Desi Ashrams and Videsi Chelas
by Nachiketas on 24 Feb 2014 18 Comments

The director of a reputed cultural institution based in Chennai narrated this interesting encounter she had with an American Swami of ISKCON. During a visit to Bombay, the director was impressed to see an American living a devout Vaishnava lifestyle as an ordained Hindu monk of ISKCON. Two years later, when the director was on a tour of the US, he bumped into the same American Swami, only that he was in plain clothes instead of his saffron robes. Puzzled, the director asked him what happened and pat came the casual reply of the American ‘Swami’: “Oh, I was on CIA duty!”


Of late, there have been growing instances of videsi chelas betraying Hindu ashrams by ‘leaking’ out juicy information of goings on within these religious institutions or by defaming the Gurus by levelling charges real or imaginary. This is not to imply that all foreigners are CIA agents or that Hindu ashrams should close their doors to foreigners.


We cannot dismiss the contributions made by some illustrious foreign disciples of Hindu Gurus like Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. Sister Nivedita is a shining example of the extraordinary transformation she underwent under the powerful influence of her Guru. The story of the transformation of a proud Irish woman, Margaret Elizabeth Noble into Sister Nivedita is extraordinary. How much emotional churning and self-negation Nivedita had to undergo at the hands of her Guru Vivekananda, a hard taskmaster, who ensured that all traces of her former identity were erased and replaced with an unflinching love for India and her people. ‘Love India’ was the mantra that her Guru bequeathed to her and she remained ‘dedicated’ (Nivedita) to that goal all her life.


Sister Nivedita’s role in India’s Freedom Struggle and her relationship with Indian nationalists and revolutionaries is awe inspiring. She was a close associate of Sri Aurobindo, Subramania Bharati, Ananda Coomaraswamy and other leading figures of the time. So vociferous was her opposition of British rule in India that she was compelled to publicly disassociate herself from the Ramakrishna Mission since the organization was being subjected to much harassment by the British.


Nivedita also exposed Lord Curzon after his speech in the University of Calcutta in 1905 where he said that truth was given a higher place in the moral codes of the West, than in the East. She undertook her own research and made it public that in the book Problems of The Far East, Curzon had proudly described how he had given false statements about his age and marriage to the president of the Korean Foreign Office to win his favour. This statement when published in newspapers like Amrita Bazar Patrika and The Statesman caused a furore and forced Curzon to apologise.


In the aftermath of the Partition of Bengal, Nivedita provided financial and logistic support to the revolutionaries and leveraged her contacts in government agencies to obtain information to forewarn the revolutionaries about the British administration’s plans. [1]


Nivedita’s passionate love for Mother India is expressed in her editorial written for the Karma Yogin, a role she took up when Sri Aurobindo retired to Chandernagore:

“The whole history of the world shows that the Indian intellect is second to none. This must be proved by the performance of a task beyond the power of others, the seizing of the first place in the intellectual advance of the world. Is there any inherent weakness that would make it impossible for us to do this? Are the countrymen of Bhaskaracharya and Shankaracharya inferior to the countrymen of Newton and Darwin? We trust not. It is for us, by the power of our thought, to break down the iron walls of opposition that confront us, and to seize and enjoy the intellectual sovereignty of the world.” [2]


Such stunning examples of love and dedication are few and far between. Today’s videsi chelas of desi ashrams are an altogether different story. The recent controversy surrounding American historian Peter Heehs is a case in point. Heehs lived in Pondicherry for 40 years and gained access to the archives of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram only to publish a derogatory ‘academic’ biography of Sri Aurobindo (The Lives of Sri Aurobindo).


The latest conflict between desi ashrams and videsi chelas to hit the news is a controversial book titled ‘Holy Hell’ written by Gail Tredwell, an Australian and a former disciple of Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (Amma). Tredwell lived in the ashram for two decades as Amma’s personal attendant. The book, published fifteen years after leaving the ashram, makes sweeping accusations of abuse she claims to have experienced during her stay in India.


