Opinion |Pop Culture

‘Wild Wild Country’ Hits Close to Home

The new Netflix documentary reveals an uncomfortable truth about American religious innovation.
‘Wild Wild Country’ Hits Close to Home
Image: Courtesy Netflix

In the 1980s, thousands of enthusiastic enlightenment-seekers built a commune called Rajneeshpuram in the rugged Central Oregon desert and for their brief time there, clashed with the residents of the rural town of Antelope.

For anyone like me who grew up in Oregon in the ’80s, Rajneeshpuram is a part of the mythic landscape of the region. Stories about a guru with a fleet of Rolls Royces, rumors of sexual orgies, and casual jokes about bioterrorism (don’t eat at the salad bar!) are as much a part of our childhood as campfire tales about Bigfoot on Mt. Hood. My father, who was a youth pastor in the ’80s, took a tour of Rajneeshpuram toward the end. He came home with stories of heavily armed hippies and spaced-out farm workers who were probably drugged without their knowledge.

The Rajneeshees or sannyasins, as they call themselves, were members of a new religious movement founded by an Indian man known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh or Osho. (The group still exists, albeit in different form.) What began as a globetrotting search for cosmic illumination, a celebration of “free love,” and a quest to build a utopia in America ended in disappointment and criminal charges.

The recently released Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country unpacks the extraordinary story. Through interviews with Rajneesh’s followers, residents of Antelope, local journalists, politicians, and law enforcement, the documentary follows the group from their initial ashram, or commune, in India to their ill-fated intentional community built on the expansive Big Muddy Ranch.

It might be easy to dismiss Rajneeshpuram as a marginal “cult,” but the group’s combination of spirituality, capitalism, and celebrity culture has a long history in America and is observable in relatively traditional corners of 21st-century revivalism (for example, the prosperity gospel movement), and in nontraditional groups like Scientology. Wild Wild Country gives evidence that the tradition of American religious innovation exists in part because of an even older, more fundamental human desire for transcendence, meaning, and belonging—one we might see in ourselves.

Although the movement began in India, the series shows Osho and his personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela creating something that seems destined for the US. They exploited their celebrity status (Wild Wild Country shows bits and pieces of their numerous media appearances), were highly entrepreneurial, and displayed no shame in commodifying their spiritual practices in order to get top dollar (USD and other currencies) for their brand of enlightenment.

Interview soundbites from the sannyasins capture the group’s thoroughly American optimism. “I don’t think there has ever been a city that’s been laid out and built like this,” says Philip Toelkes (a.k.a. Swami Prem Niren), “A city that would be based on love and compassion and sharing, rather than ownership and greed and anger.”

As the recent Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff demonstrates, land use in the American West is a contentious issue full of ethical quandaries. The Rajneeshees’ quest to build a small city on ranching land was held up by local government officials and community activists, and when they took over the nearby town of Antelope and renamed it “Rajneesh,” the locals were unmoved by any pleas for freedom of assembly.

During the 1980s, some argued that local resistance to the controversial, foul-mouthed, and exceedingly charismatic Sheela (depicted as the group’s real leader) was the result of provincial white retirees who were rejecting multicultural hippies because of their own bigotry. The assumption has some credibility when we consider Oregon’s ignominious history of “exclusion laws,” the response of most Americans to religious innovators (see, for example, 19th-century reactions to the Latter-day Saints church), and the resistance—by many—to women of color in leadership.

However, the reality was far more complex than a tale of small-town bigotry. The townspeople of Antelope were hardly without sophistication or resources. (Nike founder Bill Bowerman was one of their principal allies.) And although the sannyasins were on the receiving end of local animus, their transgressions went beyond extramarital sex and meditation to bioterrorism, fraud, and even attempted murder.

A quick glance at US history tells us that the Rajneeshees weren’t the innovators they thought they were: They are not the first or last group to attract members to countercultural or even criminal practices. (The recent story of NXIVM is evidence that transgressive groups are continually made and unmade in the US.) Free love seemed pretty new to many rural Oregonians (especially filmed free love), but John Humphrey Noyes’s Oneida Community experimented with complex marriage (a.k.a. “free love”) in the mid-19th century. The followers of Osho were not the first group to build what they hoped would be an exemplary community (a “city upon a hill,” if you will), and they were not the first American religious community willing to resort to surprising levels of violence; that story predates the republic.

What they were doing wasn’t entirely unique to their own era, either. When interviewed in Wild Wild Country about their reasons for following Osho to Oregon, many of the mostly educated, white, middle-class sannyasins talk about their dissatisfaction with the so-called American dream and a sense of emptiness that came with wealth and opportunity. These reasons are not all that different from the ones given by West Coast Jesus People for their conversions to Christianity in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

All my life I've been searching for that crazy missing part,” sang Keith Green in 1977. Green found what he was looking for in charismatic, Californian Christianity (as did many others, including my parents), but that line could have just as easily come out of the mouths of the sannyasins in Oregon. The beliefs and practices, of course, are very different, but the yearnings for spiritual connection, intimacy, and belonging are notably similar.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, part of what makes the series compelling (and seriously bingeable) is this relatability. As many reviewers have noted, those who watch find themselves vacillating between sympathy for the sannyasins and for the inhabitants of Antelope, from beginning to end. Wild Wild Country illustrates the uncomfortable fact that people are drawn toward outlying forms of religion not just because they like being strange, although surely some are, but rather for reasons many of us can understand: Something about their current cultural context is not satisfying their emotional, spiritual, or physical needs. Many converts—whether to the Church of Christ or Church of Scientology—share that feeling.

In Wild Wild Country, Osho and Sheela are entertaining to watch. Who can get enough of Osho’s fancy cars or Sheela’s expletive-laden excoriations of the state of Oregon? And the directors work hard to show how some, like Australian Jane Stork, became so enamored with the community that they were willing to go to murderous lengths to protect it. Interviews with citizens of Rajneeshpuram and Antelope also give viewers engrossing insights into how innovative groups form, galvanize, and then sometimes fracture and die.

But the story is most striking when we think about those not featured in the film. What happened to the average sannyasins who left their former lives (including spouses and children) to join paradise, only to see it destroyed? What was life like for the sannyasins’ children? They are not featured in this film, but several have since written about their experiences of abandonment—the cost of their parents’ attempts at illumination and utopia.

As the documentary explains, Rajneeshpuram is now Washington Family Ranch. It was abandoned by the sannyasins, purchased by a wealthy businessman, and eventually given to the evangelical parachurch organization Young Life. I spoke recently with Ben Herr, who managed the ranch during the transition. We talked about the extraordinary stories he collected while exploring the property, connecting with former residents of Rajneeshpuram, and working to gain trust from the community of Antelope.

For Herr, the narrative is one of redemption. “It’s a miracle,” he said, referring to the fact that Rajneeshpuram, “the most opposite thing of Jesus,” has been transformed into a camp where thousands come to learn about him. “If you can come up with a more redemptive God-story than that,” he said, throwing his hands up and trailing off.

One citizen of Antelope, understandably leery from the last experience, sees a different story. “We went from free sex, the Rajneeshees, to no sex, Young Life,” says John Silvertooth in the film. “But,” he acknowledged, “they’re much better neighbors than the Rajneeshees.”

Leah Payne is an assistant professor of theological studies and a William Penn Honors Program Faculty Fellow at George Fox University. She is author of Gender and Pentecostal Revivalism: Making a Female Ministry in the Early Twentieth Century(Palgrave, 2016). Her current research explores politics in Pentecostal and charismatic communities, and in her free time she blogs about religion and pop culture at leahpayne.blogspot.com.

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