost from her first reading of Rajneesh's books that he might be just the guide for whom she was searching.

When Forbes arrived in Poona she felt like so many other pilgrims that she had "come home". She quickly put on the orange clothes and wore the locket with Rajneesh's picture and took the new Sanskrit, spiritual name he gave her -- Ma Anand Nandan.

Nandan says she felt a love for Rajneesh that was richer and more varied than any she had experienced before. Rajneesh's presence -- now hypnotic, now challenging -- seemed like a catalyst to the unfolding of her personality, a goad to her awareness and a source of strength and reassurance. At the ashram she found thousands of doctors, lawyers, academics, artists and businesspeople were all willing to abandon their homes and careers -- many to work at menial jobs -- so that they might live with their master.

Though life with her master and her new friends and lovers seemed idyllic, there were moments of discomfort and doubt. When one of the guards told her that Rajneesh had beaten his caretaker and lover Ma Yoga Vivek, with his fists and feet, Nandan was horrified. Years later she remembered, embarrassed, that she ignored her instinctive revulsion at the reports of the beating, and quickly rationalized it as a master's device for his disciple's instruction. Hadn't some Tibetan lamas put their dearest students through horrible ordeals, she asked herself.

Like thousands of others who trusted him as their spiritual guide, Nandan came to regard Bhagwan as omniscient even when, believing that absolute birth control for 20 years was the only solution to the world's overpopulation, Rajneesh strongly suggested that his disciples submit to sterilization. She did: "I bought it lock, stock and barrel" she told me ruefully years later. "If you are a good sannyasin you do it".

In 1981, after the Indian government had blocked Rajneesh's attempts to build a large rural commune where "natural men and women" could live in harmony with nature, he and most of his Western disciples, including Nandan, left Poona.

At Rancho Rajneesh, their $5.75 million, 64,000-acre property in central Oregon Nandan worked as an administrator under Rajneesh's new personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela. But, increasingly, she says, she was troubled by the ranch's fundraising practices and its monitoring and censorship of communication; by the arrogance that Sheela and others displayed to the neighboring Oregonians; by the methods they were willing to use to perpetuate and aggrandize their commune.

She was troubled, too, by the behavior of Rajneesh, who was then in the middle of his three and one half year public silence. She had heard he took large quantities of Valium (for his bad back, he said) and nitrous oxide and observed with dismay that he looked drugged when each day he drove one of his Rolls Royces past his disciples. What kind of spiritual leader needed drugs to get him through the day?

Finally, in 1984 after her "best friend" turned her in for voicing criticisms of Rajneesh and Sheela, Nandan left the ranch, disillusioned and bewildered. "He told us to be spiritual rebels" she told me, "people who could find their own truths, and here we were, being punished for it."

After Nandan left, the deception, arrogance and suspiciousness escalated to paranoia and frank illegality. Sheela engineered the largest non-government domestic wiretapping in the history of the United States. She devised a mad strategy for winning a 1984 county election which included the importation of 3,700 street people -- potentially loyal voters -- from America's cities and the poisoning of 750 opposition voters in the neighboring town of The Dalles. Finally, "a hit list" of ranch opponents to be murdered, including the Oregon attorney general and the U.S. attorney, was drawn up, according to sworn testimony.

Sannyasins who objected to these tactics, to the secrecy and control on the ranch or to the arms -- among them dozens of semi-automatic weapons -- with which the ranch was protected and patrolled, were humiliated, sent away, threatened and in some cases themselves disabled by poison. The remaining disciples, people who had prided themselves on individualism and courage, clung, frightened and needy, to the security of their community. The meditation camp had become a concentration camp.

In September 1985, amid charges by Rajneesh that she had embezzled tens of millions of dollars, Sheela fled the ranch for Europe. In October, anticipating grand jury indictments for immigration fraud, Rajneesh himself was apprehended trying to leave the country. Within weeks the thousands of sannyasins who had given up their homes, their careers and their savings to live with their Master were leaving their Oregon paradise. Sheela pleaded guilty to a variety of state and federal charges including attempted murder, electronic eavesdropping, immigration fraud and engineering a food poisoning epidemic. She was sentenced to 69 years in prison.

During the two years since the ranch has closed, most sannyasins have gone through a painful time of readjustment to a world many had believed they had left behind forever. Many of the true believers have chosen to ignore the monstrous arrogance and ugliness that Rajneesh and his lieutenants and they themselves exhibited. Some have excused the illegalities and excesses as errors of unenlightened disciples like Sheela and themselves. Others have, even more improbably, construed them simply as devices, Zen-like koans and double binds that Rajneesh created for their edification. "It was a huge immunization program" one sannyasin who holds a PhD from Yale told me without irony not long ago. "We were exposed to certain viruses -- authoritarianism, fascism -- and now we have developed antibodies".

For Nandan -- once again Anna Forbes -- and many others who no longer consider Rajneesh as their Master, the readjustment has been more profound, more complex and disturbing. They, too, mourn the death of the utopian community that seemed about to be born, the idyll they enjoyed in India and in the early days on the ranch. They feel betrayed by the sterilizations and the poisonings and by their Master's callousness and indifference towards his disciples and the Oregonians. They are ashamed of their own mindless complicity in his actions. But they also have an immense sense of gratitude toward Rajneesh himself and for the experiences that they had while they lived in his company.

Indeed, it has seemed to me as I have spoken with them in recent months, that their disillusionment with their Master is helping to teach them the awareness and self-acceptance to which Rajneesh, before he became intoxicated with his own power -- and drugs -- had always urged them. "He gave me permission to be angry and to be total in my work," Anna Forbes told me in our conversation several months ago, "to experiment and get involved deeply in meditation. He was a catalyst. He drew incredible people to a beautiful environment. We always attributed the experiences to him directly but it was really us. I'm grateful for these experiences, even for seeing the darker side of things, seeing how we could turn ourselves from free spirits into cultists. I've grown up, I'm less gullible. And I'm still very much a seeker."

James Gordon, a Washington psychiatrist, is the author of "The Golden Guru: The Strange Journey of Bhgawan Shree Rajneesh."