An Affair to Remember

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An encounter with Ma Anand Sheela, Osho’s former personal secretary and author of a controversial bare-all memoir

In 1985, when Indian spiritual guru Osho Rajneesh was trying to expand his influence in Australia, an Australian television network had interviewed his then secretary, Ma Anand Sheela. Osho, or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh as he liked to call himself, was a controversial figure by then. He was known for his liberal views on sex and there were rumours of orgies in his communes. He had also drawn infamy for his vast collection of Rolls-Royces and expensive watches. The interviewer, Ian Leslie of Nine Network’s 60 Minutes, somewhat alarmed at the expansion of the cult in Australia, had asked Sheela, why she was in the country when no one wanted her. She said, “What can I say, tough titties.”

That was how the second-in-command of the cult of Rajneeshism was. Feisty, possessing an acid tongue and, like her master, a flair for controversy. When she ran the infamous Rajneeshpuram commune in Oregon in the 1980s, she would carry a .357 Magnum handgun and even tried to rig the local county elections so that candidates favourably disposed to the commune could be elected. Asked to comment once by a television channel on Osho’s anti-Semitic remarks, she responded with a racist joke. She said, “How do you get four Germans and 500 Jews into a Volkswagen? Two Germans in front, two at the back, and 500 Jews in the ashtray.” A TV anchor got shown the middle finger on air. In another well-remembered TV appearance, she got into an altercation with an interviewer and called him “a worthless man who visits prostitutes and has pimps for friends.” While drawing parallels, during the interview, between the marketing aspect of Osho’s cult and those of the Vatican and Christianity, she said, “They (the Vatican clergy) are lousy businessmen… They are lousy lovers too. They only know the missionary position.”

Today, Sheela is a different person. Bespectacled and silver-haired, she always wears a smile when she speaks. There is no makeup and none of the gaudy jewellery of her past avatar. Reminis- cing about the past, Sheela, now a sober 63, ever so often arches her back in the chair, and not able to contain herself, emits a hearty laugh. She says, during a Skype conversation, that even in those days she was nothing like her media appearances. She was simply role-playing, being deliberately obnoxious on Osho’s say-so, because controversies were a sure way of nourishing the cult.

Ma Anand Sheela is now known as Sheela Birnstiel (taking her last name from late husband Urs Birnstiel). She lives in Switzerland, where she runs two homes for the elderly and mentally challenged. She lives in one of the homes, and with a staff of 24 helpers, takes care of its 29 patients. Here, living in the countryside of Maisprach, she is cut off from the world of Osho sanyasins that she was once at the heart of. Occasionally, some sanyasins from the past come visiting. Some years ago, one such sannyasin, Christel Hahn, read a memoir Sheela had written in German in 1996 about her experiences with Osho. Hahn urged Sheela to let her translate the book into English. The translation was published earlier this year in India. Titled Don’t Kill Him, it chronicles Sheela’s life with Osho and the period after she left him.

The book reveals some scandalous details about Osho and life in his communes. It shows him as an exploitative and manipulative guru who used the respect and goodwill he commanded to expand his fortune. Sheela describes how he carried on a long-standing sexual relationship with his attendant, Christine Woolf, a suicidal British national whom he renamed Vivek, and hints at his multiple sexual liaisons with other sanyasins. When Vivek became pregnant with Osho’s child, which Sheela claims Vivek planned on purpose to teach the guru a lesson, Osho got the pregnancy aborted and Vivek sterilised. When Osho established his ashram in Pune, he encouraged abortions and sterilisations because he did not want children to crowd the limited space. He specifically asked those who held important positions in the ashram to get sterilised. According to Sheela, Osho was also hooked on drugs. He possessed around 15 fictitious medical files, which he used to obtain high doses of sedatives like Valium and Meprobamat. When Sheela left the commune, Osho owned 96 Rolls-Royces and wanted another 30 within a month, so he could hold the record for the individual with the maximum number of Rolls-Royces. To fund these purchases, he declared 21 rich sanyasins enlightened beings, knowing it would gladden them so much that they would make large donations. At one point, when Osho’s reach was expanding and Westerners were coming to his Pune ashram in droves, he sought to keep away Indians by switching from Hindi to English as his preferred language of discourse and also increased the fees for attending his discourses. He introduced the concept of group therapy, as a release from anger, hate and sexual repression, which swelled the numbers of his followers and therefore his personal wealth. Sexual encounters and violence were par for the course in some of these therapy sessions. Some media reports from the time, Sheela writes, also mentioned instances of rape in group sessions. The money needed to participate in these group therapies and to live in the ashram was so high that many sanyasins started working as prostitutes to bear the costs. She writes, “Everyone was so crazy for enlightenment and so zealously anxious to be without ego and to be meditative that they could do anything for it. The sanyasins took part in sexual encounters, emptied their pockets, and proved their devotion [through] expensive gifts. This exploitation was dirty, ugly and repulsive, especially coming from Bhagwan.”

