Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was chief of staff and president of controversial spiritual organization Rajneesh Foundation International. Ma Anand Sheela was the charismatic, contentious, and, yes, even dangerous personal secretary and confidante of Rajneesh. But Sheela was also more than just that; guru Rajneesh was her emotional and spiritual lover, and she would go to any lengths to protect him and his movement. That included arson, wiretapping, attempted murder, and committing the first and largest bioterrorist attack in U.S. history.
Ma Anand Sheela is a controversial, challenging figure, who rose quickly up the ranks of the Rajneesh cult. She fell from grace even more quickly. This Ma Anand Sheela wiki reveals 28 incredible facts about Rajneesh’s most trusted confidant and, perhaps, most hated follower.
|About Ma Anand Sheela|
|Known As||Sheela Ambalal Patel|
|Birth||December 28, 1949 Vadodara|
|Parents||Maniben Patel, Ambalal Patel|
|Book||Don't Kill Him! The Story of My Life with Bhagwan Rajneesh|
1. Ma Anand Sheela Started Out as Sheela Ambalal Patel
It’s impossible to tell the story of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh without Ma Anand Sheela. In fact, she may even be the more interesting of the two.
Ma Anand Sheela was actually born Sheela Ambalal Patel in 1949 at Vadodara, in Gujarat State, India. The youngest of six children, her parents were Ambalal and Maniben Patel.
In Sheela’s own words, she was “spoiled rotten by everyone.” But it was her father who had the strongest influence on her. “As a child, I was taught by my father, who was a scholar.”
This would come in handy when she was an adult.
Conversations in the Patel household were unlike those in other Indian families, with heated debates about religious, philosophical, and political topics. Unlike many Indian families, her father had a fairly secular outlook, and encouraged his children to question accepted norms.
In addition to encouraging their children to think independently, Ma Anand Sheela’s parents hosted travelling religious figures and politicians. In some cases, Patel took his reluctant children to hear lectures and debates at the local theosophical society.
On her own, Ma Anand Sheela was highly inquisitive and intelligent. She studied linguistics and classical Indian singing before leaving to study in the U.S. when she was 17. Sheela also studied art, and took part in competitive sports and Indian folk dancing.
2. Her Father Introduced Her to Bhagwan Rajneesh
Ma Anand Sheela might have had fun learning about religion and politics at home, but her real education began when she first met Rajneesh. Her father, Ambalal Patel, helped spark that union.
In December 1967, when Sheela was just 17 and bound for the U.S., her father took her to Bombay to hear two gurus speak: J. Krishnamurti and Rajneesh.
Her mother was afraid that if she went to hear Rajneesh speak, she would miss her flight to the U.S.
To that, Patel said, “What she can learn from this one speech will be worth five lifetimes, and I rather that she misses the plane than go without the wisdom of Bhagwan.”
When Ma Anand Sheela first saw Rajneesh, she became devoted. As the two embraced, “It was in this moment, if death were to have come, I accept. My life was complete.”
But she still didn’t miss the plane.
Sheela didn’t become a sannyasin (disciple of Rajneesh) until a later trip home to India, but it was that lecture and meeting that planted the seeds of loyalty that would engulf her future.
3. Ma Anand Sheela Discovered Love and Marriage, American Style
When Patel sent Ma Anand Sheela off to the U.S. to go to school, he told her he was sending her “raw, without conditioning.” It was even worse than that, if you believe Sheela, who says she had absolutely no understanding of English when she landed in Chicago on February 1, 1968.
“I studied English at the moment I got off the plane because I had nobody else escorting me, and I had to go through Immigration. I had to go through customs,” she said.
Ma Anand Sheela wasn’t totally alone, walking the desolate streets of Chicago. She visited relatives for a few months and eventually wound up in Verona, New Jersey, living with her brother Rohit while attending Montclair State College.
In the bucolic setting of Montclair, Ma Anand Sheela found love. During her first semester she fell head over heels in love “at first sight” with Marc Harris Silverman, then 22 years of age.
