Mata Amrtanandamayi Devī (born as Sudhamani Idamannel on September 27, 1953), primarily known simply as Amma[“Mother”], is a Hindu spiritual leader and guru, who is revered as a saint by her followers. She is widely respected for her humanitarian activities. She has been referred to as “The Hugging Saint”.
Mata Amritanandamayi Devi was born in the fishing village of Parayakadavu (now partially known as Amritapuri), Alappad Panchayat, Kollam District, Kerala in 1953 in the state of Kerala. Born to a family of fishermen, she was the third child of Sugunanandan and Damayanti. Her education ended at the age of nine, when she began to take care of her younger siblings and the family domestic work full-time.
As part of her chores, Amritanandamayi gathered food scraps from neighbors for her family’s cows and goats, through which she was confronted with the intense poverty and suffering of others. She would bring these people food and clothing from her own home. Her family, which was not wealthy, scolded and punished her. Amritanandamayi also began to spontaneously embrace people to comfort them in their sorrow. It was not permissible for a 14-year-old girl to touch others, especially men. But despite the reaction of her parents, Amritanandamayi continued. Regarding her embracing of others, Amritanandamayi commented, “I don’t see if it is a man or a woman. I don’t see anyone different from my own self. A continuous stream of love flows from me to all of creation. This is my inborn nature. The duty of a doctor is to treat patients. In the same way, my duty is to console those who are suffering.”
Despite numerous attempts by her parents to arrange her marriage, Amritanandamayi rejected their efforts. In 1981, after various seekers had begun residing at her parents’ property in Parayakadavu in the hopes of becoming Amritanandamayi’s disciples, the Mata Amritanandamayi Math, a worldwide foundation, was founded. Amritanandamayi serves as chairperson of the Math. Today the Mata Amritanandmayi Math is engaged in many spiritual and charitable activities.
In 1987, at the request of devotees, Amritanandamayi began to conduct programs in countries throughout the world. She has done so annually ever since. Countries Amritanandamayi has held programs in include Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chile, England, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and the United States of America.
Darshan means “to see” in Sanskrit. In the Hindu ritual tradition, it refers to seeing the sacred. This typically corresponds to seeing the sacred in the image of a deity while at temple. It is believed that, in beholding the image of a deity, onlookers absorb through their eyes the powers of that deity. Darshan hence is believed to have the capacity to bring good fortune, well-being, and grace to those who participate in the act. Members of Amritanandamayi’s following use the term specifically in reference to receiving a hug from Amritanandamayi.
Amritanandamayi has been giving darshan in this manner since her late teenage years. As to how this began, Amritanandamayi says, “People used to come and tell [me] their troubles. They would cry and I would wipe their tears. When they fell weeping into my lap, I used to hug them. Then the next person too wanted it… And so the habit picked up.” Amritanandamayi’s organization, the Mata Amritanandamayi Math, claims Amritanandamayi has embraced more than 31 million people throughout the world.
When asked, in 2002, to what extent does she think her embraces help the ills of the world? Amritanandamayi replied, “I don’t say I can do it 100 percent. Attempting to change the world [completely] is like trying to straighten the curly tail of a dog. But society takes birth from people. So by affecting individuals, you can make changes in the society and, through it, in the world. You cannot change it, but you can make changes. The fight in individual minds is responsible for the wars. So if you can touch people, you can touch the world.”
Amritanandamayi’s darshan is the centerpiece of her life, as she has received people nearly every day since the late 1970s. With the size of the crowds coming to seek Amritanandamayi’s blessings increasing, there are times when she gives darshan continuously for more than 20 hours. In a conversation recorded in the 2004 book From Amma’s Heart, Amritanandamayi says: “As long as these hands can move a little bit and reach out to those who come to her, and as long as there is a little strength and energy to place her hands on a crying person’s shoulder and caress and wipe their tears, Amma will continue giving darshan. To lovingly caress people, console and wipe their tears, until the end of this mortal frame is Amma’s wish.”
Amma has been known to spend as many as 20 to 30 hours at a stretch, hugging devotees and visitors at her congregations. Clad in a snow-white sari, the beaming Amma literally holds thousands to her bosom, whispering in their ears, “my child,” “darling son” or “darling daughter”, listening to their troubles and their deepest spiritual longings, without pause for food or even a sip of water.
Amma treats everyone alike, from the billionaire to the beggar, from the newborn to the elderly, from the antagonist to the ardent admirer. According to Swamini Atma Prana: “Each person who goes to see Amma, even if he or she be the seven-thousandth person in the darshan (divine glimpse) queue, will receive the same attention from her.” This familiar closeness is so moving that many burst out in tears.
