Hugging Amma

Forget the Maharishi and his relatively modest assets; these days galaxies of avatars in the form of Gurus, Babas and Mas (mothers) protected by their vast entourages circle the globe (First Class naturally), generously supporting and comforting the emotionally hungry, from Japan and Brazil to France and Austria.

Amma the “hugging guru” can easily fill stadiums and sports halls with her darshaners and darshanees. (I‘ve made up the term “darshaner”, derived from Darshan which means taking a blessing in person from a superior Being- though it can be used snidely,  visiting a self-important friend, “Hello, hello, we’ve come to take your darshan”). Amma’s darshaners are innocent of any sense of irony when they queue for hours, starting their dawn vigils in the manner of a Harrods New Year Sale. High-spirited hopefuls, pursuing spiritual rather than retail therapy, snake around several blocks until they arrive at the stadium doors where they are handed a pink numbered ticket (mine was J10). Next, they are chivvied by harassed looking volunteers in the direction of the sacred arena. After a lot more hanging about (I waited 6 and a half hours) comes the ultimate prize: a fleeting encounter with the female avatar of Krishna- some say Kali- from Kerala, Mata Sri Amritanandamayi.

Amma

Crowned Amma

Last Christmas, some friends- old timers of energy hugs- were driving from the French side of the Pyrenees to a suburb of Barcelona, in order to ensure their annual fix, and I decided to tag along. Not that I was seeking to be convinced by the cuddly Amma’s supernatural powers, but simply out of vulgar curiosity and for entertainment; Sundays in French Catalan villages can be tedious. Several other persons of my acquaintance were also driving there; sensible people for the most part, but who keep photos of ever-smiling Amma in their living rooms, and I wanted to discover what the fuss was about.

Going over to the industrialized part of northern Spain from France is always a shock. France is far more manicured and picturesque, whereas Granollers and its environs was a dispiriting little town thrown together with functional apartment blocks and dusty streets that brought eastern Europe to mind. The Palau d’ Esports was enormous, seating 4-5,000, and filled up so quickly that soon it became difficult to move around. The sports pit, designed for indoor basketball and other games, was  festive with bunting, sound systems, video screens and banners and heaving with shoppers eager to part with their euros. Teddy bears, incense, tawdry over-priced saris, dreadful carvings of gods and goddesses, bottles of olive oil from Amma’s organic farm in Spain, lavender bags and handknitted socks, jewellery, scarves and suchlike were reverently fingered by the largely Spanish crowd. Who knows, perhaps Amma had blessed each and every article on the stalls. Some people were dressed in white (to attract purity and light) others looked ungainly in shalwar kameez, whereas the few Keralan sanyasi celibates flitted around looking busy in orange robes. All the stalls were manned by volunteers some of whom, apronned and red-faced, had been cooking vast quantities of rice, dal and vegetables in a kitchen situated in the car park. The smell of curry rather than rose petals pervaded.

When Amma swept in the entire congregation rose to their feet, as though royalty had appeared. The video screens started rolling sequences of Amma speaking, Amma smiling, Amma hugging. Just below the stage, a green throne awaited her portly presence.

A harsh Catalan discourse boomed and crackled over the speakers, followed by a longish silent meditation. I recognized some faces from our French valley as they sat cross-legged and solemn. A very long thin man managed to contort himself into the lotus position sitting on a plastic bucket chair. The market place became temporarily suspended.

Huffing and puffing a little, Amma ascended the green throne. A woman started to sing unremarkable tunes, accompanied by tablas and harmonium, and earned enthusiastic applause for each session.

Suddenly the tempo changed, becoming purposeful and urgent. Darshaners and darshneees were kicking off footwear, prompted by placards announcing the relevant numbers on our pink tickets. Another queue formed. My friends reckoned that our numbers, J8, J9 and J10 would come up around 4 pm. It was only 11 and there was a very long wait ahead.

I amused myself by doing some crowd analysis. The scrawny been-to-India types, sporting birdsnest dreadlocks, bits and bobs of gear picked up in bazaars, accomplished shabbiness worn with panache, swaggered around. But surprisingly the majority of the crowd were family groups who ten or fifteen years ago would have been at Sunday Mass or flocking to see the Pope, who was visiting Barcelona that week. The Amma crowd was seeking holy contact rather than holy water. From their clothes and shoes I guessed most of them were blue collar rather than blue blood. For some reason, Amma is mightily popular in Spain.

