A Review of “Holy Hell” by Gail Tredwell

Mata Amritanandamayi is a household name in Kerala. Her devotees adore her: her detractors hate her: and the general public, even if they hold neutral views, cannot help being overwhelmed by the multimillion dollar industry that she has become: hospitals, engineering colleges, software companies – her empire spans a huge area. Devotees cross the seven seas regularly to sit at her feet; she crosses the seven seas to meet them at their homes across the world. And she hugs all and one who come to her – known as the “Hugging Saint”, she is Amma (“Mother”) to all her devotees.

The rationalists, leftists and radical Islamic groups hate her with a fervour matching the love of the devotees – because Amma is a magnet who is often used by Hindu groups to further their ends, as a “Bhakti” movement is always a potential political goldmine. There have been determined efforts to dethrone her from her lofty perch, allegations of financial and other misdeeds at her ashrams, but so far none have been proven. It is hardly surprising, because in a multicultural democracy where religion is always a touchy subject, no government will foolishly go against such an institution without solid evidence.

So one can imagine all the hell which would have broken loose by the publishing of the potentially incendiary memoir, Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion, and Pure Madness by Gail Tredwell (aka Gayatri), an Australian national and former devotee and inmate of Amma’s Ashram for twenty years, in which she claims that she was physically and mentally abused and sexually exploited by her so-called guru during her tenure. She also makes serious allegations against the saint like financial misappropriations and sex with many male followers. Kerala has gone into verbal overdrive with shrill accusations from both sides flying across the media and the internet. As with all such cases, there is very little rational analysis of the book since the emotional barometer is near the breaking point.

This is why I decided to read the book, to find out for myself what the hell (!) this was all about.

***

A disclaimer in the beginning: I am a sceptic. I do not believe in god as a concrete entity, but only as a human concept: a valid concept, but a concept all the same. So for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not hold any brief for the so-called “godmen” or “god women” – as far as I am concerned, they are making a living on a gullible public. All the so-called “miracles” I consider to be outright lies or cheap magic tricks. So my loyalties are firmly fixed on one side of the debate. Just so that you know.

That said, I do not mind somebody constructing an ashram and attracting devotees. Good luck to them, I say. The people who flock to these gods on earth are mostly educated people gifted with rational minds to think things out. The fact they do not do so means that deep down, they want to believe – it is a strong spiritual need. As long it is fulfilled by anything, and gives them happiness, why should I bother?

While reading this book, however, I was adamant that my prejudices should not inform my view. Whether I agree with the author or not, the review should be impartial, analysing the book on its own merits. Gail Tredwell has already been almost deified by the anti-Amrita group (John Brittas of Kairali TV, a channel sponsored by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), flew over
to the US to interview her!) and vilified as an agent of atheist-Christian-Islamic mafia by the Hindu right-wingers. Both views are informed more by the political leanings of the proponents than the merits of the book, I’m sure – as is always the case with such issues.

Well, onto the book.

The Story

Thousands of Westerners came to India in the seventies. I still remember seeing a lot of white men and women, dressed in what could be termed rags, walking around with backpacks. When asked, my mother told me that they were “hippies”, her mouth turndown in disgust at the word. For the average Keralite, a hippie meant a person who did not wash, smoked pot, and indulged in loose sex: however, now I feel that many of them were searching for something which was unavailable in their country, and which they (erroneously) believed was abundantly present in the “mystic” East – a way to the realisation of God. Gail Tredwell was such a naïve teenager.

After spending a relatively peaceful time at Tiruvannamalai at the Ramanashram of Ramana Maharshi, Gail’s quest for a personal guru brought her to Vallikkavu near Kollam in Kerala, where a young girl named Sudhamoni was earning a name for herself as a saint and miracle worker. She immediately took up the post of “Amma”‘s personal assistant (and going by the account of the things she did, valet and slave), attaching herself to the self-proclaimed godwoman for the next twenty years.

According to Gail’s account, the relationship was a totally sick one. Amma treated her as personal property, working her to death and verbally and physically abusing her whenever the mood for a tantrum came upon her. The control she exerted over the young Australian was not physical but emotional: the slightest hint of disagreement, and Gail would be dismissed from her guru’s presence for an unspecified amount of time, with the threat of permanent dismissal always hanging like a Damocles’ sword over her head. At this time, Gail was footloose in India without a penny to her name: no contact with her family in Australia (hints of some serious problem back there, though not elaborated): and also, she had undergo a hysterectomy to remove a massive tumour from her uterus. It is easy to see her being preyed upon.

Well, all of us know the history of Mata Amritanandamayi. The ashram grew and expanded at tremendous speed, becoming the multimillion dollar corporate behemoth it is today. A lot of men and women joined as Brahmacharis and Brahmacharinis (meaning to be in a state of celibacy – a sick joke in the light of Gail’s later revelations). Gail got elevated to the position of manager, and was accompanying Amma constantly on her trips. Soon, she was officially ordained and became Swamini Amritaparna.

However, during this temporal ascent, Gail was on a downward spiral spiritually – because she was discovering that her idol had feet of clay.

Being Amritanandamayi’s personal assistant, Gail was in her room constantly. Once during a visit to the US, she was asked to stay in a closet in Amma’s room, from where she witnessed a shocking incident: the guru having sex with Balu, one of the chief Swamis. This soon became a commonplace affair, and the disillusioned acolyte began putting two-and-two together: Amma’s partiality to males and the hours she spent cloistered with them. The lie Amritanandamayi perpetuated – that she was free from the “curse” of monthly periods – Gail already knew to be false. So the truth finally dawned – the guru was nothing but commonplace woman, carrying out a massive spiritual fraud on a gullible public. The amount of ashram donation money she smuggled out to her family in iceboxes did nothing to enhance her reputation in the eyes of her disciple.

