Pondicherry Ashram Suicides and The Spiritual Surrender: Bobby Kunhu

Guest post by BOBBY KUNHU

On 17th December there was a dramatic sequence where, the youngest of a family of aged parents and five sisters who were inmates of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry attempted suicide by jumping off a water tank. The police rescued the woman, booked her and her sisters for attempt to suicide and released them on bail. This was following a Supreme Court order evicting them from the ashram at the end of a decade long struggle against the ashram. Their demand was simple that the management of the Ashram be taken over by the State to contain the corruption within. On the morning of 18th December, the family of seven decided to walk into the sea. Three died, four were rescued. Amongst the four who were rescued, one was allegedly raped by two men in her state of unconsciousness.

The South Asian spiritual landscape perhaps is the most diverse – ranging all hues and shades of spirituality cutting across religions and castes and has attracted followers internationally including celebrities like the Beatles, Isaac Tigrett (the founder of Hard Rock Café) and many others. Without exception, all of these spiritual groups ask for “total” surrender, though the terms of this surrender would differ from group to group. And many have willingly surrendered! For a non-believer it might be difficult to understand this leap of faith. But, for the believer this becomes the single most important event in her/his life. Even more important than birth marriage, love or death! And, when the terms of surrender is breached – though all hell breaks loose, people cling on to their faith. Despite “Sexy Sadie”, Paul McCartney held that Transcendental Meditation was a gift The Beatles had received from the Maharishi at a time when they were looking for something to stabilise them. In the BBC documentary The Secret Swami Tigrett stated that he believed that there was truth to the rumors of Sai Baba’s actions of pedophilia and sexual abuse towards some of his young male followers, but also such rumours would not change his belief in the Baba.

Something similar was brewing in the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. Here a bit of contextualization is necessary. The Ashram was founded by Mirra Alfassa – known as the Mother to devotees based on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh. From a trust founded with borrowed money, the Ashram has grown to become the largest property owner in Pondicherry. To become an inmate, one has to go through a probation period, following which a contract of complete surrender is entered into with the Ashram. The Ashram allocates the inmate work in one of its departments based on his or her skill sets and qualification and in return provides for food, shelter, medical care, clothing and so on – but strictly no monetary benefits. This contract (called prosperity list) till recently also had clauses that prevented inmates from approaching the police or media. However, a caveat needs to be added here – the contract does not prevent an inmate from leaving the Ashram – and all inmates believe in the surrender!

Without any effective internal grievance redressal mechanism – this means absolute power. Over a period of time there have been allegations from Ashram inmates ranging from sexual abuse, pedophilia, physical abuse, medical negligence etc. When some of the inmates protested, their prosperity was withdrawn – meaning that their food and shelter too was withdrawn. Some inmates left the Ashram. A few others, rather than leave the Ashram and retract from their leap of faith and surrender, decided to go to court to get their food and shelter restored. After, a long protracted legal battle one of the cases came before the Supreme Court of India. The apex court turned down the prayer in the case. That is a different story requiring different legal analysis that I would not want to go into here.

In the meantime some inmates got together and formed an association to protest what they saw as gross human rights abuses. When their complaints fell on deaf ears, they organized two dharnas in January and February 2012 – and the inmates who participated in the Dharna were show-caused asking why their prosperity list should not be revoked – against which these inmates have gone to court. With some of the organizers of the Dharna – they have been removed from their allotted jobs and few privileges have been taken away. Since then, the inmate association has been trying to draw attention to their plight in whatever form possible. Given the Ashram’s insular nature these efforts seem to have met with little success – leaving the protesting inmates cynical about the larger society. Now they seem to believe that the only recourse for them is a state takeover of the Ashram management. The logic for this demand seems to be hinged on two simple requirements – transparency and effective grievance redressal mechanisms. They point towards the government takeover of Auroville – another institution founded by the Mother – through the Auroville Foundation Act of 1988 “for the better management” as a precedent.

A small diversionary note is required here – though the Ashram is the centerpiece of Pondicherry’s economy – beyond employment; there is hardly any interaction between the local Pondicherry citizenry and the Ashram. In fact, the local populace views the Ashram with deep suspicion. On the other hand given the vast resources owned by the Ashram, there seem to be a background political struggle to gain access and control of these resources.

Unfortunately, avoidable death of 3 women allegedly abused by the Ashram management (according to their suicide note) and four others in critical condition in the Government Hospital in Pondicherry – all of them from the same family – had to happen before the issue has come to centre stage. The Tamil media atleast is abuzz with the news and all political parties in Pondicherry including the ruling party are going on a Bandh on the 20th December demanding exactly what the Prasad family (Those who attempted and committed suicide ) have been demanding for over a decade – the takeover of the Ashram by the State from the present management. Too little, too late – 3 lives are already lost.

