“In India, I met people with age-old traditions who were open to other religions. When I got home, I decided to use this as a source of inspiration,” explains Dorian, referring to his first stay in India, 10 years ago. The route that brought this 23-year-old engineer to Amma began in the guru’s homeland. Her real name is Mata Amritanandamayi, but her nickname Amma means “mum” in Hindi, and she comes from southern India. Known throughout the world for her ‘darshan’, an embrace she gives for hours on end during her international tours, she has received recognition from many religious leaders–such as the Pope–and has repeatedly worked for the UN. “Amma is a source of inspiration; she speaks of values that should govern humanity. It is so much more than a religion,” says Dorian.
Amma also leads a multinational called Embracing the World (ETW). With hospitals, schools, organisations and NGOs, the network has roots in every country. “Amma can rely on a very strong symbolic capital, as well as a vast diplomatic network,” the journalist Jean-Baptiste Malet wrote in the French magazine Monde diplomatique, in November 2016. In Europe, young fans of the guru join AYUDH, one of the many branches of this spiritual empire. The branch brings together followers of all ages, from 15 year olds to 30 year olds. Although they are spiritually linked to Amma, these groups have complete autonomy when it comes to organising humanitarian activities. In France, members gather at ashrams (spiritual centres) near Chartres and Toulon.
The heart of Europe
Margot, a 20-year-old student at Sciences Po in Lyon, has been a volunteer for AYUDH’s European summit for two years. Along with two other friends, she interprets the speeches given by guests at the event. “I’ve loved it ever since the first time I attended. There are physical activities, role playing games, exercises to help with self-confidence and the awareness of others. It changed me,” she explains. Her favourite aspect of the summit is the European twist: “I am very attached to the European project, especially with regards to exchanges between people. Thanks to this summit, I have had the chance to meet people who I would never have met otherwise. At our age, it’s easy to look beyond prejudices, and we quickly realise we all share the same values,” she adds. Since she became a member of AYUDH, Margot has made friends all over the continent, from Gibraltar to Sweden, and has stayed with them during her travels. For Dorian, however, it’s not just a “gathering of young people,” but a significant personal experience.
Unlike Dorian, Margot hasn’t yet had the chance to meet Amma. But the guru still guides her. “AYUDH is still closely linked to Amma; she gives us keys to the way life should be seen,” explains Margot. When AYUDH members get together in an ashram, each person can undertake the activity they want, while having access to spiritual counsellors who can answer their questions. Margot has done gardening, meditation, yoga and even cooking.
Amma visits her followers once a year during her world tour. The dates of her travels are made public on the ETW website, and thousands of followers gather at different locations to receive her embrace. Before, Mata Amritanandamayi was a guru on a local scale, but she gained international recognition after her first tour in 1987. She spends the rest of her time in her birthplace in the south-west of India.
An awkward hug
The experience of volunteering for one one of Amma’s organisations has not been glitters and gold for everyone. “In 2007, I met Amma when she came to France. I broke down in her arms, and made the mistake of thinking it was some sort of spiritual awakening,” Amah Ozou-Mathis admits. The 33-year-old engineer was a volunteer for ETW for five years. The ex-volunteer thinks that this is due to the dramatic staging and fervour of the guru’s visits. But what was most shocking to the young woman was how competitive the volunteers became: “They all wanted to get as close as possible to Amma, and to get a ‘bonus’, like a stroke of the cheek in public. They chased after the highest positions, treading on each other’s toes just to get themselves noticed,” she admits. “The goal of the ashram is to kill the ego, so we have to accept jealousy. Amma says that ashrams are like a washing machine filled with pebbles. By constantly rubbing against one another, the pebbles eventually become round. To me, the general mentality was not in line with the guru’s values.” The competitive and cut-throat environment does not reflect solidarity, benevolence and patience, something strongly advocated by the guru herself.
Investing in one of Amma’s organisations does not mean you have to take part in any of the activities, though. Margot, for example, will pay 120 Euros for the AYUDH summit in Berlin. If she wants, she can work three hours a day to cut that price in half. As for the ashrams, all the activities are for free and everyone can do what they want with their time. Everyone’s relationship to the guru is different; some consider her a spiritual master, while others believe her to be a saint or even a living god. Amah carried on paying until she no longer could: “My faith was dwindling after so many disappointments. I did several European tours, I paid for advertisements and events out of my own pocket, hoping that one day it would all be worth it. But that was all in vain.” In the 10 years that he has known Amma, Dorian has never been disappointed. His enthusiasm will not cease, and he will be attending the next AYUDH summit in Germany.