Maybe a dozen friends, most of them impressionable teenagers, gathered around Ma Anand Sheela inside the housing compound called Jesus Grove. The young people, fellow sannyasins (followers) of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, wanted to know why the woman known as “Mom” was leaving Rajneeshpuram, the self-styled Utopia combining spiritual pursuit and yuppie pleasures that was carved into the Oregon desert some 190 miles southeast of Portland. “Why, Sheela? Why?” entreated one protégé, kneeling at the 35-year-old woman’s side.
This little tableau took place more than two weeks ago. It was staged shortly before Sheela—the guru’s all-powerful deputy—mounted one of Rajneesh’s several planes for the first leg of a journey which reportedly took her to Switzerland. Sheela, by some accounts, told her admirers she was leaving because “there was so much disunity in the community” and she was “tired of trying to hold it all together.” Yet, hardly had she departed when the alleged “real” reasons for the mercurial Sheela’s mysterious and hasty getaway began to emerge—among them, that she had stashed about $43 million of the guru’s nest egg in numbered Swiss accounts of her own. With the Bhagwan’s eager cooperation, the allegations of the dark sides of Sheela’s shenanigans are now under investigation by six law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI. Sheela later told NBC that she left because her life was in danger, and accused commune leaders of distributing the psychoactive drug Ecstasy to Rajneeshees.
The dramatic exodus of Sheela and an estimated 15 of her close cohorts was the most explosive event yet in the commune’s five-year history—and that is saying a lot. Known at first primarily for its advocacy of free love, recreational gambling and Rolls-Royces (at latest count the Bhagwan’s followers have provided 90 for his use), the cult made news by taking over the town council, changing the town’s name from Antelope to Rajneesh in 1984—and last year attempting to take over the whole county by busing in some 2,000 homeless transients and registering them to vote.
In the commune, the prevalent reaction to Sheela’s departure was one of relief at the end of her repressive rule. According to Rajneesh and his sannyasins, Sheela was a hybrid of “Judas,” “Mussolini” and, for her array of dirty tricks, “Richard Nixon.” They charge that with her gang of followers she conspired to attempt the murder of the following individuals: Jefferson County DA Michael Sullivan, Wasco County Planning Commissioner Ray Matthews, Superior Court Judge William Hulse, Rajneesh himself and his doctor, dentist and caretaker. They say that Sheela’s cohorts introduced salmonella poisoning into the nearby city of The Dalles, that they planned the torching this past January of the Wasco County Planning Office and that after the fire failed to destroy the government complex, Sheela ordered a Rajneesh pilot to load a plane with explosives and aim it at the county courthouse before bailing out. (The pilot refused the mission and fled to West Germany.) In addition they accuse her inner circle of compiling a “s—list” of the commune’s enemies(both within and without Rajneeshpuram), tapping commune telephones—and they imply that she may have been plundering the cult’s treasury.
The evidence produced to support the charges included books on how to kill and dozens of sophisticated bugging devices allegedly used by Sheela to weed out suspected malcontents. Ma Anand Zeno, 41 (née Diane Cole), remembers the time she made the mistake of questioning Mom’s Big Brother tactics: “I knew there was wiretapping going on, but I didn’t have positive proof. We were told over and over again it was for Bhagwan’s security and that we couldn’t say anything about it.” In December 1984, after calling her parents to complain about the way the commune was being run, Zeno was called to the clinic for an unspecified blood test. “The next day,” says Zeno, “they told me I had tested positive for the AIDS antibody.” The young woman was removed from her job with the commune’s video crew. She was separated from her husband, who was not tested for AIDS, and was isolated two miles from the commune proper with 10 men also diagnosed with the disease. “I started thinking about suicide,” she says. “I was in agony.” Two days after Sheela’s defection, Zeno was retrieved from quarantine and retested for the AIDS antibody. The test, she says, came up negative.
