Profiles in Faith: Hindu Guru Amma—Mata Amritanandamayi
On World Environment Day, June 5, 2021, in an article on Medium.com, Hindu spiritual leader and humanitarian Mata Amritanandamayi spoke of the “intense suffering” inflicted globally by the COVID-19 pandemic. “With coronavirus, Nature has finally showed us that she will no longer constantly forbear, suffer and forgive all the indignities we heap upon her,” she wrote.
Born in a Dalit (untouchable caste) family in 1953 and forced to leave school in the fourth grade to care for her family, that Amma has risen to world prominence is a phenomenon in itself, and an anomaly in a culture still dominated by caste and notorious for its repression of women. However, Amma has never permitted her gender, background, or education to interfere with her divine purpose, described on her website as the “attitude of selflessly serving all creation, knowing others to be extensions of one’s own self,” which she refers to as “vishwa matrutvam — universal motherhood. And it is to this pinnacle of human existence that Amma is trying to awaken the world through her life, teachings and darshan [divine embrace].”
Known as the hugging saint or hugging guru, Amma is said to have hugged and comforted more than 40 million people around the world. In large gatherings where those attending wait patiently for her embrace she has been known to continue for as long as 22 hours without interruption. Asked how she has the energy to continue so long, she answers, “Where there is true love, anything is effortless.”
In addition to the personal blessing she confers on all who ask for it, Amma heads a global organization devoted to her charitable initiatives that include orphanages, hospitals, hospices and a university.
In Her Own Words
“The feeling closest to our True Self is love. Our lives are meant to be born in love, to live in love, and to eventually end in love. In truth, love has no end; it is eternal and connects every aspect of creation — human beings with each other, with Nature, and with God. Thus, its effulgence [radiance] is forever within us as our very essence.” — Mata Amritanandamayi, in a July 5, 2021 Facebook message.
“Look at the beauty of Nature. Living harmoniously with Nature will in itself bring happiness and contentment.” — Mata Amritanandamayi, quoted on her website.
“Nature is an open book. She is an inexhaustible treasure trove of knowledge. However, her knowledge cannot be imbibed with the mere intellect. For this, the heart is also needed. Only then will that knowledge become complete.
“When we see a small plant, we should be able to feel love towards it. When we see trees, we should be able to feel gratitude towards them. When we see plants and animals, we should be able to feel kinship with them. However, today, man remains only at the level of the intellect. While the heart is like a needle that can sew together and unify every torn fragment, the mind is like a pair of scissors that can only cut and divide. Even in a garden with a hundred blooming flowers, some people will only see the flowers infested with pests. They turn the simplest thing into something complex.” — Mata Amritanandamayi, April 2021 article “Holding God Above Everything Else in Our Life.”
“My Desire: Everyone in the world should be able to sleep without fear, at least for one night; able to eat at least for one day.” — Mata Amritanandamayi, on her website.
“Real security can be found only in the True Self or God. The only way to get rid of your boredom is to surrender to your own Self, to God, or to a perfect master. Be a witness to everything that happens in life. You are the eternal reality. You are ever complete. You are the whole, and in no way limited. Remove all your feelings of sorrow, boredom and discontentment. Be blissful and content.” — Mata Amritanandamayi, in a July 3, 2021 Facebook message.
“Realize that the real problem is not what is happening, but how you are reacting to it.” — Mata Amritanandamayi, in a June 10, 2021 Facebook message.
The Stories Others Tell
“My father and Amma are kindred spirits.” — Yolanda King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“In all my life, I have not met a warmer personality than Amma. Even an agnostic like me had great difficulty in holding back my tears.” — Khushwant Singh, Indian journalist, author and Member of Parliament.
“Amma presents the kind of leadership we need for our planet to survive. This is the most heroic person I’ve probably ever met.” — Alice Walker, 1983 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Fiction.
“Amma has done more work than many governments have ever done for their people … her contribution is enormous.” — Professor Muhammad Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize and founder of Grameen Bank, which pioneered micro-lending to women in his native Bangladesh.
“Amma is truly such an enormous fountain of energy, love and compassion. I think if all of us were to get even a fraction of it within our own beings, there would be only joy in the whole world … Whatever little I can do with her inspiration, I will strive my best to accomplish it.” — Rajendra K. Pachauri, winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize and Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“With great force, she took me in her arms and I was enveloped in a scent of rose. It was a powerful hug, a powerful moment, really. Overcome with a profound sense of comfort, clarity and calm, I staggered off stage and sat down.” — National Public Radio reporter Allison Bryce, describing a 2007 public event at which Mata Amritanandamayi spoke in the United States.
“Amma is the embodiment of pure love. Her presence heals.” — Deepak Chopra, Indian-American self-help guru and bestselling author.
A Life in Brief
Drawn to a spiritual life from an early age, she spent hours meditating on the seashore, composing and singing devotional songs of remarkable depth and insight. Mata Amritanandamayi was forced to leave school at nine after her mother became ill. To care for her seven siblings and the family’s cows, she would beg scraps from village families. It was then that she first noticed the severe poverty and misery of her community, which left a lasting impression on her and prompted the social action for which she is known.
