A well oiled hugging machine
On learning during our orientation tour that Indian spiritual leader and humanitarian, 'Amma' (mother), has hugged no less than 35 million people worldwide, I suddenly feel that I am grossly underachieving in an area I once felt pretty confident in. Each and every one of you back home is getting no less than 100 hugs when I see you. Consider this your four month warning and prep time. Likely to be less by the time you've finished reading this blog piece. Unlike Amma, I don't expect fruit and flower offerings... though I am partial to a chocolate button or ten.
We are sitting in the leafy grounds in the Amma's ashram in her hometown of Amritapuri. Apart from the irregular squawking of crows above our heads, this is one of the most peaceful and serene places we have been in India. Mainly because it is on its own little island surrounded by palm trees and there seems to be a disappointing lack of Indian people rushing around. We think around 70% of people are Westerners wandering around in sparkly white robes. With quiet rarely being a word synonymous with India, we are doing our best to lap it up. Everyone here is 'om-ed out' so that helps. There are no phones or cameras allowed, people are sitting meditating in om circles that they've drawn around themselves in the sand and there is the soothing yet constant chanting and music coming from the Kahli temple inside the ashram.
(**all photos have been sneakily taken from the 10th floor of our building out of sight of photo police down below. Hence why there are no good ones on Amma or anyone else from the ashram)
What I had been expecting (and looking forward to) was a spiritual place charged and buzzing with the energy oozing from thousands of expectant and zealous Indian folk. What we've got is an expansive and extremely impressive empire, running smoothly thanks to the thousands of dedicated volunteers and devotees. Devotees often return to the ashram for months and sometimes years on end.
It is the opposite of chaotic here. There are systems and processes for everything. Whether you are wanting to receive Darshan (a hug), buy a pizza or sign up for yoga, there are forms to fill in, lines to join and money to hand over. There are also a good few rules. Michael is finding refraining from public displays of affection the most challenging... as you can imagine.
Both the room and the meals provided are simple and clean, and everyone plays a part and helps out. You wash your own dishes and clean your own room. This suits us perfectly, as at 250 rupees (£3) per day for accommodation and food, it is the perfect place for budget travellers like us to lay low for a few days.
After our orientation tour, we settle in to join evening Bhajans which is basically mass karaoke with Amma. She sits on a stage with her band and sings songs in Tamil and Hindi about the love, compassion and salvation of Shiva, Krishna and friends. The climax is when she throws her hands up to the sky, eyes closed as if she's re-living her moment of enlightenment over and over again. The crowd ooo and ahhh, sing along and clap in admiration. A Western guy with long dreadlocks and eyes shut tight dances alone at the back, completely in the zone until the final moment and closing of the show, where he drops to his knees and bows towards Amma. This is said to be the ultimate sign of respect. This sign also tells us that it's time for dinner.
After food (hello very cheesy vegetable gratin that I've been most looking forward to), we wander over to the activity centre to find out what fun things we can sign up to for tomorrow. It is quickly apparent that there is a strict routine and way of life in the ashram that Mike and I just aren't used to. Like the 4am starts for instance.
When we told the volunteer that we wouldn't be partaking in the early morning activities, he looked pretty disgusted and muttered, 'this is an ashram you know' in an annoying prefect tone which I haven't heard since my JFS days. As you can imagine, on day one it is a bit disconcerting that we are the odd ones out because we can't promise to be up and raring to go at 4am. After this awkward exchange, we quickly take ourselves to bed as tomorrow is a big day. Tomorrow, we hug Amma.
It's atmospheric here and like nothing we've experienced before. Today is a quiet day at the Ashram, with only 3000 people wanting to take Darshan (a hug) with Amma. She only hugs on certain days and is in her hometown only a few weeks of the year. Anyone who knows me well will know an opportunity to get a hug from a cuddly living Saint in India is an opportunity I can't resist. When she is not at Amritapuri, she is doing her tours across India, thr US and Europe like any self-respecting spiritual superstar should be. She usually takes Darshan at Ally Pally in London if anyone feels inspired and fancies a hug from a complete stranger.
We have accidentally slept in until 10am this morning. The rest of the ashram has been awake for six hours already. It does mean there is no queue for our morning coffee though and after filling our bellies, we get our token for Darshan. Our hugging slot is 5pm so we have a few hours to kill...
And what better way to spend a few hours at this holy ashram than to learn to make Italian pizza! Everyone is encouraged to do 'Seva' which loosely translates as doing good stuff for others. I thought this would be teaching kids English or helping local farmers with their crops. We quickly realise that doing Seva here is just doing chores that nobody else wants to do to keep the ashram running, like sweeping or laundry. The volunteer at the desk enthusiastically tells me he's given me the best job.People are apparently fighting each other for the chance to make thousands of pizza bases for the rest of the ashram. So, I gracefully accept and spend the next two hours rolling 100 balls of dough into not so perfect round circles.
