Forgotten dimensions of the “Holy Hell”
It was interesting to read the tale of Gail Tredwell1, her transformations, acquaintance with the demigod Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi, born Sudhamani) and her great escape from the spiritual business empire. Social media and mainstream media were outraged by her revelations of the repeated sexual abuse by influential people in the Ashram, Amma’s "weaknesses", and the accumulated wealth in the Ashram. There are repeated demands from the public towards an enquiry into these issues. However, representatives of the state, precisely the Chief Minister and Home Minister of Kerala have spoken in support of the Ashram. In an interview, the Chief Minister talked about the services rendered by the Ashram and its successful venture of social responsibility. I find that much more have to be understood from the book than the widely projected issue of sexual abuse. This is an attempt to reflect upon the other points that Gail conveys.
Devotion, Servitude and Business
Born in a working class family, Gail describes herself as a woman who was determined and kind and daring enough to leave behind any belongings. She also portrays in the book her disturbed family and her unaffectionate mother whom she later tried to substitute with Amma. At some places it is clearly stated that she stayed in India longer as she had nowhere else to go. However, a woman who is daring enough to leave behind the belongingness is, to me, a person who would tolerate repeated exploitation the least. By exploitation I did not mean just the sexual abuse that she had to face. It is for sure a crime that needs to be investigated and prosecuted. Another aspect of exploitation that is very strongly articulated in her article is that of labour. That is the 'hard labour’ that builds the religio-business empire. It was intriguing to read through how the people who are attracted to religion and God surrender themselves completely in obedience and self service to build the empire. It sounds something like this to me: a multinational corporation with employees working round the clock expecting only a mat to lie down and some food to sustain their life. Somehow I remember Marx’s words2 here:
“Labour-power exists only as a capacity, or power of the living individual. Its production consequently pre-supposes his existence. Given the individual, the production of labour-power consists in his reproduction of himself or his maintenance. For his maintenance he requires a given quantity of the means of subsistence...If the owner of labour-power works to-day, to-morrow he must again be able to repeat the same process in the same conditions as regards health and strength. His means of subsistence must therefore be sufficient to maintain him in his normal state as a labouring individual.”
Gail’s revelation shows how labour is exploited by the Ashram and how they do not provide even the bare minimum required for labour to sustain themselves. They rather capitalise on the servitude that the labourers have towards their so called god. Gail, in her book, points out the fact that the money is not being utilised for the reproduction of the labour but for the growth of her extended families. According to her3:
“Here is what made me mad. Ashram residents who had dedicated their lives to Amma, who had given most or all their money to Amma and who worked around the clock sacrificing their health for her-these devotees were living in impoverished conditions with no nutrition or care”.
Coupled with this exploitation of the labour is the inflow of Indian and foreign money into the empire. The wealth thus accumulated percolates into the extended family and expansion of the business. This states the hypocrisy of the Ashram’s social responsibility so well. Another example for this may be the nurses’ strike of 2011, December. The nurses of the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences went on strike for a salary hike45. As the strike intensified the striking staff were first beaten up by the local ‘gundas’ and later, the police intervened to suppress their collective will. Gail’s revelations clearly explain the reason behind this act of suppression of the nurses by the management. To an empire which survives by the slavery in the name of god, there cannot be value for labour power. It should be noted that even the state preys upon this cheap labour force to clean up the mess that the pilgrimage centres like Sabarimala generate6.
At various places in the book Gail reveals the shrewdness of a business woman in Amma that helps her build the empire in a very short span. Some of the aspects of this shrewdness include the religious marketing, holding the power of money and the insecurity she felt when a competitor emerged in the market. Gail writes7:
“I began floundering in doubt, especially when I saw Amma turn insecure dare I say jealous when another female Indian Guru appeared on the scene. Up to that point Amma had cornered the Divine mother market. So when some of her followers began flocking to this new woman named Karunamayi, she and some in the community felt lot of unrest”
In terms of marketing the religion some of the interesting factors discussed were the difference in the ritual of Devi Bhava in India and at the West8, and adaptation to the Brahmanical tradition of religious practices as the empire expanded. Like capitalism adapts itself to its own contradictions, the religio-business empire of Amma adapted with ease to the exploitative conditions prevailing in India and the world. Yet, the Chief Minister of the state views the Ashram’s social responsibility and activities prominent than any of these issues that have been raised in the book. What would have prompted the state to take such sides?
State and the Empire
What is the state’s interest in protecting the Ashram? Or why did the Home Minister (Ramesh Chennithala) nearly consider blocking the cyber space freedom to the commons while not doubting any of the intentions of the ashram?
Meera Nanda states in her book9: “in those societies where there is free competition between different religious ‘firms’ there will be ample supply of religious services and the level of religiosity will be higher”. Kerala is a place where the free competition between the religious firms in terms of educational, medical and other services is higher, both within and between the three major religions of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. This aspect very well gets along with the free market ideologies of both Congress and BJP. However, for some historical reasons Kerala state is still not in the hands of Hindu fundamentalists. These religious firms use their multiple ventures for wealth accumulation and to create a polarised social base. Their clout is sought out by politicians to further their interests. Gail remembers in her book that it was after Amma’s first world tour that her fame increased and politicians started pouring into the Ashram. She states, “Politicians were starting to take note. At many of the venues they became official guests of honour. This attention secured them the devotee’s votes potentially in the next election”10.
It should be noted here that if any action towards one of the religious ‘firms’ is taken by the state it would spiral to all other religious ‘firms’ that support politicians (for example the Chief Minister Oommen Chandy). Therefore to keep a safe distance from ‘annoying’ the religious institutions is important for their own political existence. Virtual space unlike the real public space poses great challenge to this aspect of unholy alliance. It is a space where individuals have a voice both collectively and individually. The virtual space can question the credibility of any institution and spread across widely within a short span of time building greater political unity. At a point when the voices of opposition against religious institutions overpower the voices of support, the unholy alliance between the state and the religious institutions are exposed. In this case also this unholy alliance has been clearly exposed through the statements of Chief Minister and Home minister. They gleefully accommodate the ‘social services’ (really?) done by the religious institution while threatening the ‘questioning’ cyberspace. An easy way to execute this is to target the individuals in the virtual space. But little do they realise that chains are meant to be broken and they will be!