Osho’s controversial secretary and Wild Wild Country star Ma Anand Sheela in her most honest interview ever!
Meet the Rajneeshi who overshadowed Bhagwan Rajneesh himself: interviewed by a curious 16-year-old girl from Mumbai! An HT Brunch Exclusive!brunch Updated: Sep 02, 2018 11:12 IST
Why would I, a 16-year-old in Mumbai, wake up one morning and phone the indomitable Ma Anand Sheela in Maisprach, Switzerland?
Well. I watched the enthralling documentary Wild Wild Country (WWC) about Rajneeshpuram, the Osho commune in Oregon, USA, which is currently creating a huge buzz for its five Emmy nominations. And I had a ‘feeling’…
Ma Anand Sheela, once secretary to Rajneesh and head of Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, was also once just a 16-year-old in (then) Bombay, when she first met Rajneesh. This encounter led her to the opera where, in her words, ‘I was the soprano, Bhagwan the tenor, Rajneeshpuram the setting, and the ending, like most operas, tragic’.
I had to call the ‘Boss Lady’ who virtually controlled a city, while shooting the sassiest comebacks to the powerful white men in suits who accused her of all sorts of crimes, including biowarfare, attempted murder and engineering the largest immigration scandal in the USA.
I needed to know more.
- If you haven’t watched the Neflix documentary Wild Wild Country, read this!Sheela was secretary to cult leader Rajneesh (later called Osho) in the ’80s, and helped set up the town of Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, USA. The unorthodox ways of the community rattled not just local residents of the state, but put the freedom of religion the US constitution guarantees its citizens under the scanner.As the face of controversy, Ma Anand Sheela overshadowed Rajneesh himself in the documentary. Her controversial statements questioning the American establishment made her a television darling and she was once called “the most hated woman in the USA.”Sheela was accused of bio- warfare, attempt to murder and convicted for her role in a giant immigration scam, and she served her sentence in an American prison.She now lives in Switzerland and works with aged people.
After watching the documentary for the fourth time, listening to Alexandre Desplat’s Argo soundtrack and feeling very ‘espionagey’, I finally scheduled a Skype interview with Ma Anand Sheela, who is currently at work in Vietnam. The visual of Ma Anand Sheela walking in the dark, desolate woods of Maisprach, Switzerland, to the almost other-wordly score of Wild Wild Country played in my head continuously as I waited for the Skype ring tone. When it rang, I saw the name ‘Sheela Birnstiel’ flash on my laptop screen, I heard someone who is no stranger to me, call out my name excitedly: ‘Sophie!!!’
And then I got to know the person behind the secretary to Osho, the human behind the character in the documentary, and realised that Sheela and I have something in common. In Sheela’s words: “See! Just like you, I fall, I continue, you fall, you continue. We have something very much in common.”
Excerpts from our interview.
Sheela Birnstiel (SB): Sophie!!!
Me: Hello, good afternoon! Thank you for giving me the time for this interview.
SB: What happened to your face?
Me: I had a little accident on my school trip.
SB: You got hurt on a scooter or what?
Me: No, I just fell down. It’s not a big problem.
SB: Not a big problem? You have to take care of yourself, hmm?
Me: Yes, yes. Thank you. Um, so would you like to start right now?
SB: Okay, let’s begin!
Me: You said that when you first met Osho at the age of 16 (and I’m 16 now!) tears rolled down your cheeks and life felt complete. Can you describe that feeling?
SB: I don’t know! I was not analytic that time, I’m not analytic today. It was a very profound feeling, and there’s nothing that I can say more than that.
Me: You were like the queen of the commune in Rajneeshpuram. Now you live in a community in Matrusaden, the home for the elderly that you have established. Is living alone something that you just don’t know?
SB: That I can’t live alone, you mean? Well, Bhagwan always said that the communal lifestyle will be the future of mankind. I see with my experience very directly how rich the communal lifestyle is. It makes you feel open. Many are available to you and the feeling of being there for others is even more rewarding. Human warmth is important even when you like to be alone.
Me: Do you enjoy the attention you have received because of the documentary?
SB: I didn’t ask for the attention, so it is a gift of existence. I enjoy it sometimes. But I feel the pinch of time because I always keep myself active, and right now I have many, many appointments from journalists and visitors. Plus, I’m writing replies to emails. Also, on top of it, I fell two months ago, and injured my back.
“ I was the soprano, Bhagwan (Rajneesh) the tenor, Rajneeshpuram the setting, and the ending, like most operas, tragic”
Me: Oh no! Are you better now?
SB: Well, I have two fractures in my back and they’re very painful, but you have to continue your life. You cannot stop because you have fractures (smiles). You see, just like you! You fall and you continue, I fall and I continue.
Me: In your interviews in the 1980s, you refer to the Rajneeshis as the followers of a ‘religion’. Many people still call it a cult or sex cult. What would you call it today?
SB: We tried to create a religion to obtain a US visa for Bhagwan. They had a category for head of religion, but to declare him as that, we had to create a religion first. So that was how it was a religion, but for me, it doesn’t matter what you want to call it. If people call it a cult or a sex cult, I don’t take it personally. It just shows me their small vocabulary and mentality (smiles).
Me: Did you find it fun giving the American media sharp comebacks in your interactions with them? Everyone has their favourite Sheela comeback. Which is your favourite line?
