Who Needs a Hug(ging) Saint?

Ed Blum

Below is a transcription of a book discussion I had with Amanda Lucia last spring at the University of California, Riverside (home to so many fantastic scholars of American religious history in the present and the past). The audience comprised faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and members from the community.

(ejb) It is hard to find an analogue for Mata Amritanandamayi, the “hugging saint,” the “goddess,” or “Amma,” whatever you prefer to call her. Like Oprah Winfrey, she is a contemporary woman adored by millions who has the power to organize and distribute millions of dollars each year. Thousands upon thousands wait to be hugged by her, and while Pope Francis has become a media darling because of his class-leveling actions, she has embraced lepers. Recently, I sat with Professor Amanda Lucia of the University of California, Riverside, to discuss her fantastic new book Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace. The point of our conversation was not simply to receive a taste of her book, but also to consider how it connects with contemporary trends in the study of religion in the United States.

(ejb) Q: To begin, can you give us the “who, what, where, and when” of your book and Amma’s ministry?

(ajl) A: Well, the first time I was in India I was on the UW Madison College Year in India program in 1996-1997. I was living in Varanasi and researching Hindu ascetics, sadhu babas, and renouncers. I was trying to study female ascetics, but I had this old male brahman assistant who said simply: “They don’t exist. Every woman who is a female ascetic is doing so because her husband died or she has no other means of supporting herself.” But then later that year, I was in Kerala and it was there that I ran into this huge pink ashram and the famed female guru Amma or Mata Amritanandamayi. According to her hagiographies her life story goes something like this: Amma was born in 1953 in a small South Indian fishing village to a fisherman’s caste. As a young child she began to feel the suffering of others, and she began hugging people in order to alleviate their suffering. Many people found these hugs to be comforting, healing, and miraculous in some cases and a cult of devotees formed around her. Now she travels around the world hugging tens of thousands of people every single day without rest. She hosts public programs that are free and open to the public that will last for about 10-20 hours at a time, during which individuals line up and she hugs them one by one by one. Even though darshan is usually a visual exchange between a deity and a devotee, taking Amma’s darshan is a hug.

I didn’t see Amma performing darshan until I went to Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago in 2004. There were maybe five to ten thousand there that night and I had no idea of what to expect. I immediately noticed two distinct groups of people who were there: Indian Hindus who were very traditionally dressed, often dressed up, there to take Amma’s darshan and then there were “alternative” looking American metaphysicals (spiritual seekers) who were neither Indian nor Hindu, but were very much taking a part of Amma’s darshan. The book then drew out of the central question of how are these widely disparate cultural groups of devotees working together? How are they finding resonance within the same stimuli in different ways? How and when do they come together and where do they fall apart into their culturally distinct communities? Those were the questions that struck me at the outset and they became the central project of the book. And then of course, the secondary aim was going back to my first question back in 1996 of how could a woman become a very famous guru even though the scriptures tell her that she can’t? In the most traditional Hindu moral codes (shastras), it’s not allowed. But here you have this very famous female guru who seems to be thumbing her nose at Hindu prohibitions regarding caste and gender all over the world - so what role do traditional hierarchies of caste and gender play in her religious authority and her global organization?

One important point that I should mention at the outset is that for Westerners, many people think ‘oh, that’s nice, she’s hugging people – everyone wants a hug.’ But in India and in Hinduism, conservative Hinduism particularly, a hug among strangers is a radical transgression, especially for a woman of low caste to be hugging all persons regardless of gender, caste, illness, and so on. As Selva Raj put it, Amma’s hug is her “discourse of defiance.” This story emerges from my analysis of the ways in which Amma is publicly thwarting caste and gender restrictions that would prohibit such behavior.

(ejb) Q: Several remarks from Amma and stories about her struck me as illustrative of broader trends within your book. Would you tease out some meanings from them? The first is this. On one occasion, Amma told her followers: “For those who have realized God, there is no difference between male and female. The realized ones have equal vision.” We know in United States history that religious ideas and communities have at times upheld gender distinctions and at other times challenged them. Does Amma’s ministry dissolve them, as she suggests? Do the social realities of the lives of her followers match their religious hopes?

(ajl) This is a typical quote of neo-Vedanta. For anyone who is familiar with Hinduism, this is Advaita Vedanta idiomized in a modern language, or a modern register. It says essentially that ultimate reality is only one, atman (the essential self) and brahman (the cosmic essence) together. For those who have actually realized this unity, there is no difference in gender. But this is also a very commonly used trope among female gurus because they are not conventionally allowed to become religious exemplars or to perform independent vedic rituals. So for a lot of female gurus, they turn this shastric move back on itself and argue that ‘if everything is ultimately one, then there is no difference between male and female - so how can you say that women are not allowed to do certain things that men can?’ Ultimately, if we are all the same atman, then all of these differences that we imagine are only temporal, conventional differences. So, it’s a philosophical point, but it’s also a political point to create equality between men and women in the fold of contemporary Hinduism.

