The world has a lot self-loathing and revulsion in it. I imagine we all harbor at least a tiny bit, and most of us, probably a bit more than that. This is the shale oil which fuels the engines of self-indulgent new age spirituality, which is itself largely a slightly modified version of traditional Hinduism. Those who frack this oil are called spiritual gurus. The good ones help you to dispose of yours in a safe and controlled combustion. The bad ones burn it in a rocket ride to fame, riches and glory, leaving a wake of psychologically scorched devotees in their exhaust. In the last month, one of the greatest of these has begun to crash and burn. We are currently in the midst of the fall of the beloved "Hugging Saint," Mata Amritanandamayi, "affectionately" known as Ammachi, or Amma, which happens to mean "mother" in India.
It all began over 30 years ago, before Amma was known to the outside world, before she had amassed hundreds of millions of dollars stashed away in foreign (to India) banks, before she became the darling and queen of the Hindu militant right. Just a girl who lived in a village in a swamp in Kerala. What made her different were her performances as the goddess Kali, one of the most fearsome of the Hindu pantheon. As it turns out, Sudhamani (as she was known then) had quite the talent for portraying the equally beloved and feared goddess, leaving some of the more superstitious village inhabitants to believe they had actually been in the presence of Kali Ma herself. And thus, like medieval priests collecting indulgences from their guilty and/or greedy parishioners, Sudhamani's parents soon learned they could profit off that guilt and greed in exactly the same way.
As Ammachi got a bit older, she simply took over her own business, her parents rendered powerless by the fact of her burgeoning popularity as a divine goddess. (But not to worry, Ammachi has made her family very wealthy since.) Soon, folks were hearing about her across India, and more and more came to visit the teenage girl who was by now manifesting "miracles" like turning water into milk, etc. [The et cetera being the standard amplified coincidences and projections of meaning which are common among those who follow so-called "divine" incarnations.]
In the midst of those flocking to see this newly-minted "saint" was a young Aussie gal from the suburbs of Brisbane. She wasn't looking for the "light" before she left for India, but like some Westerners who've travelled there, she caught the spiritual enlightenment bug and landed in an ashram in Tiruvannamalai, which has since become the Disneyland of spiritual gurudom for Westerners in India. Hearing about the new luminary in Kerala, Gail Tredwell made the journey with a few others, all of whom fell into the inner circle of Ammachi, who soon after became known as Mata Amritanandamayi. They eventually helped her build her satsang (spiritual community) into the global multi-million dollar enterprise that it is today.
As you'd might expect by now, it turns out Ammachi is even darker than the goddess she portrays. While there are millions who believe she is saving the world with her signature marathon public hugging sessions, Gail consistently saw another side, and in a tale that begins like a quaint travelogue and ends like a spy novel with heaps of horror story in the middle, her book "Holy Hell" has obliterated the loving mother image that has been so carefully cultivated by Ammachi over the last 30 years.
And now, they know all about it in India.
It's not like this is unusual by any means. One or two famous gurus pop in scandal there in any given year. However, Ammachi has been the least assailable of these, mostly due to the fact she's been extremely successful in the West. It's likely that among the friends of those who are reading this, there is at least one person who could be considered a follower. They may not live at the ashram or even ever attended an Ammachi event, but if they subscribe to the morass of superstition, mythology and folk theory known as non-traditional spirituality in America, chances are they've heard of, and thus, believe that Ammachi is some kind of magical, divine being. She's even got Oprah's seal-of-approval.
Naturally, those who are followers of Ammachi cannot process the allegations of sex, fraud, cruelty and abuse that has splashed mud all over the pure white raiments of their living mother goddess, and so a storm of cognitive dissonance has developed in her devotees and the Hindu nationalist parties which seek the votes she commands. In India, free speech is utterly trumped by the notion that it's a crime to hurt the "religious sensibilities of others," so while her organization calls in their political favors in an attempt to have the book banned in India, waves of devotees are filing complaints with their local police departments against those Indians tweeting and Facebooking the contents of Tredwell's book.
It seems that the beloved goddess's detractors, now empowered by the collaborating evidence offered by the book, have emerged—somewhat perilously—into the daylight with their opinions, surprising many with their number. Gail Tredwell's Facebook page went from 500 to 15,000 likes almost overnight. Its growth has slowed considerably since, but it's just topped 30,000, almost all of them from within India. My Facebook Guruphiliac page has also acquired a substantial amount of new likes, although nothing close to what Gail's has seen.
One can only hope there is some recompense for Tredwell in all this. She has been enduring relentless attacks on her character since the book was announced, this from all levels of Indian society as well as the global following of Ammachi, including many people she sincerely believed would remain friends for life. Perhaps there's some small upside in that it's now clear to the world that a little cognitive dissonance will completely cancel out the lip-service paid to the bottom line theme of any Ammachi gathering, that she is a symbol and source of radiating divine love.
Witnessing the fury of the reaction both for and against the publication of "Holy Hell" in India has been as educational as it's been entertaining, and it's only just begun. They say any press is good press, but when your whole business depends on the notion that you are divine purity itself in human form, you can't help but get permanently stained by your splashing in the swamp that is the news and social media. And when you were never really clean to begin with, all who participate become the implements of the divine justice you've always deserved.
A book publisher who translated Holy Hell into Kerala's native tongue saw both his home and business attacked by Ammachi devotees yesterday.
Swami Sandeepananda Giri was attacked by Ammachi devotees who are also members of the Hindu militant right wing organization, the RSS, sending him to the hospital. Five assailants were later arrested.
The Kerala High Court bans a published transcript of an already aired television interview of "Holy Hell" author Gail Tredwell. India falls off the side of the modern world.
My husband and I were with Ammachi from 1987 to 1993, hosted her once in our home, and held the Seattle Ammachi gatherings in our clinic during that time. We left abruptly after learning directly from Kusuma, one of her closest disciples, that Ammachi had used orphanage money to pay for a Mercedes, then lied to the American board of the organization about it.