A Rolls Royce, dripping in gold flowers, sweeps by.
A man with a long white beard places his hands atop the foreheads of two women who lean back, eyes closed, mouths open, vibrating from his touch.
Bodies writhe. People dance. Curtains of hair swing. The screen is awash in persimmon-colored robes and beards, each more woolly and luscious than the last.
Welcome to Rajneeshpuram.
It’s a balmy evening in Brooklyn, and my dad and I are watching the first episode of Wild Wild Country, a documentary series chronicling the rise and dramatic fall of the Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his sannyasin followers. I am aware that the group founded Rajneeshpuram, a commune in Antelope, Oregon, which later fell apart when Bhagwan’s secretary was arrested, and the guru himself was deported to India. I know this because Bhagwan was the spiritual leader my parents followed, “sannyasins” the name they called themselves, and Rajneeshpuram the 64,229-acre ranch they used to visit. Growing up, this was information I absorbed, sponge-like, at such a young age I don’t remember the transmission. I was a preteen when my dad mentioned that the group had disbanded over controversies involving tunnels in the desert and a poisoned salad bar, yet I never investigated further, thinking the story too outlandish to be true.
Onscreen, Ma Anand Sheela, Bhagwan’s personal secretary and the woman who would later decimate the whole operation, claims she doesn’t believe in meditation. My dad presses pause: “I asked her about that once. She said, ‘You can take meditation and flush it down the toilet. I just want to be with Bhagwan.’” Teertha, a guru-like therapist and Bhagwan’s assumed successor, enters the frame, and my dad mentions that he came to visit a mutual friend when I was little. “We all got pancakes at IHOP,” my dad says. “You guys took him to a waffle house?” I ask. He shrugs. Apparently, even renowned spiritual teachers aren’t above breakfast for dinner.
My dad leaves for home the next morning. “Have you seen that insane new series?” a coworker asks during lunch. “It’s about this crazy cult in Oregon with all these overprivileged hippies.” Soon, Instagram is exploding with photos of sannyasins: grinning, bombed-out hippies clad in their signature orange and red clothing, a dress code adapted from Buddhist monks. A quick search reveals that Rajneeshpuram swag is selling like hotcakes on eBay; one of the malas—beaded necklaces printed with Bhagwan’s image, given to each sannyasin during their initiation ceremony—priced at $1,600. Thinking of all the people sprawled on couches countrywide, watching the show, makes me feel woozy. So I do what anyone who just discovered her parents’ former cult is trending would: I use a few vacation days to fly home. I borrow a recorder. I turn it on. And we watch.
At the epicenter of nearly every cult is a magnetic leader, and, in each one’s wake, a myth of the bee-to-flower magnetism they once oozed. Never having met him, I find it difficult to conceptualize the “beauty,” “luminosity,” or orgasm-like “peaks of ecstasy,” that ex-sannyasins cite when describing their former guru. “Everybody in the room who was open to him [was] stoned,” Swami Prem Niren says in the opening episode of Wild Wild Country, recounting how a hall of 7,000 people would try to stand after one of their master’s lectures and end up stumbling, dizzy, and dazed. It’s hard to fact-check the charisma of a man who has been dead for 28 years, especially one whose legacy has been relegated to archival footage in which he appears decidedly creepy: slitted eyes peering out over serrated cheekbones, a walrus-like mustache, his voice a hypnotic, serpentine hiss.
If cult leaders are magnetic, then those who follow them are considered lost, weak, and in need of guidance. My parents, however, have never been followers. In fact, my mother’s inherent reticence to join anything was a point of contention throughout my childhood and reached a boiling point when I joined a travel soccer team, and she refused to chaperone my tournaments. “I have a life,” she said, which was true: she was finishing her bachelor’s degree by taking Spanish classes at the local community college and working as a massage therapist. At its core, though, I knew my mother’s aversion to spending a weekend making chitchat with the soccer moms was driven mostly by her aversion to becoming a soccer mom. My dad, a house painter by day and artist-musician by night, was more open. Together, we blasted Stevie Wonder as we sped down the highway in his gold Honda Odyssey, splashed around in overly chlorinated hotel pools, reveled in the quick-burning, sugar-fueled joy of Olive Garden breadsticks, and hung out with my teammates’ mothers: a nearly alien species of highlighted, make-up wearing, SUV-driving moms. When my own mother expressed disdain, my dad shrugged it off. “Those ladies are fun!” he’d say, zipping up his overnight bag.
Even then, I was aware that my parents’ past wasn’t typical, but a deep-seated pragmatism deterred me from broadcasting it. To define my family’s particular brand of abnormality would have required a dictionary I didn’t yet have access to, and the idea of trying to explain the word “sannyasin” to a bunch of 8-year-olds in between monkey-bar runs made me feel slightly ill. And while I eventually realized that the tale of a sex guru and his disciples makes for a compelling story, I still seldom spoke of it. It felt like a cheap ploy to gain attention—plus, the glitter dulls when you call the main character “Dad,” and he’s the same guy picking you and your friends up for soccer practice in a few hours.
