Webster’s defines the word Religion as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices”. Even though the statement remains largely relevant today, this very concept took root even before the cognitive revolution when mankind became self-aware, and even before the linguistic revolution when we even had words for ‘God’ or a higher being. As mankind started turning to settlements instead of a nomadic lifestyle, our populations proliferated. What was interesting was that even though a large group of people may have had caste-based or economic hierarchies, more often than not, they were united by a single religion. This is how most modern religions spread. Christian and Muslim armies spread out across the globe carrying the banners of their respective religions. Their success is a testament that in order to get a large population work in perfect synchronization and motivation, there was nothing more effective than Religion. In the modern age, individuals who understood this fundamental power of religion became self-proclaimed ‘Gurus’. Religious proponents portrayed themselves as the almighty’s conduits offering their disciples a way out of their drudgery. By creating a pseudo belief system that ‘guaranteed’ them a surefire escape and salvation, Gurus were able to amass hordes of followers that were willing to do whatever was required of them by their beloved leader.
Check out this interesting TED talk about the power of Religion by Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens:
This is a two-edged sword, however and not as black and white as you may imagine. Sometimes unorthodox philosophies propagated by a leader strike a chord with people, creating an even more potent offshoot of a religious following, called a cult. Despite being maligned by popular culture, cults don’t always involve people wearing dark robes, summoning satan secretively on a full-moon night in the forest. New age cults pertain to be much more relevant to the bearings and desires of today’s society. In several cases, they may even be proponents of a certain brand of liberalism where the happiness and well-being of an individual is kept above the collective well-being of the society. This is what makes Osho’s story so riveting, not because of its spiritual influence but as a socio-economic experiment that went too far.
Born Chandra Mohan Jain in Bhopal, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh aka Osho rose to notoriety in the 70s through his teachings that subverted the established meaning of religious scriptures about how dharma was to be conducted if one aimed to achieve salvation. When almost all religious texts, at least in their modern interpretations, condemned individual physical and mental desire as sins, Rajneesh took a more radical path. According to his philosophy, being ridden with desire was as natural as wanting oxygen to breath. You cannot and should not feel guilty for wanting oxygen. The only surefire way, as per his doctrine, to get rid of desire was to give in to the temptation and got through with it until you stopped wanting more. One might argue that this so-called philosophy assumed that the inherent desire would wither away with time. Imagine a teenager ‘going through’ with his/her drug addiction hoping that it would just go away with time. Rajneesh’s core philosophy applied to an individual’s innate sexual needs as well. Growing up in a sexually repressed society in India, it is easy to imagine how that would have landed amongst a largely conservative people. While building the Osho Ashram in erstwhile Poona, India, Rajneesh ran into a lot of legal and political issues with the city administration until work had to be stopped. Unfazed and prepared to find a way, Rajneesh asked his personal secretary and confidante, Maa Sheela Anand to look for pastures outside India.
Directed by Maclain and Chapman Way, Netflix’s limited documentary series Wild Wild Country largely focuses on the second chapter of Osho’s life where a seemingly meek young woman took over the operations of his undertakings. As narrated by Sheela, she had been a teenager when she had accompanied her father when he had met with Osho during the 70s. Being of a young, impressionable age at that time, Sheela had been captivated by the charisma of the man. Her eyes would gleam with pride as she admits [not sic] – “Bhagwan told me that, you are in love with me Sheela.” This initial encounter sparked a lifelong association between a devoted disciple and her guru, and her imminent rise through the ranks of Osho’s “organisation”. Through sheer tenacity and an undying will to spread Osho’s name throughout the West, Sheela immersed herself in building the Osho farm, Rajneeshpuram, in a bucolic piece of land in a sleepy little town in Wasco County, Oregon. And that is when all the trouble started.
The town of Antelope in Wasco County, Oregon was a peaceful little community of people who had retired their to have a quiet life, away from the mad rush of a big city. In the early 80s, things started to take a turn. Large crowds of ‘strange’ people started appearing in all over the place, wearing gaudy red clothes like Spanish conquistadors stepping on the New world for the first time. The community eateries where people used to enjoy a quiet morning’s breakfast, had now been taken over by these red-folks who seemed to be in a gleeful trance all the time. As the locals started to learn more about Osho’s philosophy, a sense of foreboding started to grip them that these ‘new people’ were going to fill their town with decadence and amoral activities. Wild Wild Country presents two different perspectives to the same story. On one hand we have Sheela and some other prominent Rajneeshi sanyasins who had been at the centre of the ‘revolutionary change’ that Osho was bringing forth to the world; and on the other, we have the local folks who saw Rajneeshpuram as an invasion and a disruption of their quiet way of life. What had started out as a small farm, was now being expanded and operated like a self-sustained city in its own right. As happens with any form of cultural infusion, the more dominant or aggressive culture starts to eat away the local incumbent culture.