In a way, the whole book is really about gender and the driving question of how is she doing this, how is she thwarting traditional norms of gendered roles? On the very practical level, Amma demonstrates this non-differentiation through her public performance of darshan.  She welcomes everyone into her arms – and this is everyone, even if they mean her ill will, even if they are sick, and so on. There is a famous part in the book where she is licking the pus of a leper to show her equanimity toward all beings. This kind of radical transgression aims to demonstrate that no matter who you are she is going to embrace you as a reflection of herself. That rhetoric of the supremacy of non-dualism even in the face of conventional differences runs throughout the movement.

But practically speaking, even in the darshan moment there are times when difference matters. When you are working as Amma’s assistant your job is to put the right prasad (blessed food) into her hand immediately after the darshan embrace so that she can give it to the devotee. So the assistant has to know that Indians get vibhuti ash, which is sacred ash usually left over from a homa or a fire sacrifice, whereas non-Indians don’t. Everyone gets a Hershey’s kiss and a flower petal. As a result, there is this moment when the assistant is judging based on external appearances as to whether the person is Indian or not. So despite this rhetoric of non-duality in ultimate terms, this is one very real recognition of difference.

In the book I use this profiling to push back a bit against the multiculturalist goal of cultural recognition. I show how this moment is an example of how recognition means to recognize an individual as something else, as part of an ethnic category beyond themselves which then stands in for the individual. Instead, I talk about how the politics of witnessing suggests something different than that, the idea of witnessing the other as other. Witnessing gets to the ideal of the darshan experience, in that attempts to remove the division between the subject and object in this moment of fusion before they step away and realize that they are separate people again. When I was interviewing devotees they would say, “when I was folded into Amma’s arms, I didn’t know where I stopped and she began” or “I fell into her and I didn’t know the boundaries of myself anymore.” So I suggest that the darshan moment itself is actually trying to create this moment of non-dualism, where there is no recognition of difference but rather a witnessing of the self and other in reflection of each other. But it is also a fact within the practicalities of the organization that this sense of unity operates in tension with our system of recognizing conventional differences that often divide us along cultural and ethnic lines.

In the community of devotees as well, in some cases you feel this unity of different kinds of people coming together as one, which might be the multiculturalist ideal, but then at other times, often when Amma is away or not looking, you find this kind of retraction into what we might call conventional, or stagnated forms of the politics of recognition. The book analyzes the ways in which the politics of recognition reified cultural stereotypes and created largely homogenous satsangs (congregational gatherings). I think about this as one way in these satsangs modeled after larger American patterns of minimal congregational diversity.

If we put Amma’s movement in context, we can also see that this pattern happens in a lot of guru movements. There are debates between Indian Hindus and Westerners, or those that I term inheritors and adopters, within the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, within Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s movement, and so on. In fact, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s movement is very divided along the lines of whites and Indians along racial lines in somewhat aggressive ways. So Amma’s movement is still very much focused on coming together in unity in comparison to some of the radical fissures and controversies of those other organizations.

(ejb) Q: Many religious traditions seem to struggle with the twin towers of fear and love. Centuries ago, for instance, American Protestants and Catholics emphasized hellfire and damnation. More recently, they have fixated upon the love of Jesus and the joys of heaven that, as Martin Marty put it, “Hell disappeared. No one noticed.” You describe a process of how and why Amma’s performances largely shifted from fear to love. During the fear stage, a story became prominent where Amma heard a man mocking one her Muslim devotees: “the Mother’s radiant and smiling face underwent an immediate transformation. With a terrifying appearance, she stood up from the sacred seat holding a trident in one hand and a sword in the other. In a solemn and deep tone, the Mother said, ‘Whoever has caused this undue grief to this devotee will die after seven days.’” Why did threats and curses move to the background in Amma’s work, especially as she garnered a following in the United States? Do past episodes like this, where Amma seems to perform the role of the goddess Kali, haunt her more current work?