That’s not to say my family passed as mainstream. My “birth video,” recorded on a VHS tape in 1992, shows my mom, dad, and a midwife in a tiny cottage on a farm in Virginia, long before midwives were trendy, much less legal, in our state. When we finally moved to a generic cul-de-sac in a small college town, we puzzled over how to make the house more “us,” eventually painting our door and shutters bright yellow. Sex education, never taboo, began around age 3 for me. Newly armed with a knowledge of the birds and the bees, I remember boarding a city bus with my mother and spotting a pregnant woman sitting near the back. “I know what’s in your stomach,” I said. “And I know how it got there.”
There were also more overt remnants from my parents’ time as sannyasins. “What’s that yelling coming from the basement?” a playmate inquired upon hearing my parents practicing Dynamic, a cathartic meditation technique developed by Bhagwan that includes yelling with abandon. “I think they’re just watching a TV show with loud music,” I told her, even though it was the middle of the day and we didn’t have a television. I called my mother by a shortened version of her sannyasin title, Ma Sangeet Sukvara, until she reverted to her given name when I was 9, and learned to flip the spines of my parents’ tantric sex books inwards when classmates came over. Eventually, these routines morphed into the fabric of our daily lives, and my parents’ past as sannyasins became a footnote, ubiquitous but rarely mentioned.
My parents met in college in 1981. My dad, a guitarist with wild, curly hair, claims he learned to meditate as a kid while staring at the ceiling and waiting for synagogue to end. Stifled by his parents’ focus on social status and money, he was intrigued when he first met Sukhavi, his high school bus driver. “He wore orange every day, but it was the same color as the bus, so I just thought it was his uniform,” my dad says. Sukhavi took my dad to a meditation session, where he found himself enraptured by Bhagwan’s philosophy: “He wanted us to be as free as possible, to dance and create. He wanted us to go into sex and have lots of it.” I’d argue that most 18-year-old guys would be hooked by this ethos, but it was especially captivating for my dad, who had always been disenchanted by what he perceived as a lack of spirituality in the reformed Judaism his parents practiced.
A year later, my father was a newly minted sannyasin when my mother, who ran in the same circles, spotted him playing frisbee on their college’s quad. Clad solely in orange, he was hard to miss. My mom went up to him and pinched his butt. Romance ensued. Before long, they were shacking up, using one of their dorms as a sleeping cave and the other as a hangout space. To fulfill their work-study requirements, my mom spritzed and pruned in the school’s greenhouse while my dad patrolled the campus’s tundra-like grounds each night. Photos from that time show my mom, a braided bandana tied around her forehead, sporting underwear and a tattered shark T-shirt. My father tends to be bare-chested, bedecked only in his mala and a pair of loose orange pants, an aesthetic that might most accurately be described as “traffic-cone chic.”
When their freshman year ended, my dad decided he was over the structure imposed by higher education and moved to California. Uninspired by her classes and dismayed by the amount of debt she was accruing, my mom joined him six months later. “I wasn’t following him,” she says, which I believe she believes. They spent the next few years in San Francisco and then Boston, living separately and maintaining an open relationship. Occasionally, my dad would travel to Rajneeshpuram for celebrations and therapy workshops—but the latter were expensive, and visitors had to pay for lodging, which meant the trips were few and far between. Meanwhile, my mother continued to give the sannyasins a wide berth. Bureaucratic wariness had permeated her childhood home. “I certainly didn't trust being part of a really large organization,” she says of the hierarchy at Rajneeshpuram. “That was where I thought things could go wrong . . . I just kept my distance.”
It was years before my mom agreed to move in with my dad. When she finally did, he was living in a large Victorian in Boston, brimming with sannyasins, and she arrived with one condition: “I’m not going to be one.”
Surrounded by brightly clad housemates, my mom started borrowing an orange sweater here, a pair of pink jeans there. She also began participating in the daily meditations. “It was the gateway drug,” she says. “That was the thing that really sold me on the whole movement.” Within a year, she had traveled the 3,000 miles to Rajneeshpuram, where she was dubbed Ma Sangeet Sukvara and given her mala.
I now also live communally, with the small bevy of roommates essential to financial survival in New York, but my parents’ living situation was decidedly less traditional. They cohabited with a revolving cast of 16 to 19 characters. Most of their flatmates were international, coming to the U.S. and working until they could afford to fly out to Rajneeshpuram, where they’d stay until their money ran out or their visas expired. People slept on mats on the floor, often three to a room. If it was pandemonium, it was organized pandemonium. “We had a lot of house meetings, a lot of rules,” says my mom. “So that a lot of people could live together in a hygienic and safe environment.” I have to admit, there is something enticing about the set-up. The lifestyle sounds fun, colorful, and chaotic, like a McDonald’s ball pit—but for grown-ups.
