Standing in the elevator at Amritapuri, the ashram of the South Indian saint ‘Amma’, I can’t help but smile from deep within my belly. This place blends the modern and the ancient, the mundane and the spiritual with such grace and humour that it feels like walking in-between worlds. I’d never been to an ashram with an elevator to lift the devotees up to 15 floors of high rise apartments. There are thousands of devotees and visitors both living and visiting the ashram. A continuous stream of seekers pours in and out of the square kilometre of sacred space. Buildings reaching up to the heavens have been built to house the spiritually thirsty pilgrims looking for the Divine Love of the Mother.
Amma has embodied the spiritual essence of the Divine Mother and tirelessly and selflessly gives hugs to the people who flock to her like flies to a cowshed. Actually, the ashram began as a simple cowshed where Amma, a humble young village girl of a coastal fishing town, began giving her ‘Darshan’ (hugs of love) to anyone who sought her loving embrace. Having reached Krishna Consciousness spontaneously as a child (Krishna is like Jesus in the Christian faith), she devoted her life to singing the Divine Name and spreading Divine Love through her hugging darshan. Today she ‘embraces the world’ and travels across the planet hugging thousands and thousands of people endlessly. She regularly sits for hours on end patiently giving each and every individual who seeks her presence the compassionate embrace of Amma (the Divine Mother).
Stickers of Amma’s gleaming face and flower petaled feet have been stuck to the walls of the elevator, and stare back at me as I make my daily trips up and down from the 13th floor dormitory I am calling home. Sleeping on a mat on the floor with three other women seeking mother’s love and kindness, I awaken before the sun and peacefully shuffle into the elevator in the godly hour of just before dawn. Sometimes the elevator is empty and I float down in the silence of Amma’s loving stare from the stickers and the odd lizard who has made his home on the silver walls. Other times the elevator fills with other devotees making their way to the morning prayers. Women in pure white cotton saris and sacred ash spread across their foreheads. Men with just a few teeth left with which to offer a smile, lips moving almost imperceptibly as they mentally vibrate their mantras. Foreign maidens with white dresses and sashes, softly rubbing the sleep from their eyes revealing the newness of this morning ritual. Tiny little nuns not more than four feet tall hunched over in their white attire holding onto tin cups already anticipating the morning chai. The elevator is full of Divine Splendour, and I feel as though I am praying in a temple from within these modern mechanical confines.
Exiting the elevator I float across the cobble stone ground to the sounds of thousands and thousands of crows, pigeons and white herons who have also sought refuge in the sacred space of Amma’s ashram. The sound is piercingly loud and feels as though you’re being flown through a cyclone of birds in some kind of portal to another dimension. Physically I’m walking through a metal detector, a policeman watching me casually as the machine beeps notifying I do indeed have metal on my person. I am never stopped to check what kind of metal I have, and a steady line of other metal holders flow through to create an off-beat stream of purposeless beeping. Are we to feel safer with this redundancy? This is India for you, so many lines and everyone colouring all outside them without flinching. And yet, I can’t show my shoulders to the sun. Some lines you can’t ignore, some you must, and it feels like some kind of spiritual game show trying to figure out which ones are which.
I climb the steps up to the Kali Temple, leaving my sandals at the entrance with hundreds of others creating a rubber carpet of humility. Entering the temple the chanting has begun and a hundred or so women are seated cross legged on the stone tiled floor. The space feels intimate in contrast to the day to come with crowds and hoards of people shuffling about. Here the vibe is soft and subtle, with space to stretch your legs if your mind starts to tick and you can’t sit still. Kali stands at the front of the temple, lit up with fifty or more oil lamps. Her black body glows in the soft light and you can see her red tongue shinning out at you if you look closely. We are reciting the 1,000 names of the Divine Mother in a continuous stream of Sanskrit sounds that roll around in my mouth clumsily. My mouth fills with saliva as the recitation moves my tongue across my pallet. It feels like yoga for the mouth, and they’re going so fast it sort of feels like one of those yoga classes where the teacher keeps switching poses before you can really settle into the first one. Sometimes I just read the English translation and listen to the others chant. We are honouring the Divine Mother in all her incarnations, and remembering the Infinite forms she takes, including us. I look around and wonder what the others might be thinking, or feeling.
