Ma Anand Sheela

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Ma Anand Sheela
Sheela Mugshot.JPG
Booking photo
Born Sheela Ambalal Patel
(1949-12-28) 28 December 1949 (age 65)
Baroda, India
Other names Sheela Silverman, Sheela Birnstiel
Occupation Spokesperson, senior care[1]
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 Paroled in 1988

Ma Anand Sheela (Gujarati: માં આનંદ શિલા; born as Sheela Ambalal Patel on 28 December 1949 in India[2] is also known as Sheela Silverman and Sheela Birnstiel. She is the former chief assistant for the Indian mystic Rajneesh. From 1981 through 1985, she managed the Rajneeshpuram ashram in Wasco County, Oregon. In 1985 Sheela pleaded guilty to attempted murder, assault, telephone tapping, immigration fraud, and product tampering for her role in the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack. [3] She was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison and paroled after 29 months. Sheela moved to Switzerland, where she married and purchased two nursing homes.

Early life and education[edit]

Sheela was born Sheela Ambalal Patel in 1949 at Baroda in 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.[4][5]

Adult life[edit]

Sheela married Marc Harris Silverman, an American native of Highland Park, Illinois[6][7] and took the name Sheela P. Silverman.[8] She moved to India in 1972 to pursue spiritual studies with her husband. They became sannyasins, initiated disciples, of the Indian guru Osho. Sheela took the name Ma Anand Sheela.[9][2] After her husband died, Sheela married John Shelfer (Swami Jayananda).[9]


In 1981 Sheela became Rajneesh's personal assistant and convinced him to leave India and establish an ashram in the United States.[10][11] In July 1981, Sheela 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.[10][12] She became president of Rajneesh Foundation International,[10] managed the commune and met daily with Rajneesh to discuss business matters.[10][13][14]

By 1984 the ashram had fallen out of favor with local residents and the county commission (Wasco County Court). [15] Sheela attempted to influence the Wasco County Court's November election and capture the two open seats[16][17] Sheela by busing in hundreds of homeless people from nearby cities and registering them as county voters.[citation needed]

While being interviewed for national television Sheela said the state and county officials were "bigoted pigs", "fascists" and "full of shit."[12][18][19] Sheela became known in the area for her "acid tongue".[18][20]


Faced with a growing array of legal, legislative and personal challenges, Sheela began to discuss criminal tactics.[21] Sheela met with the senior Rajneeshee leadership, where she and Ma Anand Puja (Dianne Yvonne Onang),[22] a nurse and a senior member, discussed "bacteria and other methods to make people ill".[16] The mayor of Rajneeshpuram,KD (Swami Krishna Deva), whose real name was David Berry Knapp,[16] said that Sheela had told him that "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."[16] Puja was a trusted assistant to Sheela.[23] Puja and Sheela discussed using biological agents including Salmonella typhi, which causes typhoid fever, before settling on Salmonella typhimurium.[23][24] Sheela and Puja rejected Salmonella typhi as a biological agent because they thought that an outbreak of typhoid fever would bring too much unwanted attention to their efforts.[25] They obtained the salmonella from the American Type Culture Collection.[25][26]

Sheela conspired to cause a food poisoning epidemic by infecting local restaurant salad bars with salmonella. About 750 people were taken ill. Her goal was to prevent the locals from voting in the county council elections.[16][27] It was the first act of mass bioterrorism in the history of the United States.[3] About twelve followers of Rajneesh were involved in the effort to manufacture and use biological agents against citizens in Oregon.[22]

Later, after Sheela fled the ashram, other officials within the organisation described the site where followers developed the biological agents as a "germ warfare" laboratory.[28] With other senior leaders of the Rajneesh organisation, Sheela participated in actions to sprinkle salmonella on surfaces frequented by citizens in The Dalles.[29] 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."[30] Due to the poor relations between Rajneesh followers and the surrounding community, disagreements over land zoning issues, and the attempt to register transients for voting, local citizens suspected that they had been deliberately poisoned.[3] Ten salad bars in The Dalles, Oregon were found to have been contaminated with salmonella biological agents by followers of Rajneesh.[31]

Flight, extradition, trial and convictions[edit]

In 1985, Sheela visited Australia to look for a potential ashram site. When asked by a reporter for Australia's 60 Minutes about local objections to Rajneesh's expansion into Western Australia, she famously replied, "Tough titties".[32][33][34]

On 13 September 1985, Sheela fled the commune, along with several other followers of Rajneesh.[12][35] Two days later, the Bhagwan accused Sheela of arson, wiretapping, attempted murder, and mass poisonings.[12] Sheela denied this, and headlines in the Oregon newspaper The Oregonian said, "Sheela brands Rajneesh 'liar'".[36] "The hell with Bhagwan!," said Sheela when asked about the charges Rajneesh had leveled against her.[36] Rajneesh asserted that Sheela had written the Book of Rajneeshism published under his moniker, which said that Rajneeshism should not be considered a religion.[36]

Sheela's robes, along with 5,000 copies of the Book of Rajneeshism, were burned by 2,000 followers of Rajneesh.[36] She was replaced as Rajneesh's secretary by Ma Prem Hasya (Francoise Ruddy), the former wife of Hollywood producer Al Ruddy.[37]

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".[36] When she was queried on her opinion as to whether Rajneeshism was "simply a confidence trick," Sheela responded, "Absolutely".[36] Sheela maintains that Rajneesh was complicit in her criminal acts.[38] Since 1987, Sheela has held that Rajneesh directed every criminal and violent move.[38]

