It’s been fascinating to watch the online reactions of those who have taken the dizzying journey that is Netflix’s six-part docuseries Wild Wild Country, a deep dive into the unbelievable story of a 1980s new age meditation cult that came on the heels of the human potential movement, and its affects on a small community in rural Oregon. The cult was led by Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, known worldwide as the ‘sex guru,’ because he preached a free love philosophy and spoke out against marriage. When she was just a teenager, Bhagwan met the vicious and clever Ma Anand Sheela, who would become his right hand woman and the face of the spiritual community and lucrative business that was the Rajneeshee cult, especially after Bhagwan took a vow of public silence. The group aimed to attract middle and upper middle class folks from the US and Europe, and soon they were traveling to India by the thousands and donating their wealth to the ashram. As the community outgrew its location as well as the patience of the Indian government, Sheela chose Oregon as the perfect location for their new home, believing they would find religious tolerance in a place founded on, you know, religious tolerance. The group of a few thousand bought a hundred square miles of rough Oregon countryside for $5.75 million and built, by hand, an entire functioning city, complete with an airport, hotel, shopping mall, roads and homes, all based around sustainable agriculture and farming. They called it Rajneeshpuram, and members worked 13, sometimes 18 hour days while laughing, smiling, and seeming to have a truly good time. I had definitely heard about this cult through my own research, and through a favorite episode of the podcast My Favorite Murder, but never in a million years did I expect to see famous villain Sheela on the screen, and never did I expect to sort of like her.
Watching the footage of this group smiling and building an incredible world of their own, I’m suddenly halfway to becoming a sannyasin (disciple) of the Bhagwan, looking for red clothes in my closet and feeling oh so good about a community based in equality, environmental sustainability, self-improvement, honesty and love. Looking into the guru’s soft face with his long white beard and thinking, you know, maybe this wasn't a cult after all! Just another misunderstood minority group rejected by the puritan sensibilities of a prejudiced America! Free love baby! I’m exaggerating here, but seriously, I got swept up a little; I was on the Rajneeshee’s side. And that's how easy it is to join a cult.
Then the documentary goes on. We learn that the group carried out the largest bio attack on American soil, contaminating local restaurant salad bars with salmonella, making at least 700 people very sick. They plotted, and came very near to carrying out, an assassination on the U.S. attorney for Oregon. They were heavily armed with assault rifles, intimidating the surrounding community. Sheela and her higher ups attempted to murder the Bhagwan’s doctor. They bused in homeless folks from all over, promising them free food, shelter, and beer, but really it was a ploy to get their candidates more votes so that they could control the local, and then county governments. When they couldn’t control the new population, they put sedative drugs in the beer, and then eventually bussed them out of the commune and abandoned them. In the context of Sheela's narration, we almost start to understand why these sadistic steps were taken, all in the name of Bhagwan and his teaching, the paradise he was trying to create first for his community, and then for the world. But see, this is what cult leaders do, and Sheela was as much a cult leader as Bhagwan, and in this docuseries, she has us under her spell.
And that’s the thing about Wild Wild Country, unless you have a strong stance pre-film, unless you are a Christian with zero flexibility toward other faiths, or you are a die-hard new ager who believes that prejudiced rural communities always hate and force out those who are different, you probably waffled back and forth. The people of Antelope were extremely prejudiced against the red-clothed Rajneeshees, who by and large were likely kind, hard-working people with ways the small-minded community simply did not want to understand. However, to side with the Rajneeshees would be incredibly short-sighted, and would ignore the laundry list of their serious crimes, as well as the abuse that occurred that was not reported in the series.
The people of Antelope, I have no doubt, would have done much worse to the Rajneeshees had there been more than 60 of them. They loved their bumper stickers that said “Antelope: Better Dead Than Red,” and “Bag the Bhagwan.” The Rajneeshees had the upper hand in many ways, because of their numbers, their millions of dollars, and their fame. However, the people of Antelope had something else on their side from the very beginning: the entire US government. The feds had been watching with distain the activities of the Rajneeshees from the beginning, and it was clear that they did not want them in the country. Perhaps it was because they saw the potential for the violence that would occur, or perhaps it is simply because they didn’t agree with their values, with their spiritual beliefs. And as we have well seen, the US government, when they don’t like something, will do whatever it takes to get rid of it, whether legally or not. And they are often, if not always, on the side of people like those who lived in Antelope. And those who lived in Antelope, despite their false niceties, were never going to accept a new age group living near their community, even though they built a thriving city by hand that, had they been open to a different culture, they could certainly have benefitted from, as their own small, poor community was not looking so good.
