So, I went to see Amma. My mom and I planned a girl’s weekend to SF to do some shopping, and decided to stop by to get our darshan on. Amma is known as “the hugging saint”. She tours the world giving hugs and preaching a supposedly simple message of love and compassion. She’s also known as the human embodiment of Kali, or the Divine Mother. Sounds right up my alley… Besides, I’ve been needing the healing to happen with all of my various spiritual and physical ailments. Why not? uch of what I’ve gone through lately is a result of working with Kali. My mother and I decided to attend one of her morning programs together this past weekend in San Ramon, just to check it out.
We both went in with an open mind and an open heart… I had no expectations other than it was going to be an adventure, and that I’d probably learn something in the process.
I was expecting an environment that matched Amma’s message of divine love, compassion, and selfless service. Instead, my mom and I were repeatedly stopped and haggled by Amma’s pushy white-clad program volunteers for different reasons. Multiple times we were interrupted for different reasons, asking if we’d registered, had our tokens, or if we wanted to volunteer to do a shift in the bookstore and cafeteria. It seemed that everyone we encountered seemed tired, weary, pushy, impatient, or just in a bad mood. It was very disconcerting. My mom and I joked that it seemed like Amma’s followers needed a hug worse than we did! There were far too many volunteers milling about and getting in the way of the crowd. It was a hindrance rather than a help. It made for a chaotic environment rather than a pleasant one. To act so sour and unkindly in a room full of wanting, needing, hurting souls in need of the amazing hug that will answer all their prayers? It seemed strange to both of us, but we finally managed to get through the crowd and took our seats.
We soon realized that we picked the wrong place to sit, as throngs of people navigated the aisle right next to us to browse in the bookstore.The commercial aspect of it all was more Disneyland than love and selfless service. I was shocked by the overwhelming amount of merchandise with Amma’s likeness. Pictures of Amma, CDs, Amma statuary, Amma dolls, and beads worn by Amma? All this is well and good, but it seemed excessive and unnecessary. She is little better than a mascot. We both realized that people seemed to worship and pray to Amma like a goddess, which might explain all of the paraphanalia branded with her likeness. It reminded me more of a sporting event than a spiritual one. By the cash register, there was a basket of random items that had been given to Amma by others as an offering. All of them had price tags on them and were being resold! I have a hard time with that… It seems so unethical and rude towards her followers. Someone had offered her a tube of Icy-Hot, probably thinking it would sooth her sore painful muscles after a 12-hour Hug-a-Thon. That’s a very thoughtful gesture, but it still ended up in the basket rather than being given to someone who needs it more.
I also noticed that in the giftshop, there was a discerning lack of any Kali imagery. I wondered if perhaps images of Kali-Ma might be disturbing to some in the West. How can Amma be the purported “human embodiment of Kali” and not reflect that side of her? The small handful of Kali dolls were too cute to really be frightening to anyone.
When the meditation started, I tried to calm and center myself but I started feeling uncharacteristically nervous, fluttery, and out of sorts. I’m familiar with guided meditation, but I’ve never had anything like that happen before. I noticed a terrible knot of anxiety in the pit of my stomach, with my gut-brain reflex giving me a queasy “WARNING!!!” sign. I had no idea where it was coming from. I’m sensitive to energy and would normally take the time to do some shielding. I wanted to be respectful of Amma’s culture and tradition, so I did not take my usual course of action. I got so dizzy and nauseous that I spent most of the meditation with my hands over my eyes and my head between my knees praying to Kali that I wouldn’t throw up. In my spiritual practice, I do work with Kali on occasion. This crazy wave of anxiety that I experienced has only happened a few times in my life, and it was always associate with Kali-Ma. My mom just thought my blood sugar was low, but it wasn’t. It felt like Kali was trying to give me a warning, although I could be wrong. My gut-brain is seldom wrong, and my gut-brain is where Kali seems to lurk.
Once the darshan line started, I grounded a bit and tried to feel a little bit better. Both of us waited and watched. My mom commented on how phony some of the people on the stage seemed. At one point, I looked up towards the darshan line, and noticed a woman who appeared to buckle at the knees in front of Amma. Out of spiritual ecstacsy? I thought maybe, until I noticed the attendants pushing and pulling at her as she tried to adjust the small child whom she held on her hip. This alarmed me a bit, but maybe she just lost her balance? Pushy jerks, I thought. That’s not terribly compassionate or loving behavior.
