Mata Amritanandamayi Devi
Mata Amritanandamayi Devi is affectionately referred to by her followers as “the hugging saint”, or simply Amma, which is the Sanskrit word for mother. She is a modern-day “avatar-guru”. This means her followers consider her to be an incarnation of a Hindu deity- in this case Devi, or Sakti (Copley 255). The goddess, Devi, represents the female aspect of the divine, and is the core form of every Hindu goddess.
In contrast to this divine reputation she holds today, Mata comes from very humble beginnings indeed. She was born in 1953 into a low-caste fishing family in the South Indian state of Kerala (Warrier 3). Her path to divinity started very young as she would spend excessive amounts of time immersed in meditation and prayer (Warrier 3). At the tender age of twenty-one Mata self-identified with the goddess Devi, and proclaimed that she was in fact the human manifestation of the Great Divine Mother (Warrier 3). It is due in part to Mata’s more well known moniker, “The Hugging Saint”, that she has gained this motherly image. Mata’s devotees will queue for hours on end after hearing her speak, just to receive a hug from her. An embrace from Mata is believed by her followers to be a divine experience, often equated with a spiritual awakening (Copley 259).
Mata dons the traditional garb of the goddess Devi whenever she appears in public, in order to present her divine nature to her followers. These public appearances are referred to as darshans, or “viewings” (Warrier 3). Mata herself has a slightly more involved perception of darshan. She is quoted as saying: “Darshan is a divine embrace. When I hold someone, it allows him to experience true, unconditional love; it can help to awaken his spiritual energy” (Luc, 41). Mata’s followers strive for spiritual enlightenment through worship of Mata herself, and by extension, the goddess whom she represents. This branch of the Hindu faith is called bhakti (Copley 255). However, worship and devotion to Mata is not the only thing expected of her followers. The main practice that all of Mata’s faithful followers must adhere to is that of seva. Seva, at its most basic definition, is the act of selfless service (Copley 264). Universal love, as well as selflessness, lie at the core of Mata’s philosophy. Mata works to spread this message, and related activism, throughout the world via her charitable organization The Mata Amritanandamayi Mission (henceforth referred to as The Mission).
The Mission is an eclectic organization involved in everything from supporting orphanages and colleges, to establishing hospitals with the highest standard for medical care (Copley 259-260). The unique thing about these organizations founded and/or managed by The Mission is the fact that they are almost entirely funded by donations from Mata devotees from around the world (Warrier 7). This is where seva plays its most pivotal role. The most revered form of seva is selfless service to the Mission itself. So by devoting time, effort, and donations to any one of the many humanitarian projects championed by Mata and her mission, the devotee is improving his or her own personal karma, while at the same time helping to further the impact of The Mission (Copley 265). It is this somewhat circular process which is largely responsible for the dramatic, worldwide spread of The Mission. Mata is revered as the ideal example of seva. As her followers attempt to emulate her tireless dedication to selflessly serving the entire world, they are at the same time vastly increasing the global scope of The Mission itself (Copley 265).
Another important factor at play here is that the majority of Mata’s devotees, in India and abroad, are middle-class, white-collar professionals (Copley 260). This demographic could be considered Mata’s greatest resource for spreading her message of universal love. It has been said that Mata possesses an unparalleled ability to recognize the most valuable attributes in a person, as well as the most effective way to utilize those attributes in an effort to further her cause (Copley 272). Mata’s devotees offer their various forms of expertise to The Mission as an expression of seva (Copley 272). Many of these individuals are seeking a way to contextualize their Hindu lifestyle in an increasingly modern world, which may not fit with traditional values or practices. A large part of Mata’s appeal as a guru lies in her flexible approach to Hindu worship. Her followers are permitted, and in fact encouraged, to pursue their faith in whichever way suits their lifestyle (Copley 263).
Mata lives a life governed by the same ideals as Hindu renouncers even though she does not truly belong to any such group (Warrier 6). Her social status could be described as above and beyond any traditional caste system. When she is not travelling the world, or visiting the various ashrams set up by her devotees, she spends most of her time at the ashram in her home-state of Kerala (Warrier 6). Ashram simply means “spiritual hermitage” (Copley 259). It is here that she works with individuals striving for brahmacharya, life as an ascetic, by closely monitoring their behaviour and guiding them in their spiritual quest. Once Mata believes they are finally qualified for brahmacharya she carries out an initiation rite (called the brahmacharya diksha), which officially recognizes the individual as a renouncer (Warrier 6).
Warrier, Maya (2003) Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contemporary India. International Journal of Hindu Studies, 7: 31-54.
Viginie, Luc (2008) In God’s Name: Wisdom From the World’s Great Spiritual Leaders. New York: Melcher Media.
Copely, Antony (2003) Hinduism in Public and Private: Reform, Hindutva, Gender, and Sampraday. New Delhi; New York: Oxford India Paperbacks.
Warrier, Maya (2005) Hindu Selves in a Modern World: Guru Faith in the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission. Oxfordshire: RoutledgeCurzon.
Article written by Dylan Williamson (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.