Asked once whether she felt tired after giving darshan for so many hours on end to thousands of people, Amma replied: “Where there is love, there is no effort.” She adds: “When you give more, your coffers are always full. You acquire the double of what you give.”
Intrigued by this unusual guru, The Los Angeles Times asked Amma: “Why do you hug people?” She replied: “This question is like asking the river, ‘why are you flowing?’ Does anyone ask his or her mother, ‘why do you hug me?'” she replied. During a memorable discussion, the BBC had a doubt: “You hug millions of people all over the world, who hugs you?” The answer was: “The entire creation hugs me.”
The ‘hugging saint’ has an explanation for her own famous hug: “From the outside it looks like an ordinary hug. But when Amma hugs people, she is transmitting a bit of her spiritual energy into them, which will help them feel Divine Love and open up more.” Bill Schekner of the CBS also wrote that Amma’s hug is an expression of the need to embrace the world and flood it with love.
Amma never forgets to emphasize the need for love. In a live interview aired on July 10, 2001, the NBC Today show host Ann Curry asked Amma about her impression of present-day USA and its need for the kind of compassion Amma teaches. Amma answered: “Whether in America or in any other part of the world, motherhood is not a quality that women alone should have. Men should also awaken to their innate feminine qualities, which is the need of the age. All over the world, people have an intense longing to experience pure love. They are in search of that love, but are not finding it. Rather, each person is becoming an object in the other person’s hand.”
Apart from her famous accessibility, what adds to Amma’s infinite appeal to all kinds of people is her multidimensional nature. Different people experience Amma according to their own levels of evolution. For some she is the fountain of ultimate spiritual knowledge. For many she is the loving mother whom you can turn to in moments of crisis and to resolve everyday problems. For others she is a miraculous healer of illnesses.
For a person who follows the path of devotion (bhakti yoga), Amma is a true devotee par excellence. One who pursues the path of knowledge (jnana yoga) perceives a perfect Knower of the Self in her. And for the one who follows the path of action (karma yoga), Amma is the ultimate karmayogi. But a person with a clear comprehension can see that Amma is a multidimensional integration of all these aspects. To her devotees, she is a Divine incarnation of the Mother Goddess.
There are countless stories of wonderful transformations that happen in the lives of those who meet Amma.
The story of Amma’s senior disciple Swami Amritatmananda Puri is an excellent example. He was born in a wealthy family of Kerala, India and grew up as a modern youth indulging in worldly pleasures. He remembers: “I had problems with my business. I came, not seeing Amma as a spiritual master, but to know my future. After darshan, all of a sudden, a great transformation occurred in my life. It was as if I woke up from a dream forgetting everything about my family, home and worldly life. Then onwards, I surrendered my life to Amma.”
While visiting Gangotri, Hardwar and Rishikesh in India, as a wandering monk, he experienced miraculous visitations from Amma. It was not a mere feeling of her presence. “She actually came to me several times. Amma showed me how a master protects a disciple. It is a miracle for ordinary human beings like us,” he says.
In the souvenir published to mark the inauguration of the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Kochi, India, in 1998, T.N. Seshan, former Chief Election Commissioner of India, revealed that Amma was his constant inspiration during his crusade to clean the stables of Indian politics. He wrote: “Battling political parties when everybody doubted that anyone could hold our political parties at bay, I was able to do it with Amma’s grace… By the virtue of the love I received from the Mother of Amritapuri, I found the strength to declare falsehood as falsehood, and truth as truth.”
In his message on Amma’s birthday last month, former Indian CBI director D.R. Kaarthikeyan wrote: ”When I asked many foreigners why they follow Amma wherever she goes when they cannot even fluently communicate with her, their reply was: ‘We need not converse with her. It is enough to be in her divine presence and just keep looking at her eyes always full of grace, compassion and love’.’
Says S.K. Nair, director of Modi Alkalies and Chemicals, India, who is also the secretary of Amma’s Math (abbey) in Delhi, India: “Amma communicates with everyone through the language of the heart. I have seen her talking with the same concern and involvement when discussing issues of national importance as she does when listening to an old woman from a village whose cow has stopped yielding milk.”
Amma sees the atman (soul) in everyone.
“As with any other organization, there is a hierarchy in the ashram. However, there is no sense of superiority or inferiority associated with the different levels of the hierarchy. The overwhelming feeling is that everyone is part of one big family of the Divine Mother. Everyone has a special bond with Mother, and each is focused on enjoying every moment that he/she spends with Mother,” explains Brahmachari Shubamrita Chaitanya, honorary editor of the ashram’s monthly magazine, Matruvani.