Meanwhile the Bhagwan’s personal physician, Swami Devaraj, claims he incurred the wrath of Sheela merely by being in close daily contact with the guru. “In the last year,” he says, “Sheela grew more and more hostile to me. She made it known that I was not to be trusted, that I was a detriment to the community.” In July 1984, Devaraj says, he became ill after eating at one of the commune’s two cafeterias. The next morning he was taken to the clinic, where Ma Anand Puja gave him a shot of a “vitamin solution.” The following day Devaraj’s condition worsened dramatically. “By now,” he recalls, “I was thinking Puja had been incompetent. I wasn’t thinking poisoning yet.”
Devaraj recovered, but only, he says, to weather another frightening incident this past July at a festival during which 15,000 sannyasins cavorted in the commune theater. “I was leaning up against a speaker box,” he says, “when Shanti Bhadra [one of Sheela’s coterie] came up behind me. I suddenly felt something in my buttock, then something sharp. It was very fast. Then I almost immediately felt something in my head. I thought, ‘My God, I’ve been given an injection.’ ” The doctor says he began coughing up blood and experiencing symptoms of pulmonary edema. After what he calls a conspicuously long delay, he was flown to a nearby hospital, where he remained in intensive care for 36 hours. The alleged injection was explained away by Sheela’s people as a loose pin in his robe.
And where was the Bhagwan during all this? In virtual seclusion. In 1982, reportedly ailing, Rajneesh retreated from contact with the sannyasins. For three and a half years he would talk to no one but Sheela, who became both his mouthpiece and his window on the world. “I became an invisible god to them,” says Rajneesh of his disciples, who caught only glimpses of him every afternoon when he motored through the countryside in one of the Rolls-Royces. “And she became a Pope. It happened because I remained silent—that’s how it happened.”
There was, however, something inevitable about the rise to power of Ma Anand Sheela. Born Dec. 28, 1949 in Baroda, India, she was the youngest of six children of a middle-class Indian couple who were—in spiritual matters, at least—far from bourgeois. The family home was reportedly a way station for vagabond philosophers and mystics. Indeed, according to Rajneeshee officials, the young Bhagwan was one of their earliest guests. When the future guru was born in 1932, his parents heeded an astrologer’s warning and put the boy up for adoption by Sheela’s parents for the first seven years of his life. Thus, Sheela is his stepsister. In 1967 Sheela went with her father to her first Rajneesh lecture. Shortly thereafter, she came to the United States. In 1969 she married Marc Harris Silverman, who was afflicted with Hodgkin’s disease. In 1973 Sheela and Silverman pointed for Poona, India—the Bhagwan’s center of operations—where they became sannyasins.
Sheela quickly became assistant to Yoga Laxmi, Rajneesh’s personal secretary. After a power struggle in 1980, she took Laxmi’s job. By this time Silverman was dead, and she’d married Swami Prem Jayananda, also known as John Joseph Shelft, a onetime bank officer from New Jersey. It was in June 1980 that Sheela and her swami-cum-financier husband closed the $6 million deal on the 64,000-acre Big Muddy Ranch—the arid, overgrazed chunk of Oregon that became the cult’s spiritual pleasure dome.
The Bhagwan gazes beatifically when he recalls how Sheela gained such power. “The reason,” he says, “is that Sheela was not only creating something ugly and Fascist. She was also creating a community. She was making the desert an oasis. She was making the commune comfortable. Every coin has two sides.”
By late 1983, however, Sheela had assembled about her a cadre of female supporters who formed a matriarchy controlling the fortunes of the 5,000-odd souls in the commune. By most reports she became increasingly paranoid, suspecting that people were plotting to subvert her exalted relationship with Rajneesh.
Sheela, it seems, is already old news in Eden. A mere two weeks after her departure, a new guard has filled the power vacuum left by Mom and her circle. Heading the replacements is Ma Prem Hasya, a Paris-born beauty and ex-wife of Al Ruddy, the man who produced The Godfather. But not to fear: This time, says Rajneesh, who promises not to nod off at the helm, power will be rotated regularly.
As for Sheela—well, the buoyant little man with the beard says he’s not angry with her. “I am simply sad for her,” he explains. “The moment she sees me, she will fall at my feet and cry.” Meanwhile, perhaps to ensure that, the Bhagwan is helping police work up a shopping list of charges against her.