Desi Ashrams And Videsi Chelas

Desi Ashrams And Videsi Chelas

The  director of a reputed cultural institution based in Chennai narrated  this interesting encounter he 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. 

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.” 

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.” 

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?” 

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 videsichelas 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!

~ By Nachiketas, (The  author is a free thinker)