Where is or was Rajneeshpuram in the US


She was once the closest confidante of the legendary guru Baghwan. Today Sheela Birnstiel - alias Ma Anand Sheela - has created a new existence in Switzerland as a carer for the disabled. She has left her reputation behind as a suspected pioneer of a bioterrorist attack in the USA. A home story.

This content was published on April 16, 2018 - 1:28 PM

Swissinfo.ch's India specialist covers a wide range of topics, from bilateral relations to Bollywood. He is also familiar with Swiss watchmaking and has a preference for French-speaking Switzerland.

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Whoever arrives in the village of Maisprach is in rural Switzerland. The yellow post bus that transports older women with shopping bags and schoolchildren returning home for lunch takes me near the center of the village. A sign at the bus stop shows the way to Matrusaden, Sheela's home for the disabled.

The path leads along a narrow road through green fields and meanders uphill to a small gorge. Another matriculation sign protrudes from a foliage carpet. I'm more and more afraid of meeting the infamous Sheela. Sheela's entry on WikipediaExternal link is doing her a disservice:

"Ma Anand Sheela (born December 28, 1949 in Baroda, India) was the secretary, spokeswoman and 'right hand man' of Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (cf. Box) from 1981 to 1985. In September 1984 Ma Anand Sheela founded one of her groups to an attack in which the salad bars in various restaurants in the town of The Dalles were contaminated with salmonella and 751 residents became ill.

There were no fatalities, but 47 people had to be hospitalized. The attack is considered the first bioterrorism attack of the 20th century. (...) On October 28, 1985 Sheela was arrested in the Federal Republic of Germany and transferred to Oregon. In early 1986 she was sentenced to ten years in prison. "

In truth, it was 39 months. Sheela Birnstiel never confessed to the crime. Even today, she leaves it in the vague who speaks to her. As if there were an inner truth and an outer truth, both of which exist peacefully side by side. That would correspond to the perception that has remained of Baghwan, this guru, also known as Osho, whose closest confidante Sheela was for a long time.

Has Baghwan exploited his cult disciples, the sanyasins, sexually and financially - for his decadent life in luxury, as captors of human beings, as critics say? Or did he give them a meaning with the teaching of celibacy and Far Eastern wisdom that they would otherwise not have found in life as a spiritual master?

I climb the hill and see the house. There are several vehicles in the parking lot. I hear my name calling Two women come out of the house, call my name and wave me inside. Sheela is one of them.

I'm amazed at how frail she looks, but that's because the photos and videos I saw were taken decades ago. This year she will be 70 years old.

Dementia temple

Inside the building I discover a large photo of a bearded man. My first thought that it was Sheela's former guru, Rajneesh, turns out to be a mistake on closer inspection. Sheela tells me it's a photo of her father. Next to it hangs a picture of her mother. Sheela calls the two houses of her home for the handicapped "Matrusaden" (mother house) and "Bapusaden" (father house), in honor of her deceased parents.

I am shown to the office. The office furniture and computers for administrative work are surrounded by beds for the patients. Sheela calls the room "Dementia Mandir" or Dementia Temple. Severely disabled patients spend the night here so that they do not feel isolated. Part of their strategy is to normalize dying by exposing residents to the death of other patients in the room.

"Many mentally handicapped people are very afraid of death. They should come into contact with it to see that it is nothing to be afraid of," says Sheela.

Most of the patients are in the sun-drenched winter garden at the other end of the house. They are busy with their coloring books. One by one, they introduce themselves and shake my hand. Many were born abroad in countries like Brazil, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Serbia, Germany, Austria and India. The youngest is 42, the oldest 83.

Most of them have been living in mattresses for over a decade. Patients between 18 and 64 years of age are admitted. But they can stay as long as necessary.

Matrusaden is a non-profit foundation. The patients receive state support to cover all or part of the monthly costs of 8,500 francs for their care.

"We are known for dealing with difficult patients who were unable to find a place in other institutions because of their disabilities. We have patients who were previously in 15 other homes," says Sheela.

The only patients Sheela turns away are drug addicts and quadriplegics. She does not feel responsible for the former and the latter require a special infrastructure that can hardly be set up in a small house.

There is not a single area in the home where patients are excluded. You can enter any room, even Sheela's bedroom, which is on the first floor of the house.

A large photo catches my eye. It shows Sheela serving Baghwan champagne. I find it difficult to understand why she still has affection for the man who blamed her for carrying out the terrorist attacks against the American government and the commune. His allegations resulted in Sheela spending 39 months behind bars.

"My character was killed by Bhagwan and his people and the Oregon government. I tried to process this and had no idea what I would do when I got out of prison. When I finally did, I was unfit for the outside world "says Sheela.

