By Maria Wirth
Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma) is one of the greatest spiritual presences of our times, and a powerhouse of love and compassion
During each era India has produced great souls, and Mata Amritanandamayi, better known as Amma, is without doubt a very great soul of our time. She is the Mother incarnate, who takes everyone in her loving embrace.
Amma’s feat is humanly impossible. I am convinced of it. Watching her hugging some people for a few minutes may not seem extraordinary, but watching her for 15 hours is. Of course, I didn’t manage to watch her for 15 hours at a stretch. In between, I went for lunch, for tea, for dinner, had chats with other visitors to her ashram near Kollam in Kerala, checked my email, yet whenever I came back to the temple, there was Amma sitting in the same position, embracing men, women and children, beaming with joy if someone looked joyful, and expressing sympathy with someone who was sad, listening with rapt attention, talking animatedly, her eyes alive, sometimes laughing out loud, ever fresh, alert, awake to the needs of the moment, no trace of her own person, no trace of any want, of tiredness, of impatience. There was light, joy, and great aliveness around Amma – and unconditional, divine love for everyone that flowed out in a warm, motherly hug.
Amma often takes her breakfast only on the next day after midnight. Thereafter, she meets her administrators, attends to work related to the many social projects her Trust runs, or to her travel programmes all over the world. Residents of her ashram genuinely wonder whether she ever sleeps. When she travels, her schedule is even more backbreaking. She sits through whole nights, sometimes up to 20 hours at a stretch, till everybody present had got a chance to be embraced by her. Asked how she manages to endure those long sittings for some 20 years now, she replied, “Where there is love, there is no effort.”
Obviously, she has an inexhaustible reservoir of love, and she disclosed what she loves so much: “If a honey bee buzzes around the flowers in a garden, it does not see the different flowers, but the honey that is in them. Similarly, Amma sees the highest Self in everybody.”
Where does Amma get all this love from? Looking at her biography, one would understand if she had become bitter about life. Hers was not a happy childhood. Sudhamani, as she was named, was the fourth of nine children of a poor family of the fishing community, who lived on a small stretch of land between the Arabian Sea and the backwaters in Parayakadavu village in Kerala. Her mother did not even inform any relatives at first about her birth on September 27, 1953. The reason: the newborn was unusually dark, besides being a girl.
After the 4th Standard, Sudhamani had to quit school to take over the household duties, as her mother had developed arthritis. Her brothers and sisters could continue their education, while she, as the darkest of them, was treated as the family servant, and even lent to relatives for work. Her day started at 3 am and lasted till 11 pm, and her mother was an unkind supervisor. She would beat her up even if one leaf was left in the courtyard after sweeping. Sudhamani also received many blows for giving away provisions from the family storeroom to villagers who were hungry. Yet, she would not learn. She suffered a beating rather than refuse food to someone.
Abiding in Krishna
Life was hard for Sudhamani, and she learnt early that the world had not much to offer. Yet she did not break, because she had tremendous support right from birth. It was her complete devotion to Sri Krishna, to whom she poured out her heart at night in soulful songs.
It is inexplicable why this little girl had so much devotion for Sri Krishna. Her family certainly did not encourage it, on the contrary. Amma later said, “From birth itself I had an intense liking for the Divine Name, so much so, I would repeat the Lord’s name incessantly with every breath, and a constant flow of divine thoughts was kept up in my mind irrespective of the place where I was, or the work I was attending to.”
Yet Sudhamani not only repeated Krishna’s name, she cried out to him, when she felt he was hiding from her and danced in ecstasy, when she felt his presence as real. Her devotion was so intense that her family and some villagers considered her strange, if not crazy. They did not realise that she blissfully abided in Krishna bhava.
