Wild Wild Country, a six-part docuseries on Netflix, tells the unbelievable true story of what happened when an Indian "sex guru" and thousands of his crimson-clad followers infiltrated a sleepy town in Oregon in the 1980s. This binge-worthy retelling of a bizarre moment in American history features plenty of free love, to be sure. But there's also betrayal, wire tappings, immigration fraud, attempted murder, a late-night arrest, the largest bioterrorism attack in U.S. history, the relocation of thousands of homeless people in an attempt to sway a local election, and—at the heart of it all—a gussied-up guru who owned enough Rolls-Royces to drive a different model each day for three months.
But the voice of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the very man who founded "Rajneeshism," is surprisingly silent throughout the series. According to brothers Maclain and Chapman Way, the directors behind Wild Wild Country, this was intentional. The docuseries primarily focuses on the years 1981 to 1985, which coincided with a period in Rajneesh's life where he took a vow of silence.
“We really just wanted to drop the audience into whatever was happening at that moment,” Chapman told India's CNN News18. “And the truth of the story is at that moment [Rajneesh] wasn't speaking to the locals, nor was he speaking to his followers. So, we wanted the audience to experience the story as the characters in the documentary were experiencing it.”
Still, viewers were left wondering what made Rajneesh’s followers—largely well-educated and well-off Westerners—renounce their past lives and devote all their time and energy to the guru’s teachings. To understand how Rajneesh, a former philosophy lecturer, gained thousands of followers from around the world, we need to go back to the beginning.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was born Chandra Mohan Jain on December 11, 1931. (He wouldn't begin calling himself Bhagwan, which means the blessed one, until 1971.) He was raised for the first seven years of his life by his grandparents, merchants who greatly influenced his views on religion. His grandfather was a Jain, part of a religion that preaches asceticism and avoids all forms of self-indulgence, but took an interest in other views. He often invited Jaina monks, Hindu monks, and Sufi mystics into their home, where an inquisitive young Rajneesh grilled them with questions.
Rajneesh’s grandmother didn’t believe in religion—a highly uncommon stance at that time, but one that also resonated with her grandson. Later in life, Rajneesh spoke out against organized religion, arguing that it interfered with the practice of meditation.
In school, Rajneesh proved to be a bright pupil and voracious reader, but by his own admission, he was both argumentative and mischievous. However, this served him well as a student—and later, a lecturer—of philosophy.
In his youth, Rajneesh developed an obsession with meditation and experimented with different methods, all while pushing himself to physical extremes by running at least five miles twice a day. He claims to have reached enlightenment at the age of 21 while sitting under a maulshree tree—similar to the enlightenment story surrounding the Buddha. Rajneesh later told his followers that his current life was an extension of a past life he experienced 700 years before.
Although his insubordination got him expelled from the first college he attended, he transferred to another university and earned a degree in philosophy. He went on to earn a master's in the subject and even lectured at the Mahakoshal Arts College at the University of Jabalpur for some time. However, he often took breaks to go on speaking tours, where he traveled around India spreading his own views on enlightenment—a pursuit he took up full-time in the mid-1960s.
Rajneesh quickly gained a reputation for his controversial views, which angered many but also attracted followers he dubbed sannyasins (those who renounce the world in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment). He regularly criticized revered figures like Gandhi and Mother Teresa, but reversed his view on religion several times, at one point proclaiming, “Ours is the only religion—first religion in the history of the world.”
People in India started calling Rajneesh the “sex guru” after he gave a number of lectures on the transcendental and divine nature of fornication. In 1968 he gave a series of lectures that were published as From Sex to Superconsciousness, and later urged his followers to meditate during sex because because “it is one of the most peaceful, silent, harmonious states—where meditation is the easiest.”
In his book, he references some of the theories of Friedrich Nietzsche, and this blend of Western thought and Eastern spirituality is a recurring theme in Rajneesh's teachings. Or, as the Daily Mail put it: “His teachings were a bizarre mixture of pop psychology, ancient Indian wisdom, capitalism, sexual permissiveness, and dirty jokes that he gleaned from the pages of Playboy magazine.”
It’s important to note, however, that sex was merely one component of Rajneesh's philosophy. The meditation method he invented, called Dynamic Meditation, was largely aimed at inducing a cathartic release. This was achieved by getting his followers to scream, hit things, cry, jump up and down, and dance blindfolded. Brigid Delaney, a writer for The Guardian who tried some of these methods at a meditation camp, wrote:
“There are psychological theories behind this process of letting go in a contained and safe space. In some ways it’s like a self-exorcism: you release your own demons and suppressed emotions and afterwards, feel lighter for it. It worked for me.”
There's no denying, though, that Rajneesh's talks on sex attracted the most attention, and they coincided with the “free love” movement of the 1960s. As such, it was around this time that he began attracting followers from Western countries. To accommodate his growing group of devotees, Rajneesh founded his first ashram (commune) in Pune, about 90 miles southeast of Mumbai, in 1974.
Rajneesh's eccentric and indulgent habits only attracted more attention. He had a squad of 50 sannyasins, all trained in karate and other martial arts, to protect his home, and “sniffers” stood guard at his lecture hall, ready to turn away anyone who smelled of perfume or other pungent odors. (He was supposedly sensitive to strong smells.) He even hired a limousine to carry him 150 yards from his home to his lecture hall. When asked why he made such a dramatic entrance, Rajneesh was matter-of-fact in his response: “I want people to talk about me.”
Later, after moving to the U.S., he racked up a collection of 93 Rolls-Royces, earning him the nickname “Rolls-Royce guru." He also had a habit of sporting gem-encrusted Rolex watches. According to Vulture, he owed his fortune in large part to donations from his wealthy sannyasins.
His followers, however, were unperturbed by their master's flagrant materialism. Indeed, his commune in Pune grew and grew until it became clear that the ashram was no longer large enough to accommodate Rajneesh’s vision. Unable to find a suitable property in India that could house the 100,000 sannyasins he someday hoped to preside over, his assistants (most notably Ma Anand Sheela, who is arguably the real focus of Wild Wild Country) started looking for property in America. However, as The New Republic reported, there were other factors that likely spurred Rajneesh to leave India, including unpaid taxes and disagreements with the locals in Pune.
In 1981, Rajneesh and 15 of his followers came to Antelope, Oregon, where they bought a 64,000-acre ranch and ultimately took over the town, renaming it Rajneeshpuram. It’s here where we catch up with the events featured in Wild Wild Country, a story which culminates—spoiler alert!—in Rajneesh’s arrest at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in October 1985 following an attempt to evade charges of immigration fraud for arranging sham marriages among sannyasins who faced deportation. He was 53 years old at the time.
Rajneesh himself was ultimately deported from the U.S. and lived out the rest of his days in India, where he died of heart disease at the age of 58.
In yet another reversal that occurred a few years before his death, he called for an end to the religion of Rajneeshism and eventually asked his followers to start calling him Osho, meaning “on whom the heavens shower flowers,” according to his obituary in The New York Times.
After disavowing the religion he created, Rajneesh said, "There is no church, no holy book, no catechism, no priest, no congregation, no baptism ... It is a mystic commune ... of people who are individuals searching and seeking ... It is a way of being religious but not a religion. I am a friend, a guide, a philosopher."
In keeping with his worldview, Rajneesh's epitaph fittingly carries these words: “Never born, never died, just visited this Earth from 1931-1990.” His teachings, however, live on in the many spiritual centers around the world that continue to teach his meditation techniques.