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Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion, and Pure Madness (English Edition) Versión Kindle
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What I read was a very interesting and moving story from someone who spent twenty precious years of her life in the service of her guru. The book is well written, alive and, I think, sincere. Yet, as Gayatri said (p. vi) : "This memoir isn't the definitive account of Amma; it is my own remembrance."
Those who like short review may stop reading here.
I first met Amma on July 1990 and on March 1st 1991, I arrived at her ashram, near Vallikavu, to stay for three months. We were about twenty westerners staying there at the time and the only western male permanent resident was a German fellow, Marcus, who was the ashram gardener. There were also a few western brahmacharinis. The most loving was Sunithi who was in charge of accomodations, seva (I could never say "no" when she asked), dinner and free market. There were maybe thirty indian inmates including the elder brahmacharis. There were no skyscrapers, only the temple and several little buildings. Amma gave darshan in her small overcrowded hut everyday and Devi Bhava Darshan on thursday and sunday. In the late afternoon, we transported bags of sand on our back from the edge of the river to a large pond behind the temple. Amma would be there, working with us, transporting heavy bags on her shoulder. After working like this for an hour, Amma would go to the temple, sit on the floor surrounded by all of us and our small group would sing bhajans until dinner time. It was a happy time ! Then, with Amma's blessing I became a permanent resident, going back to France during the summertime to help for the tour.
During the years I spent with Amma's movement I never talked to Gayatri. She was totally absorbed by her duty. When I saw her with Amma, she was one hundred percent attending. Sometimes, I would see her walking in the ashram from one place to another. Once, we exchanged a smile in the kitchen where I was working. Like many western devotees, I respected her due to her closeness with Amma. She was someone apart, pale, almost ghostly. I wouldn't dare talk to her because of her position. I couldn't see if she was happy or unhappy. She was a non-existing person. If only I knew...
Says the astrologer Robert Hand : "...the uranus-uranus opposition when you are forty or forty-one marks a period of major transition in your life. This is the crisis of middle age when you have to come to terms with a number of realizations that may not all be pleasant. For example, even though you are not very old, you are no longer young. Have you accomplished or begun to accomplish what you wanted when you were younger ? If you have, was it an appropriate accomplishment for you ? Are you happy with your close relationships, your marriage, your work ? Many people encountering this transit discover that the answer to several of these questions is no. If this is your situation, you may become seized with a feeling of urgency that you have only a short time to correct the problem. Consequently you may begin to act rather disruptively and quickly..." (Planets in Transit, 1976, p. 408) So Gayatri ran away and several years later published her memoirs.
Reading Holy Hell, I realized that several aspects of the movement I had noticed at the time were true.
Before I met Amma, I was with a traditional indian guru. This guru was a yogini and though I was attached to her, I was more and more attracted by the Divine Mother and meeting Amma was, at the time, the realization of my expectations. I felt a surge of bhakti in relation with Amma and spent the first months in her ashram chanting and crying a lot. Being attracted by the feminine aspect of the Divine, and Amma being a woman (who suffered a lot during childhood), I thought women would have a special status in her community. Quite the opposite !
Says Gayatri : "Despite the fact that Amma, the head of the ashram, was a woman, the ashram was very patriarchal. Male hierarchy was firmly set into place by Amma herself. Although I was head of the women side, and I was Amma's personal attendant, I often found myself up against resistance from members of the opposite sex. In times like this, I was glad to be a "madama", thereby able to speak my mind and stand my ground for what I felt was right." (p. 230)
In fact, I soon became disgusted by the way indian women were treated in the community. It was obvious men had all the privileges due to their closeness with Amma. The Indian ashram gopis were completely aware of this injustice. One of them once told a French devotee : "It's a good karma to be reborn in India... except for women !" While the male brahmacharis spent their time strutting in and out the ashram premises like roosters, or reading comic books in their huts (pretending to meditate), the women worked hard.
At the time, I was doing seva with a French devotee of indian origin. Let's call him "Bhima". Bhima was fierce and a hard worker. Amma was very fond of him. Because of his status, French and Indian, he was quite apart in the ashram. He soon became a good friend and, in spite of his grousing character, I did appreciate his company. He often did seva with the indian brahmacharis (sometimes they had to work !) and spoke strongly to them in front of indian women, calling them "lazy people" etc. Actually, Bhima was shocked like me by the condition of indian women. Bhima and I were in charge of serving the food in the indian canteen. Once in a while, we would decide to play a trick on the brahmacharis. The food at the indian canteen was very basic and quite insipid. It was plain rice (not basmati !) and sambar (vegetable soup). But sometimes, there was a little "more"... That was the pappadam ! The pappadam was the ingredient that made the food more tasty. Because of their position, the males entered the canteen before the women. Girls had to wait ! Then, Bhima and I often would decide to hide the pappadams when serving the roosters. Then, when the gopis followed, we gave them two pappadams instead of one. Because they ate in a separate place, the men never saw what's going on.
