Anna Silman talked to former Rajneeshpuram residents. Published in New York Magazine, The Cut, USA, on April 19, 2018.
Photo: Matthew Naythons/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Wild Wild Country, Chapman and Maclain Way’s new Netflix docuseries, tells the story of Rajneeshpuram — a utopian commune established in rural Oregon in the early 1980s, by the followers of Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later called Osho). The riveting series charts the escalating criminal activity that took place on the ranch, led by Bhagwan’s ruthless personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, who adopts ever more extreme methods (poison, arson, and more) to oppose the forces — like the U.S. government — that she sees threatening their group.
But what was day-to-day life like in Rajneeshpuram? Wild Wild Country focuses on Sheela’s criminal activities and behind-the-scenes machinations — which, to be fair, included the largest bioterror attack in U.S. history. But in doing so, the documentary leaves open the question of why so many thousands of people were drawn to uproot their lives and follow Bhagwan. These followers called themselves Sannyasins, though others might call them cult members.
We talked to nine current and former Sannyasins, many of whom continue to use the names their leader gave them, about life on the Rajneesh ranch — and what Sheela was like in person.
The following interviews have been edited and condensed.
Artist/painter and farmer living in England. Lived at Rajneeshpuram for four years.
It was inconceivable to me. After it all came out, we were all sort of wandering in shock for days.
Because of my agricultural experience, I was one of the first people to go to Rajneeshpuram. My job then was taking the land, which had been totally neglected and overgrazed, and getting the basics of agriculture started. Very soon after that I had many disagreements with Sheela, I never got on with her. It didn’t feel to me like she was intelligent, even. She was cunning, clever, but not intelligent.
The arguments were about policy. She said we should have chickens because we’d need lots of eggs, and I said, Yeah, we should have them all scattered around, and she said, No, put them all together. And I said, Then you have the likelihood of disease and you need to give them antibiotics. And she said, So give them antibiotics. And that was really not my way, I was an organic farmer. And there were more profound disagreements. Like, I did have contact with the Nike shoes guy in the documentary [rancher Bill Bowerman]. I had very nice contact with him: I went over to his ranch, we talked about growing grapes and having a vineyard, and he taught me how to roll cigarettes one-handed on a horse. But somehow I couldn’t and wouldn’t go along with Sheela’s aggression towards the neighbors, so within another three months, I was out of farming and gardening and in the pot room washing pots. I was very unhappy in the pot room because I felt like my dream of an environmental paradise was just lost, and she handed it over to someone who would be more obedient to her wishes.
I didn’t like or trust Sheela but none of us had any clue what was going on — the poisonings, the fire-bombing. It was inconceivable to me. After it all came out, we were all sort of wandering in shock for days. I just remember walking down one of the roads not knowing what I was doing, what, what, where am I?
The documentary — I felt quite queasy watching it. Actually like a feeling of nausea. I’m not very supportive of the film, people talk about it as being balanced, but it was balanced between villains and rednecks. It felt to me like a male, puritan, American movie, lavished with the usual ingredients of sex, guns, and money.
I went to Osho to have the rug pulled out from under my feet — the sort of comfortable rug that I was given in my education and my upbringing. I could go on forever about how important that experience was for me. I’m 80 and I just feel so happy, so rich, so free, my life is so joyous. And I blame him for all that! He did the work on me. I also read a few days ago that 42 percent of millennials say they are engaged in meditation of one sort or another. So I think that’s amazing that that message, that understanding that we have struggled and fought and battled with — that they got it just like that. Meditation was the tool Osho gave us — stepping out of ego, and stepping out of the busy traffic of the mind.
Physician’s assistant living in Seattle, Washington. Was brought to Rajneeshpuram by her parents when she was 7 and lived there until she was 11.
I think the documentary felt really shallow. It didn’t really represent
the day-to-day lives and it didn’t really show us as people.
For my whole life, people have been asking me what it was like. And just like if you ask anybody what their childhoods were like, it had pluses and minuses. I had a tremendous amount of freedom and responsibility and opportunity to learn things — like, I was a mechanic on airplanes when I was 9 years old. At the same time, it was an oppressive culture, there was not a lot of school or formal education, there were times when we had school but the school moved around and had sort of a rotating cast of characters and was sort of optional, and that was something I really wanted.
