What Is The Rajneesh Movement? This Cult Is The Focus Of Netflix's 'Wild Wild Country'
Netflix has taken deep dives into the Wisconsin justice system with Making A Murderer and the Catholic church with The Keepers. Now, Netflix's new docu-series Wild Wild Country will take a closer look at a controversial cult in early 1980s Oregon. What is the cult in Wild Wild Country? The six-part series, which starts streaming on March 16, will be about the Rajneesh movement, a religious group that followed the teachings of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
Rajneesh, also known by the Buddhist name Osho, was an Indian mystic who started his movement in 1970 in Mumbai, according to the Oregonian's website. His teachings were a mix of capitalism and "dynamic meditation" with a focus on open sexuality, which led to his nickname the "sex guru," according to Biography.com. It wasn't until 1981, after he was nearly assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist, that Rajneesh moved to the Oregon desert to build an utopian city called Rajneeshpuram.
In the trailer for Wild Wild Country, a former follower says that everyone thought they were there at the "beginning of the great experiment." Thousands of followers, who dressed in red and orange and saw themselves as the "chosen people," were going to build a "community based on compassion and sharing" in Antelope, Oregon, another former member says in the trailer.
But they got a lot of pushback from locals who saw the Rajneeshee — the name given to the followers of the movement — as a nuisance. In archival news footage, theWild Wild Country trailer shows locals saying the movement was "run by satanic power" and looking to arm themselves against those living on the 64,229-acre commune, which, according to the New York Times, included a 160-room hotel, a shopping mall, and a town meeting hall. Not to mention, had its own zip code.
In 1983, there was a bombing at the Hotel Rajneesh in Portland, Oregon, and, according to Oregon Live, this led the followers to form a volunteer Rajneesh Security Force, which reportedly "walked around the commune carrying Uzis and drove a Jeep with a .30-calibre machine gun mounted on it into town." In the documentary's trailer, those in the town explain that they believed the heavily-armed force was a military-style threat.
But what turned this standoff between locals and the Rajneesh into a national scandal was the 1984 Rajneeshee bio-terror attack, which according to Atlas Obscura on Slate, was deemed the largest bio-terror attack in U.S. history. The Rajneeshee were reportedly looking to suppress voter turnout in the local county election to help their candidates get elected so they contaminated salad and salsa bars at local restaurants with salmonella. In total, 751 people became sick, 45 were hospitalized.
Initially, the Rajneeshee weren't blamed for the poisoning; bad hygiene on the part of the establishments was the believed culprit. It wasn't until a year later, after Osho was deported from the U.S. following his guilty plea to violating immigration laws, that the government investigated the Rajineeshee in connection with the attack, according to The New York Times. He helped that on his way out, Osho blamed followers, including Ma Anand Sheela, who was second in command as his chief assistant — and yes, does appear in the docu-series — for the attack, which he reportedly took no part in.
What the government found, according to Slate, was a "fully fledged bioterrorism lab containing salmonella cultures and literature on the manufacture and usage of explosives and military biowarfare." They also found that the Rajneeshee were reportedly running the "largest illegal wire-tapping operations ever found" and had plotted to assassinate Charles Turner, United States Attorney for the District of Oregon.
Despite the prosecutor wanting to give Sheela 20 years in prison for charges of attempted murder, assault, arson, electronic eavesdropping, immigration fraud, and conspiracy, she pled guilty and only got two years. After serving her time, Sheela moved to Switzerland, becoming a successful businesswoman, according to an Oregonian interview last year.
Sheela, who wrote the memoir Don't Kill Him, claimed that she only committed the crimes at Osho's behest. Though, when speaking to The Oregonian last year, she did say the state shares part of the blame for not stepping in to help them. "We had done nothing to them," she said of the locals. "We legally bought a ranch. We legally went about our work."
According to his The New York Times obituary, Osho died in 1990 from heart disease at the age of 58, and always claimed it was Sheela and other rogue followers who were behind the attack. As for the Rajneeshee, the movement still exists in much smaller scale all over the world. While the group has stayed out of the news in recent years, it's likely you'll be hearing a lot more about them after the Wild Wild Country premieres.