‘Searching For Sheela’ Outside ‘Wild Wild Country’

In 2018 was release of the engrossing ‘Wild Wild Country’. As Netflix introduces the documentary series, ‘When a controversial [Indian] cult leader builds a utopian city in the Oregon desert [from 1981-1985], conflicts with the locals escalate into a national scandal.’ Other than the leader (whose cause of death in 1990 is still deemed uncertain), the other key person featured was Ma Anand Sheela, his main assistant (of sorts). For those who might be confused, It should be noted that his mix of various teachings is not that of the Buddha; only with some parts liberally ‘borrowed’ and ‘reinterpreted’, at times gravely misrepresented.

As a connected yet disconnected follow-up is the 2021 documentary ‘Searching For Sheela’, that (hardly) tells her side of the story. Again, according to Netflix, ‘Journalists and fans await Ma Anand Sheela as the infamous former Rajneesh commune’s spokesperson returns to India for an interview tour.’ After toning down to be unrecognisable in manner of speech to the media, this return is 35 years after she left India, which she had apprehensions going back to, after being accused by Rajneesh to be egoistic and power-hungry, with ‘arson, wiretapping, attempted murder, and mass poisonings‘ (according to Oregon Historical Society). Yet, throughout the film, she still expresses love for him, suggesting he had mistaken due to depression and drugs.

With Rajneesh gone, making it impossible to hear his side, as expected, the film ends ambiguously, on whether Sheela did wrong or not… In her words, ‘People ask the same questions. Redemption! They don’t want to move on. Let’s say all of these put together is public truth. Not my reality, public truth. Without knowing my reality, without feeling my reality, they have condemned me. They want me to redeem myself… I went in a prison, I sat there 39 months, now it’s enough… My past is lived by me, I have to own it. Redemption lies in guilt. That’s why I cannot redeem myself.’ (In 1986, she pled guilty to assault, conspiracy to commit assault, setting fire to a county office and wire-tapping at the commune.)

What intriguing is how she would pseudo-philosophically give roundabout non-answers to direct burning questions, politely accusing others of having misperceptions, while presenting only herself to hold the truth, that she does not provide access to. Why not make the reality public truth then? If her return to India was not for redemption, what was it for? Even if she was true to herself, why not be true to the world too, with so many being captive audience? Her ‘last’ words open to interpretation were as if a semi-confession, owning for whatever done, yet pleading not guilty (now)? Why not clear the air as much as possible? Why leave the air still as murky? Or would ‘clearing’ the air only make it murkier?

In the Buddhist perspective, so long as not yet fully enlightened, we should all regularly practise repentance for transgressions in this and all past lives, as created with our greed, hatred and delusion, through our thoughts, words and deeds. Those without guilt despite still having faults of the unenlightened cannot even become better, what more fully redeemed. Whether she did wrong or not, it still holds true, that she remains unenlightened. Why not continually practise repentance then? As taught in the Puggalapaññatti, ‘To be ashamed of what one ought to be ashamed of, to be ashamed of performing evil and unwholesome things: this is called moral shame (hiri). To be in dread of what one ought to be in dread of, to be in dread of performing evil and unwholesome things: this is called moral dread (ottappa).’ If so, what to be truly shameful of, to be dreaded of, is to have neither moral shame nor dread.

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