An interview with Ammachi.
A tiny dark-skinned woman draped in a white sari beams as she totters down the aisle of loving devotees. Their outstretched hands are like feather plumes, waving, reaching to brush her as she leaves the crowded hall. Her face is placid, strong and fully alert, as it has been unwaveringly for the last five hours, but her exhausted body can hardly balance; it seems that she may even topple over in a faint before she reaches the waiting car outside. The right shoulder of her sari is stained dark from the sweat and tears of a thousand cheeks that have found succor there. Mata Amritanandamayi has, since early this morning, without pause for food or even a sip of water, literally held one thousand people to her bosom, listened to their troubles and their deepest spiritual longings, showered them with flower petals, pressed sweet prasad [consecrated offerings] into their palms, blessed their photos, malas [prayer beads] and children; and one after the other, each and every supplicant has received the same undivided cosmic love from Ammachi, the Holy Mother.
Young and old, married and single, male and female, wealthy, impoverished, beautiful, crippled, suspicious, crazy and sincere—all are welcomed without exception. And as she embraces each one, chanting softly “Ma, Ma, Ma, Ma” in each person’s ear, the transmission of compassion coming from her is one steady stream that never ebbs, never wavers, and her shining face never registers even the slightest trace of preference or fear regardless of who kneels before her.
They say that Ammachi is an avatar, an incarnation of the Divine on earth. They say that her ego has been completely destroyed, that all vestiges of identification with a separate sense of self have been annihilated. They say when she looks out, she sees only one Self in everyone.
So from one who is said to have crossed over, what can we learn about the right relationship to ego? If her eyes see only God, does the ego even exist, in her view? What is this mahatma’s [great soul’s] message to true seekers of moksha [liberation] when it comes to the most fundamental and ultimately challenging battle of spiritual life? How does her apparently infinite love manifest when it meets the enemy of her disciples, the ego?
Mata Amritanandamayi’s guidance for the seeker of liberation is simple and absolute: Serve God and surrender the ego and all its desires. She says, as many of the most revered saints and sages throughout history have also proclaimed, “Contentment ensues from egolessness. And egolessness comes from devotion, love and utter surrender to the Supreme Lord.”
Ammachi’s public teachings take place at traditional gatherings that are called “Devi Bhava” [literally “mood of the Goddess”] and “darshan” [audience with a guru], where she hugs and blesses all who come to see her. Almost a quarter of a million people seek her out every year, and she receives each and every one of them, giving them love and helping them with both spiritual and mundane concerns. She cannot turn anyone away, for to the Divine Mother, all are equal in their need for love. “During the Bhava,” she explains, “different kinds of people come to see me, some out of devotion, others for a solution to their worldly problems and others for relief from diseases. I discard none. Can I reject them? Are they different from me? Are we not all beads strung on the one life thread? According to each one’s level of thinking, they see me. Both those who love me and those who hate me are the same to me.”
Ammachi is indefatigable, or at least physical fatigue seems to weigh little on her. Her meditation on the divine current appears to drown out all bodily consciousness. Even after traveling all the way from India to Europe, or sleeping for only an hour the night before, Ammachi arrives precisely on time to give darshan. She answers spiritual questions, distributes bhasma [sacred healing ash] to the sick, and not until five or six hours and seven, eight or nine hundred souls later, when the very last person has been received, will she get up for food and a short rest before returning only a few hours later, again precisely on time, to chant, meditate and receive the thousand or so more spiritual pilgrims who have come for her blessing hug.
Often referring to herself in the third person, Ammachi describes the passion that animates her: “Each and every drop of Mother’s blood, each and every particle of her energy is for her children [devotees]. . . . The purpose of this body and of Mother’s whole life is to serve her children. Mother’s only wish is that her hands should always be on someone’s shoulders, consoling and caressing them and wiping their tears, even while breathing her last.” Selfless service, Ammachi teaches, is the whole of her life and is the path she prescribes for spiritual seekers who are committed to transcending the ego, to destroying the separate sense of self.
By all accounts the hardest worker at her ashram in Idamannel, in southern India, Ammachi is a living example of her teaching. She can be found carrying bricks to building sites, tending cows or cleaning toilets in addition to meeting with her brahmacharis and brahamacharinis [male and female celibate students] and seeing to all ashram affairs. Her disciples tell stories of how, even after a long day of receiving visitors, Ammachi will cook for them and feed them like little children, with her own hand. She also fulfills a world travel and teaching schedule that keeps all of her closest devotees on the brink of exhaustion and has inspired numerous charitable works—ambitious projects that have tangibly uplifted thousands of people’s lives, including a brand-new, state-of-the-art $55 million, 800-bed heart transplant hospital, an orphanage for 600 children, 5,000 free houses for the poor and one of the finest computer colleges in her native state of Kerala.
