Leftists have been celebrating the perpetrator of the United States’ largest bioterror attack on social media over the past few weeks.
Do a Twitter search for the name “Ma Anand Sheela” this week you’ll find far more praise than criticism. “Can’t get enough of this Ma Anand Sheela,” one user tweeted. “Ma Anand Sheela is my new hero,” another wrote. “Now all girls on my [timeline] want to be Ma Anand Sheela,” another tweet read.
The tweets conjure up an image of a strong-willed woman who stood up for her beliefs and never backed down. But who was Ma Anand Sheela? Sheela, a spiritual leader in the Rajneesh movement of the 1980s, pled guilty in 1985 for her role in organizing the largest bioterror attack in United States history. In 1999, Sheela was convicted in a Switzerland court of “criminal acts preparatory to the commission of murder” in relation a plot to kill U.S. federal prosecutor Charles Turner in 1985. Now, Sheela is the subject of a 2018 Netflix documentary entitled Wild Wild Country, which focuses on her leadership role in the Rajneesh cult that nearly took hold of an Oregon county in the 1980s.
Last week, VICE published a provocative column about Sheela. “I’m Obsessed with Ma Anand Sheela from ‘Wild Wild Country’ Even Though She Poisoned a Town,” the headline reads.
Although Manisha Krishnan’s VICE column acknowledges Sheela’s darkness, it’s hard to not read it for what it is, a celebration of the cult leader’s grit and influence.
Sheela was a master of manipulation. She overthrew Bhagwan’s other secretary, Laxmi, to become his righthand, and she seemed to revel in the power. She once made a young Australian disciple wax her legs in the middle of the night, later promoting her, and much later instructing her to murder Bhagwan’s doctor. The woman obeyed, though she wasn’t successful. It’s fucked up. But how many people can command that type of loyalty?
Krishnan included a tweet that called Sheela a “boss bitch,” a celebratory title meaning “a confident, successful and independent woman who speaks her mind and stands up for what she believes in.”
At what point in #WildWildCountry am I supposed to stop liking Ma Anand Sheela, because I’m on episode 5 and this boss bitch is still 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
— ameliamagritte (@xoamelia) March 26, 2018
Sheela certainly speaks her mind. In a clip not included in the documentary, Sheela injected an anti-semitic joke into an interview with a reporter. “Do you know how Jews can fit in a Volkswagen? You get 2 Germans in the front seat and 550 Jews in the ashtray,” Sheela said with a grin on her face.
— Marlow Stern (@MarlowNYC) April 2, 2018
And Sheela certainly stands up for what she believes in. To defend the Rajneesh movement from the overreach of the state of Oregon, Sheela organized the first and largest bioterror attack in United States’ history. After carefully cultivating salmonella, Sheela instructed her followers to secretly place it in food items at Oregon restaurants. 751 people were infected and 45 were hospitalized. For this crime, Sheela only served 29 months of a 20-year sentence in a California prison. Breitbart News highlighted a report last week from FiveThirtyEight that shined a light on the U.S. Sentencing Commission revelation that American women of all races receive shorter prison sentences than white men who commit the same crimes.
Since the documentary’s March release, hundreds of fans of the documentary took to Twitter to sing Sheela’s praises.
Say what you want, but Ma Anand Sheela was a bad ass pic.twitter.com/pOOpcSeKKK
— kendra shanks 🔅 (@kendrashanks) March 28, 2018
I’m watching #WildWildCountry and I know I should dislike Ma Anand Sheela but that woman was a fucking badass
— Hannah Warner ✨ (@hannieblu) April 8, 2018
One day I hope I can piss off as many white men as Ma Anand Sheela did. pic.twitter.com/cZMQbAMyUx
— sp (@sachp) March 30, 2018
Buzzfeed India editor Rega Jha even encouraged her followers to channel their inner Ma Anand Sheela.
Monday motivation: channel your inner Ma Anand Sheela this week. Smile a lot, even when it makes no sense to be smiling. Go after your goals with singleminded focus. And if anyone gets in your way, have them stabbed in the butt.
— Rega Jha (@RegaJha) April 2, 2018
Perhaps Ma Anand Sheela is the anti-hero, the Michael Corleone, that women have never had. But Corleone is, of course, fictional, an amalgamation of real-life mobsters that most Americans wouldn’t want as neighbors, let alone as personal heroes.
Sheela, however, was real. The hit she called on federal prosecutor Charles Turner was real. The hit she called on Rajneesh’s doctor was real. The mass poisoning of local Oregonians was real.
“There’s darkness in all of us. All of us have our dark side, ” the Rajneesh movement’s attorney, Philip Toelkes, says in the documentary. “That’s just nature of being human. It doesn’t make you a bad person.”
Although Ma Anand Sheela is not the strong-willed feminist role model that many portray her to be, her popularity invites an important question: what does the celebration of Sheela’s darkness say about our present American cultural moment?