Ma Anand Sheela

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Ma Anand Sheela
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 status Paroled in 1988

Ma Anand Sheela (Gujarati: માં આનંદ શિલા; born 28 December 1949 as Sheela Ambalal Patel in India),[2] also known as Sheela Silverman and Sheela Birnstiel, 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 and assault 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 disciples of the Indian guru Rajneesh and Sheela took the name Ma Anand Sheela.[2][9] After her husband died, Sheela married a fellow Rajneesh follower, John Shelfer.[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] According to Sheela, Rajneesh was complicit in and directed her involvement in criminal acts she later committed.[15][15]

When asked by a reporter for Australia's 60 Minutes about local objections to Rajneesh's expansion into Western Australia, Sheela replied, "What I can say; Tough titties".[16][17][18] In interviews for US television Sheela referred to local government officials as "bigoted pigs" and "fascists"[12][19][20] causing one reporter to describe her as having an "acid tongue".[19][21]


By 1984 the ashram had fallen out of favor with local residents and the county commission (Wasco County Court).[22] Sheela attempted to influence the Wasco County Court's November election and capture the two open seats[23][24] by busing in hundreds of homeless people from nearby cities and registering them as county voters.[10] Later, when that effort failed,[25][26] Sheela conspired, in 1984, to use "bacteria and other methods to make people ill" and prevent them from voting.[27][28] As a result, the salad bars at ten local restaurants were infected with salmonella and about 750 people became ill.[3][23][29][30]

On September 13,1985, Sheela left the ashram and went to Europe.[12][31] A few days later Rajneesh "accused her of arson, wiretapping, attempted murder, and mass poisonings."[12] He also asserted that Sheela had written the Book of Rajneeshism and published it under his name.[32] Subsequently Sheela's robes and 5,000 copies of the Book of Rajneeshism were burned in a bonfire at the ashram.[32]

After US authorities found wire-tapping networks and a bioterror lab in Sheela's Oregon house[12] she was arrested in West Germany in October 1986. Sheela was extradited to the US in February on charges of immigration fraud[33] and attempted murder.[29][34] The Oregon Attorney General prosecuted for crimes related to the poisoning of Commissioner Matthew and Judge Hulse[35] while the US Attorney prosecuted crimes related to the restaurant poisonings.[35] Sheela pled guilty on 22 July 1985 to first-degree assault and conspiracy/assault against Judge Hulse [35] and later to second-degree assault and conspiracy/assault against Commissioner Matthew.[35] Sheela pled 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,[36] to be served concurrently. In addition she was fined $470,000.[29] [35][37]

Sheela was sent to the Pleasanton, California prison for nonviolent white-collar criminals.[37] While there she announced plans to make a "controversial documentary" about her life.[38] In December 1988, She was released on good behavior after serving twenty-nine months of her 20-year sentence and moved to Switzerland.[1][39][40]

Sheela (center) at Cabaret Voltaire, 2008

Later life[edit]

Sheela married Swiss resident, Urs Birnstiel, a fellow Rajneesh follower.[41] There she bought and managed two nursing homes.[1][40]

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.[18]

In 2008 Sheela collaborated with David Woodard and Christian Kracht on an art exhibition at the Zürich nightclub Cabaret Voltaire.[42]


  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 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 e Carus 2002, p. 51.
  11. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 116.
  12. ^ a b c d e Oregon Historical Society, 2002
  13. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 119.
  14. ^ McCann 2006, p. 153.
  15. ^ a b Wellman 2007, p. 171.
  16. ^ Bhutia, Lhendup G. (9 February 2013). "An Affair to Remember". OPEN (Indian magazine). Retrieved 29 April 2015. 
  17. ^ "Blinded". The Canberra Times (Fairfax Media). p. 8 (Section A). 
  18. ^ a b Granath, Natasha (20 October 2005). "Orange princess has aged but not mellowed". The West Australian. 
  19. ^ a b Coster, P. (10 May 1985). "A Pistol-Packin' Sheela with a Tongue to Match". The Courier-Mail. 
  20. ^ "Street People Deny Political Role". The Washington Post (The Washington Post Company). 19 September 1984. p. A28. 
  21. ^ Turner, G. (10 May 1985). "Bhagwan Hits out as Commune Chiefs Flee". The Courier-Mail. 
  22. ^ Carter 1990, pp. 124, 165, 195, 237.
  23. ^ a b Carus 2002, p. 52.
  24. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 123.
  25. ^ Carter 1990, p. 195.
  26. ^ McCann 2006, p. 154.
  27. ^ Carus 2002, p. 53.
  28. ^ McIsaac 2006, p. 25.
  29. ^ 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. 
  30. ^ Goldwag 2009, p. 44.
  31. ^ McPheters, p. 152.
  32. ^ a b Collins 2002, p. 118.
  33. ^ Kushner 2002, p. 307
  34. ^ "Judge Refuses Bail For Guru's Ex-Secretary". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). 15 February 1986. p. 6 (Section 1). 
  35. ^ a b c d e Tucker 2000, p. 136.
  36. ^ McIsaac 2006, p. 26.
  37. ^ a b Miller 2002, p. 32.
  38. ^ Dennis, Anthony (20 June 1988). "Colourful Cult Ambitions". Sydney Morning Herald. p. 28. 
  39. ^ Carter 1990, p. 237.
  40. ^ a b Miller 2002, p. 337.
  41. ^ "Rajneeshee Prosecutions". The Oregonian (Oregon Live). Retrieved 18 July 2011. 
  42. ^ 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]