Roshani Shay PhD reviews the six-part Netflix documentary series on Rajneeshpuram: “Wild, Wild Country certainly conveys the grandness of the experiment that was Rajneeshpuram.”
On March 16, I binge-watched Netflix’s ‘Wild Wild Country’. For those who were not in Oregon in the 1980s or for those who want to be reminded of those times, it is certainly worth the investment of time. It begins with old-time residents of Oregon (and area Ranchers) recalling the arrival of Rajneeshees in their sleepy, western town of 40 people. It ends with Sheela saying, “Is it over? I thought it would never end. We all need a drink.” Those are the bookends of this attempt to tell the story of the rise and fall of Rajneeshpuram. In between is a wide variety of historical footage of the Ranch and Pune, related events and media, including lots of great aerial and construction coverage. In between we are introduced to some of the key players in this drama.
The arc of the story is accurate, if not the fine details. Its meaning, not surprisingly, is filtered through the multifaceted lenses of the film’s interviewees. I was especially struck by how some of the characters still perceive themselves, some thirty years later:
– The Antelopeans as victims of menacing, sex-cult interlopers;
– Ma Anand Sheela, Osho’s former personal secretary, as devotee, as warrior queen or lioness, charged with the protection of Osho and his community;
– Robert Weaver, Assistant US Attorney, as totally determined and successful in ridding Oregon (and, indeed, the country) of Osho and thereby his “evil” community, proud of having been involved in the “largest poisoning, wiretapping and immigration fraud cases in US history;”
– Ma Shanti Bhadra as a sort of innocent zombie, having been manipulated into performing acts against her basically good nature;
– Jon Bowerman, the son of Nike founder, Bill Bowerman, as a victorious cowboy, who now “misses the fight;”
– Swami Prem Niren, Osho’s attorney, as deeply devoted and dedicated to carrying out his Master’s wishes to clear his name even now.
As with most media coverage of the Ranch, this series seems to skip like a rock over water, landing briefly on the most controversial events: the so-called “takeover” of Antelope; the bombing of Hotel Rajneesh; the arming of the Rajneeshpuram Peace Force; the Share-A-Home program involving the many homeless people invited to Rajneespuram; the Wasco County election of 1984; the food poisoning episode in The Dalles; Sheela and her cohort fleeing to Europe; Osho’s revelation of their crimes; Osho’s arrest in North Carolina and expulsion from the US on (very flimsy) immigration charges (conspiracy to arrange marriages, for one).
Only occasionally does the series reveal new information. For example, there is the revelation that John Silvertooth, the only non-sannyasin on the City of Rajneesh Council, spied by rooting around in the city dump in search of incriminating documents which he could pass on to his old friend, Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer. Another detail not picked up by similar videos is the fact that the US Immigration and Naturalization Service actually granted Osho a visa as a “religious” figure, even though after a long fight and appeals.
Occasionally, there is also a deeper, more authentic moment. At one point, Ma Prem Sunshine conveys how intensely shocked and grieved sannyasins were when Osho revealed the wide range of crimes committed by Sheela et. al. Sunny also spoke of her own sad experience of being rendered ill by food poisoning on the Ranch. I had a similar, though less serious experience and joined Sunny in the retrospective realization that this was deliberate. At one point, it is crystal clear the depth to which Antelopeans felt “looked down upon” and harassed. Another kind of revelatory moment occurs when Sheela refers to Osho as a “ Rock Star” and declares that “meditation (was merely a) product” to be sold in the marketplace in order to earn money to support the physical needs of the community. Such language explains so much of what Sheela was/is (and was/is not).
‘Wild Wild Country’ certainly conveys the grandness of the experiment that was Rajneeshpuram. An emphasis on self-sufficiency, environmental consciousness, and spiritual practice were all combined in this massive community-building effort. What is missing in this portrayal, as it is in others, are the many stories of people whose lives were deeply transformed by having spent time at the Ranch.
The series does very effectively portray the depth of the cultural, moral and religious clash in the context of the post-Jonestown, Reagan era 1980s. It records a degeneration that began with rumors, some of them truly outlandish (like the tale of beavers being chopped up, put in a blender, then dumped into The Dalles water supply). After the rumors came the fear of perceived threats (from immoral sex to people who fight for their rights to guns). Following on the fear came anger, paranoia, possible violence and true darkness – all sides involved.
I am one of those cockeyed optimists. I like to think that the United States is slowly learning its lessons. I like to think that we are more multiculturally tolerant than we were thirty years ago. I like to think that all who experienced Rajneeshpuram from any viewpoint can understand how it was a microcosm of a less inclusive, less enlightened decade. Viewers of this series can learn a lot about how not to behave from its episodes.
And what was the ending of our story? By the dead of winter, 1985, devoid of the Master, Rajneespuram became no longer viable spiritually, physically (reduced population), or financially. ‘Wild Wild Country’ shares some of the aftermath:
– Something ended in Antelope too, according to some locals; the café and school are closed and “there is no community feeling, the way it was (before).”
– Sheela says she is now trying to implement Osho’s communal ideas in a home for dementia patients in Switzerland;
– The Ranch sold and was gifted to the group Young Life to be transformed into a Christian Youth Camp;
– Osho’s books, videos and meditations are now spreading throughout the world to a new generation of seekers.
Osho’s legacy lives on. So, “No, Sheela, it is not the end.”
More about this docuseries on Osho News