Ma Anand Sheela

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Ma Anand Sheela
Sheela Mugshot.JPG
Booking photo after apprehension
Born Sheela Ambalal Patel
(1949-12-28) 28 December 1949 (age 64)
Baroda, India
Other names Sheela Silverman, Sheela Birnstiel
Occupation Owner and operator of two nursing homes in Switzerland[1]
Criminal charge
Attempted murder, first and second degree assault of public officials, immigration fraud, telephone tapping, product tampering (guilty plea)
Criminal penalty
20 years (attempted murder), 20 years (first degree assault), 10 years (second degree assault), 4.5 years (product tampering), 4.5 years (wiretapping conspiracy), five years probation (immigration fraud)
Criminal status
Served 29 months in minimum-security federal prison, released on good behaviour in 1988

Ma Anand Sheela (Gujarati: માં આનંદ શિલા; born as Sheela Ambalal Patel on 28 December 1949;[2] also known as Sheela Silverman and Sheela Birnstiel) is a former follower, secretary and spokeswoman for the Indian mystic and guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (also known as "Osho"). As the main planner of the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack, she served twenty-nine months in prison for assault, attempted murder, telephone tapping, immigration fraud and product tampering.

Early life[edit]

Sheela was born Sheela Ambalal Patel at Baroda in India; the youngest of six children of the Gujarati couple Ambalal and Maniben Patel.[2] At the age of 18, her parents sent her to the United States to attend Montclair State College.[3][4] She married Marc Harris Silverman, a wealthy American and resident of Highland Park, Illinois.[5][6] She became known as Sheela P. Silverman.[7] Upon returning to India in 1972, Sheela and Silverman became sannyasins or initiated disciples of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, now commonly known as Osho. She took the name Ma Anand Sheela; her husband became Swami Prem Chinmaya.[8] Silverman subsequently died, and Sheela married another sannyasin, John Shelfer (Swami Jayananda).[8] Her father also became a sannyasin, taking the name Swami Swarupananda.[2]

Rajneesh's secretary[edit]


From 1981 to 1985, Sheela was Osho's personal secretary, and on 10 July 1981, she purchased the 64,000-acre (260 km2) Big Muddy Ranch to create the Rajneeshpuram, Oregon commune.[9][10] She was the main manager and spokesperson, and known for her "acid tongue" as well as for toting a .357 Magnum handgun; she also created a Rajneeshpuram police force armed with Uzi submachine guns and a Jeep-mounted .30-calibre machinegun.[11][12] It was under Sheela's influence that Rajneesh decided to travel to the United States and begin an ashram there.[10][13]

In 1985, Sheela visited Australia as a spokeswoman for Rajneesh and gained nationwide prominence following an interview with reporter Ian Leslie on 60 Minutes. During the interview, Sheela was asked about concerns over plans for the Rajneesh cult's expansion in Western Australia, to which she famously replied, "Tough titties".[14][15] In 1988, while serving time in the San Diego Correctional Facility, Sheela announced plans to make a "controversial documentary" about her life titled An Hour With Ma Sheela – Tough Titties.[16]

While at Rajneeshpuram, Rajneesh depended on Sheela to manage the organisation.[10] She was seen as Rajneesh's principal aide,[17] and as second-in-command of the organisation.[18][19] She was also president of Rajneesh Foundation International.[20] Internally within the organisation, Sheela referred to herself as "The Queen".[21] The two of them met each day in private to go over significant matters for the group.[10][22][23] The only occasion in which Sheela would not meet with Rajneesh every day was when she was either incapacitated due to illness, or unavailable due to travelling.[22] The majority of Sheela's assistants in her inner circle were women.[10][23][24] These women were known internally within the organisation as "moms", and the more influential of them were called "big moms".[10][24] Sheela ran the operations of virtually all of the sub-groups under Rajneesh's movement, as well as Rajneeshpuram itself.[10][23] Rancho Rajneesh was administered through the inner circle of followers managed by Sheela.[10][23] Sheela made decisions for the organisation in meetings with followers in her own private living space on Rajneeshpuram.[10] In addition, Sheela would make decisions for the organisation by herself or after meeting with Rajneesh.[10] Those followers of Rajneesh that did not abide by her rulings risked being kicked out of Rajneeshpuram.[10][23] According to Bioterrorism and Biocrimes, "This peculiar decision-making style had a significant impact on the group's move to employ biological agents."[10] When she was asked by a NBC Team about racist comments Rajneesh had made about Jews, she replied with a racist joke about the holocaust herself, which went as follows:[25][26]

"How do you get four Germans and five hundred Jews in a Volkswagen? Simple; two Germans in the front, two Germans in the back, and five hundred Jews in the ashtray."

