Creed from The Office said as a member of several cults he’d had fun as a follower but made more money as a leader. If the cult set up by the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the early eighties is your average cult then Creed definitely had it right.
A new six part documentary on Netflix looks at how a small group can take over an even smaller town, how small minds can make things worse, and how small mistakes can turn into big problems.
Anyone in their forties may recognize the name Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, as it did make the national news a lot back in the day. Anyone under 40 will likely find this all new. The Rajneeshees followed a spiritual leader, the Baghwan, in India. When they started drawing heat there, the Baghwan sent his top minion, Sheela, to America to find a place where they could resettle the group.
Taking No Sides
The documentary forgoes a narrator. The story is told using old news footage, home video from the era, and freshly conducted interviews with surviving cult members and townspeople. Sheela found a ten square mile plot of land in rural Oregon and decided the location and price were right, and bought it for the Baghwan.
Rock the Vote
When the followers started moving in and requesting building permits, the town of Antelope, population 40, started to take notice and throw up roadblocks. So the Rajneeshees decided to have 50 followers move into town and take over the council. And the bad blood was only just beginning.
To affect a county-wide vote, the Baghwan bussed in homeless people from all over the country and register them in Oregon. For their part, the county stopped registering them and denied permits, often with bald-faced hypocrisy, one day saying the land was for farming then saying it was unusable the next.
Pick Your Poison
There are allegations that the Rajneeshees poisoned salad bars, making the entire town sick, and kept the recently homeless population in check by drugging their nightly beers.
Add in a fleet of Rolls Royces, a private jet, and a run for the border, you can see how this real life soap opera, set in a tiny spot on the map, captivated America for years.
The producers and directors tell the story in a way that invites you into the world of the Rajneeshees and lets you make your own judgments about the events unfolding in front of you. This runs six hours and 40 minutes, so it’s gonna take multiple sittings to get through it. But trust us, it’s well worth your time.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
Electric Kool-Aid. Because if you’re going to join any cult, or watch a long documentary about a cult, you MUST drink the Kool-Aid.