The Slandering Shadow
She was known as ‘Amma’s shadow’. ‘Amma’ here is Mata Amritanandamayi who was born as Sudhamani Idamannel. The shadow is Gail Tredwell an Australian woman who came to India as a teenager and settled with Sudhamani. The latter was gradually becoming popular among the spiritual aspirants in both India and abroad. Gail Tredwell had taken the name Gayatri and met ‘Amma’. That was in 1980 on the Pongal day. Over the next decade the small huts they all lived in became an Ashram and the Ashram went on to become a global movement. For nearly two decades Gayatri remained so close to Amritanandamayi that she earned the title ‘Amma’s shadow’. Then in 1999 Gail left the Ashram.
In 2013, almost after 14 years she left the Ashram, she came out with her memoirs on Mata Amritanandamayi, ‘Holy Hell A memoir of Faith, Devotion and Pure Madness‘. The book comes out with all murky slanderous allegations. It contains accounts of brain washing, fabricated miracles, physical, psychological and sexual abuses, illicit sexual relations, financial fraud etc. All things one expects to see inside a destructive cult one finds in the book. Braving the dusty dirty Indian atmosphere she stayed and served expecting a mystical reward from the East. Her rational faculties forged in the western culture were fogged by the spiritual delirium she had acquired in India. She then snapped out and made her daring escape back to the West. There after an unsuccessful marriage she decided to heal herself and help others by writing her memoirs.
The allegations made by Gail against Amritanandamayi and her institution are serious criminal offenses if true. However at present these remain as mere allegations without any supporting evidence. Even if the state authorities are not taking any action Amritanandamayi and the senior monks of her Ashram are duty bound to come up with a clear no-nonsense statement as the allegations have been made by a former close aide of the Guru and who was there from the early beginning and for almost two decades.
That said the memoir itself makes a disturbing reading. There is a strong emotional discontinuity, and logical inconsistency and with a constant undercurrent of a disdain for India. Even when the author was in her ‘loving Indian spirituality’ phase she always has a Katherine Mayo eyes for the dirty beggars, dirty trains, dirty hotels, not-so-handsome men with protruding belly, slimy mud underneath the water bodies etc. Yet she loves the simplicity of Indian people, their smiles, their innocence and their peace. As the narrative grows we find her judging Indians at every point – mostly negatively.
Discordant Power Games
Even when she meets Amritanandamayi (‘Amma’) with whom she would spend her next twenty years, she comes out judgmental if not downright cynical. For example when ‘Amma’ calls her to the stage to join the Bhajan her immediate reaction is: ‘”Shit” I mumbled to myself as I reluctantly got up…’ She displays this attitude throughout. For instance in the very beginning of her Ashram days when ‘Amma’ goes to a house for a visit and it gets late, Gail reminds ‘Amma’ that it is time to leave. Then one devotee starts crying:Affectionately stroking the lad’s head, she tried to soothe his aching heart by saying, “My darling son, don’t cry. Mother isn’t going far.” Crap, I thought to myself. He’ll be coming in the taxi with us; can’t he do his crying there?
She also shows an aggressive instinct for power and manipulation. Immediately after she enters what was then a hut she unveils a ring of untouchability. She forbids ‘Amma’s sisters from using any of the things of her Guru. Interestingly the village girls have a better understanding of the Guru phenomenon. The Guru is only an ordinary human being, their friend and sister when she is not in her altered states of consciousness. But this aggressive interfering by Gail would repeatedly come for condemnation and criticism which she could not bear.
