Nicola Silva meets a devoted followerof Amma, the inspirational and selfless Hugging Saint.
A mother's embrace has the power to change many things:to stop the tears of a distraught babe, to soothe thesting of a broken heart and, in the case of Amma, tochange and inspire a troubled world.
"The power of Amma's embrace is unconditionallove and the motherly touch - it's so pure," saysSwami Ramakrishnananda Puri, a senior aide of Mata Amritanandamayi,or Amma, as she is known. "Amma says love is everything.It's not as simple as we think. Love is the thread thatconnects everyone."
Amma herself says that her hugs and kisses are notordinary: "When Amma embraces or kisses someone,it is a process of purification and inner healing. Ammais transmitting a part of her pure, vital energy intoher children...When Amma holds someone, it can helpto awaken the dormant spiritual energy within them."Amma, or the "Hugging Saint" as the Americanmedia call her, is the modest daughter of a fishermanfrom Kerala, in Southern India. As a girl, she witnessedthe poverty and suffering of the fisher folk, who oftenwent hungry for days at a time when their fishing expeditionsfailed. Even as she asked herself "Why must peoplesuffer?" she saw that it was her duty to ease thesuffering around her.
Today, Amma's humanitarian efforts have seen thousandsof houses built for the poor. She has instituted a freepension scheme for 100,000 destitute women, and thephysically and mentally challenged in India. Amma'sorganisation has committed millions to tsunami reliefand $1 million to the Hurricane Katrina relief fund,as well as support for schools, hospitals and orphanages.In her daily audiences with people from all walks oflife, Amma's hugs spread a message of hope, love, strengthand service.
Swami Ramakrishna says, "People from all walksof life who are considered successful in their respectivefields still come to seek Amma's guidance and blessings.Despite their so called success, they still seek somethingmore. Their worldly success has not given them whatthey really want: contentment and peace of mind."
Swami Ramakrishna has a serene gentleness that instantlyputs me at ease, allaying my preoccupations with correctetiquette (this is my first meeting with a swami). Thereis a faint scent of incense in the air and somewherein the background is the tinkling of a water fountain.Dressed in bright saffron robes, Swami Ramakrishna talkseasily about the exemplary life of Amma and the spiritualtruths he has learned since meeting her 30 years ago.
He says Amma is a living example of love and patiencewho continues to inspire him.
"She sits so many hours every day, without gettingbored. People come to her with the same problem - job,family, marriage, financial trouble, sickness. Theseare common problems everywhere. So she listens to thesame thing day after day after day. We cannot listento 10 people's problems in one day: we get very upset,angry with them.
"Each time she meets a person, she feels likeit's the first time a person is telling their problems.She is so focused on what they say; she doesn't justbrush it aside and say it's a common problem. Peoplefeel that she is their own mother because she givesso much personal attention and care to everyone. Sometimesshe does this for 24 hours non stop."
Swami Ramakrishna has seen with his own eyes the extentof Amma's love. On one of his first visits to Amma'sashram, he noticed a leper waiting in line for darshan(an audience) with Amma. "His body was rupturedall over and there was pus and blood oozing from thoseplaces. His body had a terrible stench. Nobody couldbe near him."
Nevertheless, when everybody finished meeting Amma,she called the man. "I was sitting near her atthat time; it was a really disgusting sight to see him,"the swami recounts. "When he came, without anyhesitation or any aversion, just like Amma receivedeveryone, she put him also on her lap." Amma thenbegan tending to the leper's suppurating wounds.
This event left an indelible impact on the swami. "Istarted asking what is she doing? Has she gone crazy?Even doctors would not touch (him) without wearing somegloves. I thought, if ever I want to follow someonein my life this is the person I want to follow - shehas extreme love and extreme compassion. That sightreally turned my life."
Later, he asked Amma how she was able to show suchdeep compassion to the leper. She replied, "I'mnot different from him. I am in him; he's in me. I seemy own self in him."
The swami says it took a long time for him to understandthe meaning of Amma's words. Years later, after joiningAmma's ashram, he began attending some scriptural classes.
"Then I understood that there's only one consciousness.We are all different manifestations of the same consciousness.She loves everyone equally because she doesn't see thedifference."
