Jovanna and I visited Amma’s Ashram in southern India in 2017.
I had not heard much about Amma before we arrived. In fact, we had only heard about the ashram a few days before, from the doorman at our hotel in Trivandrum 😂
Pulling up to the gates of Amma’s Ashram, I wasn’t expecting a life-changing experience. I had no idea what was about to hit me.
Today, we are proud, excited, and grateful to announce that we will be featuring Amma on the cover of our upcoming issue, Powerful Women in Meditation.
The print piece will be full of beautiful photos from Amma and the Amritapuri Ashram, but we wanted to give you a little preview by sharing a piece of the article (and interview!) below.
Amma’s Ashram, 2017
The red dirt road from Karunagappally to Amritapuri was quiet and peaceful, even as we bounced up and down in our ornately patterned faux leather seats.
The rickshaw rattled along, kicking up clouds of dust in its wake, as Karin, the German hitchhiker we’d picked up in the bus station, enthused excitedly about Amma’s ashram.
“It’s an oasis amid the chaos.”
I didn’t doubt it for a second. I had been feeling it since we’d arrived in Karunagappally. I was blown away by the dramatic contrast from the energy of the surrounding regions.
As we pulled up to the gates of Amma’s ashram, I could feel peace and love emanating from inside, like heat radiating from a crackling fireplace on a snowy winter’s night.
In an instant, I felt my heart open in a way that I had never experienced before. My mind was blown. I felt tears sprouting from my eyes and running down my cheeks.
Until that moment, I had always raised a skeptical eyebrow when spiritual people applied physics concepts, like energy, vibration and radiation, to “non-physical” phenomena like emotions, peace, love, and states of consciousness. But in that moment, it was as clear as the sunlight streaming down from the bright morning sky.
As I peered through the gates of the ashram, I saw smiling happy people, walking around with consciousness and intention, in an eclectic mix of Aladdin Pants, western clothes, and flowing white saris and dhotis.
There was a young woman talking to an old man in the middle of the courtyard; their faces were engaged and filled with enthusiasm for their conversation. There was a line of people at the welcome counters, waiting to be checked into or checked out of their rooms… but rather than bored or grumpy, they looked peaceful and happy standing there in the glorious morning light, surrounded by other happily conscious people. The people in white saris working behind the admissions counters wore bright smiles and spoke in patient and compassionate tones.
The distant sound of sitar music gave the scene a spiritual and uniquely Indian vibe — I thought I heard a cheerful chant of “Om Namah Shivaya” echoing from the hall across the courtyard — and the smell of fresh baked bread delighted my nostrils.
The energy of the place was infectious, and I instantly caught the contagion. The tension that I had built up over the past few days melted away in a moment, replaced by a relaxed smile, a zest for life and a heart full of love.
I felt like there were physical waves of peace & love emanating from the ashram, rippling outward, passing through my body, radiating all the way to Karunagappally… and, more distantly… into the rest of the world and the Universe as a whole!
And at the center of it all: Amma, The Hugging Saint, sitting for 20+ hours per day, literally embracing the millions of people who flock to her every day from the four corners of the Earth, generating powerful waves of love that roll out into the Oceans of consciousness that float, like an ethereal atmosphere, atop the surface of our planet.
I knew right away that this single moment of heart-opening realization would change my life forever. And this was before we even walked through the gates.
I could go on and on about Amma — how she started spreading love as a nine year old girl in a tiny fishing village, hugging people who were hungry, sick and struggling… how surrounding villagers recognized her beautiful heart from a young age, and began flocking to her as a saint… how this little girl’s love has manifested, through the decades, as a thriving ashram-metropolis, filled with thousands of devotees, apartment complexes, restaurants and cafes, Amrita University (focused on STEM and engineering, considered one of the top universities in India and ranked 81st in the world in Time Higher Education’s Impact Ratings), and the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences & Research Center, a massive state-of-the art hospital doing cutting-edge research in oncology and other areas… how she and her organizations have provided millions of dollars in relief and hundreds of thousands of volunteer-hours to help disaster victims all over the world… but that beautiful piece of history would fill an entire book.
If you want to learn more about Amma — including how she has hugged 40+ million people (shattering all hugging-related world records), provided free medical care to more than five million people, built more than 47,000 homes for the homeless, provides financial aid to more than 100,000 people unable to care for themselves, not to mention her orphanages, soup kitchens, self-help groups and environmental projects — check out Amma’s official website at amritapuri.org, and the beautiful documentary videos we made while we were at the ashram as well!
More recently, we had the opportunity to interview Amma via email, about spreading peace & love during a global pandemic:
Amma’s Ashram During The Pandemic
How has the pandemic impacted life at the Ashram?