The lower position of the ashram gopis had a positive side. It generated an intense longing for Amma and, when they were singing bhajans, the temple was full of bhakti. In fact, I did prefer singing bhajans when Amma wasn't there because the bhakti was more powerful !
AMMA'S (BAD) CHARACTER
Says Gayatri : "No sooner had I stepped into the dining hall, than Amma began whipping me with a few pliable and stinging sticks of a broom made from coconut branch stems... "There's too much salt in the food," she screamed. "Are you trying to destroy my sons? Whatever they gain in meditation will be lost because of you." (p. 171)
Amma's character was no secret to us, westerners, at the time. Probably because we were closer to her than devotees of today. I remember when she was giving darshan in her small hut, she was attended by a young and quiet brahmachari with a peaceful face. Yet, sometimes Amma used to get upset and grab his beard with anger. Sure, that was not a funny moment... except for those watching ! I should confess that I laughed more than once reading Gayatri's stories about Amma's bad temper. Sorry about that ! A "must read" is on pages 222-23 when Gayatri brought Amma a glass of milk instead of her usual tea ! But one would have to have been with Amma to really appreciate the sketch.
Being French, I had several talks with Sarvatma (named Ganga in Gayatri's book). Sarvatma was among the first western devotees to stay with Amma along with Nealu and Gayatri. He certainly wasn't a bigot and his lectures weren't appreciated by all the brahmacharis who often went complaining to Amma because of his "lack of respect" toward her. When Amma went on tour in Europe, everybody had a big smile on his/her face... except Sarvatma ! One day, he explained : "you know, all these people living on the coast of Kerala once were pirates. Amma is the descendant of these pirates... hence her character."
We did like Amma as she was at the time, a human being with her good and bad aspects. No need to put her on a pedestal. I wouldn't have gone to Amma if she had been the Popess she has become today.
But I must admit she went too far with Gayatri !
On page 91 of Holy Hell Gayatri says : "For many years I gave a speech in Malayalam on September 27th as part of Amma's birthday celebration. Amma always called me beforehand and dictated a story for me to include. Most of the time her story was a complete and utter fabrication. For years I justified her lies by telling myself, "Oh well, as long as the devotees gain more faith in Amma, then I guess it's okay." I was never comfortable, but I did what was asked and chose not to give it much thought."
This remind me of another story. In August 1991 Amma went to Moscow, USSR, for the first time. That was during the "coup d'état" against Gorbachev. The tour was a total fiasco (like the "coup d'état" !). Only forty people came to see Amma. And on top of that, no money came in. Amma became the prey of some Russian predator and had to spent more money than expected. Yet, back in Vallikavu few months later, Paï Swami wrote in an ashram publication that Amma's visit to USSR had been a great success and that FORTY THOUSAND people came for a big hug ! When she read that, an Aussie brahmacharini (guess who ?) went to Paï Swami and asked "why do you tell such lies ? I went to Moscow too and there were only forty people !" In order to justify himself Paï swami told her : "indian people NEED to hear that". End of the story ! Today, such information would make a big scandal on the web, many would be shocked by such a lie ! In the early 90's it was just one more funny ashram story to laugh about among inmates.
When Amma was on tour in India, there was always an Indian fellow to take the mike and list off Amma's miracles. Nobody cared among the westerners. Our interest was somewhere else. The only miracle we cared about was the miracle of love. And there were many little miracles in our daily lives. Sometimes, Amma would come to me and, in a gentle way, reveal the thoughts I had few hours ago. Once, she put some prasad in my mouth and I was so ecstatic the following day I couldn't do anything except bathe in an atmosphere of absolute love.
I think that however funny Paï Swami's explanation was, there was some truth revealed with this story. Many lies are nothing but an exaggeration. Once, I was visiting an ashram in North India and because I knew few bhajans in sanskrit and malayalam, an Indian fellow claimed to all the devotees that I spoke perfectly and fluently sanskrit and malayalam ! Of course, everybody there believed what he said and I found myself in such a terrible situation. Fortunately, nobody came to test me !
Concerning the so-called "lie" about "Amma being pure because she has no menses", it could be that Amma has been in such a state for a while (like it can happen to any woman) and thought it was definitive. Once it was written in her hagiography, it was difficult to go backward.
I was particularly interested in two statements in Holy Hell. The first was on page 147 :"Although she (Amma) encouraged us to look upon her as our mother, she slowly began enforcing the guru aspect." And on page 155 : "Also, she appointed Nealu to enforce the proper guru/disciple etiquette."
The question these statements raise is the following : is Amma a guru ? I had visited several ashrams in India and had been with a traditional indian guru before and after my time spent with Amma and during the almost four years I spent in her company, I found myself unable to relate to her as a guru. While talking with other western fellows at the time I found that we shared the same feeling. Obviously, Amma wasn't a traditional Indian guru with a lineage, and a specific teaching. "Awaken Children !" was empty of any teachings and we were more interested to read Nisargadatta Maharaj's books. We never talked about Amma's teachings between us because there were none. Amma herself said she was an avatar and she taught that an avatar can bring people much more toward liberation than a guru (which I don't believe).