Ammachi’s compassion seems virtually limitless. She is so intoxicated with God that she seems to have burned out every trace of personal desire, and many the world over revere her as the very embodiment of unconditional love. And yet, Mata Amritanandamayi, the “Mother of Immortal Bliss,” has a wrathful face as well. As unconditionally accepting as she is of those who initially come to see her, for those who have chosen to live their lives under her tutelage as her disciples, she is known to be an equally demanding and exacting spiritual teacher. Her discipline can be fierce; to come close to Ammachi, her students say, is to come close to the fire.
In Ammachi’s teachings, the role of the guru is to “break the ego of the disciple” so that “they can know reality.” She warns them of the dangers of the ego, saying: “Blindness of the eyes is bearable and can be managed. . . . You can still have a loving and compassionate heart. But when you are blinded by the ego, you are completely blind. . . . The blindness carried by the ego pushes you into complete darkness.”
Ammachi believes that the path to liberation is a path of humility and obedience, and that it is only by bowing down to the guru that the disciple can keep his or her ego in check. Long-term students readily tell stories of hardships and tests, of the “ego bashing” and “ego rebellion” that they experience at the feet of their beloved guru. They speak frequently and respectfully of the tough schedules, physical discomfort and strict discipline that have tested them more than a little. “It is not always easy being with Mother,” they say, “but she helps to speed up our karma.”
One Western student of thirteen years described some of the many ways Ammachi challenges her disciples and explained how in her own case Ammachi has separated her from her husband for long periods of time to help further their sadhana [spiritual practice] and “put pressure on their egos.” Ammachi’s ordained students observe strict celibacy, and residents of her ashram practice eight hours of meditation a day in addition to their karma yoga [selfless service]. Her disciples sleep little, often only four hours a night, and not infrequently just one or two. “It keeps us on the edge all the time and teaches us surrender,” one devotee said. “If you want for yourself, you end up frustrated and angry, so you learn to let go.”
When once asked by a visitor whether hard work, like carrying bricks, doesn’t unfairly tax the brahmacharis, Ammachi without hesitation explained why she will sometimes call her students to labor even late at night after they have gone to sleep: “Amma wants to see how many of them have the spirit of selflessness, or whether they are just living for bodily comforts. On such occasions we can see if their meditation is doing them any good. We have to develop the readiness to help when others are struggling. Otherwise, what is the point of doing tapas [austerities]?”
Ammachi knows well the weaknesses of human nature. Often when her disciples are proud or stubborn and do not heed her guidance, she will fast, refusing both food and water. Knowing that their beloved guru is going hungry on their behalf is the worst punishment they could be given, her brahmacharis confess. “The true guru will not allow an iota of ego to grow [in a disciple],” Ammachi says. “To check the growth of pride, the guru may act in a very cruel manner. . . . People who see the blacksmith forging a hot piece of iron with his hammer may think that he is a cruel person. The iron piece may also think that nowhere can there be such a brute. But while dealing each blow, the blacksmith is only thinking of the end product. The real guru is also like this.”
For some observers, Ammachi’s standards for her disciples seem harsh and disconcertingly contrary to the unconditional love she expresses in her all-embracing role as the Divine Mother. And in a time when the notion of unconditional love is held so dear in the minds of many Western seekers, Mother’s two opposing bhavas [moods] challenge some deeply rooted beliefs. So what is compassion in the face of the ego? What is the right relationship to this perennial enemy of the seeker after enlightenment? In Paris, for two and a half hours in the middle of Ammachi’s darshan, I had the rare privilege of interviewing this extraordinary woman for this issue of WIE.
WIE: What is ego?
MATA AMRITANANDAMAYI: You are actually asking, what is unreality? But how can unreality be described? What use is there in talking about something that isn’t real, that is nonexistent? And how can you speak about that which is real? Amma can only give you a few hints. The mind is the ego. But the ego is a big lie—it is a liar. It is unreal.
