Review

Ma Anand Sheela's tryst with life

Print edition : October 22, 2021

Osho. Says Ma Anand Sheela: “I was able to understand His grand vision and to see His immense talent, drive and awesome power. I also witnessed His manipulative style, His vengefulness, and His failings as an ordinary human being.” Photo: The Hindu Archives

At the height of her fame, Ma Ananda Sheela presided over a powerful empire of Neo-Sannyasins who built the Osho Commune in Oregon. Here, from the Netflix series Wild, Wild Country.

From ‘Wild Wild Country’ series. To sceptics and detractors, Osho was no prophet. In his life and conduct, he did not display detachment and self-abnegation, qualities associated with realised beings. Photo: a sdfsdfdfsd

A poster at the Government Mahakoshal Arts and Commerce Autonomous College, Jabalpur, where Osho was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy from 1963 to 1966. Photo: By Special Arrangement

By My Own Rules is a memoir that chronicles former Osho disciple Ma Anand Sheela’s journey of life: her search for paradise lost and found.

How do members of religious/apocalyptic movements that affirm total allegiance to their founders deal with questions of ‘sin’ and expiation? This question seems to underlie the latest memoir by Ma Anand Sheela. Born Sheela Ambalal Patel at Baroda (now Vadodara), Gujarat, in 1949 to a Gandhian couple, Ambalal and Maniben Patel, as the youngest of six children, Sheela Silverman (Birnstiel) served as the personal secretary to Osho from 1980 to 1985. Osho named her ‘Ma Anand Sheela’, entrusted her with the task of running his ashram at Pune, and gave her the responsibility of creating and managing a utopian commune named Rajneeshpuram at Oregon, United States.

Questions relating to crime and expiation in life and literature are often posed in the Great Book Tradition of the World. Protagonists, at times, seek the path of redemption by fleeing from ‘civilisation’ to come to terms with their inner crisis and angst. In a varied manner, novelists such as Joseph Conrad, Graham Greenei and R.K. Narayan seem to typify many such narrative patterns/archetypes in their works. Death often brings a sense of closure to the underlying crisis in the lives of characters who are seen pitted against fate and destiny. The archetypes underlined here find an expression in texts that deal with the question of ‘sin’ and atonement.

Lord Jim by Conrad

In his classic study of sin and expiation depicted in the fin-de-siècle novel Lord Jimii (first published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1900), Joseph Conrad, the British novelist of Polish origin, underlines archetypes that have antecedents in the Greek playwright Sophocles and later writers such as Graham Greene and R. K. Narayan.

In Lord Jim, Conrad captures the dramatic moment when the young British seaman, the first mate Jim, abandons the leaking ship Patna with 800 “pilgrims of an exacting belief” on board. He and many of the crew do so under the mistaken belief that the ship would eventually sink. As in the case of the fate of an actual ship, S.S. Jeddah, on July 17, 1880, Patna survives and is rescued. Back on shore, Jim faces a trial and is disgraced for professional misconduct and dereliction of duty. He escapes from civilisation and is offered the position of a trade representative in Patusan, a fictional location that may be seen situated geographically in the State of Sarawak on the island of Borneo (some say Sumatra) in the East Indies. Here he defends the Malaya natives against bandits and a corrupt Malay chief and finally courts martyrdom as Lord Jim, the saviour of the hapless natives.

The Guide by R.K. Narayan

Similarly, in R.K. Narayan’s acclaimed novel The Guide, 1958,iii which was made into a notable film in Hindi in 1965 by the director Vijay Anand (with Dev Anand, Waheeda Rehman and Leela Chitnis in lead roles), we see the transformation of ‘Railway Raju’, a dishonest tourist guide, into a man of God in a remote village that seeks desperately the arrival of rain in the parched land.

Raju toys with the idea of escape but discards the option; he casts his lot in with the innocent villagers who repose faith in his ability to perform a miracle as the Rain Man. Unlike Lord Jim, Narayan’s Guide ends on an ambiguous note, the falling of rain in the hills as an act of divine grace, but with the fate of Raju left hanging in the reader’s imagination.

Powerful empire

At the height of her fame, Ma Anand Sheela presided over a powerful empire of Neo-Sannyasins who built the Osho Commune in Oregon. By 1985, Rajneeshpuram had become a multimillion township that housed “more than 5,000 residents over 64,000 acres of land”, including “a vast urban infrastructure” with a bank, fire department, police station, shopping malls, water reservoir, a sewage disposal plant, post office, security force, hotels, restaurants, spa, recreational/meditation centres, “a 1,300-metre-long airstrip”, and industries dealing with advertisement, audio, video and book publishing. The luxury items used by the leader were plentiful, and money flowed freely to procure expensive Rolex watches, imported household items, fleets of Rolls-Royce cars and other goodies that would be the envy of monarchs and business tycoons the world over.

