“If I ever come to India, I may just tip you off on it.”
“You must. I’d love to come meet you!”
“Will you also come to meet me in prison, when they lock me up?” Sheela Birnstiel flings her head back to let out a roaring laugh.
Closing in on 70, Birnstiel—or as most netizens know her, Ma Anand Sheela—is still sharp as a tack. She’s meeting me over Skype from Switzerland, where she runs two homes for the mentally and physically handicapped. “Then I have a home in Mauritius, and a small home in Vietnam,” she says, in that now-familiar smiling, deliberate manner.
In March this year, the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country reintroduced Birnstiel to a whole new generation that wasn’t around to witness the era of Bhagwan or Rajneesh or Osho in the early ’80s. The spiritual leader developed a global following for his unique and unorthodox discourses on life, materialism and sexuality. “All the religions have commanded and praised poverty, and I condemn all those religions. Wealth is a perfect means which can enhance people in every way. So I am a materialist spiritualist (sic),” he was quoted as saying in an excerpt from a book, Zorba The Buddha (as per a report on TheWire.in).
What ensued was a global frenzy around the stranger-than-fiction goings-on at the commune that became mired in controversy, amidst reports of attempted murder, wire tapping allegations and jail time, but more importantly, around Bhagwan’s riveting right-hand woman: his secretary and the inimitable iron lady of Rajneeshpuram.
Here, Birnstiel opens up about her childhood, lessons learnt in love, and the documentary that has earned her a following in 190 countries:
ELLE: Wild Wild Country brought you back into the news this March. What do you think still makes this story fascinating after all these years?
Sheela Birnstiel: When I look back, I feel our existence was read as negative by people who were fearful because of [what had happened in] Jonestown [in 1978, over 900 followers of Peoples Temple, an American cult settled in Guyana, fatally poisoned themselves]. Now, finally people are beginning to realise that there was another side to it. Journalism has also advanced to a point of courage. Before, journalism was party-oriented. If the owners were Republican or Democrats, they would function according to their wishes. In the ’80s, when we were in America, Republicans were the ruling party. And if I may say so, these Republicans are the ruin of a good nation, of intellect and creativity.
ELLE: How accurate was the portrayal of what really happened in Rajneeshpuram?
SB: The two young men, who made this documentary, what they did was courageous. They found this raw material, this footage had been destroyed by the new rulers of Bhagwan’s organisation, so as to not lead to conflict in their moneymaking business. But given that these young people never were exposed directly to Bhagwan and they worked from the video clippings, they did a commendable job of this multidimensional event. And it truly was multidimensional, and that shows Bhagwan’s genius. Unfortunately, his genius was caught up in drugs, and some people took advantage of it. But life is like that, what do you do?
With Rajneesh in a still from Wild Wild Country
ELLE: But was it accurate?
SB: I don’t want to judge whether they did a good job or bad, or whether they had sufficient raw material to present to the world. They had their own problems with stereotypes and interpretation, which is okay. We all have interpretations of somebody else’s experience. And when you don’t understand something, then you start doubting it, and then you take a direction that is negative or not flattering. But I don’t judge them.
ELLE: In retrospect, would you have done anything differently?
SB: Oh no. What was done, how it was done, that was the right way of doing it. If you ask me, would I do the same thing all over again? I will say, definitely. Because what we did came right out of our hearts, and out of the love we felt for Bhagwan.
ELLE: In an interview, you once mentioned that everything you said and did was under Rajneesh’s directives. Did that include the fiery way in which you interacted with the press that became such a massive talking point?
SB: On my own, I probably would not have been able to tackle all that, especially the hostility. All this happened between [when I was] 28 and 32. I was a naïve person in that sense. Bhagwan had to train me to become what I became. It wasn’t an easy job for him, I’m sure. He’d say every time, “You disappoint me. You’re not strong enough. You’re not being as fearful as I want you to be.” He used to watch every show I would go on. This man was fully aware of what was going on. But yes, I can’t just give all the credit to Bhagwan. I give a lot of credit to my parents and their training of loyalty and courage too.
ELLE: You say you were his mouthpiece for all those years he chose to stay in silence. Did you ever disagree with his method?
