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Hugging Mother - lessons in cult of personality

How we visited 'Amma' - The Hugging Mother, who hugs the world, runs ashram and worships herself in a way that even Stalin would envy. Gurus are simply not for me

I had no idea who Amma – The Hugging Mother – was. I have never heard of her. But Irene has. One of her friends in Spain traveled all the way from Madrid to Barcelona to meet her and when we found out that The Hugging Mother actually lives in Kerala (at least during times she’s not traveling around the world hugging people) Irene wanted to come to her ashram to meet her and soak a bit of ashram atmosphere. And so we went to Amritapuri to meet the female guru Mata Amritanandamayi a.k.a Amma (“Mother”). Amma is world famous (I must had been an ignorant) for hugging people all around the world and thus through her blessing spreading her divine energy.

As we were coming to the supposedly pink ashram a bunch of pink high-rises appeared in front of us. “Is THIS the ashram?” I asked myself. Yes it was.
We knew this would be a big ashram, as thousands of people live there, but I surely did not expect to arrive to pink Petrzalka :-)
High rises apart, the moment we entered the grounds we immediately got good feeling and I was sure we would stay here definitely more than those 1 or 2 days we had planned. Atmosphere of peace was omnipresent and mellow smiles of wannabe spiritual illuminati dressed in white were all around. And man, was it cheap! For 3 EUR a day per person we got accommodation in private room and 3 Indian meals a day.

We arrived just on time to check-in and go to a beach meditation lead by Amma, after which she would do her darshan (“audience”) , which means she would hug everyone who would desire to be hugged.

The mediation was only so-so. Everyone was sitting on plastic chairs (no lotus positions to be found), humped (no straight “focused” backs to be found) and good part of the people were simply sleeping. After the meditation she gave a speech on questions asked by the crowd. The speech wasn’t so bad (of course it was loaded by Hindu references and doctrines, but that was completely normal of course, after all she is a Hindu guru) but when I got bored of the speech and I started to observe the crowd I realized what I was seeing: religion in making. In its most literal meaning. A guru speaking from elevated platform and hundreds of people surrounding her, listening and hanging on to every word she said, nodding their heads in affirmation and confirmation of every syllable she would say. This is what it must have been like when Jesus started, when Mohamed started, when Buddha started. I was witnessing the ancient ritual of awakening of religion. Not a solemn mass in a church or mosque of nowadays. Here she was sitting under a tree and gathering of people under blue skies turned into followers. She was not a “deputy of god” in a way in which priests, monks and imams are. No, here she was the deity herself. Like Jesus. She was one with God. It was exciting to witness this real-life forming of religion, yet it was spooky at the same time. There was no room for discussion, doubts or skepticism here. What guru said was accepted as she said it. Remember and follow, brothers and sisters.

After the speech we joined a loooong queue for the hugs. After 20 minutes or so, I (I was in male queue, Irene in female queue) I got 1 meter from Amma, but still couldn’t really see her through the mass of the people ahead of me, and then suddenly I was pushed forward, somebody pushed my head onto Amma’s shoulder, she hugged me and mumbled “Mama, amma, mama amma” or something like that to my ear for 10 seconds, gave me a holy candy a that was it. The transfer of divine energy was completed. WHAT THE FUCK!?!? :-) Some people around me were crying in spiritual orgasm. I didn’t feel ANYTING except awkwardness of the situation. Irene’s (non)spiritual experience was very similar to mine. As I looked around, I thought for myself: if Hinduism teaches us about destruction of ego as the way to peace and enlightenment, then this woman is surely not the greatest example of destruction of ego. But then I thought: well, it is not her fault that she is loved and followed by so many. After all she lives a simple life dedicated to helping others (she runs numerous charity organizations and projects). So for the moment I let go of my mixed feelings and I wanted to admire Amma, as the others do.

Next stop for me was a temple. It’s a huge modern concrete block and at least inside it resembles a temple. I walked in and my suspicious feelings about Amma changed into almost hostility. Guess who was worshipped in the temple? I would maybe understand the painting of Amma as a goddess. But a painting of Vishnu whose face was deliberately exchanged with Amma’s face almost made me sick. What the fuck? Even the sickest Catholic weirdo back in the dark ages would not paint Jesus on a cross with HIS face instead of Jesus’s one, and put it in temple for worship. Suddenly Amma’s divine status turned out to be too much for me. I sort of regretted I went to hug her.

My disillusionment was cemented during the last event of the day - kirtan (singing of holy songs). This is usually my favorite part of Hindu ceremonies, because the singing and chanting creates powerful and yet peaceful atmosphere. On this part Amma did deliver. It was all happening in a HUGE congregation hall, the singing was beautiful and harmonic, the music was melodic and precisely played. The songs radiated peace and soothed the soul. Yes, the chanting did have a touch of holiness. Yet, I was slightly disgusted and by the end of the “show” even bit scared. First of all, the sheer size of the hall (which didn’t have too much coziness) with maybe 2 000 people packed inside and the platform in front of the audience looked like what I had always imagined as gatherings of sects. This is how I had imagined meetings of Jehova’s Witnesses, clapping and screaming in self-confirmative madness. I don’t like crowds. I don’t like to be a member of crowds. One of my favorite quotes (from Mark Twain) is: "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect". But the crowds were not the main issue. The thing that really repulsed me was how Amma was seated next to larger-than-life photos and paintings of herself. Who is she? Saddam Hussein? Only people like Saddam Hussein are(were) capable of putting their own faces on the coins and notes. In my strangest moments I may be willing to surrender to higher powers of Shiva, Krishna or YHWH, but how am I supposed to surrender to self-worship of this mortal being in front of me, who is obviously so self-aware of her divine status? No way, mother! Needless to say, the beautiful songs she was singing (actually she was not singing, the singing was done by choir behind her, Amma herself was just adding “special effects” by echoed screams) was not about Shiva or Rama or Krishna or Sita as everywhere else. No, all songs were about Divine Mother, how we should surrender to the Divine Mother, about how all our problems will dissolve in the arms of the mother and so on. Krishna just didn’t make it here. And when the singing was about to finish on Amma’s command people started to raise their hands and scream unison in spiritual uplift. These people were raising their hands for love and peace, and yet all I could relate it to was images of right hand sharply rising to the straightness of Roman salute. I started to feel really scared and uncomfortable. The whole scene simply reminded Guru Hitler too much. I could see Red Army and Spartakiada. Stalin himself could learn something new from Amma. This was cult of personality at its best/worst. The feeling of fear, the repulsion of witnessing the humanity’s worst capability – blind surrender to authority, grew strong. Deep inside me I was waving goodbye to my affection for Hinduism. I love people screaming “Om Namah Shivaya” with joy, delighting in splashing around in holy waters, or gently touching beloved Shiva Lingams, but this Indian Guru thing is just too much for me. Do as Guru says is just not me. Deep inside me I felt strong love for Phool Chatti Ashram, where my Odyssey had began 2 years ago – for being so plain and not featuring this guru craziness.

This was maybe strongest experience of this trip so far, however the next day I simply couldn’t wait to leave. Amma might be admirable for her social programs and helping others, but in my eyes Donald Trump is probably more humble man that she is (well, she surely doesn’t claim to be divine) :-)

PS: Photography in the ashram was strictly prohibited so I have only few pictures from outside the ashram and couple of photos I downloaded from the internet to show you how Amma looks like.

Click for photo gallery

     MARCEL STRBAK | www.strbak.com | www.facebook.com/marcel.strbak