Wild Wild Country is the 6 part documentary series on Netflix, that looks at the Rajneesh cult, charting it from its establishment in the USA with the buying of a massive ranch in the state of Oregaon, its dreams of being heaven on earth, it’s fight with locals to stay on, and it’s eventual fall due to internal contradictions. Wild Wild Country is a fascinating story of power and power corruption.
The film has three major interwoven threads. The first is the paranoia and fear of the locals against the Rajneesh cult. White, Christian, small town (town of 40 people) confronted with sophisticated people, who made out in public, danced and sung naked, and prayed to an alien God. It was a disaster waiting to happen. The second is the story of Ma Anand Sheela – Rajneesh’s personal secretary, and the driving force behind the move to the USA- her zeal that went out of control. And, the third is the story of the relentless law enforcement that pursued the ruthless law breaking – from currency fraud, to immigration fraud, to election fraud – all because they wanted to get their own way.
The hero of the film, or should one say the anti-hero, is definitely Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh’s personal secretary, who was the sole spokesperson for the cult, and the driving force behind it getting established in Oregaon. The initial episodes when they are building the new Rajneeshpuram, the energy, exuberance, and hopes of the sanyasins (cult members) to build “heaven on earth” was almost infectious. You want them to succeed. And, I wanted those who opposed them – nice, white, middle class Oreganians to lose. The paranoia of the locals was palpable. Literally the Davids going up against a Goliath organisation that had a rather elastic view of the truth. And, this is where we see Ma Anand Sheela in her element. Encouraging the flock to build better, and further; taking on the locals in a pugalistic manner on camera, and standing up to the authorities. Her self belief as one blessed by the Bhagwan (literally God) was unshakeable.
The second strand of the story is the rise and rise of Ma Anand Sheela, and then her fall from grace. The story gradually reveals an organisation within an organisation, and the machinations of Sheela and her core team to interpret the Bhagwan’s wishes and see them fructify. This included stuff that was not just immoral but also illegal. And this led to a backlash from law enforcement, that finally led to the undoing of the cult. In it are diverse conceptual arguments that are valid even today : what are the rights of the individual? what happens when the right to religion of an individual or a group clash with the secular framework of the State? What reigns supreme – the right to religion or the Secular state? There was no judgement on this aspect – or it may have been as important as an American legal precedent as Roe v/s Wade. Instead the Rajneesh Ashram got caught on the oldest of crimes- crime borne about by lust, envy, lies, and greed.
What is amazing is that so many intelligent, successful people were taken in, and became members of the Rajneesh Cult. When all around them, the story of religion gone bonkers was there to be seen -be it the fleet of Rolls Royces, or the million dollar watches, the apparent contradictions in messages, or even the response to external criticism. The point of religion is not to make you more belligerent or violent. And, yet it did.
You feel for the locals. If a rajneesh cult had come up near my home, when i was growing up – with all its licentiousness, i am sure my parents and their neighbours would have had a problem. You also admire their tenacity in fighting the goliath.
But, at no time in the watching of Wild WIld Country, do you think that the Rajneesh cult are the villains. The documentary is fair. Sheela, despite her actions and her conviction (pun intended), comes across as a serious bad ass, but a good serious bad ass. If you were in battle she is the woman you would want on your side.
I wish the series had spent some time on the motivation of the sanyasins to leave everything and join the cult. Also, how they overcame their own social programming to attain moksha the Rajneesh style – but, maybe it is material for another series.
The 6 hours is well spent. A mix of old footage, and detailed interviews with some of the main protagonists. The interviews with Sheela especially were superb. I would like to see more of her story, if there is a sequel. The soundtrack is outstanding. the story is well narrated. The tension is palpable. The film makers avoid the temptation of making the townspeople the heroes and the Rajneeshes the villains. It is a nuanced story of good and evil. of bigotry. and, of devotion that knows no bounds. It is definitely worth a watch.
Plus : The series refers to a 20 part print series published by the Oregonian. Les Zaitz the journalist who was following the story was one of the people on the assassination list. That entire series can be read here. Am gradually making my way through it. it is a lot of reading, but well worth it.