When I set out to write my memoir, I had no idea what the overall impact would be. The only outcome I felt certain about was the backlash. While I knew the attacks would be severe, apart from trying to stand as tall and strong as possible, knowing that every word I wrote was true, there was no real way to prepare for the onslaught. After the publication of Holy Hell, the board of directors of M.A. Center in north America were swift to react and sent out a national email stating, “We are greatly disappointed and saddened by the false accusations, made by a troubled individual. The allegations are completely untrue and without a basis in fact or reality. We feel really sorry for this individual.” The ashram in India placed posters in the temple prayer hall warning residents that it was forbidden for anyone to read the book. What better way to instill fear in the timid and ignite curiosity in the bold. I later learned that some residents were sneaking out of the ashram and gathering at the home of a young lad who left a few years earlier and so happened to have a copy of my book. They would huddle around and listen with keen curiosity as the pages were read out loud, then discuss the contents in relation to their own observations. With this newfound knowledge, some of these young men were able to utilize their healthy discernment and make a leap of faith out of the organization.
Any media outlet that published articles in support of my book received legal notices within twenty-four hours. For smaller publications, without legal defense the threat was sufficient to make them remove the articles, but not enough to make them comply with the demand to “write a retraction and apology to all those who have been hurt or confused by the misleading allegations.” This type of bullying by a so-called spiritual leader and community energized a prominent Swiss journalist to write an article which appeared on the front page of a Zurich newspaper and made sure to mention all the legal threats.
My email box was brimming with hate mail containing hilarious subject lines such as “Filthy Scum. Come suck my balls you whore!” and messages declaring “You should be gang-raped, bitch” along with various warnings that I would suffer karmic retaliation from my malicious attacks on such a great woman. My Facebook page was hacked, fake pages were created to try and divert supporters, Indian citizens posting on Facebook were threatened with police action after devotees filed a complaint, and the organization created a blog dedicated specifically to slander me. Not sure if the organization realizes, but such actions only help to prove my point about them being a cult.
Once my book went viral in India, for a few months, it felt like I had an Indian passenger train running through my house. My Facebook page exploded from 300 to over 30,000 followers in a matter of days. The most common theme on Facebook, was that madam should file criminal charges. I was shocked at the number of Kerala people, primarily Hindus, who seemed to totally despise this woman and her organization yet felt powerless to do anything due to her religious and political clout. At the same time, I was deeply touched to read numerous posts expressing appreciation for my having exposed the truth and that under no circumstances should I file criminal charges or come to India, for it was not safe. While I was sympathetic to their grievances, I had no intention to come galloping in on a white horse, like Joan of Arc to further the fight for them. I had shared my truth and experiences, the consequences of which were now out of my hands.
My inbox was flooded with interview requests and a couple of times in the middle of the night I was startled awake with Indian reporters calling and a lawyer from Delhi wishing to inform that he had initiated a request for investigation into the organization. A couple of weeks later I received an email from the local police station in Kerala demanding that I appear in person to provide evidence of the allegations if I wished for them to proceed with such an investigation.
My memoir, which portrayed my spiritual journey, my love for India and the Hindu culture along with revelations of a corrupt spiritual leader and organization was suddenly labelled an attack on Hinduism. I found this accusation strange when Amma always claimed to have no religion and profess instead that “My Religion is Love.” The Hindu community organized a rally with 150,000 attendees and invited prominent keynote speakers who gave the rallying cry to unite against this attack of Amma and her organization. Major Indian newspapers covered the scandal with various leanings and catchy, sensational headlines. One paper reported http://www.newindianexpress.com/states/kerala/Vatican-Secret-Agency-Behind-Campaign-against-Mata-VHP/2014/03/15/article2110038.ece#.UyT7KSg-OIY that a leader of Vishwa Hindu Parishad alleged I was in cahoots with a secret agency of the Vatican that was behind the malicious campaign against Mata Amritanandamayi and her Math.
Another article reported http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/petition-in-hc-wants-ban-on-book-by-former-aide-of-amritanandmayi/ that a plea was filed in the Delhi High court seeking a ban on the circulation of my book in India and also asked for the central government to issue a ban of the online book across the globe. Saying that crores of devotees considered the spiritual leader an incarnation of god and alleged that the book was a deliberate attempt to demean Hindu gods, saints and mythology.