Swami Ramakrishna believes that people who have spiritualwisdom look at the world differently. He draws an analogywith gold, which is used to make different types ofjewellery, rings, necklaces, bangles and so on.
He explains: "We see the different forms and names,and then get attracted to them. I like the ring. I likethe necklace. I like the nose ring. But the mastersdon't get attached to the name or form: they look atthe essence - the gold.
"Amma looks at the consciousness. Whether it'sa good person or a bad person, the consciousness isthe same. She is able to love everyone. That is herwisdom."
As Amma's emissary, Swami Ramakrishna travels to around35 countries meeting people and spreading Amma's message."Mostly we talk about love, service and cultivatingpositive qualities," he explains. "We talkabout spiritual things, not religion. Spirituality focuseson developing positive qualities, serving others andimproving your own understanding and emotional personality."The swami observes that, for people all over, life hasbecome filled with pressures and tension. Relationshipsare also more brittle than they were 50 to 100 yearsago: people often find it difficult to live togetherfor a long time. "Everywhere people are lookingfor peace and happiness. But the thing is, without realisingthe real path for long lasting peace they just takeup any method that can give them immediate happinessand immediate peace. That, in many cases, leads to morecomplications and (has) serious consequences on theirlives."
And he concedes that circumstances in our lives areoften beyond our control. "You cannot change thethings in your country unless you're very powerful.You cannot change your neighbours. What we can try todo is just to change ourselves so that the surroundingsdo not affect us. When you remain calm and quiet ina crisis, and are able to deal with everyone in a niceway, then the others (who) see you also get a lesson."
The second aspect of a spiritual life is, of course,selfless service. Amma expressed it on New Year's Evein 2005 like this, "This is the time to pray withour hearts and work with our hands".
As the swami points out, "It's difficult for Ammato do everything. What Amma is trying to do is createawareness and help people to feel for others - thatsame love and compassion. If everyone started helpingothers it becomes an easy job." There are manybeautiful stories of service by those whom Amma hastouched, and here is one: when a devastating earthquakestruck Gujarat, India, in 2001, killing 20,000 people,a medical team from Amma's AIMS hospital was sent thereto provide disaster relief. Many student volunteersfrom Amma's university also gave emergency assistance.Later, the Amma organisation rebuilt three villagesin Bhuj, which had been at the epicentre of the earthquake.When the Boxing Day tsunami struck, those villagersfrom Bhuj made a three day journey to help Amma rebuildhouses for tsunami victims near her ashram.
Amma inspires such goodwill and a spirit of servicethat her organisation has achieved results which oftensurpass those of government officials.
"Everyone is amazed (that) in such a short timeAmma has been able to do so much, even the governmentadministration!" Swami Ramakrishna acknowledges.
He pays tribute to the thousands of volunteers whohelp out in so many ways. "The volunteers at Amma'sashram, they're so dedicated. They are all there tohelp her, to do whatever they can for Amma." Togetherwith this veritable army (the swami himself works exceedinglyhard, though he is too modest to mention this), Amma'swisdom enables her to respond to people's needs, bethey small or large.
Arguably, Amma's largest humanitarian project has beenthe tsunami relief effort. The organisation has doubledits initial pledge to US$43 million, as relief effortshave expanded. Thus far 4,500 houses have been builtfor victims in India, the Adaman and Nicobar Islands,and Sri Lanka. Amma's care has also extended to providecounselling for families traumatised by the tsunami,and even swimming lessons for the children to help overcometheir fear of water. Mothers who lost children in thetsunami and who were unable to have more children dueto tubal ligation, were offered the opportunity to reversetheir sterilisation procedures.
Swami Ramakrishna says the organisation's many achievementsare all due to Amma's guidance. "Apart from herwisdom, there is the experience that she gets everyday by meeting thousands of people - people tellingher different problems in their life, different experiencesin their life, different difficulties in their life.Amma personally hears those things. With all that sheis able to guide everyone."
We live in a world yearning for peace and happiness.The swami says that the only way to achieve this isto see the divinity in all. "When you are ableto see everyone as your own self, how can you dislikethem? How can you fight with them? We have the samedivinity. Even if you cannot see the divinity in yourself,see the same divinity in everyone. It's difficult, butthere's no gain without pain," he adds with a smile.
For details of Amma's next Australian visit, see www.ammaaustralia.org.au