Netflix Documentary ‘Wild Wild Country’ Reveals an Uncomfortable Truth About American Religious Innovation by Leah Payne

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In the 1980s, thousands of enthusiastic enlightenment-seekers built a commune called Rajneeshpuram in the rugged Central Oregon desert and for their brief time there, clashed with the residents of the rural town of Antelope.

For anyone like me who grew up in Oregon in the ’80s, Rajneeshpuram is a part of the mythic landscape of the region. Stories about a guru with a fleet of Rolls Royces, rumors of sexual orgies, and casual jokes about bioterrorism (don’t eat at the salad bar!) are as much a part of our childhood as campfire tales about Bigfoot on Mt. Hood. My father, who was a youth pastor in the ’80s, took a tour of Rajneeshpuram toward the end. He came home with stories of heavily armed hippies and spaced-out farm workers who were probably drugged without their knowledge.

The Rajneeshees or sannyasins, as they call themselves, were members of a new religious movement founded by an Indian man known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh or Osho. (The group still exists, albeit in different form.) What began as a globetrotting search for cosmic illumination, a celebration of “free love,” and a quest to build a utopia in America ended in disappointment and criminal charges.

The recently released Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country unpacks the extraordinary story. Through interviews with Rajneesh’s followers, residents of Antelope, local journalists, politicians, and law enforcement, the documentary follows the group from their initial ashram, or commune, in India to their ill-fated intentional community built on the expansive Big Muddy Ranch.

It might be easy to dismiss Rajneeshpuram as a marginal “cult,” but the group’s combination of spirituality, capitalism, and celebrity culture has a long history in Americaand is observable in relatively traditional corners of 21st-century revivalism (for example, the prosperity gospel movement), and in nontraditional groups like ScientologyWild Wild Country gives evidence that the tradition of American religious innovation exists in part because of an even older, more fundamental human desire for transcendence, meaning, and belonging—one we might see in ourselves.

Although the movement began in India, the series shows Osho and his personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela creating something that seems destined for the US. They exploited their celebrity status (Wild Wild Country shows bits and pieces of their numerous media appearances), were highly entrepreneurial, and displayed no shame in commodifying their spiritual practices in order to get top dollar (USD and other currencies) for their brand of enlightenment.

Interview soundbites from the sannyasins capture the group’s thoroughly American optimism. “I don’t think there has ever been a city that’s been laid out and built like this,” says Philip Toelkes (a.k.a. Swami Prem Niren), “A city that would be based on love and compassion and sharing, rather than ownership and greed and anger.”

As the recent Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff demonstrates, land use in the American West is a contentious issue full of ethical quandaries. The Rajneeshees’ quest to build a small city on ranching land was held up by local government officials and community activists, and when they took over the nearby town of Antelope and renamed it “Rajneesh,” the locals were unmoved by any pleas for freedom of assembly.

During the 1980s, some argued that local resistance to the controversial, foul-mouthed, and exceedingly charismatic Sheela (depicted as the group’s real leader) was the result of provincial white retirees who were rejecting multicultural hippies because of their own bigotry. The assumption has some credibility when we consider Oregon’s ignominious history of “exclusion laws,” the response of most Americans to religious innovators (see, for example, 19th-century reactions to the Latter-day Saints church), and the resistance—by many—to women of color in leadership.

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Source: Christianity Today