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Life in an Ashram: Spiritual Haven or Glorified Giftshop?

01/07/2013 13:38 | Updated 30 August 2013

Our destination: "The Hugging Mother" ashram in Kerala, South India. Here, a rigid itinerary will see us rise at 4:30 each morning for the chanting of 1000 sacred mantras before three hours of meditation. Food will then be provided before we are then led to the composting tent to recycle our leftovers by lovingly kneading them into cow dung. Evenings will be a repeat of the mornings.

Why? A decidedly anxious bunch - tics ranging from Susannah's jittery nihilism to my crippling fear of accidentally biting into the wooden stick in the middle of an ice-lolly - we are convinced that a spiritual awakening of sorts is in order. And we're not alone; thousands flock here from all over the world every year, check into one of the many empty rooms and devote themselves, whether for a week or a lifetime, to the attainment of a "higher level of consciousness".

We fall off the bus in a sleepy beach village amid disapproving murmurs at our fat bafflement and bawdy knees. The ashram - an industrial hulk of spiritual cement - imposes tyrannously on its sleepy surroundings. Whilst the centre piece of the complex is a magnificent, Technicolor Hindu temple, it is the buildings around it which raucously hog our attention. The storeys stretch higher than I can crane my neck, sun mercilessly discarded behind. The tallest palm trees strain vainly at the third floor. I take note of the bars on the windows, not having envisaged the world of spiritual awakening to look so angry.

Filling in our check-in forms, I am asked for my first name, my second name and my spiritual name. The form then asks me this question: 'When and where did you meet Amma?' I fail to write a reply in both instances.

The 'Great Hall' might well have been an airport in a past life. Or a dinosaur enclosure. Yet whilst the outside is a master class in corrugated metal, iron girders and sliding bay doors, the inside is decidedly more ornate. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling before an ornate stage. Large, illuminated panels depict a woman in various positions of meditation and contemplation. On one portrait she seems to be in trance on a golf-course and on another she is cross-legged before a waterfall.

A man walks up to us wearing floating white trousers and a floating white shirt. "So when did you first meet Amma?" he asks us, the question now proving popular. He is from The States and has one of those finely aged, academic American accents which sounds like each word has been carefully removed, weighed on scales, and then replaced in delicate order.

Amma, it emerges, built the ashram, alongside others, a university, a hospital, a few thousand Indian homes, and so on. Quite a woman, we all nod in agreement. She is known as the 'Hugging Saint', personally embracing all of those in need.

As a child, Amma's family had teased her for her dark skin, forced her to do all the housework and, at her eventual refusal to marry and have children, cast her out on the streets. Here, she had turned to meditation, embracing a life of asceticism and devoting herself to charity. Then there was the bit about her drinking only milk from a cow's teat. And the eagle which personally delivered her fresh fish daily.

"There's one thing I missed off!" He's worried that he hasn't quite impressed us enough. "As a baby, Amma never crawled. She would just sit in the meditating position, with her legs crossed, and when it was time for her to walk, she quite simply got up and walked." We ooh and aah on cue.

Our narrator is 48 and hasn't left the Ashram for twenty years. He will live and die there, he says. His wife also lives in the Ashram. He talks openly of their courting period in the US where he had been confused during the early days of their relationship before finally summing up the courage to admit to her that, actually, he quite wanted to run away to become a monk. The man's eyes betray unwavering devotion to Amma with whom, despite having never met her, he professes to share an intimate relationship. "Amma only gives," he tells us. "She never ever asks for anything in return. She never asks for recognition."

I think back to the initial guided tour with some unease. There was Amma's Giftshop selling Amma photos, cars, pens, T-shirts and necklaces, Amma's Pharmacy, Amma's bakery even an Amma doll shop. Here, the Amma toy is sold alongside ones of Ganesh and Jesus. The question of recognition is a thorny one.

Later that night we will meet a man in the queue for Amma's Smoothie Bar who will laugh raucously when we inquire as to his origin before telling us, in a strong Australian accent, that he is "from the Universe". A French woman, having sniffed unwanted materialism in our wristwatches, will shout at us in unorthodox yet unmistakable insult "AND MAY ALL OF YOUR CHILDREN BE MILLIONAIRES AND MAY YOU YOURSELF BE A BILLIONAIRE!", and a dog will be pushed past us in a wheelchair.

We begin to lose heart when we awake at 4am the following morning on our ascetically naked mattresses in our ascetically naked room. Amma - in true Orwellian fashion - is watching us from a portrait in the corner of the lift as we descend for morning chanting, only to be greeted a desolate beach, a woman gently rocking on a bench, and a man waving wildly at the rising sun. It begins to rain. We pack our bags.

There is an unbearable vulnerability to be felt at Amma's ashram. Its inhabitants, leaving behind clichés of capitalist frustration, prognosis of ill-health and often desperate loneliness, are promised "unconditional love" in Amma. Whilst the smiles and glowing skin are uncanny, there is an eerie dependence upon the woman in the posters. She's talked about as if she's there, and everyone claims to know her personally. What is it that exists in the space between the quest for inner peace and the gift shop? Or between the emphasis on selflessness and the rigorous regime of introspection?

It is decided that, much in need of enlightenment as we are, we won't be finding it here for the time being. We leave just in time to miss the composting.