Kerala’s biggest spiritual discovery - the hugging saint Mata Amritanandamayi - and her establishment could have been at the centre of a messy controversy, if the state’s media had not looked the other way when an old disciple published a book with scandalous details.
The state, which has a newspaper readership totalling nearly 80 per cent of its population and a dozen TV channels, remained mostly cold and indifferent to the scandalous book - “Holy Hell - a Memoir of Faith, Devotion and Pure Madness”. The saint’s detractors and rationalists, however, went to town with it on social media. The free download links to the book, written by Gail Tredwell, an Australian who spent 20 years at the saint’s ashram, multiplied on Facebook and discussions - mostly critical of her establishment - raged in cyberspace.
Perhaps this is the first time that a major controversy involving one of the most prominent figures in the state has been set off and sustained by the social media while the conventional media avoided it like plague. While the mainstream print media almost entirely blacked out the development, only three TV channels - two independent groups and one affiliated to a Muslim establishment - dared to discuss the issue. Justifiably, the media’s silence on the issue is also a raging discussion in social media.
Many parts of the memoir are really damaging and scandalous with lurid details of sex, violence and greed. The writer, reportedly, was a personal assistant to the saint and had left the establishment in 1999. Going by her account, she had been an early associate to the "Amma" and was privy to all that happened in the early years and during the phase of consolidation.
With no evidence to back the claims, her details are certainly nothing but unsubstantiated charges and some of the details, mostly sexual and financial, are explosive. Moreover it’s hard to believe that somebody, who left the establishment 15 years back could reproduce her experiences with such vivid details without keeping a daily journal. However, in a literate and politically aware society, this should have at least led to some debate.
Perhaps the entire memoir is a complete figment of imagination or somebody’s bitter outburst to malign people. However, it’s also possible that some, or most, of it is true.
Charges against god men and god women are not unusual and at least in some cases, they had been proved true. The recent arrest of Asaram Bapu, the Gujarati god man with over 400 ashrams across India and elsewhere, on sexual assault charges is a case in point.
With Bapu’s case so fresh in memory, why did Kerala’s media choose to remain silent? Had it been based on principle, the owners and editors should be lauded, but their history shows something else.
For instance, the same media once had co-created and celebrated a non-existing scandal called the “ISRO spy case” and subsequently celebrated when its principal victim, a senior space scientist who lost his career and a part of his life, was found innocent. All the TV channels have late night shows, which often are nothing but one-sided police versions of the days’ crime stories.
Most of the time, the prime time anchors on TV blatantly twist news stories and show irrational aggression to create controversies out of nothing. But when Gail’s explosive book implicating a prominent spiritual cult and establishment fell on their lap, they recoiled.
What’s also intriguing is the absolute silence of the political establishment. The Communists, who revel in sex scandals and conspiracy theories involving the Congress, are tightlipped. The posting hailing Gail on the Facebook page of a prominent CPM leader disappeared in no time, followed by an explanation that neither the page nor the posting was his.
It was not unexpected that neither the Congress nor other parties didn’t utter a word because political leaders, irrespective of their ideologies, make a beeline to the ashram because it also means a huge devotee vote bank and access to a number of institutions including engineering and medical colleges.
It’s such a pity that in a state with the highest media profusion in the country, people had to rely on the social media to exchange their views. On the other hand, the development also shows that the state can defeat the agenda-setting collusion of the conventional media (two groups occupy bulk of the media space) and politicians when it comes to matters of their interest.