A (Not So) Wild Story

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 8.]

On the one hand, Wild Wild Country (six parts, on Netflix) is about as strange a religious story as there is in the United States. On the other hand, it’s not very strange at all. The divisive nature of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (a name I would be okay never hearing again), the completely opposite stories told by the Rajneeshees and everyone else, and the weird, magnetic pull of the Bhagwan’s personality make this a compelling story. It’s salacious, with the (accurate) rumors of a sort of sex cult, but it doesn’t seem that the Bhagwan was all that involved in the sexual aspect of his commune, as you might expect a sex cult leader to be!

But even though the free-love aspect of the Rajneeshees seems to attract the attention, that’s only a side story to this documentary. The people interviewed are limited to four major people on either side of the controversy in Antelope, Oregon, in addition to law enforcement and legal participants. While normally I might want more breadth and more input from various people, the limited number of main players actually works well in a six-part series. You actually begin to get a pretty good feel for where they’re coming from and their individual personalities.

While Wild Wild Country certainly presents the Rajneesh commune as more sympathetic than many others might do, it wouldn’t contribute anything to our understanding of the story to sensationalize the commune only to condemn it. The filmmakers would then simply be a mouthpiece for the critics in Antelope. And while I probably sympathize more with the people who wanted to live a quiet life in central Oregon, only to be interrupted by thousands of people in red clothing, they are not completely sympathetic. They are fighting for their community and way of life, which they are free to do. But I’m not sure they’re on any firmer ground democracy-wise than the commune.

Though I wouldn’t be happy at all that the commune bused in hundreds of formerly homeless people in order to manipulate them into registering to vote for the commune’s cause, I can’t believe it’s actually legal to shut down the voter registration process simply because you don’t like who’s taking advantage of the 20-day residency law in Oregon.

Of course, the criminality of at least some leaders of the commune would make me far less supportive of any legal claims they might make to land or authority. The Baghwan pleads guilty only to a charge that allows him simply to leave the country, while Ma Anand Sheela and others get far stiffer sentences for their admitted crimes.

This is only one of the points at which the story falls into a familiar script. To have aggressive and ambitious “lieutenants” carry out things so that you can keep your hands clean, and then blame everything on them when they leave you, could describe any number of organized crime organizations. I have a hard time believing that anyone would be so naive (as the Baghwan’s lawyer is) as to think the leader of the commune knew nothing, especially since he and Sheela met nightly to speak about the commune’s business.

But beyond the form of the documentary, the reasons people have for either traveling to India or traveling to Oregon to seek enlightenment from a guru are extremely typical They feel unfulfilled and unhappy; they are stuck in a materialistic culture; they just work and work and for what? These are the same reasons that anyone might make a radical change and look for something—anything—that will bring meaning to life.

And that’s one genuinely puzzling thing about the whole enterprise. What, actually, is it about Baghwan Shree Rajneesh that draws people to him? For myself, I have trouble imagining anyone with such a magnetic personality that I would give up everything to sit at his feet. That is, perhaps, one of the shortcomings of this documentary in that we hear very rarely about the teaching for which people traveled so far to learn. The focus seems to be more on the personal interactions, both among the Rajneeshees, as well as between them and the residents of Oregon.

One answer to the “why” might be historical and generational. The Baghwan began to be active at exactly that time when “alternative” religions, Eastern mysticism, free love, and all of their concomitants were becoming extremely popular, to the point that “guru” itself became a cliché term. Ironically, the distrust of all authority in the disintegration of the late ’60s seems to have led many people to put their complete trust in a particular authority.

I have to say, though, that the attempt in Antelope to actually carry out the building of a free, happy, and loving community is probably the best that human beings can do. The ideal was attractive, just as the ideal of political communism is attractive. The only problem, as with every other system of living or government, is the people.

It is evident from Sheela’s continuing attempt to “live out the Baghwan’s teaching” and from Swami Prem Niren’s (Philip Toelkes) unwavering belief in the rightness of the cause that they clearly don’t think that the problem is inherent in the idea. Mistakes were made in the execution of it, or people did the wrong things, or the authorities and the ignorant citizens of Antelope and the United States made it impossible. But no one is willing to admit that the problem might reside within people themselves.

In thousands of years of human society, no one has ever been able to construct the sort of utopia that a commune like Rajneeshpuram aimed to be, even if—big if!—all the motivations of the principal organizers were actually good. No matter how tired people get of materialism, capitalism, the banality of modern society, the dead-end jobs, or the empty feeling inside themselves, who has ever been able to solve the problem? Who has actually succeeded in carrying out any such spiritual or enlightenment experiments?

The Bhagwan more than once claims to be doing something that has never been done in the history of the world. And what became of it? So it’s still never been done. In this world, all eu-topias end as a-topias. The Good Place becomes No Place.

And what of the Church, which claims (to external appearances, at least) to be aiming at exactly the sort of community the leaders of Rajneeshpuram claimed to be creating (minus, I assume, the polyamory)? Bhagwan claims to have come to an enlightened realization that no religion, no culture, has ever realized: a complete synthesis of the material and the spiritual. What is the Church’s response? To retreat from the material into the spiritual? That does indeed seem to be the course of many religions and religious people. (Including, presumably, the Buddhist who tried to assassinate Bhagwan in India.)

Christianity, in its essence, claims that Christ does exactly that: bring back together the human and the divine in His own flesh and blood and spirit. Christianity refuses the extremes: that this world is a hell, and the goal is freedom from all material attachments—including the anti-Christian view that the goal is to die, escape the body, and enter an intangible heaven; and, at the same time, that this world, as it is, is the only thing there is. In other words, the new creation has begun in Christ, and for all those who are in Him, and it will be brought to its full expression and completion when Jesus is finally revealed visibly to us and to all creatures.

Wild Wild Country is the record of an intriguing interplay between religious, political, societal, and personal forces, and it’s worth watching, especially for those of us for whom the word “Rajneesh” has only a distant echo of familiarity.

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