You know when someone says “Come and stay at our ashram in Southern India” and you say “I will” whilst simultaneously thinking – “Yeah, like I'm going to an ashram. I don’t even know what an ashram is”?
Well, I actually went.
I now know that an Ashram is a community that is run on spiritual principles, in this instance, Amrita, near Kochi in Kerala is founded on the philanthropic ideology of Amma; if you know of Amma at all it will be as the Indian woman who tours the world dishing out cuddles to anyone who wants one.
When I first heard of “The hugging saint” I thought how can you get to be a saint just by hugging? My understanding is that you have to do at least three miracles that are then verified by the Vatican. I suppose my fervently competitive nature is incensed by the notion of another’s canonisation –“That’s not fair, I want to be a saint” I think. Plus if epic physical interaction is now a milieu that’s acknowledged in the mystical realm I’d like to trade my "Shagger Of The Year" awards for something more spiritually substantial. Like sainthood.
This frivolity aside I first met Amma in Manhattan about five years ago with my mate Eddie Stern who happens to be one of the world’s foremost yoga teachers. Interesting how the world of eastern spirituality, a world that defies form and deifies oneness, is still beset by fierce hierarchy. At least it is when it comes into contact with my daft world view.
This conditioning means I bring cynicism and competitiveness to all new data and as such when first introduced the carnival that surrounds Amma there was a director’s commentary of doubt underscoring the gentle awe of our first meeting. From the back of the 5000 seater venue beyond the Amma calenders and other more bizarre forms of merch, upon the stage she sat, devotees around her conducting the complex midwifery that accompanies each hug. Due to the deluge of cuddle hungry punters an infrastructure has been designed around the ritual that is a bit like a baptism and a bit like the queue for Space Mountain in Disney World Florida. As you near the front, certain that the hours of waiting are at an end, a new, sub queue appears, as you snake towards the giddy ascension.
At the summit, Amma, which is Malalayam for “Mother” is backed by swamis and sari swathed acolytes. There is no grandeur, no messianic staring or theatrical laying on of hands, just a dark brown woman dressed in white giving out cuddles and sweets. In my cultural catalogue, which, let’s face it, was printed in Essex, the only reference I could reach for was visiting Father Christmas’s grotto in Debenhams, Lakeside.
The first embrace that I received was simple. No fireworks but a distilled maternal warmth, that hummed with infantile comfort. As I knelt and sank into Amma’s embrace she murmured something into my ear in a language I didn’t understand but seemed to remember.
I thought about the experience a lot. Why has this simple practice conducted by a fisherman’s daughter from Southern India become a global phenomena? What need is being met? What is being issued along with that hug?
The next time I met Amma was in December last year at Alexander Palace, I heard from a hippie lady at a book signing I was doing that Amma was in town and went along with my mate Mick who chariots me around and the filmmaker Adam Curtis, who is Tolkienesque in demeanour and gargantuan in intellect. The idea of dragging him off to be cuddled down the Ally Pally, all jammed with seekers and freaks gave me a real kick.
Like in New York, the vast space was packed with people wanting on the surface at least, a cuddle from a woman, who if on appearance alone sought asylum in Britain would be slung into a detention centre in Bedford.
It was while waiting on the stage having had my hug that a bespectacled and youthful swami whose name sounded alarmingly like “Shoebomber” said to me “”Come stay at our ashram in Kerala sometime”
“I will” I said.
“Fat chance” I thought.
But here I am on this slender, tropical peninsula that was briefly submerged by the tsunami in 2004 and where Amma was born fifty odd years ago. We were ferried by Brian (Let's Stick Together), an American who met us at the airport and became "Goatem" as we crossed the threshold of the ashram, like Batman when the signal goes up. He explained that Amma was serving lunch to everyone and if we went straight away we'd be fed. I was knackered and really wanted to go to my room but sensed to do so would be seen as a snub. "Don't snub a saint" I thought worried I might get cursed or bad voodoo so I compliantly shuffled along.
The ashram was like the smugglers bar in Star Wars, filled with jostling oddities; backpackers, swamis, locals, yokels, some silent some vocal, Indians, Americans, Brits, Germans, swarming in chaotic harmony. A giant pink temple with stone elephants and garlands is the central point and pink residential tower blocks flank it. It's bigger than I expected and more vibrant. This initial scene of dusty wonder is just for starters though, for rounding the corner to where I'm told Amma is there is a secondary quad of buildings; a cafe, more homes and a covered aircraft hangar like structure filled with thousands, literally thousands of people and at the front sits Amma, children at her feet, devotees all about her, serving up grub.
We are taken to the front to see her and get fed and it's bizarre. As I take a plate from Amma who smiles at me through the mayhem I turn and thousands of eyes are on me, or rather her and I'm a temporary obstacle, I do a sort of Kenneth Williams "oooh"-face and get a little laugh from Amma and the crowd.
Like you I am suspicious of anything that seems too good to be true, like you, I've been trained to judge the actions of others in accordance with my own rather more basic motivations.
If you too question the intentions of people that help others then get ready for an epic inquiry. Amma, who many here believe to be a divine incarnation has done some incredible humanitarian work including building five universities across India, several hospitals providing free healthcare for the poor, vocational training centres, an orphanage, hospices, 125,000 free homes for the homeless, 50,000 free meals a month for the poor, monthly pensions for destitute women, free clinics, and disaster relief for the tsunami relief and hurricane Katrina.