(acl) In the early days, according to her hagiographies, Amma would have these moments where she would be chastised or confronted in some way and in response she would develop a wrathful persona like the goddess Kali. You can see from this story that these are the marks of Kali, holding the sword and trident, even going into bhava or an emotive state embodying Kali. During these moments she was sometimes viewed as very dangerous and her devotees would attempt to subdue her with devotional music, chanting, and coolness. Over time as she developed her authority this behavior faded away and she doesn’t have to be so wrathful or violent anymore. Instead she begins to assume the quality of the goddess Lalita, who is very famous in Shri Vidya tantric philosophy. But Kali is always there lurking in the background, and many devotees believe that nowadays she reveals herself as the goddess on Devi Bhava nights, which are elaborate routinized darshan performances wherein Amma dresses as the goddess.

This is not just a change over time, but also spatially in that there is a divide between her global personal and her local persona in India. If you go to Amritapuri where her primary ashram is in her hometown in Kerala, India, her persona as an incarnation (avatar) of Kali is palpable. There is a large Kali temple there, and then there is also a very small shrine wherein this sword and this trident lay upon the altar and devotees perform pujas (ritual worship). There, many people there refer to Amma as Kali and they see no difference between Amma and the embodied Kali on earth. In contrast, on a global scale there is rarely any mention of a Hindu goddess at all in the western press and her movement is presented as a humanitarian campaign for the good of humanity. Many of the attendees who go to the LAX Hilton to see her and get a hug may not “have the eyes to see” any form of Kali at all. So there is kind of a divide in representation there.

Going back to the prasad assistant that I mentioned previously, there are times wherein if you give Amma the wrong prasad that she has been known to chastise you or to throw it on the ground in distain. Some people will say that those are moments when Kali, or that fierce temper comes out. Amma’s public persona is very carefully guarded, but there are moments when some believe that her wrath shows through occasionally. I have to mention, just because we are talking about this, that there was a really destructive expose that was just published in October 2013 that is all about Amma’s supposed wrath. So, if you believe this devotee about Amma’s wrath, then certainly Kali is not suppressed in the background but she is obscured only slightly with a thin veneer.

(ejb) Q: A perennial theme in United States religion, and one that seems to be growing, is an emphasis on business, finance, and the marketplace. Bethany Moreton, for example, detailed brilliantly the interplay of religious and corporate values in her study of Wal-Mart. In your book, after one devotee had a disappointing encounter with Amma, she thought to herself, “You should do your job with more sincerity.” Can you tell us more about devotees’ expectations of interacting with Amma? Also, can you unpack the emphasis here on Amma “job”?

(ajl) So, let me contextualize the quote a little bit. As people come up to Amma they have darshan and they get their hug, but often times people sneak in a question because they only have this little bit of time with Amma. And so they say, “should I start my new business?” or “my child got in a car accident and what do I do?” or any number of things. Sometimes Amma will just answer right on the spot, but other times she will tell them to sit beside her and talk to her in greater detail. This happens with Malayalam and Tamil speakers for the most part, because those are Amma’s primary languages. But also she has a cadre of translators around her who can also facilitate questions for those who speak other languages. What happens then is that the next person in line for darshan comes up to Amma, and now Amma is hugging that person while she is talking to the person beside her about his or her particular issue. There are also swamis behind her who may ask her particular organizational questions. For example, when we were in Chicago, we petitioned Amma to open a new ashram and we talked to one of the swamis to ask Amma during darshan. In that case one of the swamis was whispering to Amma during darshan “should Chicago open a new ashram? and where should they buy real estate? and what is their limit to spend?” So then she turned to the swami and said “yes, in the suburbs, 500K,” and so on – all the while she’s addressing the person to the side of her and hugging the person in front of her.

So that is the context wherein one woman, believing Amma to be distracted, says “you should do your job with more sincerity.” The flip side of that experience, is Laura, a long-term Amma devotee who once exclaimed to me, “I had the best darshan! Amma was talking to all of these people all around me and she held me in her lap for almost ten minutes!” So there is a spectrum here that is perspectival and contingent. If you are an ardent devotee then you might like that extra time, but if you are someone who is only tangentially connected to Amma you might think “hey wait, why aren’t you paying attention to me?” So that is kind of the valence through which we might view this comment.

As an observer to the movement, this various shows me that there are lots of different kinds of people who are coming to see Amma. Some are coming for the first or second time, and others may be coming after being involved for ten to fifteen years. Also, there are also people who may be at the same station but have different days, they wake up and they feel differently about what they may expect from Amma that night. If you are spiritually invested then you can rationalize all kinds of things. Meaning that if you have invested ten or fifteen years in Amma, then you are much less likely to walk away one day because Amma doesn’t give you the answer that you liked or the experience that you liked. It is more likely that you’ll rationalize a lackluster darshan experience in some other way.

