Frontline special

Brand Amrita

Print edition : October 13, 2017

Mata Amritanandamayi in Puducherry in February 2016. Photo: M. SAMRAJ

Mata Amritanandamayi’s humble beginnings and fantastical deeds have been replaced by impressive assets in India and in other parts of the world and modern-day “miracles”. “The Hugging Saint” is now one of the best-selling spiritual brands in India.

THE “children” of Mata Amritanandamayi will celebrate her 64th birthday on October 8 and 9. The event on her 60th birthday, still fresh in public memory, saw over half a million people from all parts of the world converge at her ashram, a mini city located at one of the most scenic parts of Kerala between the backwaters and the Arabian Sea in the southern district of Kollam.

Hundreds visit the place every other day, at times over 15,000 on special occasions, including Christmas and New Year. The ashram at Vallikkavu is home to around 5,000 monastic disciples, householder devotees and visitors. Built up in the last three decades on the coastal land where she was born, “Amritapuri”, with its residential high-rises, shops, office complexes, temples, hospitals, schools, colleges and hostels, is also the headquarters of the Mata Amritanandamayi Mutt’s (MAM) international operations. The magnificent pillar-free hall where she gives her “darshan” itself is spread over 30,000 sq ft and is arguably the largest such prayer space in south India. The ashram is also the centre of operations of “Embracing the World”, her charity NGO with projects in several countries and “special consultative status to the United Nations”.

Mata Amritanandamayi’s USP is to welcome each of her visitors with a warm embrace. By a popular estimate, she has already hugged nearly 36 million people worldwide. It is her therapy for aching souls and a means to get them hooked to her cause that she describes simply as “love” or “compassion”. It is also what makes her one of the best-selling spiritual brands in India, “The Hugging Saint”.

During her public darshans, an exhibition of sheer stamina and willpower that is an eternal cause of wonderment for her devotees, she sits in the limelight late into the nights at a stretch on most days and delivers her three-second hugs to devotees waiting in surcharged queues, as eager volunteers drag one person out and pull the next one into her embrace.

There is never a dull moment on such occasions, and visitors see the spectacular transformation of a very ordinary woman into a charismatic mother figure, who sits there on a throne-like platform clad in striking white clothes, wearing a brown beaded necklace, matching bangles, a sparkling nose ring and a prominent round bindi on her forehead, surrounded by scurrying men and women who wait for even a twitch of her fingers or on her face, to read it as her wish or command.

On some days she dresses up and appears before devotees as the god Krishna; on other occasions, she is “Kali”, the mother goddess, when as per the wisdom of her cult, she is “most amenable to listen to her children’s worldly woes and wishes”. At most venues, she is also a conductor who sets the tone and pace of the captivating bhajans with a flaying of the arms or an abrupt turn of the pitch or pace or shrill cries of “Krishna” or “Govinda”, with all those around her forming the chorus.

A powerful hug at times, a chance to rub your forehead at her shoulders or be cradled on her lap, a few whispered words, a bunch of flower petals, a banana or an apple or a piece of chocolate from her hand—on any given day, there will be many in the queue seeking their moment of epiphany in such gestures from “Amma”, their “mother”.

She never lets visitors down even at impossible venues, where the queue extends into ungodly hours. “Amma” will be there for her devotees, at the end of hours of their impatient wait, with her gentle smile and compassionate gaze, accepting aartis and prayers like a goddess, hearing and consoling people through her gestures and words, doling out presents, directing her flock with a look or a wave of her hand, singing bhajans or giving speeches on the simple truths of a spiritual life.

Discourses on spirituality are often delivered as simple fables, stories that would be ideal even for a children’s book and later fill a chain of pamphlets, leaflets and magazines that spread Amma’s gospel online, as DVDs or in print.

Reports say, on foreign tours, where audiences are smaller, the embraces last longer. In what could be a striking contradiction to the purpose of spiritualism that these tours exude, invariably they also serve two other, perhaps less nobler, intentions: they are at once fundraising journeys as well as talent-hunting forays that bring in the crucial financial and human resources for Amritanandamayi’s multifaceted global empire, which includes a chain of ashrams, hospitals and educational institutions back home.

