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 65)
Baroda, India
Other names Sheela Silverman, Sheela Birnstiel
Occupation Managed ashram and spiritual organization in India and Oregon, US
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 in India;[2] also known as Sheela Silverman and Sheela Birnstiel) is a former follower, secretary and chief assistant, and spokeswoman for the Indian mystic and guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (also known as "Osho"). From 1981 through 1985, she essentially managed much of his operation, including Rajneeshpuram, an ashram established in 1981 in Wasco County, Oregon.

In 1985 she pleaded guilty in Oregon of attempted murder, assault, telephone tapping, immigration fraud, and product tampering as the main planner of the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack in Wasco County, in which hundreds of people were made ill by salmonella poisoning. It was the first act of mass bioterrorism in the United States.[3] Her goal was to influence a local county election to gain commissioners favorable to the ashram.

Sheela was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison, and fines and restitution totaling nearly $470,000. After serving 29 months, she was paroled for good behavior; her Green Card had been revoked so she was forced out of the United States. Sheela immediately moved to Switzerland, where she married again. She has owned and managed two nursing homes.

Early life, education and marriage[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] When she was 18, her parents sent her to the United States to attend Montclair State College in New Jersey.[4][5]

She married Marc Harris Silverman, a wealthy American native of Highland Park, Illinois.[6][7] She became known as Sheela P. Silverman.[8]

India and spiritual study[edit]

The couple moved to India in 1972 to pursue spiritual studies. Both became sannyasins, initiated disciples, of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, now commonly known as Osho. Sheela took the name Ma Anand Sheela; her husband became Swami Prem Chinmaya.[9] After Silverman died, Sheela married another sannyasin, John Shelfer (Swami Jayananda).[9] Her father also became a sannyasi, taking the name Swami Swarupananda.[2]

Rajneesh's secretary[edit]


From 1981 to 1985, Sheela served as Rajneesh's personal secretary and main assistant, becoming very influential in his organisation. She influenced Rajneesh to travel to the United States and begin an ashram there, to leave pressure against him in India.[10][11] By 1985, Rajneesh had amassed personal jewelry valued at more than $1 million.[5]

On 10 July 1981, Sheela purchased the 64,000-acre (260 km2) Big Muddy Ranch in Wasco County, Oregon to establish the Rajneeshpuram commune.[10][12] The chief manager and spokesman, Sheela became known in The Dalles area for her "acid tongue" as well as for toting a .357 Magnum handgun. She established a Rajneeshpuram police force armed with Uzi submachine guns and a Jeep-mounted .30-calibre machinegun.[13][14] The commune was developed with a shopping mall, a school, an outdoor disco, and other amenities for the 3,000 disciples who lived there at most times.[5]

In 1985, Sheela visited Australia as a spokesman for Rajneesh, and to assess the western area for a potential site for an ashram. She gained nationwide prominence after remarks during her interview with reporter Ian Leslie on 60 Minutes. When asked about local concerns over plans for the Rajneesh cult's expansion in Western Australia, she famously replied, "Tough titties".[15][16][17] 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.[18]

While at Rajneeshpuram, Rajneesh did not bother with daily operations and depended on Sheela to manage the commune.[10] She was seen as Rajneesh's principal aide,[19] and as second-in-command of the organisation.[20][21] She was also president of Rajneesh Foundation International, which began to publish a compilation of his thoughts.[22] Within the organisation, Sheela referred to herself as "The Queen".[23] She met daily with Rajneesh in private to discuss significant matters for the group,[10][24][25] unless she was ill or traveling.[24]

Sheela appointed mostly women in her inner circle of assistants.[10][25][26] These women were known internally within the organisation as "moms", with the more influential referred to as "big moms".[10][26] Sheela ran the operations of virtually all of the sub-groups under Rajneesh's movement, as well as of Rajneeshpuram.[10][25] She administered Rancho Rajneesh through her inner circle.[10][25] Sheela met with her own followers in her private living space on Rajneeshpuram, where she made decisions for the organisation.[10] In addition, Sheela independently made decisions for the organisation or after meeting with Rajneesh.[10] Followers of Rajneesh who did not abide by her rulings risked being kicked out of Rajneeshpuram.[10][25] 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 asked by an NBC Team about racist comments Rajneesh had made about Jews, Sheela responded with a joke about the Holocaust:

