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You are in line and as you get close to Amma, a couple of her close devotees, often foreigners, clean your face with tissue paper. When it’s your turn, she clasps you to her bosom and whispers in your ear. Many are in ecstasy as they come away. The queue to get a hug is often labyrinthine, but Amrithanandamayi’s darshan, her smile and her hug make the hours of waiting worthwhile, say devotees.
This becalming picture, though, has seen some turmoil in the last few weeks. Revelations in a book by Amma’s former personal assistant Gail Tredwell (she left the ashram in 1999) have put the godwoman in the centre of a raging controversy, with even political leaders in her home state Kerala forced to weigh the implications. The book, Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion and Pure Madness, alleges that Tredwell—who now lives in Hawaii—was sexually exploited and even “raped” by a senior swami (who she calls Balu) during the 1980s, when she was serving as Amma’s assistant.
Tredwell was 20 when she came to India from Australia in 1978 seeking spiritual enlightenment. Amma was relatively unknown then and was in search of a personal assistant, while Tredwell was in search of a guru. So Tredwell took on an Indian name, Gayathri, and stayed on with Amma till 1999. The story of a young woman’s journey to becoming a world-renowned saint, Tredwell’s personal journey as a disciple, the growth of the Amma empire—it’s all well documented in the book. However, it soon moves on to describe Tredwell’s disillusionment with the ashram and with Amma. Tredwell even alleges that she acted as a conduit to carry ashram donations to Amma’s family. Interestingly, all this isn’t new, much of it has been circulating on the net since 2012, the first time Tredwell went public on a post.
The CM, Oommen Chandy, has ruled out any probe against Amma’s organisation on the basis of mere allegations.
Curiously, the mainstream print media in Kerala, or for that matter nationally, did not pick up the story. The book came out last year, but it was only recently, after Malayalam newspaper Madhyamam decided to publish excerpts, that the storm erupted in social media. The reason, of course, is not difficult to fathom for, over the years, Amma has made many friends and influenced a lot of people. Her website says the number of people she’s hugged—around the world—is some 32 million and counting. Those numbers have translated to huge monetary gains too: donations and gifts have poured in from the world over. The ashram is now a multi-million dollar enterprise, comprising colleges, the high-tech AIMS hospital off Kochi, a township Amritapuri in Kollam district in Kerala and properties worldwide. Amma is revered and respected in the state, perhaps much more than any other religious head or even politician.
After the social media storm, TV channels too picked up the story. Initially, the ashram chose to ignore the allegations, but with the scandal showing no signs of going away, Amma came out with a statement. To quote: “I am an open book. All the rumours being spread are untrue. Because certain desires of theirs went unfulfilled, they have started making all sorts of allegations. Someone, somewhere, with an agenda is trying to stir up religious conflicts, making people fight each other, trying to start a war.” On the allegations of financial irregularities, the statement says: “Every year, the ashram submits its accounts without fail. If we had the millions that they allege, I would have already wiped out poverty, both in India and throughout the world. No religion or any specific community donates to the ashram, nor do we collect any membership fees.”
Being election season, the state’s politicians are treading very carefully indeed. CM Oommen Chandy very categorically told the press that Amma’s organisation would not be investigated based on mere allegations. The UDF home minister, Ramesh Chennithala, and the CPI(M) leader of the Opposition, V.S. Achuthanandan, too have decided to play it safe, stating that they are still “studying the matter”. CPI(M) state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan was one of the few to come out and say that the charges made by the former Amma aide are quite serious and need to be probed.
At the time of the horrific Delhi rape case, Amma had told Outlook in an interview: “Some people still live in the past. In olden times, men were protectors of women, but things have changed. For all you know, the girl might have even fallen at the rapists’ feet and asked for kindness. But were those animals even in a state of mind to listen?” Now, with serious allegations of sexual misconduct levelled at some of her own ashram devotees, we can only hope that she will not let these charges go unchallenged.