The Mata Amritanandayi Devotees’ Forum in Kerala has a different story to tell about her. In a formal statement released on 19 February 2014, the forum challenges the wild claims made in the book:

“The allegations put forth in Gail Tredwell’s memoir are untrue and are the fabrications of a disturbed mind. It is puzzling that 15 years after leaving Amma’s ashram, Ms. Tredwell has decided to self-publish this book, fabricating incidents that supposedly took place as many as 30 years ago...


Contrary to the claim made in Ms. Tredwell’s book that she left the Mata Amritanandamayi Math as a fugitive (what she means is that she was in fear of her life), upon her departure Ms. Tredwell was given financial assistance by the Mata Amritanandamayi Centre in San Ramon, California, and was provided with health insurance by the same organization for approximately two years until she had completed her transition into lay life. Furthermore, for the first full year upon her departure, Ms. Tredwell was provided with free room and board in the house of a devotee, and her circle of friends was constituted of devotees as well...


The truth is that it was not because of abuse that Ms. Tredwell left Amma’s ashram but because she wanted to fulfill personal desires that were incompatible with the formal monastic vows she had taken up as a sanyasini.  In fact, Ms. Tredwell, during her time as a formally ordained monk, even went as far as to propose marriage to an American man... Today, proof of Ms. Tredwell’s marriage and subsequent divorce since leaving Amma’s organization is publicly available...


Even peripheral details of Ms. Tredwell’s memoir appear to have been fabricated, as a number of people included in scenes from the book have come forward to say that they are depicted in its pages saying and/or doing things that simply never happened.” [3]


An interview given by Tredwell a year before she left the ashram is available on YouTube, which shows her in a completely different state of mind: “This is an excerpt from a video filmed just a year or two before Gail Tredwell, a.k.a. Gayatri, a.k.a. Swamini Amritaprana, left Amma's ashram. Gail sounds legitimately touched and inspired by Amma and Amma's ability to inspire the best in people. Was that all really an act?” [4]


It is difficult for the common man to discern the truth in the volley of allegations and counter allegations which keep flying to and fro and between the ashrams and their former chelas. Hence, the Mata Amritanandamayi Math should sue Tredwell and the publisher for defamation without delay and ensure that the book suffers the same fate as Wendy Doniger and Penguin did in the case of The Hindus.


One can only hope that these episodes of betrayal will serve as a wakeup call for all Hindu movements and institutions. It is important that Hindu ashrams take ample precautions against such defamation and betrayal by their videsi chelas.


Hindu ashrams must recognize the fact that the cultural background and upbringing of the foreigners plays an important role in their mental makeup. These cultural differences or samskaras cannot be changed overnight. A lot of orientation and psychological deconditioning may be needed before a videsi understands or appreciates the native culture, lifestyle, cultural and philosophical attitudes which go into the making of the hierarchy of our ashrams.


Like all professional organizations, ashrams should enter into proper confidentiality agreements with such videsi chelas to prevent misuse of sensitive insider’s information with the malafide intention of damaging their reputation and credibility. In case of a dispute, there is always the route of legal redress available to a complainant and ashrams should specify such jurisdiction clearly in their agreements. Chelas like Tredwell who adopt the hit-and-run approach of publishing a book with wild claims must not be allowed to get away easily.


The dream of Vasudaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family) can become a reality only after the mission of Krinvanto Vishvam Aryam (make the universe noble) is accomplished!


[1] Sister Nivedita’s contribution towards Indian Nationalism

[2] The Spiritual Daughter Of Swami Vivekananda

[3] The Allegations By Gail Tredwell Are Untrue: A Statement by the Mata Amritanandamayi Devotees’ Forum, Kerala

[4] Holy Hell By Gail Tredwell - A Sincere Search to The Truth Behind

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