Every Big Question That Wild Wild Country Didn’t Answer

Photo: Netflix

Chapman and Maclain Way’s six-plus-hour Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country — chronicling the Rajneesh commune’s controversial and criminal efforts to overtake a rural Oregon town — is nothing if not exhaustive. But as anyone with an internet connection knows, there’s always more to the story. Before you start scouring the web for everything to know about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (a.k.a. Osho), Ma Anand Sheela, and the sannyasins’ five-decade saga of dynamic meditation and sordid international intrigue, here are the eight biggest questions that Wild Wild Country didn’t answer. (Plus, a handy bibliography of recommended reading and viewing if you’d like to dive into the investigation yourself.)

How did Bhagwan become a guru?

Wild Wild Country is far more interested in how one mystic can inspire multitudes than what creates a single person’s mystique. But if you’re curious about Bhagwan’s biography and how he successfully strung along generations of devotees during his life and postmortem, here’s some insight: He was, according to one uncle, “headstrong” and prone to devouring library books. Further Oregonian reporting circa 1985 (see “further reading” bibliography below) clarifies that he was raised in rural poverty by, alternately, his grandparents and parents, and more or less grew to be both an expert in Eastern religions and know-it-all doubter. In 1953, while attending college, he professed to have had a moment of ultimate enlightenment that dovetailed with his burgeoning interest in meditation and hypnosis, as well as his knack for public speaking. Ostensibly, a guru was born by the time he was 21. One former acquaintance told Oregonian’s Les Zaitz that Bhagwan (then known as Rajneesh) “knew what the rich people want. They want to justify their guilty consciences, to justify their guilty acts.” Fast-forward to the late 1960s — when he would encounter Sheela and start planting seeds for Puna and eventually Rajneeshpuram — and Bhagwan was more or less a traveling spiritual salesperson promoting a lifestyle that was as much submissive as sinful. Better yet, it was largely funded by “donations” from Western businessmen seeking an approachable slice of flower power and psychedelia. It was the perfect storm from which Bhagwan’s image as lord of the hedonistic manor took unshakable hold.

What, exactly, was Bhagwan’s free-love philosophy?

In archival footage from Wild Wild Country, longtime Rajneesh spokesperson Ma Prem Sunshine (a.k.a. Sunny V. Massad) coyly suggested that there simply was no single set of rules. Though in a post-Rajneeshpuram interview with Australian journalist Howard Sattler, Bhagwan (by then known as Osho) made it crystal-clear that his philosophy on monogamy and sex was rooted in, apparently, teen angst. “I’m against marriage from the very beginning,” he explained. “My parents were in difficulty, my family was in difficulty, but I told them clearly I am not going to be married.” He goes on to describe a “neurotic society” populated by couples having duty-filled sex. In a separate lecture to his followers, Osho presents free love as a way to abolish the world’s oldest and most scandalized profession, preaching that, “if sex becomes fun, prostitutes will disappear.” He urges sannyasins to leave “sex out of the marketplace” and suggests that “love to be your only god” and we all “be playful and joyous” in the sack. That these ideals are apparently only possible when sannyasins evade less optional institutions like taxation and live within an outlier sovereign state paradoxically symbolized by its conformity goes undiscussed.

What about the children of Rajneeshpuram?

We learn a bit about Jane Stork’s abandoned and then grievously ill son Peter in Wild Wild Country, and other kids are caught on film or discussed in fleeting retrospect. But what was it like to be raised against your will in Rajneeshpuram or any out-there commune? Ask Hira Bluestone, who recently shared an account of spending ages 7 to 11 alongside her dad under Bhagwan’s sway, and is penning a memoir on the experience. Bluestone recalls working the land more than hitting the books, and getting lectured by Stork (a.k.a. Shanti B.) for avoiding her obligations. Though when they did read, it was fare like this terrifying tale of a girl deteriorating from the effects of radiation in Hiroshima, seemingly to comfort them as they counted down to nuclear holocaust. Movie night struck a similar tone. More distressingly, there were unconfirmed allegations of children being sexually abused on the compound. An incredible photo set by Jean-Pierre Laffont illuminates how, at minimum, Rajneeshpuram was like a surreal sleepaway camp that lasted for nearly half a decade.

Were Sheela, Bhagwan, and Jane the only ones convicted?

No. Longtime Rajneeshpuram mayor Krishna Deva (a.k.a. David Berry Knapp) didn’t get off scot-free for flipping on his pals. He was slapped with a two-year prison sentence for immigration fraud by an unsympathetic judge who ignored U.S. Attorney Charles Turner’s pleading that Knapp merely serve probation. (You’ll recall that Turner was also the target of a foiled Rajneeshee murder plot, as depicted in Wild Wild Country.) Meanwhile, another of Bhagwan’s secretaries, Ma Anand Puja (a.k.a. Diane Yvonne Onang), spent more than three years behind bars in the U.S. and abroad for her part in purportedly poisoning salad-bar diners. Others who received sentences ranging from probation to several years in jail stemming from their participation in everything from coordinating sham marriages and illegally wiretapping their own people to attempted murder included Rajneeshees Ma Prem Padma (a.k.a. Suzanne Pelletier), Ma Yoga Vidya (a.k.a. Ann Phyllis McCarthy), Ma Anand Su (a.k.a. Susan Hagan), Dhyan Yoginia (a.k.a. Alma Peralta), Swami Anugiten (a.k.a. Richard Kevin Langford), and Ma Prem Samadhi (a.k.a. Carol Matthews).

