Ma Anand Sheela

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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 71)
NationalityIndia, United States, 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
Penalty20 years' prison

Ma Anand Sheela (born 28 December 1949 as Sheela Ambalal Patel in India, also known as Sheela Birnstiel and Sheela Silverman)[1] is an Indian-born Swiss woman who was the spokesperson of the Rajneesh movement (aka Osho movement). In 1986, she pleaded guilty to 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.[2] In 1986, she pleaded guilty to attempted murder and assault for her role in the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack.[3] She was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison and paroled after 39 months.[4] 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.

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.”[5] After prison, Sheela married Urs Birnstiel, a Swiss citizen, who died of AIDS shortly after their marriage.[6]

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.[1] At age 18, she moved to the United States and attended Montclair State College in New Jersey.[7][8]

Adult life[edit]

Sheela married Marc Harris Silverman, an American from Highland Park, Illinois,[9][10] and took the name Sheela P. Silverman.[11] She moved 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.[1][12] After her husband died, Sheela married a fellow Rajneesh follower, John Shelfer.[12]


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.[13][14] 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.[13][15] She was appointed the president of Rajneesh Foundation International,[13] managed the commune and met daily with Rajneesh to discuss business matters.[13][16][17] According to Sheela, Rajneesh was complicit in and directed her involvement in criminal acts she and a group of Rajneeshees committed later.[18]


By 1984, the ashram was coming into increasing conflict with local residents and the county commission (Wasco County Court).[19] Sheela attempted to influence the Wasco County Court's November election and capture the two open seats[20][21] by bussing in hundreds of homeless people from within Oregon as well as outside, and registering them as county voters.[13] Later, when that effort failed,[22][23] Sheela conspired, in 1984, to use "bacteria and other methods to make people ill" and prevent them from voting.[24][25] As a result, the salad bars at ten local restaurants (in The Dalles, Oregon, U.S).were infected with salmonella and about 750 people became ill.[3][20][26][27]

On September 13, 1985, Sheela fled to Europe.[15][28] A few days later Rajneesh "accused her of arson, wiretapping, attempted murder, and mass poisonings."[15] He also asserted that Sheela had written the book titled Rajneeshism and published it under his name.[29] Subsequently, Sheela's robes and 5,000 copies of the Book of Rajneeshism were burned in a bonfire at the ashram.[29] 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."[30]

After US authorities searching her home found wire-tapping networks and a laboratory in which the bacteria used in the attack had been grown,[15] Sheela was arrested in West Germany in October 1986. She was extradited to the US in February on charges of immigration fraud[31] and attempted murder.[26][32] The Oregon Attorney General prosecuted for crimes related to the poisoning of Commissioner Matthew and Judge Hulse[33] while the US Attorney prosecuted crimes related to the restaurant poisonings.[33] Sheela pleaded guilty on 22 July 1986 to first-degree assault and conspiracy to commit assault against Hulse[33] and later to second-degree assault and conspiracy to commit assault against Matthew.[33] 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,[34] to be served concurrently. In addition she was fined $470,000.[26][33][35]

Sheela was sent to the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California, for female criminals.[35] While there, she announced plans to make a "controversial documentary" about her life.[36] In December 1988, she was released on good behavior after serving 39 months of her 20-year sentence, and moved to Switzerland.[37][38][39]

Later life[edit]

Sheela married Swiss citizen Urs Birnstiel, a fellow Rajneesh follower.[40] She moved to Maisprach, Switzerland, where she bought and managed two nursing homes.[37][39]

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 agreed to try her in Switzerland. She was found guilty of the equivalent Swiss charge and was sentenced to time served.[41]

In 2008, Sheela collaborated with David Woodard and Christian Kracht on an art exhibition at Cabaret Voltaire, the building in Zürich which in 1916 served as the birthplace of the Dada movement.[42][43][44]: 201 

In 2018, the documentary Wild Wild Country was released, which includes interviews with Sheela.[45] On July 20, 2018, 'BBC Stories' YouTube channel published a video called Wild Wild Country: What happened to Sheela?[46]

On 29 September 2019, Sheela was interviewed by Karan Johar in Delhi.[47]

In February 2020, it was announced that Priyanka Chopra will star as Sheela in Amazon Studios Sheela, a feature film adaptation of Wild Wild Country.[48][49] It was also reported that Sheela did not want the actress to play her role onscreen and sent the actress a notice, demanding her to abort the project.[50]

