Ma Anand Sheela

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Ma Anand Sheela
David Woodard, Ma Anand Sheela and Christian Kracht reading at Cabaret Voltaire at Zürich.jpg
David Woodard, Ma Anand Sheela and Christian Kracht in 2008
Sheela Ambalal Patel

(1949-12-28) 28 December 1949 (age 73)
NationalityIndia, Switzerland
Other namesSheela Silverman, Sheela Birnstiel
Known for1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack
TitlePersonal Secretary to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
MovementRajneesh (Osho)
Criminal statusSentence served
Criminal chargeAttempted Murder
Second-degree assault
Illegal wire-tapping
Immigration fraud
Penalty4 and a half years' prison[1]

Ma Anand Sheela (born 28 December 1949 as Sheela Ambalal Patel in India, also known as Sheela Birnstiel and Sheela Silverman)[2] is an Indian-Swiss woman who was the spokesperson of the Rajneesh movement (aka Osho movement). In 1986, she was convicted for attempted murder and assault for her role in the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack.

As the secretary of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh from 1981 through 1985, she managed the Rajneeshpuram ashram in Wasco County, Oregon, United States.[3] In 1986, she pleaded guilty to attempted murder and assault for her role in the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack.[4] She received a four and a half year sentence in July 1986 in federal prison. She was released for good behaviour and deported to West Germany after 29 months.[1] Sheela later moved to Switzerland, where she married, and purchased two nursing homes. In 1999, she was convicted by a Swiss court of "criminal acts preparatory to the commission of murder" in relation to a plot to kill US federal prosecutor Charles Turner in 1985, and she was sentenced to time served.[5]

Early life and education[edit]

Sheela was born Sheela Ambalal Patel in 1949 at Baroda, in Gujarat State, India, the youngest of six children of the Gujarati couple Ambalal and Maniben Patel.[2] At age 18, she moved to the United States and attended Montclair State College in New Jersey.[6][7]


Rajneesh movement[edit]

In 1981, Rajneesh appointed her as his personal assistant. In the same year, she convinced Rajneesh to leave India and establish an ashram in the United States.[8][9] In July 1981, Rajneesh Foundation International purchased the 64,000-acre (260 km2) Big Muddy Ranch in Wasco County, Oregon, which became the site for the development of the Rajneeshpuram commune.[8][10] She was appointed the president of Rajneesh Foundation International,[8] managed the commune and met daily with Rajneesh to discuss business matters.[8][11][12] According to Sheela, Rajneesh was complicit in and directed her involvement in criminal acts she and a group of Rajneeshees committed later.[13]

Rajneeshee bioterror attack[edit]

By 1984, the ashram was coming into increasing conflict with local residents and the Wasco County Board of Commissioners.[14] Sheela attempted to have both Rajneeshee candidates for the two open seats on the Wasco County Board of Commissioners win the November election.[15][16] She had hundreds of homeless people bused into the ashram, and she had them registered as voters in Wasco County.[8] Later, when the local election board rejected the voter registrations,[17][18] Sheela conspired to use "bacteria and other methods to make people ill" and prevent them from voting.[19][20] She had salmonella put into salad bars at ten restaurants in The Dalles, Oregon; about 750 people became ill with salmonella poisoning.[4][15][21][22]

On September 13, 1985, Sheela fled to Europe.[10][23] A few days later Rajneesh "accused her of arson, wiretapping, attempted murder, and mass poisonings."[10] He also asserted that Sheela had written the book titled Rajneeshism and published it under his name.[24] Subsequently, Sheela's robes and 5,000 copies of the Book of Rajneeshism were burned in a bonfire at the ashram.[24] The book, published in 1983, included edited excerpts from Rajneesh's lectures. It lists no other author on its title page; its editor is given as "Academy of Rajneeshism."[25]

