Mother of All: A Revelation of the Motherhood of God in the Life and Teachings of the Jillellamudhi Motherby Richard Schiffman
Traveling to India, Schiffman found a powerful and highly original master known simply as Amma, a spiritual prodigy who was treated since her childhood as an incarnation of God as Mother. mother of all provides an introduction to her controversial teaching that the world is the visible form of God.
- Blue Dove Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1 ED
- Product dimensions:
- 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)
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The Journey to
There is a profound mystery at work in our lives. It is easy to miss. We live as hunting hounds, noses glued to the ground, seeing only what is right before us, never looking up at the trail ahead or behind at the path already traveled. It is easy to pass a life in that way, unaware that we are headed in any particular direction or coming from any recognizable point of origin. For the most part we drift. But there must come a moment in each of our lives when we pause long enough on the way to assess the territory, to gaze down the trail, to recognize its patterns, to wonder if there is not, after all, some larger plan or grander fate that gives context to our daily rounds.
Are we not on a journey, you and I? At this moment it seems so. From this high peak the joys and the pains, the wrong turnings, the long and random drifts, the blind valleys and lofty viewpoints, all seem to have been necessary. Everything is in its place and life has a meaning, though not strictly a rational one. And all journeys have a destination, which is not necessarily a place, and certainly not anyplace I have not been before and am not now. And all journeys have a beginning, which is not separate from their final goal and not separate from the long and winding path.
This realization is a moment of sheer magic when everything falls so uncannily into place, and mysteries and explanations dissolve wordlessly in a PRESENCE, which supersedes them both. It is the rarest of glimpses, forgotten almost as it occurs, the stuff of dreams, and yet real inaway that makes all else seem a dream. It is REAL, but for us this momentary awakening seems so delicate and evanescent. For us, the sniffing hound's life of random, unconnected moments seems real, although, in fact, it is evanescent, vanishing from beneath our noses even as we cling stubbornly to the trail of scent.
No matter. Fate is kind even when it seems least kind. It places an obstacle on the path. But that obstacle is an opportunity; the hound is forced, despite itself, to look up from the trail in wonder. For the first time, it is jolted from the trance of the chase; for the first time, it finds itself face to face with the prey. And yet it is not at all what it had expected. The prey is none other than itself, the hound is hunter and hunted, seeker and sought, source and goal. The obstacle is a glassy pool in which is seen, for the first time, one's own flawless reflection.
And so, dear readers, fellow travelers, this is the story of my journeyour journeyto Jillellamudi. Jillellamudi was my obstacle, my opportunity. But to say that the journey ended there is only half the truth. In reality, it began there. The journey to Jillellamudi is not yet complete. In Jillellamudi, I glimpsed my own true reflection in the eyes of one who was a perfect mirror for what is deepest within me. In her bottomless tranquility, I saw an image of myself as I truly am. But it was, after all, only a reflection. To grasp at it was to lose it; to lose it was to seek it again and again, to become a professional seeker of what had never been lost and could never be found outside myself, except as a mere reflection.
And so this is the story of a journey that is not yet complete, a journey to Jillellamudi which is really a journey inward. Others wiser than myself have said that this stage of active seeking, of devotion to an ideal and grasping at reflections, is a necessary prelude. The hound must chase its own image round and round the pool until it drops exhausted in its own place, the place it never really left and therefore could never finduntil it stopped looking. This is what they say. I report it as hearsay and not from experience. My experience to date is only of the chase and not the exhausted, surrendered fulfillment.
Someday, perhaps, we will look into each other's eyes and know, without a word being spoken, that the journey is done. But today we can only share one pilgrim's tale of a journey to a place worth visiting.
* * *
That Jillellamudi is a place worth visiting was something I didn't know at the time. My initial attraction was casual. As so often happens with the truly important events of our lives, it hardly seemed remarkable, this trip to an anonymous village of mud and thatch on the seared coastal flatlands. The hound, nose glued to the ground, had no hint of what lay ahead.