SB: I was candid enough to say to him, “Bhagwan, but could we not think this way?” But I was always respectful. I loved him. I would state my point of view without fear. I was taught, you need not be afraid of expressing yourself. You see, I was in love with him. It didn’t matter whether I became enlightened or not. Just being near him, looking into his eyes was plenty. I remember, when I visited Bhagwan in Azad Maidan in Bombay, his discourse would be at 7pm, and I would go and sit there from 3.30pm with my father, waiting for him. So madly in love I was!
ELLE: Before you met Rajneesh, what was your career plan?
SB: I was an artist. I had studied fine arts in the US.
ELLE: Did you grow up in a religious household?
SB: No. My mother had her own worship, and my father never interfered with that. He was sort of an agnostic he believed in existence, in nature. He did not follow the traditional route. We were four sisters and two brothers, but he didn’t treat us as ‘daughters’. We were raised to think and be logical, and were given 100 percent freedom, as were our brothers.
ELLE: Do you believe in God?
SB: I don’t know God. I call it existence; everything is included. You cover the total. In existence, there is no Hindu, Muslim, Christian…and if there is a God, I have no problem with that. That is also a part of existence.
In a still from Wild Wild Country
ELLE: Did you ever tell Rajneesh how you felt about him?
SB: He knew it. I remember telling him, “I don’t know what you have done to me, but I can’t sleep at night. I can’t eat in peace. Anyone I talk to, young, old, anybody, I only talk about you.” And he sweetly smiles and says to me, “Sheela, then these people can see that you are in love with me.” It was such a profound feeling. It was a feeling that was unreal and still filled with reality. It was a tangible feeling. I could almost grab it.
ELLE: Before you left Rajneeshpuram.
SB: I did not run away, as journalists write. I did not flee. Three hundred people came to drop me off at Rajneesh airport. They have probably destroyed photographs of my departure to continue their lies. I could not stop crying for three days before, and weeks after. I was walking away from someone I loved, someone I was devoted to, and the pain was that my love was taken as my weakness, and not as my strength. When love becomes a weakness for somebody, it’s time to move on, because that’s where the exploitation begins, and I was very clear about the strength of my love. You cannot allow that love to be manipulated. And this is something I wish to tell every lover in life, that when that point comes, no matter how many dangers you have to face in the future, don’t compromise on your love. Don’t put up with nonsense in the name of love, because love doesn’t put up with nonsense. Love is a positive force; it cannot be condemned or destroyed by negativity, by exploitation. And this is why I’m still there, feeling the same love for Bhagwan.
ELLE: Had you told him that you were leaving?
SB: I had written to him three days before. I didn’t see him because I had severe bronchitis,and did not want to contaminate Bhagwan. We always protected him from infections. So, my assistant took my letter, and his reply was, “Sheela doesn’t have to go. If she needs a break, she can go to the European commune and raise money there.” And that was not my intention. I didn’t want to raise money so he could indulge in drugs, or his affinity for Rolls Royce and jewellery.
ELLE: How many cars were eventually bought?
SB: I myself bought him 96—I ordered them myself, in four years. Seven, eight million dollars’ worth of watches and jewellery I had bought. But there comes a point when you have to say no. During this time, I found out about his drug use, and that’s when it was clear: either Bhagwan had to stop that, or we couldn’t continue this way of working. But when I found out, it was already quite late. First, [they started] getting Bhagwan hooked on the Valium, and then they started ordering the laughing gas.
ELLE: Do you remember when you heard about his passing?
SB: I remember the day very clearly. I was in France at that point, in Alsace, and my attorney called me to say that Bhagwan had died. And I said, “No, that’s not possible,” and he asked, “Why?” and I said, “When you say so, I accept it, but my heart doesn’t believe it, because I know I would have felt it if it was a natural death.” And I would say it wasn’t a natural death.
ELLE: When did you last visit India? Are you curious about the Pune ashram?
SB: I haven’t been [to India] for 35 years. What will I do in Pune? Bhagwan is dead. I don’t have to go to Pune anymore. I moved on. And I’m happy that I moved on. He gave me invaluable, super training in those years that no money or education can offer. He made me his iron lady, who still exists, and says what she feels. That’s me, and will always be.
Special thanks: Shobhaa De
Photographs: Gabriel Hill (Sheela Birnstiel), Netflix (Stills from Wild Wild Country)