Everyone is a product of the time that they go through. Each of our lived experiences offers us an opportunity to grow, evolve and understand ourselves – and Life – better.
By the happynesswalas™, Vaani and AVIS
We went in search of the real Ma Anand Sheela. Was she the one whose questionable actions led to the downfall of the Osho movement and who was convicted of grave criminal charges in the United States of America? Or is she the honest, forthright woman who is compassionately serving the elderly at her nursing homes in Switzerland and Mauritius?
We discovered that there are perhaps no two Sheelas. Her lived experiences have shaped her. She is who she is because of them.
This story explores how Sheela saw her Life then and how she sees it now.
Our meeting with her reaffirmed a few key Life lessons:
Style guide: Vaani and AVIS spell Life with a capital ‘L’ and Happiness with a capital ‘H’. This is because both of them believe that Life is the greatest teacher and Happiness is the biggest wealth. However, when quoting the subjects of their writings, they use these two words without the accentuated capitalization of their first letters.
Her greed and hunger for power downed Osho and the commune.
This was the first conclusion that we rushed to after watching Wild Wild Country on Netflix. That was in March 2018, when the much-talked-about documentary was released.
We were referring to Ma Anand Sheela. She used to be Osho’s secretary and was president of the Rajneesh Foundation International. She managed the Osho commune in Rajneeshpuram, in Wasco County, Oregon, United States of America (U.S.).
The portrayal of Sheela by the documentary’s creators, the Way brothers, Maclain and Chapman, contributed in large measure to our first, immediate, opinion. The documentary appeared to be validated by lots of video footage dating back to the 1980s. In that footage, a young Sheela came across as arrogant, irreverent, in-your-face, vengeful and, perhaps, villainous too.
But the documentary also had ample footage of an interview with an older Sheela, shot in Switzerland, where she lives now. Interestingly, we learned, she manages two nursing homes for the elderly there. This footage of the older Sheela showcased her as in-your-face, alright, but she also appeared to be calm, reflective, and importantly, forthright, honest and transparent.
Who is the real Sheela, we wondered.
Then came Shakun Batra’s documentary, Searching For Sheela. It was released in April 2021 – again on Netflix. This documentary was produced, among others, by Karan Johar, one of India’s top filmmakers. It traces Sheela’s journey to her roots in India, as she returns to her homeland after 35 years. In this film too, Sheela came across as honest, in-your-face and transparent.
We were now left with more searching questions: Wasn’t Sheela once a key, indispensable member of Osho’s team? Wasn’t she all-powerful? And didn’t she take some questionable decisions that derailed the entire Osho movement? Did she not participate in, and support, unethical, apparently unlawful actions at the commune? How is it that she is now appearing to be caring and compassionate, and doing purposeful, meaningful work? Has Sheela, the Ma Anand Sheela, indeed transformed?
We knew that the only person who could help us, with our quest to know the real Sheela, is Sheela herself. So we decided to meet her. We told ourselves that we would do that whenever we visited Switzerland.
Why meeting Sheela was important to us
Simply, we have been following Osho’s teachings for over three decades now. In fact, we continue to learn from him – from his teachings and from his extraordinary Life.
A chance encounter with Bollywood star Vinod Khanna in 1994 had pointed AVIS in Osho’s direction. Ever since, thanks to reading up on Osho’s teachings, and comparing notes on them between us, we had learnt to appreciate, value and celebrate Life. We came to follow Osho much after his passing in January 1990. Yet, figuratively speaking, he has held our hands and our souls, and has taught us that intelligent living is downright commonsensical and simple.
Particularly from December 2007, even as we dealt with our crippling bankruptcy, our understanding of Life, intelligent living and Happiness has come from devouring his works. Also, AVIS’ book Fall Like A Rose Petal's title is inspired by a Sufi story that Osho used to tell his followers. (Watch a video here on how this title came about.)
However, through watching Wild Wild Country, we learned two invaluable Life lessons. We realized that no matter who we are, as human beings, we are all fallible. We also understood that, without doubt, time changes everyone – and everything.
These lessons are particularly significant when they are gleaned from the context of Osho’s Life.
