Is it really tapas?

30 September 2001,Amritapuri

In this day and age, when huge lorries can rumble from one end of the ashram to the other, you have to wonder why Mother still calls for sand seva.

There is a long tradition of sand seva at Amritapuri. It began in the earliest days, when the ashram consisted of a few huts on a higher bit of land with water almost all around. When more huts were needed, or a meditation room, or a temple, land was needed as well. Land was obtained by hauling sand from the seashore or the banks of the kayal (backwaters) and pouring it where the land was needed. If enough people hoisted enough old cement bags full of sand onto their shoulders, or filled chutties (metal “bowls” with two handles) and shared the load with a friend, and took this sand to the desired location and dumped it there, land grew.

sand seva

So in the early days, and really right up into the mid-nineties, it was a not uncommon event that the ashram bell would ring sometime after the evening meal, and everyone able would hurry to whatever site Mother had decided upon, and join Mother in the labour. Remember working your way up through a long line of people so that you could hold your sandbag for Mother to fill for you? Did you ever trudge along with a full bag on your shoulder, chanting your mantra, and suddenly look up to see Mother right beside you, carrying Her load? Remember how She would stand at the destination site, showing each person who arrived exactly where She wanted his or her bag dumped.

All of this used to make sense, in the days before there was even so much as a real road, never mind a truck, at this end of the island. There were no alternatives: you want land, you carry sand. You want space, you clear rubble.
sand seva

But now, in 2001, there are high-rises in this ashram. No one lives in huts anymore. Passages have been widened to roads and daily large trucks pass easily from one end of the ashram to the other, bearing big loads of cement and construction lumber, or mounds of vegetables, or dozens of cooking gas canisters.

Who would dream of carrying individual bags of sand from one end of the ashram to the other? Who would even consider squatting in a huge mound of construction rubble (results of excavation for the big new high-rise coming up east of the temple) and, rock by stone by broken brick, filling old bags with the debris so that they can be hauled by hand or on a two-wheeled cart over to the boat jetty?

Mother would.

And if Mother does, so does everyone in the ashram: westerners, brahmacharinis and brahmacharis, householders, swamis, computer students and visitors. And not just the young and vigorous: everyone. There is no compulsion, mind you. Just, a bell rings, word goes around that “Mother is out for sand seva!” and suddenly so is everyone else. You don’t have to go. As Mother says so often, “Mother doesn’t push.” But what you miss if you opt out!

sand seva

It’s crazy, when you think about it. Who wants to go out after a nice comforting supper, when really it’s time for bed, and get completely filthy, develop aches in back and legs and shoulders, probably raise a few blisters on soft hands or suffer cuts on tender feet? And this is the rainy season, so the sand and rubble you carry will be wet, and more than likely you will be, too, when the skies open up with anything from a mild drizzle to a major downpour.

Last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, the bell rang, and the grandmothers and grandfathers came. The little kids came. And everyone in between. One old man arrived, pulling his airline hand-luggage cart so that he could strap his sandbag onto it. A woman in a wheelchair would not be stopped: she carried her load on her lap. Another with a walker was there, a suitably-sized sandbag clutched to the aluminium frame as she picked her way carefully from outside the hospital gate all the way past the temple, through the main gate, into the “press side” area, past the flats and Mother’s parents’ old (and now abandoned) house, right to the dock where the boat race will start next week. Partners would share a bag or a chutty, matching their footsteps so that they could progress smoothly. Some children raced back and forth at the typical high speed of new life, making up in numbers of trips for the minimal size of the loads they could lift. A grandmother carried the small pail she usually uses for bathwater. A westerner centred his sandbag between his shoulder blades like a familiar backpack. And all kinds of people got help hoisting their loads to the tops of their heads and strode steadily, weight centred, till they could, with a quick nod, drop the whole thing on the destination pile.

All this effort, to move dirt from one spot to another?

Not at all.