I remember clearly my first meeting with Aroma, how self-conscious I felt walking out of the heat and tropical brightness into that dim, windowless bedroom where she sat crosslegged on a large bed. All was still save for the air conditioner's low hum. Why was I here? What did I want, that I had come to disturb her in a nursing home where she was no doubt suffering from some serious illness? Was I expected to prostrate? Would she notice my confusion?
From the outset, I was ambivalent about coming to see Amma. At the time I first heard about her, I was living in another ashram (spiritual community) and had come to regard the holy man of that place as my spiritual guide. I had no conscious desire to look elsewhere; the very thought of it would have seemed disloyal and a sign of weak resolve.
I had heard about the Mother from an Indian acquaintance who had been to Jillellamudi. As we chatted at a village soda fountain, he told me about Ammahow she almost never ate but loved to feed others; how visitors of all castes and from abroad were fed and housed free of charge at her ashram, which wasn't really an ashram but the "House of All," a home-like environment where the extended family of her devotees live and work. Most of all, he talked about how kindly and motherly Amma was, how she made you feel welcome and treated you less as her guest than as her own child.
Being a poet at heart, my friend Debendra spoke glowingly of Amma's genius at capturing the eternal truths of spiritual life in a colloquial, terse but eloquent Telugu. When he translated a few of his favorite sayings, however, I was impressed only by how flat and commonplace the Telugu puns sounded in English. Actually, for all his evident devotion and enthusiasm, nothing that Debendra said particularly struck me, and when he took me to his room to show me a small black and white photo of Amma, her round, amorphous features made her look more ordinary than it seemed a great saint ought to look. The tinsel crown which she wore and the aluminum trident which she held in her right hand, far from inspiring awe and reverence, made her appear slightly ridiculous to my jaundiced Western eyes.
Still, I took down his instructions on how to get to Jillellamudi in the hope that it would be, if nothing else, a pleasant place to relax for a few days and meditate away from the hubbub of the large, internationally known spiritual community where I was staying. I didn't think any more about it until the renowned guru of that ashram left for Bombay. Jillellamudi, less than two hundred miles away, seemed like a good place to take a break. So I headed off for a change of scenery without any great expectations.
After a full night's train journey sprawled on the bare wooden boards of an upper berth, I arrived at the town of Bapatla, a slow-paced district headquarters of low whitewashed residences, dilapidated temples, and open-air markets. The town seemed all but deserted as I made my way to the Matrusri Press, from where it would be possible, Debendra had said, to catch the converted World War II Japanese troop-carrier which shuttled back and forth to Jillellamudi village.
Entering the musty print shop, the typesetters gaunt and shirtless seated by their large wooden trays of leads, I inquired of the elderly manager when the van would be leaving for Jillellamudi.
"Jillellamudi?" he asked doubtfully. "No use going. You won't find anyone there. Amma's health has not been good. She's staying for several months in a nursing home."
My spirits deflated like a punctured tire. I had come all the way to this dusty out-of-the-way place for nothing. It served me right, I reflected. I had no business coming. It had been sheer restlessness and now I was stranded. Was it possible to salvage anything? "Perhaps I might take Amma's blessing at the nursing home," I heard myself wondering aloud before there was a chance to consider if I really wanted to do that. The manager hesitated a brief moment before answering that he was under instructions not to reveal Amma's whereabouts to anyone, so that she might recuperate without disturbance.
"Well, this meeting is clearly not meant to take place," I consoled myself inwardly with proper Indian fatalism, and was making my way to the door when the pressman had a change of heart. Since I had come all the way from a distant country, he allowed, perhaps an exception could be made in my case. It was the same gratuitous hospitality to foreigners which I had come across so many times before in Indiabanks cashing my travelers checks after hours, berths being found on fully booked trains. I took down the address of the nursing home and purchased a small booklet and a crudely printed color photograph of Amma.