During that time frame I flew to New York and was interviewed for a Kerala TV station. The program was to air in two parts. The morning after the first episode aired, I received an email from a law firm in Mumbai ordering me to cease all further publication and distribution of Holy Hell and for the TV station to not air episode two. Afterwards a Malayalam written version of the interview along with some excerpts from my book was published by the news organization. The book was swiftly banned but not before the bookstore was vandalized, books torn up, employees threatened, and the owner’s home pelted with stones. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/amritanandamayi-math-accused-of-assaulting-spiritual-leader-and-publisher/1/352778.html A swami from a different organization who was speaking out in support of my book was also assaulted.
The highlight to all this excitement was when I learned that I was now a criminal in India. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/amritanandamayi-mutt-row-gail-tredwell-five-news-organisations-booked/1/347997.html The Kerala police had filed five counts of criminal charges against me for writing the book, along with five news organizations for reporting on it and against the Delhi lawyer for filing a request with the local police to open an investigation into the Amma organization. My charges are as follows: under Sections 153A (Promoting enmity between different groups on ground of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony), 153 B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration), 295A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs), 298 (uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings), 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code.
It took about one year for the intense reactions and threats to subside before I was able to focus once more on my new life of healing, harmony, and peace. To this day, I frequently receive gentle and loving reminders of how much my efforts have impacted people in a positive way. I am deeply touched by the amount of heartfelt responses describing how my book has facilitated immense healing, saved marriages, brought children home and reunited families. How my words finally gave some the freedom to accept or make their own decision to leave, validated the many doubts they harbored but could never fully acknowledge, vanquished any self-blame, guilt, or fear. Others have stated it saved them from having to go through similar hardship. They were able to exit before they became too involved or at least to maintain a safe distance while still enjoying some of the devotional atmosphere. My words resonated with numerous men and women who had suffered similar experiences at the hands of other spiritual leaders, yoga teachers, gurus and even family members. I have helped some of these people to feel emboldened and achieve clarity after struggling for a long time with indecision, pain, and confusion that yes, it is time to move on. Overall, my book has given numerous people their lives back and the ability to lead a happy and healthy spiritual life based on self-empowerment rather than on blind faith and subservient devotion.
Below are examples of insightful and heartfelt words shared with me from people who have read my book.
“It’s a supreme irony that you have moved closer to your own spiritual center not through your guru’s shakti and spiritual magnificence, but through her human shortcomings.”
“The dynamics of devotion, elation, abuse, blame, codependency, yearning, seeking, needing to believe in someone more than yourself that you describe resonate very strongly for me. Your story validates my experience and I thank you for that.”
“I am so very sorry for you for what you have endured but at the same time it is so clear that writing this book was an act of tremendous self-love and healing and that the strength of your own character has prevailed. I hope that your sharing so openly about your experience will allow others who have fallen prey to the abuse of power or who are at risk of doing so, to find the inner strength to rescue themselves from this fate.”
“My heart goes out to you for what you have endured. For me it really was only one very bad year and believe me that was bad enough. My husband didn’t know what to do with me! But because of your book, I am healing so rapidly! I am so grateful to you! You have shown me that what I was experiencing WAS real, and it IS becoming cultish.”
“When I awoke this morning, Gayatri was unknown to me.This evening (after reading all day) I feel like I got to meet all of you a little too soon! What I mean by that is that after reading your book I found you to be a kind of sister to me, and the trials you endured paralleled my own and resonated with me. When I recall my experiences of 18 years in India with my Baba it is easy for me to sometimes grumble about how I was treated, and things that were said to me, but your book is probably the most healing thing I have ever read and offers me oceans of insight.”
“Thanks for your example of surrender into acceptance that you will never fully understand why things happened the way they did, and thank you for living your life and telling your story. You have been of service to me and I am deeply grateful.”
So, there you have it folks. I have shared with you the rainbow of colorful reactions I received from writing and publishing my memoir, Holy Hell. While the negative reactions were not pleasant, in a way I understand. For many, their entire lives have been dedicated in service to this woman and belief system. I am certain many do find contentment in such a life, that said, I am equally certain that many just shove aside all doubt and unhappiness for they don’t have the strength to acknowledge, break away and create positive change for themselves. Bottom line, all the devotees want is happiness, to make a difference in the world and to feel loved. I too had these yearnings, but I also had a strong yearning for freedom of mind and to live a life that included self-care and self-love.
Gail, my heart goes out to you, because in your earlier writings you mention self harm due to fear of abandonment by Amma. Although no one can say what is going on in someone else’s mind, fear of abandonment intense enough to cause self-harm is usually from abandonment (physical or emotional) while our identity was still forming – when we were a young child. Not feeling connected to others is usually caused by either a lack of bonding as an infant or later neglect/connection during childhood.