Added to these facts was the personal trauma Gail suffered, because she was repeatedly raped by Balu, the sex-maniac swami.

So one day, the worm turned. During a trip to the US, Gail finally burst her spiritual shackles and absconded.

Analysis

Holy Hell is not a well-written book; moreover, it writes of disgusting things. I would not have touched had it not been for the controversy – and I believe it is the same with a thousand other people. So no doubt it is the sensationalism which sells the book. Now comes the million-dollar question: is it a true account?

As far as I am concerned, there are three possibilities:

  1. Whatever Gail writes is the gospel truth, and Mata Amritanandamayi is the charlatan monster she is made out to be.
  2. Gail is a seasoned liar, perhaps on the payroll of a Christian-Muslim nexus, and this is a deliberate attempt to discredit a saint.
  3. Gail is a disillusioned woman, who was once caught up in a cult and bears the spiritual scars of the same: whatever she writes is true from her point of view, which is necessarily relative.

I find myself plumbing for the third.

Throughout the memoir, Gail’s voice comes across with great veracity: it is clear she believes what she says. And it is frighteningly similar to what I have heard and read of other guru-cults, where the guru exerts total control over the disciple. It is typically a dominant-submissive relationship, sometimes with sex involved. From the beginning, it is clear that Gail suffers from an extremely negative self-image: she is a dog waiting to be kicked. The fact that she chose of her own volition to stay in practically what was a hovel (initially) and defecate into the canal while perched on a pair of wooden planks, just to be near her guru, speaks volumes for her mental state. There is obviously some deep-seated trauma in her childhood which forced her to leave her home country and come to India, I am sure.

And this is why I say her viewpoint is relative. For I am very sure Gail was not fully rational (initially, at least) while she was with Amma. Her periodic rapes by Balu smacks more of consensual sex while she was not in full faculty of mind, rather than forcible. As she grew older, her vision cleared and she saw the ashram for what it was: a money-making enterprise. This disillusionment caused her to leave. The trauma she suffered while in the ashram may have coloured her vision, so she might not be a wholly reliable narrator – but the gist of what she says, I think, she believes to be true. And I concur.

All said and done, this memoir will not change anything. The Amritanandamayi Ashram will go on minting money. Sceptics will go on scoffing, while believers will go on believing. This storm in teacup will die away as soon as the media gets fresher scandals. However, if this book forces future fence-sitters on spiritualism to have a rethink, it will have more than served its purpose.

Lastly, let me quote from the Upanishads as Gail herself does, on the Guru – Shishya relationship according to Indian culture:

Let us together be protected, and let us together be nourished by God’s blessings. Let us together join our mental forces in strength for the benefit of humanity. Let our efforts at learning be luminous and filled with joy, endowed with the force of purpose. Let us never be poisoned with the seeds of hatred for anyone. Let there be Peace in me! Let there be Peace in my environment! Let there be Peace in the forces that act on me!

Here, the guru is a fellow-traveller and guide, not a dictator who demands absolute surrender. This is the lofty concept of the Indian guru. Please do not be fooled by charlatans who twist Indian culture and the Hindu religion for their own ends.

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11 comments on “A Review of “Holy Hell” by Gail Tredwell

  1. Excellent review. I also read the book so I could judge for myself. I’m inclined to believe Tredwell, or at least to believe she *thinks* she’s being truthful. Honestly, if she wanted to ignite a false smear campaign, she would have made up much worse things. Who can blame Amma for supporting her family? And most westerners aren’t going to care if Amma has her period or even if she had relationships with male disciples. I do wonder why Tredwell took so long to come forward. Was she so traumatized that she couldn’t even speak about it for more than a decade?

  2. You didn’t review the book. You have judged the author. You have judged her on her life choices and you have blamed her for being a victim. That is unfortunately seen over and over again where people blame rape victims and you are perpetuating it. Your only real critique is that the book is not well written. Leaving it at that one critique would then be a real book review. This article is full of conjecture and judgement on the author as a person not as a writer.
    And the comments about her not speaking about it for a long time: Have any of you read any research articles on trauma, rape, or victimization? You’re judgements and incredulity are examples enough of why women in particular have trouble speaking up!! And thinking no one could be held against their will on the US?! Do you watch the news? There are 3 stories from the last 2 years alone of women being held for years in homes in the USA. Inform yourselves and stop blaming women for being victims. A true sacred space would include compassion and kindness, not blame and judgement.

  3. Here we have a fine kettle of fish indeed. We have spirituality which you can believe in or not but neither of those choices make it real for you. Believers just “hope” that it’s true and they will take the prescribed actions given by some authority figure. Atheists refuse Pascal’s wager and take the chance of stunting their own personal growth in the event that reincarnation IS real and that there are realms beyond this material world. They don’t necessarily LOSE anything by this but the don’t gain anything either. Other than solidifying their own egos which, as the God believers assert, is the anchor by which mere mortals stay that way. So my guess is Gail was a believer, not a knower. I could be wrong, maybe she did know but expected more. Who knows how the mind of guru followers work? So if Amma had lots of sex with gusto and was also a bit of a jerk sometimes does that mean Amma has no connection with the divine? I don’t think so, what it means is she lies about how evolved she is. Me personally, I’ve put her photo in a back drawer for further consideration.

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