You could tell by the smiles on faces that this wasn’t really all about work, nor all about the goal of moving earth and sand and stones. It was all about sharing the night with Mother.

sand seva
There’s this huge pile of rubble, and Mother is hacking away at it with a manvetti (a sort of cross between a pick and a hoe). She loosens big lumps of dirt and stone, which tumble down as someone nearby scrambles to gather them up into whatever carrying apparatus is nearby.

Or She squats down halfway up the side of the mound and with Her bare Hands tugs broken pieces of concrete out of the dirt, handing them off to whichever hands are lucky enough to be there, reaching.

Then maybe She mounts to the summit of the rubble heap and gazes out over the two hundred or more sevaks (workers), shouting encouragement to this one, and a scolding to that one. “Sacks!” She’ll call out, and a pile of empty bags will grow at Her Feet. She’ll take one and hurl it…and if you’re lucky you’ll catch it.

Prasad! Fill it; haul it, dump it and come back for more. She’ll go on throwing sacks till the pile at Her feet is distributed, and then She’ll sit. With some fortunate person holding a bag open for Her, She’ll scoop up whatever is within arms’ reach, fill the bag, hand it off, and call for another.

She spots a lazy non-worker and throws a clod of earth at him, laughing when he’s shocked into the realization that he’s been caught! She’ll see some women leaning on their shovels, worn out, and tease and taunt them into new energy. Her glance will stun a shy visitor who will leave off gaping to look around, wondering, “Is it me She’s looking at?!” Swamini Atmaprana will try fanning Her, and She’ll push her away – how could Mother accept comfort while Her children strain and sweat? A visiting devotee will climb cautiously over the slippery shards to kneel near Mother, seeking Her advice and Her blessing. Mother’s dirt-covered hands won’t refrain from reaching out to comfort or to caress; the baby in the visitor’s arms will be offered a smudged cheek to kiss.

This is what it is like when all the facets of the community gather to share a task – a night with Mother.

Then there are the surprises: the small events that make it hard to take your load and walk away from Mother – what if you miss something special? But in a spirit of obedience and service, you do your job, and maybe by chance or karma or grace you just happen to be near when a surprise occurs. Like the gloves, or the papaya tree, or the baby frog.

The second night of the sand seva, it was decided that Mother should wear gloves. At first She refused, but upon being pressured, She acquiesced. She took one glove, stuffed Her hand into it, gazed with apparent confusion at the result, shrugged, and donned the other. But how to function, with the glove-thumbs aiming upwards while the flesh-thumbs aim downwards? Helpful counselors nearby pointed out that She had managed to get the gloves not only onto the opposite Hands, but also upside down. Who wouldn’t love the privilege of removing one of Mother’s gloves and rolling it open and holding it just right so that She could slip Her hand in, properly, this time. But Her hands are so much smaller than the gloves that the long glove fingers hang empty.

That doesn’t stop Mother, who, once properly outfitted, resumes work, scooping dirt and stones together between Her palms and depositing them in the bag held open beside Her, calling out orders while She works. She has run the gamut from being a helpless two-year-old (and you felt just like a mommy) to being the Boss (and you shrink back out of the way lest your lingering to watch attract Her attention). And in watching all this, and marvelling, your heart was opening up.

Then there was the papaya tree. On the third night of sand seva, Mother was causing Her children no end of concern by Her refusal to wear either shoes or gloves. She was scrambling up the nearly vertical slope of a pile of rock and concrete chips when She stopped short. “Who cut that tree?” She demanded, gesturing towards a truncated young papaya tree with only about four branches, bright and healthy leaves! – and a stem (precursor to a trunk) stretching up to where it had been rudely cut. No one confessed; that wasn’t the point. Ascertaining that the tree was alive, Mother immediately stopped the mound demolition work closest to the tree and told one of the brahmacharis to dig it out carefully. Its top was gone, but its roots were unhurt; it could live. “Take it away and plant it,” She directed. The ashram had to expand; for that, coconut groves had to be sacrificed; Mother needed to accommodate the thousands who come home to Her. But necessity is one thing, and carelessness with life another. Mother recognises the former and will not countenance the latter. Everything pulsates with life, and has feelings. She has told us this time and time again. But when in the midst of such driving work She stopped to save a small papaya tree, She turned from talk to action and drove home Her message in a way that philosophising never could.