According to Brahmachari Dhyanamrita Chaitanya, one of Amma’s disciples, Amma, who is grounded in immortal bliss, knows everyone’s innermost thoughts. Once, during darshan, when thousands of devotees were present, he tried to test Amma. He prayed in his mind: “Mother, please look at me.” He switched his position several times. But to his astonishment, every time, Amma looked at him and smiled. She later revealed things about him that nobody could have known. His doubts ended and he became her devotee.
THE WORLD APPLAUDS
Satsang(religious congregation) with Amma is an intense affair. Amma and the brahmacharis and brahmacharinis (celibates) lead devotional bhajans (Indian devotional music)and the devotees are guided to meditate. Amma discusses complex spiritual truths in the simplest language. Her discourses are often laced with witty remarks and anecdotes that drive home complex ideas with force. This was evident in her address at the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual leaders in the UN General Assembly during the session on ‘The Role of Religion in Conflict Transformation’ on August 29, 2000. Her reference to weapons received special applause. She said: “Simply transferring the world’s nuclear weapons to a museum will not in itself bring about world peace. The nuclear weapons of the mind must first be eliminated.”
Amma received a standing ovation when she related a story of three spiritual leaders. This story is a parody of contemporary efforts towards peace. “The leaders of three religions—A, B and C—once decided to convene a meeting for peace. God was so pleased with their efforts that He sent an angel to them during the meeting. The angel asked the leaders what they wished. The leader of religion A said: ‘Religion B is responsible for all the problems. So please wipe them off the face of earth!’ The leader of religion B said: ‘Religion A is the cause of all our troubles. You have to reduce them to ashes!’ By now the angel was disappointed. The angel turned expectantly to the leader of religion C. With an expression of grave humility, C’s leader said: ‘I wish nothing for myself. It will be enough if you merely grant the prayers of my two colleagues.'”
A LEGEND UNFOLDS
Amma’s rise from a misunderstood and abused, God-intoxicated village girl to a guru who offers solace to millions, is the stuff legends are made of. She is said to have been born with Supreme Consciousness and never sought guidance from any guru.
In Kollam district in Kerala, India, there is a sleepy village, Parayakadavu, that nestles between the Arabian Sea and the backwaters. Amma was born there in 1953, the fourth child of Sugunananadan and Damayanti, poor fisher folk. The baby, named Sudhamani, is said to have had a dark blue complexion. By the age of five, she had started singing devotional songs in praise of Lord Krishna.
For little Sudhamani, life was stormy. Her devotional moods, singing, dancing and ecstatic trances were incomprehensible to both her own family and the local people. Most people thought the child was eccentric.
Sudhamani was the servant of her family. Her day began at three in the morning and an endless stream of household chores like cooking, washing clothes, milking the cow, fetching water and cleaning continued till midnight. Her mother was always ill. Despite being an exceptional student, she was forced to quit school by the age of nine.
In spite of her backbreaking schedule, Sudhamani found time to help others. She would give food and clothes away and take money from her father’s wallet to serve the needy because of which, she was severely beaten.
THE DIVINE BHAVAS
Sudhamani’s devotional moods continued to deepen and she began seeing the divine everywhere. Her family often locked her out of the house without food. She slept outdoors and meditated on the seashore. The sand was her bed, the stars her blanket and the moon her only light.
In this connection, it is worth noting that the sadhana (devotion) that mahatmas perform is called sadhana leela. They do not need to undergo any spiritual discipline, But to set an example to the world, they undergo austerities. Amma gives the example of an instructor at a school for the speech- and hearing-impaired who communicates with the students through sign language. Not that he cannot communicate otherwise, but to communicate with the students, he has to use a mode of communication that is meaningful to them.
Thus, having undergone or displayed (we know not which) rigorous sadhana, Amma then manifested her oneness with the divine from September 1975 onwards through the Krishna and Devi Bhavas. As Amma says: “All the deities of the Hindu pantheon, who represent the infinite aspects of the One Supreme Being, exist within us as well. A divine incarnation can manifest any one of them for the good of the world by mere will.”
Amma braved untold suffering and obstacles in implementing her mission on earth. Skeptics organized a committee to stop ‘blind beliefs’ and fought her vehemently. Earlier, some of her antagonists used to stone her and there were even attempts to kill her by stabbing and poisoning. Her own brother was her greatest enemy. The committee’s activities led to court cases and several investigations. She was accused of lunacy and cheating people in the name of devotion. But all these attempts to silence her eventually failed and the opposition gradually fizzled out.
SPIRITUALITY THAT WORKS
To Mata Amritanandamayi, spirituality is not an excuse to escape from the material world. She is not an ivory tower guru. She teaches that compassion is a prerequisite for realizing the Self. Selfless service leads ultimately to liberation.