I would say there was neglect of the kids there, only by virtue of the fact that the children lived separately in a group kids’ house and there were weeks when some kids wouldn’t see their parents. I didn’t see any physical abuse, though there was some verbal or mental abuse.
It was a powerful experience that people were willing to give up their lives and create this oasis in the desert, and it created this energy that really was a force. We’re all still really connected; my closest friend is a Sannyasin from the ranch. But also we were this tiny microcosm of society where shit rises to the top and corruption corrupts. I think it was ultimately doomed to fail, because it was a concentrated intensity of a city — we grew up and then we exploded. I think the documentary felt really shallow. It didn’t really represent the day to day lives and it didn’t really show us as people, it was just kind of the politics.
Ma Anand Bhagawati
Writer, currently living in Indonesia. Lived in Rajneeshpuram for about four years.
You had to have been there to feel it.
The directors did a pretty good job, but what they could not show is why were we there. We were all there for an inner journey. We have been misunderstood in the press so many times and only the most spectacular things are ever being shown, like the Rolls-Royces. We had nothing to do with the Rolls-Royces! It was a joke, and America didn’t get it. Still, it’s amazing and it’s wonderful that people are laughing with us. People love the clothes we had. We had a lot of fun with it. We stuck out and we wore it and didn’t mind the ridicule. Life is about joy and fun and doing what you really want to do.
I lived there for four years, and I lived in India both in the ’70s and ’80s, and also in a European community. Oregon was definitely different because we were on raw land, on barren land, and we created an oasis. It was everyday living a very intense, awake life, enjoying this amazing scenery, being with my friends, and seeing Osho every day. You had to have been there to feel it. I had several jobs: one I liked very much was being a pickup taxi driver, and then I was in press relations and we related with the journalists and the visitors. People were very curious; they came from far and wide.
The energy on the whole property was never dark, but something started to become strange in ’85 to me. I had no clue what was going on until the whole bubble burst. To me, Sheela in the documentary just had the same sound bites she’s had since the ’70s. She loves Osho, I think, I can see that — that she is still connected in some ways to the master — but she went down a very dark alley. My impression of her always was that she was hard to take, because she was so caught up in her ego. On the other hand, without her and her energy and her dedication we couldn’t have had that whole thing.
Director of the Osho Institute for Meditative Therapies, currently living in Australia. Lived in Rajneeshpuram for two years.
It was immediately obvious that we are in a very strange place to be bringing ourselves.
When I first arrived in America and we were in Antelope and I sat there on the bus looking around I thought to myself, What the hell are we doing here? It was immediately obvious that we are in a very strange place to be bringing ourselves, because these are country people, very settled in their ways and strong in their beliefs, and they ain’t gonna move an inch. We’ve come there to dance around and be jolly and build a whole city, and I could sense that it was not going to be easy.
The first year in America was okay, though context was strange, because we were out of India, and we weren’t as close as we had been in Pune. And then the energy began to change. For the first year I was there, I was the coordinator of the welding shop, and then they moved me to working in legal services. I knew nothing about law and didn’t like being in the law department, because I felt it was like a war game of the mind. The longer we went into this year, the final year, I kept feeling uneasy about a lot of things. There was a lot of secrecy, there was a lot of people feeling afraid to say anything. For me personally it became quite stressful. Can you imagine — you start in a community in India where you’re all growing and thriving and sharing about yourselves and growing beautifully and spiritually, and here we are, we have a police force guarding us when we’re in the meditation hall? It was just too weird.
How did I feel about the movie? I only watched two episodes. It wasn’t about Osho; it was about how a group of people kind of termed a ‘cult’ came into a very foreign and threatened environment and then what happened, and everyone giving their point of view. For me it was just like, Enough already. Been there, done it, I don’t want to watch the whole thing, I was there. After a certain point it wasn’t happy days. It isn’t important in the gestalt of what Osho was about and the millions of people that came and did the groups and meditations and are still doing this. I’ve been doing this for 30 years with thousands of people all over the world. That’s the work.
Ma Ananda Sarita
Now a tantra teacher in the U.K., lived in Rajneeshpuram the whole time.
