Wild Wild Country, a new six-part docuseries streaming on Netflix, chronicles a forgotten—yet utterly astonishing—moment in American history.
In the 1970s, a bearded guru by the name of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh established an ashram (and foundation) in Pune, India. Preaching the unity of opposites, conquering the ego to achieve enlightenment, Dynamic Meditation, and sexual openness, all with a pinch of rascally humor, he attracted some 30,000 acolytes—called sannyasins—to his ashram, who paid him handily for his spiritual services.
With the humid climate weighing on his health and a $5 million unpaid tax bill to the Indian government (and subsequent expulsion) looming, in 1981, Bhagwan, with the help of his “secretary” and top lieutenant, Ma Anand Sheela, resettled on the outskirts of the tiny town of Antelope (population 40) in Wasco County, Oregon. There, on a 64,000-acre property called the Big Muddy Ranch, his followers began erecting a sprawling city that could house at least 10,000 people, replete with restaurants, rows of townhouses, a school, and even a shopping mall. They called it: Rajneeshpuram.
But tensions soon escalated with the people of Antelope, whose nearby town was being taken over by thousands of red-clothed, free-loving sannyasins, many of whom engaged in loud orgies. So they attempted to thwart the expansion of Rajneeshpuram, and the extension of its influence in local government and politics, at every turn.
Following a 1983 bombing at a Rajneesh-owned hotel by an American connected to an Islamic militant group, the cult followers acquired a large cache of semiautomatic weapons and held regular target practice in open fields, frightening the locals. Then things really got nuts: The sannyasins, under the alleged instructions of Sheela, bused in thousands of homeless people in order to overthrow the Wasco County government in an upcoming election; drugged the homeless people with sedatives to control them; and when they eventually got out of hand, dumped them in nearby towns. They also committed the largest bioterror attack in U.S. history, poisoning 751 people with salmonella in nearby The Dalles, Oregon, in order to influence the aforementioned election; poisoned several public officials; burned down the office of the Wasco County city planner; wiretapped their own community; attempted to assassinate U.S. Attorney Charles H. Turner; and plotted to bomb the county commissioners’ office.
Which brings us to Arianna Huffington. According to several news reports, including The Times’ obituary of her partner during the ’70s and early ’80s, British columnist Bernard Levin, it was Huffington—then a Greek socialite who went by Arianna Stassianopoulos—who is alleged to have introduced Levin to the Rajneesh movement in the late-’70s.
“Probably the greatest female influence during his lengthy period on The Times was that of the Greek heiress Arianna Stassianopoulos,” wrote The Times to mark Levin’s 2004 passing. “Levin liked tall, elegant women as much off-stage as he did on, and needed them as companions at dinner or in the theatre. Arianna answered that requirement perfectly, and had an intelligence to match. Her interest in mystic cults also appealed, though it was to lead him into one of the more embarrassing episodes of his journalism—his hyperbolic praise through a number of columns of the self-promoting guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (whose main claim to fame became his fleet of more than 90 Rolls-Royces).”
Huffington has also quoted the Bhagwan—later known as “Osho”—on social media, Huffington Post has hosted the “lifestyle blog” Osho Times since 2015, and two months prior to her departure from Huffington Post, the site published a glowing piece on Osho and his teachings.
When The Daily Beast reached out to Huffington about the extent of her alleged involvement with the Rajneesh movement, her representative issued a firm denial on Huffington’s behalf, writing, “Wanted to let you know that Arianna has had zero involvement with the movement, never met Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and never went to Rajneeshpuram (despite inaccurate reporting in other publications).”
If Huffington were indeed involved with the Rajneesh movement, it wouldn’t be the first time she attempted to deny her association with a cult.
In 1994, during a failed California Senate run by her then-husband (and then-fellow Republican) Michael Huffington, Vanity Fair accused her of being a high-ranking member of the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, a cult whose leader, John-Roger Hinkins, was accused of bugging, sexually harassing, intimidating, and fleecing his disciples (he denied all the allegations).
According to Vanity Fair, Huffington had “attained the highest level of secret initiation, ‘Soul Initiate,’” in MSIA, and that “Soul Initiates such as Arianna are required to pray by chanting the secret names of God that John-Roger gives them.”
MSIA further required that its members “tithe,” or donate 10 percent of their income to the movement, and Vanity Fair quoted ex-member Susan Roberts recalling how Huffington allegedly stood up during an MSIA retreat in upstate New York in 1987 and said, “Dahlings, if you want to marry a rich man like I did, then tithe!” Another former member claimed that Huffington had him bless her house in 1986. Huffington called John-Roger a “friend” and denied participating in MSIA to Vanity Fair.
Huffington, meanwhile, wasn’t the only celebrity alleged to have been associated with the Rajneesh movement.
As Wild Wild Country explains, the person to succeed Sheela as the powerful “secretary” at Rajneeshpuram was Francoise Ruddy, the millionaire ex-wife of Godfather producer Albert S. Ruddy—who helped him develop the classic film. Others associated with the movement included British author Elfie Donnelly, Mike Edwards of Electric Light Orchestra, the German actress Barbara Rutting, British actress Anneke Wills, and British actor Terence Stamp, who studied at the Pune ashram in the 1970s and took on the name Swami Deva Veetan.