Saturday, May 9, 2009

seva and celibacy in mango heaven

well apologies for the long gap but aside from slightly difficult internet access I also had a dose of suspected typhoid fever which saw me in the intensive care ward for a day or two hooked up to an IV drip. again luckily I was in a good place as there is a small hospital on the ashram grounds here in Kerala where they looked after me.

not as rough as the Hep A experience but still pretty rough on that first day especially when my room mate pushed me in a wheel chair to the doctors and due to dehydration and lowered blood pressure I became temporarily blind and deaf, feeling very not very good. anyway, I have made a quick recovery with only a bit of retreating general weakness to show for it. the diagnosis is not firm and I am awaiting some blood test results on wednesday.

so after over three months in the spiritual home of self-inquiry in Tiruvannamalai I finally hit the road and arrived in Hugging Ma's place on the opposite coast in Kerala. It was a pleasant over night journey with my two companions Satyajit and Bhakta Valsallam. Kerala in general seems a lot more green and lush compared to Tiru as well as seeming fairly clean (at least around here). It's also a lot more humid but that is balanced off by the cooling sea breeze as I am only a couple of hundred metres from the shore and staying on the ninth floor of one of the ashrams many pink high rise buildings.

while the spiritual flavour in tiruvannamalai is centered around recognising and abiding in the ever present pure awareness herenow, the mood here is one of gradual purification through selfless service to others and devotion to the guru (Amma in this case). it's quite a different approach and the deification of the guru is readily apparent in the ascribing of all the events which happen to one here being according to the guru's omnicient grace for ones ultimate spiritual benefit.

in practice the residents generally do alot of karma yoga (work) for the ashram and attend daily programmes of devotional singing, ceremonies and chanting. of course all of that can be a meditation in itself but in practice there is much less emphasis placed on silent sitting meditation and there is a lack of a dedicated quiet meditation hall for anyone to do so.

when amma is in the ashram she is giving darshan four days a week which consists of her meeting with everyone individually for a few seconds, giving them a hug and making some soothing sounds in their ear. to date they estimate she has hugged 28 million people worldwide and sometimes goes for twenty hours. in her perception the greatest lack in this modern world is love and care for ones fellow beings so she is on a grand mission to spread the good vibes. the other stand out feature of her activities, as previously mentioned, is the huge amount of humanitarian work her organisation accomplishes even being recognised by the UN for the effectiveness and efficiency of her tsunami relief work. in addition there are schools, universities, orphanages, hospitals and on and on.

as a child and young woman she was a crazy wild mystic rolling around in the sand in divine ecsatsies, singing and dancing to God and becoming lost in deep meditative states. her family and community were initially against all of this but after some adjustments she is now recognised as a great saint by many people throughout India and the world. she is very practical and down to earth too and has no problem in bossing people around and giving them tough love when she sees that the situation demands it.

there does seem to be some magical quality in the air here and it is easy to get swept up somewhat in the feeling that Amma is somehow aware of and is looking after each individual. her devotees consider her to be an incaranation of the Divine Mother aspect of God but it is easier for me to think of her as a tremendous spiritual and practical being who embodies the qualities of universal motherhood.

I have enjoyed my time here and I like Amma very much. my hugs with her have felt good and I enjoyed a very good quality of meditation waiting in the darshan queue for two hours and sitting in the large hall. like Ramana Maharishi, she herself says that the ultimate realisation is formless and yet there is a lot of focus upon her own form by her devotees which represents a time honoured tradition in India of worshipping and serving the guru.

I myself am somewhat resistant to becoming fixated on another person in such a way and prefer to keep things more open. at the same time there is no doubt that Amma, and other beings like her, are very potent spiritual forces and can act as a conduit or catalyst for many peoples inner journey. another area of my resistance is to the huge emphasis placed on serving others as a spiritual path.

I'm sure that suits some people and I certainly have no problem with being a generally good chap but it is not my inclination to make it a full-time profession. such activities are supposed to be selfless service but so long as the ego persists there is always going to be some form of self-interest in any action. An inevitable lack of authenticity must creep in where one is doing it not because one naturally wants to help others but because one somehow feels one should or has to do it for the purpose of some spiritual gain. then again it's probably as good a way as any to see the workings of ones mind in self-generating misery so long as one has some space and time to digest and process it all. that's what I think anyway; others would say just surrender to the guru, serve the guru's mission and the guru will take care of ones spiritual growth.

that is part of this traditional Indian culture. another part which I also resist is the whole emphasis that one is either a married householder raising children or one is a celibate monk fully dedicated to the spiritual life. that doesn't suit me at all and I don't think it suits the reality of modern western life either. people here say that Amma is more lenient with her western devotees in regard to having relationships etc. but still the general ethos seems to be that celibacy is the best way to go even for couples.

Amma was an ecstatic mystic (which still comes out in her bhajan singing) but I wouldn't exactly say that there is a tone of celebration in the air here. It would be interesting to come back for a return visit sometime in the cool season when there is a much larger contingent of westerners here and see how the vibe is as at the moment it is dominated by the Indian crew.

some other highlights so far : a very inexpensive ashram juice bar where one can get all manner of delicious fruits and juices; swimming in the sea which is nice and cool compared with the hot bath on the other side; watching dolphins and sea eagles in the morning; having some strange funny little frenchman come with five suitcases to share the room with Satyajit and myself; hearing the devotional singing and chanting wafting through the ashram at all hours of the day, and very high on my list of favourites is the abundance of seasonal sweet juicy mangos available here for next to nothing so I am fast becoming a dedicated mangotarian.

sometime after wednesday I will slowly start to head north (possibly via Goa, Pune, Dharamsala, Rishikesh etc.) taking two months to make my way towards Nepal where I plan to stay for a couple of months and return to India with a new six month Visa.

until the next time........................


  1. Glad your back.
    "living in the now" oh you mean like dogs etc. never with the "mind share" just let things go and deal with the current?


  3. Bonus points for the wacky post title, Shiva. Btw, what on earth are you doing over there, to get both Hep A and Typhoid within a matter of months? Interesting post. The following part gave me a chuckle :) - " a child and young woman she was a crazy wild mystic rolling around in the sand in divine ecsatsies, singing and dancing to God and becoming lost in deep meditative states. her family and community were initially against all of this but after some adjustments...........".

  4. Very interesting article. "ninth floor of one of the ashrams many pink high rise buildings" must be massive ashram!

  5. That was my comment... Andrew.

  6. it's fairly big but more about making maximum use of a small land area by building up. still the place can accomodate several thoasand people. i hear sai baba's place is much bigger though.
    yes, two health hits in quick succession - grace of god? unlucky? je nais c'est pais