To us, Osho’s idea of a free, empowered, happy and loving world was great. It still is. But Wild Wild Country left us with the impression that in trusting Sheela, Osho had made a poor leadership choice. He had displayed flawed judgment. Also, it was very evident that he handled her ‘betrayal’ of him, and its disastrous consequences, very badly. Clearly, we felt, his own spiritual wisdom had failed him at a human level.
Having said that, we strongly believe that Osho’s Life and teachings are hugely relevant to us – and to the world – even today. There is no doubt that we wouldn’t be the happynesswalas™ that we are today without Osho’s influence on us.
Yet, we were faced with a dilemma: On the one hand, it seemed simpler to pin the blame on Sheela for Osho’s downfall. We had this strong urge to label her as the villain, make Osho the victim, soak in the magic and beauty of his teachings, celebrate him, and move on. But, on the other hand, intuitively, we felt an urge to meet Sheela, to know her side of the story, and to ask her those key, searching questions. After all, both Wild Wild Country and Searching For Sheela had brought us to a point where we were beginning to admire her for being honest and transparent.
Additionally, our own spiritual evolution had taught us not to be judgmental. So we were keen to meet Sheela – and explore how honest she really is. We told ourselves that we could surely learn from the experience, even if we were to find her version of her Life’s journey unrelatable.
“Yes, it will be my pleasure to meet you.”
We didn’t have to wait too long or go to Switzerland to meet Sheela though. She visited Chennai in September 2023.
When we heard of her visit, we reached out to her. We quite thought that she may not respond. But, in a few hours after we sent our message, she replied: “Yes, AVIS. It will be my pleasure to meet you and Vaani.”
So, over two days, in September 2023, we listened to and interacted with Sheela – closely, personally. On the first day, we heard her address an audience in Chennai, at an event organized by her host, Sethu Foundation. On the next day, we had a private meeting with her for about two hours.
The Sheela we met, and spent time with, is not just honest, transparent and in-your-face. She is deeply compassionate and very authentic. She is also happy and content with who she is, with the way her Life has been, and with how her Life is today.
Meeting Sheela reiterated an important truth about Life to us. Which is, everyone is a product of the time that they go through. This essentially means that each of our lived experiences offers us an opportunity to grow, evolve and understand ourselves – and Life – better. Now, some people make good use of this opportunity and go on to lead simpler, happier and meaningful lives. And others simply fritter away the opportunity. Their experiences make them unhappy, bitter, angry, violent and frustrated.
Sheela is a shining example of someone who appears to have made good use of this opportunity. To us, it looks like she has become better, and not bitter, from her experiences. Consider this: There was once a time, from the mid-1980s through to the turn of the century, when Sheela was a criminal in the eyes of law and society. And, decades later, there is now a time when Sheela lives a Life of dignity and compassionate service. Both periods of time together form Sheela’s lifetime. Her lived experiences have shaped her. She is who she is because of them.
We believe, upon reflection, that this interesting play of Life is not just unique to Sheela’s journey. It is true for each of us. The path unfolds as we walk and shapes us as we move onward. Eventually we all arrive where we must, while turning out to be who we are meant to be!
Highlighting this understanding, AVIS quotes a famous Rajesh Khanna dialogue (written by Akhtar-Ul-Iman) from Yash Chopra’s Daag (1973): ‘Woh bhi ek daur tha, yeh bhi ek daur hai.’ It means, ‘That too was an era, and this too is another one.’
We then ask Sheela for her perspective on this beautiful play of Life.
She pauses, appearing to meditate on the question. And then she replies, mindfully, “What goes up comes down. It goes up again and comes down again. That is life. I don’t take it personally either way. There was a time when I had to serve a prison sentence, and now is a time when I have comfort. Well, that’s life! The events in life give us the maturity. Age, biological growth, gives us old age. But I prefer growth through maturity. Age will come to all. But maturity will come only to some.”
It is a simple answer. It epitomizes grace and acceptance. This conversation with Sheela, we realize, is turning out to be profound.