Thanking the manager for his help, I walked out into the town somewhat hesitantly, reminding myself that I had not been so keen to see this holy woman in the first place, and did I really want to make another long, possibly fruitless train journey on the off-chance of being able to visit herin a nursing home of all places? In the end, the fact of my having come so far already, a reluctance to admit defeat even when a victory seemed of such dubious value, won out over the impulse to call it quits. Backpack in tow, I walked across the road to the railway station and boarded the next train southbound toward the city of Nellore where Mother was staying at the clinic of Dr. S. V. Subba Rao.
As the train clattered across the expansive landscape, empty except for the widely scattered green islands that were the villages and an occasional windswept line of fan-leafed palmyra trees, I looked at the booklet that I had purchased from the Bapatla press. The writing was admirably clear and to the point by the prevailing standards for such literature. Simply, and in the austere, inspiring tone of scripture, of legend, it told a biblical tale of visions and miracles-a child who refused to eat and lived for years without food or water, who lectured her elders on Truth and God, and fell effortlessly into samadhithe highest state of mystic rapturewhile still in her infant's cradle. The sayings of the Mother in the back of the pamphlet were enigmatic and strangely moving"Long ago I begot and reared all of younow I have revealed myself'; "No one knows my measure; I am the measure of all"; "There is one veil to disguise myself and another veil to exhibit my disguise to you. There is always a veil within a veil. None can penetrate with mere talk or treasure".
It appealed very much to a sense of mystery and of adventure. The tropical brightness and expansiveness of the landscape rushing past reverberated somehow with these strange sayings, magnified them in an odd way. I felt curiously elated, like a pilgrim who had just cast off all earthly ties, contented, self-contained, on the trail of something intriguing but as yet undefined.
As the train sped across the coastal plain, I found myself looking down repeatedly at the small color picture. This apparently unremarkable photo showed Amma with her chin cupped by the fingers of her left hand, gazing directly at the camera. Her pleasing face appeared calm and expressionless. But there was something compellinga startling directnesswhich unconsciously made me turn to it again and again. Before the trip was over, the Mona Lisa itself could not have appeared more unfathomable nor so quietly eloquent as this crude image! When I gazed down, it was as if a living person gazed back from the print. Was Mother even now aware of my impending visit? I thought back to one of the sayings in the booklet: "Those whom I don't see, don't come here." I addressed the picture mentally: Are you seeing me even now, Amma? And those oddly penetrating eyes seemed to confirm it.
Soon the train was rattling over the Penner River and a few moments later we were pulling into Nellore. Leaving the station, I wove my way past the waiting rickshaw-pedalers into the thronged city, losing myself for a time amid the chaotic profusion of carts and bicycles and langorous cows that, in typical fashion, chose the most crowded lanes to lie down in.
Nellore had a vitality and color not to be found in its more grimly efficient counterparts in the West. In India, nothing is hidden. The Indian city is a Ganges of life and death and everything in between. And to walk those teeming streets was to be caught up irresistibly in the flow, to become a part of it, anonymous, a small bubble secure in its anonymity, at one with life's tumbling waters. Monkeys jabbered and balanced themselves precariously on the high-tension wires, waiting for the opportune moment to swoop down on the fruit merchant's cart below. At a corner shrine, a businessman devotee vigorously clanged the hanging bell, drowning out the tinny chimes of the bicycle rickshaws, the wooden rumble of the oxcarts, haggling voices, haunting fragments of song.... Floating above all, a thin thread of sound, the Moslem call to prayer. It was late afternoon, time to find a hotel. As I searched for a place to stay, my gaze was arrested by the photo of a woman draped in thick flower garlands from the knees up, which was displayed in the window of a photographer's shop. Moving closer, my suspicions were confirmed. It was the Jillellamudi Mother gazing out at me once more. This was a very good omen, I decided. I checked into the first cheap lodge I could find. Tomorrow I would search out Dr. Subba Rao's clinic.