Now what is an avatar ? Obviously, it's a self-made spiritual leader who is supposed to channel some divine power and attracts large crowds of devotees. The way avatars justify their absence of lineage and teachings is to put themselves above gurus in the hierarchy of spiritual leaders. As far as I'm concerned, I'm not sure the quantity of disciples make the quality. It could be quite the opposite. Advaita gurus, for example, often have a handful of disciples.
As to the source of Amritapuri swami's teachings, you'll find the answer on page 301 of Holy Hell !
1993 was a turning point in the ashram. It became more and more crowded, more and more busy, and less and less peaceful. I began to think about what I was doing there and the purpose of this undertaking. As I said before, I couldn't relate to Amma as a guru. I needed a guru. I also realized that bhakti maintained duality, which meant endless suffering. I left the ashram early in 1994 and spent one month in Tiruvannamalaï during Shivaratri and then went back to France.
One morning, I woke up in my house and felt like a spiritual orphan. I decided to pray Lord Shiva and ask for a guru. I thought, Shiva is said to be the primordial guru, maybe he'll respond to my request. Then, that same day, through the play of circumstances, I became in touch with the disciple of an advaita guru who lived in Kerala.
I arrived at his ashram in October 1994. He was a householder living with his wife, children and grandchildren. Most of his disciples where married with a family life. In his presence, the mind would naturally switch off. Only Presence remained. I am home.
When I went on the web to see photos of Amritapuri today, I saw it had become a new Puttaparthi. People flock around Amma to get a hug the same way they flocked to Sathya Sai Baba to get a miracle. I understood what Gayatri said (p. 228) : "To me, the place no longer felt like an ashram. It was more like a cross between a theme park and a business park." I wonder what this place will be like once Amma is gone.
A French proverb says :
"Qui oublie les bienfaits se souvient des injures."
An approximate translation would be :
"He, who forget the favours, remember the abuses."
So, let's finish this review on a positive note by quoting a last time Gayatri (p. 208):
"Thankfully, Amma didn't always behave like a tyrant. Many times over the years she expressed what seemed to be profound love for and trust in me. Her actions were often endearing and childlike, and they made my heart swoon with love. She definitely possessed charm and magnetic charisma... When she was in a good mood, she often referred to me affectionately as "Gayatri Mummy." One day a devotee relayed to me the following statement in Amma's words : "Gayatri is like a mother to me, and it would be difficult without her. Only Gayatri knows my character well. She has been with me for so many years, has received only scolding and abuse, yet she can't live without me."
(Thanks to Lalita for checking and correcting my English.)
After I returned to the States, someone hacked a devotee's email in Hawaii whom they must have thought was a Gail/Gayatri loyalist (there's a real insider/outsider mentality here). The hacker warned about "the subtly poisonous" ideas in the August 16, 2012 Rolling Stone article, so, of course I Googled the article and read it. In the article, G confirmed my suspicions about the relatives' wealth--that Amma shifted funds to her family which were intended to serve the poor. [I doubt many would protest for the family to receive remuneration after the ashram took over the family property, but that doesn't warrant deception and alleged fraud.]
An old-time Amma devotee, Kusuma, came out with a book a few months later in part to deny the accusations. I was acquainted with this woman, and thought I might be able to speak frankly with her about my concerns. She seemed very intelligent, hard-working, and sincere. She said (by email) she would be happy to receive my letter which detailed my thoughts about G's Rolling Stone article--I was present for a lot of the happenings (Nirmalamrita's death, G's departure, etc.). I was very ashram-apologetic, except on the point that the fishing business story didn't make any sense: it contradicts Amma's childhood story; I visited a grocery store the dad owned and watched it go out of business within a few months (he didn't seem to have much business sense); the area seemed over-fished; and the local fishermen were barely getting by. Also, the dad did not give the appearance of being a busy, productive, entrepreneurial type.
After about six months of excuses why she couldn't get back to me, I started doing online research. The big shocker for me was to learn that the ashram has millions and millions of dollars parked in bank accounts per MA Math foreign exchange reports on the India government website (I'll put the link as a comment to this review otherwise Amazon will delete it). All that money, and Amma wouldn't provide decent drinking water or nutrition at the ashram! Granted, things might have improved since I was there.
[2/21/14 The ashram has posted they have $50.53 million U.S. in Indian banks. See Brahmachari Mathrudas Chaitanya's post on AmmaScandal for more info. And see Embezzling the World blog about Not Open Book where someone claims the numbers are manipulated and misleading: http://embezzlingtheworld.blogspot.com/2014/02/not-open-book.html
$50.53 million -- But this is only the amount they claim. What about all the gold and cash that flows through the ashram? Are they recorded anywhere? What about the many businesses, including gas stations, that the ashram has but never reports in devotee PR? Why is such a high percentage going into brick and mortar that serve the Indian middle class, but the PR always talks about serving the poor? Why is the ashram not transparent about the finances (donations collected, earnings, assets, business ventures, and so forth?]
