Yesterday, the leader of the ashram, Amma, met people for hugs. We queued for about 3.5 hours 😳, sitting on chairs and shuffling along as people were seen. One devotee (follower) said that it gives you a chance to reflect, say your mantra and think about what you want to say to Amma.
Eventually you get on stage, where the seating continues. When you’re close to the front, a devotee asks you to read something. It says you must not lean on Amma when she hugs you. She’s sitting in an armchair and you must kneel and support your weight by resting your arms on the armchair. You also have to wipe your face in case any sweat/dust stains Amma’s white clothes.
Just as you’re about to see Amma, you’re asked to remove your glasses (if you have any) and which language you speak so that she can give you a message in your language.
When my moment came, she hugged me for a bit then said something incomprehensible in my ear in a deep voice. Then it was over – a bit of an anticlimax!
I compared my experience with other first-timers and it was similar. By the time we had reached her, she seemed to be preoccupied, laughing and chatting with her disciples and followers, and paying scant attention to those queueing.
She may have seen my skin colour and said something in Malayalam. I did ask someone to translate what I had heard but the sounds meant nothing to him either. So I don’t know what she said or what language she used!
I’ve asked devotees whether Amma is a deity. The answer I’ve got is that Amma says that others say so but she couldn’t possibly comment! The devotees, however, do think she’s a manifestation of a deity. When you look around the ashram there are pictures of her everywhere: in the lift lobby alone I counted five photos, on walls in every building, and outside of buildings. Some of the pictures are of Indian gods with Amma’s face!
Whether there’s anything “real” behind Amma and her ashram might not matter. I met many people who’ve been coming to the ashram for years, often staying for several months. The people at the ashram varied in age, from young to old, single to couples and families. They seemed to be happy with the difference the ashram and Amma had made to their lives. They often say things like “Amma said I’ve got to do ….” and then follow her instructions. The have a leader they can trust and follow.
One cause of alarm was when I overheard a devotee tell another one that she had paid $20,000 for the right to come annually and stay in “her” flat at the ashram. She didn’t own the flat and the money was a “donation”. She was reluctant to elaborate when I asked her so I don’t know the full facts.
An organisation this large needs to raise funds. As well as making donations, you can buy Amma photos, Amma dolls, gifts blessed by Amma, Amma books and so on.
It could be said that this is money well spent if it makes people happy. The alternatives, such as therapy, may not be as effective and may cost you more!
The ashram is a safe, cosy, uplifting, welcoming environment with friendly people, good food and activities arranged for residents and visitors. The community gives you a sense of belonging, structure and is headed by Amma, who gives you “unconditional love”, as one devotee put it. It is easy to see why it would be appealing if you lived in Europe, USA or Australia, which is where most foreigners at the ashram came from that I met.
I have enjoyed my stay here so far – the food (I’m eating far too many vegan cakes!), swimming and talking to people. I even did a seva, a selfless service, which in my case was chopping potatoes and tomatoes, and peeling garlic for two hours!