In April 2021, a documentary film titled Searching for Sheela was released on Netflix. The film, produced by Johar, followed her first trip to India after 35 years.[51]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ FitzGerald, Frances (September 29, 1986). "Il-Rajneeshpuram". The New Yorker (September 29, 1986 Issue). Retrieved April 3, 2018.
  3. ^ a b Kahn 2009, p. 41.
  4. ^ "Wild Wild Country: What happened to Sheela? BBC Stories".
  5. ^ "The Most Shocking Reveals from the Sex Cults FBI Informants".
  6. ^ "Tough Titties The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Woman of the 80s".
  7. ^ Geist, William E. (September 16, 1981). "Cult in castle troubling Montclair". The New York Times. Retrieved December 17, 2009.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Carter 1990, p. 47.
  10. ^ Petacque, Art (January 20, 1986). "Local lawyers help reel in cult fugitive". Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago Sun-Times, Inc. p. 16.
  11. ^ McCann 2006, p. 152.
  12. ^ a b Carter 1990, p. 277.
  13. ^ a b c d e Carus 2002, p. 51.
  14. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 116.
  15. ^ a b c d Oregon Historical Society, 2002
  16. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 119.
  17. ^ McCann 2006, p. 153.
  18. ^ Wellman 2007, p. 171.
  19. ^ Carter 1990, pp. 124, 165, 195, 237.
  20. ^ a b Carus 2002, p. 52.
  21. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 123.
  22. ^ Carter 1990, p. 195.
  23. ^ McCann 2006, p. 154.
  24. ^ Carus 2002, p. 53.
  25. ^ McIsaac 2006, p. 25.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ Goldwag 2009, p. 44.
  28. ^ McPheters, p. 152.
  29. ^ a b Collins 2002, p. 118.
  30. ^ Academy of Rajneeshism, ed. (June 1983). Rajneeshism: An Introduction to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and His Religion. Rajneesh Foundation International. ISBN 0-88050-699-7.
  31. ^ Kushner 2002, p. 307
  32. ^ "Judge Refuses Bail For Guru's Ex-Secretary". The New York Times. February 15, 1986. p. 6 (Section 1).
  33. ^ a b c d e Tucker 2000, p. 136.
  34. ^ McIsaac 2006, p. 26.
  35. ^ a b Miller 2002, p. 32.
  36. ^ Dennis, Anthony (June 20, 1988). "Colourful Cult Ambitions". Sydney Morning Herald. p. 28.
  37. ^ a b Senior, Jeanie; Dave Hogan (January 22, 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.
  38. ^ Carter 1990, p. 237.
  39. ^ a b Miller 2002, p. 337.
  40. ^ "Rajneeshee Prosecutions". The Oregonian. Oregon Live. Retrieved July 18, 2011.
  41. ^ Senior, Jeanie (January 22, 2000). "Indian guru follower Anand Sheela arrested after German TV show". The Oregonian. Retrieved April 1, 2018.
  42. ^ Dreamachine: David Woodard, Sheela Birnstiel, Christian Kracht, May 2 - August 24, 2008.
  43. ^ Paunić, N., Cabaret Voltaire Securing its Future, Widewalls, February 2016.
  44. ^ Bronner, S., & Weyand, B., Christian Krachts Weltliteratur: Eine Topographie (Berlin & Boston: De Gruyter, 2018), p. 201.
  45. ^ "Wild Wild Country, critics' reviews". March 20, 2018. Retrieved May 18, 2020.
  46. ^ Wild Wild Country: What happened to Sheela? on YouTube
  47. ^ Krishna Priya Pallavi (September 30, 2019). "Karan Johar interviews Ma Anand Sheela: She is controversial without revealing a thing - Lifestyle News". Retrieved May 18, 2020.
  48. ^ "Priyanka Chopra Jonas to Play Ma Anand Sheela in Amazon Movie 'Sheela'". The Hollywood Reporter. February 20, 2020. Retrieved April 14, 2021.
  49. ^ "Priyanka Chopra to star in feature film adaptation of Netflix's Wild Wild Country". Flickering Myth. February 1, 2019. Retrieved April 14, 2021.
  50. ^ MumbaiApril 22, Vibha Maru; April 22, 2021UPDATED; Ist, 2021 14:35. "When Ma Anand Sheela sent legal notice to stop Priyanka Chopra from playing her role in biopic". India Today. Retrieved May 15, 2021.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  51. ^ 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]