Now it is over a year and still this old-time devotee has not responded to my concerns and continues to put me off. Kusuma is responsible for organizing Amma and the swamis first tours to America and Europe. She has been in the inner circle and left Amma a couple of times only to return later. [See Robert Ulman's April 15, 2014 five-star review for more info].The problem is that I could not think of another person on the insider track whom I thought might give me a straight answer. That's really bad when you've spent so much time with an organization and you can't think of anyone who might know something that you can trust.
When I was at MA Center during the late 1990s, it was common knowledge among many of the ashramites that Amma hit, kicked, and pulled the hair of Gail. I never saw it, but I remember G covering her neck so a mark wouldn't show. I also arrived one time right after another one of Amma's attendants was slapped across her face and didn't know why Amma had done that. But then one time in India 1997, I reached the meditation area right after a woman had accidently punched Amma in the face when Amma was breaking up a fistfight. The roller derby atmosphere around Amma went underground or dispersed as years went by, though it is not completely gone. It is a crazy mix of people around Amma--amazing that that the chaos is relatively contained.
Pre-Gail's Great Escape (was it necessary to be so covert? I don't know), I was acquainted with her but not chummy nor part of the insider clique. She was a multi-faceted character with a sharp tongue, and I could definitely see her snapping a girl's butt with a dishcloth in the kitchen to get her to move faster and because she thought it was kind of funny. Anyway, the first time I was introduced to her, she cut me down by saying I was goofy. Not a kind thing to do. She backpedaled when she saw she had hurt my feelings. She was kinder after that, and I'd say we had a warm, working relationship. I helped her with puja things, especially during Devi Bhava. The night she ran away, I noticed she was late for bhajans and went back to look for her. I was not privy to her plans nor did I have any contact with her until 2013 when I started looking for answers.
In 1999, a few days before G left, some of the girls organized a small birthday party for her (in the book she said it was in the kitchen, but this one was actually at Ron's House/East Ashram). People gave her little gifts and someone had baked a cake. Dutch Lakshmi was invited, and apparently those two fought like cats and dogs. When G unwrapped the gift from Lakshmi, she found a construction brick, and made a joke about "you are the apple of my eye" and then pretended to hit herself with it. And then she got real sad and quiet for a moment until someone broke the silence.
After G left, even though Amma told us, "Amma knows her dharma as a guru," (seeming to mean she didn't want any more questions or complaints about the way she had treated G), I felt that if G had not left, G would have had either a physical or mental breakdown. Or both. Her health was not good and she was giving way under great stress and years of bodily neglect. She reminded me of Edvard Munch's "The Scream." She looked to me as someone hanging to life by a thread. And still, Amma would not allow her sufficient time off to regain her strength (like staying back with us at San Ramon, which we all wanted).
Already, a couple of Amma's senior swamis had run away, and yet Amma seemed to relentlessly drive her people, as if collapse were an essential part of her disciples' path. Why Amma treats her people the way she does, I don't know. I have heard that about 1/3 of the mostly Indian men and women to whom Amma gave yellow and ochre robes back in the 1990s have since left Amma and their vows.
However, as said on AmmaScandal, a short time after G left, the ashram was in touch with her. A San Ramon ashramite even ran into her at the grochery store about a week later. As agreed upon by Amma, a board member gave G a check for $15,000, and they paid for medical appointments for about a year. For the first year, G received free room and board from some devotees in Hawaii. I heard there were some meetings face to face at a devotee's house in Berkeley to see if G might reconsider returning to Amma and the organization.
So, I read Gail's book back in November when it first came out. I never knowingly took part in any fraud, but after being part of the organization for a while, you get a little jaded with their way of doing business. Add to that the fishing business story and the $50+ million. All of what G said made sense to me, like I could totally see it happening...except for the sexual accusations. They were like bomb shells thrown out of left field. I had no context for them. Amma was always preaching this purity thing, and the swamis didn't seem gay, but they didn't exactly like women either. Or at least, didn't treat them like they were fully human. Everything was so touchy about gender issues--left hand/right hand, separation of the sexes, pollution, etc. So uptight.
I wondered if they might be recovered memories. Did the intuitive counselor plant the idea when she was in a trance state? But then again this was an adult talking about experiences in her adulthood. One thing I knew was that among women G could be herself, but when men were present she took a back seat, and she was disempowered, and looked really beaten down. Around Amma, the women swamis always reminded me of bag ladies, while the male swamis were like Little Lord Fauntleroys. I noticed that from day one.
For example, as G mentioned in her book, Amma encouraged the expenditure of expensive, decorative teak wood doors for her favorite male swamis' quarters, and yet wouldn't allow a simple kneeling bench be nailed together for her female swami who had back and hip problems. This is exactly the kind of resource and power dynamic you see on a regular basis...and these are conditions ripe for all sorts of abuses.
