Ma Anand Sheela

New Netflix docu treads gingerly on guru’s top follower

Netflix’s newest documentary, Wild Wild Country, about the 1980s Rajneeshee sect that dominated the headlines in Oregon during the early-to-mid-1980s, is fascinating, informative and insightful.

I found it also to be unsatisfying.

I’ve long been familiar with the story of the Rajneeshees, as my encounters with them were the highlight of my journalism career. For a bit more than a year after I moved to The Dalles, Ore., the county seat for the Rajneeshee commune, in 1985, coverage of the Rajneeshees dominated my work. And my participation in a press conference (a gathering briefly shown in the documentary) was easily the most surreal event of my career. Here I was asking a question of one of the best-known religious leaders on the planet as his guards sported submachine guns to protect him and some 1,500 dressed-in-red devotees watched us reporters while fawning at the guru’s every word. It was not the time to ask the threatening question.

A quick summary: An internationally popular guru from India, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his followers bought a 64,000-acre ranch in a remote area of Oregon in 1981 and quickly developed a city housing thousands of people. Although the sannyasins or Rajneeshees, as they were known, were initially welcomed to the state, it didn’t take long before hostilities escalated to the point that the Rajneeshees were openly arming themselves with assault rifles visible everywhere and there was widespread talk of the possibility of violent confrontation. In 1984, a “test run” of a salmonella poisoning plot by a Rajneeshee team sickened more than 700 people in The Dalles.

The ringleader of that plot was Ma Anand Sheela — someone I saw in person only once, at her sentencing hearing in Portland, Ore. The modern-day Sheela, now grandmotherly-looking, was one of the key interviewees in the documentary.

I found the interviews of Sheela frustrating to watch.

It wasn’t just that she was unrepentant. It’s that the documentary makers, Chapman and Maclain Way, apparently never asked her the tough questions, at least far as was shown on screen. Behind her acidic rhetoric at the ranch, Sheela was a master manipulator. And while Sheela came close to revealing her evil nature at times during her interviews, the documentary makers seemed to be content to let her hide behind her devotion to the bhagwan.

The same might be said of the interviews with Swami Prem Niren, the bhagwan’s main attorney and one-time major of Rajneeshpuram. But Niren, who remains unequivocally dedicated to the religion of Rajneesh, at least seemed to have a moral core focusing on devotion to the legal rights of religious minorities.

Only one of the ex-Rajneeshees interviewed at length, Jane Stork (formerly Ma Shanti Bhadra), seemed to grasp the moral gravity of what she had done, in her case as a would-be assassin. She also the only one interviewed who appears to have fully disavowed her connections with Rajneesh.

In the first of the six episodes, the Ways attempted to give some idea of what made Rajneesh the object of devotion for so many followers worldwide. But they don’t quite succeed. But there’s no question that his sex-friendly and wealth-friendly (no asceticism here!) message attracted a wide range of spiritual seekers, most of them from throughout the West. Since his death in 1990, the bhagwan, known late in his life as Osho, has continued to gain followers, and his retreat center in India continues to draw seekers.

Although Wild Wild Country could have probably told its story in three or four rather than six hours, it is at its best in interviews with the residents of Antelope, a tiny retirement town that was briefly taken over by the Rajneeshees. It would have been very easy for the documentary to portray them as the bigots the Rajneshees claimed they were, but instead the series gives them enough time to explain the reasons for their fears.

Wild Wild Country seemed to do an excellent job of covering all the main events and legal machinations as I remember them. If there was anything missing, it was the absence of current interviews with ordinary Rajneeshees, those who came to the Big Muddy Ranch full of optimism but who left with disappointment that their vision never came to fruition. So many of the Rajneeshees seen in archival news footage seemed like intelligent, decent, idealistic people, and I’ve long wondered what became of them.

It’s all a fascinating story, and viewers who are unfamiliar with the Rajneeshee saga won’t be disappointed with Wild Wild Country. There’s just more that I would like to know.

Screen capture is of Ma Anand Sheela, who works today as a nursing-home owner.

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