Amma: Healing the Heart of the Worldby Judith Cornell
Throughout the world Ammachi, or Amma, is known as "the hugging saint." Revered in India as a healer and sage, she spends most of her waking hours embracing strangers, offering them unconditional love. In this unique biography, one of her closest intimates tells this guru's remarkable story, from how she discovered her divine calling to how her personal journey evolved into an international organization promoting spiritual awareness and providing solace to millions.
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A Light That Is Black
Kerala, Land of the Goddess (1934-1953)
Along the Malabar Coast, on the west side of South India, is the state of Kerala -- a tropical landscape of unusual abundance and beauty. The land and air teem with wildlife and birds, and blackish gray sand beaches edge the warm waters of the Arabian Sea.
Kerala means "Place of Coconuts." Inland, palm, banana, coconut, cashew, and rubber trees thrive in the damp climate. Brilliant red hibiscus flowers blossom and are ritually offered by the Hindus to the goddess Kali -- a goddess who has been worshipped in Kerala and all over India for thousands of years. The people of the region have a rich history of sacred drama and dance and are among the most industrious and well educated in the country.
Amma, born into a low caste, was the daughter of a fisherman. In the Quilon district of Kerala is Parayakadavu, a poor, small fishing village on a long, narrow island that is surrounded by the sea and brackish backwaters. For centuries, the families of Parayakadavu have made their living pulling fish from the sea. So it was with Aroma's father's family, the Idamannels, who had fished the clear blue waters of the Arabian Sea for countless generations.
In addition to being fishermen, the men of the Idamannel family have also had a long tradition of charity. It has been their custom, after a hard day of fishing, to give away a portion of the catch to the villagers without accepting money in return. And after the sale of the rest of the catch, they would give away a few of these coins to the village children.
The tradition of charity and devoutreligious belief was evident in Amma's grandfather, Sri Velayudhan, a compassionate man and devout Hindu who was so ardent a believer in the ideal of ahimsa (not injuring) that he would not even allow a rat to be killed. Sri Velayudhan married Aroma's grandmother, Srimati Madhavi, an equally devout and pious woman, whose practice it was (every morning from the time before her marriage and for the rest of her long life) to wake up before dawn and go to the family shrine room, where she would string garlands of flowers for the deities while chanting the Divine Names of God.
While such piety and deep spiritual belief are to be admired, they are by no means unusual in India. An Indian's spiritual beliefs affect his or her day-to-day life: governing thoughts, regulating actions, and providing a person with his or her sense of self -- one's own "dharma," or personal course in life-much the same way a devout Jew or Christian's spiritual beliefs affect his or her life.
It is not surprising, then, that after being raised in an atmosphere of such piety and spirituality, Aroma's father, Sugunanandan, the eldest son of Sri Velayudhan and Srimati Madhavi, should have ardent spiritual beliefs from an early age. As a small child, Aroma's father became a faithful devotee of Lord Krishna, one of the most popular Hindu forms of God.
Sugunanandan began to practice the classic South Indian dance form of Kathakali, for which the region of Kerala is famous. In Kathakali, a troupe of male dancers in ornate makeup and costumes act out epic mythological tales of the gods and goddesses to the sound of pounding drums. During one performance Sugunanandan, who was playing Lord Krishna, reportedly became so deeply transcended into his character that he lost consciousness onstage.
Aside from these religious ecstasies, and the natural bustling activity of a family with five children, life at the Idamannel household was peaceful. The sound of the waves echoed gently from the nearby ocean. The grounds surrounding the house were lush with coconut and cashew trees, and the cashew nuts were a favorite snack of the Idamannel children.
One day after School, thirteen-year-old Sugunanandan and his cousin climbed a cashew tree to forage the branches for cashews, as they often did. Suddenly, through the branches of the tree, they saw a monk with long hair and a beard approaching the property. The boys were curious; in India, no stranger goes unnoticed, especially in the small villages. Not wanting to be seen, the boys sat motionless and quiet in the tree and watched as the monk roamed around the grounds of the house. Suddenly, he stopped and laughed, his face shining.
"I see many ascetics immersed in deep meditation in this place!" he cried out. "Many great souls lie under this ground, and many monks will achieve Liberation here. This will be a holy place!" He laughed again, and then continued his walking. Soon he was out of sight of the two astonished boys. The monk was never seen or heard from again.
This odd occurrence had been long forgotten when, as a grown man of twenty-one, Sugunanandan married Amma's mother, Damayanti, a young woman of twenty from the neighboring village of Bhandaraturuttu. Like her new husband, Damayanti had also been raised in an extremely pious and devout atmosphere. Her family even had its own family temple. She often fasted as part of her religious devotion, and she continued this practice into her married life.
Now with the new responsibilities of being a married man, Sugunanandan had to give up the Kathakah dance that he loved. Together, he and Damayanti raised a family and worked hard to make their living by marketing the fish he caught.
Before Amma's birth, Damayanti had two normal pregnancies. Before giving birth to her eldest daughter, Kasturi, and firstborn son, Subhagan, she was able to keep doing all her household chores during the whole nine months, after which her body would begin to swell. The swelling was a sign that her body was preparing to deliver.
At the news of Subhagan's birth, there was great rejoicing and celebration in both families. Sugunanandan made special trips to the temple to offer prayers of gratitude for this great gift of his firstborn son...Amma. Copyright © by Judith Cornell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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