Though Gail Tredwell tries to portray herself as being caught in a brain-washing cult which is based on the unquestioning acceptance of omniscient omnipotent divinity of ‘Amma’, the events narrated in the very book tells a different story. When in 1981 Ms.Tredwell started having abdominal problems ‘Amma’ immediately asked her to go and consult a doctor instead of relying on the healing powers of ‘Amma’. She records that the response of ‘Amma’ to consult a doctor was immediate, definitely not a behavior one would expect from a charlatan cult guru. The surgery resulted in the removal of a ‘massive eight and a half kilo tumor’. However even as she was being led into the operating room she overhears people indulging in rumors about ‘abortion’ of a ‘pregnancy’. So Gail knows what slanders can hurt an Indian Ashram the most…
Sadhana of Disdain
It was a person called Chandru was the one who introduces ‘Amma’ to Gail. And he turned out to be a scandalous womanizer. He even causes extra-marital pregnancy which results in the death of the concerned girl. After this gruesome event Ms.Tredwell claims that she recovered two letters to Chandru from two Indian girls. Even seeing a letter from a girl to Chandru makes Gail get into a rage. What follows then shows that it was more a possessive rather than an ethical outrage. Curiously one of these letters written in English vividly describes sex between Chandru and the girl inside the family shrine. Tredwell’s reaction is very strange:
Wow, I thought to myself. These meek, mild, naïve, and innocent young Indian women are not quite who they seem. It turns out they are horny little creatures after all—human after all. Ooooh, you little vixen, I thought.
The whole letter episode looks like a fabrication. Here a Kerala girl, writing in good English, conveniently goes into a candid description of sex in the family shrine yet ready to get convinced herself as a virgin despite her bleeding. Leaving that apart what is curious is the behavior of Gail as she herself describes in the episode. She says that she knows that particular girl personally but apart from ripping apart the girl’s privacy with a gossip monger’s passion, she reveals nothing of her warning the girl about the real nature of Chandru. So much for a spiritual aspirant!
At the same time when told to look after a mentally challenged Indian girl Gail mentally remarks that she was not here for such jobs which she finds disgusting. Gail cringes at the body odor of that mentally challenged girl about which she obsessively repeats in her account. Interestingly ‘Amma’ directly goes and cleans this girl after Gail had left the girl in her own vomit. But Gail states that she felt she came for spirituality and not for such work. Interestingly the ‘spiritual aspiration’ of Gail which finds cleaning the body of a mentally challenged girl disgusting and unfitting for a spiritual aspirant, does not find it so to rip open the privacy of a girl and read it with glee.
One can go through the whole book thus which actually reveals more about the pathos of Gail than ‘exposing’ the Guru woman.
Mother of Patriarchy?
As the narrative unfolds Gail opens up another front – the sexist treatment of male monks. While she is made to do the ‘menial’ works the men are taken care of by ‘Amma’. Gail blames this on Indian patriarchy:
The problem was this. Indian men are accustomed to being revered and waited on hand and foot by their mothers and sisters. Amma had been raised most certainly with the same family values—hence her concern. … End result: the ingrained superiority complex of Indian men.
There are actually two problems with this ‘patriarchy’ explanation that Gail gives. (She repeats this in her Kairali interview also.) One is that the Kerala society had been traditionally matriarchal and even now the matriarchal influences extend in the society. Second is that ‘Amma’ during her spiritual evolution encountered major resistance and harassment from the male members of her own household – her father and brother. So far from being raised in a submissive patriarchal household ‘Amma’ came up as a rebel against the male members of her household in a society that was traditionally matriarchal.
Clearly Gail’s issues from the beginning seem to be that she received lesser attention from ‘Amma’ and that she was not recognized for her self-held spiritual aspiration and achievements. Even before meeting Amma when she was at Thiruvannamalai she changes Shivratri night into a competition for waking up in her mind and delights in beating Indians in that. True or cooked-up the event shows that she had thought of herself as a qualitatively better spiritual aspirant and seems she wanted ‘Amma’ to confirm that. However with ‘Amma’ her ego got a thrashing and she blames it on patriarchy.
White woman’s burden
In this context Gail also tries to position herself as a lonely western woman taking on the burden of all women in the ‘patriarchal’ ashram:
Despite the fact that Amma, the head of the ashram, was a woman, the ashram was very patriarchal. Male hierarchy was firmly set into place by Amma herself. Although I was head of the women’s side, and I was Amma’s personal attendant, I often found myself up against resistance from members of the opposite sex. In times like these, I was glad to be a “madama,” thereby able to speak my mind and stand my ground for what I felt was right.
