The Controversial Rolling Stone Article on Amma (The Hugging Saint)

The Controversial Rolling Stone Article on Amma (The Hugging Saint)
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)

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Matt Caron
Matt is an enthusiastic Yoga teacher and life voyager. He enjoys reading, writing, practicing and meditating. He is the owner and editor in chief of, a site created with the thought process of bringing together the Yoga community in a collaborative way. Matt strives to inspire conscious living and conscious dialogue; not only for others, but for himself.


  • Chris Almond

    It is so true her comments about how others view her. Perfect statement, we can all learn a great deal from that.

    • Amma steal quotes…

      Amma never write her own speeches, she just steals or borrows story and quotes.

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  • Fishy Finances

    She lies about source of relatives’ wealth (from fishing biz? Yeah right) and keeps $100 million in foreign banks. Wtf?!

  • Pankaj

    Less than 10% of the money collected in the name of ‘charity’ actually is used for charity with these huge spiritual enterprises. People are deluded in thinking she’s providing any real world service while stashing millions I’m foreign bank accts and collections interested. People at ashrams have to pay their way even when they travel with her to work in bazaars they pay their expenses. Huge amount of free slave labor to build an empire. People have died there, sexually aped by her Swamis but they always have a get out of jail free card. I would research before you form an opinion. It’smore than feel good hugs and lies to change the world. Honesty integrity satya however you wanna spell. This is always lacking when it comes to wealthy spiritual figures with massive political ties.

  • Gudren

    Gail Tredwell’s book reveals that Amma was having intercourse with her supposedly celibate swamis in particular the head of her organization who is accused of rape by several women. This terrible situation still exists after several decades. Amma’s promoter and ashram resident Rishi Taavi Kassila was protected by Amma after he was accused of spreading herpes and having sex with teenage girls. Kassila’s seductions started during his Amma promotion and yoga philosophy classes. Amma followers are starting to leave following the publication of “Holy Hell”.

  • Lynn Goto

    I will not ever see this “charlatan hugging saint” again; my experience of her is that she is two-faced. Her organization is a cult, and that is evident by the behavior of her followers. Gail Treadwell is a very brave woman to have revealed the truth about Amma, who’s followers will stop at nothing to discredit Gail. I have personally experienced abuse from this pretending Guru. Amma thinks she is untouchable, because she can hide behind her humanitarian works; however, that is not what is in question. This woman has deceived everyone, preaching celibacy to her followers, while having a secret lover Balu, known as Big Swami in the cult.

    • sara

      Everyone must read the following article of an Amma old timer” (Retired Lawyer)

      This picture below is a woman looking at her lover. Amma gazing at her lover Balu “Big Swami”

      I will not see Amma again, I have experienced the nasty side…..

      The issue is that she raised the money was by posing as guru/divine mother, to draw in Westerners seeking spiritual growth and guidance. The fact is that she deceived thousands of followers into believing she is God-realized, and this should not be ignored.

      It is really the “cult of the charlatan hugging saint” If one reads about the cult mentality, it all applies to Amma organization.

      Boston US organizer after reading the book, left Amma’s organization after 20 odd years.

      The ashram sent two letters out to all organizers, the first calling the entire book a lie.

      The second letter quoting Swami’s character assassination. They are doing everything to discourage people from reading Gail Treadwell’s book.

      Those with grace will wake up, and the rest will stay in their illusion of amma.

      • dev

        grt news … pls don’t see her… even i haven’t seen her … but, unlike u ppl i would never blve a book nor a website and will defntly go and check it out myself …

  • The truth is in the photo’s

    Please read the articles on:


    If you examine the photos you will see it is no lie that Big Swami was Amma lover….

    One has to be either blind or very naive not see the sexual energy between them, anyone doing yoga, and an expert on the koshas will be able to see this dynamic.

  • Sajeev Dharan

    Gail Tredwel wanted to know God and joins an Indian
    ashram…. (It is not necessary to be in an ashram to find God) anyway, she
    soon found the monastic life tough. This is because there is strict disciple to
    follow in an ashram.

    She wanted to leave the ashram and enjoy a worldly life…
    get married and settle down.

    She did just that…. and the ashram provided her the
    financial assistance to do that.

    Now 15 years later, this book is created… with the
    influence of some hidden people whose agenda is to discredit the ashram. In
    this book they have distorted all the facts, fabricated stories to generate
    emotion among ordinary people, who do not know the truth about an ashram (spiritual
    hermitage) or a Guru (a spiritual master).

    This is in concise, what has taken place.

  • Rapheal

    even i haven’t seen her … but, unlike u ppl i would never blve a book nor a website and will defntly go and check it out myself … I will dfntly not blve media and others and loose my option like we human did long back for Muhammad and Jesus …

  • bouncer12

    Gail waited all these years to cook up these stories.She lost her path and now the new found wisdom that Amma is all that bad.

  • Susan

    A friend who works with people suffering spousal abuse says the patterns are the same. It can take a long time for the person to ask for help and understand the abuse. With a guru it can be even more complicated than a spouse.

    Check out the Amazon reviews on Holy Hell–there are some informative ones.