David de Rothschild
"Whatever image we have of ourselves, we see reflected in nature."
In a career that spanned three decades, Ma Anand Sheela served as personal secretary and tenacious mouthpiece for the spiritual leader, the Bhagwan and his controversial community of Rajneeshees. In an exclusive conversation that traces her journey from spiritual lieutenant to charity worker, we meet the woman behind the rhetoric of the wildest storm.
Percolating with hubris, scandal and controversy, the rise and fall of the controversial Oregon-based commune Rajneeshpuram is a story whose commercial potential has been revived and retold to the public in Netflix's recent documentary Wild, Wild Country. Until the commune’s final disintegration in 1985, television cameras across the nation were trained on the rural town of Antelope, Oregon, whose foundations were overturned when a group of acolytes from India appeared overnight. Lashed in devotion to the robes of an enigmatic godman figure and mystic, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the strangers arrived in droves, at one point numbering close to seven thousand. In what would unfold to be a devastating and combustible meeting of worlds and ideology, this period would leave its survivors and a town forever changed.
Between the years of 1981 to 1985, a stampeding rhetoric of bizarre Bacchanalian orgies, human rights violations and escalating criminal allegations, would eventually come to define the devastating legacy of Rajneeshpuram. Forty years on, Oregon’s troubling chapter in history is riding a new wave of popularity. With the release of this documentary series, one figure in particular has been singled out as a remarkable anti-hero for these complex times. Since the release of the documentary, her name and image alone have prompted a revived windfall of attention from the media and public alike. Today, 20 years on from this ignominious chapter of Oregon’s history, the self-proclaimed “ Mother of Rajneeshpuram" talks about paradise found and subsequently lost.
After the ashes of Oregon’s incendiary chapter have simmered to a shadow of the past, we meet Ma Anand Sheela 5000 miles away in Basel, Switzerland. Nestled in a quiet suburban hilltop in Basel, Switzerland, the Wohnheim Mastrusaden is home to Sheela and her quiet community of disabled patients. Founded by the former Lieutenant of Rajneeshpuram, the establishment itself is a solely dedicated to the lifelong commitment of care to its patients. Most of them arrive with varying degrees of handicaps, and are placed in the full care of Sheela and her team of caregivers. “ I call them my people”, says Sheela, “and my people sit in my heart.”
Ma Anand Sheela herself, or ‘Sheela’ as she is referred to, is far removed from the tight-lipped, keen-nosed guard dog once pitched in earlier television interviews. She seems slighter in person, but her crop of grey hair frames an impish, lively face that is quick to animate in laughter. “You have to also think of the roots, my roots,” she remarked, “my father was a freedom fighter, together with Gandhi. We have been taught freedom and equality from childhood.” Standing defiant against present day opinion, Sheela speaks on the controversial Rajneeshpuram community and the story that would forever remain a murky account of history and its causes.
They used to call us the red people in red heels.Sheela
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