Gail has sharply ingrained stereotypes about Indian and Western women. When she talks about an Indian girl brought up in United States she says that because of her US upbringing she has reserved demeanor which in turn had the pleasing blend of confidence and assertiveness of a Western woman. Contrast the stereotype that emerges in Gail’s words for Indian women (‘These meek, mild, naïve, and innocent young Indian women are not quite who they seem. It turns out they are horny little creatures after all—human after all’) with the words she uses for their western counterparts: ‘pleasing blend of confidence and assertiveness‘.
Still her version of projecting her as the Western woman in shining enlightenment saving damsels from heathen brown-skinned patriarchy falls flat because of the internal evidence that can be gleaned from her own account. One is the utter disregard for the other girl’s privacy which she displayed in the Chandru-letter episode. And the second is the way she deserted the mentally challenged girl. The third is even more damaging. She alleges that Balu came after her even after she was given the robes of the monk. However this time she bravely resisted him and told him to find another girl – even though she told him, so she alleges that what he was doing was sexual blackmail and manipulation. Now what kind of a liberated woman fighting patriarchy wants her tormentor to find another woman for an abuse which she herself suffers?
Coming directly to the heart of the allegations which is the ‘rape’ and the ‘sexual relations’ which ‘Amma’ is alleged to have with her male disciples, again we find inconsistencies galore.The ‘rape’ allegation is colorfully told in chapter 20 titled ‘Man in Heat’. What is striking, if we take the allegation to be true, is that Balu then emerging as a favorite disciple of ‘Amma’ was neither threatening nor using his position to coerce Gail into a non-consent sex. But he pleads pathetically. For example in Gail’s words:
To a backdrop of sobbing and sniffling he blurted out, “Gayatri, I am so in love with you.” Nervously looking around the room to ensure nobody else was hearing this conversation, I rejoined with, “What are you talking about? This is not right. You need to pull yourself together.” Reaching out to grab hold of me, he pathetically said, “I need to see you. I need to see you alone.”
And Gail confesses that the very night of the first day of Balu’s alleged proposal, ‘somewhere deep down in my humanness Balu’s unrelenting attention made me feel flattered. I began to feel vulnerable‘. Then she says:
This behavior went on for a few more days. Then it happened. My resolve weakened, and I agreed to meet him early the following morning in his room. I could have run to Amma and shared the recent events, which may have shielded me from him—but I chose not to. I was already so wounded and worn out from her harsh ways that I felt touched and weakened by someone showing he cared for me
Here is the inconsistency: She says the incident happened in the mid-80s. In the previous chapters she has listed out in detail allegations of the harsh treatment that ‘Amma’ gave her from late 1980s to 1990s.Even when her Guru was occasionally harsh with Gail, clearly she was not ‘wounded and worn’ which was her condition according to her own narrative only in the mid and late 1990s. That was how the narrative had been developed in the previous 19 chapters. But in chapter 20 she wants the reader to believe that she did not go to ‘Amma’ in mid-80s because her ‘wounded and worn’ conditions in 1990s.
The scenario becomes further muddled for Gail because she has seen how ‘Amma’ had thrown out Chandru for his sexual advances though he was the one who was winning many disciples for ‘Amma’. So there is nothing that could have stopped Gail from going to ‘Amma’ and complaining unless she was a willing partner now complaining or the whole thing is a slanderous fabrication with a vengeance. However when one reads in flow, this logical inconsistency would not register – a cute ominous trick. One cannot stop wondering if this allegation of rape would stand even in an American court even for that broad term ‘sexual abuse’.
Another remarkable feature is the way Gail describes the male spiritual colleagues she finds attractive. For example Ganga a French disciple of ‘Amma’ was in Gail’s words tall and well built, with a proud, lion-like, male energy about him.
More importantly her description of Balu is almost amorous. He impresses her on their first ever meeting as ‘strikingly handsome with dreamy brown eyes and a thick head of stylishly groomed wavy hair’ and a ‘distinguished nose’ and his beard and moustache ‘neatly trimmed’ and his ‘skin a rich golden hue, and his build trim’.
Nothing wrong in a woman minutely admiring the physique of a male in poetic terms but only the object of admiration here and the admirer are both people determined to walk the spiritual path and when this first impression is coupled with the fact that later she would accuse the same person of ‘raping’ her – then one finds something fundamentally wrong with Ms. Gail Tredwell.