One thing you notice for sure is that a few of the senior male swamis have an especially clingy relationship with Amma and can hardly bear to be away from her from any length of time. And they don't head up ashrams or institutions any significant distance away--they have to be always physically close to Amma. If Amma does something unexpected like go for a walk without them knowing, or takes off some place in the middle of the night (with a few people) they get so desperate. Like their whole world was going to fall apart--I never understood that. It is something way different than Bhakti, IMO.
Also, there is much talk about helping the poor, but I personally witnessed a lone, starving woman chased out the Amritapuri ashram gate by one of Amma's bramachari's when I was trying to get her a meal token. I still remember the flaccid quality of her forearm muscle as I led her to the kiosk. Her body was literally devouring itself. The bramachari was one of the competent, intelligent ones--it was not seemingly in his character to act like a brutal moron--and yet he jumped up from his chair and ran her off.
One time I was walking on the Amritapuri campus with a European woman who had terminal cancer and had been granted permission by Amma to die at the ashram. An ashram official marched up to us and broke into our conversation. She declared that if this dying woman wanted to move to a ground-floor flat, she would have to pay another $20,000! We were both shocked. They wanted her to buy a whole new flat. The official stomped off in a self-righteous huff. This devotee was dying of cancer, and by all appearances the organization could only think about how to get more money out of her. (However, later my friend said they didn't make her pay it--a generous Western devotee let this woman use her flat through her illness and death.)
One of the more disturbing things I saw was how Amma and the ashram handled the mental breakdown of a Japanese renunciate. He had been seva coordinator at Amritapuri for several years and one day resigned that job. Somehow he got it into his head that it was time to dedicate himself 100% to spiritual austerities (Amma presents in many many satsangs the ideal of forgoing sleep, food, and drink in one's quest for the divine). During a program, I did hear a worried International Office official ask the man's roommate how he was doing. The roommate replied, "Great." However, after several days of the Japanese renunciate "meditating" 24/7 without stopping for sleep, food, water, bathing, etc. he had a nervous breakdown--actually in the temple sitting behind Amma during meditation day. He had to be restrained by several men, while Amma laughed gleefully. He was bundled up and put on a plane to be dumped off on his family. This is how people are handled. There's no real guidance or support of the person--no meditation/spiritual directors, counseling, etc.--the care of the individual is an afterthought which mostly seems to involve damage control, not real concern for their well-being.
[4/25/14 And this guy was one of Amma's renunciates--someone who was under Amma's guidance and "protection." This echoes Gail's experience in terms of lack of caring. These people are wanted when they provide labor and/or money, but where is support for them when they run into trouble? When you think about it, it looks a bit like Amma actually drove Gail away, really. Gail was headed for a physical and/or mental breakdown by all appearances. Amma would not give her time to recover (like staying at a Western ashram where Gail could regain her health and stability). Gail was pressed up against the wall. Even if one believes Amma acted much like Milarepa's guru (who drove him to nervous breakdowns and near suicide on several occasions) and that that was a valid thing to do, one could ask if that method is appropriate in this day and age. (For instance, in the past people used to "break" their horses, but now more intelligent and effective methods have been developed.) Also, if Amma were that caliber of teacher, then why have about 1/3 of Amma's monks and nuns ordained in the 1990s left the ashrams and their vows? Why are so many of her swamis and devotees so mentally fragile? And why isn't anyone enlightened after all their time with her? And why aren't strong, independent, thinking individuals welcome in her organization?]
There needs to be a common code of ethics, not a code of silence. Thank you, Gail, for breaking the silence. Your book is very courageous. You point me back to my own conscience, which says that ethics and empathy comprise the basis of spirituality. I am very sorry for any part I may have played in all of this. I can only imagine how painful this must have been for you, and perhaps continues to be, for it takes a community, not just a teacher and a rogue swami, to betray you in this way--as we have also betrayed ourselves letting someone proclaim perfection, who is perhaps just as human (and divine) as ourselves.
If Amma and the ashram really want to show the world they are serious about the welfare of women:
1. Let them create a separate trust putting women in charge of at least half the assets. Appoint women, such as, Swamini Krishnamrita and Bhavani as trustees (and a few others), and give them proper financial training so they will be highly competent in their work and not get swindled by the many crooks who will flock to them.
2. Set up benevolent funds at each of the worldwide centers to provide emergency aid for current and former ashramites and renunciates.
3. Have the men sweep the Amritapuri compound half the days of the year.
AT THE HEART OF THIS DEBATE: After conversing with people from all sides of this debate, I really think what it boils down to is the question of whether or not a person can be an avatar (an incarnation of a god), meaning a being who is perfect and beyond ego, sexuality, self-interest, and unscrupulous behavior.
I feel like I'm in the middle--I love devotion and I love the intellect and reason. However, the anti-guru types say that all gurus are scam artists (everything is deception of simple-minded people), and the "true believers" think that the "avatar" can do no wrong--that the "avatar" is intrinsically different from us in their wholly divine nature and is above any reproach or accountability.
