Mother Love

NOVA Magazine Article "Mother Love" Amma, "the hugging saint" of south India, raises our awareness of the interconnectedness of the Universe.

If there's a lesson to be learnt from the tumultuous events of the last 18 months or so across the globe, surely it's to seek out the voice of authenticity. To cut through the incessant babble of daily life and find that calm, quiet centre, the authentic voice within us all. And from that place of truth, move forward with greater certainty than ever before.

Seems an improbable dream? Well, clearly, you need a hug from Amma.

Four years ago, I was graced with Amma's extraordinary patience as she answered my questions via her trusted translator - all the while, continuing to full heartedly hug the endless stream of people who waited, one sunny Sunday morning in Fremantle, to experience her unconditional love. Like so many others, her generous embrace at the end of our interview, brought a tear to my eye. And much more besides that has stayed with me.

For those of you meeting her for the first time, Amma is the renowned "hugging saint" of southern India, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi. Since she first stepped on to this pathway to the heart 37 years ago, a pathway that transcends any spoken language and renders it superfluous, Amma has hugged millions of the world's people - 29 million at last count. In the process, she has healed much individual suffering and, on a global scale, raised many millions of dollars for humanitarian aid, much of it in response to natural disasters, through her multi faceted organisation, Embracing the World.

In fact, the scale of her NGO's work is simply mind boggling, perhaps almost too much for most of us to grasp. It's best known for its relief effort for people in her native Kerala in south India who were victims of the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Just for starters, it provided US$46 million in relief aid and built a bridge over the low lying backwaters to allow 15,000 people to escape to the safety of the mainland in 30 minutes should another tsunami ever occur. More than 4,000 homeless families were given emergency shelter and food, 6,000 homes were rebuilt, clothing was provided for 90,000 people, 700 fishing boats were provided so these families whose lives depended on the sea could return to it. The list goes on...

Whether it be an earthquake in Gujarat in 2001, the 2008 Bihar flood that displaced millions of people, or a cyclone in west Bengal in May 2009, Embracing the World has provided immediate relief for victims and, long after the spotlight has moved elsewhere, stayed behind to provide long term support in the form of hospitals, schools, slum renovation projects, vocational training for women, even environmental projects. In a gesture that should resonate with Australians, the group has overseen the planting of more than a million trees globally, including 30,00 Casuarina saplings to stabilise the Keralan coastline denuded by the tsunami.

The driving force for this outpouring of aid in India and now many other countries, including most recently Haiti, after the catastrophic earthquake earlier this year, now officially the world's worst-ever humanitarian disaster, is the small matronly figure of Amma, "Mother".

Now this revered woman whom many, even in the sceptical West, call a saint is coming once more to Australia, touring the eastern states in April.


Just after New Year I met another of her gracious representatives who take her message around the world. Brahmachari Shantamrita Chaitanya is an articulate 41 year old American, clear eyed and remarkably fresh after travelling from Kenya to Perth with a short stopover in Japan, a country close to his heart and his nominal home for the past 25 years. "It's where I keep my things," he jokes, giving a glimpse into the hectic pace of life that everyone associated with Amma maintains. After a short program of pujas and gatherings then it will be off again at midnight for Hong Kong, so our window of opportunity is small. Perhaps Br Shantamrita is only half joking when, after my comment on Amma's seemingly endless energy, spending 14 or more hours hugging countless people every day for the past 37 years, he replies, "The rest us are left with the task of trying to keep up with Amma. Even when I was at the height of my physical stamina, I couldn't keep up with her then." Jetlag aside, his lean frame and shoulder length, black hair conveys a still youthful vitality.

As a highly regarded English speaking graduate in environmental studies with a penchant for eastern cultures, in particular that of Japan, Br Shantamrita is, one senses, increasingly entrusted with taking Amma's message to receptive Western audiences, as well as throughout South East Asia. Interestingly, while in Nairobi Kenya he was asked to conduct a stress management workshop for UN officials about to be sent to Somalia - a destination certain to set even the calmest heart racing.

He sees it as a sign of increasing receptivity to Amma's ideas and techniques among the hard nosed corporate world, a sign of changing times in our post-GFC world still grappling with economic, climatic and security uncertainty.

