The Cult of the Hugging Saint Re-examined:
Towards an Inner Dialogue
“People have different opinions and they have the freedom to express them. Those with sharper intellects can prove or disprove many things. However, their statements may not necessarily be the truth. The more intellectual you are, the more egoistic you are. For such a person, surrendering is not so easy. The experience of God will not become a reality unless the ego is surrendered. …If somebody claims that a Guru’s guidance is not necessary in the path to God, such a person, Amma feels, is afraid to surrender his or her ego. Or maybe they themselves crave to be a guru.”
“Do not believe something just because I tell you. Question everything.”
~The Buddha [said something like that]
This essay will attempt to clear up some confusion in regard to one of the most remarkable spiritual teachers of our time, Mata Amritanandamayi, familiarly known as “Ammachi”(aka “The Hugging Saint”). I write this partly for myself, to get my thoughts down on paper, and also for those on both sides of the growing debate/controversy surrounding who is now perhaps India’s most highly regarded living saint.
In writing this, I do not wish to make anyone wrong, and am in fact coming from a space of some doubt and confusion myself, having now pretty thoroughly explored much of what has been said on both sides and finding there to be room for pause from all that has been written. What I do want to do is to suggest that we deeply listen to what everyone is saying rather than immediately putting the other side down, delete them from the message board, not really confront their points, or completely ignore them. I feel that most everyone, regardless of whether they take to spirituality or not, can agree that truth is best revealed through respectful and open dialogue, rather than deprecating diatribes. I would also suggest that if we are thinking or writing about these things at all, and especially if we strongly take a side, we’re most likely secretly confused and we might do well to question our own answers.
I also feel it’s appropriate to reveal that I’m writing this at about 3 am during Devi Bhava at Ammachi’s San Ramon ashram, 2014. Earlier this evening I spent a couple of hours going through a number of the pieces written online, including the Rolling Stone exposé (from 2012), as well as Ron Rattner’s essays, Gail Tredwell’s revelations, etc. I also wrote out a lengthy question to ask Ammachi, the gist of which I will touch upon in a moment.
The next revelation is that I wouldn’t have gotten into yoga as I did were it not for Ammachi. When I first was introduced to yoga in the mid-nineties, I met a number of gurus, swamis and yogis and Ammachi was like the gold standard for me by which I measured all the rest. Why? Well, at that time, it seemed that Ammachi had it all and was pretty much beyond reproach in my book. I couldn’t comprehend who she was and what she was doing, the superhuman energy she displayed day in and day out in selfless service to the world, hugging literally tens of thousands of people each week, with very little food and sleep, never seeming to waver or flag in her seva, her selfless service. To this day, apparently, she has never had to miss a day due to illness. That’s in 30+ years…pretty incredible, no? What’s that all about?
If Jesus’ oft-quoted maxim “by their fruits ye shall know them” means anything, and it certainly did to me back at the beginning (and still does), Ammachi had demonstrated unequivocally that she was putting all of her life force into the service of humanity, setting up countless charitable organizations, schools, disaster relief initiatives, traveling the world tirelessly, etc.
The first thing I would point out is something I read from a devotee early on, to the effect that she thought she was such a “good person” until she met Ammachi. Meaning that being around Ammachi showed how far she had to go in terms of embodying love in every moment, as Ammachi appears to do to the nth degree. That statement stood out in particular because it was also true of my experience – I really thought I was hot stuff until meeting Ammachi. I realize that a skeptic or “ex-Amma” might jump in at this point and say, well, you are hot stuff! You are also a superstar, no different than Ammachi! You would also have her energy and love if you had all of those people adoring you, and your job was to run a multi-billion dollar business based on love. You’d have to rise to the occasion. Maybe so, yet the fact is, I am not in Ammachi’s position, nowhere close to it, and neither are her detractors.
So the phenomenon of “sour grapes” and jealousy obviously can come into play here, and it is at this point that I feel we must deeply consider our ulterior motives in attacking Ammachi, or anyone for that matter. Is the attack (even if it is not couched in such extreme terms) really coming from a deep desire to help or save people from a brainwashing cult that abuses its members and what have you; or is it in fact coming from a desire to be seen as the hero, the whistleblower, or even the victim, because Ammachi is revered by millions and you are not? Or maybe it’s because you dropped your yoga practice and are trying to rationalize or justify it to yourself? And so on.
