The new Netflix documentary reveals an uncomfortable truth about American religious innovation.
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 more modest 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 …