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Open Bar: Cult Classic

I watched Netflix’s ‘Wild Wild Country’ last week and now I think I want to join a cult. Welcome to the TCR Open Bar.

I think I want to join a cult.

And it may not be that bad. I may have actually already joined one. And by the end of this you might not — but probably will — think I’m as crazy as you do right now.

Like most twenty-somethings with responsibilities that can always be momentarily pushed to the side, I decided to binge a Netflix show last week.

The binge de jour was the Netflix Original Documentary “Wild Wild Country”, a documentary about the Rajneesh movement led by an Indian Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. The documentary was produced by the Duplass Brothers (so you know it’s good), and it provides every perspective the viewer could possibly want.

First of all, this documentary gets my complete seal of approval. It sounds really boring, lame and snobby to say documentaries are some of my favorite things to watch since the time I’ve graduated from Illinois, but I guess that’s part of growing up.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen it, go watch it. It’s the perfect example of “a script Hollywood wouldn’t believe”. I’ll try not to spoil too much, because if you’re a 90s child like me and apparently didn’t pay attention in history class, you may have never heard of this cult or their movement.

Here’s your fair warning: in this next section I’m going to give some background on the show and the Rajneesh people and what they were all about. You can either read this, watch the show, or use Wikipedia (recommended). So, spoilers.

So, in the 70s, this guy named Bhagwan started gaining followers in India because of his teachings and people believing in his spiritual power. His main tenants included emotional, spiritual, sexual and institutional liberation. Cool. He believed that each human being had limitless potential and therefore human communities — and eventually the entire human race — could work together to create a new world. He tried to bring together the greatest parts of eastern and western religions and cultures in his teachings. Other important notes:

  • All of the followers are devoted to the Bhagwan, and he can do no wrong. People flock to him in groves.
  • They all wear the color red, all the time, head to toe.
  • They participate in some really weird, four-step, meditation/yelling/Rated-R therapy session on a daily basis.

Okay, I’m a lost twenty-something, sounds a little weird, but I’m listening.

In 1981 they move their community to the valleys of Oregon. Their goal is to create a self-sustaining community, completely independent of the outside world. They go there and build all their necessary buildings and infrastructure quickly and impressively.

Okay. This is basically sounding more and more like an exclusive, permanent version of Burning Man. I’m a soft millennial who is already exhausted of trying to survive in normal society. I’m nearly sold.

But there’s a problem. The virtues and idealism that this Rajneesh Movement were built on started to fade away as only a few people began to become corrupt with most of the power in the community, led by the Bhagwan’s right-hand woman named Sheela. In short, the Rajneesh are in over their heads and they find themselves intertwined with some morally questionable activities including hostile takeovers of established American communities; paranoia and over-militarization; immigration fraud; and dabbling in some light poisoning.

Well shit. I don’t really condone this stuff that a few of these people are doing, but I was really liking the idea of this new lease on life, the self-sustaining community and the freedom that came with it.

People across the country rightfully chastised the Bhagwan and his teachings as the 1980s wore on. The perception of the Rajneesh people became that they were power-hungry, sex-crazed outsiders who were trying to ruin American society. The Bhagwan was sent back to India as Sheela and some of the other heavy hitters served jail time, and the cult and it’s movement fizzled out in America.

As you watch the show, there was something beautiful about the people and the movement. There was something that naturally drew you in: the mystery, the intrigue, the possibility.

Now perhaps that’s not the case for everyone, probably not for most people. However, it’s easy to see how young, talented and disgruntled people were initially drawn to it. Similarly to how young and talented people are drawn to premier universities across the country with hopes of a bright and independent future. Alright, I know what you’re thinking, but stay with me.

Going away to college isn’t that much different than joining a cult, especially one with a rabid sports program. Let’s see if there are any parallels between the Rajneesh and your average Big Ten School.

  • All of the followers wear the same colors when gathered together. Okay, too easy.
  • Built a holy ground community in the middle of nowhere to study, work, live and celebrate together. I know what you’re thinking: West Lafayette? Holy ground? But remember: the beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
  • A small, powerful oligarchy makes decisions on behalf of the masses. Donors, boosters and successful alumni run the university and its athletic programs.
  • Unconditional worship of a figurehead, even when the outside world discovers the problematic nature of their culture: Paterno, Izzo, The Chief, Bobby Knight, Steve Alford. That’s just the Big Ten. And sure, not all scandals are created equal, but there is corruption everywhere in all different shapes and sizes.
  • What was my other bullet point up there? “They participate in some really weird, four-step, meditation/yelling/Rated-R therapy session on a daily basis.”

I mean.... that’s pretty much what frat parties or Red Lion after midnight is right?

I understand that it’s a bit of a stretch. I’m not trying to say the University of Illinois, or any other school (except Notre Dame, I mean we can all agree they’re weird), is a cult. So please don’t yell.

All I’m saying is, we all flocked to a community of our choice in search of greener pastures. And I don’t know about you, but outside of my family and loved ones, there are few things I am more passionate about than the University of Illinois, even after graduating.

And that’s okay. We are human. We are allowed to be crazy and passionate about whatever institutions we want to be. Sports, school, religion, politics, work, music, etc. It’s just important that we realize that there are others outside of our beloved institutions, who may be able to help us improve them, because they may not be blinded by the love and passion we have for them.

If I understood anything about the Bhagwan’s teachings from those six episodes I watched over 48 hours, I think that kind of love, respect and inclusivity was what he dreamt of creating.

So, even though I was a little late and unable to join the Rajneesh cult, I may already have a cult of my own.