When I do a quick Google of Indian avatar gurus, here are a few I come up with (according to their websites):
Amma - Mata Amritanandamayi
Sri Amma Karunamay
Sri AmmaBhagavan (land and financial fraud)
His Holiness Bangaru Adigalar - male (you don't have to be a woman to be an avatar of shakti)
Sri Sakthi Narayani Amma - male avatar of goddess
Srimad Sai Rajarajeshwari
HH Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Swami Shri Rajiv Lochanacharyaji
Satya Sai Baba (pedophile/abuser of boys and young men; hoarder of wealth)
Adi Da Samraj (sadist/sexual deviant)
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa
When you think of Indian bhakta saints from history, such as Tukaram, Mirabai, and Chaitanya, it doesn't seem like they were considered incarnations of the gods they worshipped. In fact that idea would seem almost kind of perverted and arrogant. I wonder when the avatar idea became applied to gurus. Without really knowing so, I would guess that it happened when Hinduism became an export to the West in competition with the "Jesus as God" idea, as well as "Buddha as World-Teacher." If anyone knows, it would interesting to find out.
3/27/14 I now think "Guru as God" might be a result of the Theosophists' "World Teacher Project" where they chose Krishnamurti to become a vehicle for its expression. He later rejected the role, however, Ramakrishna Math and other Indians saw appeal to marketing their teachers as "world teacher." The Theosophist HQ was and still is in Chennai, and I would wager that the avatar market is largely South India where this idea has had its greatest influence (RK Math has a large bookstore and center in Chennai; mega guru and pedophile Sai Baba was a South Indian phenomenon), as well as abroad.
The Theosophists were very successful in propagation of their books and ideas. In fact some of their ideas were adopted into Nazi philosophy (Aryan as a root race; world savior; humanity redeeming itself; etc.). When you really start to look into it, some of the effects of this East-West exchange are pretty damn horrific for both sides. Of course, opportunists can twist even a well-intentioned idea into something horrendous. And the New Age-ism of today is not much more than a regurgitation of what was ingested by the public about a hundred years ago.]
The fact is Indians do a fantastic job at bhakti. They have got it down. Beautiful sentiments, prayers, flower petals, oil lamps, sweets, etc.--all these things create a beautiful atmosphere. India is a place of the heart and this inner light (at least the India with which I mainly connected). The quality of light connected with the heart center is very attractive and captivating. All beings, at least certainly all mammals, are hard-wired to respond to this quality of light/love.
I think a potential problem of bhakti, is when we encounter someone who can communicate that experience to us, we assume too much about them. We tend to think they are the source of that love, but I can say with certainty, we do not need an external object or person to venerate in order to experience a blossoming of love in the heart. You can do it in the solitude of your own prayer/meditation. I also think a person, who is able to convey the vibration we equate with love and nurturing, might have mixed or ulterior motivations, and we naively might let down our guards or even try to surrender our all to them, thinking they are beyond evil and have our well-being at heart, when they very well might not.
At some point, I think the experience of bliss and ecstasy can be distractions whether through an internal or external object of veneration. I think of Marx saying that religion is the opium of the masses, and I really wonder if perhaps the experience of bhakti might activate similar brain centers as do opiates. Since it is so pleasurable, there is the tendency to keep repeating the experience. However, as an advanced Buddhist practitioner, Jetsuma Tenzin Palmo said in "Reflections on a Mountain Lake" (I paraphrase), bliss is not the goal of meditation; a blissful mind is a keen mind which can penetrate deep into the nature of things.
So, a person can get side-tracked by too much attraction to the pleasurable quality of bhakti, as well as run the risk of disempowering ourselves and getting caught up in someone else's agenda. And with the idea of guru as avatar, the avatar is beyond reproach and free to act in any old way with accountability to none. Unfortunately, on the list of avatars, there are people who have committed crimes against humanity and are certainly not living the ideal.
This takes me to a third consideration, which is that perhaps guru as god/avatar is really an archetype, not an actuality. It represents an ideal, not a living reality. The archetype is a very powerful motivator of action from the depths of our psyche, but when we take it as a literal, living reality we set ourselves up for potentially disastrous outcomes, as exemplified in the Icarus story. One of the great teachings of the West is that when we acknowledge our frailties, our imperfection, we embrace our humanity.
And one last point, bhakti is emotion-based, and emotion-based thinking can lead to mob mentality. When the proto-orthodox foisted control over Christianity in the early centuries, they literally took Jesus as their God, and introduced the anti-Semitic idea of Jews as Christ-Killers (I'm thinking people like Justin Martyr from the 2nd century CE). They had love of their man-god and hatred of anyone threatening their deity. As people embrace Amma as their personal deity in this perceived questioning and hostile environment, they run the risk of succumbing to a similar type of fundamentalism and "holy" wrath towards the "unbelievers." This and the potential for abuse of power by the acclaimed deity and subordinates are the greatest risks I see at present.
