Em­braced by Scan­dal

A new book by a for­mer devo­tee seeks to ex­plode the myth of Mata Am­ri­tanan­damayi and causes a storm.

India Today - - INSIDE - By M.G. Rad­hakr­ish­nan

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


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.

Pho­to­graph By C SHANKAR


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