©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.

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