Centro Amma is a sprawling Mas, or farm, or ashram, where her devotees tend tulsi (Indian basil) plants, olives and perform all manner of seva , in the name of greening the planet. There is a comic photo of a pony tailed man worshipping crates of olives in the middle of a field, seated next to an alter of Amma. He is squatting on a purple ashram-made cushion.

The ashram time-table sounds a lot of fun:

06.00 Archana y Meditacion
0.7.3- a 8.30 Meditacion
09.15 Seva
13.30 Comida
15.00 Seva
!9.00 Bhajans. Arati
20.30 Cena
22.00 a 08.30 Silencio

Over the border, where I live in French Catalunya, a sizeable population of seekers after Eastern truths has given the area a certain reputation. The mountain villages are inhabited by a variety of ayurvedic masseurs, shiatsu experts, yoga teachers, mandala makers, astrologers and family constellation therapists practising their craft. This has to be conjunct with sustainable living, eating bio (organically) and seeking ever new wizards, hypnotherapy, energy healing, homeopathy and all manner of esoteric experiences. The area is cheap and many incomers feel they have a safe haven from the polluting atmosphere and waters of the rest of Europe. They are remarkably well organised. After the long hot summers, the migrants from northern France, Germany and Holland (Scandinavia is under-represented for some reason) chase the sunshine to Goa or Kerala starting out in November, returning when Spring has warmed their mountain homes.

I left my friends dozing gently on their hard stadium chairs while I made my way through the throng. I had spotted a blue-black, broad backed, bull necked Keralan and, convinced he must be one of Amma’s brothers, tried to work my way to him. The crowds were so dense that I lost my bearings and wound up next to the organic olive oil and aloe plants. The Spanish volunteers said someone called Jairam would answer my questions. Like Osho followers, Amma’s people like adopting Hindu names. But Jairam, balding and with the trademark harassed expression, was involved with someone, so instead I found Pilar, a friendly shop assistant in real life, who told me that everything about Amma was wonderful; her simplicity, her philanthropy, her courage in overcoming her terrible childhood. She had been first in helping her own fishing village after the devastation of the tsunami. Because she was born blue-black in colour, her mother treated her like a household slave and beat her all the time.

Wandering back to my seat digesting this information I saw it was time for lunch, so my friends and I followed the savoury smells and found another enormous hall set up with stalls selling dosa, sushi, rice and dal, samosas, laddus, lassi, pakoras, chai etc. More queues were lining up for thalis and the meal cost about 15 euros each. None of the cleaners, washer-uppers, cooks and servers charged for their labour and probably the food ingredients were donated, so fifteen into five thousand over 3 days is a clear profit of around 200,000 euros just to eat in Amma’s canteen. Add to that sales of tulsi plants, incense, olive oil and artificial silk saris, plus donations, and the profit from one tour is close to a million euros, although I have seen figures of 3 million dollars quoted on the internet.

Everyone was now in a happy haze of post-prandial goodwill, enhanced by expectation that something even better was coming. We still had three hours to go before The Hug.

I found a disciple from Kerala busy inducting a volunteer, also of Keralan origin, who had grown up in London. The disciple spoke about the university established by Amma where, at 30, he is Professor in Neuro-Science; could that include brain-washing? The boy Prof told me about the ex-President of India, Abdul Kalam, conferring an honour on Amma. I heard about the anti-litter campaigns in Kerala, the tsunami relief and how selflessly people give their time and skills to her various charities. The Professor gave me links to websites which illustrate the work being done in Amma’s name. She certainly has a lot of real estate in Kerala, where land is extremely expensive. Afterwards I traced some interesting material on a website called “ Cult of the Hugging Saint.”

According to that Amma professes that she would no more charge for darshans than a mother would charge a babe feeding at her breast, yet she allows her used toothbrush to be sold, bits of sari on which her bottom has rested, dolls made in her image (apparently devotees carry these around confiding in them).

Another site carries spirited tweets about exactly which colour sari she wore at a darshan.

“Last night Amma wore an absolutely gorgeous red sari with lots of gold accents- was there green in it also? Hard to tell, she was radiating so brightly….”

Another fan writes, “I swore her sari was plum…”

At this gathering in Spain she is dressed in widow or brahmachari-white depending on your taste. I imagine that her PR machine has figured out that in Europe they prefer her as a sort of Mother (substitute for the Virgin Mary, who is now somewhat passé in these parts) and in California they see her as the goddess Durga, or Kali, resplendent on a smiling tiger. One video put out by the PR machine shows a re-enactment of a miracle when Amma as a young girl changed a brass bowl of water into milk pudding, and another video of her being translated into many-armed Durga/Kali.

