- Photo courtesy of Netflix
- Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, with followers
If you’re under 40 or so, you may never have heard of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his cult-commune-religion-whatever that grabbed headlines in the early 1980s, before flaming out in quite spectacular fashion. But no worries: Wild Wild Country, a new six-part documentary on Netflix tells the saga, and it’s jaw-dropping.
The series, directed by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, is a bit thin on the origins of Bhagwan, but it begins fleshing out his organization when it matters, in the late 1970s, when the “guru” is attracting large groups of Westerners to his ashram in India. The story really kicks in when Bhagwan and his many followers relocate to Oregon in 1981. They purchase a 63,000-acre ranch in the middle of nowhere, but close enough to the tiny hamlet of Antelope to cause concern. There, the Rajneeshee build a new town from scratch, complete with housing, infrastructure, a dam, farms, an airstrip and, naturally, space for Bhagwan’s many Rolls Royces.
Rajneeshism is a hybrid religion, combining ancient Eastern philosophies with contemporary ideas of open sexuality, assorted Western therapies and a commitment to capitalism and living well. (The most obvious restriction: The Rajneeshee dress only in one color, shifting over the years from the more traditional saffron to hues of red and purple.) But the members are highly educated and ambitious, and this contributes to both the organization’s success — engineers to build the town, and even in-house counsel to fight legal battles — and ultimately, its downfall. No spoilers, but let’s just say that having an in-house chemist proved problematic.
The Ways unfold the tale in mostly linear fashion, and the history benefits from in-depth interviews with former Rajneeshee, including the Bhagwan’s righthand woman, Ma Anand Sheela; aggrieved Antelope residents; and assorted state and federal law enforcement, as well as plenty of local and national TV footage. But more fascinating are the hours and hours of video the Rajneeshee, ever self-absorbed and self-promoting, shot of themselves — activities from the mundane to the alarming.
I’m reluctant to get into the specifics, since newcomers with any interest in cults, communal living, charismatic movements, true crime, land use and bio-terrorism should just let this story unfold. Because after you’ve learned of one unbelievable thing, bam! there comes another. I am no stranger to the Rajneeshee — a group of these “orange people” lived on my street corner in the pre-Oregon days, and I endured their chanting and screaming while waiting for the bus. But even for a longtime observer like myself, Wild Wild Country is a veritable treasure trove of fascination.