To say my great aunt Sheela is infamous would be an understatement. You might know her as Sheela Biernstiel, but more likely you have heard of her as Ma Anand Sheela. She is best known for her work as the personal secretary of Bagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho. In the early 1980’s she helped Osho build and run Rajneeshpuram, a commune of thousands in a rural part of Oregon. You can now find her in Switzerland, in a small and picturesque town where she runs two nursing homes. Her hair may be grayer, but age has not diminished Sheela’s undeniable magnetism and strength.
While I grew up hearing stories about my great aunt and Rajneeshpuram (my grandparents and father lived on it as well), it wasn’t until the Netflix series “Wild Wild Country” premiered that I realized what an incredibly strong and accomplished woman she is. I was excited and nervous to talk with her, as I had many burning questions and a lot of admiration for her and her life. However, my nerves were soon settled by her inviting smile. We quickly dove into a deep and stimulating discussion about her life. In this exclusive interview, I talk with Sheela about gender roles, love, her childhood, her experience in prison, and more:
Growing up as a young girl in India did you feel like you were raised believing you could do anything, or were there gender restraints on what you could and couldn’t aspire to do?
No, I had wonderful luck in having beautiful parents that were not bound by tradition and religion.
What was the biggest lesson that you learned from your parents growing up?
Courage, love, and loyalty.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I consider myself an individual, I live life on my own terms.
Do you mean to say that you don’t like being put in a category?
Yes, but people give me many categories. Everyone has an opinion about me, good, bad, or ugly. But it doesn’t concern me because it doesn’t reflect me.
I and many others see you as a strong female role model. What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced as a female businesswoman and spokesperson?
People are very ready to judge a female. Especially if she shows her clarity and her intelligence. This sometimes makes people uncomfortable. People generally don’t like strong women because they believe that women should be second-class citizens. Well, the world got a rude reality check (laughs). There are a few women like me, but there will be many more women like me, like you.
One of your most famous quotes as you know, is “tough titties.” Do you feel like saying that on live TV shaped your public persona? Do you regret saying it?
No, I never regretted it. That interviewer was trying to dominate the conversation, plus he came with many judgments about the man I loved. When you try to poke a tigress to hurt her community she is not going to sit quiet. And if she sits quiet, she’s not a true tigress. I was committed to protecting Bagwan, his community, and his teachings. They shouldn’t have underestimated me.
Do you have a spiritual practice?
What is that? (laughs) My parents taught me to live life on my own terms, I don’t need a spiritual practice.
You talk a lot about having no regrets. Is this something you have always believed in or was it a learned philosophy?
It is not a question of philosophy, it is a question of understanding life for what life is. When you make a mistake, correct it, then there is no need for regret. My parents taught us to live a free life without guilt. Why should I have guilt? They taught us that when you make a mistake, correct it and don’t repeat it. This is what I learned from Bagwan too. Don’t focus on your guilt, focus on your correction.
What is a piece of advice you would give to someone who is just falling in love?
Go deep into love. Love is something one should never compromise. Love is something that should be secured. Not by making someone else a prisoner, but by holding them in understanding and in love.
Do you believe autonomy is one of the most important things in a relationship?
For me freedom must be respected and should not be traded.
For someone that values freedom so much what was it like being in prison?
I learned three important things in prison: time, patience, and acceptance. The first 10 months were difficult. But it was in those first 10 months that I had worked out many issues, mainly the extreme negativity that had been thrown on me from people all over the world. To digest all that took time, but I’m glad I had the time. While in prison I had to find my own strength within me. I used Bagwan’s own teachings to come to that point. I can say firsthand that his teachings work because they helped pull me out of a hole.
So, was prison a big time of reflection for you?
Definitely. While I was in prison I wrote a letter to my parents every day. This communication was so essential. They offered me love and trust without any expectations. Their love and trust in me was my biggest strength.
What is one piece of advice you would give to a young woman?
Live your own life on your own terms and don’t blame anyone else for your hard times. You are capable and have enough competency to go forward with your life. Take responsibility because without responsibility you won’t have freedom.