Tags: Cults, Documentary, Netflix
Wild Wild Country is a six-part documentary series directed by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way that premiered on Netflix last month. It chronicles the heady rise and diabolical fall of the guru/cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later called Osho), his magnetic right hand woman Ma Anand Sheela, and their devoted band of red and maroon clad followers, the Sannyasins. In the early 1980s they established the impressive Rajneeshpuram commune in the unlikely, all-American locale of Antelope, Oregon. In short, madness ensued, complete with love triangles, the largest bioterror attack in US history, and an FBI chase to rival OJ Simpson’s. In Wild Wild Country the Way brothers piece together Rajneeshpuram’s spectacular unraveling through a combination of dreamlike archival footage and interviews with surviving head honchos, eager devotees (some since reformed), FBI officers, and townspeople.
Kajal Editor Nadya Agrawal and staff writers Aziz Adib and Tara Kenny sat down to unpack the politics of the Rajneeshees and praise Sheela’s flawless aesthetic.
Nadya: First of all how many knew what the doc would be about before watching?
Aziz: So I think I randomly read a bit about this years ago and all I remembered was the water poisoning thing. Other than that, I came in with nothing else, no prior knowledge. I can’t believe this isn’t being taught in high schools honestly.
Nadya: Yeah I don’t remember hearing anything about this. I knew about the Jonestown mass suicide and I learned recently that it wasn’t suicide, it was murder.
Aziz: I didn’t know anything about Jonestown, I had to wiki it.
Nadya: That was the whole “don’t drink the kool aid thing.”
Tara: I watched this terrifying Jonestown documentary, but I didn’t know anything about the Rajneeshees. I had actually only heard about Osho in passing in a positive way.
Nadya: Maybe it’s unfair to mention the Rajneeshees and Jonestown in the same sentence. Ok so we had like no context for this doc.
Nadya: At the beginning it felt so peaceful. Like these folks just wanted a place to do their screaming naked yoga. Then over time the shit hit the fan. But I was into it in the beginning. Did it feel like it would mutate the way it did to anyone else?
Tara: I’m with you, Nadya. And I feel like that’s the really devastating thing about cults: in the beginning they often ARE actually really great.
Aziz: So I actually had an issue: we were never really told what the practices were? Maybe that was part of the keeping it all mysterious thing. But I felt very in the dark and it was hard to make a judgement. Or opinion, rather.
Nadya: Sure. They mentioned stuff about being pro-sex and pro-capitalism unlike other sects. It felt like excess American.
Tara: That is also a common tantra thing. As in, the idea of embracing and of mediating your vices
rather than denying them, which tends to be the tip with other religions. And I think that embracing of the outside world rather than rejecting the world is pretty appealing. Like, Osho never referred to himself as a “guru” so it didn’t come off as disingenuous in the same way it does when other “gurus” end up being sex pests or whatever.
Aziz: Okay, fair enough. To your question, Nadya, I was initially expecting to see more of an emphasis on the religious/spiritual practices, but it was clear by episode two that this was about the politics of a cult and not necessarily the day to day goings on of this specific cult.
Nadya: True! But he didn’t refuse the religion and title when he got them.
Tara: Also true, lol.
Nadya: The cult itself was kinda boring until they brought the guns in. Then it got scary.
Aziz: I guess I was drawn to what seemed to be this overnight amassing of people and capital to go out and pull this project off. But the people themselves, yeah, kinda dry.
Nadya: Sheela built a city out of thin air!
Aziz: It was like, “Oh we can’t do it in India, but Sheela can do it in America.”
Tara: Sheela was magnetic af.
Nadya: Can we talk about Sheela?! Oh my god I’m in awe.
Aziz: Sheela is a frightening and impressive person.
Nadya: And she was so belligerent. “TOUGH TITTIES!”
Aziz: She truly gave 0 fucks.
Nadya: I loved it. Like a brown, mad Lady Di.
Tara: I don’t know if this is jumping too much to the end but I felt like Sheela really maintained her integrity in some ways. Like, she certainly ended up having orchestrated some terrible things but she didn’t back stab in the same way that Osho did.
Nadya: I think she’s a sociopath. But she was also totally groomed.
Aziz: I don’t know. Attempted murder is attempted murder. She literally did stab someone in the back too.
Nadya: Poisoning a town is poisoning a town.
Tara: LOL! Yeah I don’t condone her actions.
Aziz: Like they stabbed the homeboy in the back with poison.
Nadya: But what she said at the end about how Oregonians didn’t care about Black people or Native Americans was real. Our lady of diarrhea revenge.
Aziz: She’s a true anti-hero.
