Embraced by Scandal
A new book by a former devotee seeks to explode the myth of Mata Amritanandamayi and causes a storm.
A new book by a former devotee seeks to explode the myth of Mata Amritanandamayi and causes a storm among her legion of devotees
She has famously hugged about 33 million people across the world in a 25year-old career. She has built an empire across the globe worth millions, with followers in several countries. Her admirers range from Narendra Modi, who flew down to her ashram to celebrate her 60th birthday in 2013, to Hollywood star Sharon Stone, who called her a remarkable angel. Now her former aide, an Australian woman based in Hawai, threatens to bring everything crashing down.
The charges against 61-year-old Mata Amritanandamayi are serious. In her book, Holy Hell: A Memoir Of Faith, Devotion and Pure Madness, Gail Tredwell aka Gayatri has written about her repeated rape by a prominent member of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math ( MAM). She has alleged sexual escapades of the celibate Amritanandamayi herself, and her proclivity for physical violence. Shocking for someone on whom the United Nations had conferred its Gandhi-King award for Non-Violence in 2007, an honour that had earlier gone to the late Nelson Mandela and former UN secretary general Kofi Annan.
Tredwell was one of Amritanandamayi’s earliest disciples, and her personal assistant between 1981 and 1999. The 229-page book contains graphic allegations of sexual abuse and anarchy at the ashram as well as physical and mental torture of disciples. Tredwell has also alleged that the Math is involved in gross financial misappropriation which, she claims, marked the dramatic evolution of the once obscure ashram from a tiny thatched hut in a fishing village in Kerala’s Kollam into a network encompassing hundreds of premium schools, colleges and hospitals.
While Amritanandamayi’s followers are busy fighting a digital war after the e-version of Tredwell’s book went viral on social media, Kerala Police is
chasing netizens who had uploaded and shared it. The scandal is beginning to blow up. “Nobody should provoke Hindu society,” said Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s ( VHP) International General Secretary Champat Rai on February 24, demanding an investigation into Tredwell. The Math’s senior disciples who are targets of allegations in the book have rubbished the charges. A livid Amritaswaroopananda, the second-in-command at MAM and Amma’s closest disciple, told INDIA TODAY, “Her charges and language are too vulgar and barbaric for me to respond. Wearing this holy robe, I don’t want to stoop to that level.”
MAM’s Public Relations Officer Brahmachari Raju says they are talking to attorneys in New York about suing Tredwell for defamation. “She never raised these allegations during the 20 years at the ashram or the 14 years after she left. All the charges are a creations of her unstable mind. She is manic depressive and is a cancer patient,” he says.
Many at MAM claim Tredwell is bitter because Amritanandamayi objected to her disciple’s wish to marry a billionaire devotee from New York. “Amma said no after the man Gayatri tried to court complained about her attempts to woo him,” says a devotee.
Kerala Police, which had sought legal opinion on registering a case of GAIL TREDWELL WAS ONE OF AMRITANANDAMAYI’S
EARLIEST DISCIPLES, AND HER PERSONAL ASSISTANT BETWEEN 1981 AND 1999.
rape based on Tredwell’s charges in her book, was told to contact the author and do a preliminary probe after ascertaining her claims. A Supreme Court lawyer from Delhi, Deepak Prakash, has also filed a complaint at the police station near the ashram headquarters in Kollam, but police have asked him to produce evidence if he wants to proceed.
Through all this, Kerala’s usually shrill media and voluble politicians have kept their distance. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy says “the great humanitarian service done by MAM should not be overshadowed by unsubstantiated allegations”, while Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala insists there is no reason to disbelieve MAM. CPI(M) has been measured in its response. Its state Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan says, “The allegations are serious and should be properly investigated.”
BJP and VHP have taken up the cudgels for the Math. “The book is part of an international agenda to denigrate Hindu institutions and Hindu leaders,” says P.K. Krishnadas, BJP national secretary. P. Parameswaran, director of Bharathiya Vichar Kendra, says, “It is targeted at Amma because she and the Math have become the most visible symbols of spirituality and service.”
To back its contentions, the Math has circulated a number of emails claimed to have been written by four Western disciples mentioned in the book who knew Tredwell well. The mails scoff at her allegations and make counter charges about her amorous inclinations. But Tredwell is undeterred. She told INDIA TODAY, “I stand by everything in my book and have no intention of withdrawing anything. I have told the truth without any malicious motives and therefore they don’t have a valid case against me.”
About the prospect of MAM suing her, she says: “Any defamation suit would only be to financially intimidate me with costly legal proceedings. But dragging this matter through the legal system would inevitably create more media attention and negative publicity for them.” In her email to INDIA TODAY, Tredwell says she was “very disturbed by the use of police power to try silencing freedom of speech of the many voices that obviously agree that something is very wrong”. She said it took her 14 years to come out with the charges because it took a long time to recover from the trauma she had suffered at MAM. She said she had initially wanted to forget everything and had also feared physical violence if she made her experiences public.
Amritanandamayi remains unfazed in the eye of this storm. “These charges cannot touch me. Gail was with me for many years but she never told me anything she has said in the book. I think the poor girl has been misled,” she told INDIA TODAY. “Her claim that she had always lived in my room is not correct. She was living in a room upstairs. She was allowed to leave the ashram as some of her actions were unbecoming of a sanyasin.”
February 22, addressing her disciples at Palakkad in Kerala, she denied that her ashram was involved in financial fraud. “If we had the millions that they allege, I would have already wiped out poverty, both in India and the world,” she said.
The Math is not exactly poor. Besides considerable real estate in several cities and towns across India, its ashrams are spread over Canada, US, Australia, France, Singapore, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Japan and Reunion Island. One of the Math’s showpiece acquisitions abroad is the $7.8-million ashram in Washington, DC that was originally owned by former US diplomat Sargent Shriver and Eunice Mary Kennedy Shriver, sister of former US president John F. Kennedy.
Amid all the din, it is still business as usual at the Math. At the Brahmasthanam temple the MAM runs in Thiruvananthapuram, thousands, including Union minister and local MP Shashi Tharoor, members of the erstwhile royal family of Travancore, and senior BJP and VHP leaders, queue up for her hug on February 23.
At 11 a.m., a beaming Amritanandamayi, clad in her ubiquitous white sari, walks in. The pandal soon shakes with impassioned calls of “amma, amma” as devotees go delirious with joy. Braving strict security rings, many lunge to touch her and genuflect before her as she takes her place on the large podium. She leads the bhajans in Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi. A spiritual discourse follows, the crowd punctuating it with chants of “Amma ki jai (Long live Amma)”, before she finally leaves with her faithful retinue.
For now, all is well in Amma’s world.
MATAAMRITANANDAMAYI IN THIRUVANANTHAPURAM ON FEBRUARY23