Let’s not stop there, though, yet let’s also deeply and just as fairly consider the other side of the coin. What might be considered jealousy or sour grapes might in actuality be emanating from a real desire to save people from someone who has been called a “false guru,” “energy vampire,” “antichrist,” and perhaps worse. Let’s consider that maybe Ammachi is “on top” so to speak because she ruthlessly knocked out most of the competition.
This is not an entirely hypothetical musing. The summer I met Ammachi, I also met Karunamayi, another South Indian “Amma,” who some of Ammachi’s devotees were going to see to receive darshan until Ammachi put a definite stop to that! Her followers were not going to see another Amma! She apparently even went so far as to sign her name to a document saying that if Karunamayi were allowed to even use the same venue as her, she would find somewhere else to give her programs. Then I heard that she put down Karunamayi as not the highest guru. This all shook me when I first heard about it, and started to put a crack in the picture I had of Ammachi (and ultimately not going back for 14 years). And of course, in the last 14 years or so, much more shocking allegations have come to light about the disturbing underbelly on what on the public surface looks like such an above board organization. We’re talking about physical, psychological, and sexual abuse allegations, some of them pretty much confirmed, as well as misappropriation of funds, and even intimations that Ammachi’s movement has offed people who don’t toe the party line. Pretty horrendous sounding stuff, not all of it proven, and probably much of it not true. Yet it seems that some of it is true and yet is being officially denied by Ammachi’s organization, including we must suppose, by Ammachi herself.
Again, though, how we see all of this kind of depends on what stake we have in Ammachi being either an avatar or a fraud. If we have some stake in the former, we’ll find a way to see Ammachi as an avatar. If we are invested in the latter, we’ll have no problem showing how Ammachi is a fraud. Where does the truth lie? Perhaps, as usual, somewhere in between.
Her defenders will say things like, “Well, if she’s an avatar, then she can make it look like that to test people to look beyond the surface appearances, as well as to test the faith of her devotees. Perhaps there are really stubborn blockages there that can only be dislodged by certain shock and awe tactics, what has been termed “crazy wisdom” teachings? Perhaps her “tough love” is exactly what is needed to completely blow their mind and bring them into an enlightened state? How/who are we to judge? And every major figure is going to have their enemies and detractors, it’s just a fact of life. As far as the public denial that these things ever happened, well, there is a “greater good” being served by Ammachi’s organization running than not, and the tough karmic lessons were confined to a few close disciples – why should they be allowed to bring the whole blessed enterprise down with them? And again, who is to judge?
That’s the defense. Now those against Ammachi will come and say that there’s a real slippery slope if we go that route because then the guru can really abuse their power and do anything they like, justifying it by saying “I’m the boss, my word is queen, and you just have to deal with it and learn your lessons,” and if they get away with it, they might abuse their power even more. Towards the end of his life, there were a number of people also trying to take down South India’s other great guru of this era, Satya Sai Baba, mainly for faking his materializations and miracles, but even more damning, for the number of reports that were being posted on the internet accusing him of pedophilia. Again, supporters said that because of who he was, he could do whatever he wanted and it was all never so he could get his jollies but to serve the greater spiritual evolution of his devotees, perhaps especially to test or reveal their level of faith and detachment. Meanwhile, his detractors again used the argument that a true guru would never commit such adharmic (non-lawful and unrighteous) for any reason, even to test their followers.
Perhaps at this point you, like me, are sensing the limits of rational thinking here, and that if we truly honestly consider both sides of this issue, we will be left in a state of stalemate, not being able to offer a definitive 100% sure conclusion either way. And it is here that we come to what seems to be an essential part of the spiritual path, and that is what we know as “faith,” which is where reason leaves off and a humble sense of “I don’t know” begins. Yet before we leap with loveblind faith, there are certain things we can do first to help decide for ourselves which way to go…
More than a century ago, Harvard professor William James came up with the philosophy of pragmatism, which essentially says, “What Works?” Does it work for you? Then do it! And if doesn’t work for you, then don’t! And I would add, if you see something is working for someone else, be very careful before you attempt to burst their bubble, because what they believe may be very useful to them at that moment! And that said, they also might be very grateful to you for bursting their bubble, so it can go either way (you might want to propose a “spoiler alert” first 😉 Yet in the end, it’s really our choice to have our bubble burst or not – if it happens, we’ve opened ourselves and allowed it.