Where did Bhagwan get all that Rolls-Royce money?

As explained above, Bhagwan benefited financially from his wealthy followers’ blind faith. But they weren’t the only ones carrying the load. Upon swallowing Antelope, Oregon, Rajneeshpuram raised original town residents’ property taxes. Other Rajneesh cash-flow machinations included mail-order merch with all sorts of goods, books, and apparel bearing Bhagwan’s likeness, while the crux of his commune’s riches came from two main veins: the aforementioned member and supporter contributions (totaling as much as $10 million annually, in addition to exponentially larger sums just from the Rajneeshpuram residents, according to one report), and old-fashioned debt (which Bhagwan laid blame for at Sheela’s feet). As one sannyasin has said, “Most of us gave whatever we had.” Also, that groovy disco on the ranch’s premises? A cool $50 cover charge to dynamically dance the night away.

Was the ‘Ashram in Poona’ film really that nuts?

Sannyasin sympathizer Wolfgang Dobrowolny’s fly-on-wall documentary about Bhagwan’s 1970s Indian ashram, which left the townspeople of Antelope in shock and awe, is even crazier than Wild Wild Country’s compiled clips connote. The documentary’s scenes of graphic sexual sordidness and paganlike ritual would be difficult for even the average modern hedonist to sit through. (This footage is neither safe for work nor recommended for sensitive viewers.) Bhagwan probably relished the prospect of his Oregonian adversaries going pale bearing witness to his flock’s behavior. But objectively, anyone not under his sway would be by turns skeptical and appalled.

Did Bhagwan have a will?

Depends on whom you ask. Wild Wild Country didn’t delve into the minutiae of postmortem infighting over the guru’s estate, but there is enough drama in the fallout to merit a sequel. To sum up, Bhagwan’s alleged will first materialized in 2013, bequeathing all of his property to a Swiss trust overseen by Osho International Foundation board members, including Bhagwan’s former attorney Philip Toelkes (a.k.a. Swami Prem Niran) and Dr. John Andrews (a.k.a. Swami Amrito, né Dr. George Meredith). But rival Osho preservationists from the Osho Friends Foundation cried foul and forgery. In 2014, a Swiss court agreed, suspending the offending board members and voided their entrusted privileges. Two years later, an Indian court asked that the contested will be sent over from Europe to facilitate possible prosecution. However, prosecution back at Pune stalled, so petitioners from Friends Foundation pushed to get agents at India’s Central Bureau of Investigation involved. As of this January, they were still pushing back against Pune police and International Foundation resistance, and the matter remains unresolved.

What did Rajneeshees do in their pre-Bhagwan lives?

We know Sheela was indoctrinated as a teenager, and that Jane and Philip were among the many escaping humdrum lives as housewives or overworked attorneys. And then there were the trendy Hollywood weirdos and homeless men and women exploited for their numbers at the voting booth. But there were less spotlighted individuals like Rajneeshpuram municipal judge Prem Homa (a.k.a. Michele Therese Mannel), who ditched her career as a New Jersey music teacher to bask beside Bhagwan. Or Bhagwan bodyguard Swami Shimavurti, who was an osteopath based in Britain (and later produced his own Rajneesh tell-all). By and large, though, early Western Rajneeshees were highly educated and had money to burn. One 1985 survey of defectors revealed that one-fifth of its participants held master’s degrees. Nowadays, spiritual and professional wanderlust have overlapped. Consequently, Osho’s standing ashrams might attract, for example, freelance graphic designers — which will at least come in handy setting up websites to sell all that sweet Osho swag.

Further reading and viewing

Ashram in Poona
The Oregonian’s 1985 investigative series
Don’t Kill Him: The Story of My Life With Bhagwan Rajneesh by Ma Anand Sheela
Breaking the Spell: My Life As a Rajneeshee, and the Long Road Back to Freedom by Jane Stork
On the Edge: Living With an Enlightened Master by Yoga Punya
Oregon Experience: Rajneeshpuram (PBS, 2012)
“Escape From Rajneeshpuram” by Paul Morantz
The Rajneesh Chronicles: The True Story of the Cult That Unleashed the First Act of Bioterrorism on U.S. Soil by Win McCormack
Charisma and Control in Rajneeshpuram: The Role of Shared Values in the Creation of a Community by Lewis F. Carter
The People vs. the Cult: Rajneeshees in Wasco County (Portland State University, 2017)

Every Big Question That Wild Wild Country Didn’t Answer