In 1981, the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh moved to the farm community of Antelope, Oregon with his followers and began constructing Rajneeshpuram, an idyllic community based on Rajneesh’s teachings that mixed Eastern and Western philosophies. The documentary Wild Wild Country tells the story of the Bhagwan cult in Oregon, but there are still many details that it doesn’t manage to cover. You may know this group as the cult that poisoned salad bars, but they were much more dangerous than the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack.
While the Rajneeshees weren’t subject to many of the extreme cult recruitment techniques of their peers, they seemed to undergo a severe amount of brainwashing, for lack of a better term. Citizens of Rajneeshpuram followed their guru blindly. That meant doing everything his right hand, Ma Anand Sheela, instructed them to, including assassination attempts and domestic terror. Step into the world of Shree Rajneesh and experience a world of community, free love, and domestic terror.
Before the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh moved his people from India to the Oregon property known as "Big Muddy Ranch" in 1981, the area was a sleepy community. There was a schoolhouse, post office, church, and a general store, and that's about it.
Aside from that, there was a lot of farmland and ranchers living quiet lives. One rancher in Wild Wild Country says the people lived there because they could enjoy a "certain degree of being alone."
When Rajneesh showed up in 1981, no one in Antelope could wrap their heads around what was happening. The ranchers noted that, at the time, there were building supplies being carried in "by the truckload," which gave them pause, but when they heard the Bhagwan wanted to build a city of "50,000 in the desert," they became suspicious.
Prior to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh moving his group to Oregon, he seemed happy to host visitors at his ashram in Pune, India, where he and his visitors would meditate for hours on end. Many investigators believe he was spurred to make a move to America by Ma Anand Sheela, otherwise known as Sheela Silverman.
She began her career with the Bhagwan as his personal secretary after she was introduced to him by her parents. While working for the Bhagwan, she rose through the hierarchy of the Rajneesh and became known as his "lieutenant." By the time the group had moved to Oregon, she was believed to be the person who ran the operation. While Bhagwan was more interested in collecting Rolls Royces and jewelry, Sheela seemed like the person who was trying to grow the collective.
Something that's obvious from the beginning of Wild Wild Country is how many followers of the Bhagwan still believe the guru was a good person, despite all signs that suggest the opposite. Philip Toelkes, a lawyer who lived on the commune in Oregon, says many of the guru's followers felt like they went through war together, and he insists the citizens of the commune weren't easily lead astray; they were "doctors, lawyers, city planners."
Many of the guru's former followers gush throughout the documentary about having been a part of a grand experiment, and they believe the ashram would still be going if they hadn't faced extreme racism from the people of Oregon.
It's easy to call this kind of belief "brainwashing," but throughout the documentary, you get the idea that the followers of the guru do not want to think they wasted their lives following a man who didn't care about them one way or the other.
As this The Cut article shows, even former followers of the group who did not take part in Wild Wild Country feel that being a follower of Rajneesh had "pluses and minuses," and others described it as "the most positive time of my life." Many people still support the Bhagwan or, at least, think on that time in their lives relatively fondly.
While he was still working in India, the Bhagwan spouted off teachings that would go on to form the beginnings of new-age philosophy. His teachings were called "The New Man," and it was essentially a vague mixture of Eastern Buddhism and Western commercialism.
The guru doesn't speak often in the documentary, but you do hear some of his teachings from India. At one point early in Wild Wild Country, he tells a group of his followers, "I was asleep, and now I am awake. You are asleep, and you can be awake." It's a phrase that's vague enough to be meaningless, yet can mean anything you want.