Awakening refreshed, the next morning I gazed over at the picture of Amma that I had placed on a stool at the head of the bed. Stretching out on my back, I repeated the sacred syllable Aum quietly to myself. As I lay chanting absentmindedly, a subtle vibration arose, an inner hum which rapidly grew in intensity until it seemed to fill every cell in my body. Then there was a quantum shift; I lost all sensation of my body; it had dissolved in the hum. There was the impression of the mind's being sucked forcefully into an unfamiliar realm. Thoughts and images disappeared and, for a fleeting instant, freedom, radiant, absolute, like nothing I'd experienced before or since. Then in a flash I was back on my bed in the hotel room. It was over so quickly. I sat bolt upright, overwhelmed by the strangeness of it. How often had I sat in meditation, long and painfully, but nothing remotely like this had ever happened. It was as if I had been swept up in some ineffable psychic wind and then dropped just as swiftly back into my accustomed self.
I sat on the edge of the bed, disoriented, a delicate sensation of incorporeal joy lingering on like a rare perfume ... But of what? Of whom? It did not occur to me to make the connection with my impending visit to Amma. That association would come only later when the hound, at leisure, nose lifted from the spoor, would perceive that the strange wind had been Amma's own breath, her welcoming touch.
The great miracle-worker, Sri Sai Baba of Shirdi, used to say that his devotees were like birds whose feet were tied to a string. And heSai Babawas the one who was holding the string. When the proper time arrived that he should reveal himself, he simply hauled them in by the leg. In retrospect, I can say that I was then in the process of being reeled in. But the curious thing is that the bird on the string thinks it is walking under its own steam.
That was my impression, at any rate, as I headed off into the town in the still comfortable brightness of the morning in search of Dr. Subba Rao's clinic. Arriving at the private home on a quiet, tree-lined residential street, I was greeted courteously at the door without the usual surprise that the apparition of a foreign face inspires in such circumstances. When I stated why I had come, I was taken to a wing of rooms for patients at the back of the clinic. It was then left to me to register surprise, confrontedapparition-likewith the sight of the four Westerners who had preceded me. The young men were British and had been living with Amma at Jillellamudi for some years. When she left for the clinic, they had been invited to come along. Now and then, unpredictably, according to Amma's health, it would be possible to sit with her in her room, I was told. And some hours later we were called.
At the last moment, however, my head spun with misgivings. All the old doubts, feelings of disloyalty to my guru, feelings of inadequacy, painful self-consciousness, settled in like a swarm of angry bees. There was the impulse to escape as we were being ushered into the dim, windowless room. But escape was not possible. I entered feeling raw and exposed.
At first, Mother appeared remote, as if absorbed in thought. Her surprisingly small form (she is a bit under five feet tall) was erect with a natural dignity and stillness. She seemed to be suffering physically and rather weak. But the overwhelming impression was of a tremendous coiled force. Her body was radiant, like the enhaloed saints painted by the Old-Masters. The room was bathed in a most delicate energy, a palpable inwardness.
As we took turns bowing before her, Amma appeared almost not to notice, her eyes unfocused, gazing placidly off into space. When I took my place on the floor a few feet in front of her bed, Amma turned toward me. Her eyes glowed softly; there was neither curiosity nor judgment in her look, only a placid intensity and openness. Above all, there was the same startling directness in her expression that had been so intriguing in the small color photo. Something inside me wanted to surrender, to relax, but there was at the same time a desire to flee from her penetrating gaze. Amma sensed this immediately. She cocked her head and looked at me quizzically for a few moments. Amiably, with Dr. Subba Rao acting as interpreter, Mother asked where I had come from, how long I had been in India, what ashrams I had visited. My anxiety faded as I told my story.
In addition to Dr. Subba Rao and his family and the Westerners, there was the young woman whom I would come to learn was Vasundhara, Mother's dedicated shadow of an attendant. From the informal way Amma addressed them, it seemed to me that they must be especially intimate companions of hers. I would find out later that this was not really true, that Amma treats everyone with the same motherly familiarity, and that even infrequent visitors feel as if she were one of the family.
