It was a long time coming, but I finally took a deep dive into streaming programs, mainly because my wife has a Netflix subscription that I can freeload off of. I took baby steps at first, searching around for movies I might like, then maybe watching one a month. Then I got into a couple of series.
Now I’m heavily into Netflix documentaries, mainly of the true crime and/or political/sociological variety. I’ve been watching these things back-to-back-to-back for weeks now.
One I just finished binge-watching is Wild Wild Country, the award-winning Netflix doc that was released in 2018 and continues to trend today (at least here in London, where Netflix shows tend to show up later). The six-part series tells the story of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and the commune he and his followers built in rural Oregon during the 1980s.
The film mainly chronicles how quickly the Bhagwan’s vision of utopian paradise descended into a clusterfuck of bad blood, political infighting, retribution, power plays – and crime. On a larger scale, it has a lot to say about how quickly America will abandon its avowed principles when those principles prove inconvenient.
While watching Wild Wild Country, I got to thinking about the challenges of living in a country that preaches the gospel of individual liberty, and how pliant that gospel can be. Growing up in the United States, you are taught early and often about the sanctity of individual rights and freedoms. It’s practically baked into your consciousness.
It was only later that I learned the ugly truth, which is that certain rights and freedoms apply to some but not to others. My childhood years were spent in the American South, where people of color did not have the right to use certain restrooms, eat at certain restaurants, drink from certain water fountains, stay at certain hotels, or attend certain schools. For a long time – about 140 years – women in the USA did not have the right to take part in the electoral process by voting.
Most of those wrongs have been righted, but there’s still a big gap between what some people can do without recourse, and others can’t.
Two years ago a raging mob of heavily armed election deniers stormed the U.S. Capitol and faced almost no resistance from those in charge of securing and protecting the building. Last month, a single unarmed man was brutally beaten to death in Memphis by a handful of cops during a routine traffic stop.
Forty years ago, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh landed in Oregon hoping to set up shop in a land that prides itself on individual liberty and freedom of religion. It did not go well.
Before moving to the States, Rajneesh presided over his flock – called Sannyasins – from an ashram in India, where he spread a gospel that was part Eastern mysticism and part Western capitalism. Rich westerners descended on the ashram to meditate, raise their consciousness – and make the Bhagwan a very rich dude who collected Rolls Royces and Lear jets like most people collect knick-knacks.
When Indian authorities started looking a little too closely at the ashram, Rajneesh and his closest lieutenants started scouting other locations to serve as the headquarters of their growing global community. They settled on a 64,229-acre ranch near the tiny town of Antelope in eastern Oregon, previously known as the Big Muddy Ranch. They bought the property and began building their own city, which they incorporated and named Rajneeshpuram.
This is where things got interesting. I won’t go into all the details – there is plenty of info online if you want to dig deeper, including this writeup on The Guardian.
I will say this: The city these people built was very impressive. They put in their own power utility, their own sewage system, their own water reservoir, airport, school, residential area, lab, medical center, market, spiritual center, recreation area – the whole bloody lot. They built a dam and a lake. They developed rich farmland from what used to be dead, rocky terrain.
They built this all from the ground up, with their own hands (and lots of heavy equipment), and without the help of outside contractors. In almost no time it became a vibrant, modern, and self-sustaining community with thousands of residents.
I was frankly blown away by what these folks accomplished in a short amount of time. The Sannyasins might have acted like New Age hippies, with their group chants, free love, and rejection of traditional ideas about family, community, and sex – but these were some serious achievers, made up of engineers, architects, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other professionals from around the world and all walks of life.
Most of the work was presided over by a little dynamo named Ma Anand Sheela, a hyper-ambitious, uncompromising, tough-as-nails, brilliant, cutthroat, untrusting, and possibly batshit woman who became the Bhagwan’s personal secretary and main enforcer. Without her, this impressive city might never have seen the light of day – and impressive it was.
One problem, though.
The locals who lived nearby were not at all happy about these interlopers descending on their quiet community and establishing Utopia there. The closest town, Antelope, had about 40 residents, many of whom were older and retired. They did not like having strange outsiders moving in right next door. They didn’t like the construction equipment, the noise, the traffic, the crowds, the nighttime orgies.
Some locals worried that Rajneeshpuram was a cult along the lines of Jonestown, the religious commune in Guyana led by charismatic leader Jim Jones, a born-again American Christian who orchestrated the murder of a U.S. congressman and the ensuing mass suicide of 900-plus followers.
The good people of eastern Oregon decided to push back at the Sannyasins through means both legal and not-so-legal. In response, the Sannyasins did some pushing back of their own. They bought up a lot of the properties in Antelope, established residences there, organized a voting campaign, won election to the important seats in Antelope, took over the town government, renamed the town and its streets, took over the market, and took over the town.
Later, the Sannyasins aimed to take over the county government – and recruited a bunch of homeless people from around the United States to live there and register to vote. This is when the shit really hit the fan.