In later years, she described their courtship. “We started living together in sin,” she said. “While living in sin, one day we were eating on the floor, sitting on the floor, and we said, ‘Hum, we both are against marriage, but we have never experienced marriage – How could we be against marriage?’ We look at each other, ‘That’s true. Let’s get married.’”
The two were married on June 20, 1969; Sheela was 19. A municipal judge in nearby Glen Ridge, New Jersey performed the wedding ceremony in his home. Peter Danilo Jr., a friend of Silverman’s from high school, was the best man.
He described Silverman as loyal, romantic, and idealistic. Of Sheela, he said she was attractive, personable, and quiet. He also described her as having “undercurrents of strength.”
Silverman, who suffered from Hodgkin’s disease, pursued his bachelor’s degree in physics. Meanwhile, Sheela attended classes and held down various part-time jobs (waitress, bartender, salesperson).
She became a permanent resident in May 1971, when she got her green card.
Their marriage lasted until his death in India in 1980.
4. Ma Anand Sheela Dismissed Her U.S. Education as Stupid
Ma Anand Sheela did not have kind things to say about her U.S. education, but she kept those thoughts to herself until after securing her green card.
Sheela said she had earned “close to three or four years” of fine arts credits at Montclair State, but also dismissed it as “stupid curriculum education that the world places value on.”
According to her college records, Sheela attended classes intermittently from the fall of 1968 through the fall of 1969. She then enrolled again in the spring of 1971, and stayed until December 1972.
She never graduated. But that was by design.
“I chose not to be graduated because I didn’t want anybody labeling my intelligence, as it is far superior,” she claimed.
Her attitude about higher education mellowed in later years. She accepted three degrees from the academically unaccredited Rajneesh International Meditation University, listing “D.Litt.” front and center on her personal stationery.
5. Ma Anand Sheela Returned to India and Located Rajneesh
In December 1972, Ma Anand Sheela and Marc Silverman’s life of wedded bliss took a breather. Sheela’s parents were supposed to visit the couple, but had to postpone their trip to the U.S. because her mother needed emergency eye surgery.
“This was the first time my mother had been sick in her whole life, and no children were around her because everybody was here,” she said.
Ma Anand Sheela dropped out of Montclair State and decided to surprise her parents with a visit home. Silverman stayed behind to finish the term.
She returned to her family’s home in Baroda at around 8:00 a.m. Her father was, she said, enjoying the cool winter morning as he was, “sitting outside on a swing, naked, drinking his tea.”
Patel convinced Sheela to accompany him on a trip to see his cousin Parmanand Patel in Bombay. It was during this trip that Ma Anand Sheela asked her father about Acharya Rajneesh. He told her the Acharya (or teacher) was living “opposite your cousin.”
The following morning, Patel and Sheela visited Rajneesh. It was a moment she would never forget.
“Everything was dissolving around me and I just sat at his feet,” she said.
“We must have been there for maybe 30 or 40 minutes, but it seemed like no more than two minutes. It’s like I was so dissolved and absorbed by him, and after that, I could not forget him. That moment, he became my lover. That was it.”
Over the next eight years, others would attest to Ma Anand Sheela’s deep devotion to Rajneesh, one that was deeper than her relationship with her dying husband.
6. Silverman Followed Ma Anand Sheela to Poona, India
In 1970, Rajneesh, who also went by “Osho,” was gaining popularity, preaching a mix of Eastern mysticism, Western philosophy, and free love, promising a utopia to his orange-clad followers.
It was around this time that Rajneesh started to initiate disciples. In 1972, he took the title bhagwan, meaning “the blessed one” or “god.” His followers were predominantly Indian, but Rajneesh wanted his growing entourage to include adoring Westerners.
Not only was the West an appealing place, but Western believers were a major source of money. For many, meditation camps were the first step to disciple-hood. And his meditation and therapy groups were a major source of revenue.
In February 1973, Sheela took sannyas in Thana, India and took the name Ma Anand Sheela. Marc Silverman joined her, also becoming a sannyasin, taking the name Prem Chinmaya.
By the time Rajneesh was established in Poona, more than 5,000 people came to hear him speak every day.
