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.
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
!9.00 Bhajans. Arati
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.