By Sharanya Gopinathan
I watched four full episodes of Wild Wild Country, a new Netflix docu-series ostensibly about the ‘cult’ of Rajneesh, or Osho, before suddenly understanding that all I was watching was a totally beautiful, twisted love story.
In retrospect, I feel I was a bit slow on the uptake. I should have known all along I was watching a great, epic romance unfold between Osho and the mysterious Ma Anand Sheela, but I got side-tracked by some small niggling details like attempted murder and successful bioterrorism. Maybe it’s the timing. In December, I might have simply marvelled at Sheela’s powers and thought ki this bitch cray-zy. But I’ve just had my heart broken, and the whole world has changed, and I can suddenly understand Sheela ki jawani because it’s my jawani too.
Absolutely packed with wonderful old footage from the 80s, Wild Wild Country tells the story of ‘Bhagwan’ Rajneesh and the Rajneeshis. It shows the group’s original, controversial base in Poona, their shift to Antelope, Oregon (The Middle of American Nowhere) in 1980, and all of the remarkable, violent events that took place between the Rajneeshis and the residents of Oregon until the group finally packed up and left in 1985, leaving law enforcement and the elderly residents of Antelope cheering happily in their wake. Through it all, you see Osho’s secretary, the proud, defiant Ma Anand Sheela marshalling the resources of the organisation, and frequently flipping the bird to the American people and authorities.
Like everyone else, I soon found myself noticing that this is less the story of Rajneesh or Osho, who appears almost in passing—a hidden, mysterious figure in seclusion from the viewer as he secluded himself from the world—and more the story of the powerful, resourceful, vindictive, driven and utterly devoted Ma Anand Sheela.
There’s little we know about her early life (from the show and the interwebs) but that she turned a devotee of Osho the moment she saw him in Mumbai at age 16, when something inexplicable just clicked for her that changed the course of the rest of her life. She quickly rose to become his most powerful aide, his trusted personal secretary, and the woman who really ran the powerful organisation, aided by Ma Shanthi Bhadra (an Australian woman who learnt how to shoot rabbits from her father before she was ten, and therefore becomes the cult’s expert markswoman) and Ma Devi Puja (in charge of drugging all the different people the organisation drugged at various points in its existence). It was Sheela’s diabolical (and now in a post 9/11 world, ludicrously implausible) idea for the Rajneeshis to move out of India and settle down on a 64,000 acre ranch in Oregon, USA to build a new city, Rajneeshpuram, as a shrine or abode for Bhagwan Rajneesh.
She uses the organisation’s massive wealth (pouring in from charity-happy white folks) to actually build a real new city from scratch in that desert, complete with dams, irrigation systems, newly renewed farmlands and housing complexes. She used every legal loophole there was in federation-obsessed USA to register Rajneeshpuram as a city in its own right (including an unsuccessful plan to temporarily bus over homeless people from all over the country to vote in local elections), in a partially fruitful bid for control over local self government and police forces, and access to the government’s criminal and financial records.
When clashes between the Rajneeshis and the outraged retired white Christian locals of Antelope (who can’t process what they see as a New Age sex cult taking over their little town) escalate, she orders a massive bioterrorism attack, and infects the local salad bars with salmonella, all in a bid to maintain control of the area and allow the new city of Rajneeshpuram to flourish.
Until episode 4, I was staggered by her extreme ruthlessness. Here, I thought, is the story that disproves what I may have half-believed, the living anti-thesis of that weird but optimistic joke, ‘If women ruled the world there would be no wars, just a bunch of angry countries not talking to each other.’ As I watched a fiery young Sheela in all that archival footage, my brain kept accidentally calling her Maya because she looked exactly like former Gujarat Minister for Women and Child Development under then-Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the alleged trishul-wielding inciter of riots, Maya Kodnani. Here, I thought, was living proof that women, too, could be violent, heartless, greedy, power-hungry political monsters.
Oh but my dear, I completely forgot about love. She was in love, it was love, just love all along. It took her leaving him, in the circumstances that she eventually did, for me to realise that I hadn’t been watching a documentary about Rajneesh and the Rajneeshis at all. This wasn’t even about mysterious Ma Anand Sheela and her speedy, greedy rise and fall from power. This was simply the glorious love story of Sheela and Rajneesh, the fucked up love story of Sheela and Rajneesh.
Because you see (and I cannot sigh more heavily than this), love stories can look a lot like this too. And for some people and in some lives, they simply do.
