Ma Anand Sheela and Bhagwan. Photo via Netflix
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 lieutenant of the religious cult known as the Rajneeshees 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 greying in her late 60s, says in a pronounced Indian accent. “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 their peak in the 1980s, there were thousands of Rajneeshees around the world who worshipped their guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho), a small, 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 Rajneeshee movement, donning their red robes all the while. Eventually, hundreds of Rajneeshees and Bhagwan himself moved from India to America. They formed a commune in Wasco County, 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. While initially they seemed to be all about meditation and lots of sex, they eventually engaged in a full-on war with the nearby townsfolk who despised them. It was a war the Rajneeshees fought with mass poisonings and druggings, 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 right-hand and she seemed to revel in 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 also, 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 Jesus’ notion of turning the other cheek, stating that the Rajneeshee 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 that 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. The footage of her is captured on video by news crews and the cult itself.
Although the Antelopers had very valid reasons to be pissed about the Rajneeshees, even before all the poisonings took place, bigotry was clearly a 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?” without a shred of irony. Apparently she'd forgotten the entire history of the American/British empire.
In its prime, the Rajneeshee 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 have 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 on Twitter.