After serving her sentence, she left the USA for Germany, where she was refused entry. Germany arrested Sheela in 1985 after she had left Oregon and the commune for the first time and extradited Sheela to the United States. After a short stay in Portugal, Sheela settled in Switzerland in 1989.

She had already acquired Swiss citizenship in 1984 through her marriage to a Swiss citizen who was responsible for the Rajneeshpuram commune in Zurich. Her husband died while serving her sentence in the US leaving no one to rely on. A German lawyer with whom she was having an affair refused to leave his wife and start a new life with her.

"I was still in shock about my previous life and adjusting to a new environment. It was a very intense time," she recalls.

Eventually she found a job as a housekeeper for an elderly couple in Basel.

"It felt good because I missed my parents very much. The old couple were in their eighties and they helped me calm my heart," she says.

She later rented a house and in 1990 took in six elderly disabled patients. She built a reputation as a competent nurse and five years later moved to a larger location where she was responsible for 16 patients.

"At that time there were no educational requirements. You could see that I was doing a good job and let me work alone for 18 years."

When legal provisions for caring for the disabled were finally introduced, Sheela says she had to work hard to meet the requirements. In 2008 her home was recognized by the state, but the philosophy behind the care is based on personal intuition and life experience.

"Prison was my highest qualification. I don't see it as a pure waste of time. There I learned to have patience, to recognize the value of time and to better accept my own reality. These are the skills that I use in my work." she explains.

Back in the spotlight

Sheela remained fairly anonymous during her first three years in Switzerland. She was not hiding, but no one had made the connection between Sheela, the caregiver, and the controversial Ma Anand Sheela of the Rajneeshpuram Commune. That all changed when a journalist from a regional newspaper contacted her to write an article about retirement homes.

"After I gave him a two-hour interview, the journalist called me again later and said my face and name were known. When I confirmed his suspicion that I was the Rajneeshpuram Sheela, he wrote an article about me instead about retirement homes. That's why I became known to the public again. "

The fact that her cover was blown didn't bother her because she never shied away from her past.

"It's a crown that I still wear today and that I've never felt ashamed of. It was an honor to live with men like Bhagwan. He had a huge impact on my life experience, which in turn influenced my work," she says.

With the care of the 29 patients in the two nursing homes, she is fully occupied.

"I think living in Rajneeshpuram Commune was a useful experience." When you've managed such a huge place, a home like this seems like a trifle, "she says.

In the afternoon, Sheela's sister returns from a shopping spree. She is not happy about the visit from swissinfo.ch.

"I think journalists are people who can't work for a living, but earn money with other people's lives. That was so long ago and yet the media can't leave them alone," she says.

I can understand their hostility. Sheela is open about her life. What a dream for journalists can be a nightmare for family members.

Still, I have one last question: How important is the home for disabled people in their lives compared to life in Rajneeshpuram Commune?

"Since leaving Bhagwan, all I have been doing is my own child. I am proud to say that his training has been useful. Rajneeshpuram Commune was Bhagwan's life's work. But Matrusadening is the work of me and my team . I am happy with both of my legacies: with and without Bhagwan. "

Rajneesh and Sheela

The spiritual guru from India, known under the name Osho or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, had a fan base in Mumbai from the 1970s. He later moved to Pune, where his followers built a retreat for him. He became known for his sermons against religious orthodoxy. In 1981 he appointed Sheela, a native of India, to be his secretary. She was tasked with finding a new location for the municipality. In Oregon (USA) a ranch was bought for almost 6 million dollars and renamed Rajneeshpuram. It became the headquarters of the Rajneesh Empire.

The community soon came into conflict with locals, who were bothered by the alternative lifestyle of the red-clad Rajneesh students. In order to overcome the hurdles for their construction projects, the municipality succeeded in electing its members to the local government. In 1985, Sheela left the community on the grounds that she could not meet Rajneesh's demands for Rolls-Royce and expensive watches. After their departure, Rajneesh broke his vow of silence and accused Sheela and her closest aides of poisoning local residents with salmonella bacteria to influence the results of the local election. He also claimed she stole $ 55 million from the community.

Sheela was arrested in Germany and extradited to the United States, where she was charged, among other things, with attempted murder. She eventually pleaded guilty to immigration fraud and illegal phone tapping and served 39 months of her 20-year prison sentence. Rajneesh was also briefly arrested, but sentenced to a 10-year suspended sentence and to leave the United States for immigration fraud. After a few years of nomadic life, he returned to his original retreat in Pune in 1987 and died three years later at the age of 58.

A documentary entitled Wild Wild Wild CountryExternal Link about Rajneesh, Sheela and the Rajneeshpuram Commune in Oregon was released this year.

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