Authorities discovered extensive wire-tapping networks and bioterror labs in Sheela's house.[12] 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,[39] and an attempt to murder Rajneesh's personal physician Swami Devaraj (Dr. George Meredith) by poisoning.[27][40] In 1988, while serving time in the San Diego Correctional Facility, Sheela announced plans to make a "controversial documentary" about her life.[41]

The prosecution of Sheela and Puja was split between state and federal law enforcement.[42] The Oregon Attorney General handled prosecution related to poisoning of local Oregon officials Commissioner Matthew and Judge Hulse, which followed the salad bar events.[42] The office of the United States Attorney was responsible for the incidents of poisoning at the Oregon restaurants.[42] 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.[42] 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.[42] Sheela and Puja also pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and conspiracy/assault, for the poisoning of Commissioner Matthew.[42] 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.[42]

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,[25] and fined a total of $470,000:[27] a fine of $400,000, plus a charge of $69,353.31 in damages of restitution to be paid to Wasco County, Oregon.[42][43] Sheela received sentences of three concurrent 20-year terms in prison.[42]

The State of Oregon recommended that Sheela's jail time be spent in federal prison.[42] Sheela and Puja served their jail time in Pleasanton, California, in a prison for nonviolent white-collar criminals.[43] She was released after two and a half years and immediately left for Switzerland on 13 December 1988.[12] 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.[43]

Release and later life[edit]

Sheela (center) at Cabaret Voltaire, 2008

In December 1988, Sheela was released for good behavior after serving twenty-nine months of her 20-year sentence.[1][44][45] She also lost her green card.[44] Following her release, Sheela moved to Switzerland. She married Swam Dhyan Dipo (Urs Birnstiel), a fellow sannyasin and Swiss resident.[46]

In Switzerland, Sheela owned and managed two nursing homes.[45][1] In 1999 she was convicted by a Swiss court for "criminal acts preparatory to the commission of murder" but did not serve any prison time.[34]

In 2008 Sheela collaborated with David Woodard and Christian Kracht on an art exhibition at the Zürich nightclub Cabaret Voltaire.[47]


  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. ^ a b c Kahn 2009, p. 41.
  4. ^ Geist, William E. (16 September 1981). "Cult in castle troubling Montclair". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). Retrieved 17 December 2009. 
  5. ^ Clark, Taylor (16 December 2007). "The Red Menace". Willamette Week (Portland, Oregon: City of Roses Newspapers). Retrieved 10 July 2011. 
  6. ^ Carter 1990, p. 47.
  7. ^ Petacque, Art (20 January 1986). "Local lawyers help reel in cult fugitive". Chicago Sun-Times (Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.). p. 16. 
  8. ^ McCann 2006, p. 152.
  9. ^ a b Carter 1990, p. 277.
  10. ^ a b c d Carus 2002, p. 51.
  11. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 116.
  12. ^ a b c d e f Oregon Historical Society, 2002
  13. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 119.
  14. ^ McCann 2006, p. 153.
  15. ^ Carter 1990, pp. 124, 165, 195, 237.
  16. ^ a b c d e Carus 2002, p. 52.
  17. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 123.
  18. ^ a b Coster, P. (10 May 1985). "A Pistol-Packin' Sheela with a Tongue to Match". The Courier-Mail. 
  19. ^ "Street People Deny Political Role". The Washington Post (The Washington Post Company). 19 September 1984. p. A28. 
  20. ^ Turner, G. (10 May 1985). "Bhagwan Hits out as Commune Chiefs Flee". The Courier-Mail. 
  21. ^ Carter 1990, p. 195.
  22. ^ a b McCann 2006, p. 154.
  23. ^ a b Carus 2002, p. 53.
  24. ^ McIsaac 2006, p. 25.
  25. ^ a b c McIsaac 2006, p. 26.
  26. ^ Kahn 2009, p. 42.
  27. ^ 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. 
  28. ^ Carus 2002, p. 55.
  29. ^ Carus 2002, p. 56.
  30. ^ Carus 2002, p. 57.
  31. ^ Goldwag 2009, p. 44.
  32. ^ Bhutia, Lhendup G. (9 February 2013). "An Affair to Remember". OPEN (Indian magazine). Retrieved 29 April 2015. 
  33. ^ "Blinded". The Canberra Times (Fairfax Media). p. 8 (Section A). 
  34. ^ a b Granath, Natasha (20 October 2005). "Orange princess has aged but not mellowed". The West Australian. 
  35. ^ McPheters, p. 152.
  36. ^ a b c d e f Collins 2002, p. 118.
  37. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 120.
  38. ^ a b Wellman 2007, p. 171.
  39. ^ Kushner 2002, p. 307
  40. ^ "Judge Refuses Bail For Guru's Ex-Secretary". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). 15 February 1986. p. 6 (Section 1). 
  41. ^ Dennis, Anthony (20 June 1988). "Colourful Cult Ambitions". Sydney Morning Herald. p. 28. 
  42. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Tucker 2000, p. 136.
  43. ^ a b c Miller 2002, p. 32.
  44. ^ a b Carter 1990, p. 237.
  45. ^ a b Miller 2002, p. 337.
  46. ^ "Rajneeshee Prosecutions". The Oregonian (Oregon Live). Retrieved 18 July 2011. 
  47. ^ Cabaret Voltaire, Dreamachine: David Woodard, Sheela Birnstiel, Christian Kracht, May 2 - Aug. 24, 2008.



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]