The free-love cult that terrorised America and became …

Posted: March 19, 2019 at 2:42 am


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Anyone who has ever dipped a toe in the pool of new-age mysticism is likely to have come across Osho. The bearded Indian mystic has had his books translated into more than 60 languages, published by more than 200 publishing houses youre likely to find his works next to the crystals and yoga mats in your local hippy shop.

Yet if you go on the Osho website, or are one of the 200,000 people that visit the Osho International Centre in Pune, India each year youll hear nothing about the most eventful section of his life, before he was rebranded as Osho, and known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

Rajneesh, who died in 1990, was a popular spiritual leader in India, attracting thousands of followers called sannyasins or orange people to practise free love and take part in his unusual style of meditation: lots of primal screaming followed by dancing as if Fatboy Slim had just come on to Glastonburys Pyramid stage.

By the 1980s he was at odds with the government in India and so decided to buy a ranch in Oregon. The land was largely uninhabitable but he sent his followers ahead to create a utopia. They built a giant dam, an airport, an electricity station and a meditation centre that could hold 10,000 people. They called it Rajneeshpuram, and when it was ready, Rajneesh and his followers relocated to the US.

The cult that formed was as paranoid as scientology, as bizarre as Jonestown, and as controlled as the Manson family. Yet until the release of Wild Wild Country, Netflixs latest hit documentary series directed by brothers Mclain and Chapman Way, it had not entered the cultural conversation in the same way as those movements. Now it seems people can talk about little else. The six-part documentary, available to view now, scored 100% on the review site Rotten Tomatoes, and received even more glowing endorsements from other filmmakers, including Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning director of Moonlight, who tweeted: Im on my second watch of Wild Wild Country. Ill probably make it through a third. The film has spurred hundreds of articles revisiting the events as other journalists attempt to get in touch with former members or relive their sannyasins experiences.

The tenor of the excitement around the show isnt just about the intimate footage the directors have unearthed, or the fact they secured in-depth interviews with nearly all the cults living leaders. Viewers also seem to be shocked that they didnt already know this story. Jenn McAllister, a YouTuber with more than three million subscribers, had a typical reaction of those not yet born during the period: I cant believe that happened in the US and I never knew until now.

Perhaps this is because pop culture has been keen to retread the same couple of cult stories. In the past few years Emma Clines novel The Girls, a fictional reimagining of life in the Manson family, became a bestseller. Quentin Tarantinos next film Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, starring Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, is also based on Manson. The most recent series of the Emmy-winning American Horror Story takes influences from both the Jim Jones and Manson movements, and Louis Therouxs My Scientology Movie was the latest major documentary on that movement. The hunger for these stories shows no sign of abating.

Like most of the cults, the sannyasin movement began with members dreaming of a better future. Whats exceptional about Wild Wild Country is its episodic treatment manages to make the cult attractive: a sense of purpose, self-realisation, free love. The show sucks you in to Rajneeshs teachings and the charisma of his personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela. Yet by episode four the commune has engaged in the sedation of thousands of homeless people, immigration fraud, failed assassination plots, and the largest bio-terrorist attack in UShistory. The cult infected 751 people with salmonella by contaminating restaurant salad bars. The 1984 attack, planned to incapacitate voters and allow it to win seats in a local election, led to a 20-year jail sentence for Sheela.

I remember all of this quite vividly, says Rick Ross, from the Cult Education Institute, when I ask why commune members werent more suspicious of the leaders. I was contacted by family members of people living in Oregon. They contacted me because they were concerned for their loved ones safety, the potential for the group to become violent or criminal, and the fact that they were giving very large amounts of money to Rajneesh.

The documentary leaves lots of unanswered questions about whether the sannyasins were a genuine spiritual movement or a scam, not least because most of the former members still speak about Rajneesh with affection. But Ross believes there is no question that the intent was malicious. They were very methodical, deliberate. Rajneesh was intelligent he was educated, he had a PhD. He was a master at manipulation and influence techniques. Its common with these kinds of groups. They dont play fair or transparently with the people they target. People are tricked and then they are trapped.

Ross reels off cults that have emerged since Rajneesh: the Aum Shinrikyo movement that in 1995 let off sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo underground, killing 12 people; the American white-supremacist FLDS Church which, like Rajneesh, has political control of two cities, its own police forces and a leader who is in prison for child abuse and rape; the Order of the Solar Temple which is associated with the mass suicides of dozens of members in France and Switzerland. His very long list highlights that awareness of previous cults does nothing to stop the next.

The problem is that no one signs up to be in a cult, no one is a self-confessed cult member. Often these groups have a lot of legitimate criticism about society there is a lot of inequality, a rat race which stifles individuality, says Suzanne Newcome a research fellow at Inform, the new religious movements network at LSE.

The problem, she says, is it has always been to difficult to work out whether a group offering things like therapy, meditation, life advice, yoga and retreats is a going to have a positive or negative impact. Once people might become aware theyve joined a cult theyre often too invested and its hard to get out.

The Osho movement today, 28 years after its founders death, is a more tempered version than in Oregon, and focuses on selling books and meditation retreats. Yet it is still unwilling to accept the findings of the documentary. The Osho Times, its official organ, says the documentary fails to show this was a US government conspiracy, from the White House on down, aimed at thwarting Oshos vision of a community based on conscious living. Even in death, Rajneesh continues to manipulate his followers.

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March 19th, 2019 at 2:42 am