The other thing I would say is that exploring other religions and paths has, for me, definitely strengthened my faith in Ammachi and what she is offering the world. For one thing, her teachings are very simple, clear, able to encapsulate the most profound and universal spiritual teachings. And they are ultimately in accord with Advaita Vedanta – the philosophy that all is One, and that we are all and have always been one with what many call God (or Spirit, Source, etc). Vedanta has been confirmed and re-affirmed not only by the teachings of the Vedas, Upanishads, and countless sages past and present (including from other traditions, such as Rumi, Meister Eckhart, et.), but also by other contemporary revealed scriptures such as a new favorite of mine, A Course in Miracles. Furthermore, if I had never done an ayahuasca session, I wouldn’t have been able to fully grok some of Ammachi’s teachings (if they truly are her’s, and not ghost written), such as the following:
“ Spirituality is not a journey forward, it is a journey backward. We return to our original source of existence. In that process, we have to pass through the layers of emotions and vasanas [tendencies] that have accumulated so far. That is where the pain comes from, not from outside. By going through those layers with an open attitude, we are, in fact, crossing over and transcending them, which will ultimately take us to the abode of supreme peace and bliss.”
Actually, meditation showed me the truth of this statement early on (and I wouldn’t have really gotten as deeply into meditation were it not for teachers like Ammachi), but working with ayahuasca took it that much deeper.
So in other words, I now have for myself outside confirmation of what Ammachi is teaching, and at this moment, sitting in her presence and in this beautiful gathering, I will say that even if there are some things in Ammachi’s movement that are red flags, it yet seems wise to see things in the context of the big picture and the “spiritual fruits” that Ammachi and her followers have offered the world.
All that said, it ultimately does come down to faith: Is Ammachi truly an Avatar, God in human form who can lead us through those deeper levels of our unconsciousness that are so difficult to access and navigate on our own; or is she actually a false guru who has come to enslave her followers (and the world, too), keeping them as far from enlightenment as possible so that she can win all the glory for herself? All I can say is, the choice is yours. My point here has mainly been to suggest that we all really examine our own motives, our own stake in all of this, and from that place of complete self-honesty and transparency, decide whatever we decide. That requires some real introspection, the hallmark of the spiritual path.
For myself, what works for me is to remain in a position of open-endedness, and to also be primarily focused on working out my own salvation, without over-reliance on external teachers. Despite the traditional yoga teaching that one has to have a guru in order to reach enlightenment, it seems this is not necessarily the case for everyone. Even Ammachi herself has said the following:
“Amma doesn’t force anything on anyone. For those who have the unshakeable faith to see every single situation, both negative and positive, as a message from God, an external Guru is not necessary.”
Ammachi, however, goes on to ask rhetorically:
“But how many people have that determination and strength?”
Indeed, how many? Do I truly have that ability, or am I fooling myself?
1) Rolling Stone article, “Cult of the Hugging Saint.” http://www.theyogablog.com/controversial-rolling-stone-article-on-amma/ . This blog entry provides a link to the original RS article, plus the blog author’s commentary.
2) Ron Rattner, Silly Sutra Website, particularly the piece: http://sillysutras.com/other-teachers-mata-amritanandamayi-ammachi-rons-memoirs/. I first learned through a friend of Ron’s break with Ammachi; this was in the late nineties, some 15 years before he went public with his grievances.
3) Gail Tredwell. Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion, and Pure Madness. http://www.amazon.com/Holy-Hell-Memoir-Devotion-Madness/dp/0989679403
4) Official and Other Responses to the Tredwell book: https://ammascandal.wordpress.com/tag/holy-hell/
5) Amma.org. Official Ammachi website.
6) Bronte Baxter, “Blowing the Whistle”: http://brontebaxter.wordpress.com/blowing-the-whistle-chpt-9-amma-the-mother-saint-hugging-away-your-personhood/
7) Letters to the Mother: http://letterstothemother.com/tag/ex-amma/
8) Jovan Jones website: One of Ammachi’s biggest critics. I met her when she was still a devotee of Ammachi in the mid-90s. She wrote “Chasing the Avatar,” a mainly non-fiction account of her time with Ammachi.
9) Article quotations of Ammachi are from the book “From Amma’s Heart,” written and edited by Swami Amritaswarupananda.