Wasco County elections[edit]

Set up under false pretenses (the true size of the envisioned development was initially downplayed), the growing commune was the subject of intense hostility from local Oregonians and soon found itself embattled.[27] Sheela and other senior Rajneesh followers began to realise that the negative impressions of the county commission called the Wasco County Court towards Rajneeshpuram had become an issue for the organisation.[28] Sheela and Rajneesh together made the decision to attempt to take over influence of the Wasco County Court in the November 1984 election, in which two members would be considered for re-election.[28] At the time there were 20,000 residents of Wasco County and 15,000 registered voters; compared with 4,000 inhabitants of the Rajneesh organisation—the majority of which were not United States citizens and not eligible to vote.[29]

In 1984, Sheela brought 2,000 transients to Rajneeshpuram, saying that it was an experiment to house the homeless. The new residents were taken to register as voters, in what was seen to be an attempt to swing two seats on the Wasco County Commission. A judge ordered registration hearings, and most of the transients left the ashram after it was realised that they would not be able to vote. In several appearances on national television, Sheela called the state and county officials "bigoted pigs", "fascists", "full of shit", and threatened that, "If they touch any one of our people, I'll have 15 of their heads, and I mean business".[9][11][30] The Rajneesh organisation attempted to find an individual who would run against the two commissioners up for re-election, but were unable to secure a politician favourable to Rajneeshpuram.[28]

Mass poisoning and murder plots[edit]

Faced with a growing array of legal, legislative and personal challenges, Sheela's tactics became increasingly desperate, gradually morphing into criminal behaviour.[31] She conspired to cause a food poisoning epidemic by infecting local restaurant salad bars with salmonella, which sickened around 750 people; Sheela's aim was to prevent the locals from voting in the county council elections.[32] Senior leaders of the Rajneesh organisation pursued an option to employ agents to induce sickness in the townspeople such that they would be unable to vote during the elections.[28] It was the first act of mass bioterrorism in the history of the United States.[33] About twelve followers of Rajneesh were involved in the attempts to manufacture and utilise biological agents against citizens in Oregon.[34]

Sheela met with the senior Rajneeshee leadership, where she and another senior member named Puja discussed "bacteria and other methods to make people ill".[28] According to the mayor of Rajneeshpuram, KD, Sheela stated "she had talked with the Bhagwan about the plot to decrease voter turn out in The Dalles by making people sick. Sheela said that Bhagwan commented that it was best not to hurt people, but if a few died not to worry."[28] KD was short for Swami Krishna Deva, the organisation's internal name; the mayor's real name was David Berry Knapp.[28] Ma Anand Puja was a nurse who was a trusted assistant to Sheela; Puja did not spend significant time with other members of the Rajneesh organisation.[35] Puja's real name was Dianne Yvonne Onang.[34] Sheela and Ma Anand Puja discussed using other biological agents including Salmonella typhi, which causes typhoid fever, before settling on Salmonella typhimurium.[35][36] Sheela and Puja rejected Salmonella typhi as the biological agent of choice because they thought that an outbreak of typhoid fever would bring too much unwanted attention to their efforts.[37] They obtained the salmonella from the American Type Culture Collection.[37][38]

Subsequent to Sheela's fleeing Rajneeshpuram, other officials within the organisation characterized the location where the biological agents were developed as a "germ warfare" laboratory.[39] With other senior leaders of the Rajneesh organisation, Sheela was directly involved with incidents where they sprinkled salmonella on to surfaces frequented by citizens in The Dalles.[40] After Ma Anand Puja had succeeded in contaminating salad bars with salmonella agent, Sheela congratulated her, "Pujy (referring to Puja), you've done a good job making everyone sick. Too bad you didn't make more people sick."[41] Due to poor relations between Rajneesh followers and the surrounding community and disagreements over land zoning issues, local citizens suspected that they had been deliberately poisoned.[33] Ten salad bars in The Dalles, Oregon were contaminated with salmonella biological agents by followers of Rajneesh.[21]

Flight and convictions[edit]