Amma: At the instructions of the Government, we had to close the doors to visitors in March of last year. But there are more than 3,500 residents in the Ashram. They have taken this time to focus on their spiritual practices and scriptural study. Following social distancing and wearing masks, we have the morning chanting and meditation. Each evening, we have meditation, spiritual talks and bhajans [singing devotional songs], as well as the White Flowers of Peace Prayer to alleviate the pain and suffering of those in the world.
At the same time, many ashram residents have turned their attention to doing what they can to help fight the pandemic. Those who teach at our university [Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham] have always aimed their research at developments that can help the sick and poor. When the pandemic started, all the various departments started working to see what they could do to assist the those working on the frontlines. They have made low-cost nanofiber M96 masks and low-cost PAPR kits. One son has even made a robot for sanitizing rooms. Currently students and members of AYUDH [the Ashram’s youth organization] are running 24-hour call-centers to help people get the assistance they need. We also conducted outreach programs to educate tribal populations about the disease. And we gave money towards the Indian government’s relief programs—Rs. 13 crores [$1.7 million USD]. Around the world, many of the centers have been supplying food and other essentials to people. I receive hundreds of letters every day from devotees all over the world. They are always in my mind. When I can, I call them and see how they are doing. We are also having broadcasts of the evening programs for the public once a month.
All we can do now is follow the government protocols, pray and accept the situation. With grace, before too long visitors will be able to come back to the ashram.
How can we comfort people when we can’t touch them?
Amma: It’s true that people receive a lot of comfort from such things. However, consider this as a time for all of us to find comfort and contentment from within, by dwelling in the Inner Self. That is the greatest security one can ever have. In reality, the ever-present Self alone is the one and only source of love, peace and security. If we are able to tap into that inner source of love, they can never be obstructed by physical distance.
In truth, where there is true love, there is no distance. Understanding this, we should make a firm decision that we will remain happy and courageous, regardless of the circumstances. Whether we laugh or cry, the days are going to pass by. So, why not be happy? When you make the decision to face life cheerfully, no matter what it brings, it will definitely create an atmosphere of happiness around you. This ambience will also impart happiness and optimism to those around you as well.
However, the reality is that even before the pandemic started and even after it is over when physical interaction is possible again, the majority of people feel isolated and lonely. People spend a lot of time on things like Facebook, but they rarely look into the faces around them with love and compassion. We have to discover that true peace and love rest is the Inner Self. Just as Internet connection has become an indispensable part of the modern-day world, we should also connect ourselves with the “Inner-net.” When we can do that, even if we are physically “locked down,” within we will be free.
How would you comfort someone who is suffering from Covid, or who has lost a loved one in the pandemic?
Amma: Indeed, this is a distressful period for the entire world. It is deeply saddening to see so many people becoming sick and dying every day. More than four million people have died already from this virus, and we don’t know how many more will perish.
We should all pray for the peace and upliftment of the departed souls, as well as for the peace and wellbeing of their loved ones. We should also pray for the millions who are still struggling with the disease and suffering from its economic impact. Such selfless prayers never go to waste. For me, inside, there is always a prayer for everyone—for the entire creation: lokah samasta sukhino bhavantu [“May all beings in the whole world be happy”]. All over the world, for so many years now, this has been the prayer I’ve been leading millions of people in, as part of their spiritual practices.
Eventually death is inevitable for everyone, but the agonizing pain that surrounds us is heartbreaking. But never lose self-confidence. Never feel down and depressed. Instead, let us try to arise and awaken. This is a time to love, serve and be compassionate to others through our actions and words. This is an opportunity to intensify our spiritual practices and pray with our whole heart.
When someone loses a loved one, talking to them about Vedanta and spiritual philosophy are rarely helpful or appropriate. Instead, it is the time to simply be there for them—to extend to them our concern and compassion. In many places in the world, we still cannot interact physically. We cannot even give them our shoulder to cry on. But we can be in touch with them through the phone and give them comfort. Do whatever you can to show them love.
Spirituality teaches us that death is not a complete annihilation. It is only like putting a period at the end of a sentence. Just as we continue writing, life continues. Understanding this will give us inner strength and self-confidence.
You have said that the pandemic is Nature’s response to humankind’s exploitation of her, can you elaborate on that?