“Being in her presence brings my pain and anger all to light”, writes one tweeter. “Guess that’s the nature of being a Kali devotee, although I think a lot of people just want a spiritual band-aid. For me being around Amma can be a violent purging.”

One sceptic has torn into Amma’s, probably ghost-written and certainly PR fuelled, autobiography claiming that various stories around her birth and childhood bear an uncanny resemblance to stories around other, more genuine saints, such as Ramakrishna and Shankara. Amma presents a contradictory picture of her parents: they are pious and very religious; her pregnant mother dreams of being given a gold idol of Krishna, of giving birth to the baby Krishna, all propitious omens. When Amma is born-blue black, smiling broadly during birth, lying in her cot in the lotus position and making mudras with her little fingers her parents think she is handicapped. They seek medical advice for her very dark colour and are told not to wash the baby for 6 months (this in a tropical climate!). In other words they are ashamed of their dark baby. If they were so pious and religious, I wondered why couldn’t they see that baby Amma was an incarnation of blue-black Lord Krishna? And why would they beat her daily and treat her like a servant, slaving away from 3 a.m. until late, washing and scrubbing? However, coming from a culture where dark skin is a liability, it is hardly surprising that Amma has complex feelings about her own dusky hue, the shame of which is redeemed by subliminally comparing herself, or subsuming herself, into Krishna. And while showing that she was humiliated by her mother, Amma appeals to our sympathy (but nevertheless, as befits a divine incarnate, her mother and father remain extremely pious in official versions of her story).

As one incensed critic from Kerala writes, “she has made a big hotch potch only (sic) of everything she has seen and learned- superstition, vedantism, bhakti and paganism.”

She is an ordinary, fisherwoman, a mother, a clever fantasist; and she is a god-woman who can read your mind and transmit her divine energy to those who follow her.

Our time finally arrived. J8, 9,10 was shown on the cards. We hid our shoes where we could retrieve them easily and inched forward for our hugs. I was handed a card with a list of do’s and dont’s.
I was to kneel in a certain position. I was not to touch Her at all. I was to incline my head toward her right shoulder. I had to move away very quickly and not linger.
A Frenchman from Beziers was next to me, a kind of hugging partner. He shook my hand and introduced himself. Suddenly it was my turn and I felt anxious. Would I incline my head in the right direction? Would I stumble and fall on her capacious lap?

“Hurry up hurry up” barked a volunteer and pushed me rather roughly towards Amma. I must have shown some resistance. The volunteer snapped, “There is no need for choler!”
And then, very quickly, it was all over.
Amma gave me a little shove (maybe she sensed my lack of enthusiasm) and I was away. Now what was that all about, I wondered.
My friends asked if I had felt her energy.

“It wasn’t so good this time, was it,” they debated amongst themselves, being experienced followers. ”But the smell of roses! It was divine!”
“She pushed me away,” I said disbelievingly.
“Never mind, something wonderful will happen to you tomorrow.”

It struck me on the homeward journey, as storm clouds massed and curdled over the Pyrenees, that Amma and the controversial UP Chief Minister, Mayavati, have a lot in common: both are sensitive to their caste position, both are rather plain and chunky, both are partial to diamonds and gold (sometimes Amma wears a two-foot high sparkling crown when she cross-dresses as Lord Krishna); and both seem to be excessively ambitious and looking for acceptance and approval.

Even if their aims are questionable, their determination and ambtion are admirable. As for the millions who flock to her, and flocked to Rajneesh (Osho) and other gurus, a god-shaped hole in our hearts plus the sad human susceptibility to mass hysteria is as good an explanation as any.

{ 15 comments… add one }

  • Richard January 16, 2012, 8:50 am

    Congrats on your first post, and a great read too!

    Reply
    • pratima January 26, 2012, 7:26 am

      couldn’t have done it, ever, without you Maestro!

      Reply
  • jaya jaitly January 26, 2012, 6:15 am

    Wonderfully canny and funny, Nanu. I am going to republish it in my journal, and shall continue to publish your other blogs , with your permission. True democratic socialists in India will love this!

    Reply
    • pratima January 26, 2012, 7:26 am

      Do I qualify as a TDS?

