I’m not a religious kind of person; barely even spiritual. I do, however, find it all quite interesting. I love visiting religious buildings and I’ve seen so many beautiful spiritual rituals whilst traveling, so I decided to visit Amritapuri.
I was in Kerala, South-West India, with a few friends I’d made out here when we went to visit the famous ‘Hugging Saint’. You might be wondering what the bloody hell I’m talking about, and you should trust that feeling because I don’t really know either. Mata Amritanandamayi – better known as ‘Amma’, meaning ‘mother’ in most South-Indian languages – is a Malayalee woman who has reached what is known as ‘enlightenment’. She sits what is known as ‘darshan’ for hours (sometimes up to twenty) with no breaks, hugging and consoling anyone who wants it – she’ll apparently cradle a murderer with the same amount of tenderness as a newborn child. Her ashram can house up to 20,000 people at a time and resembles a university campus, only holier. Someone I met on my first day there aptly described it as a ‘spiritual hospital’. I went with what I thought was an open mind and little expectation… but once I arrived, there was quite a journey to go.
(Everything written here is quite clearly my own biased opinion, so you can read the official stuff by clicking here, if you want.)
This is the log from my few days there. Chunks written in italics were scribbled in my notebook in real-time. (HAH, "real-time" – who do I think I am?!)
Day 1 – One day before
Sat on a bench, silently suffocating in our new "TIGHTER! TIGHTER!" tops and trying hard to swallow the not-so-Danish pastries. I’m trying to remember why I came here. Curiosity killed the cat, and Nelly may be next in line. Just because I don’t believe in worshiping a god that I don’t believe exists, why should I worship a woman that does? Western hippies and eastern followers come together in their white, respectful clothing. Bow their heads in turn.
My eyes feel like the outsides looking in. No one chats because we’re here for eternal bliss, goddamn it! I’m looking for a cup of chai and the WiFi zone, not enlightenment as of yet. Dhotis and harems and shawls in all the right places. The trunk in chains throws her head back and forth while I internally scream in agreement. Mr Mindless Man with the poking-stick doesn’t bat an eye as Nelly is hungrily papped by her oblivious fans. "Embracing The World" and a giant pair of handcuffs.
A vegetarian diet doesn’t mean much here.
I was pissed off. People were walking around, smiling at everyone with glazed-over eyes. The elephant, Laxmi, was brought in a few times a week and was thrashing her head around. Nobody seemed to give a shit. That night, I sat in the big hall where Amma was hugging people and stared up at the enlarged version of her on the projected screens. Making my fingers as water-tight as possible, I tried to scoop up clumps of watery rice and okra, and fathom what the hell was happening in this place.
Day 2 – One hour before
I’m currently sat in the queue for darshan. I couldn’t really tell you how I feel; mainly curious and apprehensive, I guess. A guy said "Om Namah Shivaya" (‘Salutations to Shiva’) to me this morning as he stepped inside the lift. I, however, thought that he’d said "Oh, I’m sorry" because the elevator doors were just starting to close as he jumped in. So I said, "No worries, man!" like the bumbling idiot that I am, and didn’t realise what he’d actually said until five minutes later. I don’t think I’m in the same mind-frame as a lot of people here.
The queueing system is somewhat questionable but nobody seems to mind, except the Irish woman with the tight low-pony next to me who seems to be extremely affected by the unfairness of it all. There’s really great, live, Hindu music being played in the centre of the hall. The whole of the Khali Temple building is buzzing. It’s hot outside but there’s a fresh breeze blowing on the back of my neck through the window behind. It’s a lot more relaxed than it seemed yesterday in the main hall. Last night felt like a cattle auction. Herd ’em in, herd ’em out. I think my skepticism has died down a bit now. I felt very ‘anti’ yesterday, but I think that I’m starting to see that all she’s about is loving, and the fact that she does what she does as a woman in India is incredible.
Ten minutes before
The elephant in chains pushed me too far but I’ve brought myself back. Amma looks like a happy panda bear sat up on the stage. I reckon she’s a really good hugger.
