by Carin Michaels
I became interested in Amma, an Indian spiritual leader, given the tremendous buzz in the international community about her humanitarian work. She is from my husband’s state in Kerala, India, and he has met her. My friends queried why I hadn’t met her. I felt my exploration of this mystical person was long overdue, but I wanted to learn more about this hypothetical saint before I was willing to meet her. When I started reading about her, I became overwhelmed. There was so much literature about her. My experience reading it was antithetical to her teachings of peace and unity; it was an information overload. Still, I stuck with it.
The best introduction to her practices starts at her website, amma.org, or her international site, amritapuri.org. “Amma” means mother in her native language of Mayalayam, and, in turn, the principle force of her tenets rests on motherly love. She states, “True love is that which helps us experience life and the life-force everywhere. If your love doesn’t enable you to see this, such love is not real love. It is illusory love.” Outward expression of this love is seen in her work on the planet — housing orphans, educating the impoverished, feeding the hungry, providing disaster relief, and, famously, embracing the millions who have lined up to receive a hug from her, or darshan, and experience her motherly embrace.
As I dug deeper, I felt empowered by Amma’s words. “True love is the state of complete fearlessness,” she said. “Fear is part and parcel of the mind. Therefore, fear and genuine love cannot go together. As the depth of love increases, the intensity of fear slowly decreases.” The expression of Amma’s true love philosophy suggests why her devotees are always smiling, but I still desired a more substantial explanation to motivate me. I reached out to the local Amma Center of Michigan for help, and while on this path, I came to understand why Amma’s work has flourished globally and what the local center was doing to help.
The Michigan Center was so accessible, five miles from downtown Ann Arbor, and everyone there, from their visiting international swamis and yoga teachers, to their nuts-and-bolts crew who ran the local center, greeted me warmly by name. I explained to them that my chosen name when visiting my husband’s family in India was Lakshmi. He is from a small village in Kerala, like Amma, and thirty years ago, when I first visited, I was the only American many of the villagers had ever met. I imagined that I was Indian in a previous lifetime, since I integrated myself into my husband’s culture seamlessly with its exotic food, dress, and language. I felt comfortable sharing this name in Ann Arbor with devotees, and as members of the local center recognized my cultural affinity, they enjoyed calling me Lakshmi. They told me that once I work individually with Amma or a Swami, I would earn a new spiritual name. I hope to keep Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, but Kali would suit me too, the goddess who destroys evil forces. As I continued my spiritual exploration, I reached out to my husband, Unnikrishnan or Unni, named after baby Krishnan, the god of love, for guidance.
I met my husband via an introduction from a college friend, who thought that because I taught yoga Unni and I would have a lot in common. Most Indians don’t practice yoga, but Unni and I bonded in many other ways. He liked my humor as I described ‘my hippie parents dropping me off at my Italian grandparent’s house, prior to attending Woodstock, and forgetting to come home.’ This story is a sardonic half-truth, but it set the tone for my spiritual seeking.
Living with my grandparents, at least half-time, offered stability. It was also a touchpoint for me and Unni. His multigenerational lifestyle was attractive to me, because he only knew his extended family experience. He also had a network of friends to explore globally. I wanted to be a person who felt connected to family and to the larger world. Perhaps this is why I gravitated towards Amma, because her unspoken love for all rises above any cultural appropriations.
Through happenstance we discovered that an old classmate of Unni’s from India, Chad Kymal, was now living in Ann Arbor and cofounded the local Amma Center of Michigan. Chad and his wife, Ajitha, facilitated a calmer introduction into Amma’s teachings. Chad attended graduate school at University of Michigan and is a computer software entrepreneur. He spends three weeks a month on his international business based in Ann Arbor and the last week adhering to Amma’s teachings of seva, or volunteer service, with Ajitha helping to run the local center. Their dedication forced me to evaluate my own spiritual resolve.
I took stock of what I had and what I needed. I wanted and needed to fill a lack. In the context of Amma, I wondered if this 21st century saint might provide me with my holy grail experience. Ajitha reminded me of a famous Amma quote: “Have patience, then you’ll also have love. Patience leads to love. If you forcefully open the petals of a bud, you won’t be able to enjoy its beauty and fragrance. Only when it blossoms by following its natural course, will the beauty and fragrance of a flower unfold.”
Love facilitates self-realization. This is a theme Amma spreads, which in turn, has generated a loyal following with over 1,000 centers around the world. Amma’s nonprofit organization called Embracing The World is an international charity network, active in over 40 countries. Its mission is to help the poor by meeting each of their five basic needs — food, shelter, education, healthcare, and livelihood.
The Michigan Center does its fair share to help the underprivileged with their program called “Mother’s Kitchen,” dedicated to feeding the poor or disenfranchised. Efforts include providing an elaborate hot and nutritious breakfast every Saturday at the Salvation Army Staples Family Center Shelter to homeless teens or young people in serious conflict with their families.
