THE RISE AND FALL OF RAJNEESHPURAM
Percolating with hubris, scandal and controversy, the rise and fall of the controversial Oregon-based commune Rajneeshpuram, is a story whose commercial potential has been revived and retold to the public in recent months. However, between the years of 1981 to 1985, the American public was seized with details of an unprecedented scandal of incredulous proportions. Over the course of a few years, a stampeding rhetoric of bizarre Bacchanalian orgies, human rights violations and escalating criminal allegations, would eventually come to define the devastating legacy of Rajneeshpuram.
Until the commune’s final disintegration in 1985, television cameras across the nation were trained on the rural town of Antelope, Oregon, whose foundations were overturned when a group of acolytes from India appeared seemingly overnight. Lashed in devotion to the robes of an enigmatic godman figure and mystic, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the strangers arrived in droves, at one point numbering close to seven thousand. In what would unfold to be a devastating and combustible meeting of worlds and ideology, this period would leave its survivors and a town forever changed.
Forty years on, Oregon’s troubling chapter in history has been riding a new wave of popularity. Perhaps the story has always been there and all it needed was a creative push in the right direction. Enter six part Netflix documentary series Wild Wild country, a sensational retelling of the events at Antelope by the casualties of this doomed venture. Directed by Maclain and Chapman Way , the creative minds behind the remarkable documentary the Battered Bastards of Baseball, the series intercuts talking- head accounts and sourced footage to present a compelling narrative with biblical undertones of a Paradise found and subsequently lost.
With the release of this documentary series, one figure in particular has been singled out as a remarkable anti-hero for these complex times. Since the release of the documentary, her name and image alone have prompted a revived windfall of attention from the media and public alike.
In a career that spanned three decades, Ma Anand Sheela served as the personal secretary and tenacious mouthpiece for the Bhagwan and his community of Rajneeshees. Across various interviews and television appearances, Sheela made an indelible impression with her capricious blend of provocative rhetoric and resolute defence of Bhagwan and his community of devotees.
Today, 20 years on from this ignominious chapter of Oregon’s history, we visit the self-proclaimed “ Mother of Rajneeshpuram’ in her residential care home Wohnheim Mastrusaden, located in the outskirts of Basel, Switzerland. In an exclusive conversation that traces her journey from spiritual lieutenant to charity worker and caregiver, we uncover the woman behind the rhetoric, and meet the tour de force whose image and legacy has been shaped by the winds of the wildest storm.
MA ANAND SHEELA
After the ashes of Oregon’s incendiary chapter have simmered to a shadow of the past, and 5000 miles away, we meet Ma Anand Sheela at the care-home residence she established following the tumultous aftermath of Rajneeshpuram. Nestled on a quiet suburban hilltop, where the mountains seem to meet the air, the Wohnheim Mastrusaden is home to Sheela, her quiet community of disabled patients and a few residential healthcare workers. The establishment itself is a reposing, functional structure solely dedicated to the service and care of its residents. Ma Anand Sheela herself, or ‘Sheela’ as she is referred to, is far removed from the tight-lipped, keen nosed guard dog once pitched for public consumption in earlier television interviews. She seems slighter in person, but her crop of grey hair frames an impish, lively face that is quick to animate with laughter. As we are given a prompt introduction to the establishment and its family of staff, it becomes clear that there may never have been a more suitable candidate for the all encompassing role of caregiver, mother, and leader. She is proud of her work and seems at ease in our company.
The residency itself, a fixture in the small town’s community, provides a lifelong commitment of care to its patients. Most of them arrive with varying degrees of handicaps, and are placed in the full care of Sheela and her team of caregivers. “ I call them my people”, says Sheela, “and my people sit in my heart.” However, whatever solace she has found in her allies, she still defends her work in the face of unsolicited criticism from others. Directing our attention to an anonymous residential building adjacent to the care-home, Sheela remarks that their presence often elicits discomfort from others. Tactfully, she alludes to the foreign threat of handicaps and race offending more conservative neighbouring opinion. However, where she now stands, criticism like this has little effect, if any. “You have to also think of the roots, my roots,” she remarked, “my father was a freedom fighter, together with Gandhi. We have been taught freedom and equality from childhood.”
Still, it is difficult to ignore the distinct parallels between her journey from the valleys of Oregon to the suburbs of Basel – both sequestered territories that resist more unconventional ideals . To better understand the machinations and symbiotic de-evolution of Sheela’s relationship with Oregon and Bhagwan, we direct the conversation to address the arc of her journey and unfold a story that would forever remain a murky account of history and its causes.
I. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
They used to call us the red people in red heels.
Much of the rhetoric around the Rajneeshpuram seemed to label you as a cult. What are your thoughts on this?
What is cult? A cult is something you are afraid of. A cult is something you don’t understand. It is something that is not your cup of tea. The idea of a “cult” is your opinion, and where does this idea of “cult” come? It is through Christianity. They don’t want want to lose their church taxes, so they have blanketed all thought processes, New Age movements and funded cult bashing. Now, I don’t feel that I’m am a cult member. Maybe in healthcare they can call me a cult because they don’t understand why and how I work because I don’t work like other people.
Running with the concept of the cult, do you think your devotion to Bhagwan meant separating reason from love?
No, I was very reasonable. Without reason I could not have done the work I did. I had reason, I had logic, I had understanding. I was holding all of these thousands of people together. Without reason and practical understanding I could not have.
I didn’t have the greed to become spiritual.
You have mentioned that a lot of Sannyasins were so fixated in seeking enlightenment, that almost at times, they seemed to abandon all reason and logic.
There were two things that Sannyasins had in common. One, they wanted to become enlightened. Bhagwan’s way was , “you surrender to me, don’t bring your mind in the way, and I will show you the path”. What he meant by surrender, a lot of people misunderstood and they took him literally. It was a common thing in the community. People would sit in the evenings talking about the different colours they saw in meditation, or they would say, “oh that person was really close to enlightenment.” I would say, “this is crazy.” I told my team who worked very closely with me, to bear in mind that Bhagwan was also a man. He had many needs. He didn’t claim to be a celibate, and he didn’t claim that he was a man who didn’t need anything material. So I said, don’t let these things affect you, have objective reasoning, and when you don’t understand something, I will be happy to ask Bhagwan for you. For me, he was a beautiful man and I fell in love with that beauty. That love did not corrupt me to just stop being myself also. So, I didn’t have the greed to become spiritual.
Controversy also seemed to mount for the Sannyasins when people perceived you as the aggressors.
But you didn’t see what people were doing to us. They didn’t show it. They burned our ranch four times, and we are in a high fire region in the middle of summer. They also tried to kidnap Bhagwan and my daughter. We caught them and handed them over to the police. And this drive to catch them, we did it together with the State Police. Not the Rajneesh police alone, State Police. They kept them for one week in prison before setting them free and they didn’t even take up a complaint.
Then they bombed our hotel, and came to bomb Rajneeshpuram. But in the middle of the night I called my staff and said, “something is not right on the ranch, please go look around”. Suddenly, in the middle of the night they saw so much activity – cars going out of Rajneeshpurum and to the hotel in Portland, and there, in the morning it exploded.
“It is not good enough, you are not tough enough.” That was my training.
You don’t know this, but everytime we would be on the state roads, the ranchers would come and try to run us off our vehicles. We had registered an amount of claims and nothing was done. On top of it, we had a state mediator to bridge the gap but they were not ready. Then they tried to take our children and give them to foster parents, and there I said, “now you touch any of our children, and I will be a lioness”. We had done nothing illegal in that ranch. All the weapons were legal.
You were trained by the FBI?
We were trained by Sannyasins – one man was an Israeli soldier, another was an American soldier. One was South African, and there was another one, I can’t remember anymore. So four people were our trainers and before we touched any of the weapons, we respected them with our prayers and our meditative feelings. We were not to touch the weapons without it.
Was the media to blame?
The media at that time in Oregon, all the newspapers, all the stations were a solely Republican media, because it was the Reagan-Bush era, If we had been in a democratic situation, this would not have happened, or at least not so blatantly. But nobody tells you this , and Reagan was asking his cabinet people ‘have you done something about the red people?” They used to call us the red people in red heels.
Was race ever an issue?
In our community no. Well I was dark, they didn’t like foreigners, and I was a woman. So in our community there was never an issue, but outside of it I’m sure. I didn’t pay any attention to it.
II. THE HAND THAT FEEDS
Sheela was a household name, when you wanted something done you used Sheela’s name.
In a way you were not only managing people’s lives, you were also managing their expectations of spiritual and existential fulfilment. How did you deal with this burden of responsibility?