In 1975, when Amma was 22, a change happened. She was on her way home from cutting grass for the cows. While passing a neighbouring courtyard, where the Bhagavatam in praise of Lord Krishna was sung, Amma stood transfixed, the bundle of grass fell to the ground, and she rushed into the congregation. Her identification with Krishna overflowed into her features and behaviour, and her inner oneness with Him became manifest. The villagers felt that Krishna had come to them in the form of this dark girl. The news spread like wildfire and sceptics came as well. Those sceptics demanded a miracle. When they promised they would not ask for any further miracle, Amma relented, ‘Come next month when Bhagavatam is recited again.’ They came in droves; everywhere, in the courtyard, on trees, on the roof, people had gathered, many expecting to expose a fraud.
Amma asked for a pitcher of water and sprinkled the water on those present. Then she asked one of the sceptics to put his fingers into the water and lo, it had turned into milk. Another sceptic was called to put his fingers into the milk. Now the milk had turned into panchamritam with raisins and banana bits. This miracle is reported in her biography written by Swami Amritaswarupananda, who came as a young man, Balu by name, to Amma right after college in 1978, and changed through this contact ‘from a worldly youth to a seeker of truth’. He is still with Amma, manages the affairs of the ashram, and certainly is trustworthy. Besides, Amma would not tolerate falsehood in her biography, and the majority of the people who witnessed this incident are still alive.
From then on, Amma showed herself in Krishna bhava several times a week, and people flocked to her from afar. Yet her tribulations even increased. During Krishna bhava, Amma danced in ecstasy and embraced everyone, women and men, young and old, high and low. This was too much for her elder brother, who was an avowed atheist, and considered the honour of his family at stake. He threw her out of the house, and even plotted with some cousins to kill her. The villagers were divided. Some revered her; others opposed her vehemently after she had thwarted their attempt to take financial advantage of the Krishna bhava. This second group included sons of some landowners, who subsequently founded a ‘committee to stop blind belief’, and got about a thousand youths from the surrounding villages enrolled. They made life difficult for Amma. “Here comes Krishna!” they taunted her when she passed by, and even threw stones. They filed cases against her, got negative articles published in the media, offered her poisonous milk to drink (which she smilingly accepted and then vomited in front of them), scattered poisonous thorns over the place where she would dance, took the help of a black magician, and even hired a killer. Yet all their attempts to take her life and drive away her devotees miraculously failed.
Amma, meanwhile, was even more intense in her devotion. Now, after having shown her oneness with Krishna, all her longing was for Devi, the Divine Mother. She lived outdoors, had only animals for company, neglected her body and behaved like a small child desperately crying for her mother. One day, Devi appeared before her in all her splendour and, becoming dazzling effulgence, merged into her.
“From that day onwards I could see nothing as different from my own formless Self,” Amma later said.
Slowly, her opponents exhausted themselves, and many even became devotees. Her elder brother contracted elephantiasis and committed suicide in 1978.
In the same year, 1978, several young, educated men came determined to live a spiritual life under the guidance of Amma, in most cases against the wishes of their well-to-do families. Amma’s father, however, did not allow them to stay near Amma. In 1981, when more people came, among them some foreigners, Amma reluctantly agreed to form an ashram. “Amma has heard a lot about ‘ashram’. Is it not bondage?” she had asked. “Amma has her own freedom. There should be no obstacle for that.”
The Mata Amritanandamayi Math and Mission Trust was registered in May 1981, and started with a simple hut under palm trees on her father’s land. It has grown enormously over the last 25 years. Some 1,800 people reside now in the ashram, including around 500 foreigners, and as the land is limited, the pink buildings rise up 18 stories high. Colleges, schools, a hospital, even a swimming pool – for the students to learn swimming in this area full of water bodies – have come up, and a bridge for pedestrians was constructed across the backwaters to make it easier for the thousands of visitors who come for her darshan.
Yet it seems that Amma did lose some of the simple freedoms which are taken for granted. For example, though she lives only some 100 metres away from the ocean, she can’t walk there any more without being surrounded by scores of eager devotees. Brahmachari Shubhamrita, who is in charge of the European chapter of Amma’s organisation, disclosed that there was a time when Amma sneaked out in the middle of the night to sit by the sea quietly, as in earlier days. But soon, this was detected, and people stayed up at night, waiting for her to emerge. So she stopped it.
