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Finding Sheela

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Sheela Birnstiel or Ma Anand Sheela as she is known the world over, was once the no-nonsense administrative head of Rajneeshpuram, a commune established in Oregon, USAin the 1980s by the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (or Osho); the guru who preached a unique philosophy of spiritual liberation through individual freedom

In conversation with NT NETWORK, the Switzerland-based, stand-out star of Netflix’s documentary ‘Searching for Sheela’, speaks candidly about life, her journey, her feelings, and Rajneesh

MARIA FERNANDES | NT

Q. Born in Baroda, what was your childhood like?

My childhood was happy and healthy. I was the youngest of six children and was surrounded by love from my parents and siblings.

Q. You were very young when you met Bhagwan Rajneesh (BR). Can you describe your first meeting with him?

My first meeting with Bhagwan was at the age of 16 when my father took me to meet him. I could not decipher my feelings then. After that meeting I went to US for studies. My second meeting was when I was 21 and in this meeting, I fell in love with Bhagwan. This was an extremely significant moment and I felt if life ends here and death comes now, I would be absolutely fine, as I felt complete.

Q. How would you describe BR as a man?

Bhagwan was a man of wisdom and a beautiful man.

Q. What were BR’s qualities that attracted you the most?

It was not just one thing, everything about Bhagwan attracted me. He was a beautiful man as I have mentioned and in my opinion, a genius.

Q. You went to USA when you were 18. What were your dreams/plans for the future?

My father always encouraged us to learn and study and so at the age of 16 I went to USA. I went there to study and had no future plans.

Q. For a young girl from India what was your first impression/experience of the US? How did you adjust to the new lifestyle?

Just like everything, you need a period of adjustment; to learn the language, get accustomed to the weather, etc. I had my sibling supporting me and this made it easier to adjust to the new country.

Q. Why did you invite BR to USA when he already had his ashram in Pune?

In the time of political emergency, it was not possible to expand the Pune ashram in India and there was need to have a bigger place. Since I was already in USA, I thought what better place than this.

Q. Starting a commune in Oregon the size of which was huge, must have been hard. How did you do it? What was the motivating factor?

All beginnings are hard but for me Bhagwan was the inspiration and motivating element. I did what I had to and the commune finally was completed.

Q. You posed as an affluent widow to set up the ashram in Oregon why did you have to do so?

I did not want to get people and their fantasy to run at the speed of light.

Q. Do you enjoy power? As a person in charge of the ashram how powerful were you?

Responsibility and commitment are more important to me and I have carried out both of these diligently.

Q. You have faced a lot of opposition throughout your life. Were these oppositions justified?

No! No opposition is justified when one works with the individual rights.

Q. When you were young, you were called foul mouth and aggressive. The present Sheela is far from it.

Sometimes to deter masses and bigots you need a foul mouth. Now I do not need it.

Q. What did you think of BR’s philosophy of free love? Was it more of a male or a female utopia?

His works of sex and sexuality are very important for an individual. Sex should not be tabooed as it blocks individual, emotional, and psychological progress.

Q. What was the unique feature of BR’s teachings?

Bhagwan’s teaching work on a daily basis and this makes it unique.

Q. What was it like being BR’s lieutenant?

It was a big honour.

Q. You have been married thrice, how would you describe your marriages?

All my marriages were very good and so were my other relationships too.

Q. What has made ‘Wild Sheela’ change?

In winter one wears winter clothes but one cannot wear the same in summer. Change is inevitable.

Q. Do you see yourself as a feminist?

NO, I see myself as a fellow human.

Q. You were sentenced to 20 years in prison. What did you feel or think the moment you heard the sentence?

I was sentenced for 4.5 years under a plea agreement. So, it was my fate and I accepted it.

Q. When you were imprisoned and BR did not support you in any way, how did you feel?

I was arrested in 1986. I did not expect Bhagwan or anyone else to support me. Naturally it was not an easy event.

Q. After you left, BR called you many names. How do you feel about it?

I felt sad in the beginning but Bhagwan’s name-calling was his problem. I believe everyone has a right to their opinion.

Q. You returned to India after 35 years. Why did it take so long?

I was busy with starting my new life after my imprisonment and I knew I would return when the time was right.

Q. What kind of reception did you get when you returned?

It was a warm and loving reception I got upon my return.

Q. How do you think India has changed?

India has changed much. The young people I met felt fresh and motivated. However, the environmental situation made me sad.

Q. What is your book ‘Don’t Kill Him’ about? What made you write it?

My father inspired me to write ‘Don’t Kill Him’. He felt that my experience is so large and important

for the young generation, that I must share it with the world.

Q. You are one of the most misunderstood persons of all time. What led to this warped image?

The nature of the world is to misunderstand. To understand you need intelligence and clarity.

Q. You have been labeled star, anti-hero and villain. Which is closest to the real Sheela?

You must ask the people who have labeled me with it.

Q. Do you have any remorse for anything in the past or the present?

Remorse is related to guilt and I am not guilty.

Q. If given the opportunity, what would you change about/in yourlife?

I would not change anything. I am content with my life.

Q. What prompted you to setup Matrusadan and Bapusadan, the care homes for seniors and people with degenerative illnesses? Can you tell us a few details about the homes?

My parents were my inspiration for Matrusaden and Bapusaden.

Q. Do you consider your work at the ashram and at the two homes you presently run as selfless service?

No, it is my pleasure to work. It is my choice and I am happy with it.

Q. Do you plan to open some homes in India as well?

If the opportunity comes my way, I will definitely do so.

Q. How would you describe Sheela of today?

Same as always. Sheela was and is independent.

Q. What are some life lessons that you have learned on your journey?

Love, life, laughter, and acceptance.

Q. What do you think of the modern Indian women?

Indian women are beautiful.

Q. What are some qualities in a person that attract you?

Honesty.

Q. What was it in your upbringing that has stood you in good stead?

Honesty, courage, fearlessness, love.

Q. How would you describe a strong woman?

A strong woman follows her own rules and is independent.