Miracle. I cannot say anything else. I did not sit and think about it. I’ll give you an example, when we would have festivals, people would come from all over the world to visit Bhagwan. I knew how much I was in love with Bhagwan, and I saw this in every one of them, the same love for Bhagwan. I thought, “now, if I was coming to my lover’s house, what would I expect?” So we put a little rose on everybody’s pillow when they arrived. It was a small thing, but my team said, ‘great idea’, we did it. Just in this manner, people came to visit me as Bagwhan’s secretary. I had a nice spa in my house, a big jar or chocolate chip cookies, because I was sort of a house mother. So if people came, they could have coffee, tea or a glass of beer, or a glass of wine and chocolate cookies there, what they wanted. It was like what I would expect if I went to my mother’s house, how my mother would prepare feasts for us. I was just copying those feelings. That in itself became a miracle.
I could move mountains, I was a woman of energy in love. I was an oil well, put in energy form.
What did your love for Bhagwan mean in practice?
I could move mountains, I was a woman of energy in love. I was an oil well, put in energy form.
When things started to turn sour, did you ever feel that Bhagwan had abused your loyalty?
Yes, but also he behaved cowardly sometimes. I had not thought in my wildest imaginations that it would happen. But in the end, it doesn’t matter what he did. It matters to me what I did. It matters that I did not betray what I had learned from my parents as a child. My father and mother were very loyal people, and that’s what we are all taught in the family.
You were saying that everyone was using your name everywhere…
I know I saw Jane putting blame on me saying, “Sheela told me to do this or that”. Everybody says , ”Sheela told me”. Sheela was a household name, when you wanted something done you used Sheela’s name. They do it here also. When we don’t have good communication in our team, they would go to the cook and say, “Sheela said
People need to take responsibility for who they are, why they were with Bhagwan, and what they did for themselves.
cook such and such”. This is just an example and then we laugh about it. But don’t ignore what Jane said. I read what she said in some interview…I don’t even read it anymore, I don’t have time in the first place. I give generously of my time to the journalists and things. But I said to her, be honest with yourself. Let’s say Sheela said that, but you’re old enough to assert yourself.
You were in the centre of it all. Who was Bhagwan the man and Bhagwan the guru?
For me, he was a beautiful man, a genius. He had such perception, such analysis of quality. What I had seen in my father, I saw in Bhagwan. But when he started taking drugs, my awareness of him became clearer. I saw that he was manipulative, he was using his talent of analysis to manipulate. I said that to his face after leaving him.
What did he say to that?
I wasn’t there. I said it on camera and they brought it to him. He was angry, saying, ‘Sheela was a bitch’ or ‘Sheela wanted sex with him all the time’. But look at the conditional human mind. It is easy for us to believe negative parts from anyone because we don’t trust in positivity. We are very ready to cry.
Do you think past members of Rajneeshpuram should call themselves survivors?
They should call themselves whatever they want to call themselves, it doesn’t interest me. It truly doesn’t interest me. People need to take responsibility for who they are, why they were with Bhagwan, and what they did for themselves. From time to time, such person comes through and I wish them more power.
III. HELL OR HIGH WATER
When the flood comes even the good trees are washed away.
Towards the end of his life, what went through your mind when you started to see Bhagwan lost to his new vices?
My father always said, you and Bhagwan can win the world together, you are a team. Inseparable. But of course we separated so my father was wrong. But of course he didn’t know about his drug use at the time. Nobody knew, even I didn’t know. I found out six months before I left.
Morality was not the issue. The issue was my own integrity. My integrity was affected. Bhagwan had given me certain job to do as his secretary. It was to protect him, protect his commune and protect his teachings. All three were in danger, and I also felt in danger because Bhagwan stopped supporting me and was more interested in drugs. These people and his own private doctor were administering drugs to him, so he couldn’t get away from the drug dealers. When I found out what was happening in his house, I immediately went and confronted Bhagwan, and Bhagwan said ‘don’t interfere’. That was his command to me as his secretary, ‘don’t interfere’, and he was my boss. It took six months for the truth to crystallise in me, because I loved this man. I wanted to protect him because I was a conscientious worker and he said don’t interfere. These people are ready to kill him with drugs, what do I do?
You know when somebody takes your love for weakness, it’s time to go.
I felt that Bhagwan was taking my love for weakness. He felt that I would never leave him, so it never entered his mind that I would be ready to give up everything. I was never interested in any power position, never. It was offered to me and I took it graciously and did my honest work. But I put myself many times in danger to fight this bigotry. So you know when somebody takes your love for weakness, it’s time to go. It happens in all relationships. Often people hang onto it and then later they become bitter. I was ready to stand up on my feelings and follow my feelings. It is also one of Bhagwan’s teachings, to follow your feelings, because feeling is part of your intuition. Connected to love, connected to trust.