Tara: But I respected the fact that she didn’t bad mouth Osho in public, while he was out there calling her a “bitch.” Ugh. Not very guru like.
Nadya: Yeah! Saying she just wanted to sleep with him! I was so mad.
Tara: Also I think it was amazing that she managed to commandeer such respect in America.
Aziz: I felt similarly, as though I was watching Frank Underwood.
Nadya: Better dressed though.
Aziz: I fucking hate you but this shit is so bonkers, keep going.
Tara: Like…this was in the 80s right? And she’s a brown immigrant lady. Pretty amazing that she was such a bad bitch and schooled Americans on their own constitution. And also she did end up running that nursing home at the end? Also she had amazing outfits.
Nadya: Yeah ok so I felt like they didn’t break the law until they broke the law. The government was after them almost for no reason!
Aziz: I think let’s talk about that some more.
Nadya: Ok, so, it started with pure xenophobia.
Tara: Yes just classic fear of the unknown from the Oregonians. Literally, “they’re just not like us.”
Nadya: That’s what they said! “The real fear is the unknown.”
Tara: But I found it quite sad that the Rajneeshees ended up reinforcing the fears of the Oregonians. As in, the locals basically hated them for having sex and having different life choices to them but then they ended up actually poisoning the whole town. Which is unfortunate.
Nadya: Lmao, “unfortunate.” More like chemical warfare.
Tara: Unfortunate for the potential for these white folks to ever trust anyone who isn’t the same as them.
Aziz: Yeah I mean I just thought it was a weird combination of “unknowns”: a guru from India, an ambitious and no-fucks-given spokeswoman (secretary feels reductive of what she actually accomplished), a collection of what were essentially white hippies who benefited from the post-war economic boom/opportunity (the lawyer did a good job of acknowledging this in episode one), and then it’s this non-religion religion that goes against a lot of core, social American values (free sex, open marriages, this sort of moral lawlessness). So it’s the multi-layered unknowing, and it comes in so brashly, so loudly, just occupies this space in a place that is otherwise not bothered by outsiders.
Tara: One thing I feel like the documentary glossed over was what went down after the Rajneeshees brought in the homeless people to boost their votes. Initially it seemed like Sheela had figured out how to fix some really deep-seated social problems by actually treating homeless people like human beings (which the U.S. still fails to do for the most part) then the Oregonians blocked them from registering to vote, and suddenly they were turning on the Rajneeshees, who were in turn drugging them! It seemed to gloss over some fairly integral happenings in between.
Nadya: It’s because one of them tried to strangle Sheela. That’s when it turned. They weren’t equipped to handle the mental health concerns. So they drugged and dumped them. Really short-sighted and cruel.
Aziz: Yeah that was my understanding as well.
Tara: Yeah, I got that. But I feel like the documentary made it seem like it was really utopian for a hot minute and I just don’t know if I really buy that.
Nadya: But yeah they were definitely a means to an end. Maybe they wanted it to be utopian. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Aziz: I don’t know, I thought it was a pretty powerful moment, knowing that Sheela chose to re-abandon them.
Nadya: Yeah. Showed how scary she was. Ruthless. I still feel like Sheela was groomed for all this! She joined when she was 16. That’s a lot.
Tara: So do y’all think Osho knew everything or was Sheela the mastermind?
Aziz: I think Sheela kept stuff from him.
Nadya: I think Sheela kept a lot from him. Yeah like the diamond watches.
Tara: I felt like he knew everything and then just threw her under the bus. He annoyed me a lot.
Aziz: Why do you think that?
Tara: Maybe not everything. It just annoyed me how he responded by calling her a bitch publicly. And then suddenly getting everyone to burn their orange clothes. Like…come on mate, you chose to remain silent while everyone was worshiping you, until now?
Aziz: The reason I feel like she kept stuff from him was because it was like the moment that someone else had influence she tried to kill them…I feel like him behaving that way could be argued the other way: that she was running the show behind his back and he was angry.
Tara: I suppose also just that I was watching this with the knowledge that people love Osho today and to me he just didn’t seem very “turn the other cheek wise sage” when he was so out for blood.
Nadya: He said as much. He said when they hurt you don’t turn the other cheek, take both their cheeks. The world he set up was militant.
Aziz: I mean, again, she tried to kill someone. To me his response and words signified that she was doing a lot of this stuff on her own, with the honest belief that it was for the good of the community.
Tara: Yeah true! I just didn’t really believe that he didn’t know about any of the laundering that was happening. Also just a side note re the attempted murder of his pharmacist: how funny was the Australian woman Jane [Shanti B], who was just so down to be a cult member? Like she was just ready to transfer her reverence to anyone.