The ways of faith are intimate. Sister Jesme, a catholic nun who left the church over alleged abuses claims to have carried Christ with her, while the poet Kamala Suraiyya said that her Krishna continued in her heart even as she converted to Islam. The protesting inmates seem to want to claim spiritual ownership of Aurobindo Ghosh and the Mother. The protesting inmates do not want to leave the Ashram. The night before her first suicide attempt, I had a more than an hour long conversation with the youngest of the Prasad sisters, Hemalata – there was no dissuading her – her faith was her anchor. Their surrender to Aurobindo Ghosh, the Mother and the Ashram is complete and intimate and they want to retain that intimacy with dignity in an abuse free atmosphere.

Post Script: I just got the news that the Ashram management with the connivance of some Doctors are trying to threaten the surviving family members to leave Pondicherry on the excuse that they need psychiatric help from NIMHANS Bangalore, especially as one of the sisters was gangraped. Though they hardly have any support on the ground, the survivors are adamant that it is their right to live in Pondicherry and refuse to move out.

Further Update: The latest news, as of 6 January, is that the gang-raped sister was literally in illegal confinement in the hospital on the pretext of her “health” in the ICU – and she was not allowed to meet any of her family members (apart from kind policewomen who smuggled one of the surviving sisters when she went to the loo) the brave woman went on a hunger strike to get discharged from the hospital

15 thoughts on “Pondicherry Ashram Suicides and The Spiritual Surrender: Bobby Kunhu”

  1. Typical cult mechanics with all the attendant zealotry,charismatic leadership, unquestioning loyalty and a strict oath of omerta. Nothing exceptional. Although the deaths need not have occurred.
    Even so I think the act of suicide is indicative of their faith rather than their yearning for justice. Their faith was more important to them than their lives.

  2. I find it interesting that the author of this article failed to mention that Sri Aurobindo died in 1950, and that Mirra Alfassa (the Mother) died in 1973.

  3. So there’s corruption in the holy digs ! So what else is new. As Derren brown shows here, most of us are hardwired to “believe” and seek out experiences of the “supernatural” kind so to speak. And when there is a need there’s always going to be a supply.

    A wise monk , Leopold Fischer aka Agehananda Bharati in “The ochre Robe ” spoke at length of his experiences the RK mission as a full time monk. His wonderful characterisation of the world of mystics and mysticism can be found in ” Light at the centre: Context and pretext of modern mysticism”.

  4. Inmates of the Ashram live in at most isolation from the local population, and most of them, it seems, consider any such mingling as an act below their status. Even in this case, the sisters did not, as far as I know, make considerable attempts to contact the local political organizations and civil society for the strenuous fight they undertook against such a mighty gang. This is again a surrender that was responsible (than anything else) for their plight and subsequent decision. Several of those inmates also indulge in the sexual, labour and other kind of exploitations against the local people they employ for menial jobs. It must certainly be added, from local politicians to bureaucrats to Supreme Court judges, the Ashram authorities have established links of abstruse nature. Gravely enough, many of them (at least outside the Tamil region) have manifested their willing-surrender to the “spiritual doctrines and ambiance” of the Ashram in vivid terms. As one goes into the legalities of this case (which the author has not attempted here), the Supreme Court of India of course will certainly have its due share as a party to the criminalities leading to the deaths and abandonment of an entire family by its silence and siding with the culprits. In my opinion, these deaths are in effect cold-blooded murders for which from Ashram trust to Supreme Court, an entire system has to be penalized

  5. This story is alarming and shameful for spiritual traditions. This only shows that real spirituality never comes from surrendering to human idols, worshiping human forms and organizations. In Koli Yuga simply this cannot work. I had fallen to this trap only once, and interestingly also during the critical year of Koli Yuga, in 2012, when a guru I worshiped as a divine avatar, because of the inner experiences he is able t induce in people, had chained me to a tree in his forest ashram for 3 months, tortured and let sexually abused by his nearest attendant… During this another woman had a similar fate. This was just enough lesson to me that many times man-made”spiritual” organizations are the most devilish ones one can imagine, more than any worldly one. Worshiping human beings as gods and surrendering to them and/or their elite board of disciples, ashram leaders and organization seems to be the greatest mistake in spirituality to me now. I wish that those desperate devotees get over this illusionary spiritually soon, and find God in their own soul, stop to cling to “holy places” as I did, and stop to cling to external gurus: finally the real holy place is only one: our own heart, and the real Satguru is guiding us on a non-material plane, inside our consciousness.

  6. The latest news is that the gang-raped sister was literally in illegal confinement in the hospital on the pretext of her “health” in the ICU – and she was not allowed to meet any of her family members (apart from kind policewomen who smuggled one of the surviving sisters when she went to the loo) the brave woman went on a hunger strike to get discharged from the hospital

    1. smuggled in by the kind nurses & junior doctors too. with just 2 policewomen to choose from, mentioning them could get them into trouble. better remove that

    2. Update: The Supreme Court has ordered an interim administrator for the Aurobindo Ashram – Justice Delayed is Justice Denied, but it is Justice end of the day. End of the day ab autocratic Monolith seems folding up with all its power

  7. Why do we want more and more interference in our lives by the State. What is the guarantee that the State is not corrupt – in fact they are – and more powerful. It is for the civil societies to address such problems, and look to our ‘maai’ ‘baap’ for help – a colonial feudal mind set.

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