7. Ma Anand Sheela Kept One Foot in the U.S. and One in India
In the mid-1970s, when the Poona ashram was booming, Ma Anand Sheela maintained a presence in the U.S. She opened the Rajneeshees’ first American base of operations, the Chidvilas Rajneesh Meditation Center, in a storefront at 154 Valley Road in Garwood, New Jersey.
Rajneesh told her what to name it: Chidvilas, which translates as “Tree of Consciousness.”
Because no one was really living in the U.S., the center lapsed into dormancy and was disbanded.
New articles of faith were filed in 1977.
8. Ma Anand Sheela and Silverman Experience Free Love
In March 1974, Rajneesh relocated to Poona where he established the private, four-acre Shree Rajneesh Ashram, offering a variety of “transformational tools” for both Indian and international visitors.
But Rajneesh was changing his tactics a little.
His ashram was expanding and Westerners were coming in droves. In an effort to make it more appealing to them, and keep Indians at bay, he switched from speaking Hindi to English. He also increased fees for attending his discourses.
In his sermons, he introduced the concept of group therapy as a way to release anger, hatred, and sexual repression. The popular message caught on, with the number of followers increasing, along with his personal wealth.
In addition to meditation, Ma Anand Sheela and Silverman followed the group’s practices, including having multiple lovers. While free love was just one of many steps on the ladder to enlightenment, it is one that almost every sannyasin enjoyed participating in; even mastering, it would seem.
It is alleged that some sannyasins had more than 90 different sexual contacts every month. Not surprisingly, sexually transmitted diseases became rampant.
9. Sheela Stages Coup, Becomes Rajneesh’s Personal Assistant
In 1975, a 26-year-old Ma Anand Sheela became assistant to Yoga Laxmi, then 52, the woman who ran the ashram. Laxmi was the managing trustee of the Rajneesh Foundation, and secretary to Rajneesh at the time.
Under Laxmi, Sheela learned the art of running an ashram. And, it is said, at times, that Laxmi treated her like a daughter.
With this learning came greater responsibility. On December 31, 1978, Ma Anand Sheela became a director of the ashram’s business arm, Rajneesh Foundation Ltd.
By April 15, 1980, she’d become the company’s general manager.
Most significantly, in 1981, as early as January 1 or as late as May 18, she overthrew Laxmi, to become Rajneesh’s personal assistant. Unlike Laxmi, who treated Sheela like her daughter, Sheela was more apt to treat those disciples around her like underlings.
Ma Anand Sheela even made one young Australian disciple wax her legs in the middle of the night. She later promoted her and asked her to do any number of things, including murder.
10. Ma Anand Sheela Helps Rajneesh Look to America
Thanks to an increasingly fatter bank account, Rajneesh was looking for a larger ashram site as early as 1976. He told Laxmi and then Sheela to find an area big enough for a new commune. But neither of them were able to find a larger site in northern India. And the new commune at Saswad, 21 miles south of Poona, failed.
For Ma Anand Sheela, there was only one alternative: the U.S.
She reactivated the Chidvilas Center, this time, in Montclair, New Jersey—where she went to school. Sheela and a few other disciples signed the new articles of incorporation in December 1977, and filed the center’s application for tax-exempt status in March 1978.
In 1980, after Ma Anand Sheela’s husband died of Hodgkin’s disease in Poona, her new lover, a New Jersey businessman and follower of Rajneesh, John Shelfer, met the owner of a castle while out for a job. He learned that the owner had run into financial troubles and wanted to sell.
Sheela and Silverman had discovered the property when they lived in Montclair. They used to take romantic walks around the private property. Sheela had fantasized about one day owning it.
Rajneesh knew a good opportunity when he saw it and told Ma Anand Sheela to purchase the 15-acre property. It was theirs for just $370,000.
Rajneesh now had lodgings suitable to his lifestyle, should he ever want to move his ashram to the U.S.
11. Sheela Married Her Second Husband on a Flight over Turkey
Ma Anand Sheela flew back to the U.S. to visit her husband’s family after he died. While there, she even conducted some business for Chidvilas, signing a contract for a Rolls-Royce and purchasing and preparing the new center for Rajneesh.