The ‘job’ language in this quote is somewhat rare. Most devotees that I spoke with frame Amma’s work in terms of seva, or selfless service. There is a linguistic difference between job and seva, or occupation and contribution. But whenever you are looking at any contemporary or even historical guru movement, you have to look at the bottom line. This is an international corporation, and one that is making hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, as far as the finances, all of that is for the most part public record except for foreign donations. The Indian government demands the reporting of all donations to guru movements, but that is not the case for foreign donations. That leads to a lot of speculation about whether Amma is touring the West because she gets so much money from westerners. Certainly there is some evidence that her summer tours in the United States are lucrative to the tune of three million dollars per tour. But Amma’s organization would counter that most of these contributions are going into humanitarian efforts, and she has engaged in significant humanitarian efforts across the globe, all of which costs money.

Still, like any guru movement, there are skeptics who are concerned about income and profit margins. For example, recently there was an Internet campaign initiated that accused her of having money in foreign bank accounts, to which the ashram didn’t respond for a long time. But finally, they issued a release explaining that any corporation has to have funds in reserves and the CFO explained how those funds are set aside and why. So certainly, it is important to follow the money and yes, we can and should view Amma’s organization as a multinational corporation with less than transparent finances. But I really didn’t focus too deeply into these issues because if you do, you end up being an arbiter of normative claims of authenticity. The public wants to know: is this guru real or a fraud? Determining normative answers to that type of questioning is not the aim of my research, nor is it what I find most interesting about studying Amma’s organization.

(ejb) Q: One devotee, Celia, narrated a particularly fascinating religious autobiography. It seemed to resonate with and deviate from the story of Sheila from Robert Bellah et. al.’s Habits of the Heart in a variety of ways. “I was raised as a staunch Catholic, … But I never believed the crap that women can’t be priests, only nuns. … So when I turned eighteen, I explored many different religions and my affiliation is more Pagan. … So that is what I felt fed me. And I always felt that – this is a mind-blowing thing for me because all of my life I spoke to a woman and I always thought it was Mary, the Virgin Mother, whenever I would say prayers. But as I got a little bit older … I started calling her Mata. I had never heard that word before. … And I knew that she was dark in my head and in my visions. … And then, when I met Amma and I knew that it was Mata Amritanandamayi, it just blew me away.” What about Celia’s experience is typical for Amma devotees and what is remarkable?

(ajl) Two things about Celia, first is that she is pretty typical, certainly among the American metaphysicals. You can see from this quote that she is justifying her devotion to Amma with her own life story. There are many stories of people who encounter their guru by chance but then believe that all of their other religious experiences in their lives led up to that moment and their immediate attraction to the guru at that time. That is very common account. But second, it is her bricolage here that speaks to your point more specifically. The reason that I don’t mention Sheila-ism in the book is because it has such a negative valence in Bellah’s work and those who picked up the idea after him. In some ways these scholars seem to be mourning the unchurched anarchy of contemporary American spirituality, and I don’t find it to be negative. I find it interesting. It says something about American religion today, when we see how American metaphysicals are vitally interested in self-identification as a means to formulate their life stories and experiences as unique, wholly individual. So, for example, someone would say “I’m part Hopi, and I’m part Christian, and I’m part Amma devotee.” Or another would say “I’m part Jesus-centered Christian, not just Christian, but only Jesus’s teachings, and a little bit Buddhist, and a little bit Wiccan, and an Amma devotee.” So people combine their own amalgams and it makes them feel as though their personalized narrative has significance.

I also found it particularly interesting to analyze why certain religious expressions and traditions got linked together as surprising bedfellows. Why is it that some religions don’t really accommodate amalgamation without theological gymnastics, while others devotees seem elide frequently and with ease? I found in particular that there is a frequent turn toward the religions of indigenous peoples combined with a turn toward Asian religions. My question became, how are some religions more active than others in the amalgamated bricolage of American metaphysicals? I suggest in the book that this has something to do with orientalist historical legacies and the categories by which Christians have defined ‘other religions.’

(ejb) Q: Amma means mother. Why does she use this term? How does she portray herself as a mother and how would it be different if she portrayed herself as a man, as a paternalistic deity? Does the fact that she is a woman make a difference?
(ajl) This is one of the most central ideas of the book. Yes, Amma means mother in South Indian languages, in Tamil, in Malayalam, in Marathi, and several others. In North Indian languages and Sanskrit, it is ‘Mata’ and so you have others who prefer to call her Mata Amritanandamayi. She also used to go by ‘Ammachi,’ which is the respectful form of Amma, as you would use for your grandmother or a senior mother, but the ashram has dropped that title of late and would prefer for her to be referred to as Amma. Amma presents herself in the public sphere as a female guru and goddess incarnation. She performs her own vedic rituals, consecrates her temples and divine images, and serves as a priests in her temples, and she has trained her female disciples to do the same. She has also instituted significant programs for improving the lives of Indian women through targeted humanitarian projects. As such, her consistent privileging of female leaders and her own leadership as a female suggests that her position as a low-caste woman has significantly influenced her politics.

