Mata Amritanandamayi aka Amma
Ammachi, or simply “Amma” (mother)—also known as Mata Amritanandamayi (mother of immortal bliss)—is a prominent contemporary Hindu female guru commanding a large following of devotees of all ages, races, religions, and walks of life. Known as the Mother of Compassion and the “Hugging Saint,” since she has literally embraced millions of devotees, she is revered by her followers as the embodiment of the Divine Mother (Devi-Bhava).
Ammachi was born in 1953 as the fourth child of Sugunanandan and Damayanti in a poor, low-caste family in rural Kerala, south India. Her biographies claim that she was a spiritually gifted child endowed with mystical and suprahuman traits who rose from a life of poverty, abuse, and rejection to become a charismatic religious leader. The turning point in her spiritual career is linked to her religious experiences in late 1975, when she claims to have realized personal identification, initially with the Hindu god Krishna, and later with the Divine Mother. Ammachi is said to reveal her true identity in a weekly ritual in which she assumes the mood of the Divine Mother for the spiritual edification of her devotees.
Ammachi’s spiritual fame spread throughout India and beyond as moving stories were told about her miraculous powers and the personal transformation she is said to effect through her spiritual embrace. The Amritapuri ashram, established in 1981 in Kollam, Kerala, serves as headquarters for the movement. Following her first spiritual tour to the West in 1987, numerous transnational congregations (satsang) and centers emerged that Ammachi visits during her three-month annual tour. Most important among them is the Mata Amritanandamayi Center in San Ramon, California, which has grown into a full-fledged ashram housing several celibate aspirants. The Ammachi movement has grown today into a global spiritual movement with two dozen fully initiated male and female renunciants and several hundred celibate aspirants. The movement also has a vast network of educational, social welfare, charitable, and medical institutions concentrated mainly in India. Within the movement, religious authority, leadership, and power are hierarchically structured. Although spiritual power resides solely in Ammachi, the temporal administration of her institutions is— at Ammachi’s personal choice—exercised by a band of trusted disciples.
Firmly grounded in Hindu philosophical, religious, mystical, and devotional traditions, Ammachi also has introduced several radical innovations to the Hindu ritual tradition, best exemplified in her reformulation of darsan, or spiritual embrace—her trademark—and the empowerment of women’s public ritual roles. Ammachi transmits her core spiritual message of unconditional love through the medium of spiritual embrace. Involving intense physical contact in the form of hugging, kissing, and touching, darsan is also the most intimate and personal mode of interaction between Ammachi and her devotees. In redefining the traditional Hindu understanding of darsan from auspicious sight of the divine into an intimate, tactile encounter with the embodied divine, Ammachi defies and redefines orthodox Hindu norms concerning ritual purity, pollution, and bodily contact between the devotee and the embodied divine as well as Hindu social norms governing gender relations. Similarly, despite opposition from some Hindu leaders, she has installed a number of her female renunciants as temple priestesses authorized to perform public rituals (puja).
Ammachi’s daring innovations are inspired by the need to acculturate her message to an ever-widening global audience that extends beyond the Indian frontiers as well as by an urge to reject obsolete Hindu ritual norms and practices. In her defiant rejection of orthodox norms and in the radical innovations she has introduced, Ammachi is calling her devotees—in India and abroad—to transcend the cultural constraints of a religious tradition and grasp its central message of god-realization through unconditional love. In her embodied self as guru and in her embodied darsan ritual, Ammachi concretizes and mediates this message of unconditional love. She is the recipient of several national and international awards, including the United Nations’ Gandhi- King Award for Non-Violence in 2002.
(Selva J. Raj in “Holy People of the World”)