A Rajneesh-owned hotel in Portland was bombed. The Sannyasins vowed retribution (this was not a spiritual movement that believed in turning the other cheek). They bought a huge arsenal of guns and learned how to use them, spending hours taking target practice within earshot of their neighbors.
A salmonella outbreak was reported at several restaurants in the area, and the Sannyasins were suspected of tainting the food at salad bars. The Sannyasins organized a plot to assassinate a federal law enforcement official. They developed a plan to poison the municipal water supplies of nearby cities. There was an attempted murder.
Then things began to unravel.
Ma Anand Sheela – the dynamo woman mentioned earlier – had a falling out with the Rajneesh when she was suspected of working behind his back to do things against his wishes. She and her close circle of associates, knowing their days in this Utopian Paradise were numbered, split for Germany. People who not long ago professed undying devotion to each other started trading vicious insults and threats.
Peace, love, and harmony! We are the World!
Finally, the Feds and state police authorities got sick of it all and descended on the commune armed with guns and search warrants. Miraculously, nobody got hurt during this raid, even though many feared a bloodbath. The authorities found a lot of damning evidence and dropped the hammer in a big way.
The Rajneesh, seeing the writing on the wall, hopped a Lear jet and tried to flee one step ahead of the police, who had him nailed on immigration fraud, of all things. He was eventually tracked down on Oct. 29, 1985, in Charlotte, North Carolina – my hometown!
I was living just north of the city at the time, working for a little half-assed newspaper in a little half-assed town. The job would end about a month later when the paper folded up shop. Oh well.
Oddly, while watching this documentary, it completely escaped me that the Rajneesh was apprehended at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport while I was living about a dozen miles away. It wasn’t until the film mentioned the episode that I even remembered it. The memory is a mysterious thing ….
Anyway, back to the original point of this blog, which is how individual rights and freedoms are both revered and spat upon in the United States.
But before we get to that, let me just say this: I wouldn’t want the Rajneesh clan moving in next door to me, either. I don’t care about their values, their religion, their orgies, or the fact that the Rajneesh seemed to be a sort of prototypical religious leader/hustler out to enrich himself.
But the noise, traffic, and inconvenience – hoo boy, that’s a deal killer.
They had every right to be there. They paid for the land and did everything by the book, above board and to the letter of the law. They had an experienced legal team who knew exactly how to navigate the system. They got all the right permits, contacted all the right authorities, met all the right specifications.
But they didn’t fit in – and that became their undoing. They didn’t look the same as the locals. They didn’t dress the same. They weren’t from around these parts. They were outsiders, intruders. They didn’t follow the same moral code, or – importantly – the same religion.
This part of eastern Oregon was a land of mostly older, white, conservative Christians. The last thing they wanted was thousands of New Age quasi-Buddhists moving in next door. One local man opined that the Sannyasins were devil worshipers in the grip of Satan (they weren’t, but it sure sounded scary).
Keep in mind, this was the western United States, a region renowned for its fervent belief in property rights and religious freedom. More than a few ranchers out west have had run-ins with the law because they didn’t want the federal government nosing into their business.
But when a large group of weirdo Rajneesh followers tried to build a city right next door, the region’s population of fiercely independent, freedom-worshiping, anti-tyranny absolutists suddenly wanted the government to step in toot sweet and shut things down. It was this kind of ill will and aggression that eventually led the Sannyasins to take up arms in defense of their land and resort to terrorism to send a message.
The irony is that on the face of it, the Sannyasins represented all the values some of their biggest critics claimed to hold dear: the pursuit of religious liberty, the right to have dominion over their own land, the right to operate free from government interference.
Forty years later, a Christian-based Young Life camp has been established on the same land that once held the city of Rajneeshpuram. Nobody nearby has a problem with this – because it’s the right religion, with the right values, and the right looking people. No sex orgies, no wild celebrations, no foreign accents. Just good, wholesome Christian kids.
I’m not sure I really liked any of the people featured in Wild, Wild Country. The Sannyasins had an almost blind devotion to a man whose sage wisdom sounded like it was taken straight out of a fortune cookie (“There is no tomorrow, only this moment!”) – all while padding his bank account. The fact that some of his followers turned out to be violent felons didn’t help their cause.
Many of the locals were neck-deep in self-righteous hypocrisy, insisting that this sacred land belonged to them – even though their forefathers stole it from the Native Americans about a century earlier.
The authorities? They just couldn’t wait to get their hooks into a commune that consistently outsmarted and outflanked them until the day they didn’t.
Truly, it was hard to root for anyone.
It was even harder to relive this episode without concluding that the freedoms and rights America swears by can change on a dime, depending on who wants them and who wants to restrict them.
But, what the hell. At least my hometown got a few moments in the spotlight.
Note: The photo is of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh being arrested in Charlotte on Oct. 31, 1985 – Halloween!