©Christina Sjogren
©Christina Sjogren

 

FOUR HUNDRED OF US, all wearing white, gather in a field somewhere between Ahmedebad and Bhopal in the late afternoon. We’ve been on buses without air-conditioning since seven a.m., so even though the Indian midsummer heat is oppressive, the fresh air is a relief. We turned in relatively early last night and got a few hours of rest, which is good because it is impossible to sleep on the bus, so packed with devotees that women lie, for endless, bumpy hours, on the floor. They believe their discomfort burns off bad karma, but I have my doubts.

There is a buzz in the crowd as Amma emerges from her white Mercedes. She is coming to have tea with us—a sort of reward for the endless bus ride, which is only half over. This is my third day on tour with Mata Amritanandamayi, the Mother of Immortal Bliss. She is one of the most famous gurus in India today, a Hindu who preaches a doctrine of love and charity and who followers believe is the living incarnation of the Divine Mother.

So far it has been almost unbelievably unpleasant, from the terrible food, the endless work, the accommodations—horrible even by Indian standards—to the bus rides, which can only be described as torturous. Until now I have only glimpsed her through crowds of thousands, people lining up each night to receive her famous hugs in all-night love marathons. Amma stands for a moment among us, small, silent, and perfectly calm in the midst of the frenzy, as people jockey for positions close enough to absorb her divine energy. All eyes are on her, each face holding a peculiar mixture of adoration and need. Her gaze moves through the crowd slowly. When she looks at me she raises her arms in a shrug. I have joined the tour as an observer, a journalist, a skeptic. “What in the world are you doing here?” she seems to be asking me. This is the exact question I have been asking myself since I made the dubious decision to join the caravan. But when she looks at me there is simply no doubt—I have been seen.

How I ended up here is debatable. To me it seems like sheer coincidence, against a backdrop of desperation. To the devotees it is the act of Amma, calling me to come and write about her divinity. I’m willing to meet them somewhere in between. It is undeniable that when I ran into Betsy, an old friend and a devotee, in New York last month, I was heartbroken and looking for comfort. And it was rather amazing that my month-long assignment, which took me all over the north of India, ended in Pune, a small nowhere town, on the very same day that Amma happened to be visiting. Betsy’s email, telling me they were in Pune, could not have come at a better time. And what American, post-1965, has not fantasized about going to India to follow a guru? It had seemed like a good idea—I had no plans and was not looking forward to going home, where only my couch and my heartbreak awaited.

It seems clear, here, in the complete and swirling chaos, that I am not alone in my emotional state. At some level, all the devotees are heartbroken. What other reason could there be to give up everything for a woman you never actually get to be near for more than a passing moment, someone you wouldn’t be able to understand even if she were to speak to you? Even most of the Indian devotees, who make up half the crowd, don’t speak Amma’s dialect.

For the second half of the bus ride I decide to do what everyone else is doing: I pray to Amma. I pray for general things—happiness, prosperity. But mostly I pray that the source of my heartbreak will wake up and realize what I know is true—that he loves me. I know he does because when we are together I feel it. He just hasn’t realized it yet. Amma, I pray, open his eyes.

“AMMA IS MY HUSBAND,” says Kamala-Ja, originally Elizabeth Handler, a twenty-one-year-old from Wisconsin. “When I pray, I think only of her. When I look at the ocean, I imagine Amma is there swimming like a dolphin in the waves. When I see birds flying I wonder, ‘Are they flying near to Amma?’ I wish I could jump on their backs and fly with them to Amma.” She says she loves to think of Amma’s beautiful feet. “Amma is the universe,” she tells me. “When I love Amma, I am loving the whole universe.”

Despite my pretensions to journalistic detachment, I find myself wanting what Kamala-Ja has. I want to dedicate my life solely and wholly to one thing and give up everything else for it. I want single-minded focus on someone I believe is God. I want to exhaust myself through service, as Kamala-Ja does, in her endless days and nights of work.