Following this seva, I sat down to talk with visiting Swami Dayamrita, Director of Amma’s North American Operations, who was swathed in orange garb as a traditional Hindu priest. He started his career as a documentary filmmaker and set out to expose Amma as a fraud, but in the end, he said, “I was the fraud. Amma told me to come back after some period of reflection. I kept coming back, and two years later, I was living in her ashram in India.” As an ascetic, Swami Dayamrita now goes where the organization needs him while running operations from San Ramon, California. I ask him what he would want Amma to be known for, her spiritual or humanitarian work. He responded, “You can’t have one without the other. Selflessness comes from spirituality.”
Ajitha who helps run the Michigan Center, stated, “I do this because I’m attracted to the idea of service.” She spends her summers with other devotees driving Amma in a caravan across the country to visit other centers. The Kymal family has a long, rich tradition of giving back. Chad was introduced to Amma in 1990, when his mother was a devotee, and he has two sisters currently living and working as volunteers in Amma’s ashram in Kerala. The Kymals raised their son, Rohan, and daughter, Megha, at the local center, which sits on 50 acres of property with their house nearby. Rohan, who was doing his graduate studies in Barcelona, Spain, met his fiancée at an Amma Center in Toulouse, France. The network among devotees is so strong that many kids are overjoyed to see friends they’ve made when visiting Amma Centers.
I recently met Naren Nathan, a rising senior at Case Western University, who was home for the summer. He told me he has been coming to the Amma Center of Michigan with his family since childhood, and during a recent satsang, or spiritual meeting, he got to see his friend, Michael Witt, who also grew up at the local center. They hung out at the center until after 10 p.m. trying to catch up. Witt recently graduated from Kettering University and is now employed at Bosch. They are two very different people: Nathan studies finance and considers himself a reserved investment nerd, while Witt studied engineering and loves racing cars, but both have Amma’s tenets in common: love, serve, conserve, and practice. The local center is bustling with youth and it is refreshing. I was endeared to see that 50 percent of Amma followers are non-Indian from a broad range of disciplines. I felt right at home.
Their Saturday satsang program is the highlight of the week, as it helps devotees realign their spiritual selves. Ajitha stated, “I feel so focused and my heart just wells with love. That helps me get through another week.” Their rituals were familiar to me and conjured memories of India. During their initial hour of group chanting, folks came in and out of the center, setting up for puja, or prayer, preparing the sacred offerings, usually, payasam, an Indian rice pudding, and fruits, or they were just arriving late. Everyone was reverent. Incense burned as the chanting echoed in my ears. The next part of the program was called satsang, also known as a spiritual lecture, with bhajans, or devotional songs. Members of the audience came forward and picked up an instrument or sang a bhajan to express their devotion. I was told that their piano player, who is a devotee, is employed as a musical director in a Catholic church in Detroit. The harmonizing effect of the program was created by centuries-old Indian rituals, but also by Amma’s eclectic devotees.
Chanting mantras is an important part of Amma’s spiritual practices, and it is done in Sanskrit. A newcomer like myself is able to recite these verses since they are printed on a large screen and translated using the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (I.A.S.T.). This allowed me to read the text phonetically. Chanting calmed my overactive mind and took me, with each breath, a step closer to the divine.
I had experienced this harmonizing effect once before in India about ten years ago during a temple festival held on my husband’s property — a temple that has been passed down in his family through the generations. During this festival honoring Lord Krishnan, god of love, ten elderly women from the village, who are experts in chanting, traded shifts for a 24-hour marathon. The effect created a vibration in my body that filtered down into my bones. I was transported into the divine with hundreds of lit candles at dusk, bare feet in the sand, a tropical floral breeze, and even an elephant nearby. This distant memory is reinvigorated at the local center as the recitations of senior devotees embrace the uninitiated, or beginner, like me.
After the satsang, we shared a potluck meal while planning next week’s activities. I volunteered for gardening; others held garage sales, worked the computers, fed the homeless, or visited a senior center. We also prepared for a weekend retreat with Brahmacharini Shobana, an award-winning yoga practitioner from Amma’s ashram in India, and the visiting Swami Dayamrita. The lack of hierarchy was obvious, and I initially perceived it as disorganization. But after a cleansing breath, I reinterpreted it as humility, or service of others.
A key component of Amma’s organization is her volunteerism, and even the top tier administrators who run Embracing The World are all volunteers. They renunciate material possessions and personal comforts, like Amma, to symbolize their devotion. This ethic is filtered down to every level of the organization, so its mission can do more with less. When possible, volunteers fulfill the organization’s needs by supplying the materials and labor in areas of food, shelter, healthcare, education, livelihood, emergencies, environment, and research. Amma recognizes that her love has created a mass movement, and she states, “It is my children who have made all this possible. My children are my wealth; they are my strength.”