Sheela was devoted to Osho, and truly believed in his great power. It’s the one thing that you just can’t doubt for a second. She loved this man for what he was, for the implacable, indescribable something she simply believed that he possessed within him. Her love was a single-minded admiration of a facet of him that was inherent and his own, something he could never ever share with her, but that she believed just did exist inside him. This is the kind of love she had for Rajneesh, and it is a powerful, dangerous kind of love.
It’s a kind of love that I understand. I’ve met it a couple of times before.
A few months ago, I fell hard for a man’s admittedly prodigious intellect. This was a part of him that really had nothing to do with me. I knew he had nothing else to offer me and indeed, he didn’t even really offer me his intellect. It was simply a great thing he had, and always would have, and I couldn’t help but be hugely impressed by it all. For a while, I was happy to just admire it, and to admire the rest of him for it too.
This kind of love is the most glorious inside your own head. How Osho drifts in and out of this show that’s ostensibly supposed to be all about him, so men like this play second fiddle to the figment you construct in your imagination. Because he seemed to have no personability outside this massive brain, it was easy for me to ascribe whatever I wanted to his personality, and to take what I made of him and just run with it from there. It was the kind of adoration that made me do things I’d soon regret, and that allowed me to temporarily put my own pride on hold.
Long ago, I kept a diary in adoration of another formidably intelligent boy, a boy who simply couldn’t appreciate what I wrote or me, then. But then again, I didn’t need him to appreciate either of us anyway. That diary was a testament to the strength and beauty of my love, and I was happy to build that, to keep creating and nurturing it every day into something new. It wasn’t about him, this person I loved, it was about my love, and the making of something beautiful out of it.
When I think of Rajneeshpuram, that Sheela slaved over, drew battle lines for and made perfect as the abode of the being she loved, I understand that what she made was a glorious testament of a great love, a project of epic proportions she took on to actualise every great thing her heart felt, a mission to create something beautiful out of what she felt for him.
This kind of love can just grow and multiply in your head. It’s easy to turn back to your lover one day and say, ‘look, I have done this for you’, and it’s just as easy for them to look back at you and say, ‘but I never asked you to’. It’s hard to divorce your love from your lover, but in love like this, that is just what you do, and that split can make a woman do ‘Crazy Things’.
A single-minded determination of purpose in love can be a powerful thing, but it can also spin you out so fast you forget where you were going with this.
For Sheela, it was never the substance of the actual relationship she had with Osho that kept her hooked. She adored Osho for something she saw inside him, and that admiration was a huge part of her love. She spent decades single-mindedly building and growing the love she had as a result, but this kind of love lets you lose your self very quickly.
This really is a kind of selfless love I understand, and now I am beginning to understand what perhaps necessarily comes with it. Fortunately or unfortunately, this is the only kind of real love I’ve ever known, and I already know it to be a very painful kind indeed.
So painful, in fact, that I’ve told myself so many times that what I feel isn’t love at all. It couldn’t be love if it hurt this much, if was so skewed out of my favour, if it was just inherently, necessarily so very fucked up. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be, but now I realise it simply was.
Not all love stories are beautiful, but these are love stories too.
Leaving a powerful man you love like this isn’t easy at all, even if you were never with him in the first place. Sheela and I learnt this the hard way. Er… admittedly, Sheela much more than me.
When I stopped speaking to this man I admired, I didn’t think he would care a hoot. He wasn’t a factor in my decision to disappear, no, not at all. I was just sick of myself, and how I was feeling, and of all the things my admiration was making me do. I was really tired of my mind’s eye being locked in an imaginary staring contest with a guy who might actually be blind or at least couldn’t see me, so I blinked and decided to find my own way. I didn’t think that he would notice I had disappeared, or care to think about it if he did.
So I know that feeling, that light-hearted, relieved, whooping euphoria of freedom that Sheela and Ma Shanthi Bhadra and Devi Puja felt when they finally decided to leave Rajneeshpuram together, because they couldn’t stomach the fact that they’d tried to kill Osho’s doctor. Everything they had done until that point, even trying to kill the doctor to save Osho’s life, they had done in some way for him. But leaving, oh, they did that purely for themselves. And indeed, as Osho angrily tells reporters, she didn’t even stop to say goodbye.
When you adore something so sterile and remote from afar, you forget that adoration has its own great power too. If a part of me believes that great minds exist (and forgive me, I think I do), and that they should be cognisant of their greatness and its effects on those who meet them, then perhaps its equally reasonable to expect that these minds expect adoration, or acclimate to it quickly because they understand why they have it. Taking that away from a gifted person can make them crazy too, and react in ways that perhaps even they don’t understand.
