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19 April 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 9:29am

The baffling sex appeal of cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in Netflix’s Wild Wild Country

The six-part film cannot effectively explain his appeal for the 30,000 people who joined his communes during the 1980s.

By Rachel Cooke

In 1981, the people of Antelope, a tiny settlement in Wasco County, rural Oregon, began to notice groups of strangers on their streets. These strangers, many of whom were not American, were dressed in orange, and sometimes pink or red clothes, and wore beatific smiles. They liked tuneless singing, wild dancing and sex – and I think it was the latter that most bothered the locals at first. “You could hear people having orgasmic experiences all day and all night,” recalled one older woman in Wild Wild Country, the Netflix documentary everyone is talking about. For all the relish in her voice, she said this like it was a bad thing – which I suppose it was for those members of the community who last had sex in 1972, and who would (I’m guessing now) insist on going walkabout at night, the better to cop an outraged earful of these carnal activities.

The orange people were followers of a guru-come-charlatan called Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, dispatched to the US from India to build a utopian community on a piece of land the size of Manhattan they’d somehow managed to buy. Most of them were harmless: lost souls who felt, living and working together, loved for the first time. But there are always bad apples, aren’t there? The Rajneesh community began as heaven on earth: a place where the sleepy felt suddenly wide awake. It ended just three years later in fear and loathing, some of these maggoty fruits having embarked on the largest poisoning case ever known in America. Three of the Bhagwan’s former lieutenants went to prison. The Bhagwan himself, having been expelled from the US, returned to India, where he announced the end of his “religion” and was henceforth known by the many thousands of gullible types who continued to follow him as Osho.

Wild, Wild Country is a six-part film made by two brothers, Maclain and Chapman Way. Like all Netflix documentaries, it’s too long: when Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning director of Moonlight, says that he has seen it twice, and will likely soon embark on a third viewing, I feel a little worried for him. (Go outside, Barry! It’s spring.) But it has its moments. Amazing old news footage; neat editing; marvellous interviews with key players, most notably the terrifyingly angry and charismatic woman formerly known as Ma Anand Sheela, who was the Bhagwan’s secretary, until she decided his personal physician had turned him into a drug addict. Having tried to bump off the doctor, she fled to the Black Forest in a private jet. (She was one of those who went to prison.)

The Way brothers are not able effectively to explain the Bhagwan’s appeal for the 30,000 people who joined his communes across the world during the 1980s (he died in 1990, but his books are still widely available). Mass hysteria can only really be felt when you’re part of the crowd. It will never be clear to me why a man who presented as a cross between Ming the Merciless and Benny from Crossroads (Oh, the sparkly knitted hats; the Avon-from-Blake’s-7-style capes) and who owned 19 (or was it 50, or 70?) Rolls-Royces induced people to give up their lives and spend their days toiling to build houses and electricity stations.

Nor is it possible to understand why Sheela’s dictatorial behaviour was tolerated by people who considered themselves to be peace loving. Who signed off on the guns they began toting? And the decision to transport homeless people into the community in order that they might vote in Antelope, and thus help the project politically? (When these homeless people began causing trouble, they were first sedated and then deposited back whence they came.) And her plan to infect local people, ever more vocal in their opposition, with salmonella?

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For me, though, one thing always remains in sight: at its most extreme, sexual passion leads good people to do bad things. Even in grey old age, Sheela speaks girlishly of the Bhagwan’s hairy chest. Visiting his house at night, listening to his inchoate mutterings, and sometimes simply to the sound of his breathing, was all she ever wanted. Everything, in the end, was about preserving those moments, the hope he might one day take her to bed. 

Wild Wild Country

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This article appears in the 18 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge