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Religion, Libertarian Cults And The American West In 'Wild Wild Country'

Mar 24, 2018
Originally published on March 28, 2018 11:51 am

What began as a hopeful experiment spiraled into a historic battle between a new-age spiritual group, their rural neighbors — and eventually the federal government.

Chapman and Maclain Way explore that battle in their new Netflix six-part series, Wild Wild Country. The directors tell the story of Rajneeshpuram, a utopian community established by the followers of an Indian spiritual guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, in rural Oregon in the early 1980s.

The Rajneeshees moved into a 60,000-acre ranch near the conservative town of Antelope, and the free-loving followers quickly began to butt heads with local residents. The conflict escalated to federal charges of immigration fraud, attempted murder and the largest bioterrorism attack in United States history.

The Way brothers spoke to Weekend All Things Considered about Wild Wild Country, the American dream and how the Rajneeshees tried to take over local politics by busing more than 5,000 homeless people to Wasco County, Ore.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


Interview Highlights

On Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh and what his followers believed

CHAPMAN WAY: He was kind of one of the first Indian spiritual gurus to really marry Western capitalism with Eastern mysticism. This was really appealing to very successful, highly intellectual Westerns from America and Europe who were attracted to this message of capitalism and wealth, but still being spiritual.

Bhagwan was also know as the free love guru, because his followers practiced open sex ... He created this ashram in Poona, India, and soon enough Westerners around the world began flocking to listen to his teachings.

On the spread of Bhagwan's ideas

MACLAIN WAY: Bhagwan was kind of at an interesting time in history where we had 1960s counterculture coming to an end, and we were at the end of the 70s and getting into the early 80s, and you had a lot of Americans doing this kind of Eastern migration toward India [they were] interested in seeking. Bhagwan was able to tap into Westerners who wanted to have wealth and free sex while also walking a path of enlightenment.

America didn't have a lot of big gurus, and I think America was seen as maybe this major league where [Bhagwan] could go and transform the consciousness of the world. Their ambitions were sky high. That's where our series starts to pick up.

On Bhagwan's secretary and second in command, Ma Anand Sheela, who arranged the purchase of a 60,000-acre ranch in rural Oregon, as a new home for the commune

CHAPMAN: Ma Anand Sheela is a really complex, fascinating character. She was really "the right-hand man" of this organization, and was really in charge of building this entire religious empire.

As a young girl, she had traveled to America and went to college at Montclair State University, and was familiar with America, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and as [the group] was starting to get more pushback in India from government officials and conservative Hindus, they were looking for a "promised land," so to speak, where they could practice their religion in peace and harmony.

How did the older, more conservative ranchers and retirees next to the ranch react to their new neighbors?

CHAPMAN: I think when the Rajneeshees first arrived in eastern Oregon, it was almost as if this bizarre zombie sex cult had invaded... You saw hundreds of people dressed head-to-toe in red walking down the streets of Antelope. I think the Rajneeshees couldn't have found a more diametrically opposed area in America to move in. It was full of ranchers, and cowboy culture, and they were all concerned with this cult that had moved in next door.

On the clashes that ensued

CHAPMAN: In 1984, the Rajneeshees were looking to take over political control of Wasco County in eastern Oregon. Part of that plan was to bus in over 5,000 homeless people from all around the world so that [the group] would have a big enough a voting block to swing Wasco County and put in their own Rajneeshees into positions of power.

Ultimately, the state of Oregon decided that some of these homeless people were not qualified to vote, and in act of what some might consider retribution or act to suppress the voting count on the other side of the issue, [the group] decided to spread a very strong strain of salmonella amongst over 10 restaurants. The belief was that if enough people got sick on election day, they would stay home and not vote.

MACLAIN: I don't think anyone knew how this story would end up unfolding, but I certainly don't think that they anticipated assassination attempts, trying to bus in 5,000 homeless people to take over the county, a poisoning of 751 people.

By and large, these were rational people, intelligent people, who just really were put in a situation where all three sides — government, Antelope and the Rajneeshees — just became entrenched in this sort of war.

