I had never intended to go to Amma’s.
Though determined to spend some time in an ashram, my destination was actually the Sivananda yoga ashram outside Trivandrum, not the home of the Kerala’s famous “Hugging Mother.”
But when the Lonely Planet listed Amma’s as an interesting stop to break the monotonous eight-hour ferry ride between Alleppey and Kovalam, I figured I’d check it out for a day or two and continue on my way south.
Four days later, the last-minute Amma’s stop made for one of my most fascinating experiences in India.
Known as the “Hugging Mother,” or simply, “Amma” (“mother” in the south of India), Mata Amritanandamayi Devi is a spiritual leader based in Kerala, India famous for using hugs to reach and comfort people. In fact, Amma has hugged more than 30 million people to date. While many praise her as a saint for her seemingly unlimited compassion and charity work, devotees themselves see her as something else: God. Krishna, to be specific.
I was not aware of this when I entered the ashram. In fact, all I knew was that Amma was a famous hugging guru who had lots of followers throughout the world. But as I entered the rose-colored high-rise, surrounded by thousands of people dressed in white, I knew I was in for quite a trip.
Amma's famous pink, high-rise ashram
To start, seeing Amma in person in India is a rarity. Except for a few months out of the year in India, Amma spends most of her time traveling, hugging followers and strangers alike throughout the world.
For those who make it when Amma is around, a hug is a guarantee. In fact, a highly-organized numbering and registration system makes it so those who have just arrived or are leaving soon are the priority to receive “darshan,” the formal name of Amma’s hugs.
So when I got my number, I was quite excited. The Hugging Mother was in!
But receiving the hugs is not without its wait. In fact, despite having arrived at 5 p.m., my 2000-something ticket wasn’t supposed to be fulfilled until after midnight, which apparently isn’t uncommon at Amma’s house.
So in the meantime, I decided to explore the place. With its famous massive pink skyscrapers, Amma’s place isn’t your typical ashram.
Starting as Amma’s humble childhood home, the ashram has grown into an extensive complex built to house the several-thousand devotees that make their home there, including several residential buildings, a temple, university and Ayurvedic hospital, all painted Amma’s signature pink color (I liked that part :)).
An unintentionally stolen photo of Amma's temple. I found out afterward that photography is prohibited in the ashram.
And though the housing is quite humble (I barely slept a wink in the cramped, four-bed dorm room I shared with three others), the one thing I enjoyed the most about Amma’s was the food!
Like every other ashram or religious retreat I went to (and really, much of India), Amma’s kitchens were vegetarian only, and surprisingly for me, some of the best food I ever ate.
Catering to an international community, Amma’s place comes with a variety of options, sure to impress any palette. Included in the 200 rupee ($4) a day accommodation price were three guaranteed meals of watery rice and vegetables. Alternatively, one could choose to pay for meals in the Indian or Western cafeterias, which serve up a variety of curries and samosas on the Indian side, or nutritious vegetable soups and fresh-baked breads on the Western side. And, if still none of those suited you, you could try your hand at the café, enjoying a range of pizzas, spaghetti and delectable fresh baked goods. And the kicker: a real-life espresso machine. Yes, at Amma’s ashram, a place for quiet contemplation and selfless service, you could get your daily caffeine fix with a fresh cuppa Joe (apparently some of Amma’s Italian followers were not a fan of the previous arrangement :)). This was the coolest ashram ever!
During my wait, I also got to attend the ashram’s daily orientation session. More than two hours long, the session included a video detailing Amma’s extensive charity work as well as an official tour. But what fascinated me most was the discovery that, upon personal request, Amma will give you your very own mantra!
Yes, simply say the word “mantra” during your hug and you will get a personally-tailored, “God”-sanctioned word or phrase that will help you focus during meditation and reach divinity.
Though I am not Hindu, or even really Buddhist for that matter, I had started meditating and thought it would be great to have my very own, divinely-inspired mantra. I soon added this to the plan when meeting Amma.
After hours spent settling in, touring, eating and chatting with some of the other visitors, it was finally my turn to line up. On my day, Amma was giving darshan in the ashram’s main hall. I don’t remember what word they used to describe it, but it was essentially a large open auditorium, no walls, but a large stage that rests in front of hundreds of portable chairs where people can sit and watch if they choose. In addition to the hug, every guest is allowed a special place on stage at least once, where he or she has the privilege of sitting close to Amma for an assigned 30-minute time period. As you can imagine, it was a little bit crowded.
After entering stage right, my group and I proceeded to Amma like musical chairs: scooting along a series of chairs, stopping only for a minute or two before progressing to the next. Though I would have preferred to sit further down for a longer period of time, Amma’s minions weren’t having it, and we found ourselves moving again in an assembly line to the front.
