Amma is big; She is, literally, larger than life. She is the Mother Goddess, the Universe, a Living Embodiment of Grace in a human (and female) form. Enlightenment did not happen to Amma–She was born completely aware of the Divine Self, which at first caused her family and community to ostracize her, regarding her as crazy. But if you know the law of karma, there is only one reason why anyone would be born enlightened. Only souls with latent desires (and built-up karma) are re-born, according to Hindu cosmology; so, Amma was born as an incarnation of God, put on earth to spread the Divine Light.
She does this through hugs. Amma tours around the world, cared for by a group of devotees, giving hugs to all Her children. In this dark age of Kali Yurga, She says, what we need most is human touch and unconditional love–and selflessness.
Seva, selfless work for others, is an immensely important part of life at Amma’s main ashram, in Amritapuri, Kerala. All international visitors are required to do two hours of seva daily;this may involve sweeping and mopping the stage where Amma gives “darshan” (blessings/teachings/hugs), or sorting compost and trash for recycling, or washing dishes in the kitchen. Seva, Amma says, is “the soap that truly purifies”; it helps us to forget ourselves and our petty desires when we work for no reward other than service to humanity.
And Amma is the Ultimate Example of this selflessness–because She literally has no self as normal people do. She cares only for her Divine Children and helping them to reduce the suffering in their lives. On Darshan days at Amritapuri, Amma is onstage offering hugs from 11am to midnight or later, with perhaps one short break to use a bathroom, sip coffee, or take diabetes medicine. A live band plays spiritual music to keep her and everybody going. Assistants are constantly at Amma’s side onstage; like a well-oiled machine, they operate as an assembly line, moving bodies along the queue, rolling bundles of chocolate and package of ash into “prasad” (blessing) packages and taking turns placing them (“quickly but gently”) into Amma’s hand for her to give away during each darshan. They also take the bowls of fruit and nuts, or flower wreaths that people bestow upon Amma and store them away in bags, and make sure that people coming for darshan have clean faces and know the rules (no leaning on Amma or grabbing at her) and are modestly dressed.
Amma is big and her following is big; she may be the most famous living Indian saint. But her bigness can create difficulties. The ashram at Amritapuri can at times feel like a circus where all the performers are competing for Amma’s attention. Everybody wants to be close to her, to receive her grace. And Amma’s worldwide fame has led to a kind of peaceful, voluntary apartheid at the ashram. Never before or in any other place have I heard so many times in one place the word “Western”–if you’re “Western,” go here, do this, eat that, etc. There are separate dining options for Indians and Westerns (the one free food option is mediocre Indian ashram food like rice and sauce, whereas the other options include fairly cheap “Western” and “Indian” canteens and a “Western cafe” that serves sandwiches, pizzas, etc). A result of this system is that, if one is a “Westerner,” it is possible to mix very little with people from India; another result is that Westerners here are fairly happy because they can enjoy familiar, tasty, healthy food as well as cappuccinos and filter coffee. So, it works, though it divides (Westerners of Indian-origin usually get to play both roles, it seems).
Darshan, too, is not given equally; the Indians get their hugs first (they usually come in for the day or a very brief stay, whereas Westerners stay longer) and often stay onstage with Amma for several minutes, talking in Malayalam, while Westerns are quickly shuffled through their meeting and hug.
The ashram emphasizes simplicity and purity; devotees wear clean, white, body-covering clothes that neutralize class or sociological differences and prevent lustful feelings. People greet each other with “Om nama shivaya,” which also serves as “excuse me” and “thank you” and is often said quickly – “m’nama shivaya.” People stay in the most basic accommodations – three people share a dormitory with one unsightly bathroom, sleeping on mattresses on the floor with plastic pillows–but no one cares, because it’s all about being with Amma, doing seva in Her community, and absorbing as much of Her Divine Grace as possible. The goal is to become, over time, a little more like Amma–less selfish, more unconditionally loving, more generous (Amma runs various orphanages and schools around the world, and provides refuge to the poor and prosecuted from everywhere at her ashrams on a case-by-case basis), a guiding Light and Mother to all, a model of divinity that transcends cultures, nations, individual beliefs, and all the divisive human categories that obfuscate the Pure Consciousness of which we are made.
After five days at Amma’s ashram, I feel changed. Her Presence creates a challenging atmosphere that calls upon people to act as our highest selves, with compassion for ourselves and others, keeping emotions in check, letting go of the ego. The crowded state of the ashram requires constant patience and tolerance. Everybody wants to sit close to Amma and have a good view of Her during satsangs, and many have traveled far or put in a lot of time at the ashram for this opportunity, or known her for many years. In some moments there seems to be a sense of entitlement or an air of competition because of these factors. But Amma’s Love is for all beings, because She sees us all equally as Her children. When we fight for Her, we are contradicting Her teachings. She wants us to understand that Her Light is not limited or proprietary; it is boundless and inclusive, available to all, at once unknowable and already known within each of us.