There was a cowherd boy who took his cows to the meadows every morning and brought them back to the cowshed at the end of the day. One evening, as he was tying the cows up for the night, the boy found that one of them was missing her rope. He feared that she might run away, but it was too late to go and buy a new rope. The boy didn’t know what to do, so he went to a wise man who lived nearby and sought his advice. The wise man told the boy to pretend to tie the cow, and make sure that the cow saw him doing it. The boy did as the wise man suggested and pretended to tie the cow. The next morning the boy discovered that the cow had remained still throughout the night. He untied all the cows as usual, and they all went outside. He was about to go to the meadows when he noticed that the cow with the missing rope was still in the cowshed. She was standing on the same spot where she had been all night. He tried to coax her to join the herd, but she wouldn’t budge. The boy was perplexed. He went back to the wise man who said, “The cow still thinks she is tied up. Go back and pretend to untie her.” The boy did as he was told, and the cow happily left the cowshed. This is what the guru does with the ego of the disciple. The guru helps untie that which was never there. Like the cow, due to our ignorance, we believe that we are bound by the ego when, in fact, we are completely free. We need to be convinced of this, however.
The ego is an illusion with no existence of its own. It appears to be real because of the power it derives from the Atman [Self]. It is animated by the Atman. The ego itself can be compared to dead matter; for without the Atman, it would have no life. Stop supporting the ego, and it will withdraw and disappear. We ourselves lend the unreal ego its reality. Expose it for what it is, or rather, for what it isn’t, and that will be the end of it.
A dog wags its tail—the tail does not wag the dog. If the tail were to wag the dog, it would be disastrous! The same is true with the mind. The mind, or the ego, should be nothing more than a useful tool; a sadhaka [spiritual seeker] shouldn’t let him- or herself be ruled by the whims and fancies of the mind.
The ego consists of our thoughts and our mind. Our thoughts are our own creation. We make them real by cooperating with them. If we withdraw our support, they will dissolve. We simply have to observe our thoughts. The clouds in the sky assume different shapes, and they change constantly. You may see clouds drifting by that look like faces of the gods or different animals or sailing ships. A small child may believe that these shapes are real, but, of course, they are only illusions. In the same way, our ever changing thoughts drift through the mind, which is the ego. They assume different forms, but they are no more real than the shape of a cloud in the sky. If we simply witness our thoughts as they drift by, they will no longer have any effect on us or influence us in any way.
A lion made of sandalwood is real to a child, but to a grown-up it’s a piece of sandalwood. For the child, the wood is concealed, revealing only the lion. The grown-up may also enjoy the lion, but he knows it is not real. For him, the wood is real, not the lion. In the same way, to a Self-realized soul, the entire universe is nothing but the essence, the “wood” that comprises everything, the Absolute Brahman or Consciousness.
WIE: What is ego death for the true seeker of moksha [liberation]?
MA: If the ego is unreal, what death are you talking about? We superimpose the unreal on the real. What really exists is Brahman. There is no discovery, only uncovering.
WIE: What are the signs of true ego transcendence?
MA: One who has gone beyond the ego becomes an offering to the world, like an incense stick that burns itself out while bestowing its fragrance to others. For such a person there is no sense of otherness. It is difficult to say what a clear sign would be. People pretend or they imitate this and that quality—but for a real master, one who truly doesn’t identify with the ego, his or her entire being, and every action, is a pure expression of divine love and self-sacrifice. Divine love and self-sacrifice cannot be imitated.
WIE: Is it possible for a master to completely annihilate their ego?
MA: A mahatma [great soul] is one who disidentifies with the ego; they see everything as an extension of the Self. Due to our ignorance, we identify with the ego, with that which is not real, but a mahatma is not identified at all with the ego, with that which is unreal.
WIE: How does the guru help to annihilate the ego of the disciple?
MA: A true master creates the situations that will allow the seeker to come out of his or her dream. The disciple wants to continue to sleep and to dream, but the master wants to awaken him or her. The whole effort of the master is to somehow bring the disciple back to the reality of his or her true existence.
WIE: It is said that the ego will go to any length to maintain its grip on the individual, even masquerading as our own spiritual longing. What are the most important qualities for success in the fight against the endless tricks of the ego?
MA: Performing one’s own dharma with utmost shraddha. Shraddha is very important at the beginning stage on the spiritual path; it is absolutely essential.
WIE: What is shraddha? Is it faith in the possibility of transcending the ego in this life?
MA: Shraddha is more than just faith. It is trust and love. Both trust and love are necessary to transcend the ego—trust in the existence of a higher reality, love for that reality and an intense longing to realize it.
WIE: What is the best way to cultivate discrimination in the face of all the temptations of the ego?
MA: Just as a little boy grows out of his teddy bear and other toys, a true seeker gains the power to discriminate between the eternal and noneternal as his understanding grows and as he advances along the path. The power of discrimination dawns within us as we gain proper understanding and as we mature. As we learn how to evaluate life’s experiences in the proper manner, we automatically begin to use our discriminative intelligence. It is an inner blossoming that takes place—like a bud opening up. It is part of a slow but steady process.
