“Wild Wild Country” (A Netflix Series)
Just finished watching the Netflix series Wild Wild Country – which is based on Rajneesh (Osho). In particular, based on the truly unbelievable but somehow forgotten story of his failed experiment in Oregon where he and his followers tried to establish a city based on his principles. A very well done 6 part series, lots of original authentic footage and in-depth interviews with key figures. A multi-faceted, complex, and reasonably balanced documentary. And it’s not just interesting from a historical perspective, but contains very relevant parallels and lessons for our current times, for everything from followers of Ayn Rand to Silicon Valley unicorns like Facebook. (Yes, it’s that far-reaching! More on that later.) Highly recommended.
I have always been curious about Rajneesh. I spent a few years of my childhood in Pune, which is where the original Rajneesh ashram was and still is based. As a child, I recall running into these orange-clad people from time to time. I even had a couple of friends who had older brothers or uncles etc. who were disciples. There were even some prominent people in Pune who were followers. Contrary to popular perceptions of how a “Sanyasi” is supposed to be, they would just live at home and hold regular jobs or go on errands etc. like everyone else. But they would always be in their orange robes and generally comfortable with standing out. It’s like they were saying “I am different, have different ways of looking at life, and it is ok that you don’t understand”. (Looks like they changed their color preference later on from orange to red – may be because orange was associated with the Hindu religion and they probably wanted a separate identity. Or maybe red was more readily available. I don’t really know.)
People always talked about them in hushed tones. They seemed both curious as well as repelled by them – primarily because of their practices around free sex and drugs. All conversations about them would start with references to that and immediately stop at that point. Later on, more and more westerners joined the cult and it became more of a western thing. That allowed everyone around me to classify them as just another short-lived western fad and generally ignore it. (Well, there were a few incidents where some fundamentalists and politicians paid attention to them, but not strong enough to rise too much above the complexity that is India.)
Many years later, after Rajneesh had moved from Pune to Oregon, he was back in the news. I remember reading about him trying to flee the US by private plane, then being captured and taken from prison to prison for a few days, eventually taking him back to Oregon. There, he pleaded guilty to immigration fraud and was deported. (Ironically, that’s what he was attempting to do when he had been captured earlier, but I guess the government wanted to put their own stamp on it.)
Later on, when I had moved to Seattle, I had formed a regular habit of going on long drives. One day, I suddenly remembered that Rajneesh had established an ashram somewhere in Oregon. I didn’t know anything more about it so I looked it up. I learned that it was near this little town called Antelope, about a 5 hour drive from Seattle. So, of course, I drove there and checked it out.
When I arrived in Antelope, I expected there to be some signs saying something about Rajneesh or some sort of ashram or something. But there was nothing. We didn’t have Google maps then and the paper maps had no mention of Rajneesh of course. Antelope is a really small town. Basically just the highway running through the town with a few houses on each side. The town had just one little cafe, which was closed. I saw a post office so I went in there. There was an old lady inside. I didn’t think she would know anything about Rajneesh. So I beat around the bush a little to establish some context. I said I was from India and I was looking for a religious camp that was constructed by an Indian guru. And she was like, “Oh, Rajneeshpuram? You will have to drive about 19 miles from here on this road and you will get to it. There is no Rajneeshpuram there anymore. The facility has been converted into a Christian youth camp. But you can see it.”
She also told me that she had a little collection of pictures and trinkets from that time. I took a quick look but I was really curious about the place itself so I left pretty quickly. I drove up the road she had pointed to. Soon the road climbed up a mountain and then down a valley. And there it was. A pretty town in the middle of nowhere with large fields, manicured lawns, a large reservoir, a swimming pool, a couple of large structures, and a bunch of smaller houses. A huge area – about 70,000 acres according to the internet! It was absolutely fascinating! (This was during the prehistoric i.e. pre-iPhone era, so I have no pictures.)
That’s when it hit me that this Rajneeshpuram phenomenon was much bigger than I had imagined. By the time I got there though it was getting late and I had to return back. So I left soon but decided I would look this place up again someday.
Of course, as things go, you tend to return to your regular life and forget the important stuff.
So it was really great when I heard recently that Netflix had created a 6 part series on this very place and the whole saga of what happened there. (The series is specifically about Rajneeshpuram and not about his teachings or much of anything in Pune. For that part, you will have to check Wikipedia.)
Ok, finally, the Review (Kind Of)
As I mentioned above, the series is really worth watching. You can find many well-researched and well-written reviews about it online, but here is my unique totally off the cuff (i.e. honest and authentic 🙂 ) perspective.
To me, the story of Rajneesh is really about 3 things: 1) how cults are formed, 2) why they might succeed or fail, and 3) lessons for any other phenomena that share a lot of the same characteristics. And I will try to tie these to other phenomena, in particular, Facebook and Ayn Rand.
How Cults Are Formed
If you look into how Rajneesh managed to get such a large following, you realize that he basically railed against social taboos. Not just talking about them, but absolutely crushing them and throwing them in the trash, thus freeing those who had felt chained by them.
The first big taboo that he tackled was sex. And he didn’t just talk about sex education or the institution of marriage and so on, he totally blew it up. He promoted completely open and free sex, came up with a whole philosophy around it to justify why it was good and how badly it was needed for the world to become a better place. And in doing so, he gave the people who felt constrained by it to openly come out and embrace his philosophy. Far from feeling guilty about it, he actually made them feel proud of doing so. He even gave them a feeling of superiority and instilled an evangelical fervor in them.
