FROM the BOOK "GURUS in AMERICA"
For nearly three decades, a tiny Indian holy woman has comforted, blessed, and - many believe - healed millions of devotees of all ages races, religions, and walks of life, simply by her gentle, loving spiritual embraces. Mata Amritanandamayi, the Mother of Immortal Bliss - affectionately called Amma or Ammachi (mother) - has emerged as one of the most prominent female spiritual leaders in the world, commanding a large following of devotees both in her native country and beyond. Likened to Mother Teresa by some and revered as a great mystic by many, this woman from rural south India is regarded by her devotees as the embodiment of the Divine Mother.
In recognition of her contributions to the global community, Ammachi was invited to address the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1993 at which she was named "President of Hinduism." In October 2002 she was awarded the Gandhi - King Award for Non - Violence at the United Nations.
Among the various devotional biographies, the oldest account was written by one of Ammachi's senior disciples, Swami Amritaswarupananda, and it is considered by Ammachi's organization to be her authoritative biography.
Although her hagiographies brim with miraculous stories that serve to legitimate her close relationship with certain deities and affirm that she holds special powers of manifestation, initially Ammachi rejected demands for miracles as proof of her divine manifestation. "My intention" says Ammachi, "is not to show miracles. My goal is to inspire people with the desire for liberation through realization of their Eternal Self. Miracles are illusory. They are not the essence of spirituality."
However, a month later she reportedly convinced skeptics by changing water into a holy milk mixture, and subsequently, many other miracles have been attributed to her, including the widely circulated story of healing a leper.
On Devi Bhava nights, Ammachi is believed to reveal her identity as the Divine Mother, reflected in certain visible changes in her person. In her characteristic third-person style of expression, Ammachi tells a group of disciples: "If you were to really see Amma as she is, it would overwhelm you - you couldn't possibly bear it. Because of this, Amma always covers Herself with a thick layer of maya (illusion). But during Devi Bhava, Mother removes one or two of her veils, revealing a little more of what she really is."
Throughout various spiritual phases, Ammachi strove for God-realization without the meditation of a teacher or guru. She recalls: "I never had a guru, nor was I ever initiated by anyone and given a particular mantra. The mantra I used to chant was "Amma, Amma.” But her disciples revere this uninitiated mystic as the perfect spiritual master (sat guru) who has the power to "directly induce God - realization."
AMMACHI VISITS AMERICA
Ammachi is said to make all the important decisions concerning her ever - growing network of charitable, educational, medical, and religious institutions.
Ammachi first visited the United States in May 1987 at the invitation of her American disciples. Since 1987, Ammachis's spiritual appeal in America has grown so immensely that her U.S. tour has become an annual feature, and in 1989, she established her first U.S. ashram in San Ramon, California.
While the MA Center serves as the U.S. headquarters for the Ammachi movement, local chapters have been established in Seattle, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, New York, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Boston, and Washington D.C. Efforts are being made to institute local chapters in other major U.S. cities.
My introduction to Mata Amritanandamayi's ashram in San Ramon occurred on June 14, 1999. Arriving at the ashram around 7 p.m., I noted a long line of diverse devotees gathered near the temple door: small children, teenagers, young adults, older men and women, all of various ethnicities, but predominantly Caucasian and non-Indian. While some were clearly first-time visitors like me, most seemed to be regular devotees, evidenced by their dress, speech and familiarity and ease with which they moved around the temple.
Eyes cast down in prayerful meditation, several hundred devotees stood at the entrance of the temple, chanting the mantra "Praise to the Blissful One," or "Om Amriteshwariye Namaha." Suddenly, our chanting grew louder and more intense as a cream-colored Lexus sedan arrived. A tiny Indian woman clad in a simple white cotton sari emerged smiling radiantly at the visibly expectant and excited crowd. She walked briskly into the temple as devotees respectfully knelt, prostrated, or bowed their heads in the palpably charged atmosphere.