Room not Justice is the Need!
Gail states that it was a few days after June 8 1987 that she had a tangible proof of sexual activities between ‘Amma’ and Balu. It was a semen stained towel of Balu she recovered from ‘Amma’s room. She says that she rationalized what she saw by assuming that ‘Amma’ was simply helping her male disciples release their pent-up sexual drive. However ‘after a few years’ she says that fantasy was annihilated when she saw ‘Amma’ and Balu doing the act.
She makes it clear that she understood the act for what it was and was filled with rage: “I gasped and swiftly ducked so that they wouldn’t see me. I was livid. No way in hell am I taking the fall for this one!” Both these alleged events happen abroad: first in Albuquerque and the next in Hawaii. ‘A few years after’ 1987 would make the alleged sex between ‘Amma’ and Balu at Hawaii happen either in 1989 or in the early years of 1990 – probably 1991-92. Surely now Gail had seen ‘Amma’ as a charlatan. She herself declared that there is no way she could justify what she saw. Yet we see her still stick on to ‘Amma’ for at least more than five years.
And at last when she opens her mind to ‘Amma’ after an initial sermon about inequality within the Ashram (and not the alleged scandals) she actually starts to bargain for a room adjacent to her Guru’s. She even accuses ‘Amma’ directly – which shows Gail has got guts. But again here the accusation is not about her alleged immorality but only the way she treats Gail. “And you! You are constantly demeaning and humiliating me in public and undermining everything I do.“One can note that there is no mention of the physical abuse. There is no mention of violence. But there is only mention of the public humiliation and not recognizing her greatness.
Amma was in shock, but hearing me out. “What do you want? What can I do to make your life easier?” she pleaded. Taking a deep breath and letting out a huge sigh as tears formed in my eyes, I said, “Well for starters, I could use a room. You’ve just had your room extended and there is a huge empty platform now by the kitchen. It would be easy to build one there. Besides, it will keep your apartment cooler.”
Once this demand is accepted Gail becomes normal but then there erupts another problem about canteen money being diverted to office on the instructions of Gail. When questioned about this Gail gets annoyed and decides to leave.
In other words it was not the alleged sexual abuse or the alleged sexual relations of her Guru or the financial scandals she says she witnessed – but it was her questioning over the control of canteen money that makes her livid enough to leave.
Going through 200 odd pages of this extreme self-centered self-pitying document filled with slanders and character assassinations with no real proof, not to speak of logical, psychological and chronological inconsistencies one finds yet another pattern. There is a growing hatred towards Indian culture. Hints are given that ‘Amma’ could be an evil dark force – a kind of psychic vampire:
I watched one woman cheerfully approach Amma, look into her face, and smile after receiving her first kiss. But when Amma placed her hand over the woman’s heart, that all changed. Immediately the woman’s eyes cast downwards, her smile turned into a frown, and she burst into tears. Amma continued to gaze at her with a deep, penetrating gaze as though staring into her soul. I was amazed at how people responded to Amma’s touch. I was amazed at the sadness that arose from their hearts. I interpreted their tears as the byproduct of the empty, meaningless lives that they were trying to cover up with materialism. That is what I had been told, so that is what I believed for quite some time
Her descriptions of Indian festivals (here the installation of the temples of the Math) show almost a Christian contempt for a pagan fair:
At six a.m. the loudspeakers would erupt,blaring the recitation of the thousand names of the Divine Mother, adding recorded bhajans at intervals. This racket would continue nonstop until at least two the next morning, or whenever Amma finished greeting the thousands who had come to see her. There was no escape from the din…. Even if it was God’s name blaring at me around the clock, I couldn’t help feeling that the Lord’s name was being taken in vain.
The allusion to Biblical commandment here is indeed revealing (Exodus 20:7 – Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain).
Gail also tries to portray the Amritanandamayi movement as a cult. But the book shows an interesting pattern. While in a cult retaining the member is very important here on the contrary Gail is repeatedly given opportunities to go back and get out of the organization. She says that ‘Amma’ often tells her that she is not fit for spiritual life and that she should return back.
