The Story Behind Wild Wild Country’s Red Rajneeshee Outfits

In 1980s Oregon, wearing maroon meant you were likely part of a cult. 16, 2018

By Jasmin Malik Chua

Heather Walters was 11 when she first encountered the crimson-clad disciples of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the Dalles in north central Oregon. It was in the parking lot of a supermarket, though whether it was a Fred Meyer or some other big-box grocer — perhaps it was an Albertsons? — Walters, now 48, can’t quite recall.

What she does remember, however, is feeling a chill as she watched them dancing — twirling, really — with their eyes closed, faces raised beatifically to the sky.

The Dalles, the largest city and seat of Wasco County, would soon become ground zero for crimes committed by the Indian guru’s followers — known variously as Rajneeshees, neo-sannyasins, or simply sannyasins — who had commandeered a 64,000-acre cattle ranch, just 100 miles away, to build an ambitious utopia for thousands of worshippers.

The most salacious of these, including widespread salad bar poisonings, are documented in Wild Wild Country, a six-part Netflix docuseries by the brothers Chapman and MacLain Way that charts the incredible rise and equally improbable fall of Rajneeshpuram, the city-commune that served as a flashpoint for debate about sexual mores, religious freedom, and land use legislation in 1980s rural Oregon.

Young Walters, standing in the parking lot, couldn’t have anticipated what was to come. The Rajneeshees were just beginning to infiltrate Oregonian society, where they were met with a mix of curiosity and wariness. Little was known about the strangers beyond their hippy-dippy exhortations about unbridled sex and elevated planes of consciousness.

They were characterized principally by their complete and unequivocal surrender to the whims of Bhagwan, the “blessed one,” who, upon arriving in the United States from India in 1981, stood at the door of his plane with his white beard and piercing gaze and announced, “I am the Messiah America has been waiting for.”

Still, the girl was filled with a sense of unease.

“I remember they had a kind of ‘nobody’s home’ kind of feel,” says Walters, today a designer in the Portland area. “They had an otherworldly feel to them. And I always remember the scarlet color.”

Red and other ruddy hues — salmon, burgundy, mulberry, violet, russet — were the Rajneeshees’ visual calling card. Prescribed by Bhagwan himself, the colors symbolized “the sunrise of the inner world.” Together, whether in Pune, India, where the self-proclaimed “Enlightened Master” established his first ashram in 1974, or in the 40-person town of Antelope, which the Rajneeshees swiftly annexed after their arrival in the Beaver State, the monochromatic group made for an arresting, almost formidable, sight.

“You can see in the documentary, it’s just like, whoa,” says Jane Stork (a.k.a. Ma Shanti Bhadra), 73, a former sannyasin who is featured in the Netflix series. “And they’re walking down the street and Antelope ... and you can see, oh, my god, they’re Rajneeshees.”

Even today, in a world where we’re inundated daily with cowboy boot sandals and shirts with sleeves that somehow defy all laws of God and man, their singular “lewk” still commands attention. “There should be a documentary on where the Rajneesh got all their red and purple clothes,” one Twitter user quipped. “I feel like the Rajneesh crew in Wild Wild Country could’ve avoided 99 percent of their problems if they just dressed in normal clothes,” another considered. “Today I saw a woman in a maroon suit, pink shirt, and maroon shoes, and immediately assumed she was a Rajneeshee,” still another said.

Bhagwan’s followers didn’t start out in red. Before the sect made landfall in the United States, they were known to non-practitioners as the “Orange People.” Orange — saffron, to be more precise — is a color that represents spirituality in many Eastern cultures, including in Bhagwan’s native India. It identifies the ascetic, one who has renounced material things. The holy man, on the other hand, was a for-profit prophet who preached opulence and self-indulgence. It wasn’t for nothing, after all, that Americans dubbed him the “Rolls Royce Guru.” Bhagwan owned, by one count, up to 85 of the luxury cars, along with several diamond-studded Rolex watches.

Whether by accident or design — Stork, who lived at the ashram in Pune, doesn’t think any official decision was made — the Rajneeshees began gravitating toward more florid shades. By the time the group decamped to Oregon, Stork says, they were “all red.” By wearing the colors, the sannyasins considered themselves “living posters for Rajneesh.”

For those who asked, there was even an origin story of sorts.