If we have a tendency to act in different ways at times, it may sometimes indicate some degree of dissociation, which also can indicate early trauma. The tendency to dissociate usually stems from childhood events, since children have not yet developed strong identities, plus they are powerless so dissociation is often the only way they can escape from abuse. Low-level dissociation is more common than people realize, and can cause changing mental states which others may judge as moodiness. Once the tendency is established, we may continue to dissociate as adults.
You also mentioned the possibility that you had created false versions of reality. Although it is not possible to say what is/isn’t true for someone else’s reality, early childhood trauma can sometimes express itself by projection onto current events, causing us to be triggered by what seems like minor events to other people, or to misinterpret things in a way that seems delusional to others. While this may seem like a false version of reality to others, there is a grain of truth in it – abuse did happen at some point, likely years ago as a child, and the knowledge is trying to get out.
Anyone who recognizes any of these symptoms in themselves might benefit from therapy specifically designed to help with PTSD and/or dissociative identity disorder. Generic “talk therapy” does not reach the root of the issue, and only temporarily alleviates the pain. Below is some research – hope it helps some reader or other.
Some resources (info, referrals, or links to other resources):
I believe it was 1987 when I had my first sight of you, which made an arresting impression. Something in the way you moved… so simply, nothing extra. As if everything “extra” had dropped away. On Ammachi’s annual visits, I would look forward to another sighting of “nothing extra”. And I remember my disappointment when you no longer appeared at Ammachi’s side. I wondered about you, inquired after you. There was no information, but I never forgot you.
Years later, when involvement in a specific tradition had taken me elsewhere, your book came out. Holy Hell. Not that I deny the divine radiance that has poured through Ammachi. But because (1) I trusted my vivid impression of your spiritual capacity, and also because (2) I was not naïve re: what can happen in religious organizations, I didn’t doubt your heartbreaking account. In fact, the reason I remembered you today is that I just finished reading another such disillusioning account. And then it occurred to me that I never sent you a note of thanks for daring to publish Holy Hell.
To go public was such a dangerous act; and you had nothing to gain. I see it as compassionate service to the many, many people in comparable situations—then, now, and in the future. Especially for their sake, but also as a caution to seekers generally, your story is very worth telling and very worth hearing. Religion should come with warning labels, right? And I say that as an old lady, religious all her life.
Oh, and this blessing for you, Gail Tredwell, courtesy of The Incredible String Band:
“May the longtime sun shine upon you,
All love surround you,
And the pure light within you
Guide your way on.”
A thought based on personal experience (not intended to reflect upon any others here) – it seems that the most respectful thing we can do for each other is to listen, being careful not to advocate our own interpretations or to lock each other into specific positions, allowing each person to find their unique way forward.
Sometimes the urge to persuade others is strong, since we tend to believe we understand best. But responses can be driven by many things. Sometimes a person needs to express repressed indignation from their own life, and never realizes they are projecting. Sometimes a person thrives on being a rescuer and finds themself quick to support the idea that others have been victimized, even to the point of causing that person more pain. And sometimes a person sees a chance to influence another person, or make a name for themselves, or make a profit. These very human responses are usually experienced as compassion, even by the person giving them. I have struggled with a rescue tendency in the effort to discover a truly compassionate and respectful response, and in the end, it seems that life is an evolution, and it is not for us to determine what is true for someone else or what their next step should be.
As we listen to each other, we have the best possible opportunity to be there as a friend and show faith in each other’s process.
I have just finished reading your book, and with sadness I can fully grasp what enormous pressures you lived under for so many years and I can understand your decision to leave. You were at a complete breaking point, emotionally and mentally wiped out.
I remember the time you left the ashram. I had arrived at the ashram right after you had left and Amma returned to India and everyone was in shock that you had left. Of course, you were the high standards they looked up to and in many ways, on a pedestial because of your proximity to Amma. There was no clarity or explanation at the time as to why you had left, when I asked, except some comments by the brahmacharya’s that Amma had been concerned and asked whether you had enough money to live on, and had instructed them to find you to offer you funds for your expenses. On that note, I do recall as long back as 1999 when Amma said there would be scandals and efforts to tarnish her name in the future, and this was not unusual against gurus.
Although we never had actual conversations whenver I visited the ashram, I had minor interactions with you and you were always kind and accommodating to me. I often pondered how difficult and challenging it must be to be in the position of a senior in Amma’s fold.