Her events are all well advertised and a sizeable retinue follows her whenever she moves out—throughout India and across several other countries. Highlights of her foreign tours include long road rides; well-organised darshan schedules either in her own string of “Mata Amritanandamayi Centres” or in prominent hotels or convention centres; fundraising events; sale of magic beans, crystal balls, blessed “Amma dolls” and trinkets; paid meals; and, surely, the free hugs. The hugs, from many accounts, even when people come expecting them, put most of them into a momentary state of bewilderment, especially if they are not used to such displays of soulful affection from a total stranger.

Seekers have said after an encounter with Amritanandamayi that they felt as though they had met a “god”, “saint”, “guru”, or “divinity” or that they felt a profound sense of “comfort”, “warmth”, “calmness” or “clarity”. Others come back confused, want to believe it all, yet struggle with their rationality and linger, happy with the opportunities that she offers to serve the poor and the needy. Some others prefer not to reflect on it at all, because they are generally disenchanted with the world otherwise or are emotionally and financially needy and want for their cares to be lifted and soothed for a while.

Many have emerged untouched by her embrace. But they are anyway not the flocking types and, after an encounter with “Amma” and her entourage, usually disperse into a sceptical world that pales into insignificance before the heady realm that seems to grow around her by the day.

Amritanandamayi was born on September 27, 1953, as the daughter of not-so-wealthy parents in a fishing village. By her own account, her seagoing neighbours used to share the fire from their hearths and their daily food on days when the catch was poor, “so that no one in the village would go hungry”. As a young girl, she was quite a handful for her parents, sleeping on the beach sands, going into trances, meditating on lord Krishna and composing and singing in his praise, and challenging tradition by hugging strangers who came seeking her counsel and refusing to marry, ever. A copy of her official biography, published by the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission Trust in 1986, refers to some of her early “miracles”. They include, turning water into milk; creating an incessant supply of a kind of sweet, scented prasad from a jar of water; warding off a storm from an immediate neighbourhood full of early devotees; dancing on the beach to provide a sumptuous fish catch for local fishermen; pacifying a rowdy snake with a kiss with her tongue; of cows, parrots, snakes, cats and dogs coming to her aid for mundane things; and delivering people from madness, epilepsy, and “ghosts”.

A striking tale, part of the “Amma” lore, is her curing a leprosy patient by licking his wounds and nurturing him back to good health.

But that stream of fantastical deeds seems to have tapered off from public knowledge as she and her organisation aged into respectability and international prominence. In its place, today, there is this stream of Amma’s modern-day “miracles”. The list is long, among them the mega ashram complex itself; a state-of-the-art tertiary care hospital, one of the best in south Asia, the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS) at Kochi; a multi-campus, multidisciplinary university, the Amrita Viswavidyalaya; a network of schools, Amrita Vidyalayams, with nearly 100,000 students at any given time; a global charity organisation, “Embracing the World”, which was inspired originally by the experience of an orphanage she built soon after the ashram was set up.

Social activities

The NGO has projects in nearly 40 countries today and claims to deliver 10 million meals every year for the poor in India, and over 1,50,000 meals through “Mother’s Kitchen” groups in over 50 cities in the U.S., among other activities in several countries. The stone-laying ceremony of a 2,000-bed Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Centre was conducted in the Greater Faridabad area in Delhi in May last year. The Kochi hospital and its satellite clinics are said to have treated more than three million patients “totally free of charge” since 1998, and spent more than Rs.433 crore ($69.68 million) on charitable healthcare until 2014. The university serves over 18,000 students in partnership with 30 leading universities in the U.S. and Europe. Most such institutions are run as charitable trusts.

Mata Amritanandamayi’s social activities came into sharper focus worldwide when the areas surrounding her ashram became the part of Kerala worst hit by the 2004 tsunami. It was the first such event in India, and the devastation was so huge that it tore away feeble support systems and left the survivors literally to fend for themselves. The Math offered food and shelter to hundreds of people, much before a shocked government machinery could do anything. Her NGO later said it had distributed six million free meals and tonnes of uncooked rice to disaster survivors. In all, MAM said it spent more than Rs.200 crore ($32.18 million) for relief and rehabilitation of the survivors, including building over 6,000 houses for them.