The paradise was short-lived, however. Sheela fell out with Osho and his inner circle at Oregon. Accused of grave crimes against the commune and the nearby small town of Antelope, she left the place abruptly along with close confidants on September 13, 1985. In October 1986, the U.S. Enforcement Department arrested her in West Germany for immigration frauds and other crimes, including alleged acts of bioterror involving salmonella poisoning in 10 salad bars in Antelope, affecting over 750 people, and for attempts to murder state officials.iv Extradited to the U.S., she was sentenced to “three twenty-year terms”. In December 1988, she was released from the Federal Correctional Institution in California for good behaviour. “After serving 39 months of her 20-year sentence”, she shifted to Switzerland. She finds here a life of hope and fulfilment that she saw in the old-age homes she created in her adopted land.

For someone who would enjoy unprecedented fame and celebrity status as a world figure in the domain of New Age spirituality, Osho came from a modest, undistinguished background. He was born Chandra Mohan Jain on December 11, 1931, in Kuchwada village of Madhya Pradesh in British India. The eldest of 11 children of a Jain cloth merchant, he came to be known, in due course, as Acharya Rajneesh/Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (in 1971) and, finally, Osho (in 1989).v

A brilliant student known for his sharpness of mind, originality in thinking, and mastery of his subject, he received his MA from the University of Sagar (now Dr Harisingh Gour Central University) with a first-class Honours in philosophy and a gold medal.vi In 1957, he taught in Sanskrit College, Raipur; in 1963, he joined as Assistant Professor of philosophy at what is known today as Mahakoshal Arts and Commerce Collegevii under the University of Jabalpur (now Rani Durgavati Vishwavidyalaya), where he was a popular professor until 1966.

In later years, he recalled that while his colleagues had mundane interests and were unmindful of the academic and scholarly needs/growth of their students, his approach to teaching was different: classes were open houses where the emphasis was on free thinking in a non-coercive atmosphere; course completion was less important than developing the power of logic and critical thinking. There is general agreement that Chandra Mohan Jain was a highly successful teacher: charismatic, original and student-friendly.

It may be mentioned here that the college has preserved the memories of its famous teacher over the years. Dr Abha Pandey, Head of English, and Acting Principal of the college, to whom this writer spoke over phone, testified to the links Osho continues to have with the college. In an email she said: “Acharya Rajneesh Chandra Mohan (R.C. Mohan) ‘Osho’ was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy in Government Mahakoshal Arts and Commerce Autonomous College, Jabalpur, from 1963-66. Tourists and followers of Osho from all over the world regularly visit our institution. They feel blessed by sitting on the ‘Chair’ Osho used during his tenure in college. A shelf has been dedicated to Osho. It contains all those books Acharya used to read. The ‘Osho Chair’ and the issue registers in the college library with [the] original signature of the great sage are preserved as precious heritage by the institution.”viii

During his tenure in the college, students were drawn to him because of his “logic and knowledge”, his style of teaching and his “open, provocative, unconventional and modern approach”. Sheela reports that it led to jealousy among his colleagues; his “classrooms were packed with non-registered students”. After a controversial lecture tour, at the suggestion of an intolerant university administration, he resigned from service in 1966.ix

Freed from the university, Rajneesh travelled widely in India, and his books and audio tapes became popular. Followers flocked to his assemblies and discourses, the vast majority of them coming from the advanced West later in Pune. In 1970, he introduced “dynamic meditation”; in due course his discourses were collected into 600 volumes and translated into 50 languages of the world.

Osho spoke out candidly against repressed sexuality and organised religions and angered the orthodox sections in all countries. He was arrested for alleged violation of immigration laws and was imprisoned in the Oklahoma County jail and the El Reno Federal Penitentiary. He was fined heavily and deported to India. From 1985 to 1986, he went on a world tour, and his private jet, like the Shah of Iran’s, was unwanted in world capitals. After being denied entry by as many as 21 countries, he returned to Mumbai on July 29, 1986.

When Osho died at his Pune ashram on January 19, 1990, at the age of 58, the devout complained that he had been poisoned in the Oklahoma County jail, a charge that was not proven until the end, but the suspicion lingered in the minds of his admirers and sympathisers. The intolerance of the U.S. religious establishment was cited as the major source of intolerance.

