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  • Writer's picturePanthergirl

define "cult"

Updated: May 7, 2018

What was I doing in the mid-80s that I missed this whole brouhaha about Bhagwan and the Rajneeshees in Oregon? Oh right, running a business and having a baby and then running the business with an infant on my boob 24/7. I guess keeping up with current events was taking a bit of a back seat at the time. (was also pretty involved in my then-husband's career at CBS Records, so if Bhagwan and the Rajneeshees had been a band I DEFINITELY would have heard of them).

The Netflix documentary, "Wild, Wild Country" was not at all what I expected. My preconceived notion was that it was going to be a cautionary tale about a Jim-Jones-style cult and the voodoo used to get and keep members at the special introductory price of a soul and thousands of dollars. There is a bit of that (as these things are always a con of some sort, IMHO) but it is mostly a tale of one woman's deadly combination of power and psychosis and of the people she dizzyingly drew into her web. As my mother would say, when they made Ma Anand Sheela they broke the mold. That woman was/is nuts.

The part I was less prepared for and completely unaware of was the pre-Trump-era bigotry and "them there people ain't like us" attitude of the Oregonians who freaked out when the Rajneeshees arrived. Before Sheela began her reign of terror in earnest, these peaceniks didn't seem to be hurting anyone except themselves when engaged in violent naked mosh pit "meditations". But boy howdy...the neighbors weren't having any of it. Free love post-1968? Nun-uh. They were Christians, garl durn it!

Of course things get super weird, including the "salvation" of thousands of homeless people from all over the US (one of several brilliant-wicked moves by Sheela to influence an election), people nearly get killed when some of the peaceniks are convinced that shooting and poisoning people actually squared somehow with the guru's message of love and acceptance of all.

Watch the series to fill in the rest of the details and also because the present day talking-head interviews with former cult members are pretty fascinating and surprising. It's a bit bloated and could have been done in fewer episodes, but still worth your time.

The bigger question for me when it comes to these sorts of things, though, is: why is this kind of group belief system so repulsive to the "god-fearing Christians" who so vehemently opposed them? What is the difference between them, other than what they choose to believe and how they choose to express that belief? (killing and poisoning aside, although PUH-LENTY of people have been killed in the name of Christianity). The ultimate irony is that [spoiler alert] once the Rajneesh community left Oregon, the property was taken over by a Jesus camp for kids that teaches abstinence. The footage of the kids screaming and throwing themselves around at the end of final installment of the series is definitely not shown without irony.

I was a 10-year-old Catholic school kid in the 60s hiding under my desk during air raid drills in Brooklyn. One day, a nun was passionately teaching us about the evils of Communism: "Everyone has to dress the same and think the same!" I looked around the room in completely puzzlement that no one else had the same "WTF"expression that was on my face, and then finally raised my hand and said, "Like we do?"

Need more? Want to read about them? Try "Hellbent for Enlightenment: Unmasking Sex, Power and Death with a Notorious Master".

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