Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of blogs from our evening with Amma on July 14, 2012. Please see the links at the end for the rest of the series.
There is something surreal about driving into “AMMA Central” at the Best Western Royal Plaza and Trade Center in Marlborough, Massachusetts. I was there to see Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, the spiritual leader and global humanitarian known simply as Amma (aka the “Hugging Saint”). It was the first Public Program in the last stop of her annual US tour.
The first thing you see upon arrival is a huge flashing marquee declaring “NEW ENGLAND WELCOMES AMMA.” This somehow reminded me of the signs you see in convention towns, like “San Diego Welcomes CPAs.”
The trade center itself is a cavernous industrial space with concrete floors, bright flourescent lighting and stark white-tile walls reminiscent of a train-station bathroom. It felt a bit incongruous with the spirit of satsang (spiritual discourse) and darshan (blessing) from a woman revered as an avatar of the Divine Mother herself.
The Amma Phenomenon
Whether or not you buy into that belief, to sit with Amma in satsang, to sing age-old bhajans (devotional songs) along with her and to witness her darshan — hugging 1,000+ people of all ages, colors, and religious backgrounds for hours on end and straight through the night — is to witness a contemporary Spiritual Phenomenon, unfolding before your eyes. It’s hard not to be spellbound by it all.
This was only my second time being hugged by Amma, a plump brown-skinned South Indian woman with smiling eyes and the compassionate, nurturing nature of everyone’s favorite aunt. I have to admit, the first time I went to see her — last year in Marlborough, for Devi Bhava, the extravagant ritual that caps off each of her multi-day tour stops — I went mostly out of an innate fascination with this kind of “spiritual spectacle” (no disrespect meant). It’s the same curiosity that has drawn me to events like John of God at Omega or even Deepak Chopra conferences; the sense that something’s happening here — the seeds of societal transformation perhaps? — that seems really important yet is unknown to the vast majority of society. I had gone to Devi Bhava with my reporter’s cap on, determined to objectively review this “Amma Phenomenon” and see for myself what all the fuss was about. (That story is coming soon…)
That was last year, almost to the day. This time around, I went with a lens cap as well as my reporter’s cap, packing a press pass from the Amma organization and my new Nikon D3100 SLR with a 300 mm zoom (almost a real camera!). My goal: immerse in the bhav of Amma’s blessings, and come out with a few good photos, maybe even a little video. I was particularly excited to experience Amma singing bhajans, something she didn’t do at the Devi Bhava I attended.
Graced by the Goddess
Clear on what I could and could not shoot (press operate under specific restrictions), I headed outside to try to catch Amma’s arrival to the center. With no time to spare, I situated myself at the far end of the red carpet that had been stretched between the parking lot and the side door to the hall, and proceeded to set up my shot through the viewfinder.
Instantly, a staff person approached me. He greeted me cordially (“Om Namah Shivaya”), inspected my (way-too-small) press-pass/nametag, and politely asked who had “authorized” me. (Anyone holding a camera at an Amma event gets scrutinized — I was approached two dozen more times over the next couple hours). The staffer scurried back to the orange-robed swamis — Amma’s senior disciples — and a discreet conversation ensued as I watched, somewhat trepidatiously, from the other end of the carpet. After some consultation among the group, I was given a decidedly unenthusiastic thumbs-up, but with a smile that assured me all was okay. Whew.
The planets aligned and the crowd parted just long enough for me to snap a few clear shots of her coming down the red carpet, radiant in a gown of pure white, arms outstretched to touch the hands of the devotees who reached for her from both sides. She looked straight at me and smiled, gracing me with The Perfect Shot — and taking my objective reporter’s breath away.
I put my camera down as she neared and reached my hand out to meet hers. An indefinable warmth settled over me, a feeling that all really was okay…Read Pt. 2 of the series: Spellbound by Satsang With Amma Read Pt. 3 of the series: Devi Bhajans, Sung by the Devi (Video) Read Pt. 4 of the series: A Hug, A Kiss & A Glance View a short video of Amma singing Shyam Devi. Follow us on facebook to see all the pictures from Amma’s Public Program. Also see: www.amma.org www.amritapuri.org www.embracingtheworld.org