As I reached the very last chair, there was a row of two or three people kneeling before Amma, waiting for their own hug. The attendants were chaotically forcing them down on their knees, with two or more shoving them forward. There was a couple in front of me… A heavyset gentleman who winced in pain as they prodded at him to kneel. His wife held a one-year-old child on her hip. Just like the other woman from earlier, she lost her balance as they pushed her downward. She tried to keep her little one safely in her arms, but they paid her no mind. Their only intention was to keep the line moving, not at all caring that she nearly dropped her child. They jerked her husband to his feet, and his knee appeared to give out and he sunk to the ground. They yanked at his shirt instead of helping him up It hurt me to see this. There was no reason to be so rude and pushy.
Did they care? Did they try to be as gentle and loving as the woman three feet away from them is supposed to be? No. Not at all.
I figured out what I was supposed to do, which seemed to be kneel, duck and cover! As I went to kneel down on my own, I was pushed down by an attendant on the side while also being pushed forward by another in back of me. I was lost in the chaos of other devotees and bodies surrounding Amma, and there wasn’t a moment where some attendant wasn’t rushing me forward, pulling at me or pushing me down. Multiple people were asking me questions, but I had only momentary awareness of them. I know an attendant accepted my offering of flowers, but I couldn’t physically see (I bet they recycled them and put them back in the flower booth). I tried to cover my head. The noise and the heat from the bodies was unbearable. For a minute or two, I completely blacked out. I was conscious of my feet being in the material world, but my head went somewhere else. I only saw white and nothing else. I don’t know where I was, but I was momentarily comfortable. I felt someone wash my face and push my head towards Amma’s white robed knee. I felt a hand on my back, and I decided that I needed to let all that go, and just be in the moment. No turning back now! l felt my fist clench firmly in protest, but was not able to instruct my body to release it or even move. Amma hugged me, robotically, and very matter of factly as she muttered something in my ear. It was too garbled to make out any specific sounds, like static blowing in my ear. I felt this, but still could only see white. As she spoke, I drifted into a place of grey nothingness for just a moment. It was blank, vacant, and felt like it was trying to squash my light. Within an instant, I was jolted back to reality. Someone pushed some rosepetals and a Hershey Kiss into my hand and two attendants jostled me from my stupor and pulled me away before I even got the chance to pull myself to my feet.
I still couldn’t see, but somehow I navigated through the throngs of devotees sitting at her feet. I came to as they literally shoved me off the platform. It was a relief to find that I could finally see my own two feet on the carpet. When I finally got to a spot clear of people, I threw my hands up in front of me, as a gesture of protection. I had no idea what was happening. I was lightheaded, dizzy, and felt spaced-out, like I was painfully coming down off of some quick and etheric high. I looked frantically behind me for my mom, who was a few spaces behind me in the darshan line, but she’d already been forced to kneel. An attendant stopped me and asked me if I’d like to sit down. “No! I’m going outside now, thank you very much!” I snapped, completely lucid and completely pissed off. I did not enjoy that experience in the least. I hadn’t heeded my gut reaction that something was very wrong.
How did I feel? Terrible. Confused, bewildered, and angry. I was angry to see others treated that way with no one sensitive to their obvious needs. I felt like Amma had invaded my space somehow, first through her followers and then through her odd effect on me. I felt like she wanted to take all that was good in me, just like Kali takes all of the bad. There was no love there. If being manhandled like a puppet or a side of beef is love, then I’m just not interested. That’s not love. While in Amma’s perfunctory and mechanical embrace, I felt nothingness. Nothing.
I saw my poor mom wandering around just as dazed as I was. We quickly composed ourselves and left. Both of us decided that this was really more of a dog and pony show masquerading as spirituality. I’ve always been at odds with my relationship with Kali, but not anymore. I don’t trust Amma, and I don’t think she is who she markets herself to be.
Later that night I had a dream where Amma’s eyes flashed white without pupils or irises, and her tongue lolled out fierce and fiery like Kali herself, and in that dream I told her to go away and leave me alone because Amma is not welcome in my spiritual house. Ever.
I’m not alone in that…
I wanted an adventure, and my gods always deliver.
It’s June and things are finally getting better all over.
I’m thankful for all of my resources and I’m glad that I saw the writing on the wall.