The young tree safely removed, Mother continued Her demolition of the rubble heap, inching steadily higher while the hill itself grew smaller. With the help of eagerly outstretched hands, She clambered to the top, and sat. Sat to work. Immediately She was scrabbling together more dirt and sand and rocks, and beginning to fill a chutty. There was a small movement of something clinging to Her dress – a baby frog. Just out of tadpole stage, this tiny fellow clung successfully even though Mother’s dress was moving. She reached Her Hand down and cupped it over him gently but decisively. She who can’t resist loving even a frog held him close and announced: “I’m not leaving you until your Amma comes for you.” But was that an excuse to stop working? Not in the least. Deftly Mother tied the little fellow into a cosy “room” made by the end of Her sari. Where other ladies tie their coins (saris don’t come with pockets), Amma tied Her baby frog, and started to work again. Every now and then, She would stop grabbing for rocks and instead take up the end of Her sari, feeling softly for the baby – Ah! He’s there! Or sometimes a look of consternation: “Poyi! He’s gone!” And suddenly relief, “Here he is!” Still safely tied in his soft chamber, he hadn’t really fallen out at all. Mother would check the security of the knot, and start working again. Just left of Her as She sat there cross-legged, there was a sudden movement: “It’s a bigger frog!” someone nearby called out. “Then you can go,” She said, and released the baby. Love but let go. It sounds like another of Her teachings. Be compassionate towards all beings; that sounds familiar as well. Words into action, once again.

sand seva

Amma cannot do much for long without ending up teaching us. It is Her Nature. She calls us to carry sand, and joins in Herself, and we actually witness – and cannot but admire – selfless service. She does Her work with fullest attention, and we witness shraddha. She never loses awareness of the needs of those around Her – people, plants or frogs – and we recognize caring and compassion. She is cute and playful and we see that a spiritual person need not be drab nor dreary. Amma calls everyone for sand seva, and tells us (as She did at Satsang on Friday) how happy She was to see even the grandmothers and grandfathers working, carrying what they could. It is the attitude of readiness to make whatever contribution we can that counts, She told us, not the quantity we contribute.

There is a tradition of spiritual aspirants voluntarily taking on tapas (austerities) in order to be changed. They might wear hair shirts or stand on one leg for ten years. Some undertake extensive fasting, and some take vows of long silence. They choose tapas intentionally. You won’t see a lot of that kind of tapas in Amritapuri. Our compassionate Guru provides opportunity for tapas but disguises it as play. She lets us balance on sliding shards, shoulder heavy loads, stay out in the dark and wet, be pushed and pulled by other struggling sevaks – NONE of which we would ever choose for ourselves. How we handle the discomfort, the pain, the inconvenience – that’s where our spiritual work, and growth, comes in.

When work time is ended, Mother sits among Her sweat-stained children for yet another half-hour or so, handing them treasured prasad: a few banana chips.

Those who can tear themselves away from the close circle around Her can take steamy cups of sweet coffee, and look up at the almost-full moon not quite hidden by the waving tops of the palm trees behind Mother.

Naturally everyone is worn out. But no one is ready to leave the presence of the Divine Child, the Labourer, the Director, the Mother of a tree and a frog, our Guru. Maybe it takes a cloudburst (as occurred on the second seva night) to put an end to the festivities and send Amma to Her room and everyone else off to showers and to bed.

All of this happens, and all of these realizations come because when the bell rings, we don’t say, “That’s crazy – use a truck.”