Asian women on American TV are often tiger moms or dragon ladies. Ma Anand Sheela, one of the latest, got the latter treatment in the new Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country, though her story could read as an ingenue’s — about a girl who quits school to assist a charming man who sacrifices her reputation in protection of his. (I wrote as much, for Vulture, in an essay on why the doc’s framing of its “supervillain” ignores the power imbalance of guru culture.)
The documentary tells the true story of Rajneeshpuram, a commune in Oregon in the ’80s founded by the guru Bhagwan Rajneesh — later known as Osho — and his secretary Sheela, both from India. Sheela flashes middle fingers and smiles across the U.S., as the spokeswoman for a nihilistic viral campaign to save the ashram from destruction by angry locals. She eventually lands in jail after garnering federal notice for a string of flashy alleged crimes, the blame for them placed solely on her by Rajneesh and his followers.
I recently spoke with Sheela by phone from her home in Switzerland, hoping to see the contours of the story below the one we got in Wild Wild Country. We talked about the comparison of her to Kellyanne Conway, falling in love with the Bhagwan, and how her parents raised her.
Where in India did you grow up?
What language did you speak at home?
Gujarati was my mother tongue, a bit of Marathi, and I spoke Hindi for studies.
To get a visa not knowing English must not have been easy.
Easier then than now!
You’d already come into contact with Rajneesh.
My father introduced Bhagwan in our life. My father himself was a scholar, a very well-read man, and he appreciated the intellect of the time. He felt that what I would learn from this man would be many lifetimes worth learning.
What did your father do as a profession?
Farmer? I would assume to be farmer. He was an intelligent man and a scholar. He read a lot. A lot of philosophy. All my life I have known him as an unusual man. He had background of working together with Gandhi, many different giants of the time.
How did he get in with that crowd, as a farmer?
He was in Sabarmati Ashram [Gandhi’s base in Gujarat, from where he launched the country’s movement for independence] at the age of 16, 17.
I read that Rajneesh didn’t like Gandhi.
That is not my father’s problem. That is Rajneesh’s problem. I remember my father saying one evening after we had come home from listening to Bhagwan that if this man lives long, he will be another Buddha. He has Saraswati [the Hindu goddess of knowledge] on his tongue.
Do you remember the ideas he was drawn to?
Those days, what Bhagwan spoke was mainly in Hindi. He had a flawless command of the language. He spoke from sex to superconsciousness to Upanishads, and the oratory and the explanations… there’s no dispute in the world about. It was very fine, very profound.
Is there an interpretation you recall that demonstrates this profundity?
No, I cannot. I think that work you will have to do.
Well, I’m wondering what you liked.
I tell you in a simple word — I loved Bhagwan. I liked everything about him, so it is not that I like this better than the other.
Still, you went to America to study architecture. Why architecture?
Why, I don’t know. Maybe in those days I thought I would study architecture. That’s not a question why. That was the thing I thought in that moment and went and I said no, that’s not my cup of tea. I’m more of an artist.
What was your conception of being an artist?
Every Indian person is introduced to art. Every Indian girl is exposed to art through mehendi and Diwali rangoli. Now, at what level you’re going to take the art is up to you. I didn’t just become an artist, I became the artist of life.
Those tours on TV and your press movement did feel like performance art.
I had a good teacher. I had one of the best teachers.
Naturally. Bhagwan was a fine performer himself. He taught me well.
What did he teach you?
Not to be afraid. Go out and say what you have to say. He would watch every performance of mine and he would say what I have to learn for the next performance.
He told you the types of things to say?
Yes. I told you, I had a good teacher.
Were you ever surprised by his requests?
In the beginning, I was and I questioned him. His answer to me: the way you are on television, you will protect the community by deterrent. You will become the deterrent.
He said also that outrageous performance will bring more interest from other television companies or television channels or news media. Media is very expensive, advertisement is very expensive, so every performance must bring new performances. Nowadays you see this on a daily basis with Trump.
I was going to say that, yeah.
He creates every day a new sensation and media gets exhausted what to do. Every day — five, ten breaking news. I think Trump is a better student of Bhagwan than me in that sense.
The Daily Beast compared you to Kellyanne Conway, but you didn’t seem to like that comparison.
No I don’t like it. What I’m saying is a joke, and I’m not comparing Bhagwan and me to Trump under any circumstances.
But the approach is similar.
Because people only understand sensation. They don’t understand, other than negativity and sensation. People remain stuck in negativity.
By appealing to that, aren’t you just propagating that quality?
You can look at it that way. You can also look at it that the negative approach brings you more media, and you want to remain on the tubes for self-protection.
I can tell you something. A small story. There was a man who goes to a master and says nobody pays attention to me, everybody ignores me. That hurts me very much. And master said: Next time somebody starts talking, you just say no. No to everything. It will create a counterreaction and then everybody will pay attention to you. The man tries this thing and suddenly he becomes a big important person from simple “no.” That is our mankind’s stupidity. When you say “yes” nobody listens to you.
We have this rule with romantic power, of playing “hard to get.”
They run after you.
It feels like a depressing way to be programmed, to so want what we can’t have.
That’s not the only thing that is depressive. People don’t pay attention to themselves or others. They don’t know what they want in life and they fill it up with things that has no substance. That hasn’t been my problem in life. Even today at the age of 69 and a half, I live a full life.
You run nursing homes in Switzerland?
It is my concept.
What is the concept?
Everybody wants someone there to be there, and [nursing] homes are professional entities where lot of heart is missing. In my homes we are all there for everybody.
Sounds like a description of a commune.
That’s my teaching. That’s what I learned.