A year after Marc Silverman died, Sheela married her second husband, John Joseph Shelfer, 44, an American born in New Jersey. He was known by his sannyasin name, Prem Jayananda.
The couple married while on a January 26, 1981 flight. She said the wedding took place over Turkey, on a flight to Bombay.
12. Sheela Makes Secret Plans to Jettison Rajneesh to the U.S.
In the spring of 1981, Indian government opposition stalled Laxmi’s land search for a new ashram. It was also looking for $4.0 million in back taxes. Ma Anand Sheela, meanwhile, was quietly making plans to take Rajneesh to the U.S.
On May 4, 1981, Sheela went to Bombay to speak to a U.S. consular officer to make inquiries about Rajneesh’s eligibility for permanent residence in the U.S. as a minister of religion.
To make residency seem more urgent, it is alleged that Sheela told the U.S. consular officer that Rajneesh was “very ill and possibly dying of cancer.” Sheela denies she ever said that, claiming that what she did say was that her “husband died of cancer.”
It’s possible, but so is the thought that Ma Anand Sheela and others would say Rajneesh was very ill, and needed medical attention in the U.S.
13. June 1, 1981: Sheela and Rajneesh Fly First Class to NYC
Virtually no one had any idea that Ma Anand Sheela was going to take Rajneesh to the U.S. Most sannyasins thought Rajneesh would find property for his burgeoning ashram in India. He didn’t. And now, it appeareed as though Rajneesh was looking forward to secretly moving to the U.S.
Why did Rajneesh need to move to the U.S.? It depends on who you ask. There are a large number of theories for why the cult leader quickly left Poona for the U.S.
Some say the group was expanding too quickly to accommodate the small Poona ashram. Others believe Rajneesh’s failing health, bad back, diabetes, and allergies precipitated his need to go to the U.S.
Growing tensions between the ashram and Indian authorities were also seen as motivating factors for moving to the U.S. It was also said that the Shree Rajneesh Ashram owed millions in unpaid taxes.
There was also, allegedly, concerns for Rajneesh’s safety. Religious conservatives were angry with Rajneesh for attacking Hinduism; there were death threats, poisoning attempts, a firebombing, and a knife was thrown at Rajneesh during one of his talks.
It’s been debated whether some, or even all, of these incidents were staged to justify Rajneesh’s move to the U.S.
The official line was that Rajneesh was “deathly ill” and “needed life-saving surgery in the U.S.” That is, however, still open for debate.
On June 1, 1981, Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh, and about 15 other disciples left the Poona ashram and took a Pan American World Airways flight to New York City. The expansive upper level of the Boeing 747’s first-class section was reserved exclusively for Sheela, Rajneesh, and the guru’s companion, Yoga Vivek, 36; she also went by the name Christine Woolf.
The one person who wasn’t there was Laxmi.
When they landed at JFK airport, an ambulance was waiting to take Rajneesh to the hospital. However, he opted to take a limousine to the recently acquired castle in New Jersey, instead.
Whether it was the clean American air, Ma Anand Sheela’s sparkling repartee, or living a comfy life in a castle and driving around in Rolls-Royces, Rajneesh was miraculously healed. There never was any operation.
Rajneesh lived in the castle for the next three months.
14. Ma Anand Sheela Buys the Promised Land for $5.75 Million
While the 15-acre property and castle in New Jersey was swanky, it wasn’t big enough to support Rajneesh’s plans for a commune in the U.S. So, Ma Anand Sheela sent disciples out to find a suitable property. She was also part of the hunt for the “Promised Land.”
In mid-June 1981, Sheela and a fellow disciple were in north central Oregon. She found their promised land. It was a 64,229-acre property known as the Big Muddy Ranch. Ma Anand Sheela agreed to buy it on the spot, paying $5.75 million!
Rajneesh had his new American (global) headquarters, and Ma Anand Sheela was at the helm. She was president of Rajneesh Foundation International, managed the commune, and met daily with Rajneesh to discuss business matters.
