28.02.2015 - 28.02.2015
"We got a genuine Indian guru, teaching us a better way." -Dr. Hook
Two days ago we arrived at an ashram. I know exactly what you are thinking: Dave, ashram, spiritual enlightenment...huh?
So seriously, we are at an ashram in south India which started in the 1980s around a female guru named Mata Amritanandamayi or Anna (mother) for short. Having never been to an ashram or any person centric organization, we thought it would be a good opportunity to drag the kids along and see what it was all about.
Amma's ashram on the shores of the Indian Ocean.
Let me paint you a picture of the ashram. It is a large pink gated compound on the ocean composed of many buildings including four 14 story highrises, a massive hall for dining, blessings, songs, etc, a four story temple and countless smaller buildings for things like food prep, offices, printing presses (running full tilt spewing out leaflets) and meditation. There are three types of people here: long term residents who wear all white, the Amma followers who make regular pilgramges to see her from around the world and the normal schmuks like us who are dropping by to find out what all the fuss is about.
Evening Meditation on the beach.
And fuss there is. People revere her as a living saint, a being that has foregone heaven to come and teach us mere mortals how to live and reach nirvana. The place revolves around Amma when she is here and everyday she is either leading meditation, singing or doling out her blessings in the form of hugs.
In thirty years it is claimed she has hugged 30 million people worldwide, though when you do the math it is more than a tad far fetched. People travel the world to get a hug and there is a ticketing system and lineups to get your cluddle. The ashram is full of devotees who have given up their western lives (and money) and moved there just to be close Amma after one of those magical hugs. Not willing to miss my opportunity for a life changing experience, I had to get my hug.
On one of the darshan (hugging) days, I first had to pick up my ticket in the morning to get in line later in the day. Darshan takes place in a huge hall with hundreds of people watching in awe as Amma hugs her devotees one by one. When my number came up (actually there was a range of 100 numbers) it was my turn to get in line. I sat in line moving down a few seats every ten minutes or so and chatting with the people next to me. They were both foreigners making their annual pilgrimage to come spend a month or so at the ashram. Toward the end of our three hour line up we were sitting on stage with about one hundred other people all sitting as close to Amma as possible, facing her starry eyed and glowing in the positive cosmic energy she supposedly gives off. When it came to be my turn, I was pushed to my knees, and had my arms placed on the arm rests beside Amma who was chatting animatedly in Malayalam to people around me. As they stuffed my head into her bosom Amma wrapped her arms around me and I couldn't help laugh at the ridiculous situation. Amma has not found a convert in me.
I have to say, being in the ashram really gave me the creeps after a few days. First, the devotees were largely women, many of them western and in their 50s or 60s. They all refer to Amma as "mother" and talk about the amazing healing power and energy. I got to sit in one line up for a hug, but there is a long line to simply sit on stage and bask in the glory while she doles out cuddles.
Second, people all give themselves Indianish names. I met one 10 year old from Seattle whose name was Goran and when I asked him how it was spelled he said, "I don't know, I only know how to spell my real name, John." It turned out that his mother had invented an Indian name to use at the ashram.
Last, no one really seemed to be very happy. Everyone was in awe of Amma and seeking enlightenment but from what I saw, there wasn't a lot of joy in the place. I have to say, I'm not exactly selling all my possessions and moving in and donating my money to Amma.
A very serene sunset at Amma's
Audrey's 2 cents:
As Dave said, we were part of the latter group - the schmucks stopping in on their way by to see what all the fuss is about and to possibly learn a thing or two. Just to counter Dave's underwhelming hug a little bit, Amma has built schools, hospitals, and houses and supports many environmental causes as well as sitting on UN religious committes. Her foundation supports a plethra of projects for women and children around the world, even some in North America. She has been at ground zero of many natural disaster relief efforts such as after the Haiti earthquake and Asian tsunami, all great things.
Amma is the daughter of a fisherman and grew up in a small and very poor fishing village which is actually where the ashram is built. It is astonishing to think of what it took for a poor girl in rural India to build this type of empire. What she has accomplished is very impressive especially given the obstacles.
Here is what our average day looked like. Our room was simple with a fan (no A/C) and only gym mats for beds. With that said, we had 4 large mats so our square footage for bedding was the biggest yet.
One fraction of a crumb of food in our room would immediately attract an army of ants - not good when you are sleeping on the floor. Before the sunrise at 5:00 am, chanting would blare on the loud speakers and awaken about a 1000 birds. I was the only one who noticed, the boys all slept through it. This was a nice opportunity for me to get up and practice yoga for 2 hours with all of the other yoginis and meditators which I did three out of four mornings. It was breathtakingly beautiful actually.
Food was available at set mealtimes and was shockingly good and ridiculously cheap. The Indian food was actually free but you could pay like $1 to get an upgrade which we did. We all had to wash our own dishes as well. The whole experience cost us about $90 all in (food and accommodation) for 4 nights.
The boys spent most of their days catching crabs with a pack of other boys their age while Kaito and I spent our two hours daily volunteer time cleaning up one of the gardens.
The spiritual surroundings did inspire some interesting questions from Kiyoshi such as, "Who is the main God, Shiva or Krishna? Is he still alive and where does he live?" He even reminded me that Shiva is the blue guy and that he turned blue from consuming a poison which saved all people from death."
In the end, we had to leave in a hurry. There was a thin facade of being a family friendly environment. It was like the folks liked the idea that people would bring their children, they just didn't actually like your children. For example, Kaito fell and scraped his knee and I was quickly given dirty looks and shoed away. Maybe it was because the type of people who tend to BRI g their kids there believe in the philosophy that it takes a village to raise a child but take it to the extreme and take advantage of the save environment by leaving them on their own all day.
On our way out I asked him what he learned while at the ashram and he said, "Not a lot. Actually nothing."
PS. Please excuse the mistakes as I wrote this while on a bus and with a sleeping child on my lap.