From then on, her organisation began to involve itself regularly in relief work, managing to raise enough funds whenever natural disaster struck India or any other part of the world. Governments and politicians began to treat Amritanandamayi with more interest and respect as her charitable undertakings spread.

Meanwhile, she also became an acknowledged world religious leader, being a regular invitee at the Parliament of World Religions and U.N. bodies, which she has addressed on several occasions from 1993 on issues ranging from religious differences to the environment, education, peace, slavery and human trafficking. Even as MAM grew its operations on a global scale, it had established firm roots back home in Kerala and other Indian States, becoming an umbrella organisation for its network of grass-roots “communes”, known as “Amrita kudumbams” (or “Amrita families”). These congregations meet frequently, conduct regular prayer sessions at neighbourhood homes, organise voluntary work, promote the sale of the Amma magazine, Amritavani, or collect donations for Amma events or charity work.

Such groups in all parts of the world act as the core of the Amrita cult, with many individuals and families among them donating a large part of their personal income and resources to Amma’s cause and gradually becoming emotionally and financially hooked to the organisation. There are a number of families that have bought flats at the ashram and have found sanctuary in its activities. Many young men and women have found jobs in MAM institutions or have tried to follow their guru’s monastic path by dedicating themselves as disciples.

Impressive acquisitions

Foreign devotees were the most generous of the early donors and the ashram has gained impressive assets in India and in other parts of the world, including sizeable real estate acquisitions. A report in The New York Times in 2013 said MAM had at least eight ashrams in the U.S. alone, with a 164-acre (one acre is 0.04 hectare) campus near San Ramon in California, founded in 1989, being the oldest among them. A Rolling Stone feature on Amritanandamayi in 2012 mentions the acquisition of a $7.8 million mansion in Maryland to serve as MAM’s D.C.-area ashram. The NYT report also quoted an ashram spokesperson as claiming that the organisation raised about $20 million a year from sources worldwide.

Back home, there have been complaints about it taking hefty donations for admissions for courses run by its hospitals and educational institutions and paying poor salaries to the majority of staff members. But like those of many other religious groups in India, the total assets of the organisation have so far remained a mystery and there are constant demands for a proper audit of the funds and for an explanation about its assets and their sources.

Isolated attacks against Amritanandamayi at her prayer meetings and the death of a couple of devotees/visitors at the ashram have led to controversies in recent years. But the Amritanandamayi ashram faced its worst ever scandal in 2014, triggered by the revelations in a controversial book written by Gail Tredwell (aka Gayatri), a former member of Amritanandamayi’s inner circle of disciples, who jumped ship, so to say, 15 years ago, after living with “Amma” for 20 years. In her book, revealingly titled Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion and Pure Madness, and in media interviews before and after its release, she alleged physical and emotional abuse, embezzlement of funds, and rape (by an Amma aide) at the ashram, claiming she “had no choice but to publish her story” and that she “morally owed it to the public and the numerous devotees to share what she knew”.

In her interviews, she talked about her “complete dependence on the ashram, emotionally, psychologically and financially” when she stayed there for 20 years from the age of 21, that it was “not easy to leave”, that though many others would like to leave “their options were dismal” and that in her case, finally it was a leap of faith to opt out at the age of 41, “without any money, friends or relatives”.

The ashram and many of her former fellow residents have denied all the allegations, and a whole body of counterclaims have been published online since then. In an interview in 2014, Amritanandamayi herself said: “Amma has nothing to hide. I am an open book before the world. All the activities of Math can be seen and examined by anyone…. Any person will become angry if their desires are not fulfilled. The intellect’s ability to judge things properly is destroyed. Then they say many things without thinking. An individual who feels that ashram life is not for him (or her) has the freedom to leave the ashram anytime to get married. Even now, Amma is only filled with love for that daughter. I am praying that goodness and wellbeing come [for her]. The truth will shine forth in time.”

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