by Darragh Mullooly
She is known around the world as the hugging saint. A living Goddess who selflessly helps the poverty stricken and the destitute, while boasting hoards of followers who hang on her every uttering.
Believed to be an incarnation of the Hindu Mother Goddess, Amma was reportedly born with blue skin and as she was growing up, would spend hours meditating on the beach, writing devotional songs and when her family was struck with an emergency, she was forced to go door to door to beg for scraps of food.
This seemingly inherent need to help others and alleviate the suffering of others proliferated and Amma knew that it was her God given duty to assist those who could not help themselves. To others she is known as a charlatan and a cult leader who has been embroiled in scandal and controversy.
In the heart of Kerala, where Amma grew up, lies the Amritapuri Ashram, a community and a society of devotees, where countless individuals go each year; some never leaving.
So, what really goes on inside the infamous Ashram? This week I caught up with Irish backpacker Rachael, who spent four days inside Amritapuri.
As a first time Ashram visitor Rachael was interested in finding a spiritual retreat to practice some meditation and Yoga, but most of all, she was captivated by “the thoughts of spending a few days in the presence of a Woman who is treated as God. To observe this intense sense of devotion to a Guru I had never witnessed, would be really interesting to see”
Inside Amritapuri, the day begins at 04:50. Chanting and Bhajans (devotional songs) are all done before the first morsel of simple vegetarian food. This is followed by Seva (devotional service) which Rachael says “can consist of cleaning the temple, washing dishes in the canteen or even helping the disabled or older devotees……..Unfortunately there was no structured meditation or Yoga class, I assumed it would be a place where spirituality is promoted, instead, we were just there to worship Amma.”
Amma is famed for traveling all over the world to give her followers one of her Darshans (hugs) and in the Ashram, Amma, in all her glory sits on her dais (a throne, strewn with garlands of flowers) as her ‘children’ queue to receive one of her world renowned hugs.
“She’s been known to sit for twenty hours straight giving hugs to people. It was crazy though, we had to go through metal detectors and then were herded onto the stage like cattle. Then one of her assistants would move you into the hugging position and during the hug she whispers something in your ear; speaking in Malayalam so I didn’t understand her.”
When Amma hugs someone, it is said to alleviate any stress, tension, mental anguish, negativity or pain. And how was the hug? Rachael quips “Honestly I felt nothing. I’ve had better hugs from my close friends!”
When asked does she think Amma is really a Goddess, Rachael says “There is no doubt that she is a saint. She raises so much money for disaster victims, the poverty stricken, homeless people, she’s an amazing Woman who has done incredible work. I don’t think she is an incarnation of the Mother Goddess though. I mean there are photographs with her face photo-shopped onto Krishna’s head, you can buy Amma bottled water, Amma caps, t-shirts and souvenirs. I do think she is a very savvy business-Woman and if she needs to play the God card in order to raise money for the helpless, then I think she should keep doing what she is doing. She’s a great person.”
What about the other devotees?
“I met a guy from the states; he had been there years and was a friend of the Jacksons. Namely Michael, who he insisted on name dropping again and again ‘my good friend M.J’ you know those kind of people. There was a Finnish couple who lived there with small kids, who were attending a school close by, some people really set up a life there.”
Away from all the charity, the hugging and the godliness, Amma allegedly has a much darker side. The Mumbai Boss reported on her drive for power and wealth.
“Her organisation owns a considerable amount of real estate, including a university with campuses across South India, a hospital and large ashram in Kerala, a $7.8 million mansion in Maryland and properties in other parts of the US and Europe. There are stories of Amma’s parents and siblings living in grand houses bought with her money. Amsden also finds that Amma’s seemingly round-the-clock benevolence could be a sham. A former devotee he interviewed said that Amma did not hesitate to physically abuse her disciples if they angered her”.
One of Amma’s first western devotees was Gail Tredwell. After becoming part of the inner circle for over twenty years, Tredwell left the ashram and is now penning a book about her time there. In January, Tredwell wrote
“Backstabbing, cruelty, hatred, power struggles.” She wrote of “secret things going on,” and of “too much scheming, plotting, planning and suspicion.” Most distressingly, she wrote of “terrorism – in a subtle sense, not with guns or anything” and of “violence (mental, emotional, psychological and physical).”
If Jesus or any other altruist were alive today, there is no doubt they would be subject to severe media scrutiny, just like Amma. Unfortunately, sometimes when we witness good work being done, we question their motives and wonder if they have an bad side.
Despite much debate and rumors surrounding this questionable-modern-day-Jesus, one thing is for sure, she has devoted time to millions of individuals the world over, giving over 2.5 million people free medical care as well as providing 45,000 houses to the homeless and no doubt the huuging saint will continue her work for many moons to come.