Contrasting views

To his acolytes, Osho was always larger than life; his teachings rivalled those of Christ, the Buddha and Mahavir. Indeed, in his talks, he frequently made allusions to the Great Masters of the world, including the famous figures of the Sufi and Zen traditions. Unconventional and non-conformist vis-a-vis orthodoxy of all kinds that he saw in parental, societal and institutional influences/authorities, he became, for his acolytes, the messiah and prophet of the New World, the latter-day Socrates accused of ‘corrupting the youth’ and worshipping false gods. The Greek philosopher was put to death by poison hemlock; the fate of Osho was no different, according to the faithful. He was reviled and hounded, they argued, by puritans at home, and died at the hands of regressive forces in the U.S.

To sceptics and detractors, however, Osho was well-read but was no prophet. In his life and conduct, he did not display detachment and self-abnegation, qualities associated with truly realised beings. He was learned, articulate and charismatic, knew the best ways to attract modern youth who were tired of social and sexual duplicity/hypocrisy. He aimed for the rich and powerful, especially women, and lured his followers, undeterred by the need for a rigorous discipline and austerity that traditional Hinduism/Monasticism preached.

Treatment of sex and sexuality constituted a major difference in his approach to spirituality vis-a-vis the traditional religions of the world. While mainstream Hinduism spoke of the sublimation of sexual energies, Osho urged the attainment of super-consciousness through the primal energies of sex, somewhat like the practice in Tantric Hinduism. Further, in his ‘Encounter Groups’, participants were encouraged to let go of their repressive feelings and antagonism towards each other; some ‘Encounters’, according to eyewitness accounts, led notoriously to physical violence and broken limbs; these were later abandoned.

Again, while drugs were officially banned, according to Sheela, Osho took drugs against his own preaching. He took personal interest in the sex lives of close disciples, and according to close confidants, he himself had female bedmates. Women in the inner circle were encouraged to fight for the Master’s attention, and they were in a state of anxiety and fear owing to frequent shifts in power equations.

Men and women accused each other of being on power trips. In brief, the movement in due course degenerated into a cult which led to its decline and downfall. With the wisdom of hindsight, Sheela says in a rare moment of candour: “I had the opportunity to closely observe His actions as well as the motive behind them. I was able to understand His grand vision and to see His immense talent, drive and awesome power. I also witnessed His manipulative style, His vengefulness, and His failings as an ordinary human being.”x

Sheela left Osho for Europe on September 13, 1985, and was arrested in Germany in October 1986. In Germany she fell in love with her lawyer who already had a girlfriend. In 1989, she left for Portugal via France and lived in the village of Paderneira, two kilometres from Nazari on the Atlantic coast. She was known as ‘Senora Englesa’ in the village and befriended a Japanese girl Mayumi, 25, a writer. She took a bus to Switzerland and through a second husband, Dipo, obtained Swiss citizenship with 100 Swiss francs. At the age of 38, she had to start from scratch. She was helped at the employment agency, got accommodation in a women’s shelter and got her first job to take care of a young woman’s grandparents.

In 1990, Sheela set up a caretaker’s house with three elderly persons. She recalls her experience of community management at Pune and Rajneeshpuram and how she succeeded in due course in acquiring a five-bedroom house and a company named Anuja Impex, named after her daughter Anuja who visited her during vacation. She recalls the words of Bhagwan regarding the value of bad press as a “source of free advertisement”, and reminds herself of the example of the Zen master regarding the virtue of self-mastery. She views sex and sexuality as natural aspects of life and believes that love is not synonymous with sex. And finally, she declares: it is on the basis of the purity of one’s desire and a motivation that is not “corrupt” or “dishonest towards others or your own self” that one is likely to succeed in one’s mission in life.

The importance of inner life

Sheela’s narrative is structured in terms of 18 pivotal rules that she had set for herself in her new life in Switzerland. These rules come in the manner of a self-help manual.

The rules or the ‘commandments’ here are interspersed with reflections on life, love, loss and the meaning of human relationship. It is these reflections that capture the hidden recesses of her being and become worthy of our attention. We go through varied emotions/traits that are flagged here: the inevitability of pain, the ever-present love, the transience of life, the necessity of discipline and the need for setting goals, the spirit of adventure, the importance of a positive self, the need to accept opportunities as they come, living in the moment, speaking the truth, making new mistakes every day instead of repeating the same every day, and remembering one’s roots. The ostensible reason Sheela writes this book is for the readers to see the transformation in her being.xi

Sheela breaks fresh ground and uncovers terrain unvisited by her so far. For readers familiar with her earlier works, there is bound to be a degree of repetitiveness in terms of some historical details, but that is inevitable, and perhaps necessary, for the logic of narration. The approach and the goals in the present volume are different and she does well to provide the context for healing through the two old-age homes in Switzerland and two others in Vietnam. It is while recounting the exciting journey of building the homes and ministering to the needs of the old and infirm, many of whom suffer from terminally-ill diseases, that we come to discover the journey of Sheela’s self-discovery.

