the amma asylum

Several weeks ago Australia was visited by Mata Amritanandamayi Devi: global philanthropist and spiritual leader. ‘Amma’ commands an army of followers across the world, and in February I was fortunate enough to visit her at her ashram in South India.

Deep into India’s most southernmost state of Kerala exists the spiritual sanctuary of Mata Amritanandamayi, the ‘hugging mother’. Amma, as she is better known by her millions of devout followers, is one of the world’s most eminent spiritual leaders, and one of the only female hindu yogis.  She is internationally admired for her philanthropy (particularly her response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami) and has met with many of the most influential global leaders such as Bill Clinton and members of the UN. To date, she has hugged some 30 million people, thus earning her the title of the ‘hugging mother’. No doubt, she is one of the world’s most alluring and enigmatic personalities. To her many millions of followers, Amma is a number of ways a God reincarnate – though she nor anyone in her organisation would say as much.

Not satisfied with international efforts to address global issues, Amma established her own international charity organisation Embracing the World. The charity focuses on humanitarian development on issues such as empowering women, poverty and crisis relief. Within this organisation, she sits as both founder and chairperson. This title of founder extends to her involvement in the creation of the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS Hospital). When at home in Kerala, Amma spends four days a week giving darshan (the hugging ceremony), and then of course there is her heavy international touring schedule. Mata Amritanandamayi Devi is, if nothing else, a very busy woman.

Yet in spite of this global fame, recognition, incredible work ethic and millions of dollars in charity, Amma has also been the target of some criticism over the years. In 1985, Sreeni Pattathanam wrote a book entitled Matha Amritanandamayi: Sacred Stories and Realities, an extensive critique of Amma’s ashram and specifically that unexplained deaths in the sanctuary must be the subject of police investigation. This volume was again published in 2002. Two years later, Pattathanam was persecuted by the Kerala government on the grounds of religious offence, and the order was only withdrawn after international objection by notable human rights leaders.

Stepping inside the gates of Amritapuri it is immediately apparent that one has stepped into another world. Men and women of all ages, races, nationalities and abilities wander around the courtyard in pristine white robes, as the wide-eyed and dirty newcomers are directed upstairs for processing. With a night’s accommodation priced at 250 rupees (AU$5) including linen and three meals a day, it is little wonder that the ashram has become a sanctuary for westerners in search of their own spiritual experience. The sanctuary even accommodates those that are unable to give up the luxuries of back home, with a western cafe, western shop, internet cafe and laundry services all available … for a price of course. There is even a health clinic, with priority given to paying foreign visiotrs. A quick scan of the ashram’s clientele reveals that the Julia Roberts Eat Pray Love show has made its way to Kerala, with middle-aged women forming a large component of foreign visitors/residents.

After processing, newcomers are sent to their simple rooms to prepare their sleeping mats, pillows and sheets, before returning to the main hall for an introductory ‘welcome session’ at 5pm sharp. Here, one will learn all about the amazing work of Amma and her international philanthropy. Walking through the maze that is Amritapuri is a feast for the eyes, ears and nose. Everywhere, people ubiquitously dressed in white scurry across the ashram grounds. In one corner, two Indian men sit chatting and drinking chai on the grass. In another, two blond, blue-eyed boys cautiously approach a chained elephant as the boys’ parents and the elephant trainer look on laughing. Nearby, two older caucasian women approach the smiling attendant of the ‘Amma Shop’, one of the several locations across the ashram where visitors can purchase Amma branded souvenirs. Almost everything is available, from photographs, to postcards, to spoons and expensive crockery. Penetrating this scene is the enchanting aromas of freshly made dosas emanating from the Indian cafe. Ask anyone who has visited and they will agree that the best dosas in south India are found at the Amma Ashram.

An important thing to understand about the ashram is that it functions so well because of the strong community culture. Everybody who stays at the ashram is required to do at least two hours of ‘seva‘ – selfless work. This can be anything from cooking and cleaning to gardening and stamp licking. Each day, the ashram’s many duties are willingly undertaken by all residents, regardless of how long they have stayed. Inside the ashram, normal rules of society seem to not apply, as everyone finds themselves selflessly donating their precious time to make this community work, with little reward other than self-satisfaction. Witnessing a legion of european men ferry pamphlets and guides across the ashram under the direction of an old softly spoken Indian woman is truly a sight to behold. At the end of seva, people come together in groups to pray and give thanks to Amma.

