She was one of the most controversial women of the 1980s – a spiritual sect leader who went on to serve time in prison.
And now Ma Anand Sheela, former personal secretary of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh – the founder of the so-called ‘Orange People’ – tells all about her new life away from the controversial cult in an interview with New Idea.
Sheela – who is now known as Sheela Birnstiel – is one of the central figures in the popular Netflix docu-series Wild, Wild Country, which explores the infamous Rajneesh movement.
Followers of the group gained global attention for dressing in red and orange and attempting to build a 64,000-acre commune based on ‘compassion and sharing’ in Antelope, Oregon.
While Bhagwan drove around in a $7m fleet of luxury Rolls Royce cars, his followers were welcome to sell their worldly possessions to benefit the community – a community that Sheela fully believed in.
In 1985, the straight-talker gained notoriety in Australia after she led an unsuccessful attempt to establish another ‘Orange People’ commune, school and resort near Pemberton, WA.
The bid caused outrage among locals but, unfazed, Sheela had a strident message for doubters: ‘What can I say?’ she told a TV interviewer. ‘Tough titties’.
Shortly after returning from Australia, Sheela was jailed over the ‘salad bar poisoning’ of 751 people in Oregon.
She and an accomplice were said to have put salmonella bacteria in the salad bars of 10 restaurants in a bid to incapacitate the voting population of the city so that Rajneeshee candidates would have more chance of winning the 1984 Wasco County elections.
Sheela was also accused of creating an electronic eavesdropping system at the Rajneeshpuram ashram, the sect’s commune-city, and plotting a poison-syringe attack on the Bhagwan’s doctor.
Sheela denied any wrongdoing, but said she couldn’t afford legal costs so she submitted an Alford plea – which allows a person to maintain innocence but admit that evidence could convict them.
She spent 29 months of her 20-year-sentence in a federal prison.
Returning to Europe after her release, Sheela settled in Switzerland where she now runs two retirement facilities for people who are physically and mentally impaired.
Sheela tells New Idea her daily life is still ‘very eventful and interesting’.
‘I travel with my patients extensively,’ the 68-year-old says in an interview from Vietnam.
‘It is my way to motivate them. I take time with them to do fun things like swimming, disco, walking on the beach. I’ve done this for the last 28 years.
‘I work seven days a week and a full year,’ she continues. ‘Work is still worship for me.
My work offers me the energy and motivation to live a full life.
‘The training and insight I have learned with Bhagwan and my time in prison offers me all the skills I need,’ she adds.
Sheela published a memoir which claimed allegations levelled against her – including that of the poisoning plot – were in fact done out of spite by Bhagwan because he wanted to teach her a lesson.
But she tells New Idea that she has ‘no regrets’ about her time as a Rajneeshee.
‘I consider myself fortunate that I had an opportunity to love and work so closely with Bhagwan,’ she says.
‘Being in love with Bhagwan is one of my fondest memories.’
While Bhagwan died in 1990 after being deported back to India, in the first episode of Wild, Wild Country Sheela recalls the first time she met her beloved guru, when she was the tender age of 16.
‘I saw Bhagwan and that was the end of me,’ she says.
And when the mystic leader embraced her, Sheela recalls:
‘My whole head melted.
‘It was in this moment if death would have come, I accept. My life was complete, my life was fulfilled.’
Today, Sheela says her greatest achievement in life has been ‘to lose it all’ and ‘still have the courage to build it up without blaming anyone’.
As for her memories of her time in Australia in 1985, she admits that she became ‘notoriously famous’.
‘It was my time to be flamboyant in representing Bhagwan and his community,’ she says of that ‘tough titties’ interview, adding: ‘I found Perth very beautiful!’
For the full story see this weeks issue of New Idea - out now!