"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."[27][28]

Wasco County elections[edit]

By the fall of 1984, the growth of Rajneeshpuram, whose residents were mostly from outside the US, had incurred hostility and resistance from local residents of the small town of The Dalles and the area. Sheela had hidden the planned size of the development, essentially setting it up under false pretenses.[29] The county commission, called the Wasco County Court, had a negative attitude toward the complex. Sheela and other senior Rajneesh followers realised that this was a problem for their organisation.[30] Sheela and Rajneesh together decided to try to influence the Wasco County Court in the November 1984 election, in which two seats were open.[30] At the time Wasco County had 20,000 residents and 15,000 registered voters. The Rajneesh facility had about 4,000 occupants -the majority of whom were not United States citizens and not eligible to vote.[31]

In 1984, Sheela brought 2,000 transients to Rajneeshpuram, claiming to be working to house the homeless. Her staff took the new residents to register as voters, in what was seen as an attempt to elect two representatives to the Wasco County Commission. A judge ordered registration hearings, at which most of the transients were refused local registration. They were taken away from the ashram when its officials realized they would not be able to vote.

In several appearances on national television at this time, Sheela called the state and county officials "bigoted pigs", "fascists", "full of shit." She threatened, "If they touch any one of our people, I'll have 15 of their heads, and I mean business".[12][13][32] The Rajneesh organisation tried to find a candidate to run against the two commissioners up for re-election, but could not find anyone who supported the Rajneeshpuram.[30]

Mass poisoning and murder plots[edit]

Faced with a growing array of legal, legislative and personal challenges, Sheela began to discuss criminal tactics.[33] Sheela met with the senior Rajneeshee leadership, where she and Ma Anand Puja (Dianne Yvonne Onang),[34] a nurse and a senior member, discussed "bacteria and other methods to make people ill".[30] The mayor of Rajneeshpuram,KD (Swami Krishna Deva), whose real name was David Berry Knapp,[30] 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."[30]

Puja was a trusted assistant to Sheela.[35] Puja and Sheela discussed using biological agents including Salmonella typhi, which causes typhoid fever, before settling on Salmonella typhimurium.[35][36] 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.[37] They obtained the salmonella from the American Type Culture Collection.[37][38]

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.[30][39] 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.[34]

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.[40] With other senior leaders of the Rajneesh organisation, Sheela participated in actions to sprinkle salmonella on surfaces frequented by citizens in The Dalles.[41] 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."[42] 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.[23]

Flight, extradition, trial and convictions[edit]

On 13 September 1985, Sheela fled the commune, along with several other followers of Rajneesh.[12][43] 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'".[44] "The hell with Bhagwan!," said Sheela when asked about the charges Rajneesh had leveled against her.[44] Rajneesh asserted that Sheela had written the Book of Rajneeshism published under his moniker, which said that Rajneeshism should not be considered a religion.[44]

Sheela's robes, along with 5,000 copies of the Book of Rajneeshism, were burned by 2,000 followers of Rajneesh.[44] She was replaced as Rajneesh's secretary by Ma Prem Hasya (Francoise Ruddy), the former wife of Hollywood producer Al Ruddy.[45]

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".[44] When she was queried on her opinion as to whether Rajneeshism was "simply a confidence trick," Sheela responded, "Absolutely".[44] Sheela maintains that Rajneesh was complicit in her criminal acts.[46] Since 1987, Sheela has held that Rajneesh directed every criminal and violent move.[46]

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,[47] and an attempt to murder Rajneesh's personal physician Swami Devaraj (Dr. George Meredith) by poisoning.[39][48]

The Bhagwan also fled the commune; he was found in North Carolina and deported to India. He resumed practice, known as Osho, and died there in 1990.

