A bombing, a murder plot and a mass poisoning — all of it revolving around a group of thousands of people who followed their Rolls-Royce-driving leader.
Wild Wild Country, a six-part documentary series released last month on Netflix, traces the strange story from past to present, featuring interviews with several former Rajneesh devotees.
The show has put a spotlight on a case that made national headlines throughout the ’80s before fading somewhat from collective memory.
Yes, a Guru Did Move to the Middle of Oregon
Rajneesh — born in India around 1932 — came to America in 1981 already the leader of an eponymous religious group that he had founded in 1974, in Poona, India.
A former journalist and philosophy professor, Rajneesh was a prolific author and speaker whose teachings were distributed via books, cassettes and videos; that, along with member donations, provided a significant operating income.
Also in 1981, Rajneesh’s group purchased the approximately 64,000-acre Big Muddy Ranch in Oregon’s Jefferson and Wasco counties, where John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn had once filmed a movie. The space, which covered about 100 square miles a few hours east of Portland, soon became home to thousands of Rajneesh’s sannyasins, or followers, many of whom came from upper- and middle-class families in America and Europe.
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The Bhagwan preached a peculiar mix of teachings that crossed traditions from both East and West, including a focus on mysticism, sexual freedom, the abolition of family and encounter therapy (which encouraged authentic face-to-face dialogues between two people or within a group).
His followers, also called Rajneeshees, wore only clothes in the sun-like colors of red, orange and purple. Meanwhile the Bhagwan was known for most of his years in Oregon for his daily appearances in one of his many Rolls-Royces, reportedly owning between a few dozen and as many as 91.
Beyond that, though, Rajneesh stayed silent except for communicating with his deputy and longtime secretary, Ma Anand Sheela.
“It is impossible that Bhagwan would ever ask people to kill anyone. But if he asked me to do it, I don’t know. I love and trust him very much,” group member Shannon Jo Ryan, then known as Ma Amrita Pritam, told PEOPLE in 1981. “To me he is God. He sees more clearly than I do. But if I want to say no to Bhagwan, I’ll say no.”
The Group Clashed With Outsiders Over Its Growth
According to the New York Times, Rajneesh came to America after conflicts with government officials in Poona over his group’s tax-exempt status. In the U.S. he settled first in Montclair, New Jersey, where the group had purchased a castle and operated one of its centers out of a storefront.
“We are very concerned about our property values, our children and about this becoming an international headquarters for a free-sex cult,” one local told the Times in 1981.
Not long after, Rajneesh relocated to the ranch in Oregon, beginning years of escalating tensions between his followers and the dozens of locals already in the area, particularly those residents of the town of Antelope, not far from the group’s property.
“We thought they were a friendly bunch,” Mayor Margaret Hill told PEOPLE in 1982. “Lots of food, lots of free booze — it was a great party.”
Such seeming friendliness faded as the Rajneeshes pushed first to incorporate their ranch as its own city, Rajneeshpuram, and then — through quirks in the state’s election laws — used their numbers to take control of Antelope’s city council, at one point officially renaming it after their leader. (This came despite an unsuccessful attempt by locals to abolish Antelope rather than see newcomers elected to lead it.)
The group was also able to purchase a sizable amount of real estate in the tiny town, including its general store.
With time, the ranch itself developed to include 300-seat cafeteria, barns, greenhouses, a mall, dozens of homes and a 160-room hotel.
Such expansion efforts were met in turn by pushes from local and state officials charging that the group was involved in voter fraud and other unscrupulous tactics. The Rajneeshes argued that this resistance was thinly disguised religious discrimination.
At various points the commune was described as housing approximately 1,400, 3,500 and 5,000 people; with Rajneesh representatives maintaining to media that there were some 200,000 followers worldwide.
About the Poisoning and Other Crimes
Against this social and political conflict came more serious altercations: In 1983, a Portland hotel owned by the group was bombed by an Islamic militant (though no one was killed) while in 1984, hundreds of residents of the Wasco County seat where the Rajneesh ranch was located became ill from salmonella infections.
Later investigation discovered that 10 restaurants in The Dalles had had their salad bars infected by followers of Rajneesh in an attempt to suppress voter turnout and ensure the group could gain seats on the county commission.
Sheela, long the group’s public face during Rajneesh’s years of silence, abruptly left the ranch in 1985 and later pleaded guilty in connection with the large-scale poisoning, among other charges, for which she served about two years in prison.
In the ’90s, two British followers of Rajneesh were convicted for conspiring to murder a U.S. attorney general in retaliation for his investigation of the group. By that point, however, Rajneesh himself had already died in India, where he relocated after being deported from America after a criminal guilty plea.
His crime, according to federal prosecutors? Arranging a series of fake marriages between Indian nationals and his followers to gain them resident status.
What Became of the Leaders and the Ranch?
The Oregon commune dissolved in the months after Rajneesh left the country and remained abandoned for years afterward, falling into foreclosure. (Strangely, some of the group’s barns and mobile homes were sold to another religious group, this one in Montana.)
Rajneesh died in 1990 at 58 from heart disease after returning to Poona, according to the Times. Before his death, he had told his followers to refer to him simply as “Osho.”
After her prison sentence, Sheela moved to Europe and more recently has lived and worked in Switzerland, running care homes for those with mental disabilities.
“My own personal conflict with Bhagwan was a bigger issue,” she told the Oregonian in 2011. “My love for Bhagwan had a priority over all problems.”