On 13 September 1985, Sheela fled the commune along with several other followers of Rajneesh.[9][42] Two days later, the Bhagwan himself accused Sheela of arson, wiretapping, attempted murder, and mass poisonings.[9] Sheela denied this, and headlines in the Oregon newspaper The Oregonian said, "Sheela brands Rajneesh 'liar'".[43] "The hell with Bhagwan!," said Sheela when asked about the charges Rajneesh had levelled against her.[43] Rajneesh asserted that Sheela had actually written the Book of Rajneeshism published under his moniker, which said that Rajneeshism should not be considered a religion.[43] Sheela's robes, along with 5,000 copies of the Book of Rajneeshism, were burned by 2,000 followers of Rajneesh.[43] She was replaced as Rajneesh's secretary by Ma Prem Hasya (Francoise Ruddy), the former wife of Hollywood producer Al Ruddy.[44] In a 3 November 1985 appearance on the CBS News program 60 Minutes, Sheela asserted that Rajneesh was responsible for "exploiting people by using their human frailty and emotions".[43] When she was queried on her thought if the religion of Rajneeshism was simply a confidence trick, Sheela responded, "Absolutely".[43] Sheela maintains that Rajneesh was complicit in her criminal acts.[45] Since 1987, Sheela has maintained that Rajneesh directed every criminal and violent move."[45]

Authorities discovered extensive wire-tapping networks and bioterror labs in Sheela's house.[9] She was arrested on 28 October 1985 in West Germany and extradited to the US in February 1986, on charges of immigration fraud, arranging more than 400 sham marriages,[46] and an attempt to murder Rajneesh's personal physician, Swami Devaraj (Dr. George Meredith); by poisoning.[32][47]

The prosecution of Sheela and Puja was split between state and federal law enforcement.[48] The Oregon Attorney General handled prosecution related to poisoning of local Oregon officials Commissioner Matthew and Judge Hulse.[48] The office of the United States Attorney was responsible for the incidents of poisoning at the Oregon restaurants.[48] Sheela and Puja pleaded guilty in Oregon state court on 22 July 1985, on charges of first-degree assault and conspiracy/assault related to the poisoning of Judge Hulse on 29 August 1984.[48] Each of these separate charges brought with it a maximum sentence of a $100,000 fine, in addition to a jail sentence of 20 years.[48] Sheela and Puja also pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and conspiracy/assault, for the poisoning of Commissioner Matthew.[48] Charges of second-degree assault and conspiracy/assault brought with it a maximum sentence of a $100,000 fine in addition to 10 years in jail.[48]

Sheela and her co-conspirators admitted to the attempted murder, poisoning two county officials, setting fire to a county office, and setting up an elaborate wire-tapping network at the commune's telephone system, among other charges. Sheela and Puja were sentenced to 24-year jail terms in federal prison,[37] and fined $470,000.[32] She was fined $400,000, plus a charge of $69,353.31 in damages of restitution to be paid to Wasco County, Oregon.[48][49] All told, Sheela received sentences of three concurrent 20-year terms in prison.[48] The State of Oregon recommended that Sheela's jail time be spent in federal prison.[48] Sheela and Puja served their jail time in Pleasanton, California, in a prison for nonviolent white-collar criminals.[49] She was released after two and a half years and immediately left for Switzerland on 13 December 1988.[9] The State of Oregon had intended to charge Sheela and Puja with additional crimes after their federal sentences had been served, but the two left for Europe before the United States Department of Justice had given notice to Oregon.[49]

Release and later life[edit]

In December 1988, Sheela was released for good behaviour after serving twenty-nine months of the 20-year sentence for attempted murder of Meredith, first and second degree assault (poisoning) of public officials, immigration fraud, wiretapping within Rajneeshpuram, and the bioterror attack.[1][50][51] She also lost her green card.[50]

Following her release, Sheela returned to Europe and married Swam Dhyan Dipo (Urs Birnstiel), a fellow sannyasin charged in the United States with federal count of wiretap conspiracy.[52] She gained immunity from extradition from future charges, including those related to the 1985 plot to assassinate US prosecutor Charles Turner; however, she was convicted by a Swiss court in 1999 for "criminal acts preparatory to the commission of murder", but did not serve additional time.[15] After her release, Sheela moved to Switzerland where she started a new profession managing two nursing homes.[51] Her husband, however, remained wanted by American authorities until his death in 1993.[52] She has continued to legally reside in Switzerland, being the widow of a Swiss citizen.[1]