The prosecution of Sheela and Puja was split between state and federal law enforcement.[49] The Oregon Attorney General handled prosecution related to poisoning of local Oregon officials Commissioner Matthew and Judge Hulse, which followed the salad bar events.[49] The office of the United States Attorney was responsible for the incidents of poisoning at the Oregon restaurants.[49] 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.[49] 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.[49] Sheela and Puja also pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and conspiracy/assault, for the poisoning of Commissioner Matthew.[49] 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.[49]

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 a total of $470,000:[39] a fine of $400,000, plus a charge of $69,353.31 in damages of restitution to be paid to Wasco County, Oregon.[49][50] Sheela received sentences of three concurrent 20-year terms in prison.[49]

The State of Oregon recommended that Sheela's jail time be spent in federal prison.[49] Sheela and Puja served their jail time in Pleasanton, California, in a prison for nonviolent white-collar criminals.[50] 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.[50]

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][51][52] She also lost her green card.[51]

Following her release, Sheela moved to Switzerland. She married Swam Dhyan Dipo (Urs Birnstiel), a fellow sannyasin and Swiss resident, who had been charged in the United States with a federal count of wiretap conspiracy.[53] Because of her marriage to a Swiss citizen, Sheela gained immunity from extradition from future charges, including those related to the 1985 plot to assassinate US prosecutor Charles Turner.

In Switzerland, Sheela started a new profession, owning and managing two nursing homes.[52] Her husband remained wanted by American authorities until his death in 1993.[53] Sheela has continued to legally reside in Switzerland as the widow of a Swiss citizen.[1] In 1999 she was convicted by a Swiss court for "criminal acts preparatory to the commission of murder", but did not serve additional time.[17]

In 2008 Sheela collaborated with David Woodard and Christian Kracht on an art exhibition at the legendary Zürich nightclub Cabaret Voltaire.[54]

See also[edit]


  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. ^ a b c 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 f g h i j k l Carus 2002, p. 51.
  11. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 116.
  12. ^ a b c d e f Oregon Historical Society, 2002
  13. ^ a b Coster, P. (10 May 1985). "A Pistol-Packin' Sheela with a Tongue to Match". The Courier-Mail. 
  14. ^ Turner, G. (10 May 1985). "Bhagwan Hits out as Commune Chiefs Flee". The Courier-Mail. 
  15. ^ Bhutia, Lhendup G. (9 February 2013). "An Affair to Remember". OPEN (Indian magazine). Retrieved 29 April 2015. 
  16. ^ "Blinded". The Canberra Times (Fairfax Media). p. 8 (Section A). 
  17. ^ a b Granath, Natasha (20 October 2005). "Orange princess has aged but not mellowed". The West Australian. 
  18. ^ Dennis, Anthony (20 June 1988). "Colourful Cult Ambitions". Sydney Morning Herald. p. 28. 
  19. ^ Lacquer 2000, p. 69.
  20. ^ Lalich 2004, p. 9.
  21. ^ Lax 2005, p. 130.
  22. ^ Collins 2002, p. 115.
  23. ^ a b Goldwag 2009, p. 44.
  24. ^ a b Tucker 2000, p. 119.
  25. ^ a b c d e McCann 2006, p. 153.
  26. ^ a b Lax 2005, p. 178.
  27. ^ Life as Laughter: Following Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, by Bob Mullan, page 135
  28. ^ Mullan 1983, p. 135.
  29. ^ Carter 1990, pp. 124, 165, 195, 237.
  30. ^ a b c d e f g Carus 2002, p. 52.
  31. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 123.
  32. ^ "Street People Deny Political Role". The Washington Post (The Washington Post Company). 19 September 1984. p. A28. 
  33. ^ Carter 1990, p. 195.
  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. ^ 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. 
  40. ^ Carus 2002, p. 55.
  41. ^ Carus 2002, p. 56.
  42. ^ Carus 2002, p. 57.
  43. ^ McPheters, p. 152.
  44. ^ a b c d e f Collins 2002, p. 118.
  45. ^ Tucker 2000, p. 120.
  46. ^ a b Wellman 2007, p. 171.
  47. ^ Kushner 2002, p. 307
  48. ^ "Judge Refuses Bail For Guru's Ex-Secretary". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). 15 February 1986. p. 6 (Section 1). 
  49. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Tucker 2000, p. 136.
  50. ^ a b c Miller 2002, p. 32.
  51. ^ a b Carter 1990, p. 237.
  52. ^ a b Miller 2002, p. 337.
  53. ^ a b "Rajneeshee Prosecutions". The Oregonian (Oregon Live). Retrieved 18 July 2011. 
  54. ^ 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]