Culture

Why I can relate to Wild Wild Country's Ma Anand Sheela

I grew up a Bangladeshi Muslim girl in the Midwest, so I understand the xenophobia she faced

grew up a Bangladeshi Muslim girl in the Midwest, but early on, I gravitated toward the Hinduism of my Indian Bengali family friends, enthralled by the pantheon of female deities, the pujas, the mantras. My birth name carries this sense of duality—it is a part-Hindu, part-Muslim hybrid. It is a name my parents gave me to express their syncretic, intercultural beliefs.

Every South Asian community reckons with a sense of fractured identity. In the violent aftermath of the Partition of India, the British left behind hasty borders that separated people by their religion. Ever since I was a child, I haven’t been able to grasp the actual reason for a division between Bangladesh and West Bengal—we were the same people, with the same language, food, dances, songs and clothes.

Millions died and were displaced during Partition, separated from one another, because we believed in different gods. In the limited scope of the American imagination, my family’s god represents the brown peril, an enemy of the United States. This was true during the Gulf War, and it is true today. I was bullied for my last name. On a Saturday trip to the farmer’s market, I’d encounter fresh produce alongside "Hussein Is Insane" t-shirts. On the flip side, I felt like my Hindu friends’ gods and goddesses were accepted as exotic—appropriated by New Age white people in search of spiritual meaning, but not considered dangerous—and I wanted to belong to this mystical, benevolent rendition of brownness.

I know better now. Neither is a good option. We are all still perpetual outsiders: reduced to representation, not our reality or our complexity. And even so-called spiritual brown folk are criminalized by American society when they are seen as a threat.

While watching the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country, I found myself captivated by Ma Anand Sheela. The former personal secretary to spiritual guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh emerges as the story's anti-heroine and star. Immediately, I became obsessed with her style. She is a monochrome icon, luminous in hues of crimson, burgundy, dusty pink, and lavender. Her voice is melodic, but her words sharp as a blade. She was the fervent executor of her master’s dreams and the mastermind of Rajneeshpuram, a utopia in the Oregon wilderness that unraveled into mayhem. She is riveting from minute one, but I soon developed complicated feelings about her: Sheela rides a tenuous line between lucid and heedlessly extreme.

Osho Rajneesh Ma anand Sheela

Watching a South Asian woman lash out at xenophobic white folks on television has its thrills. There is no denying that Rajneeshpuram was an impressive community, a civilization engineered from scratch and built by sheer force of Sheela’s will and the residents’ talents. And perhaps nothing is less inspiring to me than the population of Antelope, a nearby town whose people took against their new neighbors. They’re smug, and barely attempt to hide their contempt for outsiders. They’re god-fearing white folks who’ve convinced themselves this is their land, when they’ve settled on the native lands of the Wasco and Wishram. And they’re curmudgeons who could never imagine the pleasures of free sex, free dance, or psychedelics. So a very real part of me wanted the Rajneeshees to take over the town, just to fuck with the townspeople.

But a mad dance of mutual assured destruction unfolded. Nike founder and billionaire Bill Bowerman applied political pressure to oust the Rajneeshees. A hotel owned by the group was bombed by Stephen Paul Paster, a member of Jamaat ul-Fuqra and convert from Judaism to Islam; the details of the bombing are glossed over in the documentary, but it galvanized Ma Anand Sheela and the Rajneeshees, who began guarding the town with assault rifles and training for doomsday, ready for a showdown. There were horrifying poisoning plots, an ill-conceived scheme to bus homeless folks into Rajneeshpuram and secure their votes in Wasco County, and an attempted murder. Despite their great efforts to create a utopian society, the Rajneeshees’ acts of violence undid any hope for them to live up to their beliefs.

Sheela’s memoir, Don’t Kill Him: The Story of My Life with Bhagwan Rajneesh, charts the events leading to her escape from Rajneeshpuram and the aftermath of her fallout with the guru. Her parents lived on the ashram for two years (a fact left out of Wild Wild Country—at one point in the documentary, Sheela refers to her mother sitting on her bed; by that point I felt so shook, I thought she’d meant as an apparition). They started to see her mental and physical health deteriorate and urged her to leave, in a moment that must ring true to anyone who has ever loved another person—sometimes you have to leave to save yourself.

Where exactly did Sheela go wrong? I tried to trace it back to her first encounter with Rajneesh, a moment arranged by her father. She experienced an ecstatic form of bhakti, a devotional love for god, and in her case, her guru. She profoundly loved her first husband, Marc Silverman, known as Chinmaya, until his untimely death. I felt her emotion as she described this loss on-screen, her first great heartbreak. Yet, when he died, she was not allowed to process or grieve. Instead, she was given tranquilizers that put her to sleep for three days. Video footage shows her smiling at his funeral, as if accepting this loss, but each time we see her smile, we sense falseness, a covering up of sorrow or rage.

