Holy Hell of an Ashram

Arun N. Madhavan , an Indian humanist wrote about the book Holy Hell for my blog.

It has been few weeks since the book written by former disciple of the so called hugging saint Amrithanandamayi has started making waves in social media in Kerala in south India. The book named “Holy Hell, A memoir of faith devotion and pure madness” is written by Gail Tredwell, a former devotee and close assistant of Sudhamani (Amrithanandamayi). The book reveals the dirty underbelly of the Ashram with revelations of rape, sexual encounters between Sudhamani and her senior “celibate” swamis, financial irregularities and cut throat rivalries between those in the Spirituality business. By contrast the mainstream media, always hungry for controversies and scandals, strangely remained silent until the Ashram made its first public statement of denial.

Gail Tredwell was born and educated in Australia. Coming from a dysfunctional family background, she reached India on an Asian tour in search of elusive happiness and meaning of life. She was 19 when she landed in India in 1978. Falling instantly in love with Indian spirituality, she began her search for a guru to show her the way to salvation. Finally in 1980, her search ended as she became a devotee and assistant of Sudhamani.

Sudhamani was then called Ammachi and was a member of fishermen community near Kollam in South Kerala. During those days she used to act as Krishna and Devi (gods of Hinduism) at her family shrine and bless devotees by hugging. Her fame spread as there were stories of her performing miracles. As the disciples increased, including some people of white skin, her popularity surged. An Ashram was constructed and later she became Mata Amrithanandamayi as she proclaimed herself to be a saint.

By the time the disillusioned Gail Tredwell left the Ashram after 20 years of devoted service, the mutt has grown up to a multimillion dollar empire comprising of several branches all over the world, hospitals, several colleges and schools and even a deemed University.

With in 2 years of service at Ashram, Tredwell came to know about one of the lies that was being spread about Sudhamani. Her devotees where told that she is ‘pure’ and do not have menstruation. But one day Tredwell was witness to the event. See how she describe it in her book:
“For a moment I was in shock. But I let it go. This discovery did not affect my faith. It made me feel trusted and special. She had her menstruation every month from that day onward, and I did my best to help her conceal the fact. I always knew it was a secret. Not once did it ever cross my mind that it was a lie. I was so wound up in my devotion and in holding onto my dream position that the full implications of the deception were lost on me. I either blocked out or completely forgot the truth. Her biography clearly stated that she was“pure.” Amma obviously knew this claim to be incorrect. She allowed it to be published anyhow”.
Tredwell was in such a blind devotional trance that she could not understand this as plain deception. Also this underlines the patriarchal basis of Indian Spirituality, were a menstruating woman could not be called a saint.

Tredwell describes how the second in command of the Ashram, Balu raped her several times. Why she never reported it to Amma? She explains:
“I tried to argue and plead my way out, but he was obsessed and relentless. I felt trapped. If I didn’t oblige, he would start sulking and acting weird. People would begin to wonder what was going on. If this ever came to light, I would be the one to suffer. I would be the one punished—not Balu. Amma had never shown any leniency to me before, so I had no reason to believe this time would be any different. The common notion in India is that Western women possess loose morals. I believed I would be blamed, possibly kicked out of the ashram, and most definitely no longer allowed to serve Amma. I knew I couldn’t live with such consequences. I felt I had no other choice but to succumb to his demands—to his manipulation“.

She also talk about sexual encounters between senior Swamis (who were supposed to be celibate) of the Ashram and Sudhamani. There are also vivid descriptions of the verbal abuse and physical assaults Tredwell and few other women disciples had to endure from Sudhamani.
“Within a few months of getting my robes, history began repeating itself. Once more I was being hit, kicked, slapped, and thrown out of her room. She even invented a new form of punishment for me when she was really angry. Grabbing me by the throat with one hand, she would dig her nails in and rip towards the center, scraping the skin as she went. I was then left with bright red scratch marks across my throat, and sometimes blood”.

To a keen observer of such spiritual ashrams of India, the book is never shocking. Such tales has been told by several former disciples about gurus and swamis of all hues. It’s said that there are two types of spiritual gurus and god men. Those caught out as fake and those yet to be caught.

Most interesting about this book is how beautifully it reveals the mind of a theist. Gail Tredwell was convinced that there is a hidden meaning for life, which can only be revealed to her by a guru. She was in search of elusive happiness outside her material world. Though she receives setbacks after setbacks she remains convinced that all these bad experiences were there to test her devotion. See how she rationalizes the sexual encounters between Sudhamani and Swamis.

“I didn’t want to leave the ashram and give up what I believed to be the opportunity of many lifetimes. This was my life, my family, all I knew, and all I wanted. I had myself convinced that I was on the express train to God, and I couldn’t imagine being pushed off at full speed. In that moment I made a choice. I vowed myself to silence. Mustering every ounce of justification juice, I accepted this behavior as Amma’s way of “keeping it in the family.” Because she is one with God (I explained to myself), she’s beyond any form of human desire, longing, or attachment. She’s letting these senior fellows release any pent-up sexual frustration upon her as part of the bigger picture in her mission to save the world”.

Gail Tredwell rationalized like this for 20 years, before she became wise enough to escape. Even then for several years she continued to suffer from severe mental trauma. Only now she could come out of her closet to write a memoire, to get everything out of her system. She writes:
“I offer my story with the sincere hope that it will illustrate to spiritual seekers the downside of blind faith, and that surrender to a guru/teacher is sometimes mind control in disguise. Perhaps some readers will now recognize that they too have turned a blind eye to reality in order to protect their beliefs. I hope that those who doubt will feel free to question, those with questions will find answers, and those already suffering the wounds of betrayal and disillusionment will find consolation and validation.
Ultimately, I hope this book will empower those trapped in any form of abusive relationship or unhealthy situation to find the courage to step away and to trust that an amazing life awaits them—a life full of unexpected blessings and wonderful people”.

This book if widely read may slightly reduce the popularity of Mata Amrithanandamayi. But the vast majority of susceptible theists will continue their elusive quest for salvation, going from one guru to another. As long as there is demand, the product of spirituality will sell like hot cakes.

Scientifically speaking life happened spontaneously, not because of some definite purpose. Bacteria, mosquitoes or cows do not worry about the aim of their lives. It’s the highly developed human brain that makes us think about aims of life. Gail Treadwell’s experiences underline the fact that one has to find one’s own meaning for life and find happiness ourselves. Humanistic ideals can serve as a guide, but ultimately we are on our own. No guru or mata can help you. Only the lazy theist waits for an elusive guru or become a fundamentalist believer of a book or prophet or a mythical god. A rationalist finds her way herself.

Holy Hell

Read Holy Hell : A memoir of Faith, Devotion and Pure Madness by Gail Tredwell, an Australian woman who escaped from an Indian godwoman ashram.

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She wrote how she was repeatedly raped by the chief priest and physically tortured by the godwoman Amritanandamayi, the hugging saint, during her stay in the ashram as a devotee and a head female disciple for 20 years.