At least ten other passengers – mostly foreigners and a few Indians – were already crossing the bridge to Amma a.k.a “The Hugging Mother’s” ashram, when I stepped off the Backwater ferry. I shouldered my backpack and followed them toward the ashram gates.
The first things I noticed when entering the ashram – along with the looming pink apartment buildings I’d seen from the river – were the hum of activity and the diversity of people. There was no hushed silence of prayer here, but the giggles of children, the chatting of people at work, and warm smiles all around.
My previous experience staying at an ashram in Rishikesh was mixed. Although I found ashram life very peaceful and I began to understand the appeal of the structure, ritual, and relative simplicity of a renunciant’s life within such a community, the irrepressible skeptic in me and my Western independence and desires – my ego, perhaps – made it difficult for me to accept what I often see as a cult of personality around the guru. When I began to hear rumors of corruption, hypocrisy and impropriety at the ashram in Rishikesh, though totally unconfirmed, I wondered, does it always have to turn out like this? Is it just our nature? Arriving at Amma’s ashram, I wondered now if things might be different under the leadership of a female guru.
In a country that still holds close to traditional definitions of male and female roles, I was a little surprised to find an ashram led by a woman. As Jane Lahr and Val King observed in their comments though, Kerala is relatively progressive in its acceptance of female leadership, which might also explain why Kerala has the highest Human Development Index rating, most literacy, and least corruption in India. This is not to imply that things are easy for women in Kerala, as can be seen in Amma’s story.
Within ten minutes of arriving at the ashram, I was checked-in and assigned a dorm room. It was obvious from the efficiency and warmth of the reception that the ashram is well practiced at welcoming new arrivals – sometimes as many as 60-70 people a day. Although my bed and meals would cost me only 200 Rupees (about $4) a night, it was also becoming clear that this community might be as much a business venture as a spiritual one. I also learned that, unfortunately, Amma was not in residence that week but on an extended tour of South India, giving her blessings to followers and admirers from around the world, as she does for much of the year.
After getting settled, I joined the other newcomers for an orientation and tour of the ashram, which began with a brief video about Amma, touting her impressive accomplishments beyond the founding of this 2,000 member community. Amma’s organizations have been responsible for administering or donating over $60 million in the past decade to victims of the 2004 tsunami and other natural disasters, as well as large scale housing, educational and medical projects. Spiritual community, business venture, and now international aid and development organization: Amma’s portfolio continued to grow in my mind.
The video gave only a brief history of Amma and the ashram but I was able to fill in some gaps during conversations with a few long-time residents. The current ashram sits in the same place where Amma was born and raised and still includes the barn where she received her first disciples. Amma heard a spiritual calling at a young age but, from what I was told, her family and the community did not accept the legitimacy of her calling and repeatedly tried to arrange marriage for her. Though I don’t know the entire story, I understand that it was a struggle for Amma to win acceptance even from her own family and that it took many years for what started as a small gathering in her barn, where she comforted the poor and grieving with hugs, to grow into the dominant spiritual, social, and economic presence in her community and eventually a complex and growing international organization. It’s an amazing human story, though one that by now seems somewhat shrouded in myth and mysticism.
Amma and her community espouse three main values: love, compassion, and selfless service. It’s hard to argue with these and, in my short time at the ashram, it was apparent that members and visitors took these callings seriously.
After morning Archana (the chanting of the 1,000 names of the Divine Mother) and meditation (starting at 5:00 AM) and before evening Bhajans (devotional songs) and meditation, selfless service is built into the daily lives of community members during 2-3 hour blocks of time in the morning and afternoon devoted to Seva (Service). For long time residents of the ashram, this looked much like a full time job – staffing an office or shop, working in the kitchen or giving tours. For visitors, it could mean peeling carrots at a long table in the dining hall, binding copies of Amma’s newsletter (available in 15 languages) or helping with the laundry. For me, it meant a couple of hours walking the streets of a nearby village picking up litter with a group of students from Amrita University. (Yes, Amma has a university too, with an ayurvedic college and schools of business, medicine, engineering, science and the arts.)
I enjoyed being put to work performing Seva and it was apparent that others did, too. This required service was obviously good for the community and for the business of the ashram. But it also seemed to me that these acts of service were conceived as much for the benefit of the individuals as they were for the good of the community.
I was especially interested in the many small, often entrepreneurial projects geared toward creative and practical communal living: the building dedicated to experimenting with growing plants in the infertile local sand and soil; the incredibly popular milk and juice window and western style snack bar; the little signs everywhere with directions for newcomers for living in this intricately designed and evolving community. These details and small touches reminded me at times of one of my favorite books, Mating by Norman Rush, in which an inspired Westerner builds a community designed to empower women in Botswana as part of an experimental development project. The novel also tells a beautiful love story and has been thought-provoking and complex enough for me to inspire several re-readings. At the ashram, it was exciting for me to be in a place where I could see and feel this kind of social, environmental and entrepreneurial experimentation happening and I could tell that many of the people performing Seva took pride and pleasure in having these outlets for their energy.
And finally there is, of course, the hugging: Amma’s signature blessing. The community calls it Darshan (Blessing) and it seems to be what they look forward to most.
Amma is a hugging machine. She estimates that she has given over 29 million hugs and sometimes goes on 20-hour hugging marathons. As you can imagine, after all this practice she has tremendous hugging form. The video introduction we watched included several hugging montages from which I began to analyze her style. As you come close to (or, as some report, are shoved toward) her, an arm will dart out, like an octopus grabbing its prey, and next thing you know, you are nuzzling in one of the Mother’s ample shoulders, while she bestows gentle cheek kisses and, if you’re lucky, a nose nuzzle or two.
One of my roommates in the ashram dorm, a French man around my age, told me about a couple of the eight times he has received Darshan from Amma.
“The first time isn’t really nice,” he recalled. “You don’t know what to expect, you’re nervous, and it goes too fast.” But one of his most recent Darshans was more pleasurable. “She had me in the hug and then she started talking to someone behind me and just kept me there for about a minute,” he said glowingly.
I am sorry that Amma wasn’t there so I could get a hug and tell you all about it myself.
Even without a hug it was heartening for me to see this community in action – living and practicing the values of love, compassion and selfless service that it espouses. Perhaps it does take a woman’s leadership to bring these ideals closer to the reality of our lives.
(Note on the photographs: Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside the ashram. The last two photos were taken just outside the ashram. The first two photos are of the sunrise and moonrise over the nearby Keralan Backwaters.)