I have come out as a winner: Ma Sheela Anand

Ma Sheela Anand on her love for parents, learning, sex, Osho and his drug habits

Pooja Singh
Updated29 Sep 2019
Ma Sheela Anand (Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
Ma Sheela Anand (Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

It’s difficult not be in awe of Sheela Biernstiel, or Ma Anand Sheela.

Her soft words and warm smile make you forget that she was once the foul-mouthed, no-nonsense administrative head of Rajneeshpuram, a commune established in the 1980s Oregon by the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (or Osho), a Rolls-Royce-loving godman who advocated free sex and unique meditation methods. The fine lines on her forehead, which get accentuated when she talks about the 39 months she spent in a California prison in the late 1980s after pleading guilty to attempted murder, arson, wire-tapping, and assault for poisoning hundreds of people—often referred to as the largest bioterror attack in American history—remind you of all the things she did to live the life the way she wanted to. Her defiance and competence make you root for her, even if you are not supposed to.

The world had almost forgotten about Sheela till Wild Wild Country, a 2018 Netflix documentary that follows the rise and fall of Rajneeshpuram, brought the Vadodara-born anti-hero back into the limelight. Today, Sheela, now 70, is running Matrusaden (mother’s home) and Bapusaden (father’s home), homes for the mentally ill, disabled and the elderly. She has established similar homes in Vietnam and Mauritius. What about India? “If someone shows interest (in funding), I’m happy to do it,” she says.

In an exclusive interview with Mint, Switzerland-based Sheela, who was recently in India to be part of Sipping Thoughts, a platform for women established in association with the NGO Humans for Humanity, shares her life experiences, her relationship with parents and Bhagwan Rajneesh, and why she did what she did. Edited excerpts:

You are returning home after 34 years. What took you so long?

I had people… they said they would like me to come (to India)… but I wasn’t ready yet to come so I didn’t encourage anyone. I was sure that when the right time comes, I will be there, and now is the right time.

What makes now the ‘right’ time?

Feeling. Feeling inside. Often our intuition relates to our feeling, and it felt right. So when I got this invitation, there was a “yes” in me. There wasn’t ‘ummm..no..I have to think…no’. I feel it is my responsibility to share my reality and my feeling to people.

Has your perspective towards life changed since the time you first left India?

I’m the same individual I was when I was young. It is the same person, who became young, and then a bit older. It is the same person who met Bhagwan and fell in love with him.

Most people talk about you only in reference to Bhagwan Rajneesh. Did that ever bother you?

They talk in reference to him because that (being with him) was the biggest event of my life. And it is normal, the love I felt for Bhagwan. It was out of this world and it should be talked about. Such love, such commitment you don’t see it every day. It was rare and even today I feel the commitment to him.

What I have come to learn from this man is remarkable. It should not be ignored, because this learning is itself an achievement. This is the real achievement: To live with somebody and learn from this genius, that is remarkable. In love and trust, you learn the most.

Ma Sheela Anand showing picture of her getting 'energy aashirwad' from Osho (Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Have you used this learning in building ‘Matrusudan’?

Matrusudan is my expression of love for my parents. Ma and Pa have given me the basic correct values of life. In their honour, I do the work that I do now. When I was with Bhagwan, I was in love with him and I did what I could offer him in terms of my learning and in my being there. And now, I’m being there for my handicapped people.

What are you doing for yourself?

People make me happy. People around me make me happy. The way I have lived till now makes me happy. The thought of my parents makes me happy. Thought of Bhagwan makes me happy. I work seven days a week. And I don’t take vacation; I’m not stressed in my work. I enjoy it.

How did Matrusaden and Bapusaden start?

I had come out of prison (December 1988), and I wanted to be on my feet. There was still much emotional chaos in me. At that time, I couldn’t speak German. I started working as a housekeeper with an old couple in Basel. I was almost coming to the end of the journey with them (the old couple). I missed my parents very much. I could go back to them but I was not ready to take the risk of the US government. I was safe in Switzerland but I still missed them. Then I started seeing my parents in the people I saw on the streets. I felt my parents were here with every person, and then one day I came across an advertisement about a new law that people can take handicap person into their house and take care of them and the government will pay them to take care of them. So that’s what I exactly did. With my little savings, I rented a house and I took in my first three patients and then three more. They were happy, I was happy. And just then the immigration law in Switzerland changed and I was able to call my parents. I was in heaven. And in 1996, my parents came. Existence took care of me. It realized that “she doesn’t have to suffer anymore heartaches”.