Ammachi stood on a decorated floor mat. A female Indian disciple dressed in a white sari performed pada puja, or worship to the lotus feet (pada) of Her Holiness Shri Mata Amritanandamayi. She sprinkled a few drops of water on Ammachi's feet, gently wiped them away, applied sandal paste, and placed three rose flowers and petals on her feet as two saffron-robed Indian monks of the order - simply referred by Ammachi's American devotees as Swamijis - recited the following sanskritic shlokas (verses) in praise of the guru and her feet:
A lay devotee offered the waving of a lamp (arati) before Ammachi while another garlanded Ammachi, who in turn blessed them by sprinkling a few rose petals. After the worship of her feet, she walked briskly through the main aisle of the temple, touching and blessing devotees on either side of the aisle, and finally ascended to take her seat on an elevated platform. A young Indian female renunciant delivered a brief discourse on Ammachi's spiritual message, interspersed with several moving anecdotes and testimonials of her special spiritual powers and unconditional love for all. Next came 90 minutes of ecstatic and soulful devotional singing (bhajan) led by Ammachi and her band of gifted Indian musicians.
After the ritual waving of the lamp in front of Ammachi concluded the evening rites, devotees took their place for the spiritual embrace session, called Ammachi darshan. Ammachi hugged each one in turn, uttering tender and loving words in the devotee's ear, and gave each admirer a Hershey's kiss, a few rose petals, and a tiny packet of sacred ash.
EMBODIED GURU, EMBODIED GODDESS
Although Ammachi was never initiated by a guru, her devotees revere her as the sat guru, the true or perfect spiritual master. The guru puja offered to Ammachi each time she enters the temple confirms the devotee's belief in her guru status. She describes herself as a compassionate guru for her devotees. She exhorts her disciples to cultivate attachment to the sat guru as both the means and end of the spiritual quest. When asked whether attachment to the master's external form is necessary to realize the ultimate goal of God-realization, Ammachi responds:
Children, first of all remember that attachment to the Master is an attachment to God. Your problem is that you try to differentiate between God and the true Master. Attachment to a true Master's physical form intensifies your longing to realize the Supreme. It is like living with God. He makes your spiritual journey much easier. Such a master is both the means and the end. But at the same time there must be conscious effort to see the Master in all creation. Being attached to the external form of a satguru is like having a direct contact with the Supreme Truth.
Ammachi's self-understanding as a sat guru is reflected in her teaching roles. She offers formal discourses in her native language of Malayalam, which are translated by a native interpreter. She leads daily devotional singing, teaches meditation, and conducts regular retreats for her disciples.
Along with her role and identity as a sat guru is her self - recognized and self - professed identity as the embodied goddess (devi) - the form much revered by the devotees. Ammachi's goddess identity is revealed in her weekly Devi Bhava when she assumes the mood or form of the Divine Mother for the benefit and at the request of her devotees.
EMBODIED RITUAL: DIVINE HUGS and HERSHEY'S KISSES
In the Hindu tradition, the central ritual moment in worship is the exchange of sight - darshan - between God and the devotee. But disciples of Ammachi are not content with mere sight of her, darshan is reconfigured to include tactile embrace. Darshan of Ammachi becomes a warm, motherly, spiritual hug. This type of darshan is one of the intriguing trademark features of Ammachi's movement and her spirituality.
In the course of my field research, I witnessed hundreds of devotees - many of whom traveled from afar - wait for several hours for just a few pecious seconds of personal darshan with Ammachi. They come with varying concerns, ranging from the completely mundane to the ascetic, and Ammachi greets each on his or her level or need. In the final moments of Devi Bhava darshan, for instance, Ammachi performs nuptial rites for a select number of couples, most of whom are Caucasian devotees dressed in traditional Indian wedding attire.