Further she says just like a cult leader ‘Amma’ does not like her followers seeking other Gurus. However a video of the Guru’s first world tour shows her doing a fire worship (‘aarathi’) in her devotees house shrine which contains among others the picture of Sathya Sai Baba. Amritanandamayi could be seen in the video performing Aarathi for the picture of Sai Baba as well.
In August 2012 in a guru-phobic website Gail Tredwell listed no less than 40 reasons as to why she left Amritanandamayi but interestingly sexual abuse and scandal are not among them. However she lists among her reasons, ‘Worn out from heat and crowds and the culture of India’ and ‘narrow minded attitude of the swamis against Christianity’. In her 2012-list she finds fault with the Ashram for sending the girls alone to the outside world.
If her allegations in the 2013-book she describes the Ashram as the place where she underwent psychological and sexual abuse and a prison house for the girl inmates. The contradiction is self-evident. Clearly the sexual abuse allegation seems to be an afterthought. Because if that part is taken away the book loses most of its teeth and claw to extract blood.
Again in the 2013-book, the ‘Christian’ angle has been underplayed. The failed search for God through a Guru has been emphasized. She also states that once when she was shown glimpses of an experience of a higher consciousness, she chose not to experience it. In other words, if her words are taken at face value, she simply rejected the Hindu God-realization and went back to western civilization where she found God in daily life. It is only a few microns leap from here to proclaim that truth of Christian God, superiority of Western civilization and the dark dangers of Eastern Gurus. In this the book has a strikingly similar tone to that of Tal Brooke.
Tal Brooke who claims that he was in the inner circle of Sai Baba came out and wrote the book ‘Avatar of the Night’. He became an evangelical Christian crusading against the ‘dark occult forces of the East’. His book and Gail Tredwell’s book have many similarities. They both ultimately blame the Guru tradition for preventing them from seeing the truth.
They both implicitly and explicitly proclaim the superiority of Western culture over the Indian culture. While Tal Brooke openly accuses Sai Baba being an agent of demonic forces, Gail implies that her former Guru is a sort of psychic vampire. Though with Biblical language Gail continuously speaks of ‘God’ and ‘love of God’ she has not yet stated openly her allegiance to Jesus and has not yet proclaimed her battle against Hindu Gurus.
For Amritananadamayi’s detractors the book has come as a handy stick to beat the Amritanandamayi and her Ashram. Islamist media groups which have a strong presence in Kerala have been doing a media lynch with their utter contempt for human divinity proclaimed in Advaita. A few years back CPI (M) run media had leveled charges against the Ashram which they later had to retract and apologize unconditionally. Now with her former aide making murky allegations, CPI (M) media house has been more than happy to hype the allegations with sending their TV editor John Britto to interview Gail.
The interview, overall sympathetic to Gail, still has brought out a few of the glaring inconsistencies in her version of events. For example Gail admits that after she left the Ashram in 1999 and even after they were sure in 2006 that she would not return back, they never said anything bad about her until she wrote the scandalous book. This statement by Gail gives lie to one of her major allegations against ‘Amma’ and her organization.
In the book Gail had accused that the Mutt indulges in negative propaganda, slander and character assassination against anyone who leaves the organization. She cites that as one of the reason why she hesitated to leave.This very accusation does not seem to exist solidly outside the pages of Gail’s book. In fact some queries by the current writer revealed that many of those who left the Ashram life and got settled as householders still maintain good and healthy relation with the Ashram.
On the contrary it was Gail who seems to have done the character assassination, spreading of malicious rumors and baseless internally inconsistent and hence fabricated allegations. What could be the motive? Extracting revenge against the organization for not recognizing her greatness? She should have known for sure what Indian media can do with such slanders. There has also been at least one instance of misreporting by the mainstream media.
Titled ‘Spiritual conundrum: Book claims ‘hugging saint’ ashram murky world of sex, money, power’ the report by DNA dated 22-Feb-2014 wrote that Gail was ‘was emotionally blackmailed and raped by Balu to prevent her from speaking out’ – an accusation that even Gail has not made.
Gail Tredwell should have found some peace now knowing that in her revenge against the brown skinned pagan woman guru she had indeed caused some damage.