Searching for a guru is trendy in India, especially if you're a Westerner. I've begun to theorize that this eternal quest is driven by what is lacking back home in the West––a culture with belief in something more meaningful than the self.
India is the perfect place to visit, then, because spirituality is so omnipresent in a non-preachy sort of way. I should have known of its importance months prior to arrival, simply from the visa application. Halfway down the form I was required to check a box indicating my religious affiliation. For the record, agnostic and atheist weren't even listed as options.
Without a doubt Hinduism is the most popular religion here, and it's also said to be one of the oldest in the world claiming some 5,000 years of history. But besides Hinduism, in my two months here, I've observed overt practices of worship by Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians. Religious rituals and reminders are so much a part of daily life that the only real comparison I can make back home in America is the way we experience consumerism and advertising. Brands are everywhere in the U.S., and buying is our religion.
But here in India, devotion to something more meaningful is apparent everywhere. From the many Hindu temples and ceremonies, to the floral garlands, incense sticks and small shrines inside shops and homes in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh…
… to the Muslim call to prayer in Jodhpur, Rajasthan echoing throughout the city and filtering into my hotel room (listen to the call to prayer by clicking the VIDEO link below)…
…to the Tibetan Buddhists dressed in maroon robes walking the streets saying prayer beads in Ladakh, Jammu Kashmir…
…to the Christian school girls playing in the churchyard beneath festive decor in Kochi, Kerala…
…India is a country of true believers. Faith is a normal part of life and culture here. It's not overtly polarizing or political; religion just simply is.
Maybe this does make it the perfect place to commence a spiritual journey.
But as I begin my own quest, I have to admit that there is something I find curious about the fashionability of spirituality when it comes to Western tourists here. On the spiritual circuit, there's no shortage of chill hippie types wandering from ashram to ashram gossiping about the next best master, a who's who and who's where. People here gossip about gurus the way Angelinos chatter about the hottest new club downtown, effectively making it difficult for me to take this guru stuff seriously.
Observing some of this and talking to people along the way causes me to question a few things: How can there be so many different gurus? How can they all claim to have the answers, to know or to be god? And why do you have to pay so much to stay with some of them?
I set out to learn more about this spiritual phenomenon. It was time to meet a real guru.
With an open mind and curiosity enough, I went to meet Amma, the world-renowned hugging Mother.
Being new to the whole guru thing, I was not quite sure what to expect as we arrived at her ashram.
Located in Amritapuri, Kerala, Amma's huge pink compound is situated on the Arabian sea next to the famous backwaters running inland.
Here's a glimpse of village life in her hood (VIDEO):
Visiting a guru and spending time in the presence of a holy person is called a darshan. Darshans unfold in different ways, but oftentimes the holy master simply speaks words of wisdom or gives blessings. In Amma's case, since she is famous for her powerful hugs, she sits on stage embracing devotees. People cluster around while several large TV screens project the backs of receiving huggees to the thousands dressed in white waiting below.
I will admit that Amma is mesmerizing for some subtle reason, but I only feel this after watching the darshan unfold for several hours.
If I am honest, my very first impression was one of aversion. The idea of a single woman as an almighty deity was too much for me. It was a turn-off to see so many people bowing down to her as she took her seat, as if a queen to a throne. Echoes of the danger of this filtered through my mind; history has proven it's never good to invest this much power in a single person.
Yet as I sat in the crowd waiting for my number to be called, I began to see something I couldn't see initially. Hour after hour passed, and Amma seemed to never tire. Her smiling energy filled the stage and her ability to give endlessly never ceased. After all, I can't say I'd be patient enough to deal so gracefully with that many fanatical people. Some thrust themselves at her, desperate for love like starving children. Amma just continued giving herself to them, unconditionally. This went on for sixteen hours straight.
Several hours into the darshan we meet a German woman, a devotee of fifteen years. She lives at the ashram, and tells us wholeheartedly how she believes Amma is a reincarnation of God as mother born to enable the survival of the human race. Listening to her passionately explain her experiences is convincing. She recounts how she was healed from a serious heart problem since living beneath Amma's wing. She tells us of miracles Amma has performed: saving her "children" from the tsunami disaster in 2004, preventing assassination attempts on politicians, and stopping an airplane from crashing into the sea. There is also the legend of how Amma's family didn't believe she was enlightened, that is, until she arose from the dead.
"Amma is entirely all-knowing, a divine reincarnation of God," the German woman says. "Anyone who questions her is operating from an intellectual mind rather than a faith-based heart. Amma was born to carry the weight of evil in the world, to take extraordinary amounts of suffering and bad karma from the many people she hugs."
It is clear this German woman has faith––lots of it.
When it's finally my turn to hug Amma, I'm ushered to the side of the stage along with a group of Indian devotees. We shuffle slowly up the chairs one by one. A woman hands me a chickpea sprout.
"For eating," she says, "good for life and growth."
I hesitate. Eating in India always feels like gambling. A familiar chain of thoughts flash through my mind –– she touched it with her hands. It's not cooked. It could have bacteria on it and that could mean getting sick. But this is a holy place, and it's such a small pea. I pop it into my mouth.
At last, before I know it, Amma's handlers are directing me to kneel behind the Indians. The stage is packed with people seated around Amma, watching in awe and taking in her energy. I'm trying to absorb and understand it all.
Quickly I'm shuffled forward, kneeling directly before mother Amma. In a flash, I'm buried in her warmth, completely comforted, her arms around me. She rocks me back and forth saying darling, my darling, darling. Despite the chaos on stage, I relax into her arms. She is so energetic, accepting, warm, loving.
Just as quickly as it all began, my hug is over and I'm ushered offstage. I am stunned. The experience is so unexpectedly powerful that I stop a moment to gather myself. How can I really understand what just happened? How can I describe the strength of this woman? Even if it's all just an act, it's a pretty darn good one.
Sometimes I think what is most powerful is what we allow ourselves to take from an experience.
Some things defy logic, and what Amma is offering is so difficult to describe because it's all heart and soul. It's not just Amma that is powerful, it's the spirit and energy of the entire experience. The feeling is subtle, but I believe there is something there, even if that something is simply a reminder of the importance of believing in something.
There are always two sides to every story, as life tends to remind.
Later in the week we're sitting outside near another ashram farther south in Kerala, sipping fresh orange juice as cows moo nearby. A local ayurvedic doctor has eagerly installed himself at our table and has proceeded to explain that he is a fourth generation practitioner.
After some small talk, and reading my ayervedic body makeup, he jokes about a famous Indian guru; now he's captured my attention. The more I'm learning about this topic, the more interested I am to hear a native's perspective on the whole phenomenon of Westerners seeking Indian gurus.
"What do you think of Amma?" I ask. This man is not short of opinions.
"All gurus are fake!" he laughs. "Who are they to charge heaps of money, taking advantage of foreigners? They are smart, that's what they are," he shakes his head. "The amount Westerners spend on gurus could feed and shelter many Indians, yet none of this money is given back to the local communities, the masters keep it for themselves," he says.
I listen to him, bemused at having just visited Amma a few days prior.
"Let me give you an example. When you are sick you go to the doctor, yes?" he says. "The doctor doesn't come to you. So why is Amma traveling abroad so often in the West? To heal her children? No. To raise money!"
The man recounts a very different story of Amma's past, how she came from a poor family and was always trying to figure out ways to make money. Besides prostitution, he claims she eventually met an old man with a magic walking stick. Amma ingeniously took this stick and used it to charm people. Slowly she grew a following and began making more and more money as a mystical leader.
He explains that when he attended a darshan with Amma, he couldn't understand why she was dressed so richly, in an expensive sari and layers of gold jewelry. If she was truly a humble god, why was this lavish adornment necessary? "People were washing her feet with milk and honey and licking the liquids from her toes. What an embarrassment!" he exclaims. "I walked right out to pray to my own god to forgive these people's actions."
"So do you believe all gurus are frauds?" I ask. "Is there any real living guru?"
He shakes his head, "No. They're all in it for the money. Westerners come and watch the show, but it is not real. It is for profit. The only living person who actually did some good was Mother Theresa. Now she's a real spiritual leader."
All the while the cow kept mooing just over the wall in the jungle behind the cafe.
Maybe the gurus are fake. Maybe all the Westerners flocking to India in search of a master are wasting their money.
Or maybe we just need to remember to vigorously question what is presented as truth.
Even if the gurus are all frauds, their money-making scheme can't be that bad. After all, what most gurus are preaching –– to do good, to love, to avoid violence, to practice selfless acts of service –– these are important values, ideas that are lacking in our culture today.
It seems to me that what a spiritual path offers is hope, and the idea that there is a better way to live. But seeking truth is ultimately a personal journey.
One thing is certain from all this though, that humans have an innate desire to believe in something. And belief in something good is better than belief in nothing at all.