I saw this devotion well up during Saturday’s sastang. A young sparkly-eyed drummer introduced himself to me as Arun Ganesan. He is a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Michigan, who recently did an internship at Facebook. He was open to my questions and he helped me understand the appeal. He participates in Amma’s youth program called AYUDH (acronym for Amma’s Youth for Unity, Diversity, and Humanity), an international youth component to Embracing The World, which, he said, “puts Amma’s teachings of volunteer service into practice.” It is comprised of individuals from 15 to 30 years of age, who come from all religious, social, and economic backgrounds. But Ganesan added, “What’s cool is that we have a common goal that emphasizes personal empowerment and selfless service. We strengthen ourselves to better do service in the world.” Ganesan exemplified the local AYUDH chapter as he cited two activities among many that were close to his heart: Meals on Wheels and Adopt-a-Highway. He told me that ayudh in Sanskrit means peace, and his calm presence reminded me of the continual beauty that I encountered at the center.
While the Michigan Center was supportive, I still felt like a newcomer. Honestly, I thought some of their practices odd. I continually asked questions, but I was never made to feel stupid. For instance, I wondered why they feature photos of Amma everywhere, and Ajitha said, “I’ve been asked that question before. She is a role model for us. What she teaches us, this unbridled love and joy, we want to emulate.” In private, my husband added further clarification. He said, referring to the U.S., “In this country, reverence is mostly experienced in sports or social media. Amma is just a picture synonymous with devotion.” Amma teaches that bliss is opening your heart like a wondrous child. When you share in Amma’s bliss, you remember it, and her photo is a symbolic representation of that experience.
My successful marriage of thirty years stems from seeing things differently along the way, and I can say I’ve had a lot of practice. I’ve practiced many things since childhood, like Catholicism, which has imbued me with rituals close to my heart. When I told this to Swami Dayamrita, he reminded me that Amma has never asked anyone to change their religion but only to go deeper into their faith and its essential principles to serve humanity.
We discussed Amma’s famous query: “If it is one man’s karma to suffer, isn’t it our dharma, or duty, to help ease his suffering and pain?” He knew I was searching, and he opened himself up to my questions with such endearing grace. I asked Swami Dayamrita about the purpose of spiritual names, and he explained that, “Our spiritual name is a name we can aspire to. When I say your name, Carin, you look up. But coming into a spiritual self, you have a rebirth as a new person.” He offered, “What happens? You still have your path, but with your new name, you attempt to seek more alignment with the divine.” At that moment I had an epiphany. I realized when devotees introduced themselves using their spiritual name, they were sharing with me their spiritual practice.
The Amma Center of Michigan is not a religious center, but a Midwest hub for Amma’s teachings, where I met devotees who traveled from Toronto, Kentucky, and Ohio to partake in events that gathered as many as 200 people. There are over 120 centers in North America with hundreds of other home gatherings for meditative prayer, or puja, and chanting. When I referenced Hindu rituals, Swami Dayamrita reminded me that Hinduism did not originate as a religion, but a way of life. Amma’s tenets are from Sanatana Dharma, which is based off the eternal principles of the ancient Vedic tradition, a code or set of ethics for living in order to attain enlightenment.
A major part of this regiment is seva, or service. I naturally found satisfaction working in their organic garden and 1,500 apple tree orchard, whose produce will be sold this fall at the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market. During the summer months, most members work on the farm, and during the colder months many volunteer for “Mother’s Kitchen.” When I asked Ajitha what was expected of me, monetary and otherwise, she said, “While this organization appreciates donations, we honor ‘service-first,’ so your help is greatly appreciated.” I continued gardening, and offered to donate a few flats of flowers for their bees to pollinate in order to make honey, another product on their farm, and to provide a warm cooked entree for their Saturday potluck.
Of course, I strayed, like when I questioned the meaning behind Amma’s darshan. I asked myself what is the point of her giving hugs to her followers, some who waited for hours in line, just to share a brief moment of unbridled love? In India, where 20,000 followers show up in one day for darshan, she has been known to go without sleep for 24 hours to greet them.
I spoke to Sudarsanan Varaprath, the maintenance engineer of the local center and my local Amma expert, to get his perspective on Amma’s appeal and darshan. He is a retired Ph.D. engineer from Dow Chemical, who started his graduate studies at University of Michigan after coming from India. This soft spoken, erudite Hindu scholar first met Amma in 1989, when she hit him on the head with a Hindu book that he was reading, implying that he was stubbornly missing out on his own spiritual reincarnation in this lifetime. Varaprath said, “I’ll never forget that. Amma doesn’t want to give us the idea of God. She is an avatar: the true higher principle of pure consciousness embodied in human form to interact with us.” When I asked him to explain his experience with darshan for a plebeian like me, he said, “When getting close to Amma, there is tremendous vibration, and I felt the vibration was entering me.” He told me he was no longer enamored by the experiential, because like miracles, it is an incarnation, or a mental construct.
