In 1981, thousands of followers of a mystic guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh left India to start a new society based on free expression and free love on a ranch in rural Oregon. One doesn’t need a deep understanding of the American West to guess how that went down with the local ranchers and townspeople in nearby Antelope, Oregon, population 40.
Yet the details of the years-long conflict are so bizarre that one observer commented at the time that people looking back on the saga would consider it too fanciful to be true. The six-part documentary series Wild Wild Country, out March 16 on Netflix, confirms that prediction, telling a twisted story filled with bombings, bioterrorism, and the largest illegal bugging operation ever recorded on U.S. soil—all set against the barren, beautiful backdrop of Wasco County, Oregon. Executive produced by brothers Mark and Jay Duplass and directed by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, it’s a commendable retelling of a largely forgotten piece of history that feels familiar today. Indeed, many of the series’ themes—religious freedom, xenophobia, fighting for control over land, even voter suppression—make the story disturbingly relevant.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh began attracting followers in Pune, India, in the 1960s. His basic vision involved taking the best parts of Western and Eastern societies and creating a “new man” not weighed down by the baggage of traditional societal norms. This philosophy included but was not limited to sex, but that, naturally, is what attracted the most attention. When the Rajneeshees later became an American obsession, one late-night talk show host asked a follower if they believed in free love. “We don’t charge for it, if that’s what you’re asking,” was the pithy reply.
When tensions with Indian authorities began to mount, the Rajneeshees went looking for a new place to grow. They came up with the Big Muddy Ranch, a 70,000-acre property in Oregon’s gorge country.
Early on in the series, one local recalls seeing an early arrival to the Big Muddy—which was renamed Rajneeshpuram—speaking to just how unaccustomed the area was to other walks of life. “I figured he was not an American. You can spot Europeans by their shoes. They were fashionable leather shoes, not cowboy boots.” And it was downhill from there. The shoes weren’t the only thing different about the Rajneeshees. They dressed only in shades of pink and red and were inclined to spontaneous singing and dancing. Facing pressure from the tiny Antelope City Council over development plans, the Rajneeshees—who numbered 7,000 on the Rajneeshpuram at one point—mobilized to take over the council, which resulted in their taking over the police force as well. This led to a spectacle of pink-shirted officers patrolling the no-stoplight town. There was also a harebrained scheme to sway Wasco County elections by busing in thousands of homeless people from across the country to become voters and an allegation that they tried to poison a reservoir with ground-up beavers. Wild Wild Country has plenty of such light moments that revel in the pure strangeness of the story.
For the most part, though, the story is a sinister one, with nerves raw and violence always in the offing. Following a mysterious bombing at a Rajneeshee apartment complex in Portland, followers at the Rajneeshpuram began hoisting assault rifles for protection. “I don’t believe in ‘turn the other cheek,’” Ma Anand Sheela, who ran the day-to-day on the ranch and rarely missed a chance to call her neighbors “stupid,” told a TV station. A 1984 salmonella outbreak in the Dalles, the largest city in Wasco County, was linked to the Rajneeshees. The same year, several public officials opposed to the group received chocolates laced with the bacteria. In 1985, an armed woman was dispatched to Portland to assassinate a U.S. attorney, a plan that did not come to fruition. And undercover footage from a Rajneeshee compound suggested that the line between “free love” and rape could be a blurry one among followers.
Belligerent as the Rajneeshees come off, it’s also clear that the Oregonians who fought them had their own prejudices. While opposition to the group was often shrouded in concerns for the environment or infrastructure, it was a thin veneer. “I just don’t like ’em,” one old-timer says matter-of-factly to a camera.
The directors allow both sides plenty of screen time to explain their side of the conflict, using archival footage and retrospective interviews with some central players. Ma Anand Sheela, who sat for interviews with the Ways, emerges as the most compelling character, an unflappable provocateur in the face of rural American conservatism and, later, a pariah of the Rajneeshees. It is Sheela who oversees the largest illegal bugging operation ever, not against the enemies of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, but against Bhagwan himself (as well as the rest of the compound)—an act of palace intrigue that began the unraveling of the great social experiment on the Big Muddy.
Noticeably absent from the series is Rajneesh, who died in 1990. For years, he stopped speaking to his followers, which only enhanced his standing with them. Many followers sent him their life savings, allowing him to amass a very large collection of Rolls-Royces.
If there is a reasonable explanation for this behavior from Rajneesh’s devotees, the Ways don’t try to explain it. That’s just as well. There’s so much going on here that it verges on overload, with questions raised one moment and dropped the next, such as one of Sheela’s plans to sedate the homeless by slipping drugs into their beer, which passes as a madcap aside. And at just over an hour per episode, Wild Wild Country is not quite bingeable like some other Netflix docs.
What ultimately undid the Rajneeshees was an immigration investigation that uncovered a conspiracy to defraud the green card system. On the verge of a multiagency raid, Bhagwan went on the lam but was caught in North Carolina. The group’s connection to the salmonella outbreaks and assassination plots became public in 1985, leading to the arrest of Sheela—who was by this time in hiding from the Rajneeshees—on charges of attempted murder. By the end of the year, Bhagwan pled guilty and agreed to leave the country. The saga was over.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about all of this, and what inspired the Ways to make the docuseries, is how this episode of conflict slipped into obscurity as soon as it was over. Unlike other controversial sects—Jonestown, the Branch Davidians—the Rajneeshees left Oregon peacefully and faded quickly into history. By the late 1980s, the Big Muddy had fallen into tax delinquency and was seized by the state. It is now a Christian youth camp. The city of Antelope, meanwhile, holds an annual music festival featuring country and gospel music. Presumably, you can still tell an outsider by their shoes.