However, as the days pass, it appears that my desire to cleanse myself through labor is largely theoretical. Cooking and cleaning for four hundred people and setting up for each night’s program takes a tremendous amount of effort. Just moving all of us from one place to another is a Herculean task, and then there are the thousands of apples that Amma gives out each evening, which need to be polished. Endless piles of vegetables need to be chopped for our communal meals. Just looking at them fills me with a sense of hopelessness. I find myself sneaking off into town during seva—the endless period of “selfless service” when the chopping occurs—to buy scarves.

This bedlam has nothing at all to do with my fantasy. There’s no quiet contemplation. There’s no striving toward inner peace. There’s nothing peaceful  

©Christina Sjogren
©Christina Sjogren

about the scene at all. And the devotees are driving me mad. I can’t stand all the singing and chanting, and everything is “Amma said don’t do this, Amma said don’t do that.” The only other topic open to conversation seems to be their inability to properly digest the local fare. They are a veritable Greek chorus of gastrointestinal distress, and it is becoming unbearable.

They seem almost universally either insane or pathetic, or both. But me, I’m no nut job. It’s his fault that I’m doing this. This is what I tell myself as I take a cold bucket shower in the mildewed, drafty bathroom of the Bombay middle school where we are staying, tears streaming down my face.

IT IS VERY FUNNY to read about the places we are going. According to Lonely Planet, “On 26 January 2001, India’s independence day, an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale hit Gujarat, causing massive loss of life and widespread damage. Visitors should bear in mind the derisive title given the city by the Mughal Emperor Jehangir: ‘City of dust.’” All of our destinations sound similarly awful.

The devotees don’t have any interest in seeing the cities we go to anyway. Most of them don’t have guidebooks at all. “I am just not interested in being a tourist,” says Emma, an innocent-looking twenty-four-year-old from New York. “I only want to be with Amma. Everything else is just a distraction.” Amma frowns on devotees venturing out on their own, so most have only the vaguest notion of where we are and where we’re going, one more thing that irritates me.

But I find that mostly I am jealous of the true believers. I have spent a year and a half with a man I know is meant for me. I know it. It’s what my gut tells me. It doesn’t seem possible that I am wrong about this—except that apparently I am. The first time I told him I loved him he kissed me, but said nothing.

The young devotees know their love is returned. They glow with it. You can practically see the clouds beneath their feet. They can’t stop talking about Amma, how they have fallen utterly and completely, head over heels, in love with her.

“It’s not a sexual love,” says Kamala-ja, “But I am in love with her. I think about her all the time. All I want is to be close to her.” The younger girls are derisively called “bliss bunnies” by the older women, many of whom seem strangely embittered and isolated. Whatever kind of love they have received from Amma and from the world, it has not been enough. Yet they keep going back, every night to the program, the endless, all-night program, for more, waiting for little shreds of the divine. Waiting, hanging on the smallest sign of her recognition. To this I can relate. 

IN BHOPAL I FIND MYSELF thinking about Amma more and more. The devotees are so passionate. Many of them seem to carry out deep and complex relationships with her almost entirely in their heads. “She visited me in New York,” Elizabeth tells me. “I was waiting for the subway at Canal Street, and all of a sudden I could smell her beautiful scent. I knew she was there for me, even though I couldn’t see her. That was when I decided to come to India.”

“I am having a hard time with Amma today,” Lucy tells me. “I am praying for her to come back to me, but right now she is so far away.”

I’m engaging in a similar drama in my mind. The second time I told him I loved him he sat there blankly, then suggested we have Ethiopian for dinner. I said, “Okay, that sounds good.” I want to go back in time and end it, right there.

I met Amma before I ever went to India, the previous summer in New York. I’d gone with my ex’s sister. For almost a year already I’d been waiting for a sign from him. As each day passed, I became less hopeful. Nonetheless, when he suggested that I go with his sister to visit her guru, I jumped at the chance. I figured ingratiating myself with his family was as good a tactic as any.

I met the sister at the Manhattan Center, right next to Penn Station, at seven p.m. There was a huge crowd, mostly the type I am not ordinarily attracted to: aggressively spiritual New Yorkers wearing long white robes, self-righteous vegetarian types. I knew it was going to be a long evening—the sister had prepared me. First there would be the speeches introducing Amma, then her spiritual talk (called a satsang), then hours of devotional call-and-response singing (bhajans), and then, finally, darshan would begin.