Mother was at ease, beaming, gesturing fluidly. Her speech flowed in natural rhythms, pausing now for effect, now tripping gaily as water over stones. It seemed closer to poetry, to fine dramatic discourse, than to ordinary speech. It was all so effortless, so unaffected, that it was a pleasure to watch her. I remembered then what Debendra had told me about her eloquent use of words and wished that I could understand Telugu. It was enough to watch how others hung on her words to get the sense that she was indeed a master of language.
The impression of weakness, of illness, had altogether disappeared. Indeed, she hardly seemed anymore a woman in her late fifties. Her expression was transparent and winninga wide-eyed child sharing her secrets with some close friends.
What struck me was Amma's utter simplicity, the unpretentiousness in such sharp contrast with the self-important demeanor of so many other spiritual teachers I had come across. There was absolutely no hint of the assumed gravity, the pontifical distance, the self-conscious wisdom of the professionally holy. She smiled frequently and engagingly and told funny stories, yawned and stretched like a lioness.
And yet, underlying the evident good cheer, Mother was solid as a rock, imperturbable. Her laughter was free without being abandoned, her manner refreshingly simple without appearing naive; her obvious affection for the devotees was touching but not in the least bit sentimental. It was impossible not to feel awed by her personality. She gave the impression of a stately palm tree, swaying with each passing breeze, but with taproots holding tenaciously to earth.
There was a settled quality, an absoluteness; it looked superficially like poise or self-confidence, and yet there was something about it utterly unlike these rather too studied qualities of the world. The words of the Hindu Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, came to mind: "Beyond hope, beyond fear ... the steadfast sage." Just sitting and watching, something of Amma's settled peace worked on the mind like a balm. It was easy to understand why the Hindu scriptures say that at the feet of the sage the devotee finds a true haven. Here I felt sheltered, secure.
The dominant impression of that first meeting, however, was of someone who flowed into another person's reality as water into a crack. When she addressed someone in her quiet, endearing way, Amma seemed to be speaking directly to the person's heart, coaxing, soothing, reassuring. You could feel people letting down their defenses. When she smiled so artlessly, everyone smiled. Before long, I was forgetting to feel sorry for myself that I couldn't understand Amma's jokes. I found myself grinning broadly anyway, the joy no longer needing any explanation or pretext. Strangely, at this point Mother began addressing some of her Telugu comments to me, and she turned to me now and again as she talked, as if for my reaction. Somehow, it didn't appear at all odd that she was including me in on the conversation. Was she not hinting that what she was communicating was not primarily a question of the words (which I obviously could not understand) but of something behind them, something which I could tune in to from the silence which we shared?
As if reading my mind, Mother motioned for Shyam (one of the Britishers) and myself to come closer. She knitted her brow and held her hand open in the air, searching for words. Then she grinned sheepishly and proclaimed in her thick Indian English, "Language problem," as if by way of excuse. But no sooner had she said this, than her expression became thoughtful all of a sudden, and she answered herself: "No language problem. Only one language: mind language." As she said the words "mind language," Mother pointed to herself and then waved at us, the sense of this gesture being that we need not depend on words to communicate with Amma, nor she with us. Thinking that Amma was referring to mental telepathy or some such power, I objected that this might be possible for her, but not for us. Amma only smiled in response, and her way of doing so made it clear that she was not going to let me off the hook so easily!
The truth of Amma's contention has since been driven home powerfully to me. I don't know much more Telugu today than I did at the time of that first meeting. Indeed, I never felt it was necessary to learn. I can hardly imagine what more she might say with words that she hasn't already communicated wordlessly! On the few occasions when I have had some lengthy discussions with Amma through a translator, I couldn't help but feel that the integrity of our communication had somehow descended, its purity compromised: the silence always seemed so much richer, cleaner, more precise.
I've often thought that the reply which Amma made to a questioner who asked her for a message on how to live life is right to the point here. She said: "Only that which can impel you to act is the real message. Words can't do it. If we had to depend on words alone, everything would end in doubt and confusion." Splendid! She has really nailed the dry and unyielding quality of language, especially where spiritual questions are concerned. If spiritual seekers take words as ends in themselves, they lead inevitably into a desert of apparent contradictions, misunderstandings, or at best a sterile mental knowledge which, like a bowl of plastic fruit, lacks all juice. Fortunately for us, the sages have got the juice. They influence us, not by what they say, but by who they are. And who they are is very juicy indeed! This is what Mother is suggesting when she states: "Owing to the need to reveal that which transcends speech, this unique manifestation has become necessary...."