The second big taboo he trashed was that of excessive wealth. He freed those who had felt guilty about the wealth they had accumulated. He also got rid of the idea that sanyasins had to live a life of poverty. It was ok with him if they lived in luxury. He himself accumulated something like 17 Rolls Royces, diamond-studded watches and so on. At the same time, he didn’t seem to care too much about them. He made fun of the whole idea of accumulating wealth – as a human folly, but perfectly understandable and forgivable.
Both of these really appealed to westerners who were already railing against sexual taboos around that time and were also trying to come to terms with their position in the world as the world’s rich, particularly when compared to the crushing poverty in the rest of the world.
There are some similarities and some stark differences between the Rajneesh’s philosophy and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism philosophy. Ayn Rand railed against the idea that greed or self-interest are taboos, generally despised by all the world’s religions. And she didn’t just rail against it, she totally trashed the taboos, suggesting that the taboos are actually evil, and how a life based on self-interest was superior and sorely needed to make the world a better place. She freed the people who had felt guilty about their greed and their financial success, while at the same time motivating those who didn’t have wealth but wanted it.
Here is a chart that highlights the similarities and differences between the two. In fact, they can actually be thought of as mirror images of each other:
- Rajneesh <===> Ayn Rand
- Eccentric immigrant with a thick accent and weird ideas <===> Eccentric immigrant with a thick accent and weird ideas
- Large number of followers around the world <===> Large number of followers around the world
- Rajneeshpuram <===> Galt’s Gulch
- Railed against sexual taboos <===> Railed against taboos about self-interest or greed
- Wealth is good <===> Wealth is good
- Community <===> Individual
- Radical communal ownership of everything <===> Radical private ownership of everything
- Melt your ego <===> Respect your ego
(Note that I am not a follower of either of these cults. But I am curious about both of them.)
Of course, Ayn Rand’s philosophy has had a totally different type of evolution than Rajneesh’s. And this is where the second point comes in.
How Cults Succeed or Fail
What went wrong with Rajneeshism? I believe what went wrong was that they dreamed too big too soon and tried to bring their dream into reality too quickly. To his credit, Rajneesh always maintained that this was an experiment, not some Truth from God that he was trying to bestow upon the world. But his disciples got anxious, they bought this huge piece of land in Oregon, and built a whole township there in a very short period of time. The scale and speed of it, along with the fact that it was too different from what the locals there were used to, created conflicts that grew over a period of time. In addition, the unapologetic rhetoric from the Rajneeshites, claiming that their goal was to take over the whole world, made not just the local population, but the powers-that-be at that time really nervous. No institution in power wants to hear that some little cult wants to take over and seems to be making progress towards it. Conflict was inevitable, and given the mismatch in size and power, defeat was also equally inevitable.
Where the Rajneeshites failed, the Ayn Rand people appear to be succeeding. They also had similar ideas of building a new kind of society. In fact, you can think of Rajneeshpuram as conceptually similar to the Galt’s Gulch idea promoted by Ayn Rand. Galt’s Gulch is also an idealized isolated community / township based on a different set of rules than the rest of the world. But, despite a lot of talk about it, the Ayn Rand followers haven’t quite actually tried to build such a place. They have kept it as a dream to be achieved at some point. What they have been doing instead, is to slowly try to change peoples’ thinking. They have written books, gotten high profile people to talk about their philosophy, won elections, affected policy, and so on. One can clearly see their influence in the US politics of the day.
So this explains where Rajneeshites went wrong: they tried to bring their dream into reality too soon, too quickly, tried to dream too big, and be very aggressive and vocal about their plans.
This then ties nicely with the other major phenomena of today: Facebook (and other “unicorn” type companies).
Lessons for Silicon Valley Unicorns
A cult is basically a social startup. Its purpose is to “change the world” “by changing social behavior” “scale up to take over the whole world” “be a unicorn” i.e. exactly like a startup. Of course, its methods are different: cults try to change human behavior through philosophy and rituals, whereas startups typically do it through technology. And, just like startups, most cults fail, but those that succeed do go on to change the world.
If you look at what excites Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs today, it is ideas like “move fast and break things”. Scale, speed, scope, reach. World changing, disruptive ideas. Explosive growth. Not just that, but all these companies try to inculcate a cult-like environment both, among their employees and their customers. There is the cult of Facebook, the cult of Amazon, the cult of Jobs, and so on. (A great example of this is the recently leaked Facebook-internal memo by Adam Bosworth – his proclamation that ” that’s what we do. We connect people. ” whether it results in some bad unintended consequences is immaterial. It sounds very cultish.)
Cults have natural impediments to their rate of growth because they try to change human behavior directly. Startups, on the other hand, can fool themselves into believing that they can change human behavior at the same rate as the rate of change of technology, which, as we all know, is astronomical. Startups also have “early adopters” who are also capable of changing behavior pretty quickly. But eventually startups have to be able to change human behavior for the human in the street and that is where they usually run into trouble. And they have the added problem of some of their early adopters having bad intentions so they create more problems than would have been created just due to the rate of change. The 2016 US election manipulation is a great example of these “early adopters” taking advantage of the people in the street.
So the lesson here for all these companies is that they should slow things down to the human rate of change, not the technological rate of change. Don’t be too aggressive or unapologetic about their ambitions. Be more humble about the effects their disruption is having. Think in more nuanced and politically expedient ways. Try to take the man in the street along with you, instead of trying to drag him.
Otherwise, they risk getting the same treatment that was given to the Rajneeshites. One can already see some rumblings of that both in politics as well as in society at large (For example #deleteuber, #deletefacebook, various lawsuits and populist policy tweets, etc.).