Over the next four years Rajneesh spent $30.0 million developing the Big Muddy Ranch, now christened Rajneeshpuram. This included building a fully functioning infrastructure, including a fire department, police, malls, restaurants, townhouses, an airstrip, outdoor disco, school, public transit, and sewage plant. It also had a post office, and its own zip code: 97741. Roughly 3,000 disciples lived there at any given time.
15. In 1983, Ma Anand Sheela Took Control of Rajneeshpuram
In 1983, Rajneesh took a vow of public silence, surrendering to the void for three and a half years. Until he resumed public speaking, Ma Anand Sheela was the only person on the ranch with direct, daily access to the Bhagwan. He even gave her limited power of attorney.
She stepped in and took control of the day-to-day operations of the commune.
Sheela, who was never the model of self-restraint and hated to be criticized, became unhinged.
16. Ma Anand Sheela Gave Exceptionally Colorful TV Interviews
As the official spokesperson for Rajneesh and his ashram, Ma Anand Sheela gave some incrediblly colorful TV interviews.
In one particularly famous interview, she got into a verbal match with the interviewer, calling him “a worthless man” who “visits prostitutes and has pimps for friends.”
Of the Vatican and Christianity, she said, “They [the Vatican clergy] are lousy businessmen,” agreeing that “they are lousy lovers too,” because “they only know the missionary position.”
In another famous interview, Ian Leslie of Nine Network’s 60 Minutes asked the acid-tongued Ma Anand Sheela about the cult’s expansion in Australia, and how no one in the country wanted them there.
Her reply, “What can I say, tough titties.”
Asked on another TV show about Rajneesh’s anti-Semitic remarks, she replied with her own highly offensive racist joke: “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,” she said.
During a debate, she gave Ted Koppel the finger when he had her mic cut off after she kept yelling, “Bulls**t!”
17. The Acerbic Ma Anand Sheela Was Colorful Wherever She Went
Ma Anand Sheela made an impression wherever she went, be it on TV, radio, in the newspaper, or even in court.
In one court case, Sheela said non-Rajneeshee children looked “retarded,” and called the opposing counsel a “red-haired b***h.”
In radio and TV appearances, she cursed, tore the cover off a book, made fun of starving people in Bangladesh, called the pope an idiot, and called Australian locals “prunefaces.” She described Mother Theresa as ugly, adding, “If she wants to live like a beggar, she can live like a beggar. I am going to live like a princess. That’s my style.”
In a 1985 interview with German newsmagazine, Der Speigel, Ma Anand Sheela spoke cryptically of her home state of Oregon.
“The whole state is full of idiots,” she said. “The Oregonians are full of prejudice. They are fanatic and torment the people. It is the same as before, when Hitler established a whole army to prosecute the Jews.”
She was asked whether or not her vicious words and personal attacks counter what Rajneesh preaches.
“No publicity is bad,” she told the Perth Sunday Times. “With one word like bulls**t I have the press running after me. I get free advertisements. I sell millions of dollars to my corporation. We don’t have to advertise.”
18. Ma Anand Sheela Was an Ethical Chameleon
Despite her reputation for being vain, selfish, vicious and mean-spirited, Ma Anand Sheela thought of herself as a princess and a saint. Like entitled nobility, imperial Sheela had the conscience of Marie Antoinette.
And the spoiled sovereign demanded respect.
In one eye-rolling incident, a sannyasin promised to treat Sheela like a princess on her birthday. “I thought I got treated like a princess without it,” she replied.
Princess Sheela surfaced wherever she sent.
“What I have to bring in front of people and world is the truth, raw truth,” she said in a February 27, 1984 deposition filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court. “If somebody is lying, I will say so, that they are liars.”
That subjective reality is open to interpretation.
Mary Ann Forbes, a native of Norfolk, Virginia, and sannyasin from 1979 to 1984, told a Portland, Oregon District Court jury that Sheela’s reputation for honesty and truth was “almost considered a joke.”
“If she had to lie, she did it. If she had to deceive people, she did it,” she testified.
