“A woman from East Seattle who has been abused for over 18 years at institutions is now a budding artist and also a counselor at Amma Center, Michigan”
“A sex offender who has been in prison several times has changed a new leaf and is now a spiritual follower and a frequent visitor to Amma’s retreats and public programs in the United States”
“A pediatrician embroiled in many medical cases to the point of going through several years of depression is now a successful doctor and an ardent follower who constantly visits the Amma Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan”
“Women who had no connection with spiritual masters and gurus have now made the Amma Center as their home”
Who is Amma? What is the Amma Center? Who is this beautiful woman, draped in white, constantly smiling peeking out of billboards around Detroit?
Well, this is just a sample of many people I met during my visit and a bunch of questions that were embroiled within me as I made a visit to Amma Center tucked away in a horse farm on Ann Arbor-Saline Road, Ann Arbor.
I vividly remember when Amma visited my school while I was in the sixth grade back in Chennai, India. At that time, like any normal kid, I got my share of hug and blessings and the story was long forgotten. Over the years my friends and teachers had each in their own way helped on my path of development. After that, all I knew about her were the international tours, the spiritual discourses, her humanitarian efforts, the transformation of AIMS in Cochin, Kerala. Little did I sense that thousands of followers – mostly non-Indians have understood the simple formula that Amma carries with her in the form of her hug – “Good begets Good”. And these thousands keep coming every year to meet her and get charged.
My exploration about spiritual masters and gurus was purely based out of science and logic and did not depend on blind beliefs. I was part of the “denim” generation and I wholly understood that divinity and goodness are real and this exists in many people but I needed proof. But, then after my visit to the Amma Center and reading a beautiful book called “Amma” – Healing the Heart of the World by Dr.Judith Cornell (sold for $25.00 at the Amma Store), I realized that to believe and understand god, one needs to have an open mind without being judgmental about anything. We see the temple as a temple because we see the good in us. Amma is not a goddess, but a manifestation of this supreme love which she has understood and is now making us understand. So why not see her more as an inspiration and start living life in simple terms – do good, be good and get good.
There is nothing like god men or sadhus or saints – those are terms given by us. Most of them are manifestations of goodness. To heighten the spirit of goodness and to make us believe that good exists, we have another minor share of the so called god-men who are nothing but phony! But again, it is our perception and minds that makes the decision for us.
Often times, mental depression owing to external conditions such as job loss, harassment, abuse, relationship failure leads us to extreme conditions where the best solution according to Amma would be to “seek the divine inside you” – in other words to seek god!
My first encounter with disciples of Amma @ The Amma Center, Ann Arbor, MI
Dr. Raji met Amma (Mata Amritananadamayi who was born Sudhamani in a very poor fishing family in 1953) in 1989. The doctor was going through a lot of law suits and had a mental breakdown for two years and feared to put her life back together. Raji was basically from Kerala. In her own words, “I was shattered. I talked to Amma and in a few minutes, I felt a strange vibration. Amma put my life back together. Amma’s words were very simple. She asked me to be patient and she gave me courage to practice medicine again. She made me fearless. I wanted relief and I was not looking for miracles to happen. I just needed to live”. According to Raji, Amma’s love and positive words put her puzzles back together and from then on- she has been confident and independent.. When problems arise, Raji fearlessly faces the situation, rises up to the challenge and goes about setting things straight. What made the timid lady from the conservative family in Kerela a fearless, successful and confident doctor? She replies “Amma’s love and genuine care”. As Raji puts it, “Amma gave me strength to analyze and devote my energy to what I strongly believed in”. Raji realized that the strength lies all over. Her meeting with Amma not only gave her strength to handle her life differently but also to have the mental strength to confront any situation and think logically before making a decision. Raji, along with her husband and American born kids have seamlessly joined Amma’s vision of selfless, unconditional love.
Irene who visits the Ashram regularly was given the name NishKama by Amma. Known as NishKama by everyone at the center, she mentioned how Amma has strengthened her spiritual knowledge and how through selfless service, ego is dissolved. “It is all about selfless service, devotion and commitment”, said Nishakama. I am stuck to the center like a magnet. Its not about god, it is about the spirituality within us that was so nicely explained by Amma. “You need to meet her once and listen to her discourse. It changes your perspective about life completely”.