All of this is not to say that Amma is the least bit uncomfortable with language. She uses words playfully, loves puns and alliteration, the melody of language and its capacity for enigma, for asking pointed questions and notas is so often the case with usout of a grim seriousness to impress, to convince, to formulate airtight answers. Occasionally, there are visitors who wish to engage in lengthy and often combative discussions with Amma on philosophical questions. Mother says these people come to practice their favorite hobby with hertalking. And she is generally willing to accommodate them. But she remains keenly aware that such talk is a hobby, a sideshow. The "action" is clearly elsewhere for one who does not need words, either to impart her own special treasures or to know the hearts of those around her.
I realized the truth of this was driven home to me at the end of that first meeting. A cassette of Hindu devotional songs or bhajans was played. The poignancy of the bhajans meshed with my own mood of gentle longing. Being with Amma had stirred a vague nostalgia, for I knew not what, and I was relishing the strange sweetness of the mood. When the doctor's wife came in to say that dinner was ready, I had a twinge of regret at the thought of leaving the music. Without missing a beat, Mother turned to me and motioned at the tape recorder, saying that I could take it with me and listen in the dining room if I liked.
Ordinarily, the fact of Amma's reading my thoughts should have struck me. And yet it had happened so seamlessly and without ceremony that it very nearly slipped by without notice. Does the child find it remarkable that its mother should know, without being told, when he is hungry or distressed? There was nothing to be surprised at in Amma's knowledge. It has always seemed to me less a question of consciously reading another's mind than a natural intuitive function of motherhood itself.
The true wonder was not, as I would soon discover, that Mother knows the superficial contents of the minds of those around her, but rather that she could so consistently look beyond that content to the hidden depths. This is the mystery that was to unfold itself gradually during the coming days. How to express it? To be held by her gaze was to realize that all others before have merely looked from the outside; and now I am seen for the first time, seen not as the world sees me, not even as I see myself, but as I truly am, behind the shifting facade of thought and image. God looks at God and something tremendous, without limits, within me is unveiled, as it were, and recognized for the first time.
The week in Nellore passed swiftly. When it was time to return to the ashram where I had been living, I was crestfallen. Had it been only a week? Mother seemed so familiar, as if I had known her my whole life. But even that is not quite it. It felt more like Mother was herself some integralif long neglectedaspect of my own beingness. That is the strange part of it. She had somehow managed to lodge herself within my flesh, to become part of me. And how do you say goodbye to yourself? Resolving to return as soon as possible, I took my leave.
And so a few months later, I was trekking across flat paddyland with an American and a young New Zealander whom I had told about the Mother. We were making our way toward the House of All, a white phantom-ship shimmering between the seas of earth and sky. An absurd image flashed through my mind of the scene in the American movie classic, The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy and friends dance arm in arm down the yellow brick road toward the Emerald City. But was it so absurd an image after all? The Tin Man was looking for a heart, the Straw Man for a mind, the Cowardly Lion for courage, and Dorothy, to return to her real home. And was it not in search of similar qualities of heart and souland a comparable sense of belonging, a metaphysical home, if you willthat we were making our way down this dirt track to Jillellamudi? The analogy did not end there, as I would soon find out. Do you remember how the Wizard responded to each of them? Did he produce what they wanted magically out of his Wizard's bag of tricks? Not at all. He told each that what he or she was searching for was already inside themselvesand it was true enough. This is precisely what Amma tells all who trudge this dusty roadand it is also true!
But I have gotten ahead of the story. At the time, we were simple pilgrims who knew only our own shortcomings and our hopes that they be miraculously filled from the outside. That there might be another, more accurate, way of looking at it hadn't yet occurred to us.
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