SRI MATA AMRITANANDAMAYI (AMMA)
Louis Hughes op
Sri Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma) paid her second visit to Ireland in November 2005. Over two days, an estimated 15,000 people came to the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght, West Dublin - up on the previous visit a year earlier at the Royal Dublin Society, which attracted some 10,000. In addition to supplementary parking, the organizers laid on special Amma shuttle buses to bring people from the tram terminus at Tallaght’s town centre. They also had a giant marquee erected in front of the Arena to house a restaurant and food preparation area where teams of volunteers prepared vegetarian food. Indian dress was much in evidence. The dominant colour was white, worn by many of Amma’s disciples to signify simplicity and purity. There were a few Indian swamis dressed in saffron
Once through the marquee, notices requested visitors to remove footwear - a traditional eastern gesture of respect on entering a temple or private home. My shoes joined hundreds of others on one of the stacks of shelves provided. I was given a token that would get me a place in the queue for Amma’s darshan. This is the loving embrace, which Amma gives to everyone she meets and is the main attraction for most visitors. The hug is meant as a symbol of the unconditional love of God the Mother.
Those standing in the queue waited with something more than patience. The ones in front progressed slowly on their knees, until the moment when they were carried into the Mother’s embrace. I was told: "When you see the numbers 1700 – 1800 displayed, then you can join the queue". At that moment we were at 300 – 400. It took about an hour to reach 500 – 600. I was in for a long wait. A friendly seva (service) volunteer in a white sari explained that I would most likely not be able to join the line until the night session, or perhaps the next day. She told me that even the seva volunteers would probably not get individual darshan; and that when Amma came to Paris recently, people didn’t even get into the hall.
Though I left unhugged, I had had the chance of viewing Amma from a distance of about 20 metres. Dozens of devotees sat in chairs or on the floor, wrapped in contemplation, receiving the special grace of being in the presence of one whom they consider to be God in the form of Mother. Over her head, films of her charitable activities were being played out on a large screen. To the left of the hall, a row of laptops was manned by men in white. These co-ordinated the work of the conference and the different tasks undertaken by the seva volunteers. Stalls sold everything from photos, books, CDs and videos of Amma to cosmetics, beads and clothes. It was underlined repeatedly that all profits go toward funding Amma’s charitable projects.
It is estimated that over the past 30 years Amma has hugged more than 24 million people from every part of the world. Tallaght would be no different. On the final day of her visit, she continued tirelessly hugging right into the night. In her own words, "Where there is love there is no effort. Other people’s happiness is my rest"
Amma has a strong base of support in Ireland. The official programme for the event included a comprehensive list of organizations, families and individuals who gave their services free of charge to make her visit a success. Many of those who advertised in this booklet also included words of welcome or testified to their indebtedness to Amma.
Amma was born on September 27, 1953 in a remote coastal village in Kerala, South India. The fishing community, to which her family belonged, is regarded as low caste in Hinduism. She was given the name sudhamani (pure gem). In the version of her childhood promoted by her followers, there are elements that have a legendary character. She was "walking at 6 months, without having first gone through a crawling stage." She started composing devotional songs to Krishna at the age of five. At another period in her childhood we are told that "animals and birds took care of her, bringing her food and stirring her from deep meditative states." She left school at nine due to her mother’s ill health, and took on all the domestic and farm work. She was punished for giving away the family food to those who were worse off. Her spiritual progress quickly brought her to the experience of samadhi (oneness with the Absolute, Self-realization) and this had become a permanent state by the time she was 17.
A period of austere tapas (penance) culminated in an apparition of the Divine Mother in the form of light. After this she desired solitude, to enjoy the bliss of samadhi. After some time, she heard God’s call to "worship me in the hearts of all beings by relieving them of the sufferings of worldly existence." By her early 20s she began the practice of spontaneously embracing everyone who came to her. This has been understood as giving the recipient an experience of God’s motherly love. In 1979 the first disciples came to live by her side. They gave her the title Mata Amritanandamayi (Mother of Immortal Bliss), though she is more familiarly known as Amma. By 1981 a few thatched huts built beside the family home marked the beginning of her math or ashram. In response to invitations from her overseas disciples she embarked on her first world tour in 1987. Today she spends most of the year travelling throughout India and abroad.
