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?