Her website describes how these experiences informed her life:
“Where Mata Amritanandamayi encountered people in need, she brought them food and clothing from her own home. She was undeterred by the scolding and punishment she received from her family for doing so. She also began to spontaneously embrace people to comfort them in their sorrow. Responding to her affectionate care, they began to call her Amma (Mother).”
“According to Hinduism, the suffering of the individual is due to his or her own karma — the results of actions performed in the past,” notes her official biography. “Amma contemplated the principle of karma until she revealed an even more profound truth, asking a question she continues to ask each of us today — ‘if it is one man’s karma to suffer, isn’t it our dharma (duty) to help ease his suffering and pain?’”
Her community’s traditions, however, forbade her from interacting with strangers or touching them, particularly men. “In India, women are expected to remain in the background,” she explains. “My family could not understand my way of reaching out to people — they had no idea of the spiritual principles.”
Amma states, “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.”
Achievements We’ll Remember
1981: Mata Amritanandamayi establishes Amritapuri, her global spiritual center, located in the coastal village in Kerala where she was born. The name of the headquarters means “Amma’s abode.” It is home to some 3,500 monastic disciples. Amritapuri attracts thousands of devotees from around the world — from one-day tourists to long-term visitors and spiritual seekers — who come for Amma’s hugs and blessings and learn from her teachings.
September 3, 1993: Addresses the Parliament of the World’s Religions on the historic occasion of the forum’s 100th anniversary in Chicago. The Parliament names her President of the Hindu Faith.
October 21, 1995: Addresses the interfaith celebrations held on the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in New York City.
August 29, 2000: Is a keynote speaker at the Millennium World Peace Summit hosted by the United Nations General Assembly.
October 7, 2002: Is keynote speaker at the Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious & Spiritual Leaders at the United Nations in Geneva.
October 7, 2002: Receives the Gandhi-King Award for Nonviolence from the World Movement for Nonviolence at the United Nations in Geneva.
July 13, 2004: Delivers a keynote address at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona, Spain.
June 21, 2005: The County of Los Angeles, California, presents an award to Mata Amritanandamayi for her outstanding humanitarian contributions and compassionate love toward the victims in India and Sri Lanka of a devastating December 2004 tsunami in Asia.
May 2, 2006: Receives the James Parks Morton Interfaith Award in New York City in recognition of individuals or organizations whose outstanding commitment to promoting human development and peace reflect values shared by great religious traditions.
March 7, 2008: Delivers a keynote address at the Summit of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, in Jaipur, India.
May 25, 2010: Is awarded an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from the State University of New York at Buffalo.
November 29-30, 2012: Addresses the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Shanghai, China, on “Coexistence and Engagement Between Cultures.” She is the only spiritual or religious leader invited to the conference.
September 27, 2013: Is awarded a proclamation on behalf of the State of Michigan in commemoration of her 60th birthday. The proclamation describes her as a true citizen of the world and recognizes her worldwide charitable initiatives.
March 8, 2014: Named by The Huffington Post as one of the 50 most powerful women religious leaders.
December 5, 2014: At the Vatican, participates along with Pope Francis in the Interfaith Declaration to End Modern Slavery, organized by the Global Freedom Network.
July 8, 2015: Delivers the keynote address at the United Nation’s first Academic Impact conference on technology and sustainable development.
Mata Amritanandamayi’s Religion
The world’s oldest religion, with customs dating back more than 4,000 years, Hinduism is the third largest religion today after Christianity and Islam, with 900 million adherents, 65 percent of whom live in India.
Hinduism embraces many religious ideas. It is sometimes considered a “way of life” or a “family of religions” rather than a single, organized religion.
There are five primary sacred texts of Hinduism, each associated with a stage of Hinduism’s evolution: 1) the Vedic Verses, written in Sanskrit 1500 to 900 B.C. 2) the Upanishads, written 800 – 200 B.C. 3) the Laws of Manu, written around 250 B.C. 4) Ramayana and 5) Mahabharata, written sometime between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D.
The belief in soul — or “atman” — is a key precept of Hinduism, the first principle: the true self of an individual beyond identification with phenomena, the essence of an individual. [Wikipedia]
Hindus believe all living creatures have a soul that, in turn, is part of the Supreme Soul. The goal of life, Hindu philosophy holds, is to achieve “moksha,” or salvation, which puts an end to an otherwise incessant cycle of rebirths, merging disparate souls into the Absolute Soul.
Another primary principle of Hinduism is that individuals’ actions and thoughts directly influence their current and future lives. For that reason, observant Hindus strive to achieve dharma — that is, to uphold their duty in life, which highlights good conduct and morality.
More Profiles in Faith:
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (July 1)
Pope Francis (June 23)
Archbishop Desmond Tutu (June 16)
Episcopal Bishop Michael B. Curry (June 9)