The Amma Center in Ann Arbor was founded by Ajitha and Chad in 1997. Supported by the dynamic Sundari Murthy, the lovely duo Jai and Prema Puthran – the center has been working with non-profits on various projects. Since its formation, the Center has seen over 100 volunteers including 50 active participants. The Center is beautifully tucked in a solemn and natural surrounding of a horse farm in the interiors of Ann Arbor.
Amma Center and the concept of Seva
The Mother’s Kitchen is one active food station that allows the volunteers to provide food for the homeless. Sumathi Nathan takes the lead on this effort. She claims that Amma’s project is to “Eat to the fill. We gather collectively every Saturday and we feed the homeless once a week. This is true ‘Seva” for us. All devotees take turn to cook. Around $50 is collected for this effort every Saturday, we have two volunteers and we supply food for the Staples Family Center and the Shelter for Abused Women. The best part is we serve and feed them and also eat with them. Sumathi also excitedly mentions how she would ask for a menu post-lunch. For Sumathi and others, this is a satisfying experience because feeding someone who does not have food, is what spirituality is all about. The Amma Center “Mothers Kitchen” has been in operation for 7 years every Saturday.
As Amma’s followers, Raji, Sumathi, Irene and others mentioned that praying together and conducting Seva together increases the potential to seek the inner self. This collective effort is one of the strengths of the Amma Center. There is no hierarchy or bureaucracy in its operations, the center relies on everybody’s efforts and skills. The Amma Center has a Satsang that is conducted 2 hours every week- Amma’s books are read out loud, followed by Bhajans and individual singing and then the potluck (dinner). Amma according to them actively along with her disciples lives her own teachings -"Children, expand your heart and embrace all by doing selfless activities".
According to the Amma Center inmates, Amma likes it when everyone helps in whatever way they can. She has said, "Even when we buy flowers for a friend, it is we who get to enjoy their beauty and fragrance first. Through selfless service our heart is expanded." This concept is called Seva. Amma has said. "What is more important than to use this precious time in our brief life toward a journey of love?"
Love resides in the treasury called a “Heart”
Supriti Nnadi (A Bengali name meaning supreme love given by Amma) a beautiful woman of Afro-American descent relates her story about what she saw in Amma and how Amma transformed her from a dying object to a living being. Supriti was born in the East of Seattle. She was abandoned by birth, raised in a catholic church, and foster homes, suffered a post traumatic stress syndrome which she said is her “way of being in the world.
Her life was tailored according to others – “Life was to be like what you want me to be” She did it for 50 years. Abused in catholic institution repeatedly, she tried to end her life many times because she felt that if this is all it is, then “let me go”. Supriti treated life like a fantasy. She lead her life with numbness. According to Supriti, “I was a raging alcoholic for two years and was helped by a therapist who later revealed that she was Amma’s devotee. The therapist took me to meet Amma. I had no sign of what it was. So we got on the ferry to go for Amma’s retreat. The moment I saw her, I was charged. I finally felt something inside – for the first time I could feel. I saw her eyes and her smile and I was just transfixed. My heart opened and I felt unconditional love inside for the first time. When I got my hug – my “selves” disconnected. I realized what love was and how it could be. I realized what I was missing and when Amma left I became hysterical because I finally found someone and she was leaving me. What can I say about Amma – she is a true mother, she is caring, she is gentle. She is a mother. I was so fragile and close to dying for lack of love and here I am still healing- my life has changed completely, I started loving”.
I thought to myself as to how humanly possible it is to genuinely hug a stranger and emit confidence, energy and love day in and day out? To my question about how such a thing could happen overnight in one encounter, Supriti said that “it is a universal consciousness that we know little about and that she knows so much. She shows it with her positive thinking and positive love that is unconditional– it is all out there. Amma opens the windows for us”. And this made me think that probably the love I show to my family and friends is someway or the other different to what I show to others. The “my” and others” isn’t there for Amma – to her- the world is family.
