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Othering the Godman

Wild Wild Country’s white American provincialism

The March release of Netflix’s Wild Wild Country, a docuseries (by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way) about the “sex and Rolls Royce Indian guru” Rajneesh—who was also known as Bhagwan, and later, Osho—has sent the Internet into a tizzy of hot takes, nostalgia-core interviews, and strangely feminist memes. The six-part series focuses on the 1981 relocation of Rajneesh and his followers to Wasco County, Oregon, where they attempted to build a city whose residents would follow Rajneesh’s radical teaching in the hopes of planting the seeds of spiritual revolution. For its part, the show’s runaway success and broadly positive reception come at a somewhat curious time in U.S. popular culture, when there is a general return to the eighties and nineties, both in the form of reboots (Roseanne, Fuller House, Twin Peaks) and in the exploration of marginalized narratives (Fresh off the Boat). Specifically, for the South Asian experience, there are shows like The Mindy Project and the critical comedy of Hari Kondabolu (with his ongoing battle against the characterization of The Simpson’s “Apu”). Both are attempts to inscribe parallel South Asian experiences within mainstream U.S. television, which has traditionally chosen to either ignore South Asians or cast them as sidekicks.

Wild Wild Country chooses to swap the saga of the larger Osho movement for a more myopic and TV-ready spectacle.

These popcult attempts at animating and excavating the recent past are fascinating, especially as exercises in highlighting various multicultural realities which still remain at the margins of the white, heteronormative, American middle-class family narrative—you know, the dominant one. Might Wild Wild Country, the very real story of two brown people who set up shop in the Pacific Northwest, also contend with, or at least question, this strain of received thinking? It’s probably telling to note the aspects of the series that have interested audiences: the violent orgies, the cars, the money, the culpability of ex-sanyasin Ma Anand Sheela for her orchestration of a bioterrorist attack (no small concern), immigration fraud, and attempted murder.

Which is to say that Wild Wild Country looks to us like a banal, truncated version of stories we heard growing up, not in the least because it chooses to swap the saga of the larger Osho/Rajneesh movement for a more myopic and TV-ready spectacle. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with zooming in on arguably the most violent four years of the story, which actually begins in 1951 in Jabalpur, India with nineteen-year-old Chandra Mohan Jain (Rajneesh’s birth name). However, with its persistent spotlighting of sex, expensive cars, and a single young woman of color (Sheela), the show ends up ignoring the violence and global corruption that a broader aperture might have provided. Instead of being offered a deeper history, viewers are often reminded that the good citizens of Antelope, Oregon, the town where Rajneesh and his followers chose to reside, only wanted to avoid another Jonestown, another ‘anti-Christian’ cult (though there is the reminder, which comes from an ex-sanyasin, that Jonestown had its roots in Christian revival movements). No one in the series, not even the filmmakers, wonders about the prehistory of the Rajneesh movement, a heretical entity that emerged from a spiritual, hyper-religious India. (It’s worth mentioning, too, that Wild Wild Country’s filmmakers seem to have interviewed only one Indian: Sheela.) Nor does the series investigate how Rajneesh became and remained an influential renegade spiritual and political figure in India for almost thirty years before he moved to Oregon in 1981, which is where—fittingly for its status as history-deprived entertainment—Wild Wild Country launches its inquiry.

Against the show’s restrictive narrative, the long historical view of Rajneeshpuram (the name of Rajneesh’s intentional community in Oregon), would instead place its origins even before its founding. It all begins, according to Hugh Urban, professor of religious studies in Ohio State University’s Department of Comparative Studies, in the late nineteenth century. Urban’s book Zorba the Buddha, deals with the rise of the Osho movement, and it explains that the idea of Indian spiritualists in the West starts with several active “Hindu reform movements” in colonial India, with figures like social reformer Rammohun Roy and Swami Vivekananda—who became famous for encouraging Eastern spiritualists to actively profit off “spiritual products” in his speech at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. Then there was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (also from Jabalpur!) who actively engaged public relations personnel to establish his presence in the West by the 1960s, even making a famed appearance on the The Merv Griffin Show. Many will remember Maharishi as the guru who inspired the Beatles and popularized the word mantra in the US.

While Maharishi was becoming a household name in the U.S., a recently independent India was hatching plans for socialism. It was becoming a non-aligned, modern nation-state with aspirations to science and technology. Meanwhile, as India was changing gears, a young Rajneesh was supposedly attaining enlightenment, Buddha-like, under a tree. In the years from 1951 to 1970, he travelled across India, building a reputation for himself by publicly criticizing M.K. Gandhi’s preference for sexual austerity and his aversion to technology. Rajneesh also became notorious for calling the Gandhian former Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai a “urine-drinker.” Desai, as it happened, was a popular advocate of “urine therapy,” an alternative medicinal practice that had gained popularity in the West (as an ancient Yogic method) in the early twentieth century—it was “repopularized” in India only when Gandhians later took up British naturopath J.W. Armstrong’s writings. Urine drinking, it has to be said, provides a strange symbol for the mutual constructedness of Eastern and Western culture.