One glaring issue with the documentary is that the only Rajneeshees interviewed were either those who had been convicted of the crimes of the cult, or those who had been top tier sympathizers. There was little if any perspective of the darker sides of life at Rajneeshpuram.
One former Rajneeshee, a writer named Satya Franklin, was good friends with Sheela and worked on Bhagwan’s books to the point that she claims to have virtually ghost-written much of his famous work (his work was apparently very poorly put together, and often nonsensical). She wrote a tell-all book called The Promise of Paradise: A Woman’s Intimate Story of the Perils of Life with Rajneesh which told of the cult manipulation that was absent from the film:
“To set the record straight: most of us living in Rajneeshpuram were unaware of the crimes being committed by Sheela and her cohorts. We didn’t know about the guns and assault rifles, the mass-poisonings, attempted murders, ranch pilots ordered to crash their planes into government buildings (something they refused to do). But we knew Sheela had gained dictatorial control over every aspect of our lives, and that what she said was law—more than the law: Bhagwan’s orders. He was the unquestioned authority on everything—the man we’d made God—and only Sheela knew what he wanted.”
It seems that most insiders agree that the Bhagwan did know about the crimes of Sheela, and indeed spurred her on, if not controlled everything she did. He still had total control from behind the scenes, even though he was publically silent. The documentary, which is clearly sympathetic to the Rajneeshees, seemed to trail off on this, afraid to make clear this vital point. Bhagwan got off scot-free, simply barred from the US, while Sheela and others would do hard time in prison for at least some crimes the Bhagwan likely ordered.
And another thing. What is it with cult leaders and Hitler? It seems that they all eventually spiral into a kind of paranoia that suddenly has them admiring the white supremacist and blaming the Jewish population for all of the world’s ills. I’m not sure the thought process that gets them there, nor do I really care. Megalomaniacs seem to admire other dead megalomaniacs (so there is no competition), and who has been more violently power-obsessed than Hitler?
In a damning New Republic article, Win McCormick explored the ugliness that existed inside Rajneeshpuram, including the Bhagwan’s changing opinions: “The humanistic psychologist Nathaniel Branden made by far the most powerful statement on this subject, in a letter to a friend of his dated October 2, 1978. He reported to his friend that in a book called The Mustard Seed, Rajneesh ‘explains and justifies the murder of millions of Jews throughout history on the grounds that the Jews killed Jesus.’ Branden went on to say, ‘Since I first began listening to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and reading his books, I’ve been fascinated. At the same time, almost from the beginning, I have had the growing feeling that this is a man who is deeply, deeply, deeply evil—evil on a scale that is almost outside the limits of the human imagination.’”
Hilly Zeitlin, who was the co-director of Options for Personal Transition in Berkeley, an organization dealing with cult involvement, believed Bhagwan to be “one of the best hypnotists I have ever encountered. The way he uses language, his tone of voice, the way he sequences ideas ... all are essentially hypnotic. The art of hypnosis is the art of being vague, while pretending you are being profound. Rajneesh can be even vaguer now by not saying anything at all. Now you can project onto him whatever you want to believe.”
Sometimes, especially in these very divisive times we live in, it feels like we must always pick a side. I’ve seen some of the smartest friends I have suddenly defending the Rajneeshees, saying they were victims of religious, racial, and cultural prejudice. Absolutely this is true, however, there are certainly better groups to look up to, groups that didn’t have such greed and manipulation, such a die-hard dedication to a con man. I was never going to be on the side of Antelope, because it was clear from the first moment that they hated what was different from themselves, pointing their fingers and using that easy word “evil,” to describe everything that wasn’t exactly like them. I wasn’t going to sympathize with the routine vengeance of the petty US government. But at the end of the day, Rajneeshees were a cult, and a cult is a cult is a cult, one where individual will is broken down and given to one person, whether it be Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Marshal Applewhite, or the Bhagwan. They come in different forms, but worship of anyone, especially a man who loves diamond watches and has 90 Rolls-Royces, casually uses the word “bitch," and has a little itty-bitty thing for Hitler, is never going to turn out well. It doesn’t mean that the values of the group weren’t beautiful to begin with. It doesn’t mean that beautiful things never happened at the ranch. It doesn’t mean that people weren’t transformed through that community. It just means that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and both Bhagwan and Sheela, unfortunately are no exception. Let’s remember that often, both sides suck, but the cool thing is, and I often forget it, we don’t have to pick a side. We can just watch the strange way that humans choose to exist in the world, and the way they choose to let their dramas unfold.
Decide for yourself whose side you're on, or better yet, don’t. Check out Wild Wild Country on Netflix now.