The Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country tells the story of Indian guru Baghwan Shree Rajneesh’s years in the US. In 1981 he and his followers moved to remote Antelope, Oregon, population 40. On a hundred mile square tract of wilderness they built Rajneeshpuram, a city that housed up to 7000, complete with a shopping mall and airport.

The locals were none too pleased with their new maroon-clad neighbors and did everything they could to get them to leave. The Rajneeshis were determined to stay. The two sides duked it out until 1985, when Rajneesh was deported to India and his city was abandoned.

I came to Wild Wild Country certain of where my sympathies lay. I knew of Rajneesh’s fleet of Rolls Royces, and of his followers’ desperate measures to take over the county they lived in by rigging the election. They bussed in homeless people from around the country to vote for them, and poisoned local salad bars with salmonella to suppress the vote of native Oregonians.

I’d done twenty years hard time in a spiritual group/cult and thought I knew the story: evil cult leader brainwashes disciples. They hand over their money, and probably wives, and become literal slaves. The only happy part of the tale comes when the group falls apart and the followers are freed.

A couple of minutes into Wild Wild Country my judgment started crumbling. I was seeing the Rajneeshis’ point of view. And to my horror I found myself siding with them. Because from the day they arrive in Oregon we see the locals denouncing them for the sole sin of being different. When asked why she’s so terrified of them, a woman answers. “The unknown. I don’t know what they’re going to do.” Soon men are brandishing guns, shooting up road signs near the compound and talking about how much they want to kill them.

The worst the Rajneeshis are accused of at this point is “loud sex, day and night.” Sex seems to be at the top of the list of locals’ complaints. It doesn’t help when they see a British Documentary with old footage of the group in India having a naked encounter group.

Someone bombs the Rajneesh Hotel in Portland and the Rajneeshis start fighting back, at least Ma Anand Sheela, the guru’s personal secretary does. I recoil at the sight of peace loving spiritualists training with assault rifles–I hate guns– but I can see their point. As Rajneesh himself says, he came to this country because of its Constitution, because of freedom of religion. When they use guns and bombs to stop you from practicing it, what would be more American than fighting back?

Wild Wild Country never addresses the question of who bombed the hotel. This is a major flaw in the film, because that event appears as the linchpin for the violent acts attempted later by Sheela. The way the documentary is edited suggests that the bombers were connected with the growing resistance to Rajneesh. In fact, the person convicted of that crime was a Muslim. Did the filmmakers hide that because it complicated the story? Or because they wanted to play on the sympathies of viewers like me?

This raises an uncomfortable possibility: that the filmmakers are as unreliable as everyone else in this story. Wild Wild Country is basically a long parade of unreliable narrators. Contemporary interviews with people from either side of the conflict are intercut with extensive local and national news footage, and equally extensive Rajneesh video from the time. You can’t trust a thing out of anyone’s mouth, because they’re all deeply emotionally invested in being right. When even the State’s prosecutor bandies around terms like “God” and “Evil,” you know this isn’t just another legal case.

Reading reviews of Wild Wild Country I see that I’m far from alone in having a powerful emotion reaction to it. This Esquire piece nails it: the Rajneesh documentary is a Rorschach test, telling you more about yourself than about the crazed doings of thirty-five years ago and the people still trying to spin them.

Previous tales of cults have triggered memories of my own experience. But this film evoked the time in my life that preceeded my involvement with a cult. When I saw the locals with their bumper stickers “Better dead than red” (referring to the sannyasins’ admittedly unappealing sartorial habits) I flashed back to the dawn of the culture wars, fifty years ago, when I was a proud member of the counterculture. On the surface we grew our hair and dressed strangely, took drugs and skinny-dipped on occasion. We believed in ideals of Peace and Love, in the value of visceral experience over the acquisition of things. At heart was a religious impulse, the striving for enlightenment.

There was an opposing side then, too. Parents and police hated what they didn’t understand. They cut our hair, locked us up, even threatened to kill us. Though conservatives, starting with Nixon, thrived politically, we pretty much won the culture part of the war. Society now is more tolerant of non-conformity. Buddhism flourishes in America. If someone predicted back in the day that Marijuana would one day be legal in my state of California, we would have asked what they were smoking.

In Oregon the locals won. They were not graceful in victory. They appear smug and self-righteous, even years later reveling in the feeling of triumph like they won a football game. And they weren’t just local. Johnny Carson lead an audience in a tuneless sing-along, “Bye Bye Baghwan.” It’s blatantly racist, suggesting that anyone who doesn’t dress or think or act like you is beneath contempt.

Thomas Edsalls’ recent column in the Times divides America into the open and closed-minded. He’s talking about now, but he could as well be describing the mess in Oregon. Who wants to be on the side of the closed-minded?

Except that if I learned anything in my time in a cult it’s how all the right words about openness and inner freedom can lead you to inner prison.

Wild Wild Country didn’t convince me that anyone was right. It raised the uncomfortable question, what does it mean to blindly root for a team, in sports or an election? There’s been talk recently of rising tribalism in American politics. However strongly I believe in my team I have to question the crocodile brain origins of those feelings.

Back in the day, my search for higher consciousness led me into the group that I eventually recognized as a cult. It was a dour, mouth down group. Watching Wild Wild Country, I found myself jealous of the Rajneeshis. They’re always smiling, dancing, singing. Granted it may have been group psychosis, but they sure look like they were having a better time than we ever did. In the early videos of them building their city they show such energy. But the group I was in was in built things, too. Have I misremembered what it was like?