The ocean may feel sad that she is not coming anymore. Swami Shubhamrita said that whenever Amma went, she would bring gifts for the ocean, laddus or a garland, and prod him to come and take the gifts from her hands. For Amma, the sea is alive, or I should rather say: she can see that the sea and all of nature is alive – that everything is permeated by the one Consciousness, which has no name, yet is called by many different names – in English usually as ‘God’.
“Talk to nature like you talk to your children,” Amma suggested during a question-answer session while I was in her ashram. “If you show love to human beings, they may not reciprocate. But nature will reciprocate,” she claimed, and dwelt at length on the harmony between man and nature which was there in the olden days: “Our ancestors saw God’s form in everything, like in cows. Man then was grateful to the plants. Sweets were offered to them and mantras chanted. There were auspicious days for planting saplings. The first thing people did in the morning after getting up, was to touch the ground and worship Mother Nature. Today, all this knowledge and culture has evaporated. Nature is being exploited,” and she painted a gloomy picture: “Soon, we may have to run around like divers with oxygen bottles on our back, if we don’t awaken.”
While I was listening to her, it struck me that she did not seem worried about the situation. There was no heaviness, no negativity, no blaming this or that in her way of speaking. She, no doubt, described a ‘bad’ situation and also advised us what to do – spending time with nature, getting closer to her by planting vegetables organically with love, etc. yet there was lightness, her face beaming with aliveness and joy, no disappointment but full acceptance that things are as they are. It was a valuable lesson.
Amma is, in many ways, absolutely amazing. She is in all likelihood the most accessible person that has ever graced this earth – a mother to all of -humanity. Whoever wants can walk right up to her, feel free and even embrace her, and over 20 million people from around the world have done so till now. He or she might have to wait for some hours for his turn to come, but he will not be refused.
When I visited Amma in her ashram in Kerala for the first time in December 2000, I was sure that she could not go on like this. Her body would not stand it much longer – bending forward and taking into her arms a man, a woman or a child thousands of times for 10 or 20 hours in a stretch. I was sitting hardly two metres behind her in the middle of the night, saw that a lady assistant tried to ease her pain by massaging her back in the wee hours of the morning, while Amma was beaming with joy, bathed in light, receiving everyone with full presence and attention.
Today, Amma is still giving her unconditional love to everyone with a motherly hug. When I entered the temple in her ashram last September in the forenoon after my arrival, Amma was there already, hugging people. I sat down on a chair in the back of the hall, and all of a sudden felt a distinct feeling of delight. A wonderful, subtle pulsation expanded, as if one had spread out everywhere, and yet was not really there. I could sense a special atmosphere, which made it easier to feel one’s beautiful inner being and sink into it. India has taught me already how precious it is to feel one’s true essence. That it truly makes life worthwhile. It comes easier to the fore in the presence of someone who can see that we all are one; who can see that the different forms, including our bodies, are just playful appearances on the infinite expanse of Truth.
Amma often says that she does not see anything as different from herself. And she wants us to see this fact, as well.
“Devi told me to ask the people To fulfil their human birth. Therefore I proclaim to the whole world The sublime Truth that She uttered ‘Oh man, merge into your Self’.”
This verse is part of a song titled Ananda Vithi (Path of Bliss), which Amma wrote after she had blissfully experienced Devi merging into her.
Amma keeps prodding us to see the Divine in everyone. “God is not a limited individual, who sits on a golden throne in the clouds. God is pure consciousness that is in everything. Understand this truth, and learn to accept and love everyone in the same way,” she advises, and puts it into practise every day – hugging with the same unconditional love the healthy and the sick, the honest and the corrupt, the humble and the proud. Probably the most touching hug was when Amma embraced a leper with open, infected wounds, and even licked his wounds and sucked out the pus. It was too much for the people around her. Some had to vomit, others simply wept.
