NETFLIXâ€™S latest hit show is loopy. Itâ€™s bananas. And stunningly, itâ€™s all true.
The documentary Wild Wild Country, now streaming, is making waves, and for good reason.
The six-part series tells the story of the Rajneshees, an Indian â€śsex cultâ€ť whose 2000-odd members moved en masse from India to rural Oregon in the 1980s. For the 50 or so residents of the town of Antelope, mostly ranchers and retirees, the arrival of thousands of beaming orange and red-clad devotees was a total shock. What followed involved the USâ€™s largest ever bioterrorism attack, an assassination attempt and terrifyingly large gun stockpiles.
TELL ME ABOUT THIS CULT
Baghwhan Shree Rajnesh was an Indian guru who started to attract a following in the 1960s. He believed in peace, compassion and sexual freedom. (Riiiiight.)
About 1968, a 16-year-old girl, Ma Anand Sheela, and her father attended one of his talks at his book-lined Mumbai apartment. As she explains, once in his presence, she was immediately filled with wonder and happiness and started following his teachings.
After travelling to the US and meeting her future husband, Sheela and he returned to India and rejoined the Bagwhan, also known as Osho. After her husbandâ€™s death from leukaemia, Sheela devoted herself to Bagwhan, eventually becoming his private secretary, a position of significant power and authority in the movement.
Those years, in the early 70s, coincided with the explosion of interest in Eastern philosophy from Westerners. Americans, Europeans and Australians flocked to Baghwhanâ€™s ashram in the remote town of Pune and subscribed to his philosophy of meditation and free love.
OK, WHATâ€™S WITH ALL THE RED ROBES?
Not sure. However, followers of the Bhagwan exclusively wear red and orange.
IT SOUNDS LIKE IT WAS ALL PEACE AND LOVE
Sort of. While the ashram grew in size, such was its popularity that travellers climbed the walls to get into the compound, the group attracted the ire of authorities and conservative Hindus. After an assassination attempt on the Bhagwan, he tried to move the community overseas.
Sheela was put in charge of the task and chose the 60,000-acre ranch in remote Oregon.
With architects, engineers, and town planners among their number, the followers of the Bhagwan started to build their version of a Utopian city, called Rajneeshpuram, with its own shops, airport, power grid and farms large enough to feed the entire community.
Finally, after booking out the first floor deck of a Pan Am flight, the Bhagwan arrived. (In a white Rolls Royce of course. He did not believe in poverty.) Followers even shipped in peacocks and carpeted his garden for his first day.
HOW DID THE TOWNSFOLK OF ANTELOPE FEEL ABOUT ALL THIS?
Good question. Archival footage, which is extensively used in the series, shows the locals looking downright shocked when this stream of beatifically smiling hippies descended on their community. However, things soon turned sour and locals objected to the Rajnesheesâ€™ ambitions to make their â€ścityâ€ť even larger.
Sheela, by now the voice of the Bhagwan who had long since taken a vow of silence, decided to move a number of Rajneshees into the town to take control of the local council via elections.
From there things spiralled out of control in a shocking and violent way.
OH BOY â€¦
Yep, you got it. In 1984, Sheela imported bus loads of homeless people from around the country to sway the local elections in their favour, a move which failed to work. She then orchestrated the mass salmonella poisoning of more than 700 people in a nearby, larger town by contaminating 10 salad bars with the hope this would prevent them from voting. (It is, to this day, the largest bioterror attack to have occurred in the US.)
After a hotel owned by the Rajneshees was bombed, Sheela also began stockpiling guns for the group, and at one point, the community owned more guns than those owned by Portlandâ€™s entire police force.
Sheela is also accused of plotting to murder the US attorney for Oregon and to bomb a courthouse along with the attempted killing of the Bhagwanâ€™s personal doctor. The following year she fled to Europe.
TIME FOR THE BIG HOUSE?
Indeed. In 1986, she was arrested in (what was then) West Germany and extradited to the US where she faced charges of immigration fraud and attempted murder. She was later sentenced to three 20-year sentences for what took place in Antelope.
She ultimately only served 29 months and was released on a good behaviour bond before moving to Switzerland and marrying a fellow Rajneshee.
BUT THIS IS WHERE THINGS GET TRICKY
While Sheela unquestionably committed crimes to ensure her continuing iron grip on the Rajneshees and to control the town of Antelope, Wild Wild Country paints a much more nuanced portrait of her and her motivations. The documentary explores the xenophobia and bigotry of the local community and looks at how questions about religious freedom and the fear of the unknown can make people behave terribly.
WHERE IS SHEELA NOW?
Still living in Switzerland where she runs two nursing homes. The Bhagwan died in 1990. However, his teachings are still published and his ashram in Pune has become the Osho International Meditation Resort which reportedly attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
So, you might now know what happened but Wild Wild Country is still amazing viewing, given its extensive interviews with Sheela and other devotees from the US and even Australia. Get thee to Netflix.