It was a super positive time of my life. We took a desert and we
completely transformed it in only five years and turned it into an oasis.
I was there with the first 20 people before Osho came to the ranch and then I was there until there were only six people left. It was a super positive time of my life. We took a desert and we completely transformed it in only five years and turned it into an oasis. People were working 16-hour days but always singing, dancing, hugging, laughing, and having love affairs. It was a very vibrant and alive place and very joyful. Most of the people who were there had no idea about the crimes that were being committed by Sheela and her close entourage.
The documentary was very touching and fascinating to watch. They tried to be very balanced. I did find what was missing was more about Osho and the meditative aspect. There were personal development groups happening, people were coming from all over the world to work on themselves. For the outsiders looking in, they would think Oh, that’s a cult, but you know, the fact of guru and disciple has been a thousand-year-old approach to life in India and I think it should have been at least given some kind of attention or spoken about in some way.
In the very early days, I was working in Sheela’s house as a cleaner and later on I was shifted to work in the press office. I saw that things were going in a not very pleasant direction with her and the people around her. I saw that she was under a lot of stress. Osho had invited her to live in his compound, and he advised her to work during the day but in the evening to come back to a meditative space in his compound, to leave the work behind — she chose not to do that. When people are under stress, they do strange things. Still, it was a dangerous situation for the people living there actually, and I think Sheela was responding to that. It was like she was just saying, Okay, this is how you want to play the game. We are going to play the same game.
Handwriting analyst in the U.K., visited the ranch for three weeks.
The fact that she’s running an old people’s home and looking after elderly people frightens me to death.
Seeing this documentary excited me so much that I got my mala [a traditional necklace worn by Sannyasins] out and I wore it for a couple of days and gosh, it didn’t half take me back to the wonderful heady days of being a Sannyasin. They really were some of the happiest years of my life. Overall, I just thought this was the best coverage we’ve ever had, though I found it very shocking in places.
The only thing I didn’t like was that Sheela was given so much air time which is, of course, what she absolutely adores, given the egotist she is. She got far more attention than she deserved, in my opinion. In my book, she was the big bad wolf. It all went wrong because of her. I only went there for three weeks for the summer celebration of 1988 [year should read 1985, ed.]. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like all the guns. And I could see by then it had turned rotten. We didn’t feel safe. It felt like an artificial society by then. The fact that she’s running an old people’s home and looking after elderly people frightens me to death. She’s not fit to be looking after vulnerable people. And of course that’s what’s she was doing when she was head of the ranch. She was overseeing a lot of vulnerable people.
Retired and lives in Atlanta with his wife Amido, lived on the ranch for three years.
We lived ten lives at the ranch because it was so intense and
so packed with so many opportunities to see your own ego at play.
I had two jobs that I did there. I did the book sales and distribution and I was also in the Peace Force, which was different than the Security Force — the Peace Force was a sanctioned body by the state of Oregon. What’s missing from Wild Wild Country is you have no feeling at all of the center core [of Rajneeshpuram] — the people working, and playing, and meditating, and loving and being in this eco-friendly conscious community in the middle of the Oregon desert. None of that, or very little of that, is there in Wild Wild Country. For a lot of us, we feel that’s too bad.
I often was involved with what we called the share-a-home program [where homeless people were invited to live on the ranch]. I went to a park in Miami, and this fellow came up to me and he had a tracheostomy, so he had to speak through a device in his throat. He came up to me and he handed me this newspaper article about us getting people and taking them to the ranch, and he wanted to come. He was an older fellow. He went to the ranch and I saw him many, many times. In fact, this fellow left long after many of us were gone. He stayed until the very end. He would’ve been there for the rest of his life if he could have.
I was not frightened of Sheela. I respected her, and in fact, I loved Sheela. I would go and say hello and give her big hugs. But some people were frightened of Sheela. Things very much changed from the security standpoint after the hotel was bombed. We actually then could just really feel the danger that was there.
For the outsider, a really important thing to understand is Sheela and her group were charged with creating this community. The people inside [the commune] had no idea of what forces there were that were trying to stop the community from existing at all. Sheela and her people, their work was to protect the ranch, and of course she had her own desire for power and wanting to keep power. I don’t think that this was an act of an evil person. It was simply problem-solving that got crazier and crazier. Many of us will look back and say we lived ten lives at the ranch because it was so intense and so packed with so many opportunities to see your own ego at play.
Retired nurse, lives in Atlanta with her husband Prem. Lived on the ranch for three years.
I am still very much grateful and very much feel that Osho is in my life.
My time at the ranch was completely not involved with any of the overall administration, it was just working and being with friends. I really was not very aware of the darkness until after it was very, very close to the end. But, there was one thing I had to do which I had difficulty doing. I was one of the people who went out to invite homeless people to come back to the ranch. I was asked by somebody in an office in Oregon to ask two people to leave the bus when we were partway on our journey back to Oregon. They were two people that I felt were very, very vulnerable and I felt very uncomfortable dropping them off away from home. I called several times to see if I could get a different answer, but they were very insistent I do it, so eventually I did.
I think that from the film I got a better understanding of what she was facing. I’m originally from England, so I had absolutely no appreciation of, say, the history of what had happened to cults in this country, so I had absolutely no appreciation of the danger that we were ever in. So, you can see all these forces amassed against Sheela, and even though obviously she made some very, very strange choices, you could see that she was trying to do what she thought would work.
My favorite memory from Rajneeshpuram was [Osho’s] daily drive-by. Everybody would stop work and you’d all line up and you’d chat with each other. It was like a sacred moment, as he’d pass by in the car.
Retired social worker and photographer living in Japan, lived in Rajneeshpuram for nine months.
Sheela was an unusual Sannyasin. She was a politician with a politician’s ability.
I grew up in the East End of London, a very congested area with no greenery around, and now suddenly I was in the cowboy set — this was Oregon, this was John Wayne country. It was so wonderful for me to be out in the wide open spaces. I was working the 12-hour days and I used to run to work.
Watching the documentary was shocking — there was sort of doubt whether anything was really as bad, and gruesome, or heinous [as it turned out to be], like the salmonella poisoning and the extent of the wiretapping and the attempt to murder Osho’s doctor. I had no idea just how far Sheela and the group around her were prepared to go to. The other big thing that shocked me is, it sounded like the FBI and other big law enforcement organizations were getting ready to actually attack the ranch with machine guns and helicopters. I had no idea how it might be coming close to sort of a bloodbath, that was even more shocking than anything else.
Having said that, I wouldn’t point the finger at Sheela, in a way because I think she was under tremendous pressure from outside and wanted to protect what she believed in. Sheela was an unusual Sannyasin. She was a politician with a politician’s ability, and in a way she was the only person who could have done that. Most of the Sannyasins didn’t have the ‘tough titties’ bit to go out there and challenge and really sort of heckle with other people or be very provocative. I was there during the ‘share-a-home’ program when all of these so-called street people were bussed in, and Sheela was becoming quite active politically around the commune. For the first time I was in meetings, which, instead of just being sort of a silent bunch of meditators, were becoming like political rallies with Sheela trying to enthuse the people on the share-a-home program. She was very much doing things which I’ve never seen Sannyasins do before — we were mostly a sort of more inward-looking lot. I thought, Well, she’s got a lot of energy that’s for sure.
The share-a-home thing was quite something. I was building fences at the time and then I suddenly got given the few people who were on the share-a-home program and I was really frustrated, because they were unfocused; they weren’t working. And I complained to one of the bosses — we always had female bosses, Osho put women in charge of everything — and she said, Look, it’s not about production, this is about connecting and sharing our commune and sharing what we feel. I ended up with two guys and we really created a friendship between us. I can still see their faces and their gradual sort of relaxation: they were in a safe place, there was no crime, no one was going to beat them up, they had a place to sleep, good food, and work to do. We were all a bunch of kids in a way, wanting to get hold of our tools and go out and dig holes and put out fences. Like young children have that energy, we had that energy. But I think there was sort of a blinkered attitude: We were a a bit too much like playful kids and not aware of what was going in the commune as a whole.
Much later, a few years ago here in Japan, I heard from someone I knew who said she stopped being a Sannyasin because she was being asked to take the clothes off the backs of people and it was cold weather by then and people were just being sent back on buses and that just grated with her. Most of us just saw the positive side of things.
thecut.com – proofreading and quotes by Osho News
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