“One day, Bhagwan was deciding what color his sannyasins should wear,” spokesperson Ma Prem Veena told the Statesman Journal in 1983. “He looked out a window and saw the green of a tree and thought that would be a good color and represent new growth. He looked higher in the tree and saw it was a flame tree, with a big umbrella of red and gold and orange flowers. Bhagwan said, ‘I saw the red was flaming. I want my disciples to be the flaming of their human potential.’”

Red, she adds, is the color of the rising sun, of awakening, of celebration. It says, “Be grateful that you’re here.”

For the blue-denim folks of central and eastern Oregon, however, red also signaled danger.

Although the Oregonian Rajneeshees all wore malas, wood-bead necklaces that held Bhagwan’s visage, they didn’t have a uniform in the strictest sense. Unlike their counterparts in Pune, who donned flowing robes of one kind or another, the residents of Rajneeshpuram wore typical Western clothing: T-shirts, tank tops, and shorts in spring and summer; turtlenecks, flannel button-downs, and puffy down jackets in fall and winter.

Decades before Donald Trump appropriated the red baseball cap as ideological shorthand, the Rajneeshees touted their devotion with the very same item, albeit with the Rajneeshpuram logo — twin doves silhouetted across the rays of the rising sun — in lieu of a slogan.

“I was just told, ‘We’re going to America, and you need to get jeans and T-shirts and sweaters,’” Stork, who now lives in Germany, recalls. “They had to still be in the color but clothes that fit in there.” She didn’t even take her robes with her. “I just left them behind in India,” Stork says.

Things were completely different in Oregon. The ashram in Pune straddled a property of about six acres. Big Muddy Ranch, which the Rajneeshees purchased for $6 million, spanned 126 miles of inhospitable desert, good for little else besides, as Walters put it, “growing deer and rabbits.”

Gone were the days of meditating for hours at the master’s feet; these sannyasins had to raise an entire city from this desolate wasteland. In the months that followed, Rajneeshpuram would bloom into an oasis of prefab buildings, A-frames, trailers, and tents. It would eventually house an airstrip, a disco, a casino, a pizzeria, a luxury hotel, and a small shopping center that contained a beauty parlor, a post office, and a boutique that stocked all the mauve and vermilion threads one could ever need. (According to the Wall Street Journal, store buyers even wrangled an “exclusive deal” with Levi’s to sell its orange jeans.) During the summers, some 150,000 of the 350,000 Rajneeshees worldwide would converge for a massive celebration — think Burning Man meets Coachella meets South by Southwest.

But in the beginning, the toil of shaping the land to their needs remained ahead. Roads needed carving, power lines needed installing, and vegetables needed planting.

“There was nothing there, and so we literally built everything from scratch,” Stork says. “It was hard work, and you needed to have proper clothing for that.”

Semiotically speaking, the Rajneeshees made quite a statement by wearing red.

Red is an “unrelenting hue,” according to Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. It’s the most visceral color in the spectrum, an attention-grabber that bludgeons neighboring colors into the background. The symbolic color of the heart, of life-sustaining blood and life-threatening bloodshed, red is at once a call to react and a command to stop what you’re doing.

“Red’s more aggressive traits have to be handled judiciously so that the viewer is not overwhelmed or antagonized by its demanding presence,” Eiseman counsels designers in Color: Messages and Meaning. “But if demanding is what you want, then red is your color.”

As the Rajneeshees exercised their growing influence — first in Antelope, then the rest of Wasco County, where they attempted to replace two of the three sitting commissioners with their own people — red transitioned into an expletive. Locals took to calling the sannyasins “red rats” or “red vermin.” Larryann Willis, who sought the Democratic nomination for the Second Congressional District seat, christened the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh “red-clad kooks” — a virulent turn of phrase for a candidate running for major office. And among the glut of “Bhagwan-buster” T-shirts and fliers outlining “hunting regulations” for “an open season on central eastern Rajneesh,” bumper stickers proclaimed “better dead than red.”

“You can’t hide in red,” Ma Dhyan Rosalie, another spokesperson, told the Arizona Republic in 1984, without a hint of irony. “You know how many beige people there are in the world?”

Red became a statement of defiance, but it also made you a target.