Her love flows out in other ways as well. She has initiated a vast number of humanitarian and environmental projects, and many of her devotees happily give of their time, energy, knowledge and money to make those projects a success. Amma is also in a unique position to improve the standing of women in society, and she stresses the great potential which is in them – she herself being the best example. In her ashram, Lalita Sahasraman is chanted every morning at 5 am. I enjoyed listening to the chanting, and admired the devotion, discipline and perseverance of a pretty, young woman next to me, neatly dressed in a sari, her wavy black hair held back by two strands in the typical Kerala style. She not only chanted each of the thousand names in a low voice, but touched her heart with cupped fingers with each name, and slightly bowed forward, probably following Amma’s advice to imagine plucking a flower from one’s heart, and offering it to Devi with each name. She gave me a sweet smile when she noticed that I looked at her, and I understood why Indians discovered that the Divine is there in human beings. I almost could see Devi in her, so beautiful was she.
In the ashram there are plenty of occasions for the nourishment of the soul. For example, a havan is performed every morning, and the young pujari chants mantras and performs complicated mudras for almost two hours without ever looking at any textbook. Bhajans, with Amma herself joining in, also play a big part in the daily schedule. Yet ashram life is not only about meditating and chanting. Work is also included. Amma herself has worked a lot, and efficiently, with her hands in her life, and visitors to the ashram who stay longer than a couple of days are expected to help in the running of the ashram for at least two hours a day.
I was assigned to the foreigners’ canteen. Each morning, I would slit open about a hundred pouches of milk, and then start boiling it to make curd. Till then, I never guessed how much work goes into making a large quantity of curd, and how tricky it is to make it turn out sweet and thick. Our curd (luckily we were two) either turned into cheese, or was thin like water. The American woman in charge of the canteen had been with Amma for a long time, and obviously had benefited from this contact. She did not make us feel bad, accepted whatever happened, and made the best of it, like patties from our unintentional cheese. Other food items, too, occasionally did not turn out well in our canteen. In contrast, the Indian canteen always seemed up to the mark. Even though they had to cater for several thousands and we only for about 500 people, there was always enough and good food. I often ate there.
The work experience was a good opportunity to become aware of one’s reactions and relationships with others. And a two-day meditation course by a trained teacher of the ashram taught a helpful method to finetune awareness of one’s subtle inner being. A few years ago, Amma decided to pass on a meditation practice that she had visualised long ago. She named it IAM – Integral Amrita Meditation. There is great demand for it, even from business executives or the defence forces. Somebody had originally suggested to Amma that she charge money for the course, as otherwise people would not value it. Yet Amma’s answer was a firm No. “Will a mother charge her children for the food she gives them?” And she jokingly told that person, “If you develop a meditation technique, you can charge for it.”
Woman of the World
Today, Amma is attracting a lot of attention abroad. She represented India at the World Conference of Religions in Chicago, received a number of awards, and was invited several times to speak at the United Nations. For the Cannes film festival in 2005, a film about her life was selected – made not by an Indian but by a Finn, and the Economic Times labelled Amma (and also Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) as a Brand Ambassador for India abroad. While I was in her ashram, a Swiss TV team made a film on her, and a Finnish woman told me that schoolchildren in Finland learn about Amma as one of the great charismatic personalities of this world.
The acclaim does not go to her head. Amma comes across as down to earth, though she is at home in heaven. She knows what the world is worth compared to the inner treasure. And she would wish that we would all discover this treasure, which is an infinite storehouse of love and strength. She helps us by kindling that love and strength in us by her own great love and strength. And she inspires us to be loving, innocent and pure. Because then one can hear the voice of God, she claims. That voice will benefit all and harm nobody.
In this context she narrated a true story:
In Seattle once, a race was held for mentally challenged children. While running, one child fell and cried. The other children stopped, turned back, helped the child up, and held each other’s hands till they crossed the finish line. “All ended up first,” Amma beamed.
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