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.
No One Knew What Was Happening When Rajneesh Showed Up
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.
Ma Anand Sheela Is Believed To Have Been The Brains Behind The Operation
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.
Many Members Of The Ranch Are Still On The Bhagwan's Side
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.
The Bhagwan's Teachings Were Run-Of-The-Mill New Age Hokum
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.
The Guru's Followers Blame Sheela For Most Of What Went Wrong
When you watch Wild Wild Country, it becomes apparent many of the followers of the Bhagwan believe the guru never signed off on any of the things that happened in the four short years their community fought against the people of Oregon. Everyone from the commune who's interviewed in the documentary calls out Sheela for trying to make a power grab.
They believe the Bhagwan was just trying to be a relaxed head figure, and the people of Oregon would have been fine with the commune if Sheela hadn't gone about things the way she had. However, his former followers may be ignoring the fact that Sheela was acting under the orders of Bagwhan, and the reason he got to be so relaxed was that she handled the day-to-day work of building the commune.
Shortly after moving to Oregon, Bhagwan stopped speaking to almost everyone except for Sheela, his doctor, and his wealthiest donors. Sheela was even given power of attorney, which is when the guru's followers believe she began changing the flow of the group.
This article from The Cut also quotes former followers who expressed distrust of Sheela, one calling her "cunning, clever, but not intelligent."
The Cult Bought Up Most Of Antelope, Oregon
Things were going well for the group once they had their commune set up outside of Antelope, but after a few months, they decided to expand. In order to do that, they had to start buying property in Antelope and the surrounding communities. The citizens of Antelope weren't excited about the prospect of living in a city owned by commune members, but they were likely more turned off by the group because of their Eastern philosophy rather than their real estate acumen.
One citizen who was interviewed in the film during the early '80s said,
I don't like anyone that likes to come in and take over a town. I believe there's one God, and [when] you start bowing down to a man, you're just letting Satan push you there. [The Bhagwans are] run by Satanic power.
The locals turned the property war of Antelope into a battle of good and evil. The citizens of Antelope began vandalizing the community and trying to push out the Rajneeshes with fear tactics. When that didn't work, they attempted to unincorporate Antelope to keep the commune from taking over the town. However, this attempt failed when they were outvoted by members of the commune.
On a positive note, as of 2013, Oregon is planning on using cabins formerly owned by the Rajneeshpuram to house homeless individuals. This way, some of Rajneeshpuram's property will be put to good use.