In the documentary, we hear the Bhagwan insult you, saying, “I never sleep with a secretary.” You’ve said it made you sad to hear that. Does this track with the idea of provocation to protect a legacy?
Definitely. When I left Bhagwan, there was a big schism, and he had to hold onto his power base. With such comment, every sannyasin will believe and accept. What he thought best, he did. I’m not affected by it.
Whether from the outside or inside, you were blamed for everything.
You have read that well. That was part of my job description. But it was also my pleasure to serve him. A one in a million chance that I was given.
And who was protecting you?
I protect myself through what I learned and think. He and his people had assassinated my character fully and completely, and even the filmmaker does that also. Still, my character hasn’t been altered. I remain true to myself. I have the same power of energy within me to survive, with or without Bhagwan. Getting angry and saying all kinds of bitter things about him, it’s not my character.
But the Bhagwan could have taken a higher road. Does that not change your reading of his character?
I was in love with him. I wasn’t reading his character. I was just madly in love with him and I ignored many things. But when there came a point where water was going over my head, I said stop. I don’t allow your manipulation. Don’t take my love for weakness. Love is my strength and don’t underestimate it. I walked out. I didn’t care that I was the queen of the community. I couldn’t compromise my integrity.
Had you been in love before or since?
Since I met Bhagwan, love [took on a] totally different dimension. I fell in love, and I’m still in love, what can I say. But now the love is not just restricted or limited to Bhagwan. It has turned into open love. I love everybody around me.
What did you love about him?
You cannot define love like that, at least in my case I could not. Everything about him I loved.
Did you ever have a physical relationship with him?
Did you ever try?
Sex was a core part of his philosophy in terms of communion.
I had lovers of my own. There was not an issue. I want to quickly correct you about your understanding about sexuality of Bhagwan. Sex was not a taboo. It was not a dirty thing. He talks about how you can take this basic sex energy and transform it into a creative energy.
I wish I’d seen more of that in the documentary, the actual text of his teachings.
Write to [the documentary’s creators] Maclain and Chapman [Way] about it, that you would like to see more about this. I have heard that they’re planning a second series.
Would you be involved?
I have no idea. Somebody wrote to me [to tell me]. I asked Maclain the same question. He hasn’t answered so I assume they don’t know.
Did seeing another woman get close to the Bhagwan hurt you?
Hasya [a female initiate from L.A.] was never my problem or anybody’s problem. The problem was the Bhagwan’s use of drugs. He was addicted to Valium and laughing gas, and the combination can be detrimental. It was also dangerous because the U.S. government is always looking for reason to shut us down, and drugs would be the easiest way to shut us down. I made this very clear and Bhagwan’s answer was, “you don’t interfere.”
Do you think he was in an altered state?
I don’t know, but his answer was very clear. “You don’t interfere.” That was my biggest conflict. I was not ready to compromise because he had assigned me the job as secretary to protect him, his commune, and his teaching. I was between rock and a hard place. That’s when, after many months of thinking and worrying about it, finally I said I cannot resolve this problem. I’m incapable of being his secretary. And I move out.
Did you ever do drugs?
Never and I still don’t do it. It is totally against the teaching of Bhagwan because to be spiritual, to know yourself, you have to be very alert and aware.
You seem more committed to Bhagwan’s teachings than he was.
That’s right, and I have also said before to journalists that till I live, Bhagwan’s religion lives. The day I die, I don’t know.
Why not start your own religion?
It was his religion. This is what I learned from him.
Maybe you’d be a better guru of it.
Oh my god, no. That’s something I would never want, that madness of having thousands of people around me.
Do you think that’s what affected him, the guru life?
It could have been also the boredom, that he had fulfilled his dream.
You seem to have a high level of commitment.
I learned loyalty through my parents. They were very committed people and they were men of word.
Do you have an example of this quality?
Everything. Their love, their commitment to us children. My father was a very independent-minded man. He walked out on his father at a young age when he wanted him to marry a woman of his community. He said no, and then his father said, then you won’t get inheritance. He said, I don’t care, and then he shows his shorts and says, this is part of [the inheritance], the shorts you have given me. [He] walked out naked.
What was your mother like?
Very intelligent, very practical, and she was considered the beauty of her time, in university. I have never seen [her] for a moment angry or bitter towards anybody. She loved my father immensely, and loved us of course.
How did they feel about you joining Bhagwan so fully?
I knew my father’s opinion. He already told me that what you can learn from this man you cannot learn for many lifetime in school.
And when everything turned?
I was in prison for 39 months and clearly no parent likes their children to go through any hardship. But they had hundred percent support and trust in me.
Were they mad at the Bhagwan?
My father was. He called him a few names, and we would all laugh
And your mother, who never got angry at anyone?
She expresses her feelings through love.
When you joined the movement, you weren’t yet his secretary.
I didn’t join the movement. I was in love with him and I could not pull myself away from him, so I had to comply with things that were normal in Bhagwan and his sannyasin culture. For example, I dress myself in orange and hang mala around my neck. I engage myself with work around him.
Did you ever feel that your association with the Bhagwan lost you the ability to get work and make money?
Job one can find in anywhere, even cleaning and cooking.
Now I know how to be life’s artist.
What kind of art did you practice?
Painting. Pottery. What you learn, the first thing in ceramics, is how to center the clay. And this centering of the clay is the same process how you deal with individuals. It comes very handy in my work now because I work with psychologically and mentally ill people. To motivate them, you support them on one hand and you put light pressure with the other side.
I would say, Sheela, that is the opposite approach to guiding people than what Bhagwan taught you, to appeal to the negative.
That was his choice … his city, his project. Now is my own project and so it has a different richness. It doesn’t have Rolls Royces and things like that, but it has wonderful atmosphere.
This interview has been edited and condensed.