I couldn’t believe it when the man I ghosted took a swipe at me I think in retaliation, a vengeful action with huge consequences for me. I didn’t expect it. My disappearing, I did for me, and I couldn’t imagine my leaving would provoke him into doing anything. It did though, and he hurt me for it, and I couldn’t make any sense of it. How could a person like that act in spite against me, all for cutting my losses and heading out the door?
But it makes more sense now. There’s nothing to stop a great mind lashing out and hurting you, because great intelligence doesn’t make you a perfect person. Nothing does. Sheela’s departure provoked Osho into abandoning the silence and seclusion he had imposed on himself for four full years, and he used his first speech to wreak vengeance upon her, selling her and her every questionable deed out to the American media and authorities. Both were more than happy to use Osho’s own admissions of what happened at the ashram to launch a full scale legal assault on him and all that he stood for.
Watching him bring sheer destruction down on his own head and everybody’s, on the entire religion, the city and everything Sheela had built for him, I realise that she, his adorer, had prodigious power too. Her leaving him made him set out to destroy her. Thank goodness history stepped in and ensured Osho only destroyed himself.
Sheela continues to live in Zurich now, spending every day with elderly people in varying stages of dementia. She says she continues to do Bhagwan’s work in new ways, and she doesn’t feel guilty about the life that she has led. She said she paid her dues in jail (and never betrayed Osho, by the way) and by law, she has nothing left to feel guilty for.
Ultimately, a big part of the glorious love story of Sheela and Rajneesh was, as some loves unfortunately just are, in many ways a long-drawn out game of power. But at the end of it all, Sheela defeated no one in love, and she still emerged very, very victorious.
I’ve been thinking of #MeToo and all my relationships a lot lately, and none of it left me feeling very good about myself. I’m a feminist, you see, and feminists are supposed to see right through emotionally unavailable geniuses, we’re meant to immediately recognise the first signs of toxicity and super kick them in the face shouting ‘eat my dust’ triumphantly as we charge out the door.
Trying to come to terms with exactly how deeply implicated I was in my own subjugation in many different experiences in my life wasn’t meant to be an exercise in self-flagellation, but I don’t have the words and tools right now to do it any other way. I can’t think of how I’ve allowed my heart to be hurt by ‘brilliant’ men without feeling very bad about myself and the kind of woman I must therefore be.
The more I thought about this kind of love I’m prone to, this necessarily admirational one sided kind of love and the shimmering potential for abuse that comes with it, the more I thought that I must just be an awful person. What does it actually say, I used to wonder, about myself in love, that my best qualities are merely loyalty and admiration? What kind of person keeps falling in a love like this?
A small person, I decided, a mean person with no spine or principles and misplaced priorities, a woman searching for something to believe in and ending up at the feet of some frightfully intelligent man (ugh). This, I thought, was the love of the anti-feminist and the weak, the kind of love that no one should ever write or sing about, or dare to call a love story.
But then I saw Ma Sheela, and everything has changed. Sheela is not a small woman, mean, weak, purposeless or meek. She’s the largest, most powerful, destructive and creative figure I’ve seen in a long time, and there’s only so much I can condemn her acts of madness born in love. She literally moved the rivers and mountains of Oregon in her powerful adoration, and what she made of her life and love isn’t something you can thumb your nose at. This kind of love can be powerful even if it makes you feel powerless, and if this can happen to Sheela, it can happen to you and me, and if it can happen to the best of us, this really is okay.
Because some love stories just do look like this. They’re skewed, and fucked up, and can make you feel uniquely bad about your self and principles, and perhaps they even should, but I’m learning that you can never take the love you felt out of a love story. Love can be one-sided, unrequited or taken for granted, but none of that takes the validity or value of your love away, or makes it embarrassing or unworthy of being called love. I mean, love stories don’t get greater than Sheela and Rajneesh, and even their great love just imploded unto itself. Life is long, and very strange, and love stories are strange too.
You know, I’m even sure, after all this and everything, that I will fall in this kind of love again. Sorry but not sorry, I think it’s just in my nature to. But I won’t make excuses for my love ever again, because if there’s anything Sheela’s taught me, it’s that all this is love too, and I should never second guess the feeling or dismiss my own as shameful. It takes something mighty to love the way that I do, and I am glad that I can now proudly say that I have loved very greatly too.
May 17, 2018 at 4:47 pm
Beautifully written. I’m currently in Part 4 where Sheila leaves. Osho s retaliation seems totally disappointing of a man of his stature but is admittedly very human.