I am at Amma's ashram, the next place on my spiritual circuit tour of India, the last ashram within the last 5 months. After 11 days of fighting and, er, making up with my Keralan boyfriend, we decided to take a break. I went to the best place I could think of that for recovery from a tired and wounded heart. My India experience went like this: love first, then not eat (due to panchakarma, a detox process that I will detail here) then pay; I was ready for a cleansing.
Amma is referred to as the hugging mother, considered a God by Indians and a saint by Americans. Before I left New York for India, the most common phrase I heard from Brooklynites was "Give Amma a hug for me!" She seemed more popular in the West than in Kerala, her birthplace as well as the birthplace of my beau. Kerala is one of the most pro-female states in India; it also happens to be communist, has a 99% literacy rate and it supports one of the few female gurus. Kerala has more women on scooters, and in local government. Although I still have to cover up and walk steps behind my man, and can't go out after dark, I feel more comfortable here than in all of India.
However, the locals have a different perspective on the divine mother. Distrustful of all gurus because of rampant corruption in India, there are rumors of her pilfering funds, and there is a completely unsubstantiated claim that she was once a prostitute. Of course, to Westerners, that last charge would only add more to her rags-to-spiritual riches story. Her ashram is well-funded by generous outsiders, primarily the French and the Americans.
When I arrived in a taxi, dropped off by my guy, I was surprised by the ashram's lack of glitz and shine; it was dusty and quite plain, pink with faded orange. Thousands of foreigners walked around in pale robes. As with every place I've visited on the spiritual circuit where I saw identically dressed disciples and a single heavenly guru, my first thought was that this was a cult. After three days, two hugs, and one mantra, though, I was happy to be in the arms of thousands of sensitive girls and reaffirmed in my rather common view that spirituality and religion are all one but the paths are many. Amma is not God, but she is full of unconditional love and she is a good person.
My first stop was the giant darshan (lecture) hall where thousands of foreigners sat, all robed in white, to hear Amma. She had two children with her on the stage. These kids are the lucky ones chosen(of all nations) to go on tour with Amma, and although they pay, it's cheaper than summer camp, as one New York dad put it. After 15 minutes of "IAM" tm guided meditation (not the standard method but a secret kind we vowed not to share) during which we inhaled "am" and exhaled "ma," I noticed a lot of Western women giving shoves and pushes to get a better view of Amma. My bag was too close to one's feet, and another couldn't stand to touch shoulders. I, on the other hand, had acclimated to the proximity between individuals kept in India, much closer than in the West. I sat more comfortably with the Indian ladies who didn't mind our shoulders touching; after all, we were here to give cuddles.
Indeed, Amma states that if her finger were bleeding, she wouldn't hesitate to bandage the wound, even if that finger were on the hand of another. In other words there is no separation between the self and others, a basic hindu concept I learned in my yoga training, Amma is essentially a hindu and a Krishna disciple at that, my favorite deity: the God of Love.
"Om namah shivayah" is the chosen greeting here at the ashram (unlike "Om" at Sivananda ashram), which is said by Amma residents in place of "excuse me" and is heard from the volunteers everywhere in lieu of "hello."
One woman used the Oprah catchphrase "Aha! moment" when answering Amma's question about how to have better devotion (bhakti yoga) through concentration: thinking about mom encourages us to focus on our inner child, she said, as our first and greatest love is that we experience for our mothers. One disappointment was the lack of Amma's initial promised hug, which was promptly rescheduled. Though I tried to focus on the meditation, instead I thought about the virgin mother and my unknown status with my boyfriend and said to myself, "Even Amma is single."
Amma has Oprah appeal. Overweight, dark and extremely empathic, she too attracts the most wounded of souls. My female roommates had stories of rape, partners dying, and low self-esteem. It is only a matter of time before Amma writes a tell-all about her struggle with weight, although her devotees claim she only eats one meal a day. Not to lighten her work.
So I watched Amma hug non-stop from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. in a timed, calculated and very rushed hug line in which she takes hugs from the right and left side. I kneeled before her, and my head was physically pressed into her bosom by an assistant. From there she whispered, "Doringu, doringu, doringu." I asked my Malayalam-speaking boyfriend to translate; she was simply saying "Darling." It was sweet. I got was the same from all concentrated spiritual experiences: a devotion of energy utilized not to pass the time or hurt others, but to love. The combined focus of thousands of people lifts the energy of the room. I was given a special mantra that I am forbidden to repeat to anyone but which commands me to completely relax within my own skin for ultimate happiness. Immediately after my hug, my combative boyfriend called me to tell me he missed me and loved me and wanted to be a better man. He invited me to see him at nearby Varkala.
I took it as a sign since I asked Amma to bring me a good man. My roommates also warned me that everything happens for a reason, and if someone needs to get out of your life, Amma will remove him. He had already cheated on me once, the day I met the Dalai Llama in Dharasala, I also found his ex-girlfriend's ecstatic blog which detailed that they broke up albeit long distance, two months after he and I began our big love affair. He mentioned her, and said the were "finished". My yoga gurus in Dharamasala coached me through that first betrayal and convinced me to "demand nothing" and forgive. I practiced "tonglen", meditated and pictured him as a wounded child, I related to him in panchakarma and saw that I too could love someone but just not know how to show it. When I first met him, I thought I found why I'd come to India. I threw away my New York City dating checklist of red flags and bragged that I took the leap. I was happy for about two months.
But the girls I met at Amma's ashram were amazing. Amma's ashram is the perfect break-up place in which to heal or take a break. Many women were staying for six months.
One of the most consoling stories I heard was from my Amma flatmate, an ecological activist and internationally famous performance artist from Australia. Seven years earlier, when she was 18 years old and bathing in the Ganges, thinking about God and her connection and love for him, a swami smiled at her. He then asked for a hug. Even though something felt wrong about it, she chose to trust, and he proceeded to attempt to rape her. Drudging all of her strength, she hit him, and he proceeded to beat her mercilessly and continued to rape her. Bloodied and battered, she went to the police in Rishikesh, who put her in a room with five men. She didn't know if she was to be raped again or just intimidated into not reporting it. She then went to local ashrams asking for help. All looked at her bruised face and saw trouble. "Get out, get out," they told her.
She said that when the swami attacked her, her whole body was shot up and filled with an electric blue light. She realized for the first time that God and help could only be found within her. At 25 she came back to India, alone, to stay at Amma's ashram. I thought of her when I realized that it was my bad relationship that brought me to Amma's ashram in the first place.
In India, I could be at Amma's or any other ashram healing my heart.Instead I have Amma's photo in a frame at my apartment in New York. The day of bad luck, I wrote that morning on facebook about how incredibly blessed and lucky I was. Ten hours later, at Chowpatty beach in Mumbai, happy with two guides and friends my wallet was stolen with a large amount of money. Bad luck comes in twos and threes, and mercury was definitely in retrograde. It was all tantamount to trauma.
"Everything happens for good," my Indian friends who took care of me through the theft and break up told me. "All is well!", they consoled me with, a quote from the popular Bollywood movie, "The Three Idiots." I try to believe that all is well and everything happens for a reason and to accept everything as "prasad"- a gift from God-as I once texted in the height of ectasy from a yoga meditation. And then I remember what my Australian friend said about the electric blue light and where the real strength lies, not in any guru in any country, but within. Even though God feels very, very far away in America right now (especially in New York)- - I remember that he or she is always with me, like Amma.