Nadya: I wonder about that. All of them are still super in love with the guy. Are certain folks predisposed to joining cults? Or are we all predisposed?
Tara: I thought it was pretty messed up the way Osho was treated by the police and FBI in the end. How he was flown around for three weeks and in the documentary they didn’t really deny that they were doing that to terrorize him.
Nadya: Yeah. He was an old man. They were being cruel. But like that’s how they treat folks today too. No decency.
Tara: Yeah it was disgusting! Re being predisposed to joining cults: when the lawyer made that comment about how he was truly loved (TRULY!) within the Rajneeshee and how that is “an experience worth having.”
Nadya: Are they just a bunch of lonely and unhappy white folks with too much money? They didn’t talk to any working class Sanyasins.
Tara: Mmm it seemed like it wasn’t all white folks from the footage though, and I think a lot of them were middle class not filthy rich. But yeah definitely cringingly seduced by the “exoticism” of India, etc.
Nadya: They did show some of the diversity. A lot of them just seemed to want to be in nature.
Tara: And they also did appear to be joyfully building the city and having a good time of it? As opposed to something like Jonestown where people were sleep-deprived and mind-controlled.
Nadya: I think it made folks feel a part of something. It was a beautiful grand vision. Like camp for adults.
Tara: Totally! I wonder if these exist today? I would probably join tbh, but not if it was lead by one man who everyone revered. But it seems too late to join one now. I kind of missed the moment because now everyone knows what a cult is. There’s too much bad PR.
Nadya: Seems like an easy way to inherit a dope wardrobe. Is it bad how much I loved their team colors?
Tara: Well maroon is still a holy color, i.e. monks and nuns wear maroon. I’m not exactly sure why maroon is the team color of holy people but the aesthetics of this cult were certainly on point. Some of the footage was also amazing.
Nadya: Like a vintage fashion commercial. They were so ecstatic over him. I wonder how much of that was just maintaining eye contact and saying “do what you want”?
Tara: Well I think he’s still quite respected today as a guru, after the rebrand to “Osho” anyway. He was definitely magnetic in some way, i.e. his eyes.
Nadya: Aziz, what were you most shocked by? Or maybe not shocked. Surprised?
Aziz: 2 things I guess: 1) I am just sort of fixated on the sheer size of the community and the money they put together. Like, to fund and operate a commune with that many people – I still can’t wrap my head around it. 2) I feel like the community I grew up in is very much cult-like. So a lot of this felt very familiar, and there were a number of moments, like when Sheela was describing Osho in the beginning, that made me physically uncomfortable. I guess I didn’t like how I wasn’t shocked that this whole thing became an entire mess. Seeing people willing to die for him, willing to pick up arms for him, it’s the type of conviction that sort of scares me, because it feels devoid of doubt and questioning.
Tara: I agree Aziz. The way they spoke reminded me a lot of my parents and some of their friends who were big hippies in the 70s/now and speak about monks and other gurus like this. Like how anything the person does becomes some kind of holy action or a lesson – even if they’re committing sins suddenly they’re doing it to teach their devotees a lesson/hold a mirror up to yourself.
Aziz: That’s the perfect description lmao.
Tara: And for me the fact that these cult leaders are always men and it’s often young girls gushing over them is uncomfortable.
Nadya: That’s why Sheela being 16 when she entered work with him scares me so much. Like she might have been amazing turning her brilliance elsewhere.
Tara: No doubt!!
Nadya: Even at the end she still seemed to love him a lot. Even after going to jail to save his life. Also trying to save his life! Idk I felt really bad for her when her husband died.
Tara: That was really sad, and the way that he forced her to suppress her emotions too.
Nadya: Yeah to just sleep it off. Like wtf?
Tara: I kind of think she’s a feminist icon. Or at least a sartorial icon. She’s gorgeous.
Nadya: Me too. On both accounts. She built a city out of nothing and looked good while she did it. In any other world she might’ve been on a series of magazine covers. And not always posing naked.
Tara: Omg that was amazing. And the German guards getting her to sign them. Another thing I thought was amazing was the news footage and the kind of terror around cults in the media. It was very Trumpian in some ways. Just this intense American fear of outsiders and the unknown.
Nadya: They were so maligned from the outset. It def got their back up. It felt so unfounded. It’s weird but I wasn’t so fascinated by the India side to this. Like there are so many gurus like Osho in India even today. I was very much into Sheela though as a role model. Like here’s the complicated representation we’ve been missing.
Aziz: Unrelated but I’m not entirely convinced that Osho was not a character played by Irrfan Khan.
Nadya: Lmao I’d watch it tbh.
Aziz: They have the same eyes and Irrfan is that good.