Amma: For a very long time, Mother Nature has forborne and forgiven all the abuse man has heaped upon her out of his selfishness. However, with the coronavirus, she has made it clear that this isn’t always going to be the case. The pandemic has been a loud alarm sounded by Nature. She wants us to wake up and see all the harm our greed and exploitation are causing. If we can do that, then this pandemic will be like stepping on a thorn and gaining the awareness to later avoid stepping on a snake. We have to remember that by destroying Nature, we are destroying ourselves. We have to become humble before Nature. We have to love and serve her. At least now, we should stop our ceaseless selfish exploitation of her. We need to plant more trees and stop polluting the earth, rivers and air. Let it never come to pass that in order for the world to survive, man has to die.
What should we keep in mind as we move back into post-COVID reality?
Amma: We have to learn the lessons that COVID has taught us and never forget them. We have to recognize the mistakes we were making and not repeat them. We should never forget the infinite power of Nature and that we should never disturb or provoke her. Because she can completely wipe us out in the blink of an eye.
It’s okay to fulfill desires that are within the scope of dharma [righteousness], but not those that transcend ethical limits. We need to view all of our fellow beings and Nature with eyes of love and treat them with love, compassion and respect. We need awareness in our thoughts, words and deeds. We cannot keep living only in the intellect. We need to live in the heart. The intellect is like a pair of scissors; it cuts everything apart. The heart, on the other hand, is like a needle and thread; it sews everything together in unity and harmony. If humankind doesn’t make these changes, we will have to face worse, more dangerous disasters in the future.
From this pandemic, we should understand the reality that even our next breath is not in our hands. The present moment alone is ours. It’s our ability to practice awareness and discernment in the present moment that determines our real lifespan. How many people were not even able to catch a glimpse of their loved ones when they died? So many people had to leave their bodies without any loved ones at their bedside. This shows us that the present moment is all we have. In truth, we are always alone—whether or not we are in a crowd or in solitude. We should try to maintain awareness of this truth and keep the realization of the Supreme as our primary goal.
But at the same time, we have to remember that no one is separate from us. Even if the sun is reflected in 100 pots of water, there is still only one sun—right? Similarly, in truth, there is but one Supreme Self that is expressing itself through all beings and forms in creation. When our right hand is pain, our left hand will automatically comfort it, recognizing it as part of itself. When others are in pain—be it related to the coronavirus or otherwise—we should try to see their suffering and sorrow as our own and do what we can to help them.
Can normal people radiate love to the world, the way you do?
Amma: That power is within everyone because its source is the Supreme Self—the one true reality of us all. To me, everything—people, animals, plants, the rivers, lakes, trees and mountains, the sun and moon and stars… everything is divine. But most people are unaware of this truth. The one True Self reflects in people according to the condition of their mind, similar to how electricity is one but manifests differently in a zero-watt bulb, a 100-watt bulb or a 1,000-watt bulb. So, the question is only one of degree of manifestation. If an ordinary person is like an electric post, then a tapasvi [someone who has engaged in tremendous spiritual practices and attained Self-realization] is like a power transformer. Their spiritual practices and mental discipline have generated tremendous energy within them. That is why when regular people come into contact with a mahatma, they are uplifted. Their inherent innocence is awoken.
Everyone should try to manifest that love and innocence and share it to whatever extent possible. Let each of us try to do what we can. We may not be able to uplift everyone, but if we can help one person—make one person smile or forget their sorrows, for one minute—at least that is something. Such moments are what give our life real value.
Do you ever get exhausted, giving hugs 20+ hours per day?
Amma: It is like asking the sun, “How do you shine?” or asking a river, “How do you flow?” To love and serve people, to dry their tears, to try to do what I can to solve their problems—that is just my nature. I’m not like a battery that has to get periodically recharged; I am one with the eternal source of all power.
Can you explain and elaborate upon your famous quote, “Love is our true essence?”
Amma: Love is the True Self; it is our true nature. Love is the innermost essence of us all. Ignorant of this, people are constantly searching for love in the external world. In this way, they tragically search for it everywhere but the one place it actually is. Thinking the external world will give them love and happiness, people become like a dog with a bone. Hoping to get something tasty from the bone, the dog begins to chew it and soon tastes blood. It thinks it’s getting the blood from the bone, but in reality that blood is coming from its own cut gums. Similarly, we keep projecting the love that is our own true nature upon external objects. Then, when we get those objects, we think we are getting happiness from them. But this is incorrect. We are merely superimposing happiness and sorrow, good and bad, etc, upon those objects. There is only one source of love and happiness in all of creation—the True Self.
The first ripple of love emerges from within us. When a pebble is dropped into a still pond, the first little ripple forms around the pebble itself. Gradually, the circle of that ripple expands until it reaches the shore. In the same way, love should start within. Then, if we are able to purify the love inherent in us, it will gradually expand to encompass the entire world.