There’s No Such Thing As A Free Hug
Another month, another controversy surrounding an Indian spiritual guru. Recently, Swami Nityananda was in the news for allegedly sexually exploiting women disciples. Now, the September issue of the Indian edition of Rolling Stone magazine has an expose of sorts on Mata Amritanandamayi aka Amma, the South Indian spiritual guru known for her healing hugs. (In August, Amma was dispensing hugs in her ashram in Kerala, when Satnam Singh Mann, a 25 year-old from Bihar who was reportedly mentally ill, made a dash for the podium. He was arrested, jailed and then moved to a mental asylum where he was later found dead in mysterious circumstances.)
According to David Amsden’s story, Amma’s benevolent spiritual practice belies a money-making industry. (If the story had appeared in an Indian paper, its headline would no doubt have been “Hug-gate”.) Her embraces don’t come for free it seems. It’s customary to offer Amma a present before seeking an audience with her, and devotees who have come empty-handed can, conveniently, buy gifts from the venue. Funds are raised by making members of Amma’s staff pay $2,000 a year to be her helpers and from selling memorabilia like Amma dolls and jewellery and clothes that have been blessed by the guru. Her organisation owns a considerable amount of real estate, including a university with campuses across South India, a hospital and large ashram in Kerala, a $7.8 million mansion in Maryland and properties in other parts of the US and Europe. There are stories of Amma’s parents and siblings living in grand houses bought with her money. Amsden also finds that Amma’s seemingly round-the-clock benevolence could be a sham. A former devotee he interviewed said that Amma did not hesitate to physically abuse her disciples if they angered her.
None of these revelations are particularly surprising as piety and profiteering go hand in hand in India. Almost every Indian guru with a large following, from Sathya Sai Baba to Sri Sri Ravishankar, has a history that’s less than holy. However those who are still curious about the unnamed guru in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat Pray Love will be excited to know that Amsden reveals that she is indeed Gurumayi, the head of the Siddha Yoga Dham of America, which is located in Ganeshpuri village near Mumbai.