In her address to the Parliament of World Religions, Chicago, on September 3, 1993, Amma said: “Our spiritual quest should begin with selfless service to the world. People will be disappointed if they sit in meditation, expecting a third eye to open after closing the other two. This is not going to happen. We cannot close our eyes to the world in the name of spirituality and expect to evolve. To behold unity while viewing the world through open eyes is spiritual realization.”
According to Swami Amritatmananda Puri, Amma’s message is ‘Universal love, fraternity and service.’ “When you have a guru like Amma, through her grace you are automatically inspired to serve the world. Amma always says you have to look at the sad, poor people and their sorrows,” he adds.
Swamini Krishnamrita Prana points out that in Amma’s teaching, there is no difference between spirituality and the world. “You have to live in the world so that every action of yours will be with a good attitude and intention to help someone,” she says.
Swami Amritaswarupananda Puri also stresses that Amma’s philosophy is not otherworldly. “There is no difference between spirituality and life or love and life. Love and life are one.”
Often referring to herself in the third person, Amma describes her mission: “The purpose of this body and of Mother’s whole life is to serve her children.” Amma practices what she teaches. She is the hardest worker at her ashram. She can be seen carrying bricks to building sites, cooking for her disciples and feeding them with her own hand and tending cows or cleaning toilets apart from overseeing ashram affairs and maintaining a world travel and teaching schedule.
The loving Amma is also a strict disciplinarian to her disciples. Amma’s ordained students observe strict celibacy and the residents of her ashram meditate eight hours a day in addition to doing service. Amma has said that her strict standards for her disciples are aimed at keeping their ego in check and inculcating an aptitude for selfless service. It is not in conflict with her love. Amma breaks the ego to bring out the real essence.
The Timeless Path, Swami Ramakrishnananda Puri, one of Amritanandamayi’s senior disciples, writes: “The [spiritual] path inculcated by Amma is the same as the one presented in the Vedas and recapitulated in subsequent traditional scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita.” Amritanandamayi herself says, “Karma [action], jñana [knowledge] and bhakti [devotion] are all essential. If the two wings of a bird are devotion and action, knowledge is its tail. Only with the help of all three can the bird soar into the heights.” She accepts the various spiritual practices and prayers of all religions as but various systems for the single goal of purifying the mind. Along these lines, she stresses the importance of meditation, performing actions as karma yoga, selfless service, and cultivating divine qualities such compassion, patience, forgiveness, self-control, etc. Amritanandamayi says that these practices refine the mind, making it fit for assimilating the ultimate truth: that one is not the limited body and mind but the eternal blissful consciousness that serves as the non-dual substratum of the universe. This understanding itself Amritanandamayi refers to as jivanmukti [liberation while alive]. Amritanandamayi says, “Jivanmukti is not something to be attained after death, nor is it to be experienced or bestowed upon you in another world. It is a state of perfect awareness and equanimity, which can be experienced here and now in this world, while living in the body. Having come to experience the highest truth of oneness with the Self, such blessed souls do not have to be born again. They merge with the infinite.”
She has many disciples of her teaching that have carried on her work, such as Swami Amritaswaroopananda.
On May 6, 1981, the Mata Amritanandamayi Math and Mission Trust was founded in the house where Amma was born. From then onwards, Amma adopted the name ‘Mata Amritanandamayi’ (Mother of Immortal Bliss) given to her by a brahmachari (celibate initiate) disciple who later blossomed into a poet with the Mother’s grace and came to be known as Swami Turiyamritananda Puri. By 1985, there were nearly 20 branch ashrams in India and abroad.
In 1987, at age 33, responding to the request of devotees from the USA and Europe, Amma made her first world tour. In 1989, the Mata Amritananadamayi Center, a residential ashram and retreat canter, was established just outside San Francisco. Since then, similar centers have sprung up in Canada, England, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Finland, Argentina, Brazil, Mauritius, Reunion Island, Japan and Singapore.