Sheela was born Sheela Ambalal Patel to a Gujarati family in Baroda in 1949. She was pursuing her education in the US when she met her first husband, Marc Silverman. Both became sanyasins after meeting Osho. Following the group’s practices, both continued to have multiple lovers. After Silverman died of cancer, she married first an American sanyasin who had been named Swami Jayananda, and later another sanyasin named Dipo (Urs Birnstiel from Switzerland). Around them, the commune was erupting in an orgy of free sexual expression. Some sanyasins had more than 90 different sexual contacts every month. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) became rampant, and the commune made it mandatory that HIV tests be conducted on those who wanted to enter the commune.

After the Pune ashram became too small for the expanding cult, Sheela helped buy a 64,000 acre ranch in Oregon for $6 million. This was in 1981. A commune named Rajneeshpuram was set up there, much to the dislike of the local population. Sheela was then promoted as private secretary to Osho. She built and ran the commune, which was converted into a city of over 5,000 people, with urban infrastructure like a post office, fire department, restaurants, malls, townhouses, a public transport system, and a 1,300 metre airstrip. Later when threats started emerging from the local population, an armed Rajneeshpuram police force was also set up. They carried Uzi submachine guns and also used a Jeep-mounted .30-calibre machinegun. According to Sheela, these steps were necessary for their safety as the local police force was not interested in helping them. Osho had declared, she writes in the book, “If they touch even one of us, we will catch fifteen of them.”

While she does not mention this episode in her book, Sheela and the commune tried to secure control of the Wasco County Commission by bringing to the commune around 2,000 transient American Rajneeshees to vote in the 1984 county elections. Many newspapers reported this at the time. The plan was unsuccessful when a judge ordered registration hearings, and most transients left the commune realising that they would not be able to vote.

Citing her reasons for leaving the Oregon commune, Sheela claims in the book that she resigned her position and left the commune along with some sanyasins because they were fed up of Osho and his exploitative ways. Osho’s version of the story was that Sheela had fled with some followers. According to him, she had tried to murder Vivek, his physician Devraj, and the then attorney general of Oregon, apart from wiretapping, and planning arson and bioterrorist attacks. It is believed, on the basis of media reports of the time and the confession of David Berry Knapp or Swami Krishna Deva, the then mayor of Rajneeshpuram—that she masterminded America’s first-known instance of a bioterrorist act by infecting local salad bar restaurants with salmonella bacteria, causing a food poisoning epidemic that affected around 750 locals. This was reportedly done so that they wouldn’t be able to vote in the county council elections. She was arrested in Germany in 1985 and extradited to the US in 1986.

Visibly perturbed when these cases are mentioned, Sheela states that these charges are fictitious and were trumped up by Osho in malevolence and spite because she had left him. The US government, she claims, pursued those charges against her to teach her a lesson. “I was completely innocent. The reason I eventually agreed to plead guilty, that too for a narrowed set of crimes involving immigration fraud and telephone-tapping under the so-called Alford plea, is that I did not have the resources to fight the case,” she says. Under such a plea, a defendant can plead guilty not because she admits to the crime but because the prosecutor has sufficient evidence to place a charge and obtain a conviction. She was convicted for four and a half years and let off after thirty-nine months in prison for good behaviour. According to Sheela, she wrote her book on the insistence of her late father, so she could tell her version of the story. After her release from prison, she travelled to various countries in Europe. When she was tipped that the US government was planning to bring additional charges against her in order that she could be imprisoned again, she fled to Switzerland and its immunity from extradition.

Sheela still refers to Osho as Bhagwan. Despite bearing the brunt of his accusations and having such a public fallout, she refers to her encounter with him, when she was in her 20s, as one of the fondest memories of her life. “That face, that presence… I instantly fell in love with him when I saw him. How could one not?” What she saw of his manipulative aspects later, she says, were the failings of an ordinary man, but his philosophies and views on life, she still maintains, were those of a great sage. “He still lives inside me, in my heart,” she says, and raises her hand to where she believes her heart is. “My parents and husband have long passed away. Even Bhagwan is no more. Much of the lure of life is now gone. I now just try to live, implementing Bhagwan’s philosophies and caring for my patients here.”