[HS Conversations] I have been given more than a million chances in life, says controversy’s favourite child Ma Anand Sheela
Between 1981 and 1985, Ma Anand Sheela (Sheela Birnstiel) enjoyed the enviable position as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s (Osho) secretary with close access to a spiritual guru who had millions of followers around the world.
As second-in-command, Ma Anand Sheela had unlimited access to Rajneesh and was the crucial link in all matters related to his ashram and other activities. She was also known as his confidante and close aide.
But the falling out was tumultuous. She was accused of unleashing a bio-terror attack in his Rajneeshpuram Ashram in Oregon and fleeing to Europe with vast sums of money.
Sheela spent 39 months in prison. She later made her life as a caregiver, opening a chain of care homes in Switzerland, where she lives presently.
Sheela — controversy’s favourite child — has been the subject of two Netflix documentaries, Wild Wild Country, and the more recent Searching for Sheela has brought her back into the limelight.
This year, she released her memoir, By My Own Rules (Penguin Random House), highlighting 13 rules she lives by. The book skirts the controversies but delves into her “caregiving life” in detail – it’s part philosophical, and the tone of the book is reflected in this quote, “Everyone in the world has an opinion about me. I do not expect them to change. I accept life as it comes.”
The book is not about setting any record straight. Sheela is straightforward in her approach — living life in the present and by her own rules.
“Since 1996, my father has advised me to write my memoir. He said I must speak about my experience and intense life as it can help many young souls,” she tells HerStory.
The conversation is sometimes slow and halting as if Sheela is weighing every word before she speaks. Nevertheless, she is forthright.
Strength, courage and conviction
She also believes that the two Netflix documentaries have elicited extreme interest from the public.
“People are aware now how dedicated I was towards Bhagwan and his work. This fascinates. They feel my strength, conviction, and dedication. And that somehow charms them,” she says.
Everyone deserves a second chance, says Sheela in her book. And she feels “she has been given more than a million chances in life.”
“My second chance is more about not judging others. We all form opinions and judgements about others. And this should slow down. Allow people to live a life of this generosity of non-judgement,” she adds.
Despite the slander and a publicised 39-month stint in prison, Sheela believes her highest education has happened in jail. “This too shall pass was almost a daily reminder. The whole world had negated me with accusations and hearsay. I had to sail through rough waters, and ultimately, I became calm,” she says.
She says the support from her parents, daughter, and siblings, and another prisoner, Dorothy Brown, who had an unwavering faith in her innocence, kept her going.
Having spent several years in the caregiving space, Sheela feels “to be there for others” should generally come to people.
“But the modern world is so preoccupied with “me, me, me” that we don’t see the others. This interaction between you and me has become so less. Always believe in “I am there for you, and you are there for me,” she says.
Despite the controversy, vilification and incarceration, Sheela’s faith in humanity remains deep-rooted. “People don’t have to know me at all because I have known myself. And for me, that’s enough.”
“I prefer to be one in a million,” she says. There’s no doubt it at all.
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Edited by Suman Singh