Ma Anand Sheela was said to be an ethical chameleon on a variety of subjects. Below are excerpts from interviews and court transcripts of some of her court depositions:
- When it came to Rajneesh moving to the U.S.: “Bhagwan determined that he would like to go to the United States. He talked very positively about the United States,” she said in February 1982.
- In October 1982, just 10 months later, Rajneesh told U.S. Immigration that “I never made that decision.” Sheela then embraced the story and took credit for bringing Rajneesh to the U.S.
- In February 1984, Sheela was asked about the Rajneesh Foundation’s tax status in India. The movement still owed roughly $4.0 million in back taxes.
- Testifying under oath, Sheela said, “I do not know of any organization having any tax problems anywhere in the world.” Asked again about the case, she replied, “Never heard of it.”
- In Poona, India, an accountant for the Rajneesh Foundation refused to discuss the back taxes, saying, “Sheela controls everything.” It was true. In 1982, Sheela herself submitted information to the State Department about the “tax questions in India.”
- In November 1984, Sheela was asked in a deposition whether any money from the Chidvilas Rajneesh Meditation Center was funneled into a Swiss bank account. Sheela replied, “If I am the president of that corporation, I will not stand for it.”
- Tellingly, a signature card for a Zurich bank account dated February 21, 1983 was signed by Sheela for the Rajneesh Foundation International, the Rajneeshee church and successor corporation to the Chidvilas Rajneesh Meditation Center.
- Princess Sheela, the imperial one, secretary to Rajneesh, and ruler of the ashram described her role in the cult differently. In one deposition, she bristled at tough questions, saying, “You must remember that my background is of a housewife.” In another deposition, though, she said, “I am the head of the religion. And I request you to respect that and address me in same fashion.”
19. Ma Anand Sheela Found Herself to Be Very Attractive
Ma Anand Sheela had a high opinion of more than just her intellect. She was also quite fond of her own appearance.
“Do you want to know what my counsel told me?” she asked during a February 1984 deposition. “He said I look cute. We have a lot of consultations on looking cute.”
During the same deposition, she mentioned how a Rajneeshee lawyer admired her breasts. “That’s off the record, Bill,” the lawyer told the court reporter. “Put it on,” said the opposing counsel.
But according to Sheela, looking so good does not come naturally or easily. It’s a full-time job! During a trip to Australia, she spent a little time talking to a reporter about her hairdresser.
“He spends day and night with me – in the bathroom, in the toilet, in the kitchen, brings me the food, tea in the morning, in America, in Australia, wherever it is,” she said.
20. Sheela Advocated Murder Even Though She’s “Non-Violent”
It would be easy to say Ma Anand Sheela is a bit of a conundrum but she’s not; she’s consistent in an odd way. At the commune, she preached the joys of Rajneesh and his movement. To outsiders, though, she was her typical militant self.
In September 1984, there were rumors that Rajneesh, Sheela, and other top disciples were thinking of fleeing the commune instead of facing possible indictments and additional legal action.
To deflect attention, Sheela made this public announcement:
“You tell your governor, your attorney general and all the bigoted pigs outside that if one person on Rancho Rajneesh is harmed … I will have 15 of their heads, and I mean it. Even though I am a non-violent person, I will do that.”
21. Sheela Helped Carry Out the Largest Bioterror Attack in U.S. History
Things started to get a little hairy during the last few months of 1984. The group was denied building permits for Rajneeshpuram. To rectify the situation, leadership decided they needed to gain political control over the rest of the county in the November 1984 elections.
The best way to do that was to win two of three seats on the Wasco County Circuit Court, as well as the sheriff’s office. It was a lofty goal, but they had a plan.
First, to influence the election, they bussed in 4,300 homeless people to Rajneeshpuram and registered them to vote.
Even then, this wouldn’t be enough to secure victory. To do that, they needed to prevent local voters from reaching the polls. Apparently, the best way to achieve that goal was to poison everyone in The Dalles, where most of the voters lived.
