Apart from looking after Chinmaya, Sheela was now spending most of her time travelling around India and abroad. Bhagwan [Osho], who had outgrown his space only a few short years after moving to Poona, had instructed Laxmi early on to search for a new piece of land where his ever-growing commune could swell and stretch ceaselessly.
For the last two years, Laxmi had been searching in Gujarat, its surrounding areas and other parts of India and Sheela had accompanied her on several occasions for official meetings, land hunting, etc. Obtaining land permits in India to expand Bhagwan’s work now seemed like an insurmountable task since the Guru had offended many politicians with his polemical words, and a brooding negative sentiment regarding Bhagwan and his work now permeated through the bureaucratic arenas of the country.
Sheela had once accompanied Laxmi on a trip to Delhi, to pay a brief visit to the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. Even though Indira Gandhi had never visited the Ashram in Poona, she was highly intrigued by the New Age Guru’s philosophy and had invariably accepted his books with a nod of gratitude. By the tail end of the 1970s, Bhagwan’s notoriety had assumed gigantic proportions nationwide, and Indira Gandhi, who was a highly circumspect politician, was too intimidated to actively promote or encourage the growth of his work in his home country.
One hot summer day, Laxmi and Sheela stood upright in a semi-circle in the Prime Minister’s drawing room, patiently waiting for her arrival. Although distinct from afar, the two orange-robed women were amongst a dozen other visitors who had come with their individual requests. Indira Gandhi strode into the room and then slowly shuffled past the guests, addressing each visitor individually before moving on to the next one. As she approached the two sannyasin women and stood in front of them, Laxmi craned her neck, briefly narrated her ‘land-woes’ in the Prime Minister’s ear and then handed her a letter that lucidly stated all their requests. After the Prime Minister had nodded, Sheela proffered her a few of Bhagwan’s latest books, to which the Prime Minister genially smiled and bowed, expressing her gratitude.
Apart from meeting the Prime Minister, Sheela had also been entertaining numerous dignitaries and state officials in the luxurious restaurants and swanky bars of various five-star hotels of India. The famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Bombay was one of Sheela’s regular haunts, where she would dine with several bigwigs and schmooze with the top guns in order to secure lucrative deals for the expansion of the Ashram. Unfortunately though, the hotel would soon close its doors on all orange-robed sannyasin women, after a number of them were repeatedly caught in a prostitution racket, bringing defamation into the fancy foyer of this prestigious five-star hotel. But the top-cat Sheela was exempted of course.
Bhagwan’s promulgation of a promiscuous lifestyle and his relentless provocative speeches had turned him into a dartboard for the prudes. Many conventional bitter-enders were itching to teach the god-man a lesson. The meek ones would do it subtly by cutting the Guru with razor-blades under the guise of touching his feet, while the fuming swashbucklers would be equipped with daggers to throw at the Guru at any given time.
It had happened once in Bombay, in Bhagwan’s Woodland apartment days during his evening discourse, when an infuriated man in an inebriated state had attempted to enter Bhagwan’s flat with a knife in his hand. And the second time was at the Ashram.
On the slothful morning of 22 May 1980, Bhagwan, who was majestically seated on the podium, flanked by kneeling bodyguards, was delivering his discourse in the Buddha Hall. The crowd sat still, silent and stupefied. Sheela had as usual, positioned herself uncompromisingly, in the direct vision of her Bhagwan in the front row, and was sitting in silent ruptures as she ogled at her beloved unblinkingly.
Fifteen minutes into Bhagwan’s lecture, a young Indian man stood up, about twenty yards from Bhagwan. All the startled heads turned in the direction of the man as he ferociously yelled from afar, ‘You are ridiculing our religion …’ and then stormed towards the Guru with bloodshot eyes and a savagely contorted face. A few bodyguards pounced upon the man and grabbed him in a vice-like grip. Another accomplice leapt up from behind, to the rescue of his ally; and amidst all the scuffle and tussle, an arm flailed above the grappling bodies and a sharp knife flew towards Bhagwan, but fortunately missed its target. Bhagwan had continued lecturing calmly until the people in the hall had erupted in an uproar, whimpering and screaming frantically.
After Bhagwan’s bodyguards had carried the men out of the hall, Bhagwan raised his hands and placidly called out, ‘Shanti! Shanti …’ and then resumed his morning discourse.
It was later brought to light that the man with the knife, Bitthal Vilas Tupe, belonged to a Hindu fundamentalist group and had allegedly co-conspired this attack along with five of his allies. Though, in the subsequent court case, the attackers were not proven guilty. In the light of this attack, security measures in the Ashram were made more stringent. The number of security guards was doubled and several metal detectors were ordered from the US to be deployed on doors and various entrances. The atmosphere was now tense and not as lax as before.
One of Bhagwan’s bodyguards who had jumped up to the Guru’s rescue during the attack was named Kirti, aka Prince Welf Ernst of Hanover, the cousin of Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. Kirti had been living in the Ashram for quite some time along with his wife and a young daughter, serenely tending to Bhagwan’s garden before he was transformed into a samurai. During the same year, Prince Charles had visited India and Kirti had gone to Bombay to briefly visit his cousin, dressed in his flamboyant orange garb.
A month later, Kirti collapsed during a morning karate practice session in the Ashram and became paralyzed. He died of cerebral haemorrhage on 10 January 1981, at the age of thirty-three. Kirti’s body was cremated in the traditional Hindu ritual on a funeral pyre while his devastated parents and brother watched over the glowing flames. Their grief had been strangely aggravated by the queerness and unfamiliarity of the foreign custom.
After the death of the prince, his young daughter and wife stayed back in the Ashram. The wife worked as an assistant to Teertha in his encounter groups. The daughter later became the bridesmaid at Princes Charles’ wedding to Lady Diana, in July 1981. While the daughter was still in England, the BBC broadcast a programme about the Ashram, which showed the Princess of Hanover in an encounter group, wearing inappropriate clothing and vehemently smacking another participant. Because of the shocking behaviour, the Prince’s parents fought and gained custody of their granddaughter. The Princess stayed put in the Ashram as a disciple of Bhagwan, whereas her alienated daughter moved on to live with her extended family in Europe.
This excerpt from ‘Nothing To Lose: The Authorised Biography of Ma Anand Sheela’ by Manbeena Sandhu has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.