“I will tell you, as a child, you did not wear red clothing,” Walters, who went to school in Hood River, 25 miles west of the Dalles, remembers. “You would get accused of being a Rajneeshee if you had red on. You’d see red and your brain always went to Rajneesh. I’m sure that our mothers removed any red clothing.”

Such a drastic tack is unsurprising considering that the clothes that we wear are a form of communication, says William J. F. Keenan, a sociologist from Liverpool who has written extensively about the significance of sacred and devotional dress.

“Groups wear distinctive clothing to set themselves apart in order to build group solidarity,” he says. “That’s the main function: to signal to each other that they are of one body and therefore they wear a common dress. It symbolizes a special identity, that they are different.”

For the sannyasins, wearing red might have been their way of rejecting the “gray world of everyday dress.”

“Dress is a kind of body language, really,” Keenan says. “It’s the most all-encompassing of the symbols that are intimate with a physical body. And I think that the religious cults and so forth have a way of using that body covering as a way of saying that their bodies are set apart.”

By wearing Western clothing, the Rajneeshees adopted a kind of compromise. “They were what you might call accommodating to the surrounding culture,” Keenan says. It’s a survival mechanism, almost.

“When groups that were founded in France or Italy or Latin America move to more Western cultures, they tended to adapt their dress to fit in, although they still retained some of the special symbolic language of the foundation garments,” he says. Not that the Rajneeshees adapted too much. “If they accommodate too much, then they lose the special mission, the selling point, the edge. They just become like any other group,” Keenan adds.

Their underwear did not have to be red, of that much Philip Toelkes, a.k.a. Swami Prem Niren, is certain.

“Anything you didn’t see didn’t have to be maroon,” says Toelkes, who was Bhagwan’s personal lawyer at Rajneeshpuram, as well as its second and final mayor. Devout to the memory of Bhagwan, later known as Osho, to this day the 73-year-old is a key witness in Wild Wild Country.

When Rajneeshpuram’s incorporation as a city faced legal headwinds, Toelkes showed up in court wearing a distinctive three-piece vermilion suit, as seen in the series. He had it tailor-made in Hollywood, back when he was still flush with cash from representing the likes of singer Linda Ronstadt and teen heartthrob Shaun Cassidy as a hotshot litigator.

“I thought people’s reactions [to me] were entertaining,” says Toelkes, a consciousness life coach who lives in Sequim, Washington, but makes regular trips to the Osho International Meditation Resort in Pune, where Bhagwan’s legacy lives on.

Not everyone at the ranch could afford bespoke clothing, however, or even the prices at the on-site boutique, which provided an extensive selection of togs in the tribal colors. (One Reddit rumor has it that Meier & Frank, a prominent department chain in Portland at the time, employed a dedicated buyer just to keep red clothing in stock, but the person in question declined to comment on the record.)

The residents of Rajneeshpuram cut across a broad swath of society, rich and poor. They hailed from Argentina, West Germany, Switzerland, and North Carolina. There were doctors, teachers, city planners, PR liaisons, electricians, investment bankers, and the unemployed. At one point, in a bid to stuff the Wasco County voter polls, the Rajneeshees bused in thousands of homeless people to live on the commune.

There was a lot of dyeing going on, particularly with the have-nots, as Toelkes remembers. “Very few of these people were having their clothes made in the right color,” he says. “They would either buy the maroon clothes cheap or they had their own clothes and they would dye them, and that was also cheap.”

Many, like Stork, would instead rifle through the clothing trailer for free clothes and shoes. It provided items for children too. “I just went there, to the clothing trailer, and said, ‘I need this, that, and the other thing,’ and I got it,” Stork says.

As the years went on, however, the selection of new clothes grew thinner. Eventually only secondhand clothing remained, and even that whittled to scraps.

Stork remembers running into her son, Peter, in downtown Rajneeshpuram. His sneakers, she says, were “literally falling apart” at their seams.

“I said, ‘Go to the trailer and get some new shoes,’” she recalls. “And he said, ‘I’ve just come from there and they don’t have anymore.’”

Stork pauses, then takes a breath.

“So what happened with time was that the money was going into Rolls Royces and diamond watches and things for Bhagwan, and there was nothing left for buying clothes.”

There was a separate cache of nicer clothing for those in public-facing roles, like the one Stork found herself in when she was made the treasurer of Rajneesh Foundation International, essentially the church, she says.

