Ma Anand Sheela, Villain of Netflix’s ‘Wild Wild Country,’ Has No Regrets
The terrifyingly sweet top lieutenant of Rajneeshpuram opens up to Marlow Stern about the controversial docuseries, her rift with Bhagwan, the bioterrorism attack, and much more.
The six-part Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country has to be seen to be believed.
Created by brothers Maclain and Chapman Way and executive produced by brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, it chronicles the wild, wild journey of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a gloriously-bearded, Rolls Royce-obsessed mystic at the helm of the Rajneesh movement.
After establishing a devoted following at an ashram in Pune, India—and with a $5 million tax bill looming from the Indian government—the free love-preaching cult leader needed a change of scenery for him and his relentlessly devoted red-clothed followers, called sannyasins. So he charged his perpetually-smiling secretary/second in command, Ma Anand Sheela, with finding a new home for their group. She settled on the Big Muddy Ranch—a 64,000-acre property in Wasco County, Oregon, which was purchased in 1981 for $5.75 million. And there, they transformed the barren fields into a miniature city: Rajneeshpuram.
The community had its own fire and police departments, a school, a shopping mall, a boutique bookshop (that sold only Bhagwan’s books), an airstrip, and enough A-frame townhouses to accommodate as many as 7,000 people. But tensions simmered between the Rajneeshees and the locals in nearby Antelope (population: 40) and the rest of Wasco County, Oregon. Following a bombing at the Hotel Rajneesh by an Islamic militant, the cult armed itself to the teeth, acquiring over 100 semiautomatic rifles—more than the entire Oregon police force combined—and 1 million rounds of AK-47 ammunition.
Then things got truly wild. In 1984, in an attempt to overthrow the Wasco County government in their local election, the Rajneeshees began busing thousands of homeless people from around the country into Rajneeshpuram to vote, sedating them with drugged beer before expelling the so-called “street people” when things got out of hand. Sham marriages were organized as well. They also poisoned the nearby city of The Dalles with salmonella, sending 751 people to the hospital in the first (and largest) bioterrorism attack in U.S. history. And if that weren’t enough, the cult poisoned several local officials, attempted to assassinate Oregon U.S. State Attorney Charles Turner, wiretapped its own members, burned down the office of the Wasco County city planner, and plotted to bomb the county commissioner’s office.
The docuseries—and Bhagwan—allege that it was none other than Ma Anand Sheela, Bhagwan’s pistol-packing, baby-faced top lieutenant and spokesperson, who was behind the cult’s rash of criminal activity. Sheela, who maintains she was only acting on the orders of her master, ultimately pled guilty in an Alford plea to various crimes, including the bioterror attack, poisoning officials, setting fire to the city planner’s office, immigration fraud, and wiretapping. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1985, but was released after just 29 months for good behavior.
I managed to track down Sheela in Switzerland, where the 68-year-old currently runs a pair of retirement facilities for the infirm. When the phone rings, I hear her unmistakably sweet voice: It’s me. Sheela. And over the next hour, we discuss the Netflix series, Rajneeshpuram, and everything in between.
For starters, have you seen Wild Wild Country? And what are some things that you feel it got right, and some that you feel it didn’t?
To answer the first part, yes, I have seen the documentary. And now, to answer the second part, I think the young men have brought out a lot of raw footage of both sides, and people have to think for themselves. For me, whether it is wrong or right—how people decide—makes no difference.
So you don’t have any bad feelings towards the documentary.
No. There’s no reason for me to have bad feelings.
What does the name “Ma Anand Sheela” symbolize?
That name was chosen by Bhagwan, and [it means] “someone with very positive character.”
How did you discover Bhagwan and the Rajneesh movement?
Through my father. I was young—sixteen, seventeen. Bhagwan was visiting our hometown and my father was always encouraging us children to listen to the intellect of the time, and he motivated us to go with him to listen. Afterwards, we also visited Bhagwan.
What attracted you to Bhagwan’s teachings?
I remember that I was overwhelmed with his presence.
You two seemed to have a unique connection. How would you characterize that connection?
Yes, we do. I’m happy that you picked that up—that we have a special connection. It was special. I was madly in love with him, and he was madly in love with me.
Was it romantic love?
It was love that I felt, and for me, it was a very important part of my life. My whole relationship with him was romantic. It depends on how you describe it. It was very romantic, I must say. Every time I looked at him, I was filled with romance.
That was really my way of asking if you’d slept together.