As for her role as a mother, Amma presents herself as an ascetic mother giving love, compassion, sacrifice, and service to her devotee children. This is actually a very common ideal type, in the Weberian sense, within Hinduism. Particular to Amma, however, one of the central ideas that she promotes is the idea that everyone should adopt the characteristics of universal motherhood. She sees these as the stereotypically feminine characteristics of love, compassion, service, and self-sacrifice. She suggests that men and women should adopt the behavior and attitude of universal motherhood towards others, and that this would reform and change our world in a positive way. Her theology is thus gendered, but de-sexed, meaning that anyone can do it, but it still reveals essentialized notions of what feminine and masculine qualities are. That essentialism distinguishes it from post-feminism or third-wave feminism that would radically deconstruct both sex and gender.

In the book I show that the positioning of the potential feminism of goddess worship signifies one of the most important distinguishing features between inheritors and adopters within Amma’s movement. Many of the women, and some of the men, who come from an American metaphysical ilk are looking for a female religious figure. Whether it is the black Madonna having covalence with Amma, or the goddess, or Amma as a goddess incarnation, they are looking for a female form of the divine. Many harbor the aim, goal, ideal, or hope that a female divinity will create a kind of feminism, or an agency among women in the very material world that we live in.

That is a desire that I don’t see among Indian Hindus, because I argue that Indian Hindus have been raised with the goddess. Many of them see India as a very patriarchal society and they see people give oblations to the goddess and then turn around and with those very same hands make patriarchal decisions. So the goddess doesn’t have the same valence of feminism India that it does in the West, as this hope for a post-patriarchal religiosity. These two divergent ideals make Indian Hindus feel essentialized, and they wonder why westerners see the Hindu goddess in this way that is culturally unfamiliar to them. This creates fissures and divisions between these two groups of people and it is one of the reasons that they often divide into ethnically distinct congregational gatherings.

(ejb) Q: When it comes to diversity within the United States, scholars have used a variety of different metaphors. In the early twentieth century, the “melting pot” became commonplace. Then to signify cultural pluralism or multiculturalism, there was the “tossed salad” or the “mosaic.”  One of Amma’s devotees described her impact on her followers and their communities this way: “It is like we are sharp stones and Amma is putting us all into a rock tumbler together to smooth out all of our rough edges and make us into beautifully polished gems.” Does Amma’s ministry embrace multiculturalism or does it expose its limits and problems?

(ajl) This is one of the most commonly iterated sayings of Amma that devotees tend to quote, and it is practically applied in a variety of different social scenarios. In order to understand its significant we have to remember that Amma’s organization is global, and her devotees are highly diverse groups of people working in close proximity in ashrams, retreats, institutions, and during her free public programs. Even when devotees emerge from the same ethnic and cultural background, there is always room in close proximity for personality clashes and divergent styles of organizational management. So, this statement highlights two primary aims: first that Amma is in control and she is guiding devotees’ lives even in the most seemingly insignificant social interactions, and second that other people are in our lives to help up to become better more refined spiritual beings. For devotees the statement is both reassuring and constructive. It reassures devotees that Amma is guiding their lives, while suggesting that they find valuable lessons in interpersonal interactions even if they are challenging.

Such advice becomes especially significant when tensions run high between different devotees, a commonplace situation that is often exacerbated by cultural essentializations and racist stereotypes that echo the orientalist legacies that devotees inhabit. For example, one Caucasian adopter devotee quoted the “rock tumbler” metaphor to me when he felt that some upper-level Indian Hindus had excluded from an important decision making process, and has cast him aside as “a dirty hippie.” It did not completely assuage his anger, but it helped him to view the verbal altercation in a positive light. At other times, I heard Indian Hindu inheritor devotees employ it to brush aside their offence at adopter misappropriations of Hindu customs. In essence, Amma’s movement brings these two primary populations that are laden with cultural baggage together into dialogue, encouraging unity, and the possibility of a politics of witnessing the self in the other and the other in the self. At times, this witnessing slips into the politics of recognition instead wherein each group essentializes the other recognizing only its stereotypical form. It is at these times of misrecognition that metaphors such as the “rock tumbler” remind devotees that all is unfolding according to Amma’s plan and that they are in social situations together “to smooth out all of their rough edges and make them into beautifully polished gems.”


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