My name is Sheela

Updated: 13 September, 2020 08:15 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

Just when you thought Wild Wild Country had said it all, comes a new authorised biography of Osho Rajneesh's second-in-command, to make blind faith and toxic love trend again

Sheela poses for a mugshot in Mulnomah County, Oregon in 1985. Pic courtesy /Bureau of Prisons, Getty Images
Sheela poses for a mugshot in Mulnomah County, Oregon in 1985. Pic courtesy /Bureau of Prisons, Getty Images

It was in the blistering summer of 1965 that 16-year-old Sheela Patel's destiny was first sealed. Her unconventional Gandhian father, Ambalal Patel, had taken Sheela to meet Acharya Rajneesh, a revolutionary whose new age and non-conformist ideas were creating ripples within the conservative community of Baroda. Rajneesh made it a point to speak with each person in the room. "When it was Sheela's turn to sit directly in front of him and ask questions, she just folded her palms in gratitude and stayed silent. There were no questions and no answers—tears were streaming down the sixteen-year-old's eyes," shares Manbeena Sandhu in her new book, Nothing to Lose (HarperCollins India), the authorised biography of Ma Anand Sheela. "Life was never the same again…"

The book, a result of several decades of research, explores the many shades of Sheela—from a sincere wife and Osho bhakt to a ruthless second-in-command, who eventually gave up the highest echelons of power for a life of service.

Like Sheela, Sandhu was in her late teens, when she first grew fascinated with Osho. "I was quite a voracious reader. My special field of interest was New Age philosophy, psychology and spirituality. I had extensively read Friedrich Nietzsche, Timothy Leary, J Krishnamurti, Yogananda and many Zen philosophers. When I chanced on a book by Osho, I was floored. It led me to visit the ashram [in Pune] several times due to which I befriended many interesting and old-time sanyasins."

Sheela and her friends from Osho’s commune made time for fun and frolic—from jaunts in a luxury yacht to a nude photoshoot by a famous photographer
Sheela and her friends from Osho’s commune made time for fun and frolic—from jaunts in a luxury yacht to a nude photoshoot by a famous photographer

This was a few years after Osho's death in 1990. However, the more she engaged with his followers, the more her faith in Osho's philosophy started dwindling. "I saw the prevalent narcissism, their inflated egos, and the apparent manipulation that the Guru's philosophy seemingly rested upon. But this did not keep me from pursuing my research because the burning curiosity that the movement had aroused in me was for some reason insatiable. So, I continued my friendships with some of the most devoted sannyasins of Osho and some renegade ones. One figure that towered above all in most of their Orange era stories was Ma Anand Sheela. [She was] a constant backdrop," Sandhu adds, in an email interview.

The identities of Sheela and Rajneesh are dependent on each other, feels Sandhu. "They are inseparable, and go hand in hand. To me they are as much as two sides of the same coin. I haven't heard one story of Rajneesh without the mention of Sheela."

While Sheela was enchanted by Osho as a young girl, it was only seven years later in 1971, when she met the man, now elevated to Bhagwan Rajneesh, again during a visit to Bombay, that she knew she wanted to serve him. At the time, Sheela was happily married to Marc Silverman, an American of Jewish descent, and like most of her siblings, had settled in the US. She wrote to Marc about her encounter with the man who had swept her off her feet; curious, he decided to join her. The couple, rechristened Ma Anand Sheela and Swami Prem Chinmaya, abandoned hearth and family to be with Osho. They became part of Osho's experimental cult, first spending a few tumultuous weeks at a flat in Breach Candy, which the couple shared with other sannyasins whose sexual appetite, left them aghast. They'd soon join Osho in his Pune Ashram, together with the liberated folk, indulging in free love and sex, unrestrained by their naked bodies, alongside meditation. Sheela was already drawing a lot of attention for her ingenious ways of raising funds for the ashram. But it was only sometime after her husband, who suffered from Hodgkin's disease, passed on, that she began basking in Osho's glow. Appointing her as his personal secretary, Osho made only one request: He wanted his 'Seela' to find him a new paradise; she found him his promised land several continents away at a ranch in Oregon, US. This soon became a hotbed of many controversies, leading to her incarceration.

Despite hailing from a small town, Sheela’s parents, Ambalal and Mani Ben Patel, lived an avant-garde life. PICS COURTESY/Nothing to Lose, HarperCollins India
Despite hailing from a small town, Sheela’s parents, Ambalal and Mani Ben Patel, lived an avant-garde life. PICS COURTESY/Nothing to Lose, HarperCollins India

Sheela has always taken control of her narrative, be it her 2013 memoir, Don't Kill Him! The Story of My Life With Bhagwan Rajneesh, or the Netflix documentary, Wild Wild Country, which released two years ago.

"[But] when I had first read Ma Sheela's autobiography, it had left me wanting to know more. Many questions had been left unanswered. Several plots seemed hazy. Ma Sheela had written the book through her heart and assumptions had just poured out on the paper. Though it is a beautiful book, it came out more as someone's personal diary; a form of catharsis, with the focus on the subject," says the Canada-based author.

With this book, Sandhi hoped to fill the gaps. "Even though Ma's life story remains the same, the storyteller is different and that makes a huge difference," she says. Convincing Sheela hadn't been as difficult as the author had assumed. That the two related on a "heart to heart level" helped Sheela open up about her complex relationship with Rajneesh, one which began with blind faith, but soon turned toxic. Sheela, on her part, maintains that she did everything for Bhagwan, even the alleged crimes. One of the charges against her, was conspiring to use "bacteria and other methods to make people [opposed to the cult] ill" in order to prevent them from voting in the Wasco County's 1984 elections. "Ma was, or rather still is, head over heels in love with Bhagwan. So much so, that at times her emotion in the past may have coloured the reality to appear different than what it actually was. It's a universal human experience. But in Ma Sheela's case she may have gone a step further than an ordinary human being in pursuing her love and her attached goal of upholding the entity of the ashram. Keeping in mind the pressure that she felt, she may have bent some rules or carried out some commands, that apparently had far reaching consequences," the author says, adding, "With power comes responsibility and pressure. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. It did change things for Sheela—first for the better and then for the worse, till things completely spun out of control."

After the extreme highs and lows of her past, Sheela’s stint at the old-age home she set up was a balm for her soul and for the residents
After the extreme highs and lows of her past, Sheela’s stint at the old-age home she set up was a balm for her soul and for the residents 

There was also a point where Osho's greed became too difficult and dangerous to handle. "Seela, buy me thirty new Rolls Royces this month,' Bhagwan once demanded. Saying "No", she remembers had been the hardest thing to do, but she had to. The final nail in the coffin, though, came after her resignation and shift to Switzerland, following which Osho stripped her of all authority. She was arrested and sent behind bars for 39 months, soon after.

Her life, says the author, is a very different one today. Running an old-age home has become the balm for her soul. "But by no means can we say that her stature has changed. She still is the queen of her kingdom. She has a staff of over 30 people who are constantly at her beck and call; a number of chauffeurs drive her and her patients around. But most of all, Bhagwan still lives with her, in her abode and in her heart. His pictures hang in the living room of her care home and her bedroom is full of mesmerising images of her and him in love."

Sheela with her biographer Manbeena Sandhu
Sheela with her biographer Manbeena Sandhu

If there's one thing her biographer wished Sheela hadn't done, it was her decision to leave the ranch and surrender her duties as a secretary. "This could have saved the commune in Oregon, Bhagwan and his people. Clearly the whole commune was resting on Ma Sheela's strong shoulders. The moment she reeled under pressure and gave in, the commune crumbled."

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First Published: 13 September, 2020 07:57 IST

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