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The Big Squeeze

Amma, the guru known as the “hugging saint,” has drawn 32 million people into her embrace – spreading a message of love, compassion and overpriced merchandise

David Amsden Sep 10, 2012

 Today, Tredwell lives in Hawaii, working a variety of jobs while writing a book about her time with Amma (currently titled For the Love of God: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion and Pure Madness). She is polite and direct, sounding not so much bitter about her experience as disappointed. “It was in San Ramon where I finally left Amma,” she says. “It was all very top-secret. I told only two other people, and I did not tell them where I was going, since I knew they’d be interrogated. I waited for a moment when I knew the residence where we stayed would be empty, and then I was driven out, hiding under a blanket on the floor of the back seat. That was 12 years ago, and it took me years to get over the whole experience.” 

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.” (Another former devotee, who asked not to be named, tells me she was once slapped by Amma and witnessed similar treatment of others at the ashram in India.) 

Tredwell was also bothered by what she saw as a shady undercurrent surrounding Amma. Tredwell asserts that Amma quietly gave money to her parents and six siblings, who had once been modest fishermen but came to live in palatial houses. When I ask how Tredwell knew Amma was giving her family the money, she laughs. “Because I was often the one bringing them the cash and gold,” she says. 

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Amma and her organization deny all of Tredwell’s accusations, reject any notion of financial ­impropriety and maintain that the kicking incident simply never happened, saying, “It is not in Amma’s nature to harm anyone, only to love.” They add that despite Tredwell’s harsh claims, “Amma still loves her and holds her very dear to her heart.”

Another devotee, Prasannan Jyotish, who left the organization last year after two decades and now lives in his hometown of Vancouver, agrees that Amma’s organization, despite advocating selflessness, is plagued by its share of hungry egos ”“ this, in the end, is why he left, though he has since reconciled with Amma. Life at the ashram, he says, can often feel like a battle for Westerners ”“ the language barrier and the unfamiliar culture can make them feel unwanted and unappreciated. As far as abuse goes, Prasannan says he has never seen Amma hit or kick anyone, and explains Tredwell’s allegations in cultural terms. “The relationship between guru and disciple is a very complex one, going back literally thousands of years,” he says. “Sometimes a guru will scold a devotee as a kind of test. Has he learned? Has he surrendered? Yes, sometimes we may be scolded even if we don’t deserve it, but the objective isn’t to say we’ve done wrong but to see if we’ve gone beyond the surface.” In other words, as in any system of belief, the moment you lose faith is the moment when structures that once seemed sensible suddenly seem questionable, even senseless. 

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Tredwell, for her part, wants me to understand that she does not believe Amma is a fraud or a charlatan. She believes Amma is “not a normal human being” and that her reserves of love and compassion are genuine. “It’s just that I don’t believe she’s 100 percent divine.” She pauses. “It’s hard. People really, really, really want to believe that in Amma there’s this savior, this embodiment, and that belief is very euphoric. But the problem is the common ­devotee gives all that credit to Amma ”“ that it’s Amma’s energy he’s feeling ”“ when in truth it’s only indirectly because of Amma. The energy and euphoria they’re feeling is ­actually their own, all this love that people are pouring on Amma. They think they’re feeling Amma’s love, but it’s actually just their own love, projected back onto them.” 

I follow Amma’s caravan of four charter buses and the camper in which she travels to Los ­Angeles, where she sets up in the Hilton at LAX. The environment could not be more different from San Ramon, the serene grounds of the ashram replaced by the Hilton’s grand ballroom, a ­mauve-carpeted chamber lit by twinkly chandeliers. The crowd, too, is notably ­different, the hippieish overtones gone in favor of a polished, slicker demographic: Silver Lake kids with skateboards jutting from their backpacks, surgically enhanced trophy wives, dudes with Bluetooth headsets wedged in their ears. Apparently, Sharon Stone is planning to stop by at some point, and I hear a devotee remark that he had seen Rosario Dawson the year before, as well as Brian ­Grazer, the spiky-haired producer.