It was darshan that we were all there for. Darshan, literally “viewing,” is an occasion when the guru’s grace is transmitted; often a guru will simply look at the disciples. Amma’s darshan is different. She actually hugs all those who come before her. Because so many people show up to be hugged, each devotee receives a number, and then waits. Our numbers were in the high thousands.

We waited until four a.m. at the Manhattan center for our hugs, climbing onto the stage finally, exhausted, and kneeling before her. When the swamis placed me in her arms, she whispered “Ma, ma, ma, ma” in my ear.

It hadn’t done much for me. I didn’t really feel anything. I wondered if this was how my man felt about me when we were together. Purely a physical act, nothing more.

 

©Christina Sjogren
©Christina Sjogren

THE AIR IN VARANASI is so bad I can practically see the particulates. One devotee unabashedly wears a gas mask—a reasonable choice under the circumstances. Tonight the program begins at 6:30. As usual, it is quite a scene. It is being held in an indoor stadium packed with families, food vendors, and the endless array of guru-related trinkets, books, and CDs. Thousands of people throng as sour-faced, middle-aged white women in white attempt to control them—a circus-like atmosphere.

Amma enters, wearing a white sari, surrounded by swamis in orange and saffron robes. There is quite a commotion as she walks down the center aisle, on a red carpet strewn with flowers, to a square platform in the center of the stage. She sits there cross-legged, facing the vast audience. Giant images of her are projected on screens hung from the ceiling. There must be thirty thousand people here. Speeches honoring Amma are made in the local dialect by a variety of dignitaries and then translated into Hindi, all of it broadcast at extremely high volumes. This goes on until eight o’clock, while Amma sits with her eyes closed, in a state of apparent bliss, although I imagine she’s probably very tired. Occasionally she opens her eyes and smiles at a thrilled devotee.

Amma speaks for a while, but it is when the bhajans begin that her power is apparent. Most of the bhajans are about her. “Mother Amritananadamayi, You are goddess of immortality and the goddess of the universe. . . . Oh Mother, make me mad with Thy love . . . ”

The bhajans are beautiful and Amma is absolutely transfixing as she lifts her face up to the sky to sing. She is St. Teresa of Avila, exuding bliss with a sweet clear voice. Like everything else about her, there’s not too much effort—it’s natural, like birdsong. She’s not beautiful—she’s tiny, chubby, and her hair is pulled back in a simple ponytail—but as she sings, she is beautiful to watch. She is in front of thousands, but somehow it still feels intimate. The look on her face is almost obscene—a love swoon. Toward the end of the bhajans Amma starts rocking back and forth a bit, then lifts her arms skyward in a bowl shape and looks up, swinging her arms energetically as if saying, “Come here! Take me!” It is mesmerizing. Over and over she flings her arms up and drops them back to her sides, all the while staring up toward the sky. At around 10:15 p.m. the last bhajan is sung, a fire is placed in front of Amma, and she tosses rose petals at the people around her.

Then the hugging begins. The crowd surges forward toward either side of the stage, where there are roped-off areas. The left side is for women and the right side is for men. Everyone has gotten a number.

Amma hugs everybody. She never stops hugging. She doesn’t eat or go to the bathroom until everyone who wants to receive darshan has been hugged, which is usually by seven a.m. the next day, but the hugging can go on through the afternoon, depending on how many people show up.

The hugging is handled in a militaristic fashion by the swamis, who first wipe the faces of the seekers, and then shove each one roughly before Amma for an experience that will last all of two seconds. Music blares. The lines are endless.

As devotees we get to sit behind Amma onstage, and watch darshan happening. An old man cries in her arms. Young women approach, frightened but excited. People scream, fall on their knees before her. Then, after she hugs them, they get up and walk away, glowing. It’s like watching people being saved on Sunday morning television, except Amma is quiet and gentle throughout.