After US authorities searching her home found wire-tapping networks and a laboratory in which the bacteria used in the attack had been grown,[10] Sheela was arrested in West Germany in October 1985. She was extradited to the US in February on charges of immigration fraud[26] and attempted murder.[21][27] The Oregon Attorney General prosecuted her for crimes related to the poisoning of Commissioner Matthew and Judge Hulse[28] while the US Attorney prosecuted crimes related to the restaurant poisonings.[28] Sheela pleaded guilty on 22 July 1986 to first-degree assault and conspiracy to commit assault against Hulse[28] and later to second-degree assault and conspiracy to commit assault against Matthew.[28] She pleaded guilty to setting fire to a county office and wire-tapping at the commune. For these crimes, Sheela was sentenced to three 20-year terms in federal prison,[29] ultimately reduced to 4 and a half years,[1] to be served concurrently. In addition she was fined $470,000.[21][28][30]

Sheela was sent to the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California, for female criminals.[30] While there, she announced plans to make a "controversial documentary" about her life.[31] In December 1988, she was released on good behavior after serving 29 months and deported to West Germany. Sheela later moved to Switzerland.[1][5][32][33]

Later life[edit]

Sheela married Swiss citizen Urs Birnstiel, a fellow Rajneesh follower.[34] She moved to Maisprach, Switzerland, where she bought and managed two nursing homes.[5][33]

In 1999, she was convicted by a Swiss court for "criminal acts preparatory to the commission of murder", in relation to a plot to kill US federal prosecutor Charles Turner in 1985. The Swiss government refused to extradite her to the US, but it agreed to try her in Switzerland. She was found guilty of the equivalent Swiss charge, and she was sentenced to time served.[5]

Personal life[edit]

Sheela married Marc Harris Silverman, an American from Highland Park, Illinois,[35][36] and took the name Sheela P. Silverman.[37] She returned to India in 1972 to pursue spiritual studies with her husband. They became disciples of the Indian guru Rajneesh and Sheela took the name Ma Anand Sheela.[2][38] After her husband died, Sheela married a fellow Rajneesh follower, John Shelfer.[38] After prison, Sheela married Urs Birnstiel, a Swiss citizen, who died of AIDS shortly after their marriage.[39]

David Berry Knapp, aka Swami Krishna Deva, former mayor of Rajneeshpuram, told the FBI in his testimony that “Sheela told him during a trip to India which they took in 1985, that she had injected her first husband [Marc Harris Silverman] with an injection that caused his death.”[40]

Media and documentaries[edit]

In 2018, the documentary Wild Wild Country was released, which included interviews with Sheela.[41] On July 20, 2018, 'BBC Stories' YouTube channel published a video called Wild Wild Country: What happened to Sheela?[42] Priyanka Chopra starred as Sheela in Amazon Studios Sheela, a feature film adaptation of Wild Wild Country.[43][44] Sheela did not want the actress to play her and sent the actress a notice, demanding that she abort the project.[45]

In April 2021, a documentary film titled Searching for Sheela was released on Netflix. The film, produced by Karan Johar, followed her first trip to India after 35 years.[46]


