Curious. Stunned. Shocked. Saddened. Pity. Those are the things I felt as I watched Wild Wild Country, Netflix’s award-winning documentary on a controversial Indian guru, his close secretary, and followers of the Rajneesh movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Here was a group of people so in need of a God, that they duped themselves into an animalistic cult in order to feel more spiritual.
What was the Rajneeshee Movement?
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931–1990) held the world’s gaze in awe. Most of the world was shocked, others entranced by his radical teachings. On the outside, it looked much like Hinduism: red and orange colored robes, meditations, and a beautiful resort for his followers. In ideology the Rajneesh movement was far from anything a mainstream religion taught in morality.
Bhagwan taught his followers to pursue “free love” and to seek pleasures now, which he dressed up in words like “living now”. He discouraged marriage, as he believed it a stiff tradition that limited freedom. He had the Rajneeshees (his followers) hooked on his every word. His pictures filled the communes he established. Bhagwan led his followers into obscene sexual practices, and adrenaline-hyped meditations.
On the other hand, he spoke positively of science and capitalism, though the communes he established in Pune, Indian and Wasco County, Oregon were obvious forms of micro-socialist societies that resembled capitalism only in that the commune sold goods to the outside world. Internally, the communes were hierarchical societies where jobs were assigned in exchange for community-provided housing, food, healthcare, etc. In science, Bhagwan believed, as many do still, that scientific understanding is an answer to religion, and further that religion has actively stifled science. He believed adamantly in abortions up to birth and even euthanasia of disabled children, because they could not enjoy this life fully with their senses.
The Rajneesh movement gathered thousands of followers world-wide, and still continues albeit under a new (likely more tame) organization called the Osho International Foundation (OIF).
Rajneeshee “Morality” was Christian Morality Turned Upside Down
The teachings of Bhagwan were the antithesis of Christ’s teaching. Watching Wild Wild Country reminded me of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he warned, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Bhagwan, whether intentional or merely resulting from a derailment from reason, was such a false prophet: parading around as a spiritual man of great wisdom, while in reality he was a fool leading others into the snares of sin. Interestingly, his nickname of “Rajneesh” translates from Sanskrit to effectively mean “Night Lord”. Kind of creepy, right?
The teachings Jesus and Bhagwan were diametrically opposed. Christ taught to resist temptations. Bhagwan taught of embracing those temptations. Christ taught of sacrifice. Bhagwan taught of indulgence. Christ taught to look to Heaven. Bhagwan taught to look to the self.
In action too, the two were so different. Christ lived among the poor. Bhagwan collected Rolls Royces: 93 of them in the total count. In fact, Bhagwan had a bumper sticker that was quite popular among his followers that read, “Jesus Saves. Moses Invests. Bhagwan Spends”.
“Jesus Saves. Moses Invests. Bhagwan Spends”.Bumper sticker used by Rajneeshee
Christ welcomed the sickly, the disabled. Bhagwan advocated for the killing of those born disabled. Christ was not a man of the culture. Much of Bhagwan’s fame was a result of his cultural command.
Bhagwan’s philosophy ultimately believed that by embracing our animal instincts to their fullest, we somehow find our true nature or spirituality within. This is essentially claiming that by embracing some of humanity’s worst aspects, we grow into a greater society. Total hogwash. The Rajneeshee in the U.S. did face strong opposition from local Oregonians, but it was the Rajneeshee reaction, devoid of any moral standard, that ultimately led to the commune’s downfall: attempted assassinations, a bio-terrorist attack to take control of county elections, millions of dollars in unpaid back-taxes, and illegal wiretapping. These crimes brought the commune to an end amid turmoil within the community as well.
Compare that to the impact of Christianity on society. Judeo-Christian values enabled the West to rise to a glory (though with its own evolving issues) that is still unmatched in all of history. Never has poverty been so rare, education been so accessible, freedom so widespread. Christ’s philosophy still continues over 2000 years, while Bhagwan’s extreme “unshackling” from rigid morality was short-lived.
The Spiritually Needy Invent their Own Religions
The religion of the Rajneesh movement detested the moral fabric of the Christian world, and all “organized religion”. It’s a funny thing, too, that the Rajneeshee supposedly rejected organized religion, for in the end, they had just as organized a religion as any other – in some ways more. They wore colored garbs only of red, orange, pink, and purple fabrics; they had a book of Rajneesh practices, and often meditated (in unusual ways) as groups. They had images of their leader Bhagwan and sat at his feet to hear his discourses. Clearly, they practiced an organized religion.
Bhagwan eventually went on to claim that even his own Rajneesh movement was not a religion (after his schismatic disputes with his former secretary known as “Sheela”). He claimed that the Rajneesh religion is “the first religion to die”, as he claimed the movement will no longer be called a religion, nor he be called their leader. Bhagwan, of course, was wrong about it being the first religion to die: think of the Greek, Roman, and Norse gods that represent dead religions, the worship of Baal, etc. There are many dead religions left behind in history. The movement then became simply “a religionless religion” containing “only a quality of love, silence, meditation and prayerfulness”.
“a religionless religion”Carter, Lewis F. (1990), Charisma and Control in Rajneeshpuram: A Community without Shared Values
As I learned more of the Rajneesh movement’s rise and fall, personal testimonies, and activities within the communes, I became increasingly aware of the underlying desperation to experience the spiritual of those that joined the movement. It’s quite similar to those that look for spirituality in New Age philosophies (some of which did overlap with Bhagwan).
Both New Age philosophies and the Rajneeshee want all the trappings of religion without acknowledging a real God or truth. Both are forms of relativism that have plagued the latter 20th century and present times, ascertaining that happiness and meaning are subjective and to be found within, rather than through an objective truth or reality. Some of the philosophies of the Rajneeshee live on through other, more popular movements, such as modern gender theory’s emphasis on subjectivity and espousing of the free love mentality.
Bhagwan’s utopian commune quickly turned into a dystopia as increasing tensions between them and the US government forced the Rajneeshee to take ever more desperate measures including tampering with local elections, bio-terrorism through poisoning, attempted assassination, and arson to “protect” their commune. You could not have expected the Rajneeshee to be choosy about which old-fashioned morals were cast aside, could you?
Such philosophies of Dyonesian pleasure-seeking and hostility were a perfect example of a people in need of God or at least any god besides themselves.
Carter, Lewis F. (1990), Charisma and Control in Rajneeshpuram: A Community without Shared Values, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-38554-7, retrieved 12 July 2011.
“Rajneesh movement,” accessed 1/04/2020 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rajneesh_movement#CITEREFGordon1987
“Wild Wild Country,” and the information presented therein, accessed 1/04/2020 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_Wild_Country
Gordon, James S. (1987), The Golden Guru, Lexington, MA: The Stephen Greene Press, ISBN 0-8289-0630-0.