SB: I don’t know what is my favourite line because I don’t review my interviews and I don’t try to remember or quote. But I have been told by different journalists that people are cherishing ‘tough titties’ (laughs)!
Me: Hahahaha! I was waiting for you to say that!
SB: It was a very appropriate statement at that time.
“We tried to create a religion to obtain a US visa for Bhagwan. They had a category for head of religion, but to declare him as that, we had to create a religion first. So that was how it was a religion...”
Me: Tell me about your time in prison.
SB: It was a trying time. I was extremely tired because of no rest in life with Bhagwan, and so much negativity was diverted to me from all over the world. My character had been assassinated, and I knew inside myself that I had done no wrong, so why was I in prison?
So I had to find myself. I slept about 15-16 hours a day. I tried to get in touch with myself. You could become bitter, but that I will never allow because I had never seen my parents bitter in my life. That was against my pride.
Once I had enough sleep, I restored my energy. I started reading whatever I could get my hands on. I would write a letter every day to my parents. It was a time of waiting. Learning the value of patience and time.
Me: How did you adjust to life after prison?
SB: I went to Switzerland where I was a citizen, and started from the basics. I became a household worker for eight months for an old couple. Once I saved up a bit of money, I started my own business of creating a home for the elderly. Living with this old couple gave me a sense of pleasure because I was missing my parents.
And slowly, slowly, existence starting taking care of me. Existence has always taken care of me.
Me: You used to have great faith in the American constitution...
SB: I do not anymore (laughs). Anybody who has faith in American constitution is making a big mistake! With Donald Trump as president and the Republican Party in power, it has become very, very unconstitutional.
Me: You mentioned that Rajneeshpuram was like a beautiful Fellini movie. What do you do to unwind? Do you like watching films?
SB: No. What I do watch is the Indian show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa. I love adults singing, but I love watching young children singing very much! I watch it with my sister. I also loved the Indian show Devon Ke Dev...Mahadev. The music was beautiful.
“When people call it a sex cult, I do not take it personally. It just shows their small vocabulary and mentality!”
Me: I have to say that you were quite fashionable! Coordinated sets, pantsuits that fit the bill of ‘power dressing’, and feathered hats reminiscent of Lady Diana.
SB: Oh (laughs)! I have to tell you why I started wearing hats. I was always invited on television shows. I would have my mala with Bhagwan’s locket, and after a while they started cutting my frame up to the breast but not the mala. In Germany, I saw these pillbox hats. I always liked wearing funky hats, and I put a pillbox hat on my head and said, Ah! I have a wonderful solution! I took my pearl mala and hung it on my pillbox and Bhagwan moved from below my chest to my head.
Me: What does fashion mean to you?
SB: What is comfortable and what looks decent and enhances natural beauty. I’ll tell you a secret?
Me: Yes, please!
SB: I have a few jeans, a pile of T-shirts in a few colours, and for winter a pile of sweatshirts, and a few shawls. That is my fashion. Often I buy unisex T-shirts on sale for 5 francs! I don’t even go to fashion shops to buy clothes (laughs).
Me: But your fashion sense is still wonderful. There was a recent photo shoot for a magazine I think, where they styled you with hoops and these shirts…
SB: Right! They came from London. A second fashion shoot is going to appear next month in India (smiles).
Me: Did you enjoy the fashion shoots?
SB: It was the first time in my life. Everything that’s new I try to enjoy. When things like this happen, it gives pleasure to my patients. They have something to talk about. My life enhances their life.
Me: I’m very curious to know: did you ever have a confrontation with Ma Prem Hasya or Deva Raja (the doctor, Hollywood Hills)?
SB: We didn’t even cross each others’ path except Bhagwan told me to organise a marriage for Hasya and his doctor Deva Raja. So I performed their marriage, and that was how much my contact was with them (smiles). When I perform marriages they don’t last longer than five minutes.
Me: Do you think that the makers of WWC did a good job? Is there anything you would like to change in the documentary?
SB: No, I would not change anything out of respect for these two young men. It was their creation and you have to respect other people’s creations. For example, you go to a museum and you see a painting. You do not change the painting.
Me: They’re nominated for the Emmys as well…
SB: Yes. And I am nominated as an actress (laughs)! These people are crazy!
Me: After I saw WWC, I really wanted to speak with you. Why do you think I called you up?
SB: (Smiles) I have no idea! But you had a feeling and I’m happy you followed it. Always follow your feelings in life.
Me: What would you like to say to people like me – the future leaders?
SB: Be courageous, don’t judge and remain open (smiles). Now tell me, where are you located?
Me: I live in Bombay… in Mumbai.
SB: And you study there I assume? I hope you’re studying well? Getting in trouble with mama and papa sometimes?
Me: No, no (laughs).
SB: It’s good to get in trouble once in a while (laughs). Don’t make life too easy for mama and papa, but don’t make stupid mistakes!
Me: They were happy and excited that I followed this up.
SB: They have seen the film? And they still allow you to talk to me? Now I have to talk to them! What kind of parents are they (laughs)!
Me: They’ve seen it once and I’ve seen it four times...
SB: Oh my! Oh my God!
Me: Thank you so much and get well soon!
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From HT Brunch, September 2 , 2018
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First Published: Sep 01, 2018 21:44 IST