  1. ^ a b c d "Bhagwan's Former Secretary Freed From Jail and Deported". The New York Times. December 14, 1988.
  2. ^ a b c "Sheela uses words as weapons in bid to serve Rajneesh (part 8 of 20)". The Oregonian. Oregon Live. June 7, 1985. Retrieved July 8, 2011.
  3. ^ FitzGerald, Frances (September 29, 1986). "Il-Rajneeshpuram". The New Yorker. No. September 29, 1986 Issue. Retrieved April 3, 2018.
  4. ^ a b Kahn 2009, p. 41.
  5. ^ a b c d Senior, Jeanie (January 22, 2000). "Indian guru follower Anand Sheela arrested after German TV show". The Oregonian. Retrieved April 1, 2018.
  6. ^ Geist, William E. (September 16, 1981). "Cult in castle troubling Montclair". The New York Times. Retrieved December 17, 2009.
  7. ^ Clark, Taylor (December 16, 2007). "The Red Menace". Willamette Week. Portland, Oregon: City of Roses Newspapers. Archived from the original on September 29, 2007. Retrieved July 10, 2011.
  8. ^ a b c d e Carus 2002, p. 51.
  9. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 116.
  10. ^ a b c d Oregon Historical Society, 2002
  11. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 119.
  12. ^ McCann 2006, p. 153.
  13. ^ Wellman 2007, p. 171.
  14. ^ Carter 1990, pp. 124, 165, 195, 237.
  15. ^ a b Carus 2002, p. 52.
  16. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 123.
  17. ^ Carter 1990, p. 195.
  18. ^ McCann 2006, p. 154.
  19. ^ Carus 2002, p. 53.
  20. ^ McIsaac 2006, p. 25.
  21. ^ a b c Reed, Christopher (July 24, 1986). "Sect women gaoled for attempt to kill doctor: Former aide to Indian guru Rajneesh jailed in US for poisoning". The Guardian.
  22. ^ Goldwag 2009, p. 44.
  23. ^ McPheters, p. 152.
  24. ^ a b Collins 2002, p. 118.
  25. ^ Academy of Rajneeshism, ed. (June 1983). Rajneeshism: An Introduction to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and His Religion. Rajneesh Foundation International. ISBN 0-88050-699-7.
  26. ^ Kushner 2002, p. 307
  27. ^ "Judge Refuses Bail For Guru's Ex-Secretary". The New York Times. February 15, 1986. p. 6 (Section 1).
  28. ^ a b c d e Tucker 2000, p. 136.
  29. ^ McIsaac 2006, p. 26.
  30. ^ a b Miller 2002, p. 32.
  31. ^ Dennis, Anthony (June 20, 1988). "Colourful Cult Ambitions". Sydney Morning Herald. p. 28.
  32. ^ Carter 1990, p. 237.
  33. ^ a b Miller 2002, p. 337.
  34. ^ "Rajneeshee Prosecutions". The Oregonian. Oregon Live. Retrieved July 18, 2011.
  35. ^ Carter 1990, p. 47.
  36. ^ Petacque, Art (January 20, 1986). "Local lawyers help reel in cult fugitive". Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago Sun-Times, Inc. p. 16.
  37. ^ McCann 2006, p. 152.
  38. ^ a b Carter 1990, p. 277.
  39. ^ "Tough Titties The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Woman of the 80s".
  40. ^ "The Most Shocking Reveals from the Sex Cults FBI Informants".
  41. ^ "Wild Wild Country, critics' reviews". March 20, 2018. Retrieved May 18, 2020.
  42. ^ Wild Wild Country: What happened to Sheela? on YouTube
  43. ^ "Priyanka Chopra Jonas to Play Ma Anand Sheela in Amazon Movie 'Sheela'". The Hollywood Reporter. February 20, 2020. Retrieved April 14, 2021.
  44. ^ "Priyanka Chopra to star in feature film adaptation of Netflix's Wild Wild Country". Flickering Myth. February 1, 2019. Retrieved April 14, 2021.
  45. ^ Vibha Maru (April 22, 2021). "When Ma Anand Sheela sent legal notice to stop Priyanka Chopra from playing her role in biopic". India Today. Retrieved May 15, 2021.
  46. ^ Naahar, Rohan (April 22, 2021). "Searching for Sheela movie review: Ma Anand Sheela gets Dharma treatment in Netflix's directorless documentary". Hindustan Times. Retrieved April 25, 2021.


Further reading[edit]

  • Collins, Catherine Ann (1992), "Chapter Nine: Ma Anand Sheela: Media Power through Radical Discourse", in King, Andrew (ed.), Postmodern Political Communication: The Fringe Challenges the Center, Praeger Publishers, pp. 115–131, ISBN 0-275-93840-9
  • The Oregonian staff (December 14, 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]