It's hard to imagine a more worldly milieu than the movie industry - and the Indian movie industry at that. So the life transition from documentary movie director to North American head of one of the world's most loved and respected spiritual organisations is all the more remarkable.
Quietly spoken Swami Dayamrita Chaitanya made the abrupt about-turn in his career 28 years ago when he attended, for the first time, a gathering with the much loved and admired "hugging saint of India", Amma. Such was his disconnect from any sense of a spiritual life, as he freely admits, he went along to her rally with the intention of exposing her as a fake miracle healer. Rather than find the scoop he was anticipating, he was drawn to see Amma a second time - and immediately knew his life was beginning an entirely new journey.
It was her act of licking the sores of a leper - an extraordinary deed that has been well documented - that convinced him that, far from being a fake, Amma was a being of deep compassion and absolute, unconditional love. "Beyond the fact that she did not contract leprosy and he was completely healed, the very act of seeing one human being show so much compassion to another human being touched my life," says Swami Dayamrita. After another 18 months in which he worked for the organisation, the movie director made the commitment to join it. Speaking by phone from Hawaii where he is engaged in preparing for Amma's upcoming North American tour in June and July, he talks of "coming to Amma". Listening to him, I begin to think that, perhaps, his own experience is not so unusual after all in this age of rampant commercialism and the cynicism and disillusionment it breeds.
The influence of Amma's Embracing the World organisation is now remarkable, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the United States and Canada, where it has established six main centres - two in California including Los Angeles, Santa Fe New Mexico, Ann Arbor Michigan, Washington DC and Toronto - and 110 smaller community centres where her followers meet every week or two. Swami Dayamrita tells me that her North American tour will visit 11 cities in all, indicative of a following of perhaps millions in the world's wealthiest country and its northern neighbour.
While we've heard much since the GFC of late 2008, of hard times for many in America, it nonetheless comes as a shock to discover the scale of aid Amma's organisation distributes there. One of its many initiatives is Mother's Kitchen, which distributes 80,000 meals to more than 65,000 people each year in 15 cities.
Its work in the US began in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 when it donated US$1 million dollars to the Bush Clinton Katrina Fund. Embracing the World has also been active in the Caribbean where it donated another US$1 million dollars to victims of the catastrophic Haiti earthquake of January 2010, officially the world's worst-ever humanitarian disaster.
A characteristic of the organisation has been to establish and maintain ongoing aid programs to support communities long after the global media spotlight has moved on from the immediacy of the disaster. What began with its response in Kerala to victims of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 continues in Haiti, for instance, with scholarships for children.
While recent economic news out of the US gives rise to cautious optimism, Swami Dayamrita believes it is still taking time to filter down to the average person: "It takes a little time for the people to experience that upturn because it takes a while to flow through the economy in the number of jobs. Recently a lot of people, who have lost a lot of money in the market meltdown haven't been able to sustain what they had and have become homeless. The economic situation is still depressed right now."
Lack of wealth in the form of assets is only one manifestation of poverty, says Swami Dayamrita, warming to one of Amma's key messages and one that resonates so deeply with a Western audience, aware of our affluence compared with most of the world.
"Amma says there are two types of poverty, lack of wealth and lack of love. Poverty due to the lack of wealth is not as great as the poverty due to the lack of love. That is the greatest poverty.
"Amma sees one of the biggest problems in society at present is the lack of values, the decay of values. As human beings are losing their values, they are losing their basic qualities of love and compassion and goodness. So Amma says that what we need to do is to cultivate the inherent goodness, love and compassion in each being. And if we develop that the world will become a much better place.
"Selfishness and greed is becoming more apparent and people just want to take more. But if instead people learn how to give and we can teach people how to give love - and Amma being a perfect example of that - that's the only way to solve the problem."
Amma is also bringing her inspirational message to Australia in April this year and, once again, we will have the opportunity to marvel at her extraordinary energy and absorb the healing grace she bestows with each heartfelt embrace.
