I’ve just started watching Wild Wild Country on Netflix; a documentary on the Rajneesh Movement, more commonly called the Orange People, led by Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who died in 1990.
And I’m riveted.
My interest in the series was piqued primarily because the Orange People – so called because they primarily wore orange – set up camp here in Western Australia at around the time I was going through university.
Despite the fact that India, and then Oregon were the centres of Rajneeshee activity, Western Australia became a focal point after they bought land in the south of the state in order to set up a commune.
The next thing you know there are youngish, Baby Boomer professionals wandering around what is now hipster and expensive Fremantle dressed in orange, chilling out and threatening the place with peace and love.
And the media was all over it.
On one particular day at the journalism school where I was studying, the charismatic, hard as nails private secretary to the Bhagwan, Ma Anand Sheela, turned up on campus to address us as a student body and field questions.
A local cult investigator, Adrian van Leen was also on site.
It was interesting watching it play out on the news that evening. Ma Anand was sassy, rude and funny. She had the audience (I say that word advisedly because it seemed all critical thinking went out the window), in the palm of her hand.
Van Leen tried stoically to question her, but the crowd and Ma Anand were having none of it. Even that night on the TV news, the reporter was dismissive of his efforts.
In hindsight if only we had been more rigorous. The movement was subsequently blamed for a mass food poisoning attack in the US, the biggest phone tapping operation, and a massive illegal migrant racket.
All was not what it seemed.
But rather than bag them out, as I watch the series I can see the attraction, especially to the Baby Boomers in the West who were promised the earth as they grew up, but found out the hard way, – as divorce, long work hours, and increasingly estranged children took their toll -, that the promise was a lie.
The good life was beginning to evaporate before their very eyes in a haze of depression, workaholism and alcoholism. You can hear that in the interviews of the now-seventy somethings in the US, and yes, here in Perth too. The ripples of the movement have spread out over the world, and the pain and love and longing still remain.
What strikes me most about what I have seen so far, apart from the hypnotic qualities of the Bhagwan himself, is the message that he promulgated. He offered Westerners who were loathe to give up the sensual side of life a way into the spiritual side of life that the East had offered for so long, but which was not for the faint-hearted or those who did not want to go down the aesthetic route. It became the go-to-spirituality for the rich Western celebrity who had it all, wanted to keep it all, but wanted something more to go with that all, because that “all” wasn’t enough. Ironic indeed.
The Bhagwan was, therefore, a man for the times. Even though he began his work in the East, the West was captivated by him. He was big on art, music, culture, and sex. Especially sex. So you can see how a tired, depressed up-state lawyer in the US, freshly divorced, very smart and looking for meaning, could be lured by having his cake and eating it too. The tears in the eyes of that man as he is interviewed some thirty years later show that the longing remains.
Or the ageing well dressed, well educated woman in Perth who recounts how the suburban dream of hubby, house and kids became a suburban nightmare, until the day she visited a centre in Perth which introduced her to the Bhagwan’s teachings.
When both interviewees speak about how they first turned up in the Ashram in India and saw the great man himself in the midst of a garden of tranquil delight, you can smell the transcendence.
The pinnacle for me of the show is as we follow, from behind, an ageing lady up a wooded path to a house, which she enters and then proceeds to take a seat. She turns, and we see her face. Unmistakeable! Ma Anand Sheela. Striking, valiant and proud even at nearly 70. And just as in thrall with the Bhagwan now as then. She’s not for turning, nor for apologising. She’s just as defiant as she was back in the mid-eighties in that journalism school where I saw her.
“My life was complete,” says Ma Anand, about her experience, when at aged 16, she met the Bhagwan for the first time. And we sense it was. She still speaks of him as an awe struck teenager would speak of meeting Harry Styles.
At the centre of the Bhagwan’s teaching was the search for “the new man”. Indeed that’s the name of one of his books: “The New Man: The Only Hope For the Future”. His fusion of Eastern spirituality and Western material know-how was going to usher that in.
Except it didn’t of course. It ushered in a tawdry series of scandals and outrageous attempts to shape history and defy governments. It ushered in violence and questionable sexual practices. The only hope for the future is “the new man”, but neither the Bhagwan, nor his followers could usher in what only Jesus – the true man and true God – can.
Yet as we watch the show, we can feel the ache. We can see the tears. Feel the pain of something that was almost within grasp, but snatched away. And what we are left with is a wiser, sadder cohort; some broken, some not, but all changed for the experience. They were promised a dream in exchange for the nightmare, but that dream soured too, leaving many of them bereft.
We don’t think about the Orange People much now. But for a brief moment in the 80s in the West they were a direct challenge to the establishment, and they offered what seemed to be an out for the Boomer generation who were discovering that the materialist promise of the good life just wasn’t delivering.
I wonder how many of them found Jesus and are in our churches today? I hope the gospel message they hear and the Jesus they meet fulfils in a way that the Bhagwan never could. I wonder too if many walk away from the church asking why it too promised something more than it ended up delivering.
Can’t wait to watch the whole series. Catch it on Netflix if you can.