Undoubtedly, one cannot help but admire the incredible world that has been constructed inside Amma’s ‘pink palace‘. Here, she has gathered literally thousands of people who share her vision and ideas, and are willing to give themselves to help promote her work. Their work is impressive, and their aims commendable. Together, they strive each day to create a harmonious and functional society whereby each member is equal and everybody contributes in whatever way they can. Visitors are urged to spend recreation time focusing on their inner selves, with yoga and meditation highly encouraged. There is little in the way of recreational activities, and people are asked to leave the compound only when necessary. Amma’s ashram is, in many ways, an inspiring microcosm of how societies can and should function. Especially encouraging is the community atmosphere: it is difficult not to be swept up in the tide of goodwill that is found all across the ashram. Everyone is happy to be giving up their free time, not simply because it is asked of them.

However – and this is a very big however – there is a lot that is to not be admired about the Amritapuri Ashram. While the figure of Amma cannot be underestimated in terms of importance for the ashram, the extent to which this cult of personality penetrates the compound is alarming. At all hours of the day, general conversation and general chitchat is dominated by the topic of Amma. Newcomers are curious to learn about how this one woman has captured the hearts and minds of the people living there, and the long-term residents are eager to convert them. Early morning (6.30am) yoga sessions begin with quotes from Amma’s teachings, followed by the brazilian instructor giving thanks for another glorious day under her gentle auspices. At evening bhajans (chanting of prayers), the ceremony ends with a prayer specially dedicated to Amma sung after she has left the stage. The residents of Amritapuri live their daily lives in the bosom of the hugging mother, both literally and figuratively.

From very early on at the ashram one thing becomes very clear: these people truly believe in the divine grace of Amma. For the westerners who have lived at the ashram for a number of months and even years, Amma represents a path to enlightenment and spiritual understanding. She is more than an inspiration – she is a God. I encountered this first hand in my own experience with a young Austrian girl, 24. As I spoke to this girl while composting the garden for daily seva, I had the opportunity to find out quite a lot about this girl and what had brought her to the ashram. This was her second visit, having returned after an unfulfilling six months at home in Vienna. This girl was bright, clever and chirpy, however had an odd habit of interjecting into conversation with particular facts about Amma’s life or teachings.

At some point in the afternoon, a few locals began cutting down a palm tree under which we were working. A flimsy metal roof acted as the only barrier between us and the falling branches, and as time passed my concern grew for our safety. Having been placed under the authority of this young Austrian girl, I asked if we should stop work while they cut down the bulk of the tree. She stopped and came out from under the roof to peer up at the man hacking at the tree above. After a few seconds she looked back at me, pensively, and said “Hm, I think it is okay. We will be fine, we are with Amma.”

This one phrase so perfectly surmises the attitudes of the ashrams residents, who are so utterly indoctrinated by her ideas and personality. The community is unquestionably good and well-intentioned, however the motivations behind their actions are not. This is not a community driven by the desire to do good because it is good, this is a community to do good because it is what Amma wants. On the main stage where Amma gives darshan is a fire escape, next to which exists a sign. Rather than “Fire escape: stand clear”, the sign reads “It is the wish of Amma that no one stands or sits near this fire escape.” This is another example of a culture driven by the hero worship of the hugging mother, where people think and act in certain ways not for themselves, but for Amma.

Ultimately, this is the great shame of the Amritapuri Ashram – a noble pursuit undermined by the inescapable cult of personality. While Amma does not actively propel this divine interpretation of herself, she nonetheless allows it to occur within the confines of what is essentially her own residence. Ethically, this is a question that must be posed. Is it acceptable to promote this hero worship of Amma, even though the outcomes for the local and global community might be good? Unfortunately, this is a question not easily answered. For those who find themselves grappling with this question, I suggest a big long southern Indian hug to clear the mind.

It certainly worked for me.

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