How was prison life?

I only learnt. In such hard situations, you can only learn. If you don’t learn, then you shouldn’t be called human. What makes us different as humans, as individuals, is our ability to learn. And I took it as, “Did I have any choice?” No. Since childhood, our parents taught us, “Be ready for every situation and learn from it. Don’t play to complain.” That’s all I did.

So, what did you learn?

One of the most important things I learnt was time. Nobody has time. People are in traffic jam in the street or in the traffic jam of the life they create. Everybody is stressed because they don’t have time, either for their loved ones or for themselves. In prison, everything you talk is in terms of time. How many years are you doing? How many years you have been here? How much more time do you have? That’s the vocabulary there. Then you have to sit back and understand what is this phenomenon. I learnt the value of time and what it meant to me.

The other important lesson was patience. Because to complete 39 months in prison requires a lot of patience. Women in nine months of pregnancy are finished, they want the child out. Thirty-nine months of pregnancy is bigger than an elephant.

Today, I do justice to my two learnings with my work. I’m there for people, and I take the time for them. People need one another. Why has the problem of psychologically ill people, or handicap people, or the old people, become such a big problem? Because they are isolated. I have 10 more years to my life; I want to be there for people.

Bhagwan Rajneesh accused you of several crimes. How did you deal with them?

It is very simple today when I speak about it. Much water has gone by. I was brutally hurt in my heart but that was my problem, and I was very clear about that what Bhagwan says was his problem. I had to suffer for my heart, for myself. I fully accepted it. If I landed in prison, I had to learn something from there. Everyone can meditate, everyone can read books when life is good. But can you, in hard circumstances, look within? I don’t talk about spirituality; I have nothing to do with it. But can you look within in all honesty?

Bhagwan and I had a wonderful love affair. We understand that when an average couple separates there is a lot of bloodshed. Now this was an international love affair, with thousands of people involved. He has to hold on to his people. Nobody had ever imagined that Bhagwan and Sheela will be separate. So he has to say something that is believable for people. But I can tell you, recently a sanyasin wrote to me, “Do you know every day Bhagwan asked, How was Sheela,’ till the day he died.” For me, it was clear, Bhagwan cannot think of anything other than my love for him. He did what was right for him. He did take a lot of drugs, and it is normal for people who take drugs to talk nonsense at times. He had to do that; I assumed he had a more intelligent way to do that, there too I agree he wasn’t creative under drugs.

But I was like a phoenix rising from the ashes. The whole world was against me. Think about that. People who called me friends no longer existed… all gone with the wind. And then I had to depend on my own back. My old values that my parents had given me came to my rescue.

What were your parents like?

I’m made of my parents. My mother was very intelligent and my father spent his time with Gandhi, Kakasaheb (Dattatreya Balkrushna Kalelkar).... He was well trusted and respected. And that is the value of loyalty he taught us. I’m no Christian in that sense that I suffer from guilt but I have learnt to look at myself and move on. Life is vast.

What was your parents’ reaction when you told them about your decision to join Osho?

I tell you a small incident. When my father was young, he used to take my mother on his bicycle and go through Baroda. His friends always told him not to do so because it “didn’t look nice” but my father also said, “My wife is beautiful, I want the whole world to see her”. My father gave me an advice when I was 16 and going to America for study. He said: “I’m sending you to America to study, to learn. I want you to remember that you are at that age where you will be interested in men and men will be interested in you. Experiment. Don’t meet the first man and marry him. Have sex. Marriage is a long-term event, and if you enter into it without knowing your desires it would be wrong. Date few men, then make your choice.”

Did you have any apprehensions about the Netflix documentary, ‘Wild Wild Country’?

My four sisters were against it; they didn’t want me to go through any more public scrutiny, but my brother convinced them. The two brothers (Maclain and Brocker Way, the directors of the documentary) said they have this 200-300 hours of raw footage from our time in Oregon. It was a goldmine. I was just putting out my heart. I had no idea what they were planning to do. They filmed me for five days. I was just there, with my reality, with life, with myself.

Do you ever wish to go back in time and change things?

I have no regrets. I have come out, out of the whole deal, in spite of 39 months in prison, as a winner. I feel like a winner; I am a winner. That’s what makes me, me. The training of my parents, the love of my brothers and sisters, the trust of Bhagwan in me, that I could do it, that makes for a good foundation.

If Bhagwan Rajneesh was here, what would you say to him?

(Blows a kiss).

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