At five on the dot, we join the line inside the Kalhi temple for hugs. In line, you have the opportunity to buy Amma a gift or offering. Fruit is a popular one and there is a nifty little system in place whereby devotees buy Amma fruit for Darshan which is then passed backstage and taken to the smoothie stall round the corner. It is then sold back to devotees in the form of fresh juices or milkshakes. A fab little scheme I think.
After waiting around 45 minutes, it is nearly our turn. We are seeing this as a fun experience, something a little different and we expect little more from it than that. Any tingly spiritual feeling would be an added and surprising bonus. Speaking to Indian and Western believers throughout the day, we'd heard much about why Amma's hug was so special for so many...
"When you are with Amma, all you feel in your heart is love and all your worries disappear."
"You should let yourself feel. Everyone feels differently but it will be very special."
"I've hugged Amma many times but even the first time, we had a connection."
On our knees at the front of the line, we you can see the smears of makeup on Amma's white sariwhere tears have fallen. Sitting in a red cushioned chair she is smiling and chatting with her disciples and translators around her. She is incredibly relaxed. As I shuffle up, a young Indian couple are receiving Darshan. The girl is obviously emotional and the three chat, laugh and cry for a good few minutes. When I catch up with the couple later on to ask what Amma had said to reduce them to tears, I was perplexed and disappointed to hear, 'I work here and we were just talking business.' That's how you know Amma is good at what she does.
As this couple get up, a hand from behind pushes my head towards Amma's right shoulder and suddenly there I am - getting an all encompassing, all embracing hug from a total stranger. It is meant to be the most intimate of hugs and yet amongst the hundreds of people squashed in around us and the hundreds more watching from the hall, I find it hard to relax. I am acutely aware she is chatting away to other people over my shoulder and all I really remember is how strong the incense on her clothes were. She leans in, murmurs some unintelligible words in my ear, kisses my cheek and releases me. Blessing and hug in hand, I shuffle away in a similar manner as I arrived.
All in all, the actual hug was an experience but spiritually underwhelming. I'd take one hug from my parents over a thousand with Amma any day. We are cynics though. I personally know people who have been deeply moved by Amma's cuddles and if it makes people feel better or do better, then I say keep those hugs coming.
Embracing the World
Whatever you think of her following of devotees and the slightly egotistical nature of it all, her charitable work reaches thousands and her powerful message of love and compassion is surely not a bad thing.
Amma's conglomerate of organisations is called Embracing the World. Over 90% of their work is in India itself helping poor communities with health care, shelter, medicine, education and livelihoods. The other 10% involves responding to emergencies and crises around the world.
When you read about her work, there is no doubt that Amma is able to inspire volunteers at the click of a finger. She is able move people to action and respond to emergencies in a way that the government in India cannot. Without the red tape and with thousands of followers that believe her word is divine, she is able to be the first on the scene and can often be seen personally handing out food and medicine. Her organisation is said to bring in a whopping 10 million dollars a year.
Despite knowing about the charitable work, I find it difficult to be completely comfortable and at ease here. I get spooked that Amma's smiling face is everywhere. It is the first thing we see in the morning and the last thing at night. Her face is plastered across every wall, staircase and lift in the ashram. You can buy Amma jewellery, dolls (complete with clothes and accessories at extra cost) and t-shirts in the gift shop. And, probably most disturbing is the giant paintings of Shiva and Krishna in the Khali temple, their faces replaced by Amma's - a 50th birthday present apparently. For me, all this only adds to the 'cult of personality' and takes away from the spirituality of the place.
The other problem I have is the lack of transparency with her charitable work. The introductory video makes a point of mentioning that more of the money donated through Amma reaches the recipients than those through other NGOs, that have staff and administration costs to cover. Still, I want to read more about it and see some evidence and numbers. Yet it is impossible information to get hold of because it doesn't exist for the public. Volunteers look shifty and uncomfortable when I asked anything about funds and how they are spent. Apparently, in India, Amma does not need to disclose financial information and in the US, her campuses and charities get out of it by registering themselves as 'churches'.
Amma has a great thing going on. Whatever the reasons people give for following her, even if they aren't selfless ones, if each and every one of them then gives a charitable donation I cannot see how this can be a bad thing. For me, the experience was a stark reminder how often religion and spirituality are intertwined with power, influence and money. I do think and hope the money is being used effectively. And in the end, despite my reservations, Amma's smiling face is now etched deeply in my mind and fond memories of the time we spent with 'the hugging saint' will linger for a long time to come.