Sheela’s journey so far
But before we tell you more of what we talked about – and learned – let’s pause to look at Sheela’s journey so far. This is to provide important, factual context. Beyond this, for those wanting a deeper understanding of her journey, there are two books by her – they make up her autobiography in two parts. There is also an authorized biography by Toronto-based writer Manbeena Sandhu. And, of course, there are the two documentaries that we discussed about.
Sheela was born in a middle-class family in Gujarat, India. She is one of six siblings. She was 18 when she went to the U.S. for her undergraduate education. She returned to India when she was 21. Her father introduced her to Osho, a.k.a. Bhagwan Rajneesh. She says ‘it was love at first sight’ when she met Osho. She immediately joined the Osho movement. She was soon appointed as an assistant to Osho’s secretary, Laxmi. In some time, Sheela became Osho’s personal secretary. To her, he was – and is – Bhagwan! She says that when making her his secretary, Osho gave her a clear mandate to protect him, his commune and his teachings. Additionally, she took up the mission of setting up Rajneeshpuram in Oregon. Soon, she was made the head of the commune. The commune came up fast, in under four years, on 64,000 acres of land. The commune had homes for residents, an airport, a dam, hotels and restaurants. Perhaps intimidated by its exponential growth, the people living around the commune in Wasco County began protesting against the residents of Rajneeshpuram. This led to the members of Osho’s commune, led by Sheela, to clash with the locals and with the U.S. government, over a range of issues. Meanwhile, Sheela says, she discovered that Osho’s ‘caretakers’, members of a closed group, were giving him drugs. She confronted them. And she took up the issue directly with Osho. But Osho told her to ‘stay out of this’. Sheela says she felt that she had no business continuing in her role if she could not protect Osho or his commune or teachings. So, on September 13, 1985, she left Rajneeshpuram. And some of her team members too left with her. She says they chose to follow her of their own accord. Meanwhile, the U.S. government went on to press charges against her on several grave counts. She was arrested in Germany in February 1986 and was extradited to the U.S. She eventually entered into a plea deal with the U.S. government. This led to her being sentenced to multiple terms of 20 years in prison. But with the terms running concurrently, and on account of good behavior, she was freed after 39 months. She then moved to Switzerland. Here again, she faced fresh charges from the U.S. government, of an attempt to murder a U.S. prosecutor. The Swiss authorities, however, refused to extradite her. The trial took place in Switzerland instead. She was convicted and sentenced to term served. Since then she has been running care homes for the elderly – two in Switzerland and one in Mauritius. Between, 1970 and 1992, she was married thrice. Her first husband died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She and her second husband divorced. Her third husband died in 1992. Sheela says that she continues to love Osho and believes that her ‘relationship with Bhagwan is one that transcends the human, physical, plane.’
Intense, eventful Life
Well, well, that’s many lives lived in one lifetime. We ask Sheela: At 73 now, what does she think of the process of Life, having lived such an action-packed, eventful one herself?
When Sheela speaks there’s a rare sense of tranquility in her. This is evident from her unhurried pace and her soft, calm tone.
She replies characteristically, “My life is not just eventful. It was, and is, intense. Sometimes people ask me ‘How old are you’ and I say ‘360 years’. Because there are so many events, I can’t even remember some of them. When I was with Bhagwan, I didn’t even have a moment to fathom what I was doing or how the day was unfolding. Events were taking place around me, naturally, organically, without me doing anything myself at times. Life was intense back then. And it is with the same intensity that I live life today, with my community at home, with whom I live. How can I explain this to you? I wake up in the morning, I shower…I go to my office…someone comes to me, turns on music and starts dancing. I then start dancing with them. These little episodes, they are very tiny, and apparently insignificant, but they are so rich, so vibrant, that it brightens my day. To have the ability to recognize this freshness, to maintain that freshness is my only work. That was how life was with Bhagwan too. The intensity has not changed. It remains the same. The events, the location, the people may have changed. But the intensity remains the same.”
Being judgmental is being stupid
Sheela’s eyes light up when she is speaking of her intense Life. She radiates the conviction of someone who has understood the futility of squandering even a moment of this precious gift called Life. Living an intense Life, Sheela’s eyes tell us, is not an option. It is a non-negotiable necessity!
