People of a certain age will remember the era. During the 1970s, there was a huge appetite for alternatives to the usual resources that might deal with depression, loneliness and general, common-or-garden, unhappiness.
Before there were all the medications that exist today and the array of therapies that can be utilized, a lot of people sought succour in Eastern religions, mysticism and a plethora of notions. They’re still doing it today. But back then, vast numbers of people were drawn to the teachings of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
Nothing unusual there. An older guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, had attracted the attention and devotion of celebrities, including the Beatles, before that. What became unusual about this particular instance is that Rajneesh and his followers, the orange-clad Rajneeshees, upped sticks in India and created a commune-city in remote Oregon. The Rajneeshpuram existed in Oregon between 1981 and 1985 and, boy, did all sorts of trouble ensue.
Wild Wild Country (now streaming on Netflix) is a multipart documentary account of what happened. It has become one of Netflix’s big cult hits this year. And little wonder – it’s a rich tale, incredibly affecting, sad, funny and wise. Yes, that good.
Directed by Chapman and Maclain Way, the series starts with a delicate, rather charming picture of Antelope, Ore., just before the Rajneeshpuram existed. Elderly locals recall the pristine landscape and deep quiet. “A sleepy little ol’ town comprised of about 50 people,” one woman says. An elderly man then describes the first hint of change. He was moseying out to mail a letter and encountered a man, a stranger in town. “He was not an American. You can spot a European by the shoes.”
It’s a fascinating way to open the series. And it matters, too. Because this six-part series is not simply about a near-forgotten episode in recent American history. The series is a rigorous exploration of religion, faith and Americans’ judgment of immigrants. At the same time, it gets lurid. As one episode follows another, taking the twisted path of Rajneesh and his followers from India to Oregon, the story is about sex, free love, jealousy, an attempted mass poisoning and more. It has vivid, arresting characters, none more compelling than Ma Anand Sheela, the personal secretary to Rajneesh, but the real mastermind behind so much of what happened – an absolute love-her or loathe-her figure.
What happened in Oregon descended into mayhem eventually. But you can sense the mayhem is coming from the moment Sheela describes her first meeting with the guru in India. She is awed by something, but you’re not sure what. Certainly, there is a pulses-racing sexual attraction. The same sense of foreboding is there when an Australian woman recounts how, depressed and angry, she happened upon the form of meditation espoused by Bhagwan Rajneesh; a dynamic meditation that included rigorous breathing and hyperventilation. She was never the same after that. Something fierce and possibly dangerous had been released.
The series is at pains to be careful about the accepted definitions of “cult” and “religion.” And it is not a simple-minded exposé. In a way, it’s about intolerance and in a way it’s about how tolerance inside a group unleashes a selfishness that can have terrible repercussions.
It is also thriller and a mind-bending journey inside what the media at the time considered a “sex cult” that was an attack on the fabric of American life. Was it? Well, things got violent, out of control and bewildering – on both sides of the fence that separated the followers of Rajneesh from the locals.
That non-American who appeared on the street said to the man mailing a letter, “They’re coming.” They did. They came, saw and failed to conquer but caused an extraordinary story to unfold. Were they all that different from the first pilgrims who came to America? Watch and go figure.