So what is it about Amma's message that is starting to resonate beyond India and other countries where her organisation's quite extraordinary project management skills have made such a difference? Is she becoming an even more influential figure on the world stage?

Br Shantamrita draws on his own love of language to convey his awareness that Amma's influence transcends the limitations imposed by language.

"Language is so entwined with our sense of self. Yet things have an existence separate from the language."

As interviewers from major media organisations like CNN and BBC, not to mention my own humble effort of four years ago, have realised, an interview with Amma is very little about the words. As Br Shantamrita explains, "You really don't get to understand Amma until you see her in action. And I would say that most of the interview is not the words - it's what you're witnessing while you are there. That tells you so much more than what a translator could tell you.

"She understands the futility of words in conveying the answers to life's important questions. Simple questions can be answered with words, but when we find ourselves beset with a very deep and pressing question about some issue in life, often the wise find words to be futile."

The Zen Buddhist tradition of the Koan, he tells me, turns the mind's questioning nature back on itself so that it goes within and finds the real answer. "It encourages you to understand that often the answers to life's problems come from an expansion or transformation of your own awareness."

While Amma doesn't speak English, she has sometimes corrected him while he was speaking in English to an audience. "It showed me that she understands the language of the heart. She said she had caught my little confusion."

Both her apparently inexhaustible reserves of energy and her awareness of the innermost needs of total strangers who come to her embrace and leave radiating joy and peace emanate from the one source, explains Br Shantamrita, the universal consciousness.

"She has a consciousness, what Jung called the collective unconscious, that pervades humanity and that we can all tap into.

"One of the fundamental principles of the Indian philosophy is that there is a universal consciousness or a universal mind and it's reflected in all of us. We are all like so many tiny little mirrors."

But for mahatmas or saints, like Amma, "the mirror is gone, it's all consciousness." Such all pervasive understanding transcends the need for words.

"Amma says that she feel everything in the people when they come to her. She doesn't need words."

And, continues Br Shantamrita, it's her direct connection to the universal source that explains her ability to stand or sit for endless hours with people who may be ill, bereaved, lost, perhaps even dying. He likens it to plugging directly into the socket rather than having to depend on a battery that needs regular recharging.

While Amma's physical body may be showing some signs of ageing - her latest photos make no effort to hide the grey amid her still thick and luxuriant dark hair - on a deeper level her energy is bottomless. Her own explanation is simple: "When you have love, you are never tired."

Another reason for her growing influence must surely be that Amma's example of unconditional and tireless love and compassion is perhaps more needed now than at any time since the Second World War. These are dark days for our world, even if a little lighter than even a few months ago.

Br Shantamrita identifies a common theme through all the problems the world is experiencing now as a lack of awareness of the interconnectedness of all life.

"Selfishness is leading to many of the problems the world is currently experiencing. We need to become aware of the interconnectedness of all life. When we hoard wealth in one place, we create poverty in another. A tree cut down in a forest can affect a seal in Antarctica."

Amma puts it differently. "She says that if you are lying on your back and you spit in the air, it falls down on you. Gravity cannot be denied - it is real. Wise people don't argue with fact."

He continues: "The interconnectedness of life is so subtle it escapes most of us for the duration of our life. And we don't get the results immediately. If I live selfishly, it's not like the results are going to happen tomorrow.

"But Amma says that we are just sowing the seeds. Some may germinate in an hour, some may take 50 years. But they will germinate eventually and we're certainly giving a lot of sunlight and fertiliser to the soil."

In response to my suggestion that if there is a positive outcome from all the chaos and despair of the past months it is that people are becoming aware they can't continue to live their lives in the way they have done in the past, Br Shantamrita says he sees this happening in varying degrees.

"Once that dawns on you with a sense of urgency you come to understand it more deeply." It leads to lifestyle changes and the pursuit of more interior wisdom through practices like yoga or meditation.

"We've seen it in the past year or so and will see in the future more and more. People are trying to understand that interconnectedness and live their lives in harmony and accordance with that reality."

