Amma Gives More Than Hugs

Amma
Note: Let truth guide you, not us. Our humble disclaimer.

Are there saints in the world? Yes. One of them is Amma, an internationally-known woman from Southern India who has devoted her life to love and service.

Anyone blessed with the opportunity to spend time with her, even for a few minutes, will experience what it means to be in the presence of a living, breathing saint.

It isn’t so much that she has magical powers, or that she will win you over with stunning words that cut to the heart of your problems. She isn’t a myth like most saints we’ve heard about; she is a real person. You may not even understand why she is special. But you’ll probably feel it.

That’s because saints are not “beyond” us or magical creatures. We like to hold them up as better than us, as paragons of virtue that we cannot possibly equal. But this does an injustice to us and to the saint in question, because it minimizes the effort of saintliness at the same time as it disempowers us from achieving a similar level of greatness. Amma is not divinely blessed more than other people, she is just more courageous about living truth. We all can do what Amma does with dedication and daring.

Amma is known as the “hugging guru.” You may have heard about her on a recent episode of the television series, Orange is the New Black, or read about her in the popular press. Maybe you’ve even attended one of her events and gotten a free hug.

What Amma does is love. She loves in the deepest Vedantic sense, treating every person as a part of herself and a part of God. She does this by embracing everyone who asks, and by supporting the basic needs of our world’s most needy people. Ever since Amma was a young girl, she has felt this love and unity with those around her. Unlike most, though, Amma has stayed true to this understanding even as she matured. Her life has always been about love and unity, and she does not compromise on this truth even when it is challenging.

I do not know if Amma is perfect, but I suspect she is not. I bet she has made mistakes. I bet there have been moments in her life when she was selfish. Maybe one day there might even be a scandal involving Amma. As a living, breathing human being, there is always room for human frailty. Sainthood does not mean that a person is above their humanity.

What sainthood means—real sainthood—is that a person has purified themselves to the point where their actions naturally are good and godly in most cases. Amma might not be perfect, but she’s reached a point of purity where you see the love and feel the connection with her. When you interact with her, you see God reflected through her.

God reflects through all of us, because all of us are one and a part of God. For most of us, however, this reflection is covered up by personal desires and habits that emphasize our selfish individuality and not our loving unity. All of us have this beauty within us. We just have this godliness covered by ego and small conceits the way that the dirty window in a jewelry store conceals its treasures inside.

Saints are people just like us who have taken the uncommon step of polishing the window to their soul so the beauty is evident. Through continuous but very achievable actions of self-purification, saints enable their inner light to shine through. This is why they seem to radiate love, and why their presence feels divine. Their actions are divine, and they are divine because these people have scrubbed themselves clean of the selfishness and the ego that clouds the higher nature in us all.

The process of purification creates more purity, too. Good habits beget good habits. What started as a simple act of love or service will pick up momentum and create routines and responses that build larger acts of love and service.

Eventually, with a momentum that started with simple actions, people like Amma reach a level of purity that seems beyond reach. They have become a saint, and we are not a saint.

This might be true if we expect the purity of an Amma immediately. Whereas people such as Amma have been working toward purity for most of their lives, we have not. So of course we will fall short and claim that we never can be like Amma or the other saints. This was Amma’s karma, we might say. Or Amma is a gift from God, we might proclaim. We rationalize our own situation and set the bar of good behavior perversely low.

All of us can be like Amma in our own way, however. All of us can be saints in time. That beauty and magic is within us, too. We just need to work for it. We need the confidence to go after our inherent awesomeness, and we need the hard work to put it into practice.

Amma puts in the effort every day. Spend time with her and you will see. I have seen Amma several times, but I have never seen her stop working.

If you attend one of Amma’s events, you will see a middle-aged woman who arrives in the morning and works late into the night. This is not a few hours of hugging, then a cold drink and some rest. This is twelve, fourteen hours of work that almost surely takes a large toll on her body. The security guards, the organizers, the volunteers—they all take breaks. But Amma does not. Or if she does take a break, she doesn’t take more than the minimum needed to continue her good works.

Purity is an ongoing, continuous process. You find this ongoing effort and purification in the life of almost every saint. You certainly see it in Amma. Saints are not perfect; they are not super-human. What they are is polished.

We can be polished, too. Sainthood is not beyond our reach. While Amma gives much, her greatest gift might be her example that everyone can be a saint. We just have to believe in ourselves, and we have to put our beliefs into practice. This is something we all can do.

A slightly modified version of this essay first appeared on PeterKowalke.com.


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