There is a divine message hidden behind every experience life brings you—both the positive and negative experiences. Just penetrate beneath the surface and you will receive the message. Nothing comes from outside; everything is within you. The whole universe is within you.
There will be many temptations and challenges along the way. Only an experienced person can help you. The way to moksha is very subtle, and it is easy for a spiritual aspirant to become deluded.
WIE: What is the role of the spiritual master in guiding the seeker on the path to moksha or liberation?
MA: If you want to learn how to drive, you need to be taught by an experienced driver. A child needs to be taught how to tie his shoelaces. And how can you learn mathematics without a teacher? Even a pickpocket needs a teacher to teach him the art of stealing. If teachers are indispensable in ordinary life, wouldn’t we need a teacher even more on the spiritual path, which is so extremely subtle?
Though that subtle knowledge is our true nature, we have been identified with the world of names and forms for so long, thinking them to be real. We now need to cease that identification. But in reality, there is nothing to teach. A master simply helps you to complete the journey.
If you want to go to a distant place, you may want to buy a map. But no matter how well you study the map, if you are heading toward a totally strange land, an unknown place, you won’t know anything about that place until you actually arrive. Nor will the map tell you much about the journey itself, about the ups and downs of the road and the possible dangers on the way. It is therefore better to receive guidance from someone who has completed the journey, someone who knows the way from his or her own experience.
On the spiritual journey, we have to really listen to and then contemplate what the master says. We have to be humble in order to receive. When we really listen and then sincerely contemplate, we will assimilate the teachings properly.
WIE: Why is submission to a guru said to be so important in helping the disciple transcend the ego?
MA: The seat of the ego is the mind. Any other obstacle can be removed by using the mind except the ego, because the ego is subtler than the mind. It is only through obedience to the one who is established in that supreme experience that one can conquer the ego.
WIE: You didn’t have an external guru, yet you completely transcended your ego. It seems you depended on the formless as your guru to take you all the way.
MA: Yes, you could say that. But Amma considered the whole of creation to be her guru.
WIE: Is perfect obedience to the guru ultimately the same as ego death?
MA: Yes. That is why the satguru [realized spiritual master] is depicted in the Kathopanishad as Yama, the lord of death. The death of the disciple’s ego can take place only with the help of a satguru.
Obedience isn’t something that can be forced on the disciple. The disciple is tremendously inspired by the master, who is an embodiment of humility. Obedience and humility simply happen in a true master’s presence.
WIE: It takes rare courage to face ego death.
MA: Yes, very few can do it. If you have the courage and determination to knock at the door of death, you will find that there is no death. For even death, or the death of the ego, is an illusion.
WIE: There have been some very powerful spiritual teachers who seem to have been driven by the impure motives of the ego. Do you think that spiritual experiences could at times empower the ego rather than destroy it?
MA: Amma doesn’t agree that those teachers to whom you are referring are realized. A Self-realized master is completely independent. Such beings don’t have to depend on anything external for their happiness because they are full of bliss, which they derive from within their own Atman. Amma would say that everyone forms part of a crowd, except the realized masters. In fact, except for those rare souls, there are no individuals. Only one who is realized is uniquely individual and totally independent of the crowd. Only such a soul is alone in the world of bliss.
True spiritual masters have to set an example through their actions and their lives. Those who abuse their position and power, taking advantage of others, obviously do not derive all their happiness and contentment from within themselves, and so they cannot be realized masters. Why would a realized master crave adulation or power? Those who do are still under the grip of the ego. They may claim to be realized, but they are not. A perfect master doesn’t claim anything. He simply is—he is presence.
Until the moment before realization takes place, a person is not safe from the temptations of his or her desires.
WIE: So would you say that people like this have become more proud as a result of having had spiritual experiences? Can spiritual experiences at times strengthen the ego in a negative way?
MA: The people to whom this happens are deluded, and they confuse others as well. They will actually push others into delusion. Some people gain a glimpse of something, or have a spiritual experience, and then think they have attained moksha. Only someone who is not realized will think, “I am spiritual, I am realized,” and this will create a strong, subtle ego. A subtle ego is more dangerous than a gross ego. Even the individuals themselves won’t understand that the subtle ego is leading or motivating them, and this subtle ego will become part of their nature. Such people will do anything for name and fame.
Amma also feels that this kind of pride makes people lose their capacity to listen. And listening is extremely important on the spiritual path. A person who does not listen cannot be humble. And it is only when we are truly humble that the already existing pure Consciousness will be unfolded within us. Only one who is humbler than the humblest can be considered greater than the greatest.
