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| Sunday, March 2, 2014 |
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Rumpus in the ashram

A book by a former devotee of Mata Amritanandamayi, Gail Tredwell, who left the ashram after 20 years, points fingers at Kerala's hugging saint. But allegations of sexual exploitation by the author have only widenend the rift between the believers and the sceptics, finds Varuna Verma after a visit to the ashram

  • WHAT LIES BENEATH: Mata Amritanandamayi at a function in Toulon, France

A notice board outside the prayer hall in Mata Amritanandamayi's ashram has a crowd in front of it. Anyone who passes by stops to read a two-page statement on the board. "I am an open book," says the spiritual leader's note.

There is little to indicate that the 100-acre ashram, with pink high-rise buildings jutting above a canopy of coconut trees, has been rocked by controversy. But the spiritual retreat - on the picturesque Vallikavu Island, an hour's drive from Kollam in Kerala — has been described by a former devotee as a den of abuse.

At the receiving end is Mata Amritanandamayi or Amma, as she is known. Amma runs an empire of schools, a hospital and scientific institutes (see box) and is revered by millions of people.

Australian Gail Tredwell, the author of the recently published Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion and Pure Madness, is not among them. She was Amma's personal attendant for 20 years before she quit the ashram in 1999. In her book, she talks about sexual abuse and financial fraud.

Tredwell's details are unsubstantiated charges. But her stories of being abused by a senior swami and being beaten by Amma for minor mistakes are explosive.

In Kerala, the book is a subject of hushed whispers. Chief minister Oommen Chandy underlines the charity work done by the ashram. CPI(M) state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, on the other hand, voices concern about the "gravity" of the issue.

On the campus, the devotees are insouciant. A statement by the Devotee's Forum — also up on the notice board — questions Tredwell's credibility. "Tredwell claims she left the ashram as a fugitive. On the contrary, she was given financial assistance... It's on public record that Tredwell suffered intense bouts of jealousy towards Amma's disciples and devotees."

British national Jennifer, who's been residing at the Kerala ashram for 21 years, seconds that. She remembers Amma once asked for a hot water bottle after a 14-hour hugging session. Tredwell sent it through her assistant. "Since the water was too hot, I took it back to her. Tredwell screamed and whacked me with the bag," she says.

In her statement, Amritanandamayi denies financial irregularities. "The Ashram submits its accounts to the income tax department every year," it reads. "This Ashram is a centre of peace and I am an open book. All rumours are untrue," she adds.

Amma's claim to divinity is, however, questioned by others. "Since Tredwell was a close associate of Amritanandamayi, the government should probe the charges," demands U. Kalanathan, former president, Indian Rationalist Association (IRA), Kerala.

Kalanathan has taken on Amma, countering every miracle that she's said to have performed.

One such story, which figures in her biography published by the ashram, is about Vallikavu's fishermen who complained to Amma that there were hardly any fish in the sea. Amma walked into the sea and touched the waves. The next day, a huge school of fish washed onto the shore.

This, Kalanathan says, is a natural phenomenon. "Some ocean currents push fish towards the shore," he explains.

Local activists have also been demanding a probe into the death of two people a few days after they visited the math.

In 2012, Bihar law student Satnam Singh Mann disrupted Amritanandamayi's discourse at the ashram. "He was allegedly beaten by her guards. He died at the Trivandrum Mental Asylum three days later," says Esaben Abdul Karim, who co-founded the Narayanan Kutty and Satnam Singh Defence Committee last year.

Thrissur resident Kutty reportedly met a similar fate two decades ago. The committee has filed a writ petition in the Kerala High Court demanding a CBI probe.

The incidents, however, are not on the radars of the mostly-Western residents of the ashram, which houses some 3,000 people. The campus houses the Amrita University, rooms for residents, temples, a caf´┐Ż serving continental cuisine, a bakery, swimming pool and souvenir shop.

The ashramites are busy doing their share of "seva" — sundry activities such as sweeping, mopping and baking.

Seva, however, is not compulsory. French psychologist Pascale Boutelou lolls on a serene tree-lined seaside garden. "The ashram offers two things you don't find anywhere in India — safety and silence," she says.

Amma's ashram, for many, is a low-cost retreat. "I pay $300 a month to live here. It's cheaper than a hotel room," Jennifer says.

Boutelou adds that the café serves "perfect" cappuccinos and vegan pizzas. "I swim, sing bhajans and meet like-minded people. It's like I'm on a holiday," she says. She pays to get her laundry done and bed linen changed.

But the math is also known for charity work, including hunger and disaster relief, free healthcare for the poor and orphanages. Ashram officials say during the 2004 tsunami, it built 6,200 homes, donated thousands of fishing boats and nets and gave pensions to widows and free education to students.

The only wages that Bipin Nair, dean, School of Biotechnology, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, draws for his job is boarding and lodging at the ashram. For 14 years, he worked at a pharmacology company in Washington, living in a six-bedroom house and managing a fat bank balance. "I was rich, not satisfied," he says.

The search for satisfaction brought Nair to this back-of-beyond fishing village. In 2011, he got a US patent for developing a low-cost insulin pump. Nair is among 28 professors at the Vallikavu-based School of Biotechnology who gave up high salary jobs to work for Amma.

Another devotee is Maneesha Sudheer, director, Amrita Centre for Wireless Networks and Applications, near Kollam.

Sudheer, who grew up in a fishing village in coastal Kerala, was given a seat in the ashram-run College of Engineering, after which she enrolled for a PhD programme in Amma's university. She developed a landslide detection system that led to high paying job offers. "There was no question of leaving," Sudheer says.

What attracts many is that Amma's philosophy flourishes not on scriptures but on her ability to embrace people. In 40 years, Amma has reportedly hugged 33 million people.

The sceptics — far outnumbered by the believers — hope to mould public opinion with Tredwell's allegations. IRA magazine Yukti Rekha will carry an extract from the book in its March issue. If nothing else, it will keep the scandal alive.

  • Amritapuri ashram

Mata Amritanandamayi's empire

Amrita University currently has five campuses

• In Coimbatore: A 400-acre campus in Ettimadai village.

• In Kochi: The Health Sciences campus, spread over 125 acres, plus another campus on the other side of NH 17.

• In Amritapuri campus: Courses in engineering, biotechnology and management are offered.

• In Bangalore: Graduate and postgraduate engineering and business courses.

• In Mysore: The centre offers bachelors and masters degrees in computer science, commerce and business management.

• In Delhi: A campus in Delhi is planned.

Amrita Vidyalayams

• 49 English medium schools in different cities, including Calcutta and Durgapur, plus six Malayalam medium schools.

Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Kochi

A superspeciality hospital.

Temples

On April 21, 1988, Amma consecrated the first temple at Kodungallur, Kerala. By March 2012, 21 such temples had been opened.