Ma anand Sheela

Ma Anand Sheela is the most alive when we see her rage. It glints just behind her chilling smile. When she speaks to the media, her silken voice is electrified by it. She possesses a total clarity of purpose, which becomes more jarring t0 observe as her purpose starts to feel convoluted and deranged. This is a rage that every person of color has experienced, as explored by feminist thinker bell hooks in her book Killing Rage—born from training ourselves to suppress our emotions under white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism.

Rage like that is potent for inciting change, but like any fire, it can consume us. Sheela’s vision for the 64,000-acre wilderness did not anticipate the racist history of America, or the racist history of Oregon as an all-white state. And in her retaliation, she burnt far more than just herself: She tried to game the political system by bringing homeless people to Rajneeshpuram, and recreated the same hostile, capitalistic world that they had wanted to run away from. Some were poisoned and thrown out: a reenactment of their abandonment by society, with a total disregard for their trauma.

Throughout the story of Rajneeshpuram and its demise, the women—Ma Anand Sheela, inner-circle member Shanti Bhadra, and former Rajneeshee secretary Ma Anand Puja—pay the price for Osho’s vision. They served prison time for their crimes, while he escaped back to India, relatively unscathed. It's the women who are blamed for the downfall of Rajneeshpuram, and yet, to this day, Sheela stands by her love of Bhagwan. It’s hard to fathom why she and the others were so captivated by his dead-eyed stare, stilted speech, and prayer hands—but I suppose you had to be there.

Yet I can understand the yearning for an all-consuming faith. I wanted a faith to speak to me, to make me feel less alien, to ground my experience in the world. I sought knowledge from a plethora of religious texts and healing modalities, hoping to find the answers. After a violent relationship in high school, feminism helped me frame my survivorship. But it wasn’t enough—I craved a spiritual practice. This feeling of longing heightened when I lived in India. I did my Bangladeshi–American–Muslim Westerner version of consuming India: I studied yoga, crystal and chakra therapy, meditation, Ayurveda; I traveled to holy sites on solo pilgrimages. There seemed to be god everywhere, whether in a temple or masjid, or simply sitting in a taxi where a miniature Durga graced a taxi driver’s dashboard. I conferred with gurus on my travels; in the scariest instance, I spoke about my heartbreak to a guru for eight hours, until our session ended with him trying to take my shirt off and assault me. I escaped, but his violation reiterated my pain. I sought healing and purpose, a balm for my depression—the same reasons, I imagine, that a person joins a cult.

Ma anand Sheela Osho Rajneesh

In Wild Wild Country, we see the danger of conformity, the danger of blind love versus a radical love of humanity. Even Sheela learns that her guru is a complex person. In her memoir, she writes, “I saw Bhagwan [as] extremely charismatic, brilliant, powerful, inspiring and loving, and I also saw Him being ridiculously manipulative, vengeful, self-serving and hurtful.” A cult fashions itself as a space for liberation, but it is stylized and ritualized conformity in the service of a charismatic leader. Conformity for the Rajneeshees mirrored the small-mindedness of Antelope, Wasco County, and law enforcement—they all swear they’re different from one another, but they merge into a flock that abides by stifling rules. I couldn’t help but think of our modern-day, virtual version of this on social media. We are all followers of a cult of personality. It is intoxicating and hard to resist the allure of escaping into someone else.

Sheela’s eventual break from her master was not as final or permanent as I hoped, but this duality is our human struggle. Now she stands somewhere between renouncement and devotion. Though she finally did walk away from the hypocrisy of Rajneeshpuram, I wanted Sheela to find a spiritual consciousness apart from Bhagwan’s teachings, to have a moment of realization akin to Audre Lorde’s adage “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I wanted her to discover that none of us needs a master, that anyone who tries to control or manipulate us is an oppressor.

But I concede that Ma Anand Sheela’s ongoing devotion exists alongside a new place of strength. In her current life, she keeps the parts of the Bhagwan's teachings that work for her—the free love, dance, and connection to human beings. To erase him from her life after the experiment of Rajneeshpuram would not be true to her experience. Her warning—“Do not forget what happened in Oregon"— is a reminder that hiding our trauma sharpens its effects in the future, dooming us to repeat the past. In my own spiritual quest, I’ve found solace in nature, contemplation of the cosmos and radical love between beings, a radical love for myself. Sheela echoes this sentiment when she says, “Wherever I come, I will create my own paradise.” What a wild way for her to get there.

TANAÏS is a portmanteau of Tanwi Nandini Islam; a renaming of self, free of patriarchy. She is the author of Bright Lines and founder of independent beauty & fragrance house, Hi Wildflower.

From: ELLE US