This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
From the moment Ma Anand Sheela appears in Netflix’s Wild Wild Country, it’s clear she is not to be fucked with. In her opening monologue in the six-part documentary, the former administrative leader of the Rajneesh religious cult talks about how one cannot wear a crown without the threat of death by "guillotine."
"In spite of guillotine, they haven't killed me yet, they haven’t killed my spirit," Sheela, now graying in her late 60s, says. "No matter where I go, I will always wear crown… I'm not afraid of being under guillotine."
It was an appropriately dramatic introduction to one of the most fascinating anti-heroes I’ve ever come across, Walter White not withstanding.
At the cult's peak in the 1980s, there were thousands of Rajneeshees around the world who worshipped their guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho), a white-bearded Indian man they likened to a rock star. Many Rajneeshees were educated, upper-middle-class white Americans who flocked to India to gain enlightenment by being in Bhagwan’s presence. Bored of capitalism and craving meaning in their lives, they were easily convinced to join the Rajneesh movement, donning red robes all the while. Eventually, hundreds of Rajneeshees and Bhagwan himself moved from India to America. They formed a commune near Antelope, Oregon, on 64,000 acres of rural land, and had it incorporated as a city called Rajneesh, complete with stores, a school, and a landing strip for planes. Eventually, the cult known for unique meditation practices and lots of sex engaged in a full-on war with the nearby townsfolk who despised them. According to the documentary, it was a war the Rajneeshees fought with mass poisonings, drugs, rigged elections, attempted assassinations, and an arsenal of assault weapons they practiced with on their land.
Bhagwan was their leader, but Sheela, his tiny cherub-cheeked, foul-mouthed secretary, was pulling the strings. And despite her crimes—she pleaded guilty in 1985 to attempted murder and assault for poisoning hundreds of Oregonians with salmonella—I found myself in awe of Sheela while watching the doc.
Sheela was a master of manipulation. She overthrew Bhagwan’s other secretary, Laxmi, to become his righthand, and she seemed to revel in the power. She once made a young Australian disciple wax her legs in the middle of the night, later promoting her, and much later instructing her to murder Bhagwan’s doctor. The woman obeyed, though she wasn’t successful. It’s fucked up. But how many people can command that type of loyalty?
Sheela courted controversy, doing media appearances solely to troll the townsfolk of Antelope, Oregon, who wanted the Rajneeshees gone. Asked on 60 Minutes how she felt about people who "don’t want the orange people in our town," she replied, "What can I say? Tough titties." She rejected the notion of turning the other cheek, stating that the Rajneesh philosophy was to "take both of their cheeks."
On The Merv Griffin Show, when one of the Antelope residents noted that Bhagwan had collected between four and 14 Rolls Royces, Sheela all-too-smugly corrected her to say they were about to hit 20.
She declared that Rajneeshees "are the only people who enjoy sex fully" and posed nude for a German magazine. At a time when society was far more close-minded than it is now for white women, let alone for an Indian woman who served a strange, bearded man, I cannot stress how surreal it felt to witness her antics.
Although the residents of Antelope had very valid reasons to be pissed about the Rajneeshees even before all the poisonings took place, bigotry was clearly another factor. In footage shown in the doc, former Antelope mayor Margaret Hill asks, "Should… a group of people of like persuasion be allowed to enter an area and literally wipe out the culture that is there?” Apparently she'd forgotten the entire history of the American Revolutionary War.
In its prime, the Rajneesh cult was worth $65 million, with money pouring in from massive festivals hosted at the Oregon commune, as well as books and other materials sold worldwide. I won’t lie, it’s a tad amusing that Sheela and Bhagwan duped all these white people searching for authenticity into handing over their money. The inverse of cultural appropriation, if you will.
I recognize that Sheela had major flaws, and may even be a psychopath. I also feel like if she was a man (or at least if she hadn't ended up in jail) she could have been the leader of a country. Hell, she could’ve been the president of the United States. The world could use a little bit more Sheela. But not too much.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.