Even if you strip Amma's achievements of all spiritual accoutrement, the chanting, hugging and praying, you're still left with a sort of Indian Oprah Winfrey.
For a woman of such humble birth to have contributed so richly would have to constitute at least one miracle, I thought as I reclined on the hard flat bed of the basic room on the 7th floor of one of the blocks where I stayed. The Oprah comparison seems less trite as I survey the treats that have been laid on in the room; Amma branded chocolates and soap, her image adorns posters and products throughout the ashram, and if you cynically query this, as I did, then I suppose we need take a good look at our own western idolatry which centres on such worthy icons as celebrity chefs and giant transforming robots.
Obviously I want to believe that Amma between hugging the multitudes and feeding the masses is a decadent fraud who lives in clandestine opulence scoffing her own chocolates and at her naive worshippers. When I visit her dwelling for a chat this aspersion is cast aside as she lives in a flat similar to the one I'm staying in, aside from a few accrued religious knick-knacks, yards from the house where she was born.
The ashram has organically sprouted from this site and the initially suspicious villagers, who thought Amma was a nut when she was growing up (she went round hugging everyone) now adore her. The breakthrough came with the ashrams instantaneous and efficient response to the tsunami. Amma herself was wading through the flood setting up relief camps and consoling the bereaved even before the second wave hit. In many respects Amma could be regarded as a remarkable secular leader; she gets things done. On the subject of the existence of God she said "The question is not is there a God but is there suffering?"
Evidently there is suffering and the averred solution is loving pragmatism. Such is the positive impact of Amma's work that if I found out she'd murdered a couple of people on her way to the top I'd think it forgivable but it seems there are no skeletons in the closet. In fact looking around her flat I can't see a closet- if she had one she'd probably let an orphan sleep in it.
Naturally I asked Amma about revolution. She answered through her interpreter - Shubhamarita (who I'd thought was called "Shoebomber" remember) that the world of politics is so corrupt that it automatically weeds out the well-intentioned and anyone sincere will be subjected to pestilent mudslinging.
An analysis that's hard to dispute, although I'm never fully relaxed when communicating through a translator. When I interviewed the Dalai Lama a few years back I'm pretty sure, judging from His Holiness' sour expression, that his interpreter ballsed up a few of my sizzling wisecracks. Misinterpretation was the only possible reason, the jokes were solid.
With Amma I put in a few untranslatable words, like famous names to circumnavigate the problem. For example, when asking If Amma's spiritual nature is divine how can it be conveyed or taught? Here I sited the genius of Diego Maradona as an analogy. "Diego Maradona was a sublime player but not so good as a coach because genius is non transferable, if Amma is a kind of spiritual genius how can we normal folk learn from her?"
I heard amidst the translator's Malayalam, the native language of Kerala and the only language Amma speaks, the name of Argentina's peerless soccer star, like in a Fast Show sketch.
Her answer pertained to the presence of divine gifts in everyone but I wasn't t entirely sure that the question had been understood. I repeated it later to some western devotees while eating - beloved Goatem/Brian, PooNar, a beautiful Malaysian woman, Vivek from Reading, and Vinay from Wisconsin. This time away from Amma's gently shimmering presence, I'm more candid in my syntax "In me there is an animal that wants to kill and fuck, how can anyone, like Amma, born divinely connected ever understand that?" Vinay who first met Amma when he was a boy, thrust into her presence by New Age parents, put it succinctly "Perhaps we can never be like Amma, entirely devoted to service and love, but from her we can each learn to elevate the aspect of ourselves that is and perhaps, as a result, the world as a whole" 1930s vintage inspire wedding items
The people I hung out with at the Ashram were cool, from the fully switched-on swamis who emanated ochre kindness and westerners basically like me; lost, lonely and hollow, disillusioned with the religions of the west - materialism, consumerism and individualism, certain that there must be something more.
On New Years Eve it becomes clearer what that might be. The aircraft hangar is jammed and banging, it's a holy rave up. Amma has spent the day doing dharshan - that's the cuddles, she goes on for ages, 12, 14, 16 hours at a time, hugging everyone without discrimination, turning away no one. Then just prior to midnight the kids at the ashram school put on a performance and then Bhajan - a call and response series of songs led by Amma, beautifully accompanied by a dozen musicians on keyboards, bongos and what not.
The climactic number is like a football chant to Kali, goddess of creation and at the chorus Amma shouts something and everyone, which now constitutes 10,000 amped up people shout back "Jai". I'm sure no one here feels desperate, hopeless or alone. It's intense. It's like Upton Park. Except obviously at Upton Park desperation is frequently palpable. With each choral holler arms are flung heavenward. The people, together as one.
What Amma has intuited, or was born knowing, is that everyone wants to be loved and that everyone is worthy of love. Like a Mother she loves unconditionally and serves expediently.
What she demonstrates, we in our loveless social structures are scrabbling to discard. In Amma we have an example of what can be achieved if we build upon the principle of love. Throughout our crumbling culture there is fear, desire and anger and more and more, we all need a hug, the solution to our spiritual sickness might be simple, we can start to change the world by loving each other.