Monday, October 2, 2023

Wild Wild Country: The Television Docuseries


People will continue to search for spiritual enlightenment and peace. Some turn to the religions of the West, be it Christianity or Islam. Some turn to the East, such as Buddhism or Hinduism. Some go to more New Age thinking. My sense is that the teachings of the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (also known as Osho) would be closer to the third while drawing from the second. Wild Wild Country covers the sometimes frightening, sometimes wacky story of when the Bhagwan attempted to set up camp in the wilds of Oregon. In turns terrifying and bizarre, Wild Wild Country shows how there is a thin line between free will and submissive control.

Antelope is a small, rural town in eastern Oregon. Generally isolated from the world, it is safe to say that the town of mostly elderly retirees had never heard of the Indian mystic and guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, usually referred to as The Bhagwan or just Bhagwan. The Bhagwan is a curious spiritual leader in that he does not preach asceticism and self-denial but instead celebrates the joys of capitalism and almost unregulated sex. Bhagwan has built up a large group of mostly Western disciples at his ashram in India, but the government is wary of both his influence and the goings-on.

The Bhagwan then learns that the United States has freedom of religion enshrined in its Constitution. That and a large tract of land brings the Bhagwan to Antelope, where he can set up his new ashram in relative peace and freedom from intrusive outsiders. The tiny community, however, is none too pleased at the thought of wild orgies, strange chanting and a holy man riding around in Rolls-Royces building a camp nearby. They are even less thrilled at the Bhagwan's secretary and second-in-command, Ma Anand Sheela. 

She is belligerent, bellicose and almost gleefully confrontational. Ma Anand Sheela rolled over all opposition, while equally if not more devoted American lawyer Philip Toelkes (also known as Niren Toelkes) is more moderate and scholarly in his manner. More of the Bhagwan's devotees or sannyasins start coming, but the dreams of Bhagwan and Sheela grow beyond a humble commune. They will overturn any opposition by getting themselves political power, starting with Antelope.

Using their superior numbers, they vote themselves into power. The police force is now a "Peace Force", but one that targets opponents. The state and federal governments now turn their eyes to the newly christened Rajneeshpuram, the community that encompasses both Antelope and the Bhagwan's commune. Sheela does not shrink from dubious methods to get at her enemies real or perceived. Everything from sham marriages and literally importing homeless people to increase the population of Rajneeshpuram (thus increasing the registered voters who will vote her way) were the more benign methods. Launching a bioterrorist attack to poison Wasco County residents and plotting political assassinations were the more deadly.

Eventually, things grew so out of control that Sheela flees the commune when the Bhagwan is falling under the alleged influence of both drugs and other voices. Bhagwan finally speaks for the first time in three years, denouncing his former protégé, but it is now too late. The federal government decides to have a formal investigation into the various crimes alleged to be masterminded at Rajneeshpuram. The Bhagwan and some of his top officials attempt to flee to Bermuda but his plane is forced down in Charlotte, North Carolina. Eventually, Ma Anand Sheela is extradited from Germany, imprisoned and released, the Bhagwan dies, Rajneeshpuram folds but the teachings of Osho live on.

I have vague memories of the many adventures of the Bhagwan when I was younger. I even remember a public access show that his devotees had, though I was far too young to understand anything being said. I, however, was unaware of both how looney and psychotic things were. Wild Wild Country in its six episodes covers the stranger than strange tale in a surprising fashion. 

Surprising in that it sometimes appears almost sympathetic to the sannyasins and the overall Osho movement. To be fair, the images of displaced sannyasins after a commune-owned hotel was bombed will not make people stand up and cheer. However, codirectors Maclain and Chapman Way have a strong ability to shift things from how the devotees saw themselves to how their leadership really was.

When, for example, Rajneeshpuram starts busing in homeless people, what Wild Wild Country shows are happy people who have found refuge and shelter both physical and spiritual. Granted, they do have to wear the requisite maroon clothes that the Bhagwan's followers wear (even the "Peace Force" has maroon, pink or red uniforms). We see them happy, working in the shops or fields, even having late night clubbing at the commune's disco.

However, we soon learn that there is a sinister aspect to this act of benevolence. The homeless were being used to gin up eligible voters so that the leadership could vote their own to govern Wasco County. The takeover of the Antelope City Council was essentially just an opening act. With dreams of taking over first the county and then perhaps the whole of Oregon, Wild Wild Country shocks the viewer with the brazenness of their manipulation of the law to their own benefit. Alarmed County officials, seeing this invasion as an effort to manipulate voting results, refuse to register new voters. With the homeless now a burden and no longer useful, they are summarily expelled from Rajneeshpuram. It should not be unexpected to see how people were used, but it still distresses to see how greed and the lust for power blinded people into what could have been a genuine good.

Of all the people involved in the wild goings-on at Rajneeshpuram, one stands out. It is not the Bhagwan himself, who is mostly the motivator but not the instigator. It is not Sheela (one of the many interviewees for Wild Wild Country), who is slightly less combative now than when she welcomed fighting with anyone who disagreed with her. Instead, for me the most fascinating figure is the Bhagwan's legal mastermind Philip Toekles, also known as Swami Prem. With his professorial beard and intellectual manner, Toekles seems the last man to be seen as under the spell of some mystic. However, he still stands by the Bhagwan long after the guru's death in 1990. He at least had enough sense to say that the flight out of Rajneeshpuram was a wild mistake. However, Swami Prem also holds the idea that the Bhagwan was if memory serves correct, "an innocent and beautiful man". Toekles total devotion to the Bhagwan then and now is fascinating to watch. Throughout Wild Wild Country, Swami Prem is if not an apologist a quiet fanatic, fully aware of the facts but using his legal mind to find a plausible explanation for everything presented to him. 

Sheela too, defiant to the end, makes for an almost stunning viewing experience. Appearing a sweet old Indian grandmother, Sheela is not above looking like a spiritual Eva Peron, using her position of power to become a de facto dictator of this small realm of faith. "With every crown come the guillotine. Without the guillotine, you cannot wear the crown", she reflects in Episode One, a most curious way of looking at oneself.

The things one learns from Wild Wild Country leave the viewer slightly stunned. Lynn Enyart, an FBI agent who goes to the commune, reported in archival footage that the first thing he saw was a couple having sex on a bridge. The videos of the dynamic meditation, which I believe involve naked men and women screaming themselves into a meditative state, prove equally shocking. Granted, not as shocking as bioterrorist attacks and plotting to assassinate political figures. 

Wild Wild Country flows relatively well, giving a chance for the beleaguered Antelope residents to recount their ordeal while also giving those within Rajneeshpuram a chance to speak. "I leave you my dreams," the Bhagwan says as his final words. Those who were caught up in the events chronicled in Wild Wild Country may not see them as dreams, but they still linger in their wakened state.   


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