Every time I’ve discussed Netflix’s new docuseries Wild Wild Country with another woman, there has always been a moment where some version of this conversation will happen:
“That Ma Anand Sheela, though.”
“Oh man, Ma Anand Sheela!”
“I know she did a lot of bad things, but I kind of love her?”
“So many bad things! But, you know, same.”
Wild Wild Country tells the story of the Rajneeshees, disciples of the guru and mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho). The Bhagwan was initially based in India, although he quickly developed a worldwide following; young, middle-class white people in particular seemed to be drawn to his teachings of meditation and sexual liberation. In 1981, the Bhagwan left his home country to build a commune in Oregon, in part due to ongoing conflicts with the Indian government. Perhaps he was hoping that he and his followers would have an easier time with the American government. If that was the case, he was sorely mistaken.
To say that the Bhagwan’s new neighbours weren’t thrilled about his arrival would be a huge understatement. Perhaps unsurprisingly in a state with a long history of white supremacy, there was a strong undercurrent of bigotry in the reaction of white Oregonians to the new Rajneesh commune. Things quickly escalated, especially after the Rajneeshees moved in on the nearby community of Antelope, where they bought up land, had their members elected to the municipal council and eventually renamed the town Rajneesh. Predictably, the Oregonians were less than enthused. As tensions mounted, the Rajneeshees began to arm themselves heavily—to the point where they had a larger cache of semiautomatic weapons than all of the police departments in their Oregon county combined. They went on to try to commit election fraud in The Dalles—the largest city in the county—first by bringing homeless people from across the country to live in their commune for the purposes of voting for their candidates, then by infecting residents of The Dalles with salmonella in the hopes that illness would keep them away from the polls.”
While the Bhagwan was nominally the leader of the Rajneeshees, it was his personal secretary and second-in-command, Ma Anand Sheela, who truly ran the show. It was Sheela who orchestrated the move to America. It was Sheela who famously went on 60 Minutes and said “tough titties” to anyone upset by the presence of the Rajneeshees in Oregon. It was Sheela who the Bhagwan blamed for all of these things, as well as attempting to murder his doctor, wiretapping his room and stealing millions of dollars from him (conveniently, his accusations came immediately after she suddenly fled the commune for Europe). Finally, it was Sheela who pleaded guilty to attempted murder and assault and was sentenced to 20 years in prison (although she was paroled after only 29 months).
And yet, in spite of her lengthy rap sheet, I still find myself completely captivated by Ma Anand Sheela. Part of that is because she’s acerbically funny, smart and very competent at what she does—the swiftness with which the Rajneesh movement fell apart after her departure is a pretty good indicator of how hard she worked to keep it together for all those years—but it’s also partly because I feel a lot of empathy towards her. Probably more empathy than she deserves, all things considered.
Here’s the thing: if the Bhagwan was a cult leader, then Sheela was one of his chief victims. She was only 16 when she was introduced to the Bhagwan (who was at that point 34) by her father, who told her that the guru was a second Buddha. Describing their first meeting in Wild Wild Country, present-day Sheela, who is now in her 60s, says: “I saw Bhagwan and that was the end of me.” She then goes on to say that in that moment she would have happily died because she felt so absolutely complete. It was then that she decided to become his disciple.
It’s clear that the Bhagwan abused Sheela’s devotion, at one point using the death of her husband to leverage her loyalty to him. In the documentary she chillingly recalls the Bhagwan’s instructions for how she ought to behave during her husband’s last hours: smiling, always smiling, “because if he sees tears, it will become difficult for him to die.” Photographs of Sheela grinning through her husband’s funeral are juxtaposed with her present-day self, who breaks down into tears while talking about what happened, saying: “I have not known a sorrow as deep as that.” After the funeral, Bhagwan had doctors sedate her for three days. When she woke up, he told her, “This chapter is finished. Now you bury yourself in the work.”
There isn’t much else in Wild Wild Country that explicitly details Bhagwan’s manipulation of Sheela, but it’s easy enough to fill in the gaps based on the context provided. When she speaks of the day she left the commune, she calls it her “personal independence day.” In an archival news clip dated from shortly after her departure, we see her accuse the Bhagwan of “exploit[ing] people by using their human frailty and emotions.” Maybe this isn’t much to go on, but it’s enough to make me believe Sheela when she says that every horrible act she committed was either ordered by the Bhagwan himself or else done with his best interests in mind.
Does that excuse the fact that she tried to poison an entire city? Of course not. Does intent ever trump impact? No, not at all. Am I a monster for liking Sheela? Probably. But I know I’m not alone in struggling with how I feel about her.
She was ambitious, belligerent and really, really good at what she did. Not morally good, but capable. And she’s still unapologetic about it. Maybe this speaks to the dearth of large-and-in-charge women we get to see in the media, but in spite of everything, I found myself cheering her on throughout Wild Wild Country. She’s been (perhaps rightfully) called a villain, but if so, why do we have to look to villains to see women who are getting things done?
Sheela still denies all the charges made against her, in spite of her guilty plea some three decades ago. In a recent interview with the Daily Beast, she says that the Bhagwan fabricated most of the charges; according to her, the CDC fudged its reports after he accused her of orchestrating the salmonella attack against The Dalles. She briefly addresses her alleged innocence at the beginning of Wild Wild Country, saying: “I have been accused of a laundry list of heinous crimes. Of course, all of them attempted. Normally, I succeed in what I do. That is a joke.”
Maybe I’m the type of person who is susceptible to mendacious, charismatic people, but seriously: How can you not love a woman who says something like that?
More from Anne Thériault:
I Gave Up Hating Myself for Lent Because Chocolate Was Too Easy
I Already Have a Cryptocurrency: It’s Called Sephora Insider Points
We’re Only Having Half the Conversation We Need to About Mass Shootings
Remember the Women of the Montreal Massacre by More than Just Their Names