Ah! No. I haven’t.
How did you manage to rise up the ranks of the Rajneesh movement so quickly? It didn’t take long for you to be Bhagwan’s second in command.
Well, that question you must ask him! Because I don’t know. One day, he just chose me as his secretary. It could be that he saw potential in me. It could be also that I studied in America. I never asked him, “Why did you choose me?” or why he did anything that he did.
Let’s discuss leaving the ashram in Pune, India, and relocating to the United States. I’ve read that the Indian government canceled its tax-exempt status, resulting in $5 million owed, and that the government was contemplating expelling Bhagwan.
No. You misunderstand. Indian government cannot expel Bhagwan to go anywhere. He was an Indian citizen. No country expels their own citizens. There is some misunderstanding in presentation of it. We had a problem of space where many, many visitors were coming on a daily basis. Not enough space. This is why the previous secretary decided to look for a new location, and it was not easy to find new location while politically it was a time of emergency. And time of emergency, all land and property sales are blocked by the government. I haven’t seen any $5 million bill, though, so I cannot concur to your idea of it!
So you purchase the Big Muddy Ranch in Wasco County, Oregon. A line in the sand between the sannyasins and the locals seemed to be the July 1983 bombing of the Hotel Rajneesh by a man associated with the radical Islamic group Jamaat ul-Fuqra.
We don’t know the details of it. We were never informed by the government the details of it. It is bizarre, and on top of it, they had released the man who did the bombing after seven days on bail. That’s crazy.
The bombing of the Hotel Rajneesh was carried out by Stephen Paul Paster, who was one of two people injured in the explosions (none seriously). Paster was immediately apprehended as bomb-making materials and homemade napalm were found in his room, but allowed to be freed on $20,000 bail. He then went on the run, and wasn’t arrested until June 1984 in Englewood, Colorado. Paster was sentenced to twenty years in prison for the bombing in November 1985.
The documentary posits that the bombing of the Hotel Rajneesh led the sannyasins of Rajneeshpuram to purchase a large cache of weapons.
There were many other incidents, too. They had burned part of the ranch four times, the Oregonians, and the arming of the ranch was a deterrent—it wasn’t meant to do a shootout or anything like that. It was more of a deterrent.
It was a pretty big deterrent. You lot had more semiautomatic weapons than all the police departments of Wasco County combined.
We needed it. Second Amendment talks about protecting yourself.
So, those four alleged ranch-burning incidents aren’t in the documentary.
You have to ask the Way brothers why they were not part of it. Not just that—they came to kidnap my own daughter and kidnap Bhagwan, and [the police] didn’t do anything. There were many, many incidents. We tried to work together with state police and [the suspects would] come to court and they’d let them go.
I haven’t read about any kidnapping attempts of Bhagwan at Rajneeshpuram. You’d think an incident like that would generate some headlines.
Okay. I understand that several famous people were allegedly involved with the Rajneesh movement as well, including numerous Hollywood actors and producers, as well as the media figure Arianna Huffington—who went by Arianna Stasinopoulou at the time. She was then the partner of Bernard Levin, a British columnist.
I don’t know her. I don’t know Arianna. I would know the sannyasin name, maybe. But the legal names, I would not know.
Tensions really seemed to boil over with the public election in Wasco County.
We taught of self-government, and I believe the law provides provision for it, and this is what happens—even when law doesn’t provide, one goes and brings hackers from Russia.
That’s what I learn now, with your recent election.
I’m not sure what one has to do with the other. But let’s talk about the poisoning of the nearby city The Dalles in Oregon. It’s a very big part of the documentary. I wanted to hear your perspective on why it was carried out.
My perspective on it is very clear, and this perspective is: whenever something happened in Oregon, they blamed it on Rajneeshees. There were CDC reports that were altered and marked “confidential.” And those reports are in existence.
In an attempt to sway the 1984 Wasco County elections by incapacitating a large portion of the electorate, Rajneeshees poisoned nearby city The Dalles with salmonella, spreading it in salad bars at ten restaurants. Approximately 751 people fell ill, 45 of whom were hospitalized. No one died. It was the first and (still) largest bioterrorism attack in U.S. history. Ma Anand Sheela plead guilty to orchestrating it, eventually serving 29 months of a 20-year sentence.
But you pled guilty to poisoning these people. Are you saying that you didn’t?
That’s right. I had pleaded guilty in an Alford plea, and maintain my innocence.
