Author and “techgnostic” Erik Davis profiles Indian guru Mata Amritanandamayi (aka “Amma”) and her ever-growing worldwide organization for Salon.com. Davis, while acknowledging the cosmic “warmth” of Amma’s famous hugs and praising her notable humanitarian efforts, also points out that many Westerners are ignorant of the unseemly ties Amma’s organization has to Hindu nationalism in her native land.
“Of course, with abundance comes power, and power means politics. Amma’s flock certainly includes individuals and organizations associated with right-wing Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva. Many Hindutva ministers of state are Amma devotees, including former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, and her ranks swell with members of the RSS and VHP, nationalist organizations that have been accused of, among other things, helping foment the bloody Gujarat riots in 2002. These are complex issues, of course, and Amma is the very opposite of fascist demagogue. But many of the liberal Westerners lining up for their hug have no understanding of how their guru plays in reactionary or “fundamentalist” circles in a modern India with a large Muslim population. And the global managers of her brand are perfectly happy to keep it that way.”
Another growing issue within Amma’s organization (Mata Amritanandamayi Math) is the growing commercialism that some believe is tainting Amma’s message of universal love and acceptance. This has lead to Amma vinyl dolls, documentaries glorifying her works*, and the questionable use of devotees as free labor.
“One ex-devotee, who is wary enough of the organization that she asked me to simply call her Lakshmi, describes the Amma scene as a competitive, back-biting and self-righteous culture where volunteers are encouraged to work beyond the point of exhaustion in order to please Mother. “There is a very strong focus on selfless service,” she wrote in an e-mail. ‘However, much of the ‘selfless service’ in the West involves assisting people who have enough money to pay for retreats so that there is no paid labor during these programs.’ Lakshmi left the organization partly because she ‘realized that seva might be short for slave labor.'”
Davis ends his article by talking about some of Amma’s famous followers (including J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr.), and expressing the curious dynamic of the seemingly down-to-earth “saint” and her powerful worldwide influence where she is considered something of a living goddess.
“Amma once again takes the stage. The curtains part, and she is sitting in an elaborate throne beneath a parasol bedecked with flowers. The plain white sari is gone, replaced with crimson robes, carnations and a crown. This is Devi Bhava, a popular ceremony where Amma visibly performs the presence of the Goddess. The devotees are lined up to the sides of the stage, the front lines of a battalion of devotees whose assault on this plump fisherwoman would last all night. As they surge toward Amma, her face blooms into a radiant, unrestrained glee, and for a spell she looks much less like a cosmic matriarch than a great big kid.”
This article is very instructive of how little we truly understand religion in India. Often we have simplified ideas of gods, gurus, and Gandhi, and it can lead us into idealized conceptions of complex political and spiritual realities (which in turn, leads some to fiscal and spiritual ruin). This situation has inspired some, like blogger Jody Radzik of Guruphiliac, to expose the feet of clay that many of these gurus and “saints” possess.
“While we understand that gurus are held sacred by many, they are also public figures deserving of scrutiny. Our primary aim is to inject a little humor into what can be an excessively self-righteous enterprise, and to illustrate the primary truth that no matter how divine their devotees believe them to be, gurus poop on the same pot we do.”
In the end, it comes down to being cautious of where you place your faith, in the words of another famous guru “be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” when choosing a spiritual leader or teacher.
* Curious about Amma I rented and attempted to watch the documentary “Darshan: The Embrace” only to find it entirely too fawning, and worst of all, quite boring.