The Hugging Empire

Free hug campaigns are all over Social Media and have been around for many years. But did you know there is a woman from the south of India who managed to build a whole empire around free hugs? We wanted to know who this woman is and how she managed to build an empire based on embracing strangers. It is certainly impressive how a girl from a simple South Indian village came to be known internationally as “Amma, the Mother of All.” We spent four days at her headquarters and her birthplace in Kerala being lucky enough to meet Amma personally and to receive a hug.

Despite a lot of controversy we were astonished about how Amma as a woman who was born in a small village and only enjoyed 4 years of school education managed to build an international empire. Only observing the tip of the iceberg during our stay we could clearly see that this woman is a genius. We were staying among 3000 people who are worshiping this woman. Her Amrita university claims to be #1 under private universities in whole India. A great way to gain skilled and influential devotees. Each building has a small Amma temple in the entrance hall to ensure students will always remember her – the mother of all. Attending her Bhajans and different talks showed that she is a natural sales talent and surely is highly influential and a great motivational speaker. We can understand why people would follow her all over the world as her Ashram gives a feeling of belonging and gives people a meaning in their lives through helping the less fortunate.

Who is Amma?
Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi better known as simply Amma is considered to be a saint, guru and humanitarian. Her website states that Amma is the “embodiment of love and compassion, insight and inspiration, wisdom and action, laughter and light. Universal motherhood which accepts and embraces everything, a life of pure giving and celebration.”
She is now 64 years old and is still touring the world giving Darshan. Darshan means “to see” and traditionally, a master is seen but not touched. However, Amma started hugging people in her village when she was a teenager. She held and comforted the lonely and suffering. She individually embraces sometimes over 20,000 people in one day over a course of 22 hours straight. Over the past thirty five years, She has embraced over 26 million times and has built an empire. Her headquarter alone is very impressive. However, she also has developed many additional ashrams and centres across the world. Amma runs a number of nonprofit initiatives such as AYUDH (international youth movement). Amrita SeRVe (sustainable development in villages), Clean India (sustainable waste management) and the main NGO being Embracing the World (global network of charitable projects).

How is it to stay at Ammas Ashram?
First impressions are very overwhelming as the Ashram spreads over a big ground with a couple of high rising buildings for accommodation purposes. The headquarter is home to around 3500 disciples and householders. Amma is displayed everywhere, on every single wall. The facility is secured through walls and barbed wire, a security team and metal detectors.
Facilities include; Kalari Temple, main hall, allopathic hospital, ayurvedic clinic, Indian and western canteen and Indian and western cafe, tailor, coconut and juice stall, supermarket, second hand shop, book printing and binding center, Amrita Life Shop (Ammas health care brand), gift shop where you can by for instance Amma dolls, organic ayurvedic shop, recycling center and close by is one of the private Amrita University located.
You can find anything you need on the grounds of the Ashram and there is technically no need to leave the facilities. You can even get good quality coffee, sweets and all kinds of soft drinks. Amma believes that people would buy these items anyways outside of the ashram grounds. So why not offer it in the Ashram and enable people to spend the money inside the ashram rather than buying from outside vendors. While people are encouraged to practice Pratyahara and self control Amma knows that it is a journey to be fully able to master it. So she gives her followers the chance to withstand temptations within the ashram which will make it easier to withstand them in the outside world as well.
Even though the ashram is located on a big ground and thousands of people are staying here, the place seems to be well organised. We were allotted a double ensuite room on the 12th floor with beautiful seaview. The Ashram charges Rs.250 per person for one night stay including tea twice a day and three meals. Anybody can visit the Ashram. International visitors need to register on the website in advance. People from different walks of life are visiting the Ashram or are permanent residents. It seems that Amma runs a kind of timeshare that enables disciples to purchase an apartment and unoccupied apartments are made available to visitors while a householder is travelling or staying at Ashrams in other locations.

What is the daily program?

  • 04:50 a.m. – 06:00 a.m. Puja (Chanting of Lalita Sahasra Nama)
  • 06:30 a.m. – 07:30 a.m. Meditation
  • 08:30 a.m. – 09:30 a.m. Breakfast
  • 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 a.m. Seva (Karma Yoga)
  • 12:30 p.m. – 02:00 p.m. Lunch
  • 02:00 p.m. – 05:00 p.m. Seva (Karma Yoga)
  • 05:00 p.m. – 06:00 p.m. Meditation
  • 06:30 p.m. – 08:00 p.m. Bhajans (devotional songs)
  • 08:15 p.m. – 09:00p.m. Dinner

Various yoga, meditation and scripture classes also take place almost daily and Darshan (hugging ceremony) for the devotees/visitors takes place on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday whenever Amma is staying at the Ashram herself. You can take an IAM Meditation Technique course which is free of charge as Amma believes that spiritual learnings are ones birthright. However, this doesn’t apply for the Amrita Yoga classes which are Rs.200 and are taking place on specific days of the week.

What about the Darshan?
In order to attend the Darshan ceremony I collected a token and joined a queue. People often queue hours to hug Amma however, I was lucky and the queue moved quickly. I went through a metal detector and passed security and a cloakroom where I left my belongings. I then was allowed to enter the stage where many disciples were sitting on the ground next to Amma to enjoy her spiritual energy. Behind Amma, there were heavily armed soldiers. Soon it was my turn to kneel down and receive my hug. Amma was quickly told what language I speak before she embraced me. The hug lasted a few seconds and Amma was whispering something in my ear which I wasn’t able to make sense of. For most people it seemed a very emotional experience. Many wept tears as they stumbled away from her embrace. Has it changed my life? Probably not but it was a nice warm hug and an interesting experience.