When the prayers finish we stand up and stare into the image of Kali, and prostrate our bodies at her feet. Quickly everyone shuffles out of the temple, searches for their sandals, and scurries over to the Chai pots. Huge vats of chai sit on steel pull carts where volunteers are pouring out hundreds of litres of sweet milky salvation. The cue extends out in a serpentine curve, and Indian people continuously hop in where they feel to. It is still dark, and the birds are beginning to settle as the first rays of the dawn begin to grace our eyes. I sit quietly under a Banyan tree and sip my chai reading over the prayers again, enchanted as though I’m reading myself into a secret passageway to heaven.
Now it is time for morning Seva. Amma teaches that through Seva, the devotional practice of selfless service, we can purify ourselves from all our afflictions. She says that by serving others we get out of the loop of selfishness which keeps us trapped in identity solely with the ego. By learning to honour and serve others without self interest, we begin to honour the Divine in all things, which allots as merit to spiritual liberation. When we are stuck in the egocentric identity our vision is limited, whilst when we reach out to serve the whole of creation we can begin to identify as the whole itself. Amma’s ashram runs almost entirely on Seva. From the person checking you into your room, to the one pouring rice and lentils onto your plate, to the one getting you a Sim card set up, or helping you buy a second hand sash at the ashram thrift shop. There is a cafe serving coffee and veggie burgers, a wellness centre serving herbs and crystals, a bookstore, a chocolate shop, an Ayurvedic pharmacy, a coconut stand. Everyone is serving selflessly and making the ashram come to life.
I think everyone lands by Divine grace into the perfect Sev job for them. My seva job was to clean the floors of Amma’s mother’s house and assist in her morning bath. Amma’s mother is 94 years old, and immobile. She is bedridden and is cared for by several devotees. I felt completely honoured to offer my service in any way I could. Amma says that actually the one giving the Seva receives the most benefit, as by giving we energize our spirits. This felt completely true in my Seva. Even the simple act of sweeping and mopping the marble floors felt like being bathed in auspiciousness. On the day when I was asked to assist in lifting her body into a wheelchair to be able to give her her morning bath I could hardly palate the tenderness of the experience. Tears slid from my eyes gracefully, like blossoms falling from a cherry tree in full bloom. I had never seen an elder be cared for with such sincerity and Love. Patiently and meticulously they cleaned every inch of her body temple while reciting internally their mantras.
I felt in a flash of insight the incredible healing occurring within me in the simple act of witnessing this worship within the mundane. I felt my own mother, and my own grandmother, and as though Amma herself was lifting me up to God in the inner caverns of my soul I felt my self offering to care for them if the day should come when it would be needed. Vows were drawn out from within me like a fate pulling out a thread of life from the spool of Infinity. Such a sense of compassion for the apparent other surged through my body, and I felt the essence of Amma alive within me. Like a small seed had sprouted in my navel and was reaching up towards my heart. Amma sees all beings as her children, and is doing absolutely everything she can imagine to serve them on their journey to heaven. The inspiration of this offering lit a fire within me, and now it is my continuous seva to feed that fire with the fodder of kindness. I’ve already made mistakes, had my shortcomings upon the realization of this. Still, I am devotionally doing my best to keep this fire lit within me for the benefit of all.
Completing my service, I make my way back to the elevator to rise up to my room and take my own morning shower. The sun is well up now, and there is a cue for the lift. Someone is sweeping the lobby, another is sitting reciting mantras in a chair. One woman has a basket full of water bottles she is filling to take up to her room. Likely she is cooking for a whole family up there, devotionally carrying on her duties as the woman of the household, even within the container of the ashram. Some people live permanently here. They’ve found a home in the simplicity and chaos of this place. I was asked to pay just $5 per night, and that included three simple meals. Becoming a resident would be a very affordable choice if in need of a sanctuary to re-connect and re-balance. Amma again is offering her Love, here in the form of four walls and a mat with clean sheets and God to hold you. As the elevator rises upwards, the smell of our five bodies mixing amongst each other, I consider the option. The smile in my belly returns and I recognize the blessing of being guided here. To know I am welcome in a space like Amma’s place makes me feel safe and protected.
I’ve at times thought of Ashrams as a viable substitute for a retirement fund. I would rather give my money to an ashram than an old folks’ home. By practicing yoga and following Ayurvedic Lifestyle as best I can I hope to be able to be healthy and well in my body deep into my old age. Rather than go live in a home of old people, or retire on the beach, I see myself settling into an ashram and using my final days solely to pray. I look around the elevator and imagine that perhaps these women are doing just that. Their long silver hairs carefully braided, their forehead adorned with red kumkum powder and sandal paste in a holy mark between the eyes. They inspire something within me that feels familiar. Perhaps I have been them before.