“It was actually in Sheela’s house and it was much smaller but it had very nice clothing. Elegant clothing. Modern,” she adds.

Sheela was, of course, Ma Anand Sheela, Bhagwan’s imperious pistol-packing lieutenant and media attack dog. Petite and slight, Sheela, as portrayed in the series, could be by turns charismatic, menacing, and imposing. (And that’s before the fireworks hit the stratosphere.) Despite her onerous duties as head of the church, president of the commune, and Bhagwan’s chief of staff and primary mouthpiece, she was surprisingly chic.

“When I saw the documentary I was like, ‘Wow.’ I forget she was just so good-looking, you know?” Stork says.

Witness Sheela in one scene wearing a fascinator with spun-sugar-like netting and feathers. Or in another looking gamine in a fuzzy beret and an unbuttoned workshirt. There are napped blazers with mandarin necks, rolled-collar sweaters with mutton-chop sleeves, ruffle-neck blouses with pleated bibs. She flaunted power coats (with peaked shoulders!) before Meghan Markle made them a “thing.”

“I can’t remember, but she must have had a seamstress,” Stork says. “I suspect she had a seamstress.”

Sheela might have been inspired by her beloved Bhagwan, who most certainly had help with his wardrobe. The guru sported ornate velvet, silk, and satin robes with coordinating furred or knit beanies — “and socks, as well! You couldn’t see the socks,” Stork said — courtesy of an in-house team that lived, literally, in his house.

He wore nearly every color — gold included — besides red. He didn’t need to; he was already enlightened.

“And every day a new robe,” Stork adds.

Toelkes never found the limited palette he could wear restrictive. “I felt honored to be his disciple and honored to wear those clothes in that color, and I also felt that he had something in mind vibrationally,” he says. “I just totally loved him, and I could see why it made sense from his perspective. It wasn’t something I would have decided. But I was happy to do it.”

Stork didn’t question the dress code either. “I was brought up Catholic and one of my sisters became a nun at one point, and she had to wear a white robe and cover her hair, and she had a new name and she wore a cross around her neck instead of the beaded necklace, so I drew some parallels to that,” she says.

Distance and time has allowed her to reconsider her original stance. “Today I can see it is a uniform, and you get a new name so you disassociate with your past,” she says. “Everything that connects you to your family and what you were is just [whisked away].”

Dress codes in religious and quasi-religious sects are more common than you might think, says Rick Alan Ross, a deprogramming expert who runs the Cult Education Institute in New Jersey. The Hare Krishnas have their ocher robes and mostly shaven heads with topknots. Members of Scientology’s elite Sea Organization wear naval-style blue uniforms, complete with gold-trimmed caps. In death, Heaven’s Gate cultists wore matching black shirts and sweatpants, plus identical black-and-white Nike sneakers.

“In the group Aum Shinrikyo, it was actually more profound,” Ross says. “They would actually not only dress alike, they would at times wear a mask of the leader’s face over their face.”

What this does is “break down the individual sense of identity and impose a kind of group identity,” he says. “You’ve lost your individual sense of autonomy and you’ve merged with the group.”

Toelkes disagrees. “People have such strange ideas about what makes an individual,” he says. “They wear a color or a style that’s worn by millions of other people and it makes them different. We are individuals based on our individuality in our minds and in our hearts, choosing for ourselves and acting for ourselves.”

Still, it was a long time before Oregonians could wear red clothing without courting suspicion.

Just before Bhagwan was deported back to India in 1985, after pleading guilty to violating immigration law, he gave his acolytes permission to don other colors and become the “Rainbow People.” But some habits are hard to shake: Visitors to the Osho International Meditation Resort today still wear red robes, switching to white only for evening prayers. You can even go empty-handed if you’d like — a mini mall on the premises sells everything you might need, from swimsuits to shawls to meditation chairs, all cloaked in the same rich burgundy.

You know how many beige people there are in the world?

Stork still wears red on occasion, but she almost never thinks of Bhagwan or her time with the Rajneeshees when she does. “I just think, ‘Oh, yeah, this is a good color for me,’” she says.

As for Toelkes, he maintains a set of maroon-and-white robes for when he visits India but otherwise gives red a wide berth.

“It was never my color, you know?” he muses. “I’ve always been a blue person.”

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