I was not an immediate Amma devotee but had been sent there by another guru, to my disappointment. But it was a very interesting study for me because I then realised that spiritual magnitude really can manifest in different people, in different forms, not only in my own guru whom I at the time felt was ‘the only one’. Of course, for me he had far superior qualities above Amma or anyone else, and even to this day I have never met anyone of equal caliber. But that did not prevent me to have great respect for Amma and I returned to the ashram each year for a few months at a time and have seen her regularly for 25 years.
Let’s not pretend India is spiritually advanced or the ashram is perfect. India is a third-world country, stuck in the dark ages with appalling lack of humanity and basic humanness. At the same time it’s a curious society with some unique features that are exceptional and fascinating. But all-in-all, it’s a cesspool of the worse things humanity can offer. I never understood why many westerners would not use their basic reasoning, and began throwing themselves into pretending they were Indian, giving themselves Indian names, wrapping themselves in saris and adopting the head nod. Even with all the materialism in the West, my own guru admitted in a speech that the Vedas are more alive in the West than in India, where spirituality is contained merely to primitive and superficial rituals and superstitions, and nothing else and where basic humanity is lacking. The Indian audience gasped in shock upon hearing this, and duly the next day, all mentions of this had been erased from his discourse!
Ashrams are no places of peace and love. They are extremely difficult places to live at. And it is true that there are some horrible people congregating in ashrams. Half appear to be mentally unstable, or be in conflict with normal society. The ashram becomes a refuge and excuse for their failings to live the ordinary material life. But they are also not good at developing enough to live a spiritual life… I believe that if you are suitable for spiritual life, you must first prove your ability to manage ordinary life. Mental instability makes spiritual life even more difficult.
I do believe you are writing the truth about your observations and I am not going to engage in any form of character assassination against you, which appears to be the standard response from many ashramites without any attention to some of the main claims, which they should provide a better explanation for. However, this is not persuading me to dismiss that Amma indeed possess qualities that are far beyond the ordinary human qualities because I have experienced them first-hand for the past 25 years. I experienced many miracles with Amma that is not ordinary by any definition of the word. I have experienced her capacity and powers. I know they are real and they are indeed there. At the same time I can see that Amma, born under Saturn, comes from an illiterate and low cast community, and it does not surprise me that her human personality would behave what is ‘normal’ and common in these communities. I do recall once when one of the ashramites asked Amma what she would been born into if she had not been born ‘a mahatma’, and she responded that she would been born a Dalit.
I don’t know why she would be more abusive to the women while she clearly gave a long lenient leash to the men, as you described in your observations, which is one of the main things that put me off. My only explanation as a third-hand observer is that she basically answered her own conduct to you in your book on page 174. This also confirms what I have observed with gurus over the years; they behave according to the inner convictions of the individual, whether the person is aware of this or not. This reminds me of a difficult American woman who decided that Brahmacharya was her new calling, and she spent a few years at Amritapuri before getting tired of her calling and returning home. But while in the midst of it she, for some reason, had convinced herself that Amma scolding her was what satisfied her idea of a guru-sishya relationship. She told me with great pride how this gave her a sense of satisfaction that she was accecpted as a ‘student’ of Amma. I personally found this curious, because there is absolutely nothing in an abusive guru that would encourage me, inspire me, or make me respect them at all or inspire me to follow anything they say. I would leave. Period. I would have zero tolerance for this kind of primitive conduct yet some people find satisfaction in abuse. And neither Amma nor my own guru ever scolded me even once in all those years. Instead, they guided and taught me in other ways.
I am not denying that you have been abused, or that perhaps indeed she dealt with the sexual needs of some of her seniors in pretty primitive ways. Let’s just stop beating around the bush and openly admit that Indian men are sexual predators by cultural habits. This is simply a fact that we rarely talk about. Most of them, sadly, feel entitled to take advantage of women, children, to molest and even rape them. They see nothing wrong in this conduct, just like men from Islamic countries see nothing wrong in violating themselves like vultures on women and children. The idea that women are objects to pleasure men is so deep in the culture that many Indian mothers masturbate their babies to stop them from crying. We used to talk about this at the ashram. And like Balu said to you, “It’s my entitlement”, which is a gross and unacceptable attitude to us but common to them. This mindset is a huge problem in Indian culture which is difficult to eradicate. And I am wondering whether Amma’s actions were done to prevent them from comitting even worse offenses by molesting or attacking visitors or juniors at some point, which could result in greater problems and scandals, maybe even police complaints, than simply dealing with it quietly the way it’s commonly done in India?