Amma has been visiting her devotees throughout the world ever since. In 1993, she was elected as a member of the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. In the same year, Hinduism Today, an international journal on Indian culture, conferred the ‘Hindu Renaissance’ award on Amma. In 1995, she was invited to speak at the interfaith celebration in New York to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
Amritanandamayi’s world-wide charitable mission includes a program to house the homeless, build orphanages, and provide relief-and-rehabilitation in the aftermath of disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, free medical care, pensions for widows and disabled people, aid environmental-protection groups, renovate and urbanize slums, build care facilities for the elderly, and offer free food and clothing for the poor. These projects are overseen by various organizations, including the Mata Amritanandamayi Math (India), the Mata Amritanandamayi Center (USA), Amritanandamayi-Europe, Amritanandamayi-Japan, Amritanandamayi-Kenya, Amritanandamayi-Australia, etc. All the organizations collectively are known as Embracing the World. When asked about how her charitable mission’s development in 2004, Amritanandamayi said, “As for the activities, there was no planning. Everything happened spontaneously. One thing led to another on seeing the plight of the poor and the distressed. As Amma meets each and every person, she sees their problems face to face and tries to do something to alleviate their suffering. Om lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu is one of the important mantras of Sanatana Dharma, which means, ‘May all the beings in all the worlds be happy and peaceful.’ The spirit of this mantra was put into action.” The majority of work is done by volunteers as a form of spiritual practice. “It is Amma’s wish that all of her children should dedicate their lives to spreading love and peace throughout the world. Real love and devotion for God is to have compassion for the poor and the suffering,” Amritanandamayi says. “My children, feed those who are hungry, help the poor, console the sorrowful, comfort the suffering, be charitable to all.”
Amritanandamayi is well known for her devotional singing. There are more than 100 recordings of her singing bhajans in more than 20 languages. She has also composed dozens of bhajans and set them to traditional ragas. Regarding devotional singing as a spiritual practice, Amritanandamayi says, “If the bhajan is sung with one-pointedness, it is beneficial for the singer, the listeners, and Nature as well. Later when the listeners reflect on the songs, they will try to live in accordance with the lessons enunciated therein.” Amritanandamayi says that in today’s world, it is often difficult for people to get one-pointed concentration in meditation, but this concentration can be attained much easier through devotional singing.
Sreeni Pattathanam, the Kerala-based head of the Indian Rationalist Association, wrote Matha Amritanandamayi: Sacred Stories and Realities, a controversial critique first published in 1985. At that time Amritanandamayi was not as famous as she is now. The author claims that all the miracles of Amritanandamayi are bogus and that there have been many suspicious deaths in and around her ashram which need police investigation. The book contains references to court records, newspaper reports and quotations from literary figures, including statements from devotees, residents of the Math, relatives of Amritanandamayi and an interview with Amritanandamayi herself. The book was published again in 2002. In 2004, the Kerala State Government sanctioned criminal prosecution of Patthathanam, the owner of the publishing company and the printer of the book on grounds that religious sentiments had been offended. The order followed directions from the Kerala High Court to the Home Department for considering an application by T.K. Ajan, a resident of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math. The order ultimately received international attention and was rescinded after criticism by Humanists, Rationalists, writers and intellectuals worldwide.
Books and publications
Amritanandamayi’s disciples have transcribed her conversations with devotees and spiritual seekers to create approximately a dozen books of her teachings known as “Awaken Children”. The addresses she has delivered at various international forums have also been published in book form. Senior disciples including Swami Ramakrishnananda Puri, Swami Turiyamritananda Puri, Swami Paramatmananda and Swamini Krishnamrita Prana have also written books about their experiences with Amritanandamayi and their understanding of Amritanandamayi’s teachings. Swami Amritaswarupananda Puri, the Vice-Chairman of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math, has written a biography about Amritanandamayi. The Mata Amritanandamayi Math also publishes Matruvani, a monthly spiritual magazine, as well as Immortal Bliss, a quarterly. Beginning in April 2011, a bi-weekly message from Amritanandamayi has appeared in the Lifestyle section of the Express Buzz Sunday supplement of the New Indian Express newspaper.
- Founder & Chairperson, Mata Amritanandamayi Math
- Founder, Embracing the World
- Chancellor, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University
- Founder, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS Hospital)
- Parliament of the World’s Religions, International Advisory Committee Member
Awards and honours
- 1993, ‘President of the Hindu Faith’ (Parliament of the World’s Religions)
- 1993, Hindu Renaissance Award (Hinduism Today)
- 1998, Care & Share International Humanitarian of the Year Award (Chicago)
- 2002, Karma Yogi of the Year (Yoga Journal)
- 2002, Gandhi-King Award for Non-Violence by The World Movement for Nonviolence (UN, Geneva)
- 2005, Mahavir Mahatma Award (London)
- 2005, Centenary Legendary Award of the International Rotarians (Cochin)
- 2006, James Parks Morton Interfaith Award (New York)
- 2006, The Philosopher Saint Sri Jnaneswara World Peace Prize (Pune)
- 2007, Le Prix Cinéma Vérité (Cinéma Vérité, Paris)
2010, The State University of New York awarded Amma an honorary doctorate in humane letters on May 25, 2010 at its Buffalo campus.