But what about the stigma that comes from social labels – when your choices are dissected and analyzed by society? What about people’s opinions? How do you stay detached from them so that you can constantly feel Life’s energy pulsate through you, so that the intensity of living does not get diluted?
She smiles gently – denoting perhaps that she has considered this eventuality and has chosen not to be affected by it. Responding calmly, she says, “I don’t bother about what people say. Because I happen to know myself. I don’t need anybody’s stamp of approval. Besides, Bhagwan had already prepared me to be detached from public opinion. He told me, when he made me his secretary in 1980, ‘Sheela, I am placing you in a place where the whole world will be envious of you. Don’t fall for the trap.’ I feel that anyone who is judgmental is showing their lack of intelligence. Only a stupid person will be ready to verbalize their judgment. I am not eager to judge people either. I remind myself daily not to judge others.”
It is commendable, we believe, if someone can make staying non-judgmental a daily practice. However, when people analyze choices that they have made in Life, they do end up judging themselves. They do feel guilty that they made some questionable choices and decisions. What about such times and such feelings?
For instance, in the mid-1980s, Sheela does come across as very daring. There was a brute force, of youth, appearing to drive her and lead her. She had this attitude that she was going to change the world. Enabling that attitude was perhaps Osho’s powerful idea of a liberated humankind living together in harmony. Sheela certainly is pushy, and very rabidly aggressive, in the video footage that Wild Wild Country showcases.
So we ask her this question: Did she ever feel the need to forgive herself, particularly when she was alone in prison and had a lot of time to reflect?
“I was always clear. What happens is, when there is clarity, it looks pushy. I was very clear because I was following Bhagwan’s mandate. He told me that my role was to protect him, his commune and his teachings. Anything he said, his word, was my command. So I was simply staying true to my role. I was clear about that. If the truth is not clear, then it is not truth. I have had no need to forgive myself. Because I don’t believe in guilt. And I don’t believe in remorse. I took responsibility where I could and I had to. I took responsibility for my management choices and leadership decisions. The Rajneeshpuram commune was a big management operation. Often, what happened in one corner of the commune, the other corner did not know. Its management was led by me and there I took responsibility. I took full responsibility and remained accountable. I served the prison sentence that I was given. What happened in Rajneeshpuram can happen again. There can be another management lapse. Because, even now, I am managing three nursing homes, two in Switzerland and one in Mauritius. But I am not one to shirk responsibility,” says Sheela.
Wasn’t Osho struck by hubris?
There is no hesitation in Sheela as she speaks. She is not tentative at all. In fact, she is evidently living the clarity-is-pushy philosophy that she is speaking about.
Encouraged by the way the conversation is flowing, we go on to ask her a question that has been on our mind ever since we watched Wild Wild Country: Didn’t Osho’s own wisdom fail him? This, we reasoned, may have happened if Osho was struck by hubris. Was he indeed struck by hubris?
Sheela pauses. She then asks us to repeat the question – requesting us to explain the word hubris.
Almost every successful person in history has been felled by hubris. It is that quality of exaggerated, perhaps insolent, pride and self-confidence that a person displays when they begin to assume that they are infallible and invincible. Surely, most people have felt that Osho flaunting his fleet of Rolls Royce cars was vulgar; to them, it was a display of his possible attachment to material possessions. We, however, sensed a more serious affliction that he may have had. For instance, in Wild Wild Country, Osho addresses a media conference after Sheela leaves the commune. He says something angrily about Sheela that we felt was totally avoidable. It was undignified behavior. In that moment, in our eyes, Osho fell from being a wise and evolved teacher. He suddenly appeared to be just an ordinary human being. Someone who was unable to control his emotions and who, in fact, crassly succumbed to them. Now, there is nothing wrong in a teacher being human. But when the teacher fails an important test, the students certainly are left confounded.
So we asked Sheela the question again: When you look back, wasn’t Osho just another vulnerable human being? Wasn’t he consumed by his pride and did he not think he was invincible?
