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

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh greets his followers, the Rajneeshees, during a daily afternoon drive-by in one of his Rolls-Royce cars in Rajneeshpuram, Ore., on Aug. 18, 1984.
Bill Miller
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh greets his followers, the Rajneeshees, during a daily afternoon drive-by in one of his Rolls-Royce cars in Rajneeshpuram, Ore., on Aug. 18, 1984.

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 largestbioterrorism 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.

Followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh gather on Oct. 29, 1986 at the crematorium at the Rancho Rajneesh in Rajneeshpuram, Oregon, for a book-burning.
/ AP
Followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh gather on Oct. 29, 1986 at the crematorium at the Rancho Rajneesh in Rajneeshpuram, Oregon, for a book-burning.

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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Corrected: March 24, 2018 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh as Bahgwan Shree Rajneesh.
Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).