A solitary figure dressed in red appears on an empty road. A few seconds later, bodies (sometimes naked) writhe in ecstatic prayer incantations, shouting and gyrating. The piercing eyes of their guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, twinkle as he bows to his red-clad disciples. When he speaks, his voice is soft, clipped and intense.
These sporadic scenes in the first episode of the 2018 Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country are probably unnerving to the typical viewer. But they feel even more potent because of my own experiences within a radical community.
Wild Wild Country is set in the early 80s in the wake of the Jonestown massacre. In a culture already wary of cults, the disciples of Rajneesh move onto a 60,000-acre property, just miles from the tiny fifty-person town of Antelope, Oregon. They are building a utopia called Rajneeshpuram. Their leader Bhagwan has expensive jewels and lines the road with a fleet of Rolls Royces.
Though many of the members of the Oregon Rajneeshees are white westerners, the group originates in India, the home country of its leader. In response to this huge influx of people, the inhabitants of Antelope seem to be following a trope: small town folk wary of foreigners moving in.
I know a bit about this. For eight years, I lived in a religious community in rural Illinois called Plow Creek. In its beginnings in the early 1970s, Plow Creek started on a 180-acre property one mile from a small town of 800. Hippie communes were fashionable at the time and Plow Creek was started in order to provide a Jesus-centered alternative to these free love groups.
Like the inhabitants of Antelope, the people of the nearby small town were also wary of our community. When Plow Creek members began to put their children in the local public schools, the town thought our community was trying to take over the school board and change things. For many years, rumors went around town that members of our community were sharing sexual partners. This wasn’t true but the gossip was occasionally revived and re-circulated.
Some of the people of Antelope seemed like stodgy old farts. Their determination to stop the Rajneeshes from voting in a local election smacked of prejudice. Unfortunately, they also happened to be right about some things: these community members were sharing sexual partners but they were also pushing at more boundaries than just sexual mores.
I won’t give away what happens, but things become increasingly bizarre and horrifying over the course of the documentary. And, in most cases, the similarities between my community of Plow Creek and the community of Rajneeshpuram break down.
Two Rajneeshes, speaking in present day, were particularly interesting. A sympathetic and soft-spoken Australian woman recounts her experiences and some of the terrible things she did. Her regret, her sorrow, her sense of loss, and even her bewilderment about what led her to do what she did, is deeply felt and communicated. A less sympathetic figure was the self-satisfied lawyer for Rajneesh. But one thing that binds them is that even decades later, they are both clearly gutted as they remember the love and acceptance they felt in community.
This desperate need for love and acceptance is at least a key to understanding why so many are attracted to gurus and intentional communities. I saw this in my own community; many people who are drawn to such a radical way of life are also searching for the loving family they never had.
Rajneeshpuram closed after only four years. After the chaotic events of the documentary, it seems that no one except the community members were surprised. Our community Plow Creek defied statistics for communities and lasted forty years. Still, it was painful to all of us as we helped it close down.
Knowing that long-lasting intentional communities are rare (90 percent don’t even make it past the first few years), I cannot help but think of Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities that began in the 1960s and are still thriving today. Vanier knew, more than most, that “the deepest desire for a soul is to be appreciated, to be loved.”
Vanier’s approach to community was about engaging in mutual hospitality with others, particularly with those who are vulnerable, like adults with disabilities. He said in his book Community And Growth that in healthy community we “welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.”
In this kind of community, we see not only our neighbor’s desperate need for love and acceptance but through them we also see our own. Healing happens when we can accept our own wounds and heartaches and give love out of the healing.
Rajneeshpuram didn’t seem to be a place of true love and acceptance. At one point, community members bussed in the homeless from cities all over the country, drugged them when they didn’t behave properly, and then dropped them all off again in a local Oregon town.
In a chilling televised interview, the Bhagwan’s personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, responds to the rumors that the community is stockpiling guns and weapons. Sheela looks straight into the camera and offers a warning to anyone who crosses her or her community. “Jesus said to turn the other cheek,” Sheela says threateningly, “We say: Take both their cheeks.”
Sheela’s “eye for an eye” comment was shocking to America. But it might be one of the most American things Sheela says. She seemed to know what Jesus said better than some of his followers, even some of the people of Antelope.
With their guns and their fight over political power, neither the people of Antelope, Oregon, nor the Rajneeshes seemed to be involved in the hard vulnerable work of hospitality and healing. Those community members who had really come for healing were left bereft and heartbroken.
I still wonder what it takes to have healthy long-term community. Though Rajneeshpuram is an extreme example of the ways people hurt each other, we often wound each other even in more ordinary communities. But Vanier’s communities—ones that began years before Rajneeshpuram or Plow Creek and crossed cultural, religious, and ethnic boundaries—give me hope.
Community is possible when our gurus aren’t the ones with the guns or the Rolls Royces.
We can find our teachers in the trenches, far away from power and prestige, doing “ordinary things with extraordinary love.”
image: The East Wind Community in rural Missouri, via creative commons
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Christiana Peterson
Christiana N. Peterson is the author of Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God Through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints. Her writing has also appeared in such places as Christianity Today, Art House America, Christian Century, and Bearings Online. She lives in Ohio with her husband and four kids.