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The Rise and Fall of the Rajneesh Cult

How the group at the center of the Netflix documentary “Wild, Wild Country” lost control in Oregon

Bhagwan Rajneesh and Ma Anand Sheela. Courtesy of Netflix

In the summer of 1981, people wearing bright red clothing and long, beaded necklaces were spotted in the vicinity of Antelope, Oregon, a town of some 40 people in the semiarid reaches of central Oregon. They were followers of an Indian guru, and his organization had just purchased the nearby 64,000-acre Big Muddy Ranch straddling Wasco and Jefferson counties for $6 million.* Their intention, they said, was to establish a “simple, agricultural commune.” Their real purpose was to fulfill the leader’s wish for his own independent city.  Ultimately, the goings-on at this commune turned deadly serious.

While these events unfolded in Central Oregon, I published a series of articles in Oregon Magazine, later compiled in the book The Rajneesh ChroniclesNow, to my great surprise, the recent Netflix documentary Wild, Wild Country has made these pieces relevant again, transforming what was previously an obscure, regional story into a subject of national bewilderment and debate. 

We offer the following excerpts from my book in hopes they will bring even greater understanding of the cult that became one of the most bizarre chapters in modern American history.

*An earlier version of this article stated that the guru Rajneesh originally hailed from eastern India. In fact, he was born in central India. We regret the error.