I think I’m starting to get excited now…
As I neared Amma, my insides began to feel tense. I sensed myself getting emotional, but I wasn’t sure what for. Before it was my turn, I realised that I was about to start crying. I felt so confused. Amma was sat in a chair and my fellow hugees were knelt around her, awaiting their turn. I was told by her wing-man to get close behind the person who was now having their hug. After he’d had his turn, her minion pushed at my back and I fell into her arms.
THEN, IT HAPPENED. I WAS HUGGED.
She adjusted me efficiently, my face now nose-first into her warm bosom, then held me close and rocked me for a minute, whispering something in Malayalam into my ear. Apparently the meaning of what she said was ‘sweet, sweet, sweet’. I looked up at her with tear-filled eyes and smiled, trying not to blubber. I sat on the side of the stage afterwards and just watched her; with my face in one hand and my soggy hankie in the other. I could not stop crying.
Ten minutes after
After a few minutes, I took myself off and sat alone in the zen garden. I actually decided to record a voice note on my phone because I wanted to document how I felt but there were no outside lights to write in my notebook. I was sat in the dark for a while, surrounded by possibly a hundred crows squawking relentlessly above my head. This was part of the voice note:
"The closer I got to her, this overwhelming feeling of… something (bursts into tears) … and I don’t know what it is, but I felt so overwhelmed with emotion, and I don’t know what it’s for or what it’s from, but as soon as I got close to her, I just thought ‘oh fucking hell, I’m going to cry when I hug her,’ and I did a little bit. I started to sort of feel it prickling in the back of my eyes… and then… (sobs some more) I don’t know what this is. It’s a very strange feeling – when you don’t know what you’re crying for."
I then go on to list possible reasons for this uncontrollable crying – having recently lost two grandparents being potential catalysts, among other things.
"I don’t know what this is, but I was not expecting it at all. I thought I would feel really closed and it’s the complete opposite. It’s just opened doors that I didn’t know existed. Is it because she’s like a mother? The way that your mum knows something’s wrong before you know something’s wrong? I really don’t know. I feel like a bird is about to shit on my head. (Sniffs.) This is a lot to process."
One hour after
Bloody hell. That brought up so much. I feel so overwhelmed and confused. Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel a bit more certain about what happened earlier. I can’t really believe how I feel now compared to the frustration and confusion yesterday brought.
Day 3 – One day after
I’d like to say that I came here with an open mind, but I think I had my mind made up until ten minutes before it was my turn. I’m not religious in the slightest and I feel like I’m on a very different journey to a lot of people here… yet I can’t help but feel a little spark of the energy Amma’s got everyone feeling here. I’ll be honest: I thought it was a load of crap. I think I thought that everyone here was slightly brainwashed (if we’re being honest, a tiny part of me still thinks that, actually) but for a tiny glimmer of my life, I’m glad to say that I kind of ‘get it’. I couldn’t spend too long here, though. Three days is definitely enough for me.
I still don’t believe in worship – whether it’s of a god, woman, man, anyone or anything. It’s just not for me. A lot of people here look at Amma with the same complete devotion that young kids have for Hannah Montana, Justin Beiber or Dora the Explorer – like they could make everything better with the click of a finger or the swish of a side-fringe. There are pictures of her everywhere – and I mean everywhere. Stickers, posters, 5x8m framed photos of her with flower garlands draped across them… even the graffiti in the dorm’s elevator says ‘Amma is love’.
To me, that’s not right.
Amma’s a funky lady, I’ll give her that, but the fact she has a distressed elephant in chains paraded in a few times a week is enough to prove she’s not flawless. She’s got a hell of a lot of love to give, and for that I take my hat off to her. There’s not enough love on this war-ridden planet and she’s double-armed-ly trying to change that, one motherly cuddle at a time. However, I think we should take the experience and try to embrace a more positive, hug-loving way of living – not worship the ground this woman walks on. We could all stand to be a little more like Amma, but we can’t do it while our foreheads are on the ground. We’ve got to throw our own arms around the planet… once she’s finished clutching our faces to her bosom.