Good luck, everyone.
2/25/14 NOTE: I am NOT interested in destroying Hinduism or promoting communal violence. I write for the Westerners--many of which may not share my views, and that is fine. I do not appreciate people trying to hack into my accounts. Thank you for helping me get over my idealist notions--they have been a real stumbling block in my life. I'm not interested in mob psychology of either camp.
I think the big, underlying problem for Gail is that she was a spirited Australian lass who tried to become a subdued, traditional Hindu South Indian village woman. That was a recipe for disaster. Period. She tried to become something completely different from her nature and upbringing. (I say this after making my own mistakes.)
Hinduism is a way of life, and the way of life in the West is very different than that of India. I certainly am NOT saying there is something wrong with Hinduism, but just that perhaps it doesn't work for Westerners of a Judeo-Christian or Humanistic background. Of course there may be a few rare exceptions. (Anyhow, the Hinduism I saw was a bastardized version--a personality cult playing to Western utopian projections.)
The psychology of East and West is quite different. Perhaps why Eastern models don't work for Westerners can be found in the Shame vs. Guilt culture theories.
I never understood when Westerners affected an Indian accent, or for that matter, considered themselves Hindus. I loved being with Amma because she was an advocate for spiritual life and created a strong spiritual environment. I loved the yogic tradition and that to this day there are so many sincere practitioners in India. I was drawn to Amma because I did not see anyone of her spiritual stature in my own tradition.
During my first visit to India, I went on a one-day Indian government tour to some holy sites, and when we were riding in the bus, a yogi in samadhi appeared to me in my mind's eye to bless me and say hello. That's the India I love. There's a very ancient tradition of spiritual practitioners. I love prayer and meditation. I now also know I can never be anything but the religion of my birth, because it is in my bones, blood, and soul. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate other traditions or aspects that are relevant to my own. That's the whole point of interfaith dialogue. We're all human after all.
In the news there has been more and more information about "religious" people who hurt others. Bad things are happening in all the religions--it is not singling out one in particular. One prime example would be the Catholic priest sexual scandals (Google "Catholic priest sex scandal"). Here's an article about Buddhism's rocky history in the West: (Google "Eido Shimano Roshi").
And the West has also had some really bad experiences with some Indian gurus. Here's an example: Rajneesh (Google "Rajneesh OregonLive").
So, when someone comes forward with claims of abuse, many of us want to hear what they have to say, given that many bad things do happen in this world, especially to the vulnerable and naive. We value freedom of speech. It is one of the requirements of a representational democracy. I do not think it is clear yet exactly what is true or untrue about Gail/Gayatri's testimony/allegations. I hope for all the evidence to be brought forward on both sides. Right now there is a lot of character assassination flying around and few hard facts. And as Lalita said in her excellent and balanced review, may the light of truth shine forth.
We have developed so fast in the West, and there's been so much upheaval regarding politics and religion (Protestant Reformation, the Counter Reformation, etc.). India has not gone through those processes, rather they were subjected to colonial rulers for about a 1,000 years and have only recently emerged as an independent nation. Our histories are very different as are our laws and cultures. At least for my part, Mr. Nambiar is wrong in interpreting what I say as an attack on Hinduism. He does not understand my sensibilities, life experience, values, or culture.
In the West, for many years now we have critically analyzed our scriptures. For example, mainstream religious adherents no longer believe that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible were actually written by Moses, whereas less than a generation ago that was an essential article of faith. Innovation and questioning of beliefs is highly valued. We want a religion that is relevant to today's world as we know it.
The highest Western form of education is all about questioning--the Socratic method. We grapple with things of the spirit--haven't you heard of Jacob wrestling with the angel? All our Biblical heroes were flawed (Abraham was ready to kill his own son; Moses had a nasty temper and killed an Egyptian; King David raped Bathsheba, the wife of one of his loyal soldiers, and then had the soldier killed; Paul/Saul was a murderer turned missionary; etc.).
We don't have laws as such that Indians have about suppressing opinions if it injures religious sensibilities. In the West, the religious have to develop a thicker skin (this is the kind of thing we have to deal with: http://www.amazon.com/Stabilitees-Understand-Science-Religion-T-shirts/dp/B008LWMAMU). Heck, we even put God on trial--Google "God on trial" and you'll see details.
3/27/14 Currently there are some Hindu fundamentalists who are equating Gail's book with an orchestrated attack on Hinduism (one group claims the Opus Dei is behind it--perhaps the group reads Dan Brown in their spare time).
Though if I am right, that perhaps this "Guru as Avatar" idea really is an off-shoot of the largely Western theosophist desire for a "World Teacher/Savior" (which ironically the German theosophists rejected but the Nazis capitalized on). Then, by the extremists' reaction, they are in fact equating their religion with a muddled European/American projection. They are embracing and defending a distorted image of their own tradition.
