In its purest form, the New Age movement represented a spiritual journey towards peace, harmony and a break from oppressive societal norms. These admirable pursuits did not define the mission of one of the movement’s most popular and controversial figures: Bhagwam Shree Rajneesh, a spiritual guru whose reign ended in an attempted political assassination and the second largest bioterrorist attack in United States history. The revealing documentary Rajneeshpuram exposes the inner workings of his commune, his sinister grab for greater power, and the explosive consequences of a false mystic run amok.
Rajneesh began his ascendancy in the 1970s when his spiritual teachings attracted the attention of a growing legion of followers. He formed a monastery in Pune, one of the most populated cities in India. Practitioners were encouraged to engage in open and frequent sexual acts, and to throw themselves into a series of meditation sessions that were marked by volatile movements, hyperventilation and sudden bursts of violence. Stoking the ire of powerful political parties in the region, Rajneesh sought to relocate and rebuild in a safer haven free from outside influence or obstruction. He settled on America, where giant swaths of the population were becoming more attuned to the philosophies of the New Age movement, in the unassuming community of Wasco County, Oregon.
The film casts an absorbing spell as it runs through the tumultuous events that followed the creation of Rajneesh’s mammoth compound known as Rajneeshpuram. It’s a labyrinthine tale of cult-like extremism. Alongside his ever-present spokesperson Sheela, Rajneesh fought an aggressive campaign to expand his commune far beyond the parameters of his original contract. He seemed intent on building his own town devoted to commercial enterprise, and lobbied for a prominent place in the community’s political structure. When the local government and citizens of a nearby town stood up in protest, he set in motion a series of menacing plots that culminated in the poisoning of over 700 innocent victims.
Utilizing reams of fascinating footage from the period and a wealth of sharply informed research, Rajneeshpuram paints a vivid portrait of a power hungry guru who failed to practice what he preached.
Directed by: Fredrik Knudsen