Supriti continued her story that took her to Cochin in 2001 where she underwent ISO 2000 training at AIMS (Amritanandamayi Institute of Medical Sciences). The struggle, the sadness and the experience shows in Supriti’s eyes where she now believes “what is real and unreal”. She happily mentioned about her Amma. “Amma gave me confidence. She saw the artist in me and I started painting. I did not even realize that it was inside me. My purpose is to create beauty. So you see how a touch of love has transformed a dying person – I should have been dead a long time back. I tried to take my life so many times. I was born a preemie (in 6.5 months), didn’t fit in the white or the black community but now I fit in the community called universal love – that is free. Amma sends people to me for help. I come across so many people who come to me. Even though I don’t get along with them, there is something they get out of me and some that I get out of them. I am living with what Amma gave me, true to my name “I am love, I am lovable”.
Supriti frequents the Amma Center is a joy to be with! If you get a chance don’t forget to meet her because in revealing one inspiring story about Amma – I found many borne out of her shadow.
Spirituality is a collective effort – Uniting a family
Prema Putran’s relationship with her Amma began in 1995. In United States for 33 years, Prema lived a life of comfort and her knowledge about spirituality rested in beliefs that were transitioned from ancestors. Prema’s son was studying Hinduism as an Under Graduate elective and attended the Self Realization Fellowship (the international nonprofit society founded by Paramahansa Yogananda) for two months. During that phase, Prema’s son heard about Amma and started reading more about her. This phase changed his life forever. A party going kid, with bottled energy was soon transformed into a patient, meditative young man who became a vegetarian and started learning his mother tongue Tulu in less than a year. All these changes terrified Prema. This was not all. Prema was shaken with disbelief when her son all of 20 years old wanted to go to Kerala, India alone to visit Amma’s Ashram to spend time there. “As parents we were naturally scared”, said Prema. “My son came back and revealed a great experience. He did not want to return but Amma sent him back saying that hard work is essential and that live life by serving others without shirking responsibilities”. Prema continued that “through him, I met Amma in 1995 when she came to Chicago as there was no center in Michigan. She hugged everybody like their own child. There was genuine love. My own mother stopped hugging me long time back and here I was being hugged by this complete stranger who had nothing but love to offer. I sobbed for hours”. Prema considers this experience as memorable as all the while she felt that she had everything in life but through Amma she found that what she lacked was spiritual strength and through her, she received it with grace.
As the son and wife transformed completely, it was quite but natural for Jai to succumb to love. Jai casually spoke about how he did not have the need to see Amma. “I thought I didn’t want to go. What was the need for me? I got dragged there by my son and by my wife and also because I was curious to see who she was”. Jai recounts his experience – “The first thing that struck me was the amazing amount of people standing in lines. More non-Indians than Indians formed the majority. I decided to go tthere for just an hour and I ended up staying for the entire session. Such was the beauty of the experience. Immediately I realized how non-Indian children patiently waited for the darshan of Amma. Westerners have started enveloping this love that came from Amma. It was so strange to see the anxious faces”. The Amma Center provides an opportunity for others to experience Amma’s love.
With that statement, I realized how most of us can wait endlessly for material happiness and success. But when it came to spirituality, we seldom wait because we take it for granted that it would happen instantly and overnight. That is not how it works. There is lot on intense commitment, devotion and service fueled with love that sprites one’s spiritual journey.
Jai actively participates in the Amrita Kutumbham project where the volunteers of the Amma Center get invited to people’s homes. The volunteers car pool and visit the homes irrespective of the faith, sing bhajans, read books written by Amma, have dinner and return. The Amrita Kutumbham project also spearheaded the Tsunami rehabilitation efforts where 6000 homes were built by Amma volunteers from all over the world including Germany, Brazil, Netherlands, Australia, England, France and others.
The creation of Amma Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Ajitha’s personal experience turned out to be a starting point of her spiritual journey. Apart from starting the Amma Center with her husband Chad in the beautiful Ann Arbor, Ajitha also takes care of Amma’s activities in the Mid-West area. In her own words – “My first experience with Amma began in 1992 when my mother-in-law asked me to go meet Amma at Chicago. I came from a family who were not much into Gurus. My initial experience was normal. Amma seemed very loving but one thing so apparent was that there was a strange sense of calmness in the room filled to capacity. I was wondering as to why all the people were there. Then the Arathi that was sung made me so teary eyed and emotional. I went over and over again and on the third day – I realized that Amma was the same with every single person. Every single person seemed familiar to her, from 7:00 p.m. in the evening to 4:00a.m. in the morning, she has been hugging and smiling, generating love and care. She has been doing that every year and every time she has been the same- the same smile and the same hug”.