Ma Anand Sheela’s American Express card was used to charter buses all over the country, filling them with homeless people, lured in by promises of food and beer. They were taken to the commune, apparently as a humanitarian initiative. As soon as they got there, however, they were forced to register, with the understanding they would vote for the commune members running for office.
However, attempts at swinging the election were thwarted.
What were they to do with all the homeless? The cult sedated them with drugged beer and discarded them in local towns.
As for their second objective, in September and October 1984, Rajneesh’s group contaminated the salad bars at 10 local restaurants with Salmonella! Their actions caused 751 people to become ill, and 54 were taken to the hospital. However, everyone survived. It was the first and largest bioterrorism attack in U.S. history.
On top of that, the group poisoned several local officials, attempted to assassinate Oregon U.S. State Attorney Charles Turner, wiretapped its own members, burned down the offices of the Wasco County city planner, as well as set fire to (and wire tapped) the county commissioner’s office.
Local residents suspected that Rajneesh’s followers were responsible for the poisoning. It helped propel huge numbers of people to the polls on election day. But the cult didn’t win any seats.
22. Ma Anand Sheela’s Original Plan Was Far More Sinister
Poisoning the local population with Salmonella at salad bars is one thing, but Ma Anand Sheela’s original plan was much more sinister. She considered the 10 restaurants a trial run.
She and other cult members actually planned to put pathogens into the county’s water supply. But no one could figure out how to put enough contaminant in the water supply to make everyone sick.
Instead, they had to settle for a smaller show of force, attacking the locals where they ate.
23. Food Handler’s Bad Hygiene, Not Sheela, Blamed for Attack
Officials and investigators said the bacterial outbreak occurred because food handlers had poor hygiene. But that didn’t sit well with everyone, including Oregon Congressman James H. Weaver (D).
He continued to investigate the Salmonella outbreak. He later said in a speech at the United States House of Representatives that he believed the Rajneeshees had contaminated the salad bars in eight restaurants.
While no one acted on his beliefs, he was vindicated when, in October 1985, 50 investigators, armed with subpoenas, entered the Ranch. There, Dr. Michael Skeels, Director of the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory, found glass vials containing Salmonella Bactrol Disks in the Rajneeshpuram medical clinic.
Analysis confirmed that the bacteria found at the Rajneesh laboratory was an exact match to the bacteria that made 751 people who ate at local restaurants sick.
Law enforcement officials also discovered that there had been an aborted plot by Rajneeshees to murder Charles Turner, a former United States Attorney for Oregon.
24. Ma Anand Sheela Goes on the Run
On September 13, 1985, Ma Anand Sheela went on the run, heading to Europe. On September 16, Rajneesh called a press conference and accused Sheela and her friends of turning the commune into a fascist concentration camp.
He said she may have stolen $55.0 million from the cult, was involved in the Salmonella poisoning, a fire at the Wasco County planning office, and the bugged rooms and telephone at the commune, and attempted to poison his doctor, dentist, the Jefferson County District attorney, and the water system in The Dalles.
Addressing the sannyasins, Rajneesh said, “She’s drugged. She’s on hard drugs…I have never made love to her. That much is certain. Perhaps that is the jealousy. She always wanted, but I have made it a point to never make love to a secretary.”
“She did not prove to be a woman, she proved to be a perfect b***h…She is just going more and more insane before she goes to imprisonment. You just wait. Either she will kill herself out of the very burden of all the crimes that she has done, or she will have to suffer her whole life in imprisonment.”
Ma Anand Sheela was arrested in West Germany, extradited to the U.S., and charged with attempted murder, first-degree assault for poisoning, second-degree assault for poisoning, and product tampering for the poisonings.
As the commune imploded, Rajneesh made a run for it. But it was a little too late. He was arrested in Charlotte, North Carolina on his way to the Bahamas. He was ultimately deported to India, and died in 1990.
25. Ma Anand Sheela Enters Alford Plea: Guilty But Innocent
In 1986, Ma Anand Sheela entered an Alford Plea. That means she pleaded guilty and admitted the prosecution had enough evidence to show her guilt, but still proclaimed her innocence. She was given a prison term along with two other leaders.