After all of this, do you still feel connected to Bhagwan?
Bhagwan is very much a part of my life. I use his teachings, things I have learned from him on a daily basis. Why do you think I can care for sick people so efficiently. There is a training there, and that is the training I got from Bhagwan. The understanding of human psychology is something I have learned from the master, and it comes in very handy. He taught me how to look within myself on a daily basis, how to use my feelings to protect patients, protect my institute and protect myself. I never feel that I have separated from him. He is still very much a part of me. I love this man, what can I say. Okay there came a time where I had to go my own way, and he had to go his way. When I left, I created a schism in his life, but I also went through much hardship afterwards. But I knew that I had enough strength to stand up on my own two feet and this survival instinct I have from my father and mother.
We all came to Bhagwan on our own, and we’ll all go with our own choices.
What were you interested in?
Loving this man! But the situation was clear to me. If you tell me I can’t protect you, then I go. I won’t be part of it. And I left with my whole team because they had seen the madness of Bhagwan. They said, “ without you, we cannot manage it, we’re going with you”. I said, “I’m not asking anyone to go with me. That’s your own choice”. We all came to Bhagwan on our own, and we’ll all go with our own choices.
What is the greatest gift that you gave Bhagwan?
I offered him my life. I offered my life to his teachings and that is his offering to me; his teachings and giving me the opportunity to participate in this experiment as his secretary where he brought out all of my potential.
What did you get in return for your service to him?
I got myself.
Looking back, how do you feel about the woman that defended Bhagwan and his community?
I feel proud of that young woman. I am at times surprised and think, “my God, how did I have that strength to do it!” You have to also think of the roots, my roots. My father was a freedom fighter, together with Gandhi. We had been taught freedom and equality from childhood. My father didn’t raise four daughters and two sons. My father raised six children and never discriminated between daughter and son. My father and mother always taught us, never compromise freedom at any cost . When I left Bhagwan that point was very clear to me.
The story about Rajneeshpuram has been told by so many people and from such different perspectives, is there any truth you felt these stories have missed out on?
First thing, we were not criminals. Second thing, some of Bhagwan’s followers were the very highly-educated, elite of society. But in the end they proved that their education didn’t do anything for them, because they could not decipher Bhagwan’s anger and accusations. They went into the same bandwagon of the Oregonians and suffered from their bandwagon, bigoted mentality.
In many ways Rajneeshpuram was an experiment to see if you could create a paradise on earth. Do you think it is in human nature to frustrate our better intentions, and do you think it is possible for us to find paradise?
I have created a paradise again here. We live in wonderful harmony with patients and workers. Yet I don’t know how long it will continue in this form. The reason for this is that as people we have lost some of our important values. We have become sort of a victim to our own material desires. Take a basic relationship, after a while it becomes just a security bargain. Though the love is gone, though the life together is not fun anymore, we still hang onto it because it’s comfortable, and it’s too problematic to separate the finances, children and household. On top of it, people have no inner strength to cope with life. They are very quickly burdened by a new situation, or a situation they didn’t expect. These things become the barrier for utopia, but we all can create utopia in a small way for each of us. One does not have to have grandiose ideas like Bhagwan did. But if every one person can live an honest, free life then collectively, it can become a fire.
I would never trade my love for anything, even if they give me paradise.
How do you make peace with love and loss in your life?
I don’t have to make peace because I have spent wonderful happy moments with these people, that override any moments of conflict. These moments are never in my memory, but sometimes my sisters and brothers will bring up conflict moments , like complaining about certain journalists. But, I let them be. I’m generous, what harm can they do to me. I’m already an international criminal, an international terrorist, they have called me facist, Bhagwan called me a facist thousands of times. Someone else’s opinions doesn’t mean anything to me. What does it matter? Journalists write what they want to write, who owns their newspaper, they sell their souls on a daily basis, they have to live with it not me. I live here.
What does freedom mean to you?
Freedom means respect for one another, to live and let live. We are all part of the same universe. Freedom means respect. Of course, sometimes you have to assert yourself. Be clear of your sense of self respect. Do not allow anyone to harm you and do not harm others. If you have self respect, others will have respect for you. If you are a woman, don’t feel weak. Stand your ground and believe me, take no abuse in the name of love. Love is your biggest strength. Don’t ever give up your strength. Love is not a bargaining point. Love is a creative force in life. I have experienced it, I have gone through beautiful moments of love. I have gone through horror, anger and still I say I would never trade my love for anything, even if they give me paradise.