WIE: Since it is possible for spiritual experiences to feed the ego, is it necessary to cultivate purity first?
MA: There is no need to get obsessed with purity. Focus on your dharma, performing it with the right attitude and with love. Then purity will follow.
WIE: What is dharma, in the way you are using it?
MA: Dharma is the right action in the right place at the right time.
WIE: How can one know what one’s dharma is?
MA: By loving life with the right attitude and having the right understanding, we will know what the right thing to do is. And then, if we perform our dharma, purity will come.
WIE: How do you cultivate that kind of love?
MA: Love isn’t something that can be cultivated—it’s already within us in all its fullness. Life cannot exist without love; they are inseparable. Life and love are not two; they are one and the same. A little bit of the proper channeling of your energies will awaken the love within you.
You need to have a strong intent to reach the goal of liberation; you need to be focused on that goal. Then such qualities as love, patience, enthusiasm and optimism will spring forth within you. These qualities will work to help you attain your goal.
WIE: You are revered by so many as the embodiment of unconditional love, and you literally hug everyone who comes to see you. But I have heard that you can also be very fierce with your students. How do these two very different methods of teaching go together?
MA: For Amma there are not two different methods; Amma has only one method, and that is love. That love manifests as patience and compassion. However, if a deer comes and eats the tender flower buds in your garden, you cannot be gentle with the deer and say softly, “Please deer, don’t eat the flowers.” You have to shout at it and even wave a stick. It is sometimes necessary to show this type of mood in order to correct the disciple. Kali is the compassionate mother in her disciplining mood. But look into her eyes—there is no anger there.
Amma only disciplines those who have chosen to stay close to her, and she only does this when they are ready to be disciplined. A disciple is one who is willing to be disciplined. The guru first binds the disciple with boundless, unconditional love so that when the disciple eventually is disciplined, he or she is aware of the presence of that love in all situations.
Amma helps her children to always be aware and alert. Love has many aspects. When Amma disciplines her children, she does this with the sole purpose of guiding them along the path to help them to fully blossom. This blossoming will happen only if a conducive atmosphere is created. It can never be forced. A true master does not force his or her disciples because pure consciousness cannot force anything. The master is like space, like the boundless sky, and space cannot hurt you. Only the ego can force and hurt. Amma will patiently continue to create opportunities for that inner opening, that blossoming, to take place within her children.
The guru-disciple relationship is the highest. The bond of love between the guru and shishya [disciple] is so powerful that one may sometimes feel there is no guru and no shishya—all sense of separation disappears.
WIE: What do you do when the ego takes hold of one of your disciples?
MA: Amma lovingly helps her children to realize the danger of being under the grip of the ego, and she shows them how to get out of it.
WIE: Some Western psychotherapists and spiritual teachers believe that we must develop strong egos before we seek ego transcendence. They say that most of us have weak or wounded egos as a result of the emotional and psychological traumas that we have suffered over the course of our lives, and they advocate various forms of therapy to help us build up our character, ego and sense of individuality. You had quite a difficult childhood; you had to bear harsh treatment and even physical abuse, and yet you transcended your ego completely. Would you agree with these teachers that in the pursuit of enlightenment, we first need to build up the ego before we endeavor to transcend it?
MA: Most people are deeply wounded within in some way, and those wounds have been caused by the past. Those wounds usually remain unhealed. They are wounds not only from this life but from previous lives as well, and no doctor or psychologist can heal them. A doctor or psychologist can help people to cope with life to a certain extent, in spite of those wounds, but they cannot actually heal them. They cannot penetrate deeply enough into their own minds to remove their own wounds, let alone penetrate deeply enough into the patient’s mind. Only a true master, who is completely free from any limitations and who is beyond the mind, can penetrate into a person’s mind and treat all those unhealed wounds with his or her infinite energy. Spiritual life, especially under the guidance of a satguru, does not weaken the psyche; it strengthens it.
The ultimate cause of all emotional wounds is our separation from the Atman, from our true nature. It may be necessary for a person to go to a psychologist, and that is fine—but to put spirituality aside in order to first strengthen the ego is to perpetuate that sense of separation, and it will only lead to further suffering. What is the use in thinking, “I will go to the doctor as soon as I feel better”? To wait for either the inner or outer circumstances to be “just right” before we embark on the spiritual journey is like standing on the seashore waiting for the waves to completely subside before we jump into the ocean. This will never happen. Every moment of life is so utterly precious, such a rare opportunity. We should not waste it.
(C) 1991-2010 EnlightenNext, Inc. Reprinted with permission.