Ma Anand Sheela, and not Bill Bowerman is most critics’ choice for villain in Wild Wild Country. And she’s clearly a piece of work. But was she simply a true believer, following Rajneesh’s orders to poison and murder? During most of 1981 to 1985 Rajneesh had (conveniently?) taken a vow of silence. When he finally broke it, it was to denounce Sheela, blaming her for all the crimes. There’s no telling who was guilty of what. It seems quite possible that most of the 7000 followers at Rajneeshpuram knew nothing of the misdoing.

I came away from the film feeling I had a read on the main characters, even Sheela. That’s not true of Rajneesh himself. He remains an utter cipher to me. He looks old for his age. Was he drug addicted, as some suggested? Is his smile benificent or merely the look of an old man who’s checked out? Was he a saint or a con man, or both? And why did he need all those freaking Rolls Royces?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Views: 262

Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on April 12, 2018 at 8:58am

Thank you!!

Comment by alsoknownas on April 12, 2018 at 9:06am

I had a part time job in a major department store during this time. Ma Anand Sheela came in and wanted to see our red towels.

I showed her. It was a huge store and there were a lot of red towels. She bought all of them.

Comment by koshersalaami on April 12, 2018 at 9:14am

Who is right when is a convoluted question. Being awake to the idea that your side is going to be wrong part of the time is how we limit polarization. This whole description sounds sick. It sounds like a horrific war between the haters and the exploiters. 

Comment by John Manchester on April 12, 2018 at 9:20am

alsoknownas - Sheela herself! What did she seem like?

Comment by Anna Herrington on April 12, 2018 at 9:39am

When I noticed this on Netflix I cringed! as I remember first moving to Oregon during that time and I didn't want to have any of that era brought to my or the public mind again.... and I've met far too many humans here in Oregon, especially back then, who were looking for an impossible ideal and so fell far from 'grace' into some strange dark and murky alter reality. Some got out, some didn't.

but now, thanks to this, I likely will watch at some point.

Appreciate your thoughts on it, John.

Comment by marilyn sands on April 12, 2018 at 9:39am

Now, I HAVE TO see it!

Comment by Anna Herrington on April 12, 2018 at 11:42am

My oldest son was just here discussing how great he thought this mini series? is and that I must watch it, "especially since you were here then, Mom, not to mention you lived on a (different) commune back in the day".... 

"Intentional community" I replied.  : )

Comment by Gawzamn Dionus on April 12, 2018 at 12:13pm

Having just successfully signed up here over the last couple of days it was not clear to me in the beginning what if anything i may discover here that is relevant enough to me to provoke personal commentary, then up pops this post which relit some memories of experiences I had at Rajneeshpuram over 35 years ago now.  I was not a Rajneesh disciple myself but on 1982 Greyhound bus trip to Houston from Portland I was seated next to young woman my age, I'll call D, who unmistakably was Rajneesh. We became acquainted on the ride out of Oregon through California to San Francisco where she was headed to visit some of her female friends in Berkeley.  On the way to SF, we had managed to become about as close friends as is possible on a half-filled bus of mostly napping passengers.  Once in Berkeley with D's female friends, none of whom were Rajneesh that I could discern, I discovered that I was near to wanting to stay there for the rest of my life. D's Rajneesh name began with G, but I didn't care much for that name and she was comfortable with either name.  I eventually continued my journey to Texas by myself where she, being a British citizen and I a legally divorced, single American, got together again for a few days wherein we got a blood test, did the paperwork and got married. Then we went our separate ways planning to meet up again back in Oregon, which we did, at Rajneeshpuram where she lived for the time being.  While there, my being the only one I ever saw not dressed in the Rajneesh abbreviated spectrum of colors that so beautifully clothed seemingly thousands of others from babies to elder adults.  It was as if we were all on a different planet, their planet, and I was a most welcomed alien.  I never felt prosletyzed to or pressured in any way to join in their communal activities of any nature, though G was always me. Rather I was with her much as would be a favorite pet though not one to take to communal, spiritual services or inside the restroom. There was a lot of truly amazing, new to me sights experienced, but two I most remember were pre-teen children whose tasks in the community was to make the milk dairy operations work hygienically and efficiently while all the bulldozers, graders and heavy equipment were operated by teen and adult females.  Except for the fact that the community was best as i could tell fundamentally a cult and though evertything healthful and vital I could ever imagine a cult could be, I knew without a shred of doubt my mind could not be disciplined enough to worship daily, if ever, at the toes of a living human master, especially one who I never saw, 

Comment by J.P. Hart on April 12, 2018 at 1:07pm

'They cut our hair, locked us up, even threatened to kill us.'

Vividly I remember having to have 'military-type short sideburns' afore being allowed a high school sheepskin - class of 1968.
Much appreciate your essay as well as the vibrant discourse herewith.

JPH
down for the night
at HWY 94 westbound wayside where I 'once upon a time'
bright-sunny after-nooned
with Hootie & the Blowfish
gals or groupets as it were.
Strange magic to y'all!

Comment by alsoknownas on April 12, 2018 at 1:13pm

John,

 I recall her having 3 or 4 persons with her. They were drifty seeming. 

She was direct and polite. 

Somewhat like this:

"I'd like these ones here"  she told me with a wave of the arm.

"Do you mean the upper shelves? "

"No. I mean the entire wall, thank you."

"Ok. I'll get the fellow with the ladder to get them all."

"That would be very nice. Thank you."

"Well of course. I'll call now."

A blip on the life screen.

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