I, too, went for personal darshan with Ammachi. Just like her devotees, I received much more than I had anticipated, and interestingly, at the precise level of my concern. When I went for my second darshan during a morning session, a trusted Ammachi devotee whom I had interviewed earlier that day introduced me to Ammachi directly, telling her about my scholarly interest in her teachings and movement. After hugging me closely, she turned to Swami Amritaswarupananda who was standing beside her and instructed him to assist me in obtaining necessary literature from the bookstore. Later, as Ammachi was leaving the temple after the morning session, she specifically sought me out in the crowded congregation gathered outside the temple and personally wished me success in my research. She met my specific concern: to learn more about her and her movement so that I could report about each in a scholarly context.
Before devotees are ushered into the presence of Ammachi, they must have proper instructions on darshan etiquette, or "darshan dharma." Then, they are invited into her presence as she sits on a colorfully decorated throne, flanked by male sannyasi who translate devotee's special requests or questions, and a female attendant who ministers to Ammachi's personal needs.
Throughout darshan, the atmosphere and ambience undulates: intense, prayerful, relaxed, and festive at the same time. Devotional bhajans in Hindi and Malayalam led by a group of singers provides the spiritual and musical backdrop. After the darshan, many consume the Hershey's Kiss - the sacred leftover or Prasad - whereas others take it home to keep as a sacred relic.
Whereas on normal days Ammachi hugs more rthan 1,000 devotees, this number is doubled on weekly Devi Bhava nights, when Ammachi wears a bright sari and a silver crown to reveal the majestic glory and tender love of the Divine Mother. In India, Devi Bhava nights attract over 10,000 darshan seekers.
During Devi Bhava nights in America, they hand out a leaflet in the darshan line explaining that receiving a mantra from Ammachi is a serious commitment not to be taken lightly. If after reading the pamphlet, you are serious about receiving a mantra, you stand in a line much shorter than the darshan line. Then, you receive a brief pre-mantra counseling by a long - time devotee of Ammachi who relates the seriousness of receiving a mantra and asks you to decide what kind of mantra you'd like, if its a Krishna mantra, a Devi mantra, a Jesus mantra or a Buddha mantra. You could also ask for a mantra that is not deity-specific. I was told that when it's my turn Ammachi will say the mantra in my ear and repeat it . . . When I got to the front of the line, it was very late, maybe one or two o'clock in the morning . . . She turned to me and smiled . . . Somebody behind her told her what kind of mantra I wanted. She leaned over and pulled my head to her mouth. And she said my mantra twice and the hand that was pulling my head to her mouth was full of flower petals. I don't know how to describe it, but it was very special. Being in her presence, I felt an instant relief.
In the Ammachi movement, darshan is the most intimate, direct, and personal mode of interaction between the spiritual master and her devotees. Given that Ammachi does not deliver many formal spiritual discourses in the United States as she has limited fluency in the English language, darshan also functions as her principal spiritual discourse to her American devotees. Amritaswarupananda explains to the devotees the spiritual significance Ammachi attaches to hugs and kisses. He writes: "Ammachi's hugs and kisses should not be considered ordinary. When Ammachi embraces or kisses someone, it is a process of purification and inner healing. Amma is transmitting a part of Her pure vital energy into Her children. It also allows them to experience true, unconditional love. When Ammachi holds someone it can help to awaken the dormant spiritual energy within them, which will eventually take them to the ultimate goal of Self - realization."
Darshan literally means "seeing." Translated sometimes as the "auspicious sight" of the divine, in popular Hindu devotional scheme, darshan is the auspicious seeing of the deity indwelling in an icon or image whereby the devotee seeks to establish contact with the deity. The act of standing in the presence of the deity and beholding the image with one's own eyes, seeing the divine and being seen by the divine, is a central act of Hindu worship. Though it involves the body, darshan is primarily a mental, spiritual, and mystical contact. Direct bodily contact with the deity is both ritually inauspicious and forbidden for the average devotee.
