Recently The Rolling Stone published a negative expose’ on Amma (the Indian hugging saint). The article contained a portrayal of Amma that can only be described cultish, and interviews which detailed a backlash from her former assistants…specifically two that have been with her for 20 years.
Some of its contents I felt were unsubstantiated; but the article still left me with a feeling of disappointment that I wanted to explore here.
The Story of Amma
You may or may not know who Amma is. To some, she is known as the Indian hugging saint. To others (such as the author of the article), she is known as a charlatan and a cult leader. But regardless of who or what you think she is, one thing is for certain: she has a LOT of loyal and devoted fans out there.
Amma grew up in the small town Kerala in South India. The story goes that she had an immediate disposition towards spirituality, often meditating on the beach for long hours. During the midst of a family emergency, Amma had to go door to door to obtain food scraps to give to family. Noticing the intense suffering of those around her, she began helping them in whatever way she could.
This caused a stir inside of her, and led to a strong conviction that her role in life was to serve others and help alleviate their suffering.
Fast forward to today, and Amma is a world-renowned figure. Interestingly enough, she got her fame from literally just giving hugs to people. All day. Every day. In fact, it’s not uncommon for her to go 16 to 24 hours or more in one sitting just hugging, and then turn around and travel on a long plane ride to another city where she does it again.
She has inspired countless throngs of people and leaders with her work. Amma has started a plethora of charities and ashrams that spend billions of donated funds every year on health, housing, community services, food, water, disaster relief, and on and on for the destitute. She truly has become a servant to the poor and helpless.
Popularity= Public Scrutiny: The Article
But with rising popularity comes the intensity of the media scrutiny and critics, and Amma is no different from any other individual in that respect. The article published by The Rolling Stone described Amma in her element: thousands of people lined up for hours to see her, all while she remains calm.
The author paints a cultish scene with his description of their admiration.
But the interviews with ex monastics of Amma’s organization give a VERY different view-point. The author interviewed Gail Tredwell, an assistant of 19 years to Amma, and Prasannan who was with the organization for 20 years. Both of these individuals are highly credible due to their length of stay.
Tredwell says that as Amma’s popularity grew and as Amma spent more time on stages, receiving people for long hours, she grew increasingly irritable when out of the public eye. “She was really a whole different person,” Tredwell claims, and tells me a story about how once, when she made a mistake cooking rice, Amma pulled her to the floor by her hair and kicked her. “That kind of thing was not uncommon.”
Tredwell goes on to say that she had come to her wit’s end and decided she had to leave under cover. She snuck out in the back of a car under a blanket, never to return again. I have never heard of an Ashram like setting having problems like that…and it surprises me that this story is around.
Tredwell also claims that Amma would frequently give money to her family from the donations to her and the charity. She does claim that she delivered the money by hand, but personally I think this might be a bit of a stretch and if it happened it probably didn’t happen often; it’s fairly easy to discover this kind of stuff in investigations. I think this claim is a little more serious, and definitely unsubstantiated. I won’t be holding my breath to see headlines about Amma stealing money from the charity funds; but I do think it is worth checking out/ (if anything to vet Amma…because I don’t think she’s a criminal)
Prasannan gave another account entirely. He stated that the organization had lots of “hungry egos” and ultimately that caused him to leave. He was still on good terms with Amma, but it ultimately just became too much to bear.
Let’s be very real here: We don’t know Amma, really. We don’t know whether or not some of these claims are true. We do know that the circle around Amma is very tight and devoted to her. But that does not mean it is a cult, and even if it is cultish, that does not mean Amma approves of it. And we certainly do not know if she is abusive or stealing money from the charity.
But what we DO know is powerful: Amma has helped countless individuals with her work, and alleviated suffering in many dark places in the world. She is a model and an inspiration for many people. And even if what is in the interview is true…that would only mean she is human.
If we keep it in the right perspective, we can be totally unaffected by these events because we can recognize that Amma is just a person striving to better herself and the world. And that to me is a true miracle.
A great line from the interview of Amma:
There are some who accuse you of being inauthentic, I say. How do you address that?
“I would not blame them,” she says. “When a poet sees a flower, he writes poetry about it; a scientist will conduct research on it; a boyfriend will give it to his girlfriend; a worm will eat it; a devotee of God will offer it to God. Similarly, each person comes with his own attitude. It’s their right. They have the right to accept or to reject. For me, both types of people are equal. All I am concerned with is what positive I can do. Different people will think different things – that is the nature of the world. People have the right to have faith or not to have faith.”
What’s your take on this? I’m interested to know. Post your comments below.
(very good NPR story on Amma here)