Sheela, who was 36 at the time, was given concurrent four-and-a-half-year federal prison terms and a suspended five-year sentence. She admitted to creating an electronic eavesdropping system at Rajneeshpuram, the sect’s commune-city, and conspiring to spread Salmonella bacteria on food in 10 restaurants in the area.
The five-year immigration fraud sentence (for helping to arrange more than 400 sham marriages among the guru’s disciples) was suspended on the condition that she leave the United States after completing her prison time. She was also fined $470,000.
Sheela was released for good behavior after serving just 29 months in jail in federal prison.
26. After Osho’s Death, Sheela Railed about the Corrupt Cult Leader
In 1996, Ma Anand Sheela wrote a memoir in German about her experiences with Osho. A sannyasin, Christel Hahn, read it and encouraged Sheela to let her translate it into English. It was published in English in 2013, titled Don’t Kill Him! The Story of My Life with Bhagwan Rajneesh.
The exposé reveals some scandalous details about Rajneesh and his behavior in the communes.
Sheela claims he was explosive and manipulative, and used his followers to expand his personal wealth. He loved Rolls-Royces, and had as many as 96. Between 1981 and 1985, the year the commune fell apart, an estimated $130.0 million flowed into the ranch.
Ma Anand Sheela also goes into detail about his sexual relationship with Christine Woolf, the woman he renamed Vivek. When she got pregnant, Rajneesh ordered her to get an abortion. He also had Vivek sterilized. Something he encouraged all of his members to do. Rajneesh didn’t want children crowding out the limited space on his commune. It also made free love much more convenient.
According to Sheela, Rajneesh was also an alleged drug addict, possessing around 15 fictitious medical files used to secure high doses of sedatives like Valium and Meprobamat.
To help fund his lavish lifestyle (he had 96 Rolls-Royces but wanted 30 more so he could be the record holder), he declared wealthy sannyasins as enlightened beings. They were so pleased at this ordination that they gave large amounts of money to the cult.
Ma Anand Sheela also noted that the cost to participate in group therapies and live in the ashram was so exorbitant that many sannyasins worked as prostitutes to cover their costs.
“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 sannyasins 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.”
27. Sheela Says the U.S. Government Charged Her to Teach Her a Lesson
Years later, with the wisdom of hindsight, Ma Anand Sheela took a revisionist look at her past. Citing her reason for leaving the Oregon ranch, Sheela maintains in the book that she did not flee because she was afraid of being arrested for poisoning local Oregon voters, or because of wiretapping, arson, or attempted murder.
Ma Anand Sheela left her position at the commune and ran to Europe because she was fed up with Rajneesh and his exploitative ways.
As for pleading guilty and being sent to jail…a set-up! The U.S. government wanted to make an example out of her and teach her a lesson, in her view.
“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 said.
28. Ma Anand Sheela’s New Life in Switzerland
After being released from federal prison, Ma Anand Sheela, in accordance with her guilty plea, had to leave the U.S. She went to Europe and traveled around. When she learned that the U.S. government was looking at bringing additional charges against her, she (once again) fled, this time, to Switzerland, a country that has no extradition clause with the U.S.
Ma Anand Sheela had another name change, too. She is now known as Sheela Birnstiel, having married Urs Birnstiel. This was a fortuitous union. It gave her a Swiss passport and immunity from extradition to the U.S.
Her biggest legal concern: the unresolved attempted murder of U.S. Attorney Turner.
Her third marriage did not last long. Urs Birnstiel died of AIDS in 1992.
Sheela Birnstiel carved out a new life for herself in the countryside of Maisprach, Switzerland. She runs two homes for the elderly and mentally challenged, with a staff of 24 taking care of around 29 patients.
How does Sheela Birnstiel compare her operating two homes for the disabled to being Rajneesh’s second in command?
“After I left Bhagwan, everything I do is my baby,” she said. “I am proud to say his training comes in handy but this is my life’s work. Rajneeshpuram was Bhagwan’s life’s work and this is purely mine along with my team. I am happy with both my legacies: with and without Bhagwan.”