 

©Christina Sjogren
©Christina Sjogren

 

I watch her do it all night. She has the same enthusiasm for the first person that she has for number 20,000. This incredible ability and energy—not only to sit there without food or a break for eighteen hours in a row, but also to actually seem to love every single person in the exact same, genuine manner—is why her devotees believe she is God. At the very end she hugs the police, who have been standing around all night, making sure everything remains calm. “I love seeing Amma,” says Sri Purna, originally Jennifer Lynch from Oregon. “I love that so many people are being touched by God, I love seeing it. What I think she’s really teaching me is to learn to do everything with the same devotion, because Amma is in everything and everyone. I see her as being God, but I see you as being God too.”

I go for another hug in Varanasi. I am not transformed by it. I don’t start singing or stripping as others do. I’m not the type. But for a moment I feel the heartbreak lift. It’s not that I feel free, or over it. It’s more the sense that I get riding the subway at rush hour in New York sometimes. The feeling that this might suck, but at least we’re all in it together.

IN SURAT I ASK my friend Lakshmi, one of the few Indian devotees who will hang out with the Westerners, to translate Amma’s satsang talk for me. That night, Amma spoke about women’s rights. She compared women to trained elephants, who from birth are chained to small trees. “Then, when the elephant reaches adulthood, it can be chained to a small sapling, and never escape,” she said. “It has been trained, in its mind, that it is not able to break free. But in fact the elephant is very powerful, more powerful than the little sapling,” she said.

“She is an enchantress,” Lakshmi says. “Every single person who comes here tonight will feel that they have been seen by her. It doesn’t matter if there are a hundred thousand. Each one will feel this way.”

It’s true that even though I know it is impossible, I often do have the unmistakable sensation that she is watching me from the stage. I find myself trying to catch her eye, and then, incredibly, I feel her gaze upon me. It feels wonderful. “Well, that’s because she does see you,” Lakshmi says. “She sees everything, she knows everything and everyone.” For a moment I understand the devotees. I can feel her love, even among thousands. She’s so generous, not requiring anything in return. I even feel forgiven for my by-now entrenched practice of skipping out on seva to buy scarves.

I had not been generous like that. The last time I told him I loved him, he remained silent and then suggested that we go to the boat show in Annapolis.

I went, but it was a miserable day. I made sure of that.

THE TOUR IS NEARING its end. I have joined the ranks of the gastrointestinally distressed. While the devotees pray to Amma, I take Cipro.

I have not reformed. My scarf-buying has taken on somewhat pathological proportions. I am obsessed with going into the silk shops, where the Indian method of salesmanship—throwing hundreds of scarves at you as you sit on the floor drinking sweet tea—is a ritual I cannot get enough of. I love being buried in the fabulous colors and textures. I buy hot pinks, greens, and yellows and hide them in my suitcase beneath my dirty white robes.

I have gotten an email from my ex. It is the same bland, remote voice I have grown used to. I don’t write back.

THE LAST NIGHT of the tour is in Calcutta. I get in line for my final hug. In front of me there is a woman with a horribly disfigured face. It is hard to look at her, and she knows it. When Amma hugs her, the love is so strong that I can feel it from ten feet away.

This time I only have to wait until midnight for my hug. She hugs me like she has missed me for a long time. She whispers “My daughter, my daughter, my daughter” in my ear. For a moment, I love her. It’s a physical feeling—a welling up. It feels so good—that wonderful opening up, the expansion. I haven’t felt it for a long time.

This is what they’re after, I realize, the beating heart of the matter. It’s what makes the dysentery, the misery, the staying up all night, the heartbreak, worth it. Even if brief, even if unreturned. Even if they’ve given up too much. Even if they get nothing back. Even the boat show, even the tears, even waiting too long, has been worth it.

I still wish it had been different. I still wish I had left him, oh, a year earlier. I still regret the trip to Jamaica, that horrible weekend on the Outer Banks, and all those damn dinners. I still wish he’d felt it too.

But I can see why I had hung for so long. I’d been following that same expansive drive, the drive that said open up and give yourself. Probably, it was a mistake, but I had no choice but to try.

I walk back to the accommodations through the quiet streets of Calcutta at four a.m. with three other women. Two of them, fanatical devotees, have become my friends. This is the first moment of quiet since joining the tour. As we walk further from the program, the silence deepens. Our dirty robes pick up some of the moon. This was how I’d imagined it—pilgrims, walking in the quiet night, dogs barking a long way off.

 

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