Soon Rajneeshpuram caught media’s attention and they started digging into the affairs of the establishment, not to mention Osho’s life. Sheela soon learnt that she had to be much more than just an Operations head and a bean-counter. She would have to assume the face of her community and fight with the United States Government, no less. As defamatory attacks started happening on the people of Rajneeshpuram, Sheela saw that if they had to survive through all that, she would have to play by their rules. Through a shrewd political gamble, the Rajneeshis led by Sheela, attained political control over the town of Antelope and changed its name, officially, to Rajneeshpuram. This would become the final nail in the coffin for the community at Antelope.
The meteoric rise of Rajneeshism from a bearded white-clad man with some crazy ideas, to having a town named after him, shows the indelible power of organized religion. For a set of ideologies to take root, the proponent has to choose a path which would be sufficiently anti-establishment so as to appeal to the intellect of a certain set of people. India in the 70s was heavily influenced by the hipster American culture where a form of expressionist revolution was taking place. As a form of rebellion for the Vietnam war in which Nixon had dragged America into, the youth had taken to a form of peaceful individualism where communal love and an overall love for humanity was above all else. This revolution resulted in a form of sexual awakening of sorts infused with a virulent desire to ignore the vagaries of a war-ridden world through ‘substances’. This cultural shift was also seen reflected in 70s India where bell-bottoms became a rage and people crooned to Asha Bhonsle’s trance-like Dum Maaro Dum. People who associated themselves with the idea of Osho were those who had somehow been let down by the age-old establishment that was largely unfair to people who trusted in them. There was widespread economic disparity, greedy firms siphoned off profits from their employees without giving them back their due, governments lied to their people. Systemic failure on such dire level pushed people to take things into their own hands and Osho resonated with them.
Systemic failure on such dire level pushed people to take things into their own hands and Osho resonated with them.
Watching Wild Wild Country, you would be torn between the right and wrong of the story. Was it right for the State of Oregon to disrupt a group of people who wanted to follow their own way of life peacefully ? On the other hand, was it right for the Rajneeshis to utterly disregard the way of life of the people of Antelope ? The liberal in me would say that if a person or a group is following rules, they should be allowed to practice their own way of life provided that they maintain peace, but on the other hand I also can sympathize with the people of Antelope as they saw their quiet lives being destroyed one day at a time. Wild Wild Country is as much about a burgeoning cult as it is about its larger effect on the socio-political nature of a culture. We might take a stance that maybe the Rajneeshis got carried away. But if you take a good look at it, that’s how most of our religions got here.
Wild Wild Country is replete with unseen footage from behind the scenes of the Osho Ashram in Poona as well as Rajneeshpuram in Wasco County. The objective of the documentary is not to incite a hatred for cult or even for incumbent culture, but to show both sides of the story from a neutral perspective as told by the Rajneeshi sanyasins and the locals of Antelope. Osho’s magnetic personality is palpable in the eyes of his devotees, as they beam with pride having been a part of the story. In order to appreciate the magnitude of the operation, it is important to see where such a large group of people of diverse ethnic, social and economical backgrounds could come together with a never-before-seen camaraderie that bordered on madness.
One of our readers Manjiri Mazgaonkar says – “It’s a love-story in so many ways which has gone bitter. The chemistry between Sheela and Bhagwan, no matter how unsaid, was partly responsible for her fate….I think the magic of the show was how well they portrayed the relationships. It wasn’t much about what Rajneesh taught but more about what his sanyasins thought about him.”
In Antelope, there was one homogenous group of people standing against another group of homogenous people. Now imagine this one the scale of India where there is a multitude of religions and practices co-existing for centuries. Imagine the kind of chaos it would have caused through the ages. It’s no surprise that we are still ridden by it. Even though there’s a lot of potential for such documentaries in India, I think we are still not ready for it. Having said that, it would be intriguing to watch the story of how people like Asaram Bapu got where they did and the aftermath of the controversy. It would be interesting to watch how Sri Sri Ravishankar started Art of Living, and the truth behind it. Religions and Cults are formed on the graves of curious minds, and it is unfortunately very easy for us to forget that.