Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931–1990) began teaching publically in the 1960s. Bhagwan criticized socialism and Gandhian politics and challenged many traditional Hindu values. His talks seemed to synthesize and illuminate the teachings of various religious traditions. He was an advocate of free love, he blended psychotherapy and meditation, and held civilizational aspirations that framed his movement as the catalyst for a global transformation that would end war, violence, sectarianism and hunger. Many of his talks are available on YouTube.
Despite being fascinated by religion, and having even taught a course on New Religious Movements, I had never heard of Rajneesh, or Osho, as he was later affectionately called. With the release of a six-part Netflix documentary series Wild, Wild Country directed by Maclain and Chapman Way, we are given a whirlwind tour of one of the US’s most fascinating and explosive religious experiments.
In terms of production quality, Wild, Wild Country may be the best documentary series I have ever seen! The visual storytelling is masterful. The cinematography seamlessly blends historic footage and colour-saturated contemporary footage of the people and places associated with the movement’s heyday. The soundtrack isn’t bad either! The narrative is at times alarmist but overall sympathetic to both those who opposed Osho’s movement, and those who are still loyal to him and his teachings. Wild, Wild Country confronts us with yet another case of religious outsiders seeking acceptance on the margins of American society, and like most new religious movements, they were met with intense resistance.
The 40 residents of the town of Antelope, state and federal officials were almost immediately worried when an obscure Guru from India purchased a large ranch in central Oregon. Baghwan’s first commune in Pune, India, established in the early 1970s, ran into trouble with the national government. In 1981 Rajneesh and many of his followers relocated to the United States.
Several things did not sit right with the local towns peoples. The Rajneeshees practised an ecstatic form of meditation called ‘Dynamic Meditation’ that resembled, in some footage, a kind of psychotic break. They embraced free-love. They re-incorporated the town of Antelope and renamed it Rajneeshpurum, occupying almost the entire City Council. Rajneeshees or, Sannyasins as they were also called, wore mostly maroon or pink colours as a sign of group cohesion. Feeling somewhat unwelcomed, they became heavily armed as a measure of “self-defence.” And, it seemed that Rajneesh lived in lavish luxury, while his followers lived simple communal lives, suggesting a disparity between teacher and student. Many followers also cut off ties with family and friends and donated their assets to the movement, a red flag for many. This combination of factors, and the recent mass-suicide at Jonestown in Guyana meant that what may have felt like utopia to some, was being framed by locals and the media as a capital ‘C’ cult.
However, by far the most compelling character in the series is Rajneesh’s personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela. Much of the militancy and controversy in the public eye came through her interviews as the mouthpiece of the movement. She was the Stalin to Rajneesh’s Lenin; an uncompromising and fierce protector of Osho and his movement. In the defence of the commune, Sheela would stop at nothing. She plotted assassinations, wiretapped the entire compound, and perpetuated one of the worst bioterrorism attacks in the history of the United States by contaminating Wasco County salad bars with E. coli bacteria.
You simply must see for yourself how it all comes unravelled, but in reviewing this excellent film, I wanted to focus on one aspect that caught my attention. Though not rooted in the Christian tradition, the decision of the religious commune to take refuge in a remote part of Oregon has a long lineage in monastic and religious movements. Religious scholar and theologian Belden Lands says this of the relationship between land and new religious movements:
“People seeking new vitality in the spiritual life continually retreat to wild and undeveloped landscapes, seeking new meaning along the outer margins of familiarity. There, in places of abandonment—the desert, the highlands—they establish community rooted in the spirit of wilderness saints before them. But after having made this new land habitable, beginning to look upon it with a pastoral eye, they sense the danger of losing the sharp edge and hardiness the original landscape had suggested. Subsequent movements of reform, therefore, set off in search of still other wild and remote regions to begin anew. Or they preserve within the present terrain an archetypal or metaphorical landscape symbolizing the wilderness enclave the community still aspires to become. Repeatedly, therefore, the “desert ideal” of fourth-century monasticism in Egypt, Syria, and the Wilderness of Judea served to inspire successive movements of spiritual renewal” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, 47).
In some ways, I appreciate religious movements that see religion as something more than an after-work hobby, a social club, or a Sunday ritual. The Rajneeshees saw themselves as moving to the desert to begin the work of transforming the planet. Sound familiar? Many hundreds of utopian movements have had similar ambitions and claimed not to be a new religious sect.
In my research on medieval era monasticism, new orders would often emerge as an attempt to return to the spiritual roots of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They would write grand narratives about their fleeing to the dangerous and unforgiving wilderness to make the wildlands blossom as a rose and to spread the Gospel. And, if there were people there, they would either write them out of the story or in more rare cases, physically drive them out of the area.
The Rajneeshees often claimed that they simply wanted to live in peace. But as they set their sights on the Wasco County Commission election, it became clear that they had a more evangelical agenda. There is something absolutely revitalising about starting fresh. But, when you show up in someone’s ‘countryside’ and assume it to be a ‘desert wilderness’ there are bound to be problems.