The sense of helplessness in the face of climate change, exacerbated recently by the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks, is something that he experienced keenly as a young man - and his words are deeply reassuring.

"I did my Honours thesis on environmental problems. I understood only much later that I was basing my fear for the environment on a false notion, that it was within our capacity to destroy the planet.

Amma questions whether we have that power at all. Says Br Shantamrita, "We tend to indirectly flatter ourselves that we have this enormous capacity to destroy the planet, along with ourselves. We may have created the missile, but whether it's within our capacity to launch the missile is another issue altogether.

"There is a divine power that pervades the universe that transcends our limited capacity. We are simply a reflection of that power. And it is a higher intelligence than whatever is reflected in us because we are only reflecting a portion of it."

His meeting with Amma removed the doubts and panic that had beset him because he gained a more profound understanding of the natural order around us.

"She understands that the planet is, in fact, much more powerful than we are. It is our mother and we are on the end of the umbilical cord. It's like saying the baby inside the womb is going to kill the mother. It's ridiculous - the baby is at the mercy of the mother."

He continues: "Not only does the mother have power, she is being patient with us. She has been putting up with these kicks inside her womb for a long time." But, tellingly, that endless maternal patience is wearing thin and the result is the disturbances to the earth's structure that are manifesting in the form of earthquakes, tsunamis and more severe storms.

If any one event can be said to have changed the world's perception of Amma and her organisation, which had largely concentrated its immense energy on India and other developing countries - tragically of course where its attention was most needed to cope with one crisis after another - it was her response to the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.

There was a sense of awe that she could mobilise such an immediate, practical and over-arching response to the desperate need of so many people when long established humanitarian organisations appeared mired in red tape. The sheer scale of her efforts to aid victims in Kerala demanded the world's attention.

And people everywhere have been influenced by Amma's composure in the face of such crises. Br Shantamrita explains it this way: "People like Amma in a state of self realisation are constantly in bliss. It's a huge challenge to keep their awareness on the world. But she has said if there is one thing that keeps you there it is compassion, your realisation of the oneness of all creation. It compels you to feel nothing but compassionate action.

"The tsunami response was a beautiful manifestation of that truth. It stems from a deep feeling of oneness with all beings on the planet.

"Amma maintains her composure even within crisis situations because she understands the whole crisis is taking place inside of herself. It's not like some external force that's attacking her. And once I realise the whole planet is part of me, there's nothing to be afraid of, it's something to respond to."

It's no wonder then that UN peacekeepers sent to the most dangerous combat zones in the world are seeking out such affirming guidance. To be guided by compassion rather than driven by force seems such an empowering, and hopeful, idea.

Our conversation turns to the subject of the Golden Age, the age of transformation that is the subject of much discussion and hope in the world today.

While Br Shantamrita himself is increasingly in demand as a speaker on quasi-spiritual subjects to corporate and international bodies, a trend he finds "interesting", Amma takes a broader perspective. She agrees with the traditional Indian view that we are still in the Age of Materialism - and even a cursory look at our surroundings and our media preoccupations would seem to back that up. "So it doesn't give us a cosy feeling that the Golden Age is coming any time soon."

One important reason Amma is loathe to jump on the bandwagon is the risk of encouraging complacency and even smugness. As Br Shantamrita explains, "She understands that people need to take things with proper awareness, to live with deep awareness. If we tell ourselves that the Golden Age is right around the corner, it can lead to us living with less awareness. The mahatmas are aware of this and don't want to make these pronouncements."

In fact, in Amma's view, it really doesn't matter when the Golden Age may dawn. As Br Shantamrita explains, "Talking about its coming takes my attention away from what I have to do and my own spiritual evolution."

What is important is that some qualities are permanent and enduring, namely truth and righteousness: "They are forever, they are indestructible." And the only difference between the last Golden Age or the Vedic Age and today is not the "the existence or non existence of truth and righteousness. The only difference is that those qualities were made more manifest in the Vedic Age and now they are less manifest.

"But we are being forced to manifest them now."

It's a thought provoking, yet powerfully hopeful, idea to take away with us.

For more information on Amma's Australian tour, go to www.ammaaustralia.org.au