On cults and the American Dream

CHAPMAN: One of the really fascinating components of the story is that when people think of commune, they think of communism. The interesting thing about this spiritual group was that it was actually much more of this almost extreme libertarian philosophy that you can build yourself up by your own bootstraps: They wanted to build their American dream, their own law enforcement, their own education.

On similarities between the clashing sides

CHAPMAN: One of the more absurd components of this was getting to know the Antelopians, and the Rajneeshees — it was bizarre how similar these cultures were in some ways. Antelopians pretty much did the same exact thing, they almost took the land from the Native Americans 150, 200 years ago, and built their own community with their own church in the middle of town and their own public school that taught Christianity.

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

What is the line between religion and cult, and what are the limits of religious freedom? Those are among the questions at the heart of a new Netflix documentary miniseries called "Wild Wild Country." The series tells the story of Rajneeshpuram, a utopian community established by the followers of an Indian spiritual guru named Baghwan Rajneesh (ph) in rural Oregon in the early 1980s.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WILD WILD COUNTRY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Our vision was to create a community based on compassion and sharing.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Baghwan's agenda was simply to raise the consciousness of humanity. That was his goal.

MA ANAND SHEELA: America was a land of promise. It was my conviction. We will have no problems.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I don't think America has a place for these people.

MCCAMMON: What began as a hopeful experiment spiraled into a battle between the Rajneeshees, their rural neighbors and eventually the state and federal government. The saga became a national news story and eventually led to federal charges of immigration fraud, attempted murder and the largest bioterrorism attack in U.S. history. To hear more about the series, we're joined now by its directors, brothers Chapman and Maclain Way. They're with us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Chapman, Maclain, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MACLAIN WAY: Thanks for having us on. We really appreciate it.

MCCAMMON: So for those of us who are not familiar with this episode, give us an introduction to the spiritual group at the heart of this story. Who was the Baghwan Rajneesh, and what did he and his followers believe?

CHAPMAN WAY: Sure. This is Chapman speaking right now. So the Indian guru was - his name was Baghwan Rajneesh. And he was kind of the one of the first Indian spiritual gurus to really marry Western capitalism with Eastern mysticism. And this was really appealing to very successful, highly intellectual Westerners from America and Europe who were attracted to this message of capitalism and wealth but you can still be spiritual. He was also known as the free love guru because the practiced open sex among their followers. So he's started in the '60s and '70s. He created this Ashram in Pune, India. And soon enough, Westerners from around the world began flocking to listen to his teachings.

M. WAY: Yeah. And I was just - this is Maclain now - and I was just going to add on. Yeah, Baghwan was kind of at an interesting time in American history where we had, you know, the 1960s counterculture was kind of coming to an end. And we were at the end of the '70s and getting into the early '80s. And you had a lot of Americans doing this kind of Eastern migration towards India. And they were kind of going on these spiritual trips and kind of interested in seeking and walking a path of enlightenment is how they called what they were doing.

And Baghwan was able to kind of tap into Westerners who wanted to, you know, yeah, have wealth and free sex and you can also kind of walk that path of enlightenment. There comes a moment in 1980, when Baghwan and his leaders decide that they're going to go to America. I think as Baghwan saw, India always had a lot of gurus. But America didn't have a lot of big gurus. And I think America was almost kind of seen as like maybe this major leagues, where they could really go transform the consciousness of the world. I mean, their ambitions were sky-high. And that's kind of where our series starts to pick up.

MCCAMMON: The story really picks up when Baghwan and his followers come to the U.S. in 1981 under the guidance of his secretary and second in command Ma Anand Sheela, who's a major character in the documentary. Sheela helped arrange the purchase of a rugged 60,000-acre ranch in rural Oregon as a new home for their commune. And I just want to play a clip here.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WILD WILD COUNTRY")

SHEELA: It was my conviction that in the U.S., we will have no problems. The Constitution, I thought, was very sacred.

