Hugs, Caramel, and Cocaine
Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, known throughout the world as Amma (meaning “Mother”), is a spiritual leader who has millions of followers across the world. For those who see the world through the lens of social media, she has 15 million Facebook fans if that tells you anything.
Amma is all about love. She believes in helping others and providing them with the comfort they need during times of struggle. (Hence the nickname, “Mother.”) She is known for giving a hug to everyone who stays at her ashram to bless them. She has hugged over 34 million people and been known to sit in the same spot for more than 22 hours without interruption while she does this. Talk about dedication. I love hugs. I guess that means I am going to India.
AMMA GAVE BIRTH TO THIS SEED
Two months later, I am in India. Arrive at the ashram. After checking in, I head to my room to drop off my backpack. I am surrounded by people dressed in white. On my right, a girl doing yoga on the shaded grassy area under a tree. On my left, a couple are sitting next to each other meditating.
While the vibe is peaceful, the ashram is actually really busy this week. Thousands of people are here. Some for the night, others for a few months. You can tell the ones who are staying longer term because they seem to take a sense of ownership over the operations of the place. Their confidence and sense of purpose here almost seems sort of cliquey to me. Like they are on the inside and I am an outsider. But that is most likely in my head.
I walk past a table with a woman selling jewelry. She holds out a necklace with a single rudraksha bead on it. “This seed came from Amma’s womb. Amma birthed it.” Hmmm. What does that even mean? Hopefully they have washed it since.
ONE HUG PLEASE
After breakfast, I see a table with a sign reading, “Come here to get your token for darshan (aka blessing aka hug).” Easy enough. I head that way and the guy sitting there hands me a token with Q1 written on it. He tells me this indicates which group I am in. Once I see the sign in front display Q1, I should get in line to go on stage. I look up and see that the sign currently reads A1. I look back down at the guy who gave me the token. He shrugs and says, “Busy day. Try coming back around 7:00pm.” It is currently 9:30am and Amma is already on stage doing her thing. Hundreds lined up to see her. So. Many. People.
The energy here is…hopeful. From those I have spoken with and the vibes of everyone around me, it seems that many have come here in search of something. Something that is missing in their lives. Others are going through a transition and seeking guidance from the divine. While the people here are friendly, I can sort of feel a sense hopelessness in the air, longing to be filled. The healing everyone is striving to find. Not many say hello or smile at me. They are here for their own purpose. To find themselves. Not to make friends with me.
Most of Amma’s followers truly believe that she is a saint. I can see it in the way they look at her. How they talk about her. Like she is the answer. She is their God. At lunch, a man tells me a story. He explains that once a guy with leprosy came to see Amma in hopes of being cured by her blessing. He waited in line for hours and hours. Once he finally got to Amma, she took him in her arms and pulled him onto her lap like a baby. She started stroking the hair on his head. Then began licking his skin. With her teeth, started slowly pulling off the infected skin until he was completely cured. “It’s true,” he says. “He still comes to her ashram to this very day to pay her thanks.” I am not really sure how to respond to this so I tell him, “Oh, cool.”
It is slightly strange for me to see individuals worship another living human being. I mean aren’t we all equally one? I get it that people do worship other human beings. Like sports figures or singers. People appreciate and admire their talent and therefore the body attached to that talent. And maybe people appreciate Amma’s talent and her selflessness. But it seems more than that. I guess we are all just looking for someone to look up to. And instead of a Michael Jordan type figure, they choose Amma.
CARAMEL AND COCAINE
The sun has gone down and it is finally time for my group to line up on stage and receive our hugs. Amma is in the center of the stage. Dozens of her followers are sitting on the floor surrounding her. While waiting for our turn, we watch Amma hug the others in line before us. Some bring her gifts. Flowered garland necklaces. A basket of apples and oranges.
We see a woman present her with a can of caramel. Amma blesses it and then passes it behind her, to her assistant. Her assistant opens the can and hands it down to be passed around stage . One by one, I watch people stick their finger in, say a prayer of thanks, and then close their eyes as they put their finger in their mouth. Rubbing the caramel off on their tongue. Savoring the flavor. The look on their face tells me they truly believe the caramel is blessed. And by eating it, they are now blessed as well.
Watching them do this reminds me of watching someone do cocaine. After snorting a line, the way they slowly run their finger around the plate. Picking up the last drops of powder. Then opening their mouths to rub it around on their gums, enjoying every last drop. I guess everyone just wants to be healed. Some with caramel, some with cocaine. The former maybe just slightly better for the soul.
I am in a chair. A woman sitting at my feet looks up at me and lifts the can of caramel towards me. She is staring into my eyes as if to say yes, please go ahead. As if encouraging me to share in this experience with them. I grab the can, take some on my pinkie, and pass it along to the next person. As I lick it off my finger, I don’t feel any different, but I do enjoy the feeling of togetherness that surrounds me. Completely in the moment amongst thousands of strangers. The experience is powerful.
A HUG FROM AMMA
When it is almost my turn to hug Amma, everything starts happening really fast. One second, I am sitting there in a chair on stage facing the audience. Someone hands me a wet wipe to wash off my face. To not get makeup on Amma. They explain I am not to touch her. The next moment, a member of her staff grabs my hand and whispers for me to kneel down, facing Amma, behind the person she is currently hugging. Someone then says, “Go, go, go! It is your turn.” I move forward, while someone pushes me lightly from behind, closer to Amma’s chair.
Her assistants place my hands on each side of her, making sure I don’t touch her. I am trying to balance but slightly unstable like all of the sudden I may awkwardly fall face forward into her lap. She grabs my head and places it against the side of her cheek. Her arms embrace me and my nose is instantly filled with the scent of roses. She whispers some sort of blessing into my ear and then pushes me away when she is done. Handing me a piece of candy and a packet of ash as I stand up to leave the stage. Her team sort of lead me along and out of the way.
As I walk down the stairs, I notice the vibe has totally changed from earlier in the day. The nighttime atmosphere with lights hanging all around. People standing around talking. Laughing. There is happy Indian music playing in the background. It feels similar to a carnival. There is a feeling of ecstasy in the air. The energy is high. Everyone feeling euphoric after receiving healing through Amma’s loving embrace. Full of hope and gratitude. It is such a good place to be. I don’t feel any different after receiving a hug myself, but am definitely enjoying the energy of everyone else. I stop for a second to take it all in.
SOMETIMES WE NEED SOMETHING TO LEAD US BACK tO OURSELVES
While some parts of this experience are slightly harder for me to grasp, I always love to meet people who really believe in something. And who are passionate about it. Whether Amma really has God like powers or not, I suppose it honestly does not matter. If someone believes something to be true, doesn’t that make it so? For them at least? And as long as that belief helps them in any way, I am all for it. Thoughts are a powerful thing. And so is perspective.
Amma preaches love and healing for all individuals. This definitely make her an incredible person to worship. As humans, we are drawn to the qualities in others that we want to have ourselves. We also want to believe in something bigger that inspires us to grow. Whether we get that from Amma, or something/someone else, I don’t think it matters. What is important is that we have something, anything, in our lives that makes us feel this way. That inspires us to turn inward and continuously grow. To live our best lives. We have all of the answers inside of us. Maybe some people just need to be led to Amma in order to find them.
Getting There: The two closest airports are in Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) and in Cochin (Kochi). The ride from Trivandrum takes about 3 hours. From Cochin, the drive takes around 4 hours.
If you are coming by bus or train, Kayamkulam and Karunagappally are the major cities to reach. From there, take an auto-rickshaw to Parayakadavu. Ask the driver to take you to Amritapuri Asram, seaside.