Ajitha realized that she was a lot lot more than us. As Ajitha puts it: Amma was an inspiration! She was asking us to go out and do what we can to help others. As the coordinator of the Amma center for MidWest, a home maker and a part time professional, Ajitha has been learning a lot through her experience with Amma. Her message to people who are considering stopping by for the public program or the retreat is to come there with an open mind. More than anything else, Amma is an incredible human being, whose life is a standing example of simplicity, kindness and unconditional love. She motivates us to be simple and non-judgmental in our approach, have no ego or pride because we are all irrespective of rich or poor, black or white, normal or abnormal- creations of one who is using us as an instrument to spread love and positive energy.
Story about the Sex Offender
Ajitha shared an interesting experience about a Sex Offender whose life changed mysteriously and the change happened after meeting with Amma. “There was this gentleman who was a sex offender- out of prison trying to get his life back together. All of us have kids and hence we were on the look out and we tried to be very safe. I happened to be there at the same retreat and to my disbelief I saw how Amma was the same to him. She mentioned to him that “just because you have done something wrong does not mean you cannot change”. And then turning to us she mentioned “We have friends and family who love us but for someone like him he does not have anyone. Love is a strong weapon that can change anyone. He may not have a mother who loved him, he may not have siblings or friends who loved him”. All that Amma was trying to say was that you cannot judge people by one encounter. His life has obviously turned around and he is a regular at Amma’s retreats.
As Ajitha wraps it up finely – “Amma was totally accepting, non judgmental. We all have assumptions. For me, Amma is one human being whom you can draw inspiration from. The message she gives us is “do what you can. Make time to go out and help people. What will you lose if you smile at a person- how much time would it take?”
Well, all this sounds great in principle but for Ajitha, Amma is a beginning – being and doing good can be cultivated over a lifetime. But one needs to start somewhere – it is all a journey and realization comes from that. Think about replacing anger, envy, greed, selfishness into love. Let us throw ourselves in those negative situations again but with positive emotion like love and probably we will notice how our reactions might change. This may be a good start.
An Inspiration – A Revelation – “The joy of a genuine hug”
Amma is a spiritual leader with 35 years of hugging people with the same kind of smile and genuine affection and care. But she's also a humanitarian who devotes herself to myriad charitable projects that include schools, orphanages, clinics, hospitals, hospices, women’s shelters, homes, disaster relief and pensions for the elderly. She has inspired so many volunteers to devote their time to helping and serving the lesser privileged. Seen by her followers as the embodiment of pure love, Amma has said, "Ninety percent of all the problems in this world stem from lack of love and from one's need for love.” Hence the hugs, which she dispenses until the last person in line has had darshan with her.
Some have traveled many miles to Detroit, from Chicago, Ohio, Philadelphia, New York. All come to spend time in her presence, and to receive the tender hug she has given to some 30 million people in several countries. In addition to her hugging sessions (which can last for hours, a full day, or overnight, depending on the number of people), her unconventional spiritual practice and her teachings aim at a deeper impact. Amma wishes to comfort wounded hearts with unconditional love where she also wishes to awaken the healing qualities of universal motherhood which sees no gender. According to Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma) – “The love of awakened motherhood is a love and compassion felt not only towards one's own children, but towards all people ... to all of nature," she says. "This motherhood is Divine Love - and that is God."
Do not miss the wonderful opportunity to meet Amma - a remarkable woman who channels the spirit of maternal love and grace of "the Divine Mother". Every year she comes to United States to embrace, bless, and encourage followers of any faith. She takes her time hugging each person like a mother who has not seen her child in years. She accepts each person with a smile and a ready hug. She accepts you as you, teaching you to accept yourself and others.
Read more about Amma – the embodiment of true love.
To know more about the Retreat and Public Programs, click here
Written exclusively for Miindia by Anu Gopalakrishnan.