Growing up, I viewed my parents’ past as assurance that my family was interesting, but as I got older, I began to worry that I’d never do anything as adventurous as either of them—or, worse, that their history was the most compelling thing about me.
The situation complicated when, enmeshed in the murky depths of teenagerhood, I found I had little to rebel against. Their lack of judgment regarding recreational drugs scrubbed them of any sparkle, and they upheld a militant no-shaming policy when it came to my and my sister’s sexual exploits. “Sex is great; make sure you enjoy it,” is a direct quote from my dad, tossed off one night while he was washing the dishes and I was struggling to complete a geometry proof. To this day, I can’t conjure a more compelling argument for abstinence. There also isn’t much room for disapproval of my romantic partners—or their professions—when I know that my dad used to date a German sannyasin who made a name for herself in the adult film industry. When I ask if it bothers her that her husband was with a very successful porn star, my mother is quiet. Then, casually, she says: “I don’t know if you’d say she was ‘very successful.’”
It ends up taking us eight full days to get through Wild Wild Country: our lack of exposure to television has rendered us terrible at following plotlines and lacking in screentime stamina. Viewings are interrupted by numerous yogurt breaks, interludes where my dad practices guitar, and conversations where my sister, calling from college, is put on speaker phone so we can give her relationship advice. The recordings are also hard to make out—my mom likes to eat dried apricots and has a habit of placing the plastic bag right next to the recorder. Even the most hard-boiled FBI agent sounds silly when drowned out by such unapologetic crinkling.
When we finally finish the series, my parents are saddened by its crescendo of corruption, but they also speak of meditating more, of re-dedicating themselves to the struggle to be “present.”
None of what they learned could fully (ahem) poison their memories because it was so far removed from their own experience. The values they retained—existing in the moment, creating to the utmost, perpetually welcoming foreigners into their home—helped them in their parenting and careers, enriched their daily lives, and allowed them to keep expanding their world. I’m reminded of this even as I am banished to the basement each night to sleep: my sister’s and my old rooms have been handed over to a Chinese exchange student and a professor from Spain, now fixtures in my family’s home.
After the last episode ends, my dad pulls up a YouTube video called “The Power of Fuck.” In the film, Bhagwan lectures: “One of the most interesting words in the English language today is the word ‘fuck.’ It is a magical word.” He praises its versatility: “It can be used as a verb, both transitive—John fucked Mary—and intransitive—Mary was fucked by John.” The disciples laugh, and their cheeky guru continues, “Ignorance: fucked if I know . . . Fraud: I got fucked at the used car lot.” Watching it, I sense that Bhagwan is struggling to keep a straight face, and suddenly, his charisma clicks into place. No wonder my parents, turned off by rules and structured religion, were so enraptured. This man spun gospel for the ungodly, created a system of values for the irreverent. If he had risen to fame today, Forbes would probably deem him an innovator: The Guru Who Disrupted Religion.
These days, my parents no longer wear their malas. And though their days as sannyasins are long gone, when I first flew home, I worried that Wild Wild Country would reveal some sinister, long-buried secret about their lives before me. Instead, it served as reinforcement: I already knew who my parents were. The difference is that I finally have the language with which to limn this phenomenon that shaped not only their lives but, unwittingly, mine. Their past, which always felt too broad and unshaped for me to grasp, has now been chiseled into something manageable. In truth, my parents were sannyasins once. They were “in that sex cult from that Netflix show.” But to think that one could watch six episodes and understand my family’s history—or to assume sannyasinhood was my parents’ defining feature—would obscure as much as enlighten.
Waiting for my train to New York, I ponder how, growing up, my mom and dad told me that recognized measures of success held little meaning. Do well in school? You’ll learn more reading on your own. Go to college? See above. As a result, I rebelled by studying, going to college, and getting a full-time job. I rose early to write, stayed up to the wee hours to finish my illustrations, and built structure into my daily life—a framework absent from my parents’ young adulthood. Throughout all this, I maintained a quiet belief that their decision to drop out of school and search for “presence” was a waste of time. But after watching Wild Wild Country, I’m less sure.
Five months after returning to Brooklyn, I quit my job, sublet my apartment, and buy a one-way ticket to Hawaii. An old friend, who recently built a tiny house on a farm on Oahu, invites me to stay with her while I figure out my next steps. It’s not a commune—there is no promise of enlightenment at the other end of this journey—but there is something appealing to me about stepping off the track. I begin to see that this is how my parents' influence manifests in me: a constant internal haggling between spontaneity and planning, chaos and order.
The timing of this trip feels like a coincidence, but I doubt it is. I’ve seen how happy the sannyasins look in the b-roll. I’ve caught a glimpse of the paradise they were trying to build. It’s unlikely my parents’ path would have fulfilled me but, despite how it all went down, perhaps they were onto something. As I drift off one night, a few weeks before my trip, Bhagwan’s melodic voice floats through my head. Surprise: Fuck, you scared the shit out of me. Innovation: Get a bigger fucking hammer. Enjoyment: I had a fucking good time.