      Reply
  • Andrew Chapoy August 15, 2012, 5:47 pm

    Blessings to you Pratima,
    I enjoyed reading your article. I think you express yourself well and your perspective on your experience with Amma is well written. My wife and I went to see Amma for the first time last year in Dallas,TX USA. Although we are both skeptical by nature……we were impressed with her humanitarian projects and her large following world-wide. She does posses a great deal of charisma judging from the crowds we saw for two days in Dallas. I rather liked her in terms of the work her organization is doing with the millions of dollars they raise yearly. Since then I’ve continued doing my research on different gurus and spiritual leaders from different religions around the world. Unfortunately most are not genuinely “God-Realized” and pure as they claim. Based on my research , in my opinion, Amma is among the very few that seem sincere in their devotion to their work helping others. I think the world could certainly use more “Amma types” to help humanity in general to find a better spiritual state where people are helping one another rather than hurting each other. Wouldn’t you agree??? :-) Sincerely, Andrew C.

    Reply
    • pratima August 17, 2012, 9:30 am

      I am happy to have comments on my piece about Amma. If you read it again you will note that I have made some enquiries and done some research about her. It is very easy to build a mythology around “holy” people (especially in India, where gurus- and benevolent, altruistically minded gurus- are a dime a dozen). I have written about what I saw and felt to be a phenomenon based on crowd expectation and anticipation. I could not see evidence of any powerful spiritual disclosure and was completely mystified when Amma pushed me away. I can only assume she sensed my detachment. The most disconcerting aspect of my experience was the crass commercialism and the buying and selling in a space meant to be holding spiritual meaning (where did we hear about this in the New Testament??). Perhaps she brings succour to many, but where is the evidence that they become better people? The followers I have come across seem to be as selfish, spiteful and unpleasant as anyone else!

      Reply
  • Faye November 19, 2012, 3:40 pm

    I saw Amma yesterday in Dublin. I knew little about her but I heard about her from a few creative types I know and I went to see what all the fuss was about. A hug wouldnt hurt , i thought. However, I was struck by the complete lack of joy or happiness amongst the crowd. The volunteers at best looked harrassed but were mostly hostile and empty looking. While I was waiting I sat down amongst all of the other lost souls and at one point I felt like my hair was being pulled from its roots, just for a few seconds. I felt completely drained afterwards. I decided to leave as I couldnt wait around for the hug. I stood close to her and I felt no charisma, sense of joy or spirituality emanating from her. In her eyes I saw emptiness. I went home and felt restless and exhausted all evening. I felt annoyed with myself for having spent money on cds and books. She is as fake as they get. Anyone that sets themselves up as having more power than any other human being is a charlatan

    Reply
    • pratima November 19, 2012, 3:48 pm

      I am pleased that you bear me out as so many people will themselves to be hypnotized by guru-types. You can fool some of the people some of time, but you can’t fool all of them all the time….There is a new and powerful film, “The Master” just out which is a chilling endorsement to my observations.

      Reply
  • Mahesh January 2, 2013, 9:41 am

    I first met Amma at one of her darshans in Australia. I wasn’t impressed by her but had a very strange problem concerning a negative psysic force attacking me. I was desperate for some help so i wrote down my problem and gave it to one of her helpers during darshan. That night i had a dream that Amma was in a bedroom that i was sleeping in and that i woke up and saw her, just at that she flew out the open window. I thought to myself that it was a bit silly and a little bit furtive of her. Approximately a year later I was travelling through India and i met some australian people who had been to Ammas ashram and recommended that i should check it out. I must admit that on arrival to the Ashram i was delighted to get out of the crazy hustle and bustle of Indian life and acces good vegetarian food and western food. i did feel that the vibrations on the ashram would be conducive for a some peaceful meditation. I enjoye the spiritual aspects of the ashram and despite my scepticism of the hugging guru i felt i should give her the benefit of the doubt. i had another darshan and asked the helper to ask Amma for advice on how to rid myself of this negative force that had come into me. Panchenkarma, she said, confidently. I booked myself into the nearby Ayurvedic hospital just across the river which is run by Amma. It was not an easy place to stay at, the service was very poor and the food was always cold and unnapetising. Tha ayurvedic treatment did nothing for my situation and the cost seemed to get fifty percent more expensive every week. There was never a price list for treatment nor any indication of lenght of a treatment or what it actually was. A 40 minute two man massage would be the same price as a treatment consisting simply of pouring some oil up into the nostril!
    I gave up on it after eight weeks as there was no indication of how long the treatment would last or that it was helping my situation in any way. Though i feel it did strengthen my mind and body, the doctor also gave me aryuvedic medicine to help my nervous system which had been under extreme stress. I felt that the doctor was doing the best he could to help me but that the female doctor at the ashram who dealt with pricing for westerners was just a complete crook. i confronted her about the rising prices and the overcharging on a number of accasions and asked her to provide me with a detailed price list of the treatments but she wouldn’t do it. back at the ashram I again asked Amma through an interprete if she could offer me any other advice, reminding her that she had advised me to have ayurvedic treatment forclearing me of the negative parasite. she answered that ayurvedic treatment is only for physical problems only not spiritual ones and on that note she promptly hugged some other mug and completely ignored me!
    I personally have no doubt that Amma has some physic powers. i was sitting one day on the darshan stage wondering if she could indeed read peoples minds, when she turned right around and stared at me!
    Ok,she can, but she isn’t the first mind reader i have met. i was ripped off in Khosan rd in BKK many years ago by an indian fakir who told me how many siblings i had and named them for me then promptly managed to get me to hand over my camera and a sum of cash to him! Her spiritual brother Sai Baba was exactly the same, he had a few tricks up his sleeve. I notice that ammas books have now been thoroughly cleansed of any mention of the dirty old paedophile! I was chatting an american engineer who lives on ammas ashram a devotee of Amma and Sai baba who is working on an environmental project for her. I asked him how he could possibly think that Sai baba was a saintly being after all the sexual abuse scandals concerning him and men woman and child devotees. His reply astonished me, he told me that a close friend of his who was also a Baba devotee had asked sai baba about the sex scandals and Baba had told him that there was karma between them!! Like thats ok then?? Just to finish, on my last night at the ashram Amma came to me in a dream and she was jeering at me she said “You don’t have to run off I am not going to it you like your mother did! My mother had a few problems, it’s my karma. But I didn’t think it was a very saintly or spiritual manner of saying goodbye. So I guess she can speak English,haha. The words in the bajans were extremely trivial and it was disconcerting to see westerners bowing and praying to a plastic elephant as it if was some high spiritual being. I had a shot at the astrologer who was only interested in getting me to spend a small fortune on magical rituals to change my karma, oh if it were only that easy! I couldn’t help overhearing him chatting up the young woman in front of me and giving her lucky numbers!

