The more one sees of Ma Anand Sheela, the less one feels one knows her. In her early 30s, she ran the US ashram town of Rajneeshpuram, as personal secretary to the spiritual guru Rajneesh aka Osho.
Now 72, she runs nursing homes for destitute seniors in Switzerland, Vietnam and Mauritius. In between, she’s done jail time, serving 39 months of a 20-year sentence for attempted murder and assault in the US (she was released early for good behaviour).
How should one see her: as saint, sinner, flawed and reformed human? You can look at her through any lens you want, she says. “It’s not my problem. It’s yours.” This is said in the same steely tone that made her brief input, “Tough titties”, go viral in the weeks after the release of Wild Wild Country (2018), the Netflix documentary on the rise and fall of Rajneeshpuram.
Sheela was born in Vadodara and first met Osho in the 1960s, when she was 16. She was smitten, became a devotee and eventually followed him to the US. There, things began to spin out. As the township of Rajneeshpuram mushroomed, its administrators entered a pitched battle with the tiny town of Antelope nearby. Matters reached a head in 1984, when Osho devotees were accused of contaminating the food at 10 salad bars with salmonella, in an attempt to influence a local election.
As criminal charges came in thick and fast — arson, illegal wiretaps, attempted murder — Osho pointed the finger at Sheela. He was ordered to leave the US, but picked up the pieces back home, and was beloved and revered until and after his death in Pune, India, in 1990, aged 58.
She feels no resentment; she still feels love, Sheela says. “Love should have no limits” is one of the guiding principles by which she has lived her life. It is one of the 18 that she outlines in her latest book, By My Own Rules (Penguin Random House India; 2021). Excerpts from an interview.
* On relationships, friendships and strength
My composure comes from within because it is related to the emotion of love. Love settles all issues of fear and insecurity, redeeming oneself, or at least that’s how I have lived. Being in love with Bhagwan [Osho] gave me the confidence that whatever comes in life, I will deal with it and walk through it. It is very important to understand in love, in friendship, you should not be expecting a return. Relationships must be conducted in freedom, without expectations.
* On her mission of building communities
It is a commitment. When I was with Bhagwan, I took responsibility towards him and his people. They became my people. And then when I left and moved away, I lived among my handicapped people and they are also my people. We have a lovely community of 50. In Switzerland there are 30 handicapped people and 27 team members. When I go to Mauritius I have a 20-bed home and 12 team members.
When I work with people who surround me, my community, I don’t expect anything from them. What I have, I am ready to share. I look at everyone at eye level. There is no pedestal for anyone.
* On criticisms, and her mixed legacy
I remain close to myself. I know what I am. I know what I feel. People like to give opinions, like to criticise; it’s not my issue, it’s not my problem. I don’t get affected by it and if once in a while I do get affected, I go and have a good shower and wash it off.
People question many things, but it is of no consequence. There are no questions I will not answer about my life, and I live without fear.
* On her idea of fun
People give me pleasure. People bring me joy. If there’s suddenly nice music whether it’s on the street or in my living room or office, I start dancing. It’s my idea of fun. A few days ago, I was dancing to the song Sheila Ki Jawani [Tees Maar Khan, 2010], but where is Sheela ki jawani? I’m not sure.
* On her secret to surviving and thriving
Don’t be afraid to call a spade a spade. I’m not afraid to tell someone who is bothering me, “Hey, you’re an absolute nuisance.” You have to be honest. There have been times when people have discriminated against me as a woman. But that’s not my problem, it’s theirs. And this is what the rest of the world must now learn. To see all humans, and I don’t just mean women but all humans of all colours, races, religions and creeds, on the same level. I hope that one day humans come to be known for harmony.
* What would you say to your younger self?
Be yourself and be grateful.