A new Rolling Stone article begins like this “A guru named Amma has drawn 32 million people into her embrace – spreading a message of love, compassion and overpriced merchandise…”
From the article:
“Her devotees believe she is the rare being who has achieved full enlightenment on her own, a divine soul in a human body. “
“she acquired a $7.8 million mansion in Maryland, once owned by the Shriver family”
“There is jewelry Amma has blessed ranging from silver bracelets costing $800 to a silver crown for $5,000.
One of the most sought-after objects for sale is the Amma doll: a stuffed, handcrafted replica of Amma whose design seems inspired by the Cabbage Patch Kids. It comes in small, medium and large – $45, $90 and $180, respectively – and the idea is that it provides a kind of cosmic hotline to Amma when not in her presence.“Sometimes, I need a hug from her, and that same feeling of all-accepting love and softness is there,” a nameless devotee says of the dolls on the Amma Shop website. “It is as if she is my little piece of Mother.”Inside the temple, a number of people take to clutching their Amma dolls while staring at Amma, as if trying to double the dose of enlightenment, and seeing them it is impossible not to be reminded of how the line where devotion blurs into obsession, where faith morphs into fanaticism, can become so thin and porous that you can cross it without ever knowing it.”
“Amma’s staff is made up not merely of those willing to volunteer their time but also of those willing to pay to volunteer their time. This year’s cost to be a staff member is around $2,000, not including airfare to Seattle, where the tour began.”
THE THOUGHT EXPERIMENT
I want to invite you to try a little thought experiment:
Think about this for a moment – keep all of the details here the same, but instead of an Indian woman who appeals to our love of yoga and trust in mommy energy, what if it was a Texan man claiming to be an incarnation of Jesus?
Picture a 50 year old white guy in a cowboy hat with long grey hair and beard up on a throne.
* hugging people all day,
* selling action figures of himself as a way to pray to him
* having a “stargazer” who sat at his feet in rapture every time he gave blessings to masses of people weeping
*charging $2k for the privilege of volunteering to work in his organization
* selling $5 K crowns he had “blessed”
* rumors of him being physically and emotionally abusive behind closed doors and a story of his closest disciple fleeing under cover of darkness hidden under a blanket on a car floor only years later to recount the underlying dysfunction.
What would you think then?
Bear in mind this is an exact summary of what the article above says about Amma.
Is it possible that our critical thinking and reasoning ability gets blinded by some of the cultural details and a part of us that wants to believe that an enlightened holy person from India might really exist?
Is it possible that built into the very structure of belief in magical gurus is the injunction not to question, not to think critically —because these are manifestations of “ego” and not “being in your heart…..”
Therein lies the rub.
APPEALS TO EXPERIENCE & LOVE..
I know many of my yogi friends will repsond by saying they have gotten a hug from Amma and it really was Divine Love (really and truly, without a doubt!) —and that these sorts of things can only be experienced first hand etc…
But here’s the thing:
Providing state experiences of big heart opening and group hysteria is not uncommon. Many gurus have done this, megachurches do this, and most people who study cults are familiar with the technique called “love-bombing” in which new potential members are given as much “love” and validation as possible in order to form a bond with the group.
Large and powerful successful cults also always have most of their followers, donors, and members in an outer circle who receive enjoyment, meaning and even growth from the events and services offered publicly. This PR routine also makes a big show of promoting a perception that the organization is charitable, nobel etc – and in fact that there is not really any organization making millions of dollars – just an extraordinary figurehead who is doing god’s work in the world.
Behind the scenes there is usually a well oiled business model, a network of almost enslaved and obedient devotees, tons of money being syphoned away in covert ways and an ordinary but charismatic person who has been treated like a god so long that they are grumpy, reactive, entitled, agressive, and often addicted to drugs, sexual power, adoration etc…. it is usually not a healthy scene.
But we buy the act and just because she is claiming to be holy (in a way we idealize because it is related to yoga) and hugging people we don’t draw parallels between political frenzy, rock star groupies, religious hysteria and the deep psychological manipulation that vulnerable seekers are prone to. The dedicated followers in the article sound like lost addicted deadheads following their new mommy from town to town like little ducklings who have imprinted on her hug.
Inducing powerful altered states that:
a) tap into deep childhood psychological needs (I have finally found my divine mother and sacred family)
b) overload our social and emotional centers so that our critical thinking is disabled
c) perpetuate a belief that this woman is a holy divine being
d) encourage people to part with their cash and donate their time and energy to a huge organization
is impressive but perhaps not something we should embrace unquestioningly.
If Amma’s story illustrates anything it is the power of our deep need to feel loved and to reconnect with the archetype of a perfect and all-accepting mother.
But it is a show – it is spiritual theater. Like going to a well-made movie, the feelings are real – but the source is artifice.
No one is literally divine. No person hears your prayers. No doll gives you a hotline to god.