I met the Bhagwan first in London. Every night at midnight a small group dressed in red went down our street laughing maniacally. They seemed possessed, but conveyed at the same time that they knew what they were doing. They were followers of an Indian guru with their local headquarters in a nearby street. At the time I assumed they were just on their way home from a meeting; now I wonder if it wasn’t something more sinister.
Later I heard their leader, the Bhagwan Rajneesh, on the radio. He had a hypnotic voice and drew out the ends of words with a hiss like the snake in Disney’s Jungle Book. He was preaching freedom while casting a spell to which you might submit.
Now, thirty-three years after the Bhagwan’s most ambitious venture imploded in a remote American location, along come two complementary versions of the history of the cult and the debacle in Oregon. There’s a six part Netflix series called Wild Wild Country with a large cast of outlandish characters you might think it would take a novelist to invent. And there’s a soberer and more compact version from the Oregon Historical Society which talks to an almost entirely different set of locals and a more mainstream group of cultists.
The story begins in India with a successful ashram headed by an ex philosophy professor who attracts well heeled Westerners, who throw everything they have into the pot. We get a sanitised version of why they need to leave India. Later, large scale tax fraud is floated as the stimulus. Anyway, Oregon is selected as the destination, to which the Bhagwan absconds without telling his followers he is leaving. They have bought a huge ranch for which they have extensive plans and soon find themselves in conflict with the nearby town of Antelope, population 40. The Rajneeshis despise the locals, which they don’t trouble to conceal. They soon outnumber the natives and peace and love give way to oppression.
The star of the Netflix series is not the Bhagwan but someone few viewers will have heard of, his deputy Ma Anand Sheela. She is physically attractive and alarmingly intelligent and energetic. As time goes on she reveals darker sides, more than one. The most wonderful feature of the series is the powerful suspense it creates about the characters and where their warring impulses will lead them next. Inevitably the most profound conundrums are posed by the cultists, but there are enigmas among townspeople and officials too.
Two of the most articulate cultists, a young Australian woman and an American lawyer, speaking in the present, keep us in perpetual doubt about whether or how much they ever got out from under the spell. However many explanations one comes up with for how so many intelligent people succumbed to the Bhagwan’s persuasions, it remains a puzzle without a solution, or at least without a remotely palatable one.
How could the 1960s and the expansion of consciousness and greater openness to experience which they brought have spawned the essentially totalitarian attitudes of cults? ‘Extremes meet’ was Coleridge’s favourite proverb: freedom’s excesses are adjacent to slavery, it seems. The happy grins of the Bhagwanites call up in me a mixture of envy and mistrust, and share something with the calmer stares of lobotomised patients.
The Bhagwan himself remains an enigma to the last. His smile looks witless judged by the standards of the world. Even intelligent disciples find his enthusiasm for Rolls Royces a lovable trait, which they feel compelled to indulge. For me, it rules him out as a spiritual teacher. He was wise to keep quiet for most of the time in Oregon. When he unleashes his ire against the disloyal Sheela his unexpected coarseness is shocking. The morning after her departure he turns up fully informed of her crimes, hidden from him before. Now he judges her regime a fascist state and relaxes the main rules, like the red clothing and his own sanctity. Collapse is bound to follow: god has come out as an unbeliever.