But authorities found salmonella samples whose bacteria exactly matched that which sickened the people in a Rajneesh medical laboratory, and they found that the lab at Rajneeshpuram had been experimenting with microbes.
That was after Bhagwan accused me of things, and they changed the documentation in the CDC reports.
What about your wiretapping of Bhagwan? They found thousands of tapes in your residence at Rajneeshpuram after you fled the country.
It was Bhagwan’s bedroom—bedroom or his studio where he was staying. He has a bedroom right next to his sitting area.
It seemed, from watching the documentary, that you became anxious when the rich Hollywood types, including Francoise Ruddy, the ex-wife of Godfather producer Albert S. Ruddy, started gaining his ear, thus diminishing your influence within the group.
It has nothing to do with my influence or their influence. It has to do specifically with the drugs that Bhagwan was taking from his doctor.
So you say that’s when the wiretapping started?
Right. To protect him.
But what did you think about the Hollywood influence over Bhagwan? He seemed to really enjoy that $1 million diamond watch that Ruddy purchased for him. He seemed to be seduced by their gifts.
I had nothing to do with it. I was busy enough with my own work.
In addition to the salmonella attack, another incident the documentary covers is the attempted assassination of Charles Turner, the U.S. State Attorney for Oregon, who was investigating Rajneeshpuram. In the series one of your top lieutenants, Jane Stork, alleges that you ordered the hit.
Look—people say what they want to say. Bhagwan also said many things against me in person, and it is the same. We used to often laugh about it, that this and this person will come and say, “Sheela approved it,” and I would look at them and I would say, “What are you talking about?” You know, “Sheela said so” and “Sheela approved it,” these were common statements, and I have nothing to say. If this person feels that I said something like that and she goes and does something, she has to live with it. She had a choice to say no.
Most of the blame for these actions—the bioterrorism attack, the assassination attempts, etc.—is placed on your shoulders. But in your book, and during your criminal investigation, you claim that you didn’t do anything without Bhagwan’s approval.
That’s right. Bhagwan was my boss.
So are you saying you were just following his orders?
When you left Rajneeshpuram in 1985, Bhagwan broke his silence to lash out against you publicly and try to place the blame on you for all the criminal activity. How did you feel about that? From a viewer’s standpoint, it seemed like he was quite upset about you leaving.
That’s right. I assume he was very angry with me because, up till now, no one had said no to him for something, or no one just left who was in a position that I was in. And he had to run this big machine since twenty-five people left with me. They were all the top-functioning bodies. They were the coordinators of the functioning of the ranch—the functioning of Bhagwan’s needs, his commune’s needs. When they left with me, he was very angry. I assume. The first time I saw this anger was in this [documentary], because I otherwise had no way of knowing what happened after my departure.
After Ma Anand Sheela fled Rajneeshpuram—and the country—in 1985, Bhagwan broke a three-and-a-half-year silence to condemn her for her alleged misdeeds within the group. Addressing the sannyasins of Rajneeshpuram, Bhagwan said of Sheela, “She’s drugged. She’s on hard drugs…I have never made love to her. That much is certain. Perhaps that is the jealousy. She always wanted, but I have made it a point to never make love to a secretary.” He added, “She did not prove to be a woman, she proved to be a perfect bitch...She is just going more and more insane before she goes to imprisonment. You just wait. 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.”
This is the first time you saw him lashing out against you? How did that make you feel?
It made me sad. But…so be it.
One of the things he said was that you spoke out against him because he didn’t want to sleep with you, which struck me as a bit strange.
[Laughs] He can say what he wants to say. If he says that he did not want to sleep with me, then it’s his prerogative. That is his right.
It seemed like a pretty petty thing to say.
No. He’s reaching out to petty members; reaching out to people who don’t know Bhagwan, or people who estimate Bhagwan very low. It was a low comment from him.
I wanted to discuss the experiment at Rajneeshpuram with the homeless people. As covered in the documentary, you bused in thousands of homeless people from across the country in an attempt to swing the 1984 Wasco County election. How did you decide on this course of action?
It was a situation which is a known fact in the United States from other elections—that they go and clean up the homeless people, “street people,” and they motivate them to go and vote for them with small presents or whatever. We took this example from the American history. Every election in Washington, that happens. And we did it with a bit more flair, and we did it out in the open.
The “street people,” as you call them, seem to have gotten unmanageable at a certain point. But the documentary alleges that you were sedating the homeless sannyasins by drugging their beer.