Before his confrontations with political leaders—during his early years in high school and college—Rajneesh’s teachers branded him “too provocative,” a “bad influence” on his fellow students. Later, Rajneesh travelled extensively outside of Jabalpur to deliver lectures, mainly to rich patrons and clubs—but, really, anyone who could pay to host him was welcome. This is also how he found his first big patron, Ishverlal Shah, a Jain like Rajneesh. It’s important to note that Jains are known for non-violent practices, such as not eating root vegetables or consuming filtered water, and also for eating before sunset—all to cause minimal harm to bacterial life. Jains are also largely a wealthy mercantile community with a history of generous patronage of culture and religion.

Perhaps worst of all, Wild Wild Country removes the capitalist-elitist substrate of the “material spirituality” Rajneesh espoused.

This young Rajneesh, or the “Indian Rajneesh,” so to speak, continues to command a place in the Indian imagination, precisely for his popular and extremely provocative takes on Hindu religious orthodoxy. Rajneesh the provocateur was very much at home at those violent orgies—or the “encounter groups” Wild Wild Country tells us Antelope’s residents were so afraid of—which amounted to a hard turn away from conventional notions of gender and sexuality held within Indian orthodoxy.

Yet by framing Rajneeshpuram as a “sex cult” without this historical context, Wild Wild Country elides the fact that plenty of middle-class Indians had the same reaction to the “sex cult” as did citizens of Antelope. Not only that, we also miss out on a crucial irony: that India’s first godless and capitalist guru merely claimed to be a religious teacher for U.S. immigration purposes. Even worse, Wild Wild Country removes the capitalist-elitist substrate of the “material spirituality” Rajneesh espoused. Always a smooth operator, Rajneesh tracked his newspaper and magazine coverage, and though his lectures were designed to outrage the Indian masses (in order to ramp up publicity), he often appealed to elite venues such as the Rotary Club and the “cocktail circuit” of Mumbai.

Nor is it a coincidence that Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh’s secretary and spokesperson (and truly, the executioner of his vision), came from a famously wealthy caste-community from Gujarat—the Patels. You’d possibly know them from those “Patel motel cartel” stories, which point out a large portion of the American motel industry is owned and operated by Indians, often from the Patel community. For her part, Sheela Ambalal Patel was born and raised in Gujarat; she came to Montclair State to study architecture for her undergraduate degree in 1967, and she eventually married an American, Marc Silverman, before moving back to India to pursue spiritual studies. She was introduced to Rajneesh by her father, who often went to hear him speak.    

A similar parallel can be made with Laxmi Thakarsi Kuruwa, the secretary Sheela replaced, who like Rajneesh was a wealthy Jain (and hence capable of mobilizing start-up capital). Without these financial and political connections, Rajneesh and Co. could never have accessed a flat in tony South Mumbai or tapped wealthy Indians for money. What’s more, Laxmi’s position as the daughter of a wealthy Indian National Congress supporter, with access to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Maharashtra’s then Chief Minister Vasantdada Patil, was crucial in regularly reassuring the state and national governments that Rajneesh’s Pune ashram was not an anti-national or anti-Hindu establishment. According to poet and author Rashid Maxwell, who wrote a book on Laxmi’s life, she was so influential that Mrs. Gandhi sought her help to successfully persuade her son Rajiv to enter politics; Rajiv would eventually become Prime Minister of India. Unfortunately for Laxmi and the Pune ashram, Mrs. Gandhi lost an election to Morarji Desai—which Rajneesh took to mean the end of Laxmi’s usefulness. Even when Gandhi returned to power two years later, she was already at loggerheads with Rajneesh. She refused to intercede on the ashram’s behalf amid escalating tensions with Desai’s Janata Party.

In Zorba the Buddha, Urban notes that when Rajneesh was preparing to escape India, one of the first things Sheela did was to open a Swiss bank account. For anyone familiar with finance in India, opening a bank account in Switzerland is quite remarkable—it usually points to money laundering. Even today, Indian politicians win elections by promising to bring back “hidden” money from Switzerland. The fact that Wild Wild Country’s filmmakers perhaps didn’t know about or couldn’t be bothered by these connections smacks of lost opportunity. It could have been a fascinating tale of global financial corruption during those decades.

In the summer of 1995, one of the co-authors of this essay, Phalguni, went on a family visit to the (still active) Pune ashram. But unlike Sheela’s family, we weren’t going in veneration. At the time, you could enter the ashram for a small fee and have yourself a walkabout through what was probably the more PG-rated area—you could say it was like going to the zoo. Up until then, the ashram had been a mythical place where mostly foreigners or the wealthy walked around in maroon clothes and straw slippers famously called “oshos.” Indeed, owning a pair of “oshos” was more of interest to most people than the actual ashram and its activities. We never wondered what exactly they did there, until we stood at the entrance and observed the discreet notices about HIV testing for those who wanted to join.

