INTERVIEW | Bioterrorist, arsonist, US cult leader: Ma Anand Sheela on the "teaching moment" that almost destroyed her, and why she'd do it all again
In the interview, Ma Anand Sheela says Osho — whom she still refers to as 'Bhagwan' (Indian term for god) — continues to be a part of her life
Ma Anand Sheela, now known as Sheela Birnstiel, looks frail with her greying hair at the age of 68, but the fragility almost fades into oblivion when she speaks — she is still the same fierce and enigmatic secretary of Indian godman Osho Rajneesh, who shook the United States, particularly the state of Oregon and its residents.
Sheela is scared of nothing. Not of her past, nor of what the future holds, especially after the release of popular Netflix documentary 'Wild Wild Country'. Neither is she ashamed of any of it. In fact, she has not even bothered to watch the whole documentary which has besmirched her — "I skipped to certain important parts, that's it. I don't have much time for movies or TV, I fast-forwarded it."
'Wild Wild Country' became a rage with Netflix viewers within days of its release. The narrative of how the United States's largest bioterror attack was carried out by a religious cult in 1984 at a ranch in the Oregonian desert — with Sheela at the helm of it all — had everyone enthralled.
"I am what I am and I am not ashamed of anything," she tells Meaww, when asked about any regrets she holds about her past life.
She says Osho — whom she still refers to as 'Bhagwan' (Indian term for god) — continues to be a part of her life and the one teaching of the godman, which she still carries with her, is probably the one that led her to commit the crimes she did.
When asked if the crimes she committed aligned with his teachings, she tries to skirt the question, she frowns and says with resoluteness: "I have spoken about these allegations for 30 years now. I am just tired and bored of being asked these questions, totally bored. Is there a single word more that needs to be said on this issue?"
When prodded, she begins to relent a little and divulges probably the only bit we will ever get to hear from her about what led a 20-something devout woman to poison hundreds of people.
The 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack involved the food poisoning of 751 people in The Dalles, in Oregon. Salad bars at 10 local restaurants in The Dalles were deliberately contaminated with Salmonella by some members of nearby Rajneeshpuram, in an attempt to incapacitate the voting population of the city so that their own candidates would win the 1984 Wasco County elections. This was the first, and single largest bioterror attack ever recorded in the United States, and Sheela was later found guilty of committing the crime.
"I will say one thing, this is one of Bhagwan’s direct teachings to me: He said, 'Sheela when the moment comes, you have to choose between yes or no. When you are in doubt, choose yes'."
"My experience tells me that Bhagwan's teachings eventually guided me to the right path through it all," she adds.
Sheela has no remorse or guilt for what unfolded on the Oregon ranch more than 30 years ago, she says she has been punished for the scandal and she completed her prison sentence, there is nothing more to it.
Sheela was charged with creating a massive wiretapping network, ordering an act of arson, multiple murders (which didn't succeed) and mass poisoning. She pleaded guilty to her crimes in 1985 and was extradited to the US from Germany (where she fled once she felt officials were closing in on her), and sentenced to 20 years in prison. However, she only served 29 months of her sentence and was released in 1988, reportedly on account of good behavior.
"Normally when somebody is punished for something, and after they serve their punishment, that person is free of any guilt. I have served my full sentence. Even in legal terms, no one has a right to ask me about it now."
During a discussion about her time in the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California, she tells us she learned two crucial lessons, which even Osho could not teach her: the importance of time and being patient.
"They say in life you run after time but in the 39 months [sic] I was in the prison, all I had was time."
"I also learned patience in prison. Bhagwan knew little about patience, whatever he wanted was presented to him even before he could express the desire for it. His demand was already fulfilled even before it came out of his mouth, but in prison you have to wait, you have to serve your sentence. Those 39 months [sic] were a big teacher."
Throughout the discussion, she consistently alludes to serving a prison sentence of 39 months, but reports state that she has served just 29 months of the entire term.
She also mentions trust, a lesson she attributes to her parents and Osho. Here, the reporter interjects and asks her how she could attribute this virtue to Osho, the man who eventually outed her, she still learned the virtue of trust from him?
Sheela says she is not bitter about the experience, despite being dealt a bad hand by Osho. She feels he outed her to "teach her" a lesson.
After Sheela fled Rajneeshpuram, Oregon, and the United States in 1985, Osho broke his three-and-a-half years' silence to blame her for everything that happened. He called her a "perfect bitch" and added: "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."
"He threw me into a den of lions and I had to tame them and carve my way out," Sheela says, referring to Osho's ultimate betrayal towards the end of the Rajneeshpuram scandal. She refers to it as a positive experience.
"Trust I learned from my parents and then when I left Bhagwan, learned from his existence. Instead of blaming everybody else, I took this blame energy or instead of feeling sorry for myself or getting bitter, I used that energy to teach me his trust.
Normally, people after such an experience where your character has been assassinated, completely buried, there is no possibility of resurrection, they begin to doubt and crumble, but I survived.
Sheela, after years of living in the shadow of her scandalous past, now works with mentally-challenged and handicapped people at her organization — Matrusaden in Switzerland. She says she employs time, patience and trust with all of her patients she takes care of, and now they are like family to her, very similar to how it was for her at the Oregon ranch. Her organization's goal, she says, is to seek harmony, just like they all did at Rajneeshpuram.
Talking about her daycare, she says: "After imprisonment, I had to be somewhere and I was missing my parents very much, and everywhere I looked, I saw my parents. And that’s when I thought of assisting older people at the beginning, and the family grew."
When you talk about the United States, nearly no conversation concludes without the mention of its President, Donald Trump. We ask her if she thinks a commune like Rajneeshpuram would work well in the time of Trump, and she instantly breaks into an infectious laughter. Between giggles, she says, "Everything works with Trump," and laughs again.
She pauses for a moment and gains composure:
"I am sorry I have to be honest with you. There is nothing that works with Trump, even Trump doesn’t work with him."
Then we move on to discussing Osho again. "Is Osho’s influence still dominant in your life?" We ask her, she looks straight at us in the eye, and says: "How can it be dominant? It is a part of my life. His teaching is my whole life’s experience, it is a very profound and intense experience.
"There are three people who have remained a constant in my life: my mother, my father and Bhagwan. It is a triangle of my life which is very important, and in the middle is me. So what I am, I attribute to them."
She even goes on to show us her organization which has pictures of these three figures hanging on a wall, and when the reporter points out how very similar her father looked to Osho, she laughs and says: "Some may even say I may have an Electra complex."
When we ask her if she feels vilified by the Netflix documentary, which portrays her as the mastermind of the Rajneeshpuram scandal, she says: "Mastermind of the scandal? There is no mastermind, there were no plans ahead. Bhagwan doesn’t make any plans, it is just spontaneous. If he needed a plan, he would have gone and chosen a different person to run the organization, not me."
"It was not planned. You don’t plan your next moments in life," she adds.
By this time, she appears a little unsettled and distracted, so we conclude the discussion by asking if she ever got a chance to do it all again, would she? To which she says in trademark fiery tone:
"Definitely, I would do it again, but I am an old woman now and may not get a chance to do it all again, at least in this life."