Maybe some of this is pent up anger at Sai Baba being exposed in the press a few years ago for some of his wrong-doing, since there was the idea that he was an avatar and could do no wrong.
In the Wikipedia entry about "Order of the Star in the East", Krishnamurti's dad tries to get guardianship back because he doesn't like people deifying his son and bowing down to him:
"In 1912, Krishnamurti's father sued Annie Besant in order to annul her guardianship of his son, which he had previously granted. Among other reasons stated in his deposition was his objection to the "deification" of Krishnamurti caused by Besant's "announcement that he was to be the Lord Christ, with the result that a number of respectable persons had prostrated before him." Besant eventually won the case on appeal."
In terms of Westerners involved in all of this, I think many in the West will just see it as yet another teacher getting wrapped up in power, money, sex, etc. Others will say Gail is bitter and lies.
Then, the true believers who live with Amma in India will dig in deeper since all Westerners are now seen as potential turncoats. There will be more peer and psychological pressure to disparage all things Western and embrace all things Indian. Who knows, maybe we'll see some conversions.
By the way, the theosophists also had a "World Mother Project." They were very industrious people.
4/23/14 Now after about a year of doing research and talking to various sources who do not want to be named, and after much reflection, I FIND NO REASON NOT TO BELIEVE GAIL'S TESTIMONY.
In my experience, I do not find Gail to have a history of lying, but I do know from experience, and many sources, instances where Amma and the swamis have lied for their own purposes and expediency. They do not hold themselves accountable to anyone. Such is their attitude. And they create this mythology around Amma as a perfect, omniscient being, which is itself completely lacking in integrity and honesty. Even about silly small things they lie/cover up, like about how Amma and the swamis eat a lot of fish, especially on tour in the West, while they officially advocate vegetarianism and speak of the selfishness of eating meat.
Furthermore, if Gail were vindictive as the inner circle cast of characters want us to believe, then I don't think she would have kept silent about Balu/Big Swamiji/Amritaswarupananda's mental health diagnosis (he was diagnosed with a certain disorder not long after Gail ran away). They, the ammascandal group, want us to believe that Gail is vindictive and mentally ill. Gail has not played that game back to them.
The whole thing is infuriating and quite sad. I just do not see a proper motive for Gail lying about her experiences. I think she still carries a lot of wounds and concern for people caught up in the organization, and truly wants to come clean with the whole business. I mean, a day or two after she ran away, she had her sister leave a message at the MA Center East Ashram/Ron's House message machine letting everyone know Gail was in a safe place and didn't mean to hurt anyone but felt she had to leave. This is NOT someone who is saying, "So long, suckers!"
I just don't see her lashing out at the devotees, who would naturally be upset with all the dirt coming out about Amma and the swamis. She was like a mother to the brahmacharinis/Indian girls in white and yellow saris. And no one has been like that for the girls since Gail left. The Indian swamini had to be dismissed from that duty because she was too physically abusive (beating the girls). Swamini Krishnamrita wouldn't touch that duty with a ten-foot pole. Bhavamrita has been in charge (or was the last time I knew of it) but she lacks clout in the ashram, education, and life experience/maturity.
By coming out with her book, Gail opens herself to a lot of attack and criticism. Some people say it was for the money, but she spent several years writing it, and I doubt she will even recover $.50 per hour she worked on it. The biggest number of readers is in India, but free PDF copies have been in circulation since it went viral. It can't be for the money.
Folks, I believe Gail is acting from her conscience. And I believe her testimony--all of it.
I enjoyed the beginning where Gail talks about how she came to India and her time before meeting Amma (I wish she would have written more about her past). I was shocked to read about the violence and abuse she experienced, as well as others, while she was at the ashram. I was so happy when she finally got enough courage to escape. No one should have to suffer what she did, especially at the hands of a spiritual "guru". So many gurus in the past have preyed upon innocent, naive people. it is really sad. There are very, very few gurus who deserve that title. A true guru does not lead with violence and manipulation.
I was very disturbed by the abuse and the control and deception by Amma and some of her close devotees, but I am glad I read the book to open my eyes to what is really going on.
I have read all the "reviews" on this book and it is quite interesting that almost all of the 1 star reviews are not reviews at all. Almost all of them are trashing the author (is this the behavior their guru teaches them?). Almost all of the rest of them are defending their guru and not writing a review of the book. It is also interesting that Amma's current personal attendant, as well as another devotee, have written books right after this book was published. When does a personal attendant of Amma, who as I understand it is extremely busy attending to Amma, have time to write a book, much less 2 books in about as many months. To me, it seems they are trying to negate what was written in Gail's book.
Read the book with eyes wide open and let your heart lead you. I'm glad I did.
Greatest lesson of all, you can and have helped others in understanding where God truly resides. I believe God is saying, "Well done, Gail". I don't know if you read these reviews or not. I am Terry's sister and I would love to meet you when I come to visit. I admire you for having the courage to tell your story with truth and integrity. I wish you many blessings.