The word “cult” doesn’t come up much if you’ve grown up in India, where you’re surrounded by religious sects and sub-sects. It’s a case of either “everything is a cult” or “everything is normal.” Before our financial borders opened up in 1991’s economic liberalization, Indian morality was stretched across class lines. With his Rolls Royces, South Mumbai apartments, and Bollywood-elite followers, Rajneesh’s “material spirituality” occupied the wealthiest end of the spectrum, one that couldn’t be breached a mere four years after liberalization. For Phalguni’s family in particular, the ashram visit was a point-and-sneer one, until she spent her pocket money on a year’s subscription to Osho World, the commune’s monthly magazine, purely to annoy her mother. In India, where gurus are summoned for everything from medical to financial problems, an ashram with a monthly magazine discussing organic farming, spiritually sound parenting, and STD awareness sounds almost millennial in its social values.

This is to say that the Osho movement occupies the same place in India’s memory as it does in Wild Wild Country; its members are thought of as interlopers in the spiritual space intent on ripping apart the country’s moral fabric—albeit with the blessings of celebrities and politicians alike. And yet, large numbers of educated people, especially Indians, flocked to the movement; instead of explaining why this was the case, Wild Wild Country simply presents it as a Spirituality Woodstock.

Part of this has to do with opposition, made by Wild Wild Country’s filmmakers, between “community” and “commune.” The former is presented as a happy, wholesome, and moral unit, a signifier that suggests a goodness that needs protection. As we see in the documentary, Antelope, Oregon, is described as a small and traditional ranch community; its coherent culture and wariness toward non-Christian immigrants might be defended in the name of protecting the community values over and above the commune. The same invocation also serves to justify othering as a means of comfort. “It was honestly comforting as an American to realize we have always struggled with these issues,” director Chapman Way said in a recent interview with Time Magazine. “What’s happening to our country isn’t just new right now.” So then, what’s new about this story?

For many viewers, their first encounter with this “New Age” phenomenon will come from McClain and Chapman’s narrative, a story that begins in an innocent rural American community, an account that confirms looming suspicions about naïve Americans duped by Oriental tricksters, esoteric gurus, and non-Christian faiths. The documentary does nothing to challenge the normative American Christian imagination, or to educate its viewers about how tiny Antelope came to figure in the story of Hindu movements, which account for a billion followers globally—almost five times the number of Christians in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Osho remains embedded in Indian popular culture in small if legible ways. For example, in all major Indian cities, especially among college students, “Osho chappals” or just “Oshos” (the sandals) emerge as a trend every few years. And in a country where sex and sexuality are still not discussed or explored positively, “Osho” and Pune remain convenient code words for “free sex.” Also, for anyone wondering how Goa and Pune earned their “spiritual rave destination” status, look no further than Osho’s neo-sanyasins, who became party promoters and thereby linked Goa, Pune, and Ibiza in a global dance-hippie market economy.

For many Indians, watching Wild Wild Country may produce a feeling of discomfiting uncanniness: where has the “Indian side” of the story gone?

When unpacked, transnational spiritual histories like those of Osho can explain how pseudo-spirituality has been kept alive and well by gullible white Americans who liberally borrow from Eastern mystical traditions and rebrand them as human-centred psychologies: just think of Goop’s yoni chakras, or Joshua Tree meditation retreats, or the Hindu/Buddhist cosplay you find at Coachella and Burning Man. But in Wild Wild Country blinkered vision, the concern is reversed; scared Christians are set against cunning Indians—and in this case especially, a wily Indian woman in the figure of Sheela. American audiences, for whom free market nostalgia myths are typically populated by white Americans, characteristically refuse to acknowledge a profitable spiritual enterprise spearheaded largely by an Indian woman.

But as Urban and others would argue, the line between spirituality and capital has always been porous. Living proof can be found in the West’s continued romance with Bikram Choudhury (of “Hot Yoga” notoriety), or Kundalini activation enthusiasts. This all points to Wild Wild Country’s deeply American provincialism, a fact made tremendously ironic because of the show’s marketing to a global audience that includes Indians. But for many of these Indians, watching Wild Wild Country may produce a feeling of discomfiting uncanniness: as they follow the two main characters and their familiar accents, they’re left wondering where the “Indian side” of the story has gone. Nothing of India’s religious, cultural, and political history remains; nor does the show reference Rajneesh’s Bollywood followers, or India’s own tryst with new and old gurus (who regularly make the news for exploiting followers). Meanwhile, the series may come to replace all of this—for Americans in particular—with a tired story about mostly white Americans who were duped by an Indian guru as they sought a more authentic life.