The ashram, called Mata Amritananda Math, has expanded into a complex of high-rise buildings, including a large temple, beside the Arabian Sea. It is home to a community of 3000 people. These include monastic disciples and families from all over the world, as well as India. When in residence Amma sits in meditation with the community several times each week. She leads them in devotional singing and also holds question and answer sessions. The Math has hundreds of branches throughout India and internationally, many with their own temples and schools.
The massive scale of humanitarian work associated with Amma is a tribute to her extraordinary capacity to motivate people to love and care for those who suffer. The watchword is: "Love is the universal remedy." The resulting activities, run by volunteers and funded by voluntary contributions, are on a scale that would compare with the medical, social and educational services of a small state. The movement’s publications highlight Amma’s role in local relief efforts in the aftermath of the South Asian tsunami of December 2004. The area round her ashram had been badly hit, with more than 140 fatalities. She and her community took a leading part in disaster relief in that zone and in the subsequent re-building. Then, she initiated a reconstruction programme for the tsunami victims of Sri Lanka, where she has also been involved in brokering peace between the warring factions there. Earlier, she and her followers had brought relief to survivors of the earthquake that hit Gujerat, western India in 2001, in which almost 20,000 died.
The flagship for Amma’s healthcare programme is her Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS), based at Kochi in Kerala. This is a hi-tech hospital with 1300 beds providing specialized medical services free or at a reduced rate. It networks with several smaller hospitals, a hospice for the terminally ill, and an aids care centre. In the field of education her Amrita Institute is a high-tech University-type institution with a full range of faculties including medicine, business studies, computing, applied sciences and engineering. It supports a spread of smaller institutes and schools throughout the South of India, including facilities for children with special needs.
Other projects for social uplift include large-scale urban and rural housing for poor families, pensions for destitute women, a free legal aid service across India involving over 1000 lawyers, free food for the poor and the homeless – this last not just in India but in the US as well. Ecological projects include tree-planting, litter collection and generally promoting care for the natural environment.
Hindus tend to view suffering as the consequence of one’s karma or "action" in this or previous lives. Some would see no value in easing the suffering of others, as this might interfere with the long-term working out of their karma. Amma rejects this viewpoint: "If it is their karma to suffer, isn’t it your dharma (religious duty) to help them?"
Amma’s spirituality is based on advaita (non-dualist) Vedanta philosophy, the most ancient Indian philosophical system. This holds that, at the deepest level of meditative experience, all of reality is experienced as One. The phenomenal world and all distinctions between persons and things, are considered to be maya (illusion) – either unreal or at least of no ultimate importance. When the seeker has attained to samadhi, s/he realizes that the human soul or spirit is indistinguishable from the Spirit or Self of the Universe (atman), and identified with the Absolute (Brahman). Advaitins do not view this as a philosophical position opposed to others, but rather as a mystical experience. They may for a time venerate personal deities such as Krishna, Rama or simply "God". However, this is understood as simply a stage on their journey. As Amma puts it: "Only when maya exists is there a God." The Absolute is beyond all names and forms, including divine ones. In the highest meditative state of nirvikalpa samadhi (samadhi without form), "There is only bliss. No happiness or sorrow. There is no ‘I’ or ‘you’."
For one who is Self-realized in this way there is no inter-personal relating, because - being the one and only Absolute - there is simply no person, no other to relate to. Thus, there is no possibility of love. For advaitins such as Amma, love does pass away as one moves beyond the stage of maya into full Self-realization. Then there is only the One atman/brahman. Or as Amma puts it: "In the state of liberation, there is only the pure Self – there is no duality." It’s lonely at the top!
THE GURU AS GOD
Traditionally, the guru in India has commanded the highest respect. Some traditional advaita teachers have likened the guru to God, because he is the disciple’s channel of communication with the Divine. However, in the past they did not make an explicit identification between the two. It was only in the last hundred years or so that some teachers have publicly stated that the guru - usually themselves - is God. This is not illogical in the context of advaita vedanta, which makes no distinction between the human soul or self at its deepest level, and the Absolute or "God". Consequently, Indian godmen and a few godwomen have emerged in the twentieth century. These include the head of the Radha Soami (Beas) organization, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh and more recently gurus such as Rajneesh (Osho) and Sathya Sai Baba.