  1. ^ a b c Senior, Jeanie; Dave Hogan (22 January 2000). "Indian guru follower Anand Sheela arrested after German TV show: Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's former spokeswoman is freed because a Swiss court already convicted her in 1999". The Oregonian. 
  2. ^ a b c "Sheela uses words as weapons in bid to serve Rajneesh (part 8 of 20)". The Oregonian (Oregon Live). 7 July 1985. Retrieved 8 July 2011. 
  3. ^ Geist, William E. (16 September 1981). "Cult in castle troubling Montclair". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). Retrieved 17 December 2009. 
  4. ^ Clark, Taylor (16 December 2007). "The Red Menace". Willamette Week (Portland, Oregon: City of Roses Newspapers). Retrieved 10 July 2011. 
  5. ^ Carter 1990, p. 47.
  6. ^ Petacque, Art (20 January 1986). "Local lawyers help reel in cult fugitive". Chicago Sun-Times (Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.). p. 16. 
  7. ^ McCann 2006, p. 152.
  8. ^ a b Carter 1990, p. 277.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Oregon Historical Society, 2002
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Carus 2002, p. 51.
  11. ^ a b Coster, P. (10 May 1985). "A Pistol-Packin' Sheela with a Tongue to Match". The Courier-Mail. 
  12. ^ Turner, G. (10 May 1985). "Bhagwan Hits out as Commune Chiefs Flee". The Courier-Mail. 
  13. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 116.
  14. ^ "Blinded". The Canberra Times (Fairfax Media). p. 8 (Section A). 
  15. ^ a b Granath, Natasha (20 October 2005). "Orange princess has aged but not mellowed". The West Australian. 
  16. ^ Dennis, Anthony (20 June 1988). "Colourful Cult Ambitions". Sydney Morning Herald. p. 28. 
  17. ^ Lacquer 2000, p. 69.
  18. ^ Lalich 2004, p. 9.
  19. ^ Lax 2005, p. 130.
  20. ^ Collins 2002, p. 115.
  21. ^ a b Goldwag 2009, p. 44.
  22. ^ a b Tucker 2000, p. 119.
  23. ^ a b c d e McCann 2006, p. 153.
  24. ^ a b Lax 2005, p. 178.
  25. ^ Life as laughter: following Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, by Bob Mullan, page 135
  26. ^ Mullan 1983, p. 135.
  27. ^ Carter 1990, pp. 124, 165, 195, 237.
  28. ^ a b c d e f g Carus 2002, p. 52.
  29. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 123.
  30. ^ "Street People Deny Political Role". The Washington Post (The Washington Post Company). 19 September 1984. p. A28. 
  31. ^ Carter 1990, p. 195.
  32. ^ a b c Reed, Christopher (24 July 1986). "Sect women gaoled for attempt to kill doctor: Former aide to Indian guru Rajneesh jailed in US for poisoning". The Guardian. 
  33. ^ a b Kahn 2009, p. 41.
  34. ^ a b McCann 2006, p. 154.
  35. ^ a b Carus 2002, p. 53.
  36. ^ McIsaac 2006, p. 25.
  37. ^ a b c McIsaac 2006, p. 26.
  38. ^ Kahn 2009, p. 42.
  39. ^ Carus 2002, p. 55.
  40. ^ Carus 2002, p. 56.
  41. ^ Carus 2002, p. 57.
  42. ^ McPheters, p. 152.
  43. ^ a b c d e f Collins 2002, p. 118.
  44. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 120.
  45. ^ a b Wellman 2007, p. 171.
  46. ^ Kushner 2002, p. 307
  47. ^ "Judge Refuses Bail For Guru's Ex-Secretary". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). 15 February 1986. p. 6 (Section 1). 
  48. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Tucker 2000, p. 136.
  49. ^ a b c Miller 2002, p. 32.
  50. ^ a b Carter 1990, p. 237.
  51. ^ a b Miller 2002, p. 337.
  52. ^ a b "Rajneeshee Prosecutions". The Oregonian (Oregon Live). Retrieved 18 July 2011. 



Further reading[edit]

  • Collins, Catherine Ann (1992), "Chapter Nine: Ma Anand Sheela: Media Power through Radical Discourse", in King, Andrew, Postmodern Political Communication: The Fringe Challenges the Center, Praeger Publishers, pp. 115–131, ISBN 0-275-93840-9 
  • The Oregonian staff (14 December 1988). "Sheela: A Chronology". The Oregonian (Oregonian Publishing Co.). p. E06. 
  • O'Brien, Paula (2008) The Rajneesh sannyasin community in Fremantle Master's degree thesis at Murdoch University

External links[edit]