But I still needed formative guidance. I discovered a consensus about darshan when talking to Sumathy Nathan, the mother of Naren, who was mentioned previously, and she runs the Saturday’s “Mother’s Kitchen” program. We were standing in front of Amma’s huge multi-colored portable wooden stage that the local center transports by truck to Detroit when she visits, and Sumathy said, “I want you to experience this Lakshmi. When I first enter the room for darshan, my heart is beating so hard, I cannot contain it. When Amma hugs me, I can feel her vibration enter my body.” As she described her experience, I was transported back to India, back to previous lives that defied words, and I felt such love for this woman, who unabashedly wanted me to experience darshan.
This energy appealed to me since my abandoned-self understood that love can heal, but I felt the experience would be fleeting. Given my connections in the Indian community, I thought, why not cut ahead of those very long lines to experience darshan? But I had this nagging suspicion there was something more to this than being first in line. Other devotees continued to ask me if I had met Amma, as it was a rite of passage.
Once, a devotee and co-founder named Jay Puthran asked me, “Have you met Amma?” I said, “No.” He said, “When I first I heard about Amma, I had no interest. But then my wife, Prema, told me to meet Amma. Just once. And if I didn’t want to go back, she [my wife] would never ask me again.” He laughed to himself, acknowledging that his wife was very clever. He continued, “After meeting Amma, I’ve done everything I can to maintain this center, because I want Ann Arbor and Detroit to be able to host Amma. I want them to experience Amma.”
Finally, I asked Swami to describe the appeal of Amma, and he smiled, reflecting on the experience. He explained it as advaita, or non-duality. The term advaita refers to the idea that the soul, or the true self, also known as atman, sees god and atman as one; this non-duality is a state of oneness with the rest of creation that very few attain. Amma saw that the afflicted sought her compassion and spiritual healing as a result of embodying this Supreme Truth. Amma is able to live in this state, unconditionally, which allows her to share unfettered bliss, compassion, and pure love. There are no words shared most times with her followers. Swami was very peaceful; he, as well as other Swamis, visit the local center monthly. I saw his veneration and understood that he was able to live in a world that I had yet to experience. He ended saying, “You will meet her in November, when she comes to Detroit.” He did not have an exact date yet. I just have to wait a little longer as if it was my karma.
As part of my dharma at the center, I made a pen pal through the “Circle of Love Inside” (COLI) program in which Amma devotees write letters to incarcerated inmates. During my orientation, I was told that, “The letters allow inmates to join us as we both open together to greater good in ourselves and our lives. We do not convert inmates to anything, we support them in whatever helps them grow.” The program worked for me since I was learning a new way of being. I was apprehensive writing my first letter, because while my experience was awe inspiring, I did not want my words to seem cultist. When I questioned this, I found the differentiating factor in a cult compared to other systems of venerations or devotion is that its leader is controlling emotionally or financially. Whereas, Amma just gives out free hugs, helps the poor, and inspires us to do the same. Actually, Amma is the most accessible modern-day guru and activist, who does not favor one individual or cause over another, and her followers are inspired by this leadership. Sumathy explained that she has seen Amma hug a beggar and a movie star with the same joyous energy; seeing this was a formative moment for her. Sumathy further explained that Amma’s retreats are very affordable with scholarship funds provided to those in need. I decided to trust Amma. I told my husband that my efforts were a tribute to his late brother, who, as a bank accountant, vetted Amma’s organization before donating to her causes. Amma’s charitable organization was named an official NGO by the United Nations because of its endless humanitarian work across the globe.
Although it seemed overwhelming when I began this new relationship, it was actually not antithetical to Amma’s teachings, because my searching began with love. I ventured outside my comfort zone to experience new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, and in the process, I found a family who supported me along the way. Amma has taught me that “fearlessness, indeed, is one of the greatest qualities of a true lover.” If I had to pinpoint one key memory that I’m left with as I continue my journey with this organization, I’d say: “It’s their smiles.” They remember the eternal bliss Amma has shared with them.
Carin Michaels is a writer and playwright living in Ann Arbor. For further reading, as recommended by Dayamrita Swami, check out: Ammachi, a Biography of Mata Amritanandamayi by Swami Amritaswarupananda, and On The Road To Freedom, an autobiography of Swami Paramatmananda Puri, or visit amma.org, or amma.org/groups/north-america/amma-center-michigan.
Photography by The Amma Center of Michigan.
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