When it was almost time to get a hug, I got a little nervous. How would it feel? Would it be a spiritual awakening? What if I hugged her wrong? And, honestly, after watching her hug hundreds of people all day long, would she smell bad? (I know, I know, I’m going to hell…)
And then, it was my turn. Standing on my knees, watching as the person in front of me got up, I felt one of Amma’s staff grab the back of my head and shove me into her bosom. As I leaned there awkwardly, I was surprised. God smells like jasmine.
Looking down at the eternal white of her shirt, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. It was a hug, but after I tried to put my arms around Amma as well, I was strictly instructed “Don’t touch Amma!”
So I continued to look down, enjoying the lovely jasmine scent, as Amma said incomprehensible things into my ear. (I would find out later that she tends to say something along the lines of “My darling.”)
And then it was over.
I got up, asked for my mantra and was off the stage before I knew it with a little card in my hand (apparently one does not hug 30 million people without being efficient).
Leaving the stage, I thought the hug was pleasant, but like my experience with the Dalai Lama, nothing more. But still that didn’t stop me from pursuing my mantra.
Unfortunately, our tour guide had not filled us in on the fine details. Earlier, all he had said was that after asking for a mantra one of her devotees would give you a small card and direct you to speak with one of the swamis. Then, at the end of the darshan, those requesting a mantra stay back and receive them all together.
The fact that not everyone had immediately asked for a mantra should have been a tip off.
As I looked at the little card in my hand, I got very confused. I had no idea who the swamis were, and since it was close to the end of the darshan anyway, everyone just kept directing me to wait to go back onstage.
When it was finally time to line up for our mantras, about 10 Indians and I (that should have also been a tip off) were given a laminated sheet with very detailed instructions.
As I read the fine print, sirens went off in my head. The mantra instructions went something like this:
“By accepting this mantra, you are hereby devoting yourself to becoming one of Amma’s followers. You are to repeat this phrase every day for the rest of your life and all subsequent lives. Please sign your soul on the dotted line here. Thanks! (Unconditional) Love, Amma’s Minions.”
Ok, perhaps it didn’t read exactly like this, but you get the drift.
Placing the instructions on a nearby chair, making my way against the Indian devotees-to-be, I couldn’t get off the stage fast enough.
Was the hug nice? Yes. Was I willing to worship Amma for the rest of my life (and all my other lives?) No.
I spent the subsequent days relaxing in the ashram and partaking in a special (top-secret) meditation course created by Amma herself and taught exclusively by her swamis. I even had to sign a confidentiality agreement not to share her IAM Meditation with others!
Though I won’t reveal the details here (in fact, I don’t remember them well :/) Amma’s IAM Meditation was nothing overly unique or scandalous. But more than her secret meditation, it was spending time outside the class conversing with Amma’s devotees where I learned the most, not only about spirituality, but about human nature.
I remember reading the Bible as a child and coming to the part where Jesus calls on his disciples to drop everything and follow him, without even looking back. Though I got the point that you are supposed to follow Jesus without question, I remember having a hard time believing that someone would essentially drop everything just to follow another human being. But after four days at Amma’s, I finally get it.
People really do treat her as God. Her images, like those of Vishnu, Shiva or Ganesh, cover the ashram, framed and garlanded for all to admire. During chanting, ceremonies or lessons, we didn’t pray through Amma but to her directly, as if she herself was the one who provided the answers.
So many times I would talk to devotees to find them say things like, “Amma said to do this,” or “I prayed to Amma about this.” By just replacing “Amma” with “Jesus,” you could hear many of the same sentiments in the United States (and I’m sure other largely-Christian communities as well).
As part of the minority that made up the non-devotees, it was a little strange for me to watch. I did, however, get the chance to talk with one middle-aged American man, a former monk, who was able to put it in some perspective for me. After struggles and frustration at home, he finally found peace after meeting Amma and has since devoted his life to her. Like many others, he spends a few months every year working in the United States, then packs up everything to either live at the ashram in India or travel with Amma on her world tours.
Sensing my incredulity, he said people worship things all the time, if not God, then people or things like movie stars, athletes, addictions etc. Why was it so hard to believe that someone would devote himself to such a pure woman who has done so much good in the world?
He then proceeded to tell me that he himself had personally witnessed some of Amma’s miracles and has no doubt in his mind as to her holiness. According to him, a leper entered the ashram once, oozing sores and smelling terribly, revolting to everyone. Except for Amma. Apparently, she dropped what she was doing to hug him and then proceeded to lick his wounds. Mahatmas (“great souls”), my former monk explained, are known to have healing powers in their saliva. Years later, he claims, that leper came back, totally healed and instantly recognized by Amma.
I hardly believe that this man had any reason to lie to me, but that was his story, not mine. I don’t think I’ll be able to believe it until I see it.
Some say that, if not immediate, Amma’s effect can hit you years afterward. Several months later, Amma still remains to me as a fascinating woman who seems to have a powerful effect on a lot of people. Still, I don’t deny that she is something more special to others, and since they all seem to do largely positively things under her influence, I don’t begrudge them anything.
Who knows, maybe years down the road I’ll change my mind? 🙂