The ashram I’m staying at, Amritapuri, is headed up by a famous guru named Amma. About a week ago, Amma arrived at the ashram, back from her annual tour of the US. In a matter of days, the ashram was transformed from a large but very sleepy spiritual center into a place bursting at the seams with with tourists running about. It was amazing to see the population of temporary guests at the ashram increase from about a couple hundred to several thousand. I’ve talked to more than a few disappointed tourists who had expected Amritapuri to be a quiet place where they could relax and do yoga. Many tourists leave when they see the chaos. For me personally, the excitement at the ashram has been a welcomed change–not just because it’s exposed me to many new and interesting people, but also because it’s been a litmus test for my meditation practice, showing me places in my daily activities where I need to cultivate more inner peace so I don’t have to rely on the external circumstances to feel joyful and calm.
A few days after Amma arrived, I went to visit her for “Darshan”. What is darshan? According to Wikipedia,”Darshan is ultimately difficult to define, since it is an event in consciousness—an interaction in presence between devotee and God/guru ... which focuses and calls out the consciousness of the devotee.... A heightening of consciousness or spirituality is the intended effect.” In Amma’s case, she gives Darshan by simply hugging the people visiting her. I’ve spoken to people at the ashram who say they cried for hours prior to, during, and after the hug. Some have said Amma’s darshan was the most profound experience of their lives.
Personally, I was highly skeptical. For one, the suggestion that a hug could “heighten my consciousness” (read: make me a wiser and more present individual) conflicted with much of what I’ve come to believe as an economics major: namely, that “their ain’t such thing as a free lunch.” Anything worth having in life, whether spiritual knowledge, emotional well being, or material possessions, seems to take a lot of long and hard work in the getting. Furthermore, the implication that Amma is some sort god made me very uncomfortable. Certainly in the West, the Jim Jonses of the world have given people claiming to be god a bad rep.
Despite my misgivings, I waited in line for 3 hours and finally received the hug. It was nothing spectacular–Amma simply hugged me for about a minute then went on to the next person. I didn’t cry, I didn’t speak in tongues, I saw no visions. It was nice though. Amma seemed to be a very nice person, and I felt happy to experience an expression of love from another human being. After the hug, I went about my day and that was that.
In retrospect, I think much of my skepticism was unnecessairy. Amma’s hug may not have changed my life, but I think that if more people hugged each other the world would probably be a more conscious and compassionate place.
I spoke with a swami who assured me that everyone is a god, most of us are simply less aware of our divine identity than Amma is. The swami made things sound more benign still when he said that enlightened beings/gods experience their divine identity by realizing they ARE the universe. Although this still sounds pretty esoteric, I can actually relate to this. I’ve noticed at times when I’ve been extraordinarily present–say during a beautiful sunset or while doing meditation/yoga–I’ve undeniably experienced my sense of self-identity fade a bit and felt it become replaced by a sense of connection or “being one with the universe” . I’ve talked to other people who have spoken about having similar experiences while surfing, playing basketball, or even while coding computer programs.
In conclusion, I’d say “the hug” was a success. I’m certainly not on my way to becoming a devotee of Amma, but I appreciate what she does, and more than that, I appreciate that her ashram exists to give humanitarian aid across the globe and to provide people like me with a place to do community service, meet new friends, and practice meditation.