Sheela answers this question with conviction. “I have always said that Bhagwan is a human, just like you and me. I used to tell my team, ‘Look at him, learn from him, but don’t put him on a pedestal.’ I understood where his anger came from. He was angry that my team chose to walk away with me instead of staying with him. Also, he was under the influence of drugs. He didn’t have that quality of pride in him. I have seen it in front of my eyes. If you listen to Bhagwan in the last year in the U.S., 1984-85, more in 1985, his eyes, when he is talking, were not clear the way we used to know him in Pune. In 1985, he was being given drugs. A reliable source, a journalist, if I remember correctly, said that the new people near Bhagwan, his doctor, his dentist, the Hollywood group who came in – all of them were given a lot of money to come in and break the commune from inside. To break the commune they needed to break Sheela also. Because I was very clear about my responsibility to protect Bhagwan. He had directly given the responsibility to me. He had told me: ‘Sheela, you must protect me, my commune and my teachings.’ There I was very clear. In one of the government proceedings, they are believed to have said, ‘If Sheela is not there, Bhagwan cannot rebuild another commune.’ It is our team, me and him together, that needed to be broken. And they succeeded. They indeed succeeded,” she recalls vividly.
Leave when you can’t add value
Wasn’t it painful leaving Osho? Particularly because she had led from the front and personally helped build the commune?
Sheela confesses that she did feel sad because she had to leave. But she did not, and does not, regret leaving Osho. She explains, “For me, any relationship is born out of a moment of love. And you remain together till that love floats. The moment it becomes a burden, you go your own ways. Without ugliness, without ugly divorces. Of course, Bhagwan and I had a very ugly divorce.”
She pauses, laughs heartily, and then continues: “But I wasn’t married to him and he wasn’t married to me. For me, any relationship is a sacred event of the heart. But the moment it starts becoming sour because we start imposing on one another, the sourness poisons the relationship. At that point, you go your way, I go my way. This is what I did. I went my own way. I was very ethical in my job. I felt sad for leaving Bhagwan but there was no other alternative for me in that moment than to say, ‘No further…because I could not fulfill your instruction. If I could not take care of you, your commune, your teachings, then I have no business being your secretary.’”
Didn’t it occur to her that she was perhaps being too harsh on herself – being very strict with herself?
Sheela’s answer to this question displays her self-awareness. “I am always true to myself. It was taught to me from childhood by my father and mother. They were respected as people who kept their word. I have taken after them. Some of my suppliers in Oregon would say, ‘If Sheela says she will pay, her word is better than gold.’ Well, the prices of gold will fluctuate. But my word will not. I am still the same.”
Her parents stood by her
The reference to her parents there leads us to ask the next question. Because, a remarkable feature in Sheela’s Life is that her parents, Ambalal and Maniben, stood by her all through. Even when all the evidence was stacked against her, even when she was convicted – twice – her parents never, not once, gave up on her. Why does she think they were so supportive, we ask her.
Her reply is short, simple and says it all: “They did not distrust or mistrust me even for a moment. They knew me. They knew that I was true to the values that they had raised me with. They knew that I would not fail them.”
She recalls that their implicit trust in her gave her Life meaning and purpose – especially when she had to deal with her crisis, her dark phase, when she spent 39 months in prison in the U.S. During this time she wrote letters to her parents every day. Every Saturday she wrote two letters to them, to make up for the postal holiday on Sunday.
Again, the unstinting support Sheela received from her parents is not unique to her story alone. We have always seen this in people’s lives: Even when the whole world is against them, when the darkness around them is blinding and suffocating, there is always someone who still believes in them and who stands by them. There is a beautiful Urdu word called humnava to describe this believer. It means a companion, a fellow voyager. Without exception, everyone has a fellow voyager who walks alongside them – it could be a parent, a sibling, a child, a friend or even someone who is a stranger at first. For instance, in our Life, we have each other. In Sheela’s Life, it was, for the longest time, both her parents.
In fact, Sheela believes that her parents still guide her in spirit. She says she can feel their grace and presence around her in each moment, every day. Her eyes turn moist whenever she talks about them.
That’s when we ask her why she decided to care for the elderly. After all, she had the experience of managing a very large commune. After serving her prison term and moving to Switzerland, she could have started another commune or even a movement. Or she could have set up a luxury resort and made a lot of money. Why nursing homes, why elderly care?