Suspension of Disbelief?
Mar 15, 2009
BY SARITA SARVATE
Reflections on a pilgrimage to Mata Amritanandamayi's ashram
SARITA SARVATE, Mar 15, 2009
When one enters the compound of Amma’s Ashram in Amritapuri, Kerala, the first impression one gets is that of a yatra, a Hindu pilgrimage.
Hundreds of people are always milling about—particularly if Amma is in town—some sitting under tin sheds eating snacks of masala dosas, others lining up at rows of washbasins rinsing their utensils just the way I used to do in school in India. Still others, festively dressed, can be seen laughing and chatting in small groups.
Amritapuri is where “resort meets holy place,” where 10-story apartment buildings rise above the mangrove forest and incongruously loom over a serene Kerala landscape, where an ornate, colorful temple stands at the center of the compound, its façade graced by a chariot of five white horses, presumably driven by Lord Krishna.
I had arrived here after riding in a hot taxi for hours through sleepy, lush green villages, then through an increasingly urban landscape dotted with banks and offices.
Joining the chaos at the visitors’ window on the second floor of the temple building, I made my way to the iron grill and faced a young American man who said, “We have 800 foreign visitors here this week.”
My first instinct was to leave. Still, it was reassuring to note that they were expecting me, had in fact sent a taxi at the correct time and the correct location. Perhaps behind the chaos lurked efficiency?
I was soon lugging my bags down the corridor to an eighth story flat in the building reserved for “foreigners.” It was a basic affair, consisting of a room with mosaic floor, a rear balcony with a washbasin and mirror, and a western style bathroom so discolored by hard water that my first instinct was to scrub it clean, which, I soon discovered, was impossible. The floor held two thin, foam mattresses and not much else. Slipping the sheets I had been handed at the office onto one of them, I flopped down and gazed up at two plastic chairs and a table chained to the high ledge above, presumably belongings of permanent owners of the flat.
Amma’s business acumen is apparent to any visitor. The flats are sold to foreigners for a modest price of about $15,000 apiece, with the understanding that their owners would use them for six months of the year, allowing the ashram to rent them at modest prices of 150 rupees per night (a few dollars) for the remaining six months.
I had just taken a short nap when there was a knock on the door. I could expect one or two female roommates, I had been informed, and had braced myself for the worst.
The woman who entered the flat was an Australian named Lila. Of course Lila was not her real name, and in other circumstances, I would have been cynical about her new-agey pretentiousness. At the moment, I was glad for her company, particularly when I discovered her soft-spoken manner and genuine desire to welcome me to the ashram, which she had visited several times before.
Soon, she was giving me a tour of the facilities, offering tips on vegetarian and non-vegetarian dining options, the store, the pharmacy, the ayurvedic clinic, the yoga lessons on the terrace, the snacks at the café, the spot at which to line up with the regulation steel cup for chai. She introduced me to people she knew from prior visits: Aussies mostly, but also Americans and Germans and French.
One middle-aged woman wearing oversized beads and a white salwar kameez said, “I am so excited, I finally decided to buy a flat,” with such exuberance that my mind conjured up her lonely life with no children, husband, parents, or other human ties. Was she trying to assign meaning to her life in these backwaters?
But then again who was I to judge her? Was a rationalist who cherished only the so-called practical things like money, professional success, a five-bedroom house in Silicon Valley, and two would-be Ivy League children, any less lonelier or wiser?
A German sanyasi in a white sari who served Amma’s personal needs was agonizing over the imminent visit of her parents, because they believed she had been kidnapped by a cult. Oddly, I felt envy for this young adventuress. Youth is wasted on the young, they say, but what is the purpose of being young if you don’t waste a few years?
“It’s your first time here, so you must sit on stage with Amma,” Lila insisted after dinner. To confess that I had come here with only a writer’s curiosity would have been tactless.
So, we sat on chairs behind Amma, watching a line of visitors snaking past.
Caucasian women dressed in white saris hovered over Amma, removing garlands from her neck and handing her prasad wrapped in colored tissue paper, which Amma offered to each devotee after enveloping him or her in her legendary hug, alleged to have cured illness, despair, depression, misfortune.
I became mesmerized by the tableau. Indians and non-Indians filed past, their faces simultaneously anxious and sublime, as if believing in Amma’s ability to rid the world of troubles. Was it simply a psychosomatic phenomenon, a placebo effect if you will, whereby people who dissolved in Amma’s hugs experienced the ultimate mind-body experience, elevating their physical and mental states?
Or, as one of my friends alleged, was it that she possessed some magical powers that had enabled her to read his life story and fix his marital problems, as she had done with thousands of others?
The healing powers of prayer and meditation are now promoted as a cure for stress, high blood pressure, and depression. Was Amma just another form of alternative medicine?
Somehow I could not tear myself away. Sitting there, did I hope to gain insight into the Amma mania? Did I wish to learn how Amma took people’s pain away? Did I expect to witness some special phenomenon that in years hence would symbolize the Age of Aquarius? Did I expect to fathom the secret that had catapulted this simple peasant woman to the ranks of saints?
Lila did not return to the room until 3 a.m. that night, having stayed up to watch Amma record bhajans which echoed around the ashram nearly round the clock, simultaneously soothing and unnerving, so that you could not help wondering if the noise was designed to drown out doubts in the minds of visitors like me.
