Should there be a label suited to the task of dissuading people from joining a group, that’s it. The word conjures up images of Kool-Aid-induced carnage, F.B.I. standoffs under the Texas sun and uniform thought accompanied by, well, actual uniforms.
It is in this final respect, clothing, that sannyasins, devotees of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, immediately shock. Clad from head to toe in tones of red and orange, these followers were conspicuous new neighbors in the quiet Oregon town of Antelope, where they settled in 1981 after being pushed out of their ashram by the Indian government.
Cult. Should there be a label suited to the task of dissuading people from joining a group, that’s it.
They called their new home Rajneeshpuram, and its 64,000 acres were quickly occupied by thousands of sannyasins seeking proximity to their leader and a life of meditative bliss. Rajneesh’s personal secretary, the megalomaniacal Ma Anand Sheela, orchestrated the commune’s construction, and following a brief period of relative calm, relations between inhabitants of Rajneeshpuram and longtime residents of Antelope soured.
The Netflix documentary series “Wild Wild Country,” directed by brothers Chapman Way and Maclain Way,details Rajneeshpuram’s downward spiral; the scandals that plague the community include immigration fraud, biochemical attacks, arson, assassination attempts, the recruitment of homeless individuals to sway an election and the drugging of those same folks after their presence threatens the commune’s peace. The documentary features a wealth of archival footage, from the nascency of Rajneesh’s public life in India to the dissolution of the Oregon experiment. There are extensive interviews with key former members of Rajneeshpuram, including Sheela herself. The combination of intimate footage and candid confessions makes “Wild Wild Country” a worthwhile watch.
It also presents the opportunity for a worthwhile discussion. Sometimes the best way to understand a serious phenomenon is to look at its parody. In this case, the serious phenomenon is religion, and its parody, a modern attempt at inventing one. The incursion of the “orange people” into Wasco County ignited a religious freedom debate that spread across Oregon in a not-so-predictable fashion. Their presence presented the problem of relating to the “other,” whether that “other” was a retired rancher or a spiritualist in red. One could also ask how Rajneesh managed to exploit the logic of global capitalism along with a certain market for spirituality among Westerners.
Sometimes the best way to understand a serious phenomenon is to look at its parody.
But to answer those questions, we must first ask: Who were the sannyasins? What compelled these people to shirk their former selves, relocate to rural Oregon and adopt a monochromatic wardrobe? Three concepts shed light on the nature of and attraction to religious belief and, in the case of Rajneeshpuram, its parody: practice, ideology and utopia.
To quote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, the underlying message of religion is: “You must change your life.” Each religion makes claims of verticality, positing a certain plane to which one should aspire, not as an individual but in community. To do that, religious systems develop techniques. Sacraments, spiritual direction and prayer constitute typical Catholic practices.
Rajneeshees had their own “therapies” that connected them to a higher plane of consciousness. “Dynamic meditation” was one such therapy, involving spastic breathing, an explosion of raw emotion, impassioned hooting and jumping. The practice resembles a mix between a toddler’s temper tantrum and a Richard Simmons workout routine. But sannyasin practices, from sexual experimentation to collectivist living, were not unique to the commune. They were outgrowths of the budding New Age movement—a backlash to domestic conventionality that characterized midcentury Western life—in which communities were forged from a desire to escape a dull, unfulfilling existence.
For these devotees, a shared fiction seems better than a disenchanted, isolated existence—at least for a time.
The centrality of community in Rajneeshpuram is reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “The Master.” In this fictional retelling of Scientology’s beginnings, the master (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) also makes clear claims of verticality centered on the creation of a community. Both this movie and “Wild Wild Country” could be read as tragedies of masters and their lonely disciples trying to invent a world for themselves. For these devotees, a shared fiction seems better than a disenchanted, isolated existence—at least for a time.
As a system of conceptual frameworks for understanding and altering the world, ideologies tend to be understood as distortions of reality suited to particular needs or goals. It is in this sense that Karl Marx understood religion to be a form of ideology, i.e., the “opiate of the masses.”
Another kind of ideological possession defined the teachings of the Rajneeshee guru. In the words of Rajneesh, “We are materialist spiritualists. Nothing like this has ever happened in the world. This is a new experiment.” Far from rejecting the excesses of material acquisition, Rajneesh, as a religious leader and businessman, saw merit in blending Eastern mysticism with Western capitalism.
Prior to entering a period of silence (which he later left), Rajneesh advocated for “awakened beings” that transcend distinctions of race and nationality. His goal was the creation of a “New Man,” attentive only to the current moment, to a higher consciousness. Do not reject the world! That was Rajneesh’s rallying cry. Instead, embrace sex, embrace art, embrace meditation, embrace production and consumption and lots of it. This materialist ethos permeated every element of Rajneeshee existence. As the years progressed, so too did the opulence of the guru’s attire. Austere white robes gave way to velvet garments, intricately beaded headwear, million-dollar watches and a garage full of Rolls-Royces.
Rajneesh, as a religious leader and businessman, saw merit in blending Eastern mysticism with Western capitalism.
In his analysis of ideology, the French philosopher Paul Ricœur attends to the way distortions of reality seek to justify specific practices and how these practices, in turn, bring people together. While distortion and justification capture negative aspects of ideology, its integrative quality is worth holding on to insofar as it responds to our desire to feel part of something larger, something that both precedes and outlives us.
Rajneesh’s via media to the New Man, a fusion of Western and Eastern practice, appealed to a population that was, in many respects, successful. The conversions recounted in “Wild Wild Country” are not sob stories. Few, if any, sannyasins first stumbled upon Rajneesh’s teachings in a state of desperation. They left comfortable careers and loving families for the sake of establishing a successful commune.
“All communes have died,” says Rajneesh, “because of this stupid idea [that they] should not create wealth.” For whom and what such wealth should exist becomes evident as the series progresses.
Utopias are exercises of the imagination, projections into the future. Like ideologies, they offer interpretations of reality. In this sense, Rajneesh’s Oregonian experiment was one of utopia-building. Sannyasins pioneered sophisticated eco-friendly agricultural techniques. They built airports and shopping malls and formed independent fire and police departments. They attempted to live out a future that awaits us all if we are sufficiently conscious and open to embrace it.
By questioning existing forms of power, utopias have the potential to be subversive. Philip Toelkes (a.k.a Swami Prem Niren), Rajneesh’s legal counsel and one-time mayor of Rajneeshpuram, went to court to protect Rajneeshees from a slew of legislation aimed at removing Rajneeshees from the state. The ensuing legal battle raised questions as to whether a religious group can run a county without infringing upon the separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution. History, however, has shown that utopia-making attempts are fatally tied up with questions of power. Ultimately, this spells the downfall for the commune, as secrecy on the part of Ma Anand Sheela and her inner circle spell the demise of the Oregon experiment.
In pursuing the possible, the Rajneeshees forgot the real. Utopias, even Rajneesh’s, succeed in questioning the existing beliefs and practices of their present time. Perhaps labeling Rajneeshpuram a cult is too dismissive, for its existence shed light on the way people respond to the foreign. There is something to retrieve in all of this parody.
At their worst, religious communities are purely ideological. To the extent that ideologies are sources of integration, however, they bring people together over a shared sense of the future, something all religious systems hold to. This unification can lead to real, concrete, positive action. The Rajneeshees should be taken seriously in their failure to maintain that Oregonian paradise, because, at its heart, it points to something all religions try to accomplish.