Meeting the Divine Mother: Amritanandamayi and Me
Marlborough, MA. I was invited to speak last evening at an appearance in one of the Boston suburbs of the famous modern Indian teacher, Mata Amritanandamayi (literally, “the mother,” “the one entirely composed of bliss in the imperishable”)— Amma, mother, who tours the world regularly, and has been widely honored for her charitable works for the poor in many places. She is also famous for embracing those who come to see her. For she is also “the hugging guru,” and is known to receive for hours at a time whoever comes to her, embracing them warmly and with a loving smile. She is also considered, by many of her disciples, simply a divine person come down to earth.
So I had the opportunity to speak a few words in introduction to her own lecture (in Malayalam, her native South Indian language, with a subsequent translation read by a discipline) and subsequent devotional hymns and a long evening of embraces. I was invited partly as a specialist in Hindu-Christian relations, and partly, I suspect, as a Harvard professor. But what to do, speaking a few word before nearly 1000 people (mostly Western, most "converted" to being her devotees) gathered to see this person they know to be divine? One might turn down such a request, of course, but if one does accept it, how to speak in a way that honors the occasion, respects her loving presence and good works, while yet also communicating something of Christian love too? It is quite a challenge to weave everything together in the right balance, definitely a Catholic and definitely standing before so large a group of very sincere devotee of Amma. So I pondered this for days, finally accepted the invitation, and eventually came up with the speech below; I showed up in my Roman collar, gave my talk, garlanded her, was embraced by her, spoke with her in Tamil for a brief moment, and enjoyed it all. But see what you think of my little speech. Did I say too much? too little? would you agree to speak on such an occasion?
Here it is (though also click here for the summary and video excerpt posted by Amma's organization):
“Namaste, vanakkam, good evening. It is a grace to be here tonight with you. I know that we all travel by so many personal paths, yet by a singular invitation we are here together for a time, and that is good that it is so. I offer you this ancient Jewish blessing as we collect ourselves: “May the Lord bless us and keep us; / may the Lord make his face to shine upon us, / and be gracious to us; / may the Lord lift up his face upon us, / and give us peace. Amen.” (Numbers 6)
“We are here tonight, gathered together with Amritanandamayi Amma. When we speak this name — Amritananda-mayi, “perfect, complete in the bliss of the imperishable” — the Sanskrit scholars among us may think first on a philosophical level, perhaps turning to the Upanisads to probe the meaning of “bliss” and “the imperishable.” We may eventually think of the undying spark within all beings, and of a bliss grounded in the highest immortal Reality.
“But we also know that this name — Amritanandamayi — tells us something simpler and more immediate. We are invited to see how our guest — our host — is open to the undying Spirit that blows where it will — in, through, and around each of us. With her tonight, we learn again to stop covering our light with a bushel basket, and to share the bliss that is within us.
“I am told that Amma does not teach by many words, that she offers no elaborate instructions. When she speaks to you, I have been told, it is a living word that exists not as an idea or lesson, but as the intimate dialogue that happens when two people meet one another, face to face, and receive at some deeper level the gift of words so simple that they have more to do with receiving that giving information, listening than talking. This is the way it should be. Far better, tonight, is a true word that helps us as we need it right now, perhaps even before we know what that need is.
“I think you know that my guru, the only guru I know as my own, is Jesus. He spoke many memorable words as the teacher, living words that surprised and awakened and guided his listeners, but most often he spoke just the word or two needed to change a person’s life: get up and walk; you are forgiven, go in peace; do not be afraid, I am with you always; come, follow me; go forth and preach the Good News, I am with you always. Think too of Lord Krsna, who said many things to Arjuna, but in the end said a simple word that was enough: "ma sucah, grieve no more." Bhagavad Gita 18.66)
“And so tonight we listen carefully, we listen in stillness and by song, as we once again become witnesses to God promising to be with us always.
“We also know very well that Amma’s words blossom into the doing of good deeds, acts of compassion. This is what St. Francis meant when he said, 'Preach the Good News always; use words only when necessary.' Amma’s concrete and real works of mercy are known everywhere, hers is a faith lived out in compassion, love realized in feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless.
“And so it should be. As St. John puts it, 'God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…. We love because God first loved us. But those who do not love the brother or sister they see, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from Jesus is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters as well.' (I John 4) True wisdom is not separate from compassion: this core insight gives life once and again, and it emerges with the greatest force when the message and messenger are one.
“From the first time I heard about Amma I, like many of you, have known how she hugs people, envelopes all who come to her in her embrace. This too speaks more than words, showing us in visible form that no one is untouchable, no one is to be kept at a distance, and no one need be the alien or exile, shunned by others. Such compassion flows around us, like a river that recognizes no stopping point. As Jesus said, “The water that I give will become in you a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4)
“When Jesus came, he lay his hand upon the leper and the outcaste, he called the little children unto himself. He was kissed, embraced, touched by those who simply wanted to be where he was. He ate with the sinner and the prostitute, he dined in the house of the tax collector and the Pharisee. In love, the scorned woman washed his feet with her tears. He stretched forth his hands, that he might be nailed to the cross of our suffering and despair. Or think of Rama, who came into the home of Sabari the outcaste woman, accepted her gift, and embraced her.
“It seems right then that Amma, a mother indeed, should open herself to all who will come near to her, and by a hug offer so intimate a pathway to bliss: a smile, just a word, a deed that is good news for the lonely and the brokenhearted today — and still more simply, the loving embrace that welcomes us home. Such is the great gift we share tonight.
“I close by sharing with you the very first Indian prayer that touched my heart, Rabindranath Tagore’s words of recognition of God who is wondrously near to us:
‘You have made me known to friends whom I knew not. / You have given me seats in homes not my own. / You have brought the distant near / and made a sister of the stranger… / Through birth and death, / in this world or in others, / wherever you lead me / it is you, the same, / the one companion of my endless life / who ever links my heart / with bonds of joy to the unfamiliar. / When one knows you, / then alien there is none, / then no door is shut. / Oh, grant me my prayer / that I may never lose / the bliss of the touch of the one / in the play of the many.’" (from Gitanjali; adapted)
Francis X. Clooney