The day passes and I spend my time flowing from reading Amma’s teachings, practicing my yoga under the laundry lined up on the rooftop, sipping chai and singing mantras. Finally it is time to receive Darshan (the hugs, remember). ‘International Visitors’ are allowed to go into the hall and get their token. Yes, the system for Darshan requires everyone to get a token with a number and line up to wait your turn. The merging of the spiritual and the physical can sometimes be so clumsy and adorable. I ended up sitting in line for about 4 hours to receive my Darshan. The cue is a quiet yet dynamic scene, with people from all over the world having pilgrimaged here to feel the Love of the Divine Mother. Devotional songs are being sung continuously, and hundreds are seated to witness the ceremony. Many things are for sale for which to offer Amma. Things like garlands, baskets of candy, fake flowers and silk saris are lined up on tables for people to buy and offer to Amma. She is so showered in gifts that she only wears each garland for a split second before a devotee from behind grabs it from her and hands it off to some mystery hand behind a curtain. ‘Where do all these garlands go?’ I wonder to myself. ‘They are for Amma’ a voice inside me replies, pointing out my limiting material orientation.
I become giddy, rambling on and making dorky jokes and play with those around me. It’s a mix of excitement to receive my embrace and my unique way of passing time joyfully. I try my best to focus my mind and internally recite mantras. Success in that regard comes in waves, and I flow with it. Finally I get to what looks like the head of the cue, only to go through another metal detector. This time it is legitimate, and I am asked to leave all my things outside on a shelf. I move up a ramp and into a little side room of the stage where Amma sits hugging the people. This room is glowing with a soft white light which feels like a mix of the physical lighting and the internal light of all these people patiently waiting for Love and basking in the Love filling the air around us. I am so close to her now, I can see the details of her form like the little silver hairs bordering her face and the texture of her skin. I sink into a deep meditation. Someone has to poke me to get me to move forward. It’s almost my turn. Incredible waves of Bliss move through me, and I sense the purity of Devotion. When I am pulled into her breast a surge of radiant white light pours into me and I am in complete surrender. Time stops and only the endless milky sea exists around me. Suddenly I feel a tugging at my shirt and I am being guided away from Amma.
I prostrate at her feet and visualize myself surrendering everything I am to the Goddess. The ecstatic state lasts some time, and I sit quietly beside the others enraptured in this bliss. I hardly feel my body at all, and sit as though I am the Goddess myself. Nothing to arrive at, no itch to scratch, no thought to think, just pure white Infinite Bliss. Slowly I start to feel the veils of illusion returning, and see the gift of even these veils. I feel Amma’s blessing resting in my heart and know that I will forget this feeling, and remember it, over and over, for the rest of time. For this is the way. This is the play of the mother.
It is now 2 in the morning and as I make my way back to the elevator the ashram is peaceful and almost empty. Most of the people have gone to sleep, and only a few hundred are still left in the hall, witnessing and receiving the Darshan. No one is in the lobby, it is just me, and Amma. The doors open and I enter the private cubby of this now all too familiar machine. Again the stickers of Amma smile back at me and the sheen of her face can be felt from even this sticker slapped on the elevator wall. This woman is a Saint, and I have rested my head in her breast. I feel myself changed, and my sceptical disposition is no where to be seen for the moment. The elevator is Light, with just Love to carry up to Heaven.
Amma was born on the land where the ashram now rests. She was forced by her parents to work endlessly doing household chores, treated essentially like the house slave. With the Love of God she fixed her mind completely on Divine nectar, and washed away all the impurities of limitations. With this she manifested into form ashrams all over the world, an incredible humanitarian aid foundation, and has given countless people the selfless gift of mother’s embrace. Both on the spiritual and physical dimensions of existence Amma has inspired me to be the compassionate, kind, Divine mother I am here to be. In my humanity I know again I will, and do, act selfishly. I vow to grow from the experience of seeing myself as such, and purify my self from the weight of this conditioned selfishness. This is my way to honour Amma.
I came to Amma’s Ashram with the intention of transforming the Impatience and Pride nesting in my limited self into the Patience and Humility of the Divine Mother. Everything about this place served this intention, and I leave with a palpable taste of nectar in my heart. Within the structure of Amma’s place, even in the walls of her elevator, the virtuous grace of the Goddess is alive. The magic is moving this feeling through all of life, so one can see Amma’s face in everything. So we can see the Divine Mother, the Creator of Everything, staring back at us offering infinite darshan, infinite prasad, infinite blessings in every speck of dust that comes our way. To come to see all of Life as one continuous Darshan from God is to know absolute liberation. Sometimes we just need a little lift to get some perspective.