I don’t know about it. I cannot say it. I do know that I was personally attacked by one of them. That could have been my last day.
Is that why you decided to expel most of the homeless people from Rajneeshpuram?
Yeah, that’s when the aggressive people—Bhagwan said to get them out. He was not ready to lose me, I guess.
Numerous former members of Rajneeshpuram have alleged that there were a number of sexual assaults that occurred there.
Never. It is impossible.
Why is it impossible?
Why? Because sex, it was a daily event. It was not something in hiding or taboo, and people were free to have sex as they wanted to, and how they wanted to. Plus, we were trained in the—how do you say it correctly—we understood our own sexuality; we respected one another. So the aggressive sexuality was never a theme. I had never heard of any such event. So if you have heard of it, I’m surprised.
But as we just discussed, there weren’t only Rajneeshees there. You bused in thousands of homeless people into Rajneeshpuram and incorporated them into the community, and some of those people turned out to be unstable. So these weren’t all enlightened sannyasins. I mean, you were attacked physically by one of them who choked you and attempted to kill you.
Yeah. But sexual attacks, I have not heard of it. So I don’t know.
Sexual freedom seemed to be a major selling point of the Rajneesh movement. What sort of sexual rituals or events occurred at Rajneeshpuram? The documentary doesn’t explore that so much, for whatever reason.
Your question sounds to me funny, because we learned to take sexuality as a normal part of life—which it is. And we never entered sex without respecting one another. If there is a ritual, I don’t know what you mean by “ritual.”
Perhaps “ritual” isn’t the best way of putting it. Were there daily orgies?
[Laughs] No, no. Not necessary, because there was no taboo, no restriction.
I understand there were a number of open relationships at Rajneeshpuram, and that these were encouraged. Did you have an open relationship with your husband there? Did you take many lovers when you were there?
Yeah. It is not a very eventful situation.
Your public relations persona was fascinating. On TV, you were almost the Kellyanne Conway of the Rajneeshees, defending the community and going after its critics with a vengeance. And you seemed to have a knack for it.
[Laughs] Oh, that is…how can I say it…you’re demolishing me! To compare me with Kellyanne Conway, I feel totally insulted! In my next life, I will have to make sure that I’m not comparable to Kellyanne Conway!
As far as going on news programs and vigorously defending the Rajneeshees, was that at the order of Bhagwan, and did you feel comfortable doing it?
I had no problem doing what Bhagwan wanted me to do. I trusted him fully, and he trained me, and I definitely did not want to be a bad student. It wasn’t me who found the knack. It was Bhagwan who saw the potential in me and trained me.
Let’s talk about what you’re up to now. You’re running two nursing homes in Switzerland?
Not just running. I’m the founder of these two retirement facilities. It is my own concept, of working with handicapped people. I work with almost all illnesses. My concept—my work—is well-recognized by the public here, but also by the government.
What conceptually makes your retirement facilities different?
It is more personal. I offer my patients a home, and we are there for them. It is not just a 9-5 situation. We are very much there for the other people.
Has this documentary series caused a bit of a stir in the retirement facilities?
What did it cause?
A bit of a stir. Are people in those retirement facilities watching it, and have you heard any feedback from them?
Ah, from people. The people, I have had no feedback about it, because they don’t have such high attention to sit through a film—of any sort. They would not understand it. They don’t even watch television.
Since the documentary ends with you tending to these ill people at your retirement facilities, from a viewer’s standpoint, it almost treats it as an act of atonement—atoning for your past. Do you see it that way?
No, I don’t view it that way. I view it that I do this work because I had missed my parents a lot. To care for my parents would be my biggest joy, and I see my parents in old people. One can find whatever motivation one wants to find and talk about it, but for me, it is wonderful work. I enjoy doing this work. I have found a very effective concept and method of working with them. I have a very high success rate with my patients.
It’s a very popular Netflix series. How has your life changed since it was released?
My life has not changed at all. I do the same work that I do.
Do you have any regrets about the Rajneeshpuram experiment?
Regret? [Laughs] No. Not at all. As far as I’m concerned, it was a successful experiment. It was an experiment to show that multicultural, multi-nationality people can live together if we try to understand each other. For me, it was a perfect experiment.
You still view it that way even though it only lasted a few years, and a lot of people were hurt along the way?
Yeah. For me, that is my reality. That is how I feel.
Sheela, thanks for taking the time to chat.
Yes. Keep smiling and laughing!