If anything, says Swami Dayamrita, she has recently increased the numbers of hours she devotes to her work. "Still almost every day she meets people for 12 to 18 hours, hugging people and guiding them spiritually and giving them advice." It is a punishing schedule she has followed now for almost 40 years, one that inspires a sense of wonder at her staying power.
Swami Dayamrita offers an explanation: "Amma talks about having a babysitter who is looking after the baby, but perhaps after three or four hours the babysitter gets bored and does not have so much energy to focus on the baby. But if the mother is looking after the baby, then the mother does not get bored. The difference is the love the mother has for the baby. Amma has tremendous passion for what she is doing and, not only that, she has tremendous love for each and every person who goes to her and that's what keeps her energy going."
His comment immediately brings to mind the heading of an earlier article we have carried on Amma, called "Mother Love". (See our Articles Archive March 2010 Vol 17 No 1)) It seemed the only possible heading to convey the quality of absolutely unconditional love that radiates from her.
As we proceed with caution in this prophetic year of 2012, Amma's example should give us all hope for the future and an increasing awareness of the part we can each play in healing our troubled world.
It's a disturbing paradox that in the United States, the richest country in the world, the lack of compassion for others less fortunate can sometimes be so striking. The homeless, many of them suffering mental or psychological illness, prisoners, many of them illiterate, and even war veterans, many of them traumatised, are among those who have now come under Embracing the World's 'umbrella' of care. Recognising that the privately contracted US prison system is stretching at the seams, Amma's organisation has set up a Prison Outreach program called the Circle of Love Inside, with the aim of keeping prisoners in touch with their families through letter writing and outreach activities. Young offenders are benefiting from the organisation's meditation classes, because, as Swami Dayamrita explains, "Amma also knows the importance of teaching meditation classes in juvenile detention homes because most of the trouble starts when they are young. They get into trouble and fall into negativity and then it just keeps going." War veterans, too, are being offered meditation and spiritual practices to help them cope with such conditions as post traumatic stress syndrome after service in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And while our conversation centres on the issues facing the US and Canada, Swami Dayamrita's area of responsibility, we should not for one minute sit in judgment from our own country, where the vulnerable and less fortunate are just as likely to be falling through the cracks. It's interesting to sense the global acceptance of Amma's approach; at the request of the Indian government, Embracing the World is undertaking the massive project of teaching the meditation technique to India's 1.3 million paramilitary personnel.
Recognising the level of anxiety so widespread in society, Swami Dayamrita is keen to convey Amma's calm and focused optimism for the year ahead and the world we can shape through our conscious and determined efforts.
"Right now many people are questioning what is going to happen in 2012 and the prediction of the end of the Mayan Calendar. Amma has assured us that it is not going to come to an end and we have no need to fear that will happen. She has given us the optimism to move forward and the strength to move forward rather than give in to fears.
"Certain people are consciously working to change the world and are focusing on what is good and the right thing to do and Amma feels it is because of such people that we are raising the goodness of the planet."
Another of the great paradoxes of our time is the level of scepticism directed towards spiritual movements in general, and particularly those that arise out of the "mysterious East". It's a scepticism driven by a deeply cynical media that sits in self appointed judgment over beliefs and values that differ from the established norms of Western society. But even the Western media has warmed to Amma over the years, as her endurance, her extraordinary capacity to mobilise major relief efforts and, not least, the millions of people around the world who come to her for a hug, all stand up and demand attention.
To my mind, Amma personifies what we all seek more than anything else in the world, and that is unconditional love. Swami Dayamrita explains her appeal this way: "It's very difficult to quantify something like Amma's effect on people. It's like asking how sweet is a piece of sugar? People can describe it but it's only when you take a pinch of sugar and put it inside your mouth that you can taste it and experience it for yourself. In the same way, it's very difficult to put into words the experience of coming to Amma. Come and try it for yourself."
Visit www.ammaaustralia.org.au for more information on Amma's visit