The notion of ‘flight’ from the U.S. to Germany, Portugal and finally Switzerland may be seen in the context of the archetypes earlier mentioned. Sheela has mixed feelings regarding the burden of her past that tends to surface again and again. At times, the interest of the media is regarded as unwelcome, and at others, she faces the intrusions of the hostile world with a measure of stoicism and a sense of philosophical indifference/equanimity.

Much of the present book chronicles the later phase of Sheela’s life. The narrative is told from her point of view; it chronicles memorable moments in her afterlife beyond Rajneeshpuram: the lessons she has learnt; the throwback to the past; and above all, her sense of fulfilment in the present, in the old-age homes.

It is from this vantage point that Sheela revisits her past, recollects her ‘love’ for Osho, and her sense of ‘understanding’ for the manner in which she thinks he acted against her. It was a need and a compulsion, she claims, for safeguarding/protecting himself in the commune at Oregon, and later at Pune.

There is, however, no real guilt here, and no genuine remorse. There is apportioning of blame, from time to time, upon others, and on Osho regarding his drug habits, for instance. One does not see attempts to fathom her own psyche and/or her inner world. She welcomes the limelight, the success and the accolades in the media and the publishing world in the aftermath of the Netflix series Wild Wild Country. But there is rarely a genuine self-critique for the tragedies in the life of the Osho movement of which she was an integral part. The blindness remains, for the readers, as a puzzle and a mystery. What could be the reason for the absence of remorse and atonement?

Using the language of Jacques Derrida, we might say that the ‘absence’ of ‘guilt’ here stands paradoxically for its ‘presence’. The ‘evil’ and ‘crime’ that Sheela sees and the ‘repentance’/expiation that she seems to urge upon others is conspicuously missing in her own case. The contradictions in the drama do not add up. None can be absolved of the responsibility, legal and moral, in the tragedy of Wasco County, Oregon. The demand for collective atonement, it may thus be argued, is both compelling and imperative in the context of a movement that sees itself as ‘spiritual’ and inherently introspective. The kindness and compassion she has generated in her life and in the community, through the old-age homes, is important, but it cannot substitute for the atonement for past deeds for a real catharsis.

By My Own Rules is a memoir that chronicles Ma Anand Sheela’s journey of life: her search for paradise lost and found. It also is a cautionary tale for the modern world with a lasting message: we must guide our life by the touchstone of our own conscience rather than by blind adherence to a dogma or belief.

Sachidananda Mohanty is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, University of Hyderabad. He is the former Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Odisha. He has published extensively in the field of British, American, gender, translation and postcolonial studies.

Endnotes

i See A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene, London Heinemann,1960.

ii See Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, London: William Blackwood and Sons,1900.

iii See The Guide by R.K. Narayan, Viking Press, the U.S. and Methuen, the U.K., 1958.

iv Osho.World.Com.html. Accessed on 18.9. 2021.

v The name [‘Osho’], as Osho explains, is derived from the philosopher William James; the word ‘oceanic’ means ‘dissolving into the ocean’. In the Far East, he tells us, the term signifies ‘the blessed one on whom the sky showers flowers’. See Osho.World.Com.html. Accessed on 18.9. 2021.

vi Osho.World.Com.html. Accessed on 18.9. 2021.

vii I am grateful to Prof. Bharat K. Tiwari, Head, Department of Philosophy, Rani Durgavati Vishwavidyalaya (Jabalpur University) for the valuable information. Equally grateful to Malay Verma, Head, Department of Philosophy, Government Autonomous Mahakoshal Arts and Commerce College (old Robertson College) where Osho taught philosophy for several years. It was under the Jabalpur University then. See https://www.patrika.com/jabalpur-news/osho-was-lecturer-in-

mahakaushal-college-9348/

viii Email communication from Dr Abha Pandey, Acting Principal, Mahakoshal College, Jabalpur on 18.9.2021.

ix Interest in Osho at Jabalpur continues. Readers may also be interested in Osho Amrit Dham Ashram. I thank Anubhav (brother of Malay Verma, see note vii) for this information. Conversation with Anubhav on 18.9.2021.

x Prologue to Don’t Kill Him: The Story of My Life with Bhagwan Rajneesh: A Memoir by Ma Anand Sheela, New Delhi: Prakash Books India, Pvt.Ltd.2012; Fingerprints, An Imprint of Prakash Books, 2019, p.13.

xi Sheela has recounted the more substantive and dramatic aspects of her story in two earlier volumes: Don’t Kill Him: The Story of My Life with Bhagwan Rajneesh, Op Cited. and Nothing to Lose: The Authorized Biography of Ma Anand Sheela by Manbeena Sandhu, Noida: HarperCollins, 2020.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor