Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Ah-Shur-Am Gettin Outta Here

The West has always had a fascination for the exotic mysticism of Asia, and that of India in particular. Perhaps it is because the critical and questioning nature of Western philosophy has eroded away the power of religion's dogma there, or maybe it is the very esoteric nature of Oriental religions that increases their allure, or it could just be a case of the grass always being greener on the other side. Whatever the cause there area great many Westerners that come to India for "spiritual enlightenment", and there is a commensurate industry of gurus, ashrams, yogis and swamis that provide it for them ... for a fee, of course. (Though it must be noted that these sects are also hugely popular with the local population as well, who devote incredibly large amounts of both time and money to them. As is often the case, poverty, lack of education and credulity go hand in hand.)

Since this is such an integral part of Indian culture my curiosity compelled me to experience it firsthand. I therefore checked-in to the Mata Amritanandamayi Math ashram, home of Amma. Amma (Mother) is a jovial, slightly chubby 50 year-old who preaches love as her central tenet and practices it by going round the world hugging people, hence her appellation as the Hugging Saint. Although she professes a unity of religions, the rites and rituals of her cult are clearly Hindu; and her various "profound" statements are little more than cliched platitudes.But there's nothing wrong in that really, and there is no denying that she has used a lot of the vast sums of money she has raked in for charitable causes (building schools, hospitals, houses and even universities).

What I found disconcerting, however, was the ashram atmosphere. Here Amma, undoubtedly with her tacit approval, has been elevated to god-like status. Garlanded pictures of her adorn most of the rooms; hymns of dedication (penned by her own hand) are chanted to her daily; people pay ridiculous sums for her cast off garments or dolls that she has blessed ($180 anyone?); and she even refers to herself in the third person which is the surest sign of being absolutely bonkers (unless you happen to be the Queen). Furthermore people at the ashram seem to want to ignore any inconsistencies in her message. A glaring example would be the fact that physical contact of almost any kind between the sexes is streng verboten. The fact that she preaches universal love and that her signature party trick happens to be hugging anybody and everybody doesn't cause the least bit of head-scratching amongst her devotees. The ashram population is almost evenly split between locals and Westerners, yet the two groups have little, if any, interaction. They have separate services, separate accommodation, separate dining areas and separate food. Although I do understand the latter because Amma wouldn't be able to retain as many foreign adherents (and their money) if they had to eat watery rice and bland vegetable curry (to which I ascribe my latest bout of loose bowel movements) three times a day, seven days a week. To this people may say "so what, it's just beardy hippies, and they don't harm anyone." And that may be true, but I am constantly reminded of the words of Martin Luther King when he said that "nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."

P.S. I am sometimes asked why I am so interested in religions and the like when I am so obviously an avowed atheist and amateur cynic. The question is valid, and I think it has something to do with a morbid fascination for the, what seems to me, unexplainable and illogical clutching at dogmas. I suppose it would be best to compare it to the instinctive curiosity that everyone has when they see a car wreck by the side of the road and slow down to get a closer look, all the time saying to themselves "thank god it wasn't me".

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