Physicality is the hallmark of Ammachi darshan. Given her status as the embodied Divine Mother and perfect spiritual master (sat guru), darshan is no doubt the appropriate mode of interaction. But in form and function, Ammachi darshan radically differs from the traditional pattern insofar as it entails close and intense bodily contact in the form of touching, hugging, and kissing. Beyond the ritual and religious contexts, touching and kissing a person of another gender, especially strangers, is taboo in Hindu social relations. But Ammachi embraces, hugs, strokes, and kisses her devotees with total disregard to their gender, moral condition, and physical purity.
From its modest beginnings in the calm backwaters of the Indian state of Kerala, the spiritual movement Ammachi initiated has matured into a dynamic, worldwide phenomenon with a growing and impressive network of charitable institutions and transnational congregations in the West. Her annual tours to the united States and Europe attract thousands who endure great physical and financial hardship to be in her compassionate presence and company in order, as one devotee put it, "to inhale her spiritual power."
Ammachi calls for her disciples and devotees, in India and abroad, to transcend the historical accidents and cultural constraints of the Hindu religious tradition, and places within her devotee's grasp the core truth and central message of God-realization, achievable through unconditional love to all. In her embodied self as guru and goddess, as well as in her embodied ritual of darshan, Ammachi concretizes and mediates this divine message of unconditional love. - from the book "Gurus in America"
FROM THE BOOK "AMMACHI - A Biography of Mata Amritanandamayi
Page 127) While Sudhamani (Amritanandamayi) was living outdoors, dogs, cats, cows, goats, snakes, squirrels, pigeons, parrots and eagles all sought her company and became her intimate friends. This phase of her sadhana demonstrated the power of love, untainted by attraction and aversion, to bring harmony among animals who are otherwise natural enemies. At a time when her own relatives had abandoned her and were vehemently opposed to her spiritual life, animals stood by her and rendered loyal service.
Page 131) During the period of Devi Sadhana, whenever Sudhamani lost consciousness, weeping to see the Divine Mother, these two pigeons would appear from the sky to sit beside her as if to protect her.
Page 132) Another animal which seemed attuned to Sudhamani was a cat. During the Bhava Darshan the cat would enter the temple and walk around Sudhamani as if doing pradakshina. It would then sit near her for a long time with its eyes closed and seemed to the devotees to be meditating. Once someone tried to get rid of the cat by taking it across the river, but the next day it returned and stayed by Sudhamani's side.
Page 134) One day Sudhamani had an intense feeling that her friend, the black and white dog, would die afflicted by rabies. Shortly thereafter the animal did contract rabies and died as she had foreseen, though without much suffering. When Sudhamani was asked if she was dejected to lose her loyal companion, she said, "I am not at all sad about his death. Even though he died, he will come to me. Therefore, why should I be sad?" Later, she commented that the dog's soul had reincarnated near Idamannel, but would reveal no further details.
Sudhamani once remarked regarding a goat which had great love for her. "On account of a disease of her udders, the goat was struggling for life, about to die. I saw her agony and sat down near her, lost in prayer and meditation. When I opened my eyes I beheld the poor animal approaching me, crawling on her knees. Placing her head on my lap, she quietly died, gazing at my face. Her love was pure indeed."
Some years later, recollecting all these incidents she expressed these thoughts: "How blissful were those days! Strangely enough, those animals could understand my feelings and act on them. If I cried, they also would join me in crying. If I sang, they would dance in front of me. When I lost my external consciousness they would crawl over my body. All the traits of various animals can be found in human beings. When one gets rid of all attachment and aversion and attains equal vision, then even hostile animals become friendly in one's presence."
- from the book "Ammachi - A Biography of Mata Amritanandamayi"
AUTOBIOGRAPHY of a SEEKER of SAINTS
DEAR LAMA ZOPA: ADVICE on HELPING ANIMALS
MERCY for ANIMALS