Independent thought is good. Cults are bad. If your meditation teachers are arming you, it might be time to take up SoulCycle.
For those of you who have not seen Wild Wild Country yet, stop what you’re doing, get some popcorn, take the day off of work (or wait for the weekend, whichever) and get on Netflix. Then come back to this article. I’ll wait.
For those of you who have seen it… holy higher power. I spent the first episode of this docuseries thinking Rajneeshpuram seemed like a lovely idea with a bunch of people who probably would have been better off had they just built their utopia on a swath of land in like California or Hawaii…not next to a town of ranchers and farmers whose population was 50 and idea of diversity was 50 shades of white.
But the initial introduction to the Sanyassins did seem idealistic: a commune built on the values of “compassion and sharing” as Philip Toelkes (a.k.a. Swami Prem Niren) says; a respite from the harshness of society where everyone spent their days meditating and co-existing with people from all over the world under the guise of loyalty to a “guru” who seemingly brought them all inner peace.
But that inner peace ended up coming with a side of biological warfare, attempted murders, immigration fraud, the forced sedation of homeless people, smuggling, and allegations of rape and assault. Human beings will always revert to human nature, and human nature can be ugly. Our propensity to seek out purpose and spirituality from the world has allowed, over the course of time, thousands of religions and cults to fester and implode/explode, all while the committed members continue to preach from pedestals that self-discovery is possible–you just have to relinquish independent thought and your allegiance to a certain level of reality to be granted access.
Let’s start with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh aka Osho, the “guru.” It is one thing to have a spiritual guide, and quite another to convince yourself as a grown ass adult that some man you have never met is, himself, “holy.” Osho came with all the trappings of a mystic for Westerners: the clothes, the beard, the mysterious silence, the false humility–attracting thousands of people who were ripe for moderate-to-severe brainwashing.
This is not to say the concept of a spiritual man or teacher is nonsense, but there are certain behavioral indicators that should be red herrings to anyone searching for meaning. For example, if your guru is asking for millions of dollars, and is spending that money on Bentleys and jewelry, he’s probably not that enlightened, and you should probably not abandon your family for him. Even if he has compelling facial hair.
Ronit Feinglass Plank, whose mother left her and her family for Bhagwan twice–first for the ashram in India, and again for the Oregon commune–explained in an article for The Atlantic that Wild Wild Country did not really show the realities of the Sanyassins who were not in the chain of command at Rajneeshpuram. The series–which primarily hones in on the leaders of the cult, the Wasco County residents and U.S. lawmakers who battled them throughout their tenure at the compound–did not really talk about the amount of families that were split up or abandoned on this quest by some for a better life.
Religion or spirituality are great as long as you’re not, for example, poisoning thousands of people in its name to turn an election in your favor (looking at you, Sheela). But let’s point out that much of the resistance the Sanyassins initially faced came from practicing Christians. If you remember, at one point, one of the cowboy-hat-wearing Wasco County residents looks into a TV camera and says about the Rajneeshees with complete sincerity, ‘They’re run by satanic power.” So, likewise, when you have grown adults seriously referring to the devil, that is also the exemplification of people who have been taught, and/or are choosing to have their lives guided by a religious/spiritual narrative that is not shared by billions of other people.
By the end of the series, the audience has been privy to an arms race, multiple felonies, some very ugly displays of human behavior on all sides, and the realization that some of the interviews took place after lengthy prison sentences were served. It is quite an extraordinary story though, especially the fact that it happened at all; that there was such a bold attempt to create a “Shangri-La;” that had human nature not gotten in the way, if Osho hadn’t become addicted to drugs, if murder hadn’t become justifiable in the eyes of some Rajneeshee leaders, if rape hadn’t been allowed, if, if, if….it could have been a magical place. It just wasn’t.