Amma’s disciples believe her to be God the Mother. Some of the movement’s literature gives her the full title "Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi." The "Devi" at the end is most significant, as it means "goddess." Her own utterances seem to indicate that she accepts this description of herself: "God’s wrath can be appeased, but even God will not pardon the sin arising from contempt for the spiritual master." – She herself being the master. Her role as guru or "Mother" is all-important, and outweighs all other spiritual authorities: "If Mother’s words and deeds are contemplated, you need not study a single scripture." Amma places maximum stress on the gulf between master and disciple with her comment: "My children, you can say, ‘God and I are one and the same,’ but a disciple can never say, ‘My Master and I are one’."
INTEGRATED AMRITA MEDITATION TECHNIQUE (IAM)
To assist her disciples on the path to samadhi, Amma has developed a particular form for meditation. Called the Integrated Amrita Meditation Technique (IAM), it is designed to bring one to the realization of the Divinity pervading all of creation. It also claims to bring material benefits in its wake. These include physical and mental relaxation, improved health, enhanced creativity and self-expression, and greater effectiveness in one’s career.
To learn the IAM technique, would-be practitioners must commit themselves to practising this form of meditation for 30 minutes daily, as well as agreeing to keep the technique secret. General guidelines include a recommendation to sit with the back straight. This might be in a darkened room in front of a lighted candle. One may picture the flame internally or visualize God in one form or another. The flame can be imagined between the eyebrows or preferably in the heart centre. And should distractions become intense, one can resort to chanting a mantra or repeating one in the silence of one’s heart. In the course of meditation Amma invites the meditator to imagine that s/he is merging with infinity.
ORIGINAL ELEMENTS IN AMMA’S TEACHING
At first sight Amma appears to westerners to be a traditional Hindu teacher. However, there are unique, even revolutionary, elements in her approach to spirituality and mission. These include an emphasis on love that is more characteristic of the Gospels than of any Hindu scriptures. And this isn’t only theory. She exemplifies it in her loving approach to people on a one-to-one basis, as well as in the extraordinary range of social services with which she is associated. This focus on love provides the foundation for her ecumenism: "Love is a universal religion and this is what society really needs." She has had a network of Temples called brahmasthanam (places for Brahma) built in different parts of India. These are designed to emphasize an essential unity underlying different forms of God.
The manner in which Amma expresses love to all - her embrace - is exceptional in an Indian context. Physical touch is used in some guru movements as part of an initiation ceremony. The guru communicates spiritual energy by touching the disciple, usually on top of his/her head. This is called shaktipata (descent of the power). Generally however, touching is discouraged in polite society and particularly in religious circles. Non-westernized Indians do not shake hands – they greet one another by joining their own hands together in front of the chest and bowing the head. To embrace someone, especially of the opposite sex, is highly unconventional.
In another breach with convention Amma has installed women priests in her brahmasthanam temples, something previously unheard of in India. On the other hand her popularity in the west is due in no small way to the fact that she pays homage to the feminine aspect of God, something taken for granted in India. Here she has a strong appeal for women, many of whom feel alienated from what they see as a male-dominated Christian Church, in which God is conceived of first of all as Father.
Finally, Amma’s over-riding concern with the social and material uplift of people is atypical of Hinduism and particularly the advaita vedanta philosophy to which she subscribes. Advaita views the world as maya - not fully real. Its concerns are with the world of spirit. This otherworldly attitude has led to a neglect of developments that improve this world. Amma has rejected this approach. For her, practical help for people’s needs must come first. After that they can be introduced to the mysteries of religion. Her programmes of social uplift and care for the environment are driven by spiritual energy. Thus, religion is seen as leading to the renewal of society. This has some parallels with what has been happening in the Christian world for centuries. Consider for example how Benedictine monasteries contributed to the building up of European civilization in the early medieval period.
ACCLAMATION AND CRITICISM
Amma’s outstanding work for the disadvantaged has been universally commended. In 1993, she acted as President of the Centenary Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. She has addressed the United Nations on several occasions, including its 50th anniversary commemoration in 1995. However, she has not been immune from criticism. These are the ones commonly directed at any intense new religious movement. There are reports of young volunteers being pressurized into long hours of laborious work; the organization being excessively focused on fundraising; and disciples expected to obey her or her representatives without question in every aspect of their lives.
Amma sees her mission as being in the service of all humanity irrespective of nationality, race or religious affiliations. However, this does not mean that she considers all world religions to be of equal value. Religions other than her own are seen to draw their power from the age-old religion of India: "sanatana dharma (the eternal religion), which originated here in India, is the source of all other paths…. The reason is that India is the land of the mahatmas. It is the mahatmas who transmit the life force not only to India, but to the whole world."