What are the controversies?
I was surprised to see a trained Elephant being chained to a tree on the ashram grounds to entertain visitors since this is very questionable when it comes to animal welfare. I wonder if Ammas endless love also reaches animal welfare? I was also surprised that the Amrita Life Shop advertises whitening cream for females as Amma supposingly does a lot of work to empower women and doesn’t make any racial differences. It is generally difficult to find specific information online about Amma, the ashram as well as her several NGOs. Even residents seem to have a very vague knowledge or otherwise might be instructed to keep information confidential. There doesn’t seem to be any transparency on income and actual donations made towards humanitarian causes. The website embezzlingtheworld claims that only 10% of foreign donations are given to charitable causes. Gail Tredwell an Australian author who served Amma for 20 years published her autobiography, “Holy Hell” which talks about corruption and rape at the ashram. There are also rumors about unexplained deaths at the ashram.

My first Ashram Experience in India

Everybody keeps asking me about my yoga experience in India. So here we go… I had an interesting insight into Ashram life @ Paramanand Institute of Yoga Sciences and Research in Indore.

Indore is in Madhya Pradesh a state in central India. It is the cleanest city in India and famous for its amazing food. As it is not touristy at all it is a very different way of experiencing this region. Ujjain is only an hour drive and a must visit for its diverse temples, the most famous one being the Shiva temple.

I had the unique experience staying in the Paramanand Ashram with the loveliest bunch of people, the majority being from all over India. This gave me a deeper insight into the culture and I made new friends. I was introduced to yoga practices such as yoga philosophy, therapy, anatomy, asana, pranayama meditation and ayurvedic medicine.

Staying in an Ashram can be a great experience while visiting India as it is part of its ancient culture. An Ashrams is usually a secluded place devoted to spiritual activities like yoga, meditation or religious practices. People who reside in an ashram are usually Gurus and their disciples. Yogis can study the ancient scriptures, meditation, yoga asanas and perform karma yoga duties while living onsite. Often Ashrams offer basic dormitories and basic, strictly vegetarian food. Many Ashrams have a curfew after nightfall and maun (silent) times for instance during meals. I signed up for a 200 hour Teacher Training Certificate for tue duration of a months to deepen my knowledge of traditional yoga practice. The daily agenda was packed; starting at 6 am with nasal rinsing treatment (neti) followed by self-practice, public asana class and guided meditation, breakfast, karma yoga, asana class which was followed by theory class, lunch, self-study, another asana and theory class, bhakti yoga, meditation, dinner, self-study and bed time around 10:30 pm.

I also had the chance to realize that India is facing an issue regarding unethical “Gurus, Swamis or Babas” who are claiming to run non-profit organisation. Their main focus however, being profit while maintaining an spiritual image to the public eye. There is such a broad choice of Ashrams in India that it can be very difficult to make a choice. Even though I had been made aware of the problematic situation by local friends, I decided to trust the very positive online reviews of the Paramanand Ashram. Living at the Ashram I have faced corruption to an extent that it made me laugh and question the place on a daily basis. It was as dramatic and ridiculous as in a Bollywood movie. What an experience!

Once upon a time an enlightened being came among us to lead us to the truth. Swami Paramanand Ji Maharaj chose the path of  Karma Yoga and dedicated his life for the welfare of humanity. A loyal disciple of Swami Ji made a very generous donation to develop an ashram in Indore many years ago. This disciple had a son who was sent off to explore the western world and he went on to study in the US. This boy also was a disciple of Swamiji but not as devoted and full of good intentions as his mother. He came to an agreement with Swamiji to run the Ashram to which his mother made a generous donations. At this stage the boy had developed into a grown man called Dr. Omanand Guruji. It didn’t take long until it was realized that he turned the Ashram into a for profit organization and that not enough money reached projects where it was badly needed. The situation degenerated to an extent that even Swamiji would not want to be associated with the actions of his disciple anymore.

The first impressions you get is a Guru driving around in a big and shiny SUV. Doing sales pitches and recruitment all over the city. Meanwhile, in the office karma yogis were doing sales pitches over the phone in order to promote a Yoga competition. One needs to realize what yoga is – it was taught that it is an inner journey free from false ego and competition. Guruji was promoting himself and the “divine and profound”  Ashram with very basic sales techniques. This was enough for Mathias to realize on the very first day that he had no intention to stay. However, I decided to stay and during my two weeks at the Ashram I  witnessed the funniest and sadest things. For example a Guru preaching everyday how conventional medicine is killing us. We were very surprised when he took our group of yogis on a trip to visit one of the biggest local pharmaceutical companies in the state. After the Guru planted a tree, he left with a big envelope of cash. The hypocrisy didn’t end just here yet. When government officials announced a visit to see if the Yoga Teacher Training meets their quality standards, panic set in. We were ordered to study all weekend to be ready to answer their questions in the coming week. On the day the officials came to the Ashram, we experienced a whole day of a chaotic freak show and the Guru topped it up with a government bribery right in front of everybody. Finally, the officials saw a little bit of truth that day. They refused the envelopes with cash and left shortly after.

Most teachings were quite basic and often inaccurate. The Guru was manipulative and patronizing, putting people down as westerners while at the same time desperately trying to use them for publicity. A few interesting facts I learnt during my yoga training were that NASA received a message from space in Sanskrit. In order to follow a healthy diet one should eat more rice and cut out any form of protein. The mind in children only develops from an age of three years old. Teachers in the west vomit knowledge on students and ask them to re-vomit it while Gurus teach from experience – the only truth.

Despite all the corruption and controversy I truly had a fantastic time at this Ashram, meeting amazing people and getting to know a different side of India and Yoga. I didn’t complete my course as I believe it wasn’t my path to yoga but I am looking forward to more interesting experiences as my Yoga journey continues.

Hariom