On that note, once when I was at Amritapuri they had cordoned off the pathway between her father’s house and the ashram. I asked why. It turned out that Amma’s father was exposing himself to female visitors and had tried to molest some of the women. Hearing this, I just knew instinctively that her father had molested Amma as a child. This is sadly very common in Indian society. So when you wrote in your book about her handling of the uncontrolled desires of Balu, Chandu and others – it again convinced me she had been molested as a child and had to ‘put out’, like many children and women often have to in these primitive countries.
My conclusion is that Amma at times uses the crude, low-caste village culture she was brought up in to teach people. Some of this was disclosed in her Gurupoornima talk just two days ago, which I listened to in a live podcast from Amritapuri. Amma explained that she was severely beaten as a child. Once when she lost money her mother beat her so bad she never forgot it. Even to this day if she comes across money on the ground she will not touch it or pick it up in the belief that the person will be looking for it, feeling the same distress and panic she felt as a child. She mentioned that through hardship and abuse, people from her childhood became ‘more compassionate’ because their direct experience taught them what suffering meant. I believe that she used this kind of village upbinging on you as a guru, assuming that breaking your spirit – like they broke the will of that poor little elephant at the ashram by beating him daily so he would obey, which used to infuriate me and other westerners and get us into brawls with the Indians – you will somehow end docile, obedient, compassionate and humble. But we are not primitive villagers from a backward society without a basic intellect who mainly respond only on instincts. We westerners are a different human DNA…. we are a bit more mentally evolved, and abuse backfires on us. It doesn’t evolve us into more compassionate people. It breaks our spirit and harbors distrust. And that’s what I think happened to you. What Amma did to you was wrong and she used a wrong tactic, and I do think she realises it.
In spite of this, I do not deny that there is something Amma has tapped into which is beyond human. There is indeed a divine spark in her which she can access at any point. This fact cannot be denied. And you can feel it in her presence. That still doesn’t deny the fact that she comes from a primitive community.
When I see Amritswarupananda next time I am going to ask flat out why he is disgracing himself, the ashram, and amma by wearing the ochre robe? He is not entitled to wear it with that conduct of his. He should dispose of it and don civilian clothes.
I send you love and hope you get all the healing, strength and happiness you deserve.
I’m about to finish your book and sad because it’s been my favorite read in a long time. I can relate to the spiritual hunger but am also fascinated by the co-dependent relationship as I am a life coach.
I’d love another book on how you adapted to life “on the outside” those first few years and how you’re doing today.
I’ll wait patiently. 😉
I didn’t know the extent of abuse you experienced, after the publication of your book! Having spent many years in the Puttaparthi sai baba ashram, I well know the extent of anger and disbelief we felt when people spoke against the guru – and yes, we heard of violent zealots who took matters even further. But in the end, many of us found out that the negative “rumors” were true. Such orgs like amma and sai baba, profit by selling an idealistic spiritual fantasy, while living in a corrupt way and ruining many lives. You’ve done such a courageous and great service to share your inside experiences – inspiring many to break free from the controlling org! THANK YOU!!
Well done for speaking the truth!
May the truth always shine in the most darkest places.
I am a survivor of indoctrination of three fake guru’s: Rajneesh, Sai Baba & Amma. Holy Hell has really opened my eyes. 1994, when I first met “Ammaji” & “Gayatri” in the Swiss mountains, at Schweibenalp we had a great time, performing “Puja’s” & chanting “Bhajans”. I felt what a privilege it must be for “Gayatri” to be the personal Assistant. I wanted to be part of that bliss. I followed them around, to La Réunion, to Mauritius, to Kerala, to France & Switzerland. “Ammaji” has been coming to my country for almost 30 years, collecting money from her followers. “Ammaji” is a disgrace to all woman on this planet
Your memoir helped me in my healing journey after I escaped from a spiritual cult where I had served the Guru in a similar way that you had served Amma. You helped me to see that the abuse I had suffered was not imaginary and I’ll be forever grateful that you were brave enough to share your story.
These cults will only end if people like you shine a light on them for people to see the lies and deception that they are built on.
we met at Schweibenalp, Brienz, Switzerland
at La Réunion, flew on Mauritius and in Kerala
I then felt how marvelous it must be to be so close to Amma
Thank Good I never gave up my live here in Geneva, to follow & devote my life to her. However many years were kind of wasted; but I am finally free. Thank you
Thank you for this and for Holy Hell. I discovered your book last month and found it hard to put it down. For me it is not only a nicely written memoir – that at first took my heart on a lovely trip back to India, but then also a heart wrenching account that has very much helped me in separating and healing from my own toxic and abusive bond with a guru figure here in the West.
Thank you for sharing your journey and your memoirs, I believe the world is a richer place for them.