Amma loves me in German

The first time I heard about Amma was when a friend told me he spent a day in the Toronto convention centre waiting in line with thousands of people to get a hug. The idea of a hugging saint tickled me, but I certainly never thought I’d be visiting her on her home turf. But India does things to you. It blows your personal boundaries to smithereens and leads you to explore with an open heart.

It was in this state that I stepped off the ferry and crossed the bridge to Amritapuri, Amma’s pink ashram in the Kerala backwaters. Built on and around Amma’s childhood home, the centre of global Amma-nation regularly accommodates around 3000 devotees and visitors from around the world. The Ashram is situated between the coast and the backwater, with magnificent sunsets on the beach. (Unfortunately I was  not allowed to swim – even on the gender segregated beach, fully dressed in long sleeves, I was told that my wet clothes would be immodestly clingy). Communal activity in the ashram centres upon an auditorium hall with open sides and a stage, where everyone comes together for meals and meditation.

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We checked in to our simple room on the fourteenth floor and got into the ashram groove. For two modestly dressed days, we joined Amma’s devotees eating bland prasad food blessed by Amma, singing bhajans led by Amma, and gazing upon the guru, feeling the love. There are yoga classes, study sessions with Amma and her swamis, as well as a few shops and restaurants. Despite the constant flow of visitors, long term residents seem peaceful and happy in their routine.  When we were there, Amma was officiating an Indian wedding – apparently this is quite common. Her following is a mix of Indians and Westerners, although the Indian contingent seemed more matter of fact in their devotion. Some of the westerners were putting on a pretty dramatic display – swaying, crying, moaning in ecstasy.

The Amma effect is not bound by Amritapuri’s pink walls.  She travels regularly and has hugged more than 32 million people. Like other contemporary gurus whose sphere of influence extends beyond India’s borders, Amma has faced her share of accusations about financial and moral corruption. I have no idea whether these are true or not, but the literature at the ashram is full of stats and stories about Amma’s domestic and global humanitarian projects, enacted through her Embracing the World foundation. It sounds like on top of the hugging, this woman has made a dent in alleviating suffering in India and worldwide. Her projects include hospitals (both western and ayurvedic), schools and vocational training centres, disaster relief housing projects, environmental efforts, and more. Amma’s meditation technique is taught for free, as this celibate yet motherly figure believes that “Spiritual knowledge is the birthright of humankind and that to charge for meditation classes is like charging a baby for breast milk.”
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Of course, no visit to Amritapuri is complete without hugging Amma, so I dutifully stood in line awaiting my turn. I checked my cynicism and was fully open to the possibility that this embrace might change my life. It would be a bit out of character, but hey – it happens to lots of people when they encounter the divine spirit incarnate. At the end of the day, I was not moved to join the ranks of devotees (huggees?) but I did recognize a certain blissful quality in the cuddly Keralan. Here’s a poem I wrote about my experience.

Amma loves me in German

She encircles me
She of 108 names
She who is an ocean of divine qualities
In her earthly female form
Dark and round faced
With a gold nose ring

She has blessed my food
And as i approach in line
A devoted hand, firm and steady
Jerks my head into her lotus breast
And she whispers to me only
Meine liebe, meine liebe
Meine liebe, mine liebe

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