    Reply
  • Anthony A. Pruchnic January 6, 2013, 2:37 pm

    –I met my wife in a bible believing church about four years ago.
    –Four years later she has over 2000 facebook friends that are into new age spirituality….I am blocked from her account because I had some concerns that she was being mislead.
    _approx. two months ago my wife went from virtual “web surfer” to having Ammas phone number and has been dubbed as her “organizer” for a meeting or classes in a couple of days.
    _last night I discovered that my wife has been secretly planning to go to Amma’s ashram to live…just like that.
    –it’s like she was recruited to serve this lady and leave her entire life in a matter of months…..very disturbing and bizarre….I need some help here…if anyone knows anything about this type of situation…I need immediate help…724-674-1670…facebook also under Anthony Pruchnic

    Reply
  • brandon March 3, 2013, 10:38 pm

    how could I even begin to say how shocked I am to hear such filth! Amma, and many other spiritual masters have always taught by love and example. Look at the millions of people who love her and adore her! She has made me a better person who taught me how to love, by her example. She truly goes out of her way to hepl millions of people and do charitable acts as well as open hospitals, schools, homes for the homeless, etc. So how can a person like you, write such filth? Ignorance…..

    Reply
    • pratima March 4, 2013, 6:12 am

      Dear Brandon, I only write what I know and see for myself. If you had done the research I have done for this article, you would not be so shocked. As I said, India is full of gurus and they have very very poor track records. The commercialization of a holy figurehead is a very old game. You stick to your beliefs and let me stick to mine.

      Reply
  • Kali Amma June 20, 2013, 7:02 pm

    Well done for capturing the feel of the Amma publicity machine.
    scandals of gurus take decades to reach public consciousness and even longer to reach the devotees captive mind.

    Reply
  • Ilma June 27, 2014, 5:32 pm

    You say that you approached a self realized master with ‘vulgar curiosity and for entertainment’, no wonder your heart and mind were not open to the genuine compassion and care that has reached lakhs of destitutes & sufferring people,even from your own religion/birth religion;crossing all human boundaries of casre, creed and religion. Amma’s book is a biography not an autobiography, mind you-Amma doesn’t care about goddamn publicity; maybe Mother Theresa did-that’s why she posed outside like a mother who actually deprived & denied the poor masses of India even while pumping money to Vatican..holy sin! Amma tells people to live & practice human qualities like love, compassion, forgiveness;it appears you don’t believe in these either, otherwise you wouldn’t have missed these & wouldn’t preach with tainted vision..irrespective of whether you follow Amma or not.You know too little about India’s vast spiritual heritage as is evident by the shallowness of content here!

    Reply
    • pratima June 28, 2014, 9:07 pm

      and you know a lot, do you?

      Reply

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