MCCAMMON: Tell us a bit about Ma Anand Sheela and what she and the Rajneeshees set out to do with this ranch in Oregon.

C. WAY: This is Chapman speaking. Ma Anand Sheela is a really complex, fascinating character. She was really, quote, unquote, "the right-hand man" of this organization and was really in charge of building this entire religious empire. As a young girl, she had traveled to America and went to college at Montclair State University and was familiar with America and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And as they were starting to get more pushback in India from government officials and conservative Hindus, they were looking for a promised land, so to speak, where they could practice their religion in peace and harmony.

MCCAMMON: You talk about them receiving pushback in India. They also, of course, once they get to Oregon, receive pushback there. On the other side of the story, you have the residents of the nearby town of Antelope, Ore. For the most part, they're older, often retired, more conservative, ranchers, retirees. How did they react to these new neighbors?

C. WAY: I think when the Rajneeshees first arrived in Eastern Oregon, it was almost as if this bizarre zombie sex cult had also invaded their local town. In our documentary, you see just shots of hundreds of people dressed head to toe in red walking down the street of Antelope. And I think the Rajneeshees couldn't have found a more diametrically opposed area in America to move in. It's ranchers. It's cowboy culture. And they were very concerned kind of right off the bat with this, quote, unquote, "cult" that had moved in next door.

MCCAMMON: And that relationship, it just got worse over time, didn't it?

M. WAY: Yeah. This is Maclain here. I mean, I don't think anyone knew how this story would end up unfolding, but I certainly don't think that they anticipated assassination attempts, the Rajneeshees trying to bus in 5,000 homeless people to take over Wasco County, a poisoning of 751 people. By and large, these were rational people who just really were put in a situation where both sides, kind of all three sides - government, Antelope and the Rajneeshees - just kind of further become entrenched in this war.

MCCAMMON: You mentioned the poisoning incident among a lot of other things that this group did. Remind us what happened there.

C. WAY: So in 1984 - and this is Chapman speaking - the Rajneesh group was looking to take over political control of Wasco County in Eastern Oregon. And part of that plan was to bus in over 5-6,000 homeless people from all around the world so that they would have a big enough voting bloc to swing the county election and put in their own Rajneeshees into positions of power in the Wasco County government.

Ultimately, the state of Oregon decided that some of these homeless people were not qualified to vote. And in an act of what some may consider retribution or of an act to suppress the voting count on the other side of the issue, Oregonians in Wasco County, they decided to spread a very strong strain of salmonella amongst over 10 restaurants' salad bars. And the belief was that if enough people got sick on Election Day, they would stay home and they would not vote.

MCCAMMON: One of the ironies that struck me as I was watching the series is the fact that this group was drawn, you know, from India to the United States by really a lot of fundamentally American ideals - religious freedom, freedom of association, private property rights, the ability to sort of chart your own course. And yet it was their expression of those ideals that caused so much friction with their American neighbors, some of whom said there wasn't a place for them in America. What do you make of that tension?

M. WAY: One of the really fascinating components to this story is that when people think of commune, they think of communism. And the interesting thing about this spiritual group was that it was actually much more of this almost extreme libertarian philosophy, that you can build yourself by your own bootstraps. They're going to build their American dream. They're going to have their own law enforcement, their own education.

One of the more absurd components of this was getting to know the Antelopians and the Rajneeshees. It was bizarre how similar these two cultures were in some ways. I mean, Antelopians pretty much did the same exact thing. They almost took the land from the Native Americans, you know, 150, 200 years ago. And they built their own community with their own religious church right in the middle of town. And they have their own public school that, you know, taught Christianity there. And so it was really fascinating kind of from the outside perspective to see actually how similar these two groups actually were.

MCCAMMON: Brothers Chapman and Maclain Way are the directing team behind the documentary miniseries "Wild Wild Country," which is streaming on Netflix now. They joined us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Chapman and Maclain Way, thank you so much for speaking with us.

M. WAY: Thanks.

C. WAY: Thank you. It was a great conversation. We really enjoyed it.

M. WAY: Thanks for having us, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.