The next evening, unsure of how much more sycophancy I could tolerate, I arrived in the main enclosure rather late to discover that Amma’s singing session was in full swing. Ethereal, other-worldly voices reverberated around the compound. Amma’s voice, I discovered, was exceptionally powerful. Unexpectedly, tears began to stream down my face. Moving closer, I gazed into Amma’s face, as familiar melodies evoked memories of days long past.
Later, Kripa, the Australian woman, asked me to help with dinner, so I walked barefoot with a Finnish man into the kitchen where vessels the size of rooftop water tanks were hoisted atop burners connected to giant gas pipes. We picked an enormous pot of rice kanji and threaded our way back through throngs of hungry diners, then served it to the devotees. Underneath the seeming disorder of the ashram resided perfect order, I was discovering.
On Sunday afternoon, I lined up at the temple door, and after having my carelessly displayed cell phone confiscated, sat on the floor to listen to Amma’s discourse. She was speaking of differences between men and women in a folksy manner, her talk strewn with references to modern technologies like the Tata Nano car, which had been unveiled only the week before. Respect your women, she advised men. Conduct more scientific research before postulating the equality of men and women in all realms, she advised women.
I felt ambivalent. Her ability to connect with the common Indian was obvious. But did her saintliness emerge from a place of simplicity or enlightenment? Or perhaps her simplicity was her enlightenment?
Later, I stood in line and was served a meal by Amma. In the late afternoon, I stood in another line and received a hug as well. No special epiphanies accompanied these interactions. “She is the ultimate mother. In her arms, I feel like the eternal child,” the Finnish man said. I held my tongue, feeling wistful not to have witnessed something magical, even as my rational mind pooh-poohed the idea. Had I failed to experience the wizardry of Amma because I did not believe? Did I envy the believers and wished to be one of them? No matter how hard I tried, I could not suspend disbelief.
Late at night, Lila returned to our room to offer me a drink of water with which Amma’s feet had been washed. I suppressed waves of revulsion rising within me and somehow avoided the drink. Were the likes of Lila responsible for the cult that surrounded Amma? Or had Amma herself created the myth? I pondered the question as I watched Lila organize her numerous bags of soaps and vitamins and mosquito nets for her upcoming tour of South India aboard Amma’s bus.
Having slept rather late, I wandered across the brand new tsunami bridge the next morning in search of tea. Amritapuri could not have been located at a more picturesque site. On one side roared the Arabian Sea, its waves lapping at a wall of rocks; on the other lay the lazy Kerala backwaters, lined with a dense bush of palms and lianas, from behind which peeked tiny hamlets. In the narrow strip in between sat the village with its concrete bungalows and lush tropical gardens. The kind of poverty one can find on the outskirts of Mumbai or Nagpur was absent here, perhaps due to Amma’s rise in the world’s consciousness. The bungalows, I was told, had been constructed post-tsunami.
Walking past young women in uniforms of brown salwars and beige kameezes, I discovered a man in a lungi stoking charcoal under a bamboo shed. I sat on a bench as the man raised a pot, then elaborately poured tea into a tall glass, reminding me of that old quip, “How many feet of tea do you want?”
A young man wearing a bush shirt and crisply ironed pants, his hair smoothed with oil, ordered a cup of tea as I nostalgically read the titles of tomes in his hand: Electronics, Solid State Physics, Advanced Calculus.
Before Amma built the imposing buildings of the Biomedical Institute, the Ayurvedic University, and the Engineering College, there perhaps was no future for a young man like him here. Now, hope shone on his face.
Later, I walked past bungalows from which entire families emerged, eager to be photographed. Suddenly, I found my cynicism melting away. Not all of Amma’s devotees had apparently been busy drinking water touched by her feet. Some had used their powers of organization as well as technical expertise to create a future where none existed before. One way to view the Amma phenomenon was through an economic lens, I thought. To lonely Westerners, she had offered spirituality, and in exchange, they had created this renaissance of orphanages, schools, Biomedical Institutes, Ayurvedic Universities, Engineering colleges. Was this any worse a transaction than the payment of billions by Westerners to Chinese manufacturers in exchange for flat-screen TVs and children’s plastic toys that our planet would soon drown in?
And was a Wall Street investment banker who performed magic with derivatives, squirreling away millions in fraudulent transactions, any nobler than the Lonely Hearts Club which had created this miracle in the backwaters?
If Amma was a fraud, she was certainly a noble one.
In the evening, all along the beach, men and women sat on sand, watching an orange sun sink into the waves. Finding a spot on an incline, I partook of the fresh coconut I had picked up at a stall along the lane, then, like the others, submerged myself in deep meditation. It is not easy to quiet the mind and surrender to eternal peace, but the tropical breeze lulled me to a serene space within.
Walking past makeshift stalls blaring transistor radios in the dark, I admitted to myself that for the last three days, I had been at peace. How had this come about? Was it because everyone was happy and helpful and calm here? Was it because, unlike at the Sivananda Ashram, where I had come from, the Westerners here mixed with the Indians unassumingly? Or was there something magical in the air of Amritapuri, as many claimed?
Will you come back?” Lila asked me that evening.
“I don’t know,” I lied. The truth was, I knew I would not return. But I did not regret coming. I was grateful for the inexplicable joy I had experienced in this place.