Hinduism may not have been started by a single prophet like Christianity or Islam, and yet numerous Hindu gurus, saints and seers have been an inspiration to people around the world, and especially here in America. My upbringing was imbued with Advaita Vedanta, with its foundations in the teachings of Adi Shankaracharya. Yet the beauty of Hindu practice is that I need not approach the Divine from only one direction or the teachings of one guru: Hinduism is pluralism, and we are free to embrace our spiritual journey through a multitude of paths, imbibing from the wisdom of more than one guru.
People from the West have traveled to and assimilated Hindu practices and ancient Indian philosophies – evidenced by words like guru and mantra part of the common lexicon, and the abundance of yoga studios at suburban strip malls. The pioneering American spirit has also supported the exploration of Hindu ideas since the beginnings of our nation. In American Veda, author and spiritual counselor Phil Goldberg chronicles the impact of several Hindu spiritual leaders and Hindu philosophies and practices on the United States. He describes many of the gurus – the Chosen Ones – who have come to America, providing both data and anecdotal evidence of the significant impact India’s spiritual exports have had on the West, providing us with a window into how pluralism has also become embedded in the American psyche.
Starting with “Namaste America!” and traveling through a couple of centuries, it is in his final chapter, “The Once and Future Religion” that Goldberg introduces us to a modern day saint. “Gurus still come to America, but they have fewer doors to break down, and they no longer attract overheated media coverage and trigger extremes of rapture and hostility. The recent crop differ from their predecessors in other ways too. More of them are women, for one thing, including the most popular one of all.”
This refers to Mata Amritanandamayi, lovingly called Amma, Mother or “the Hugging Saint.” She was born in a remote coastal village in Kerala, South India in 1953, and as a small child, would spend hours in meditation or singing devotional songs. When she was nine, her mother became ill, and she was taken out of school to care for her seven younger siblings. She helped with tasks outside the home, such as gathering food for the family’s cows, and she came face to face with poverty and suffering in her community. Excerpting from “How She Began” on her website:
Where Mata Amritanandamayi encountered people in need, she brought them food and clothing from her own home. She was undeterred by the scolding and punishment she received from her family for doing so. She also began to spontaneously embrace people to comfort them in their sorrow. Responding to her affectionate care, they began to call her Amma (Mother).
Amma was deeply affected by the profound suffering she witnessed. According to Hinduism, the suffering of the individual is due to his or her own karma — the results of actions performed in the past. Amma accepted this concept, but she refused to accept it as a justification for inaction. Amma contemplated the principle of karma until she revealed an even more profound truth, asking a question she continues to ask each of us today. “If it is one man’s karma to suffer, isn’t it our dharma (duty) to help ease his suffering and pain?”
With this simple yet profound conviction — that each of us has a responsibility to lend a helping hand to those less fortunate — Amma moved forward with confidence in her life of service and compassionate care for all beings, uniquely expressed by the motherly embrace she offers to all who seek solace in her arms.
Amma says that her religion is love, that love expressed is compassion, and that compassion means accepting the needs and sorrows of others as one’s own. This profound love and compassion has led her to create many charities with the support of her followers. Amma annually tours North America, and tens of thousands come each year for her darshan and a hug – and I discovered over the years that several of my colleagues are amongst them. I find the name of Amma’s international network of humanitarian initiatives, Embracing the World, to be especially inspiring, and also find the need for spiritual solace and a mothering embrace during these tumultuous, divisive times.
I can find inspiration in both the deeply personal expression of the Divine, as embodied by Amma, or Ammachi, alongside the impersonal Absolute Oneness of Advaita through the philosophies of Sri Shankaracharya. Many may find this confusing – that one can drink from the wisdom of more than one guru whose spiritual guidance may even seem at odds with the other’s. The explanation for how this is possible comes from yet another guru: Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century saint who many Hindus believe to have been fully awakened to the Oneness of Advaita, while maintaining his deeply devotional activities at the Dakshineswar Temple as well. When questioned about this seeming dichotomy, he responded, “Sometimes I like to taste the sugar, sometimes I like to be the sugar.”