Torah – observant Amma devotees

9 June 2002, San Ramon

The question is simple: Can committed, Torah-observant Jews, in good conscience, come to Amma?

Judaism embraces a broad spectrum of people. Many people in the Jewish tradition speak of their identification with Judaism as a connection with their home culture, not only or not exactly with a religion. So nobody is surprised to learn that many Jews are to be found among Amma’s children. The assumption is that Amma’s Jewish children are such “cultural Jews.”

But in San Ramon, this assumption was overturned: In Mother’s lap were Joy and Evan Israel (and their on-the-way child!). The couple characterised themselves as “Torah-observant Jews” who “follow the practices and Commandments” and who are strongly attracted to and influenced by Hasidism.

Wait a minute! Judaism is a patriarchal religion, adamant about there being only one God, and He is male. Surely observant Jews would never be at ease surrounded by images of divinities, nor would they kneel before anyone or anything but God.

Do these two really feel comfortable here with Amma, whom people speak of as an embodiment of the Divine, in a program hall lined with wall-hangings of Hindu deities, where people are approaching Mother on their knees?

Yes.

Evan Israel explained his position confidently. He had spent several years in Israel “immersed in the Jewish teachings and the path”, “I’m very interested in meeting saints of all traditions, and having met Amma, I’ve been very impressed by just the quality of who She is, and I’ve been drawn to come back over and over.”

So this was not a mistake, a one-time visit after which the two would go home, realising the incompatibility of their way and Amma’s.

In fact, Joy has known Amma for twelve years, Evan Israel for six. “I think we both appreciate the fact that She’s very open to people of all traditions, so we come, and there’s no expectation for us to be Hindu, but we come here from our Jewish path,” explained the husband.

And the wife added simply: “And absorb Her light.”

Torah – Shabbas Queen, the Shekinah

6 June 2002,San Ramon-Continued from ‘Torah – Observant Devotees’

But what about this kneeling business – granted, on one level it is simply the physical position necessary if you’re going to nestle into the lap of a seated person. (In fact, in India where the immense crowds necessitate a much faster pace, Mother often sits on the edge of a stage and people come, standing, for Her embrace. So kneeling itself is not the point.) Still, one would think that a Torah-observant Jew would have some anxiety about this part of the process.

Evan Israel responded to this question, explaining that the resistance to kneeling is because of the commandment against idolatry: one should not worship graven images, idols: “I don’t see Her as an idol, but as a living embodiment of the Divine, so kneeling in front of Her I’m kneeling to receive the blessings that she’s pouring upon me, which I would do in front of any Jewish master as well.”

Joy agreed, and added: “I am sensitive to any statues or photos or paintings of different idols in Hindu tradition, and I specifically don’t kneel down in front of those.” She was asked, “Is that difficult? Is it a problem that those images are here? Her reply was quick: “No, I just don’t tune into them, and when I go up for darshan, I’m praying to the Hebrew God as I’m receiving the blessings from her.”

“THE Hebrew God,” Joy said. The ONE Hebrew God. And in Hinduism there are myriad gods. Never mind that Amma doesn’t identify Herself as specifically Hindu (when asked by the press, “What is your religion?” She answers in one word: “Love”), the fact is She comes from a cultural context that is Hindu, the artwork in the program halls is largely Hindu, images of gods and goddesses abound, the songs are usually naming Hindu deities. So how can this monotheistic couple tolerate this environment when they come to see Amma?

Evan Israel emphasized that “In Judaism there’s a real focus on the oneness of Divinity and not getting caught up in the manifold multiplicity by which God reveals himself in the world, recognizing that there is a source behind all that,” and Joy provided the resolution of the potential conflict: “The essence of Hinduism is one God, Brahman, and all these different facets of God are different faces of the one Godhead.” Amma’s teaching in a Jewish couple’s words. The usefulness of images of the divine, as a concrete way to keep the mind and heart focused on God, is stressed in Hindu practice; the risk of mistaking the image for what it is meant to point you toward is emphasized in Judaism. At this deeper level of meaning, there is no conflict.

Yet still a question nags: why come to Amma, if your own tradition is so fulfilling? You can tell from their radiance that Joy and Evan Israel do find their own tradition deeply satisfying, so why come here?

Joy explained carefully: “There aren’t so many living masters in the world, in all the different religions, Judaism included, so it’s really special when a living master is in this world, in the body, and I think both of us really feel honoured to take advantage of that, to be in that person’s presence.”

Evan Israel has gone further than basking in the presence of a living Master. He has taken mantra initiation from Amma. Now, that’s a big step! Repeating a formula of words, reciting a mantra, is a spiritual practice common to all religions, so it’s not surprising that Evan Israel had already “been following ancient Jewish practices, one comparable to mantra practice. I’m very connected with the Baal Shem Tov, and have studied a lot of his teachings. He prescribed a certain mantra to many of his students.” Then why involve Amma? Joy explained the motivation: “It’s special because it’s really powerful to have a teacher give the transmission of the mantra to the student, so here is a living teacher, a living guru, so he really wanted that experience.”

There’s the possibility of uneasiness: aren’t mantras about various deities, like Kali and Krishna and Ganesh? How could Evan Israel take a mantra from Amma? Simple: She wants to deepen and strengthen whatever spiritual practice has already been fruitful. So She initiates people with mantras from all different traditions. It was no problem at all when Evan asked if Amma would bless his Hebrew mantra. The sounds of the words were transliterated to Malayalam script, and, according to the ancient Vedic tradition of mantra initiation, Mother whispered them into his ear: “She gave me the mantra that I’ve been using, that’s through this (Hasidic) lineage.”

Hugs are one thing; even receiving a mantra from Amma seems fine as explained by Evan Israel and Joy. But there is still the question of the emphasis on the presence of the Divine in Amma. Can sincere adherents of Judaism feel comfortable where someone is felt to “embody” divinity? Can they, for example, feel at ease at Devi Bhava?

“Yes,” Joy said without hesitation. “She’s a living embodiment of – it was Krishna and now, the Divine Mother, that’s coming through Her. And it’s all coming back to that source, that aspect of Godliness that She’s bringing down. So I feel comfortable being with this Divine Presence embodying that energy.”

Evan added to the explanation, quoting a saying “from one of the Psalms ‘Gods are you, children of the most High are you all.’ And so, this recognition that we all are divine in our essential nature, that’s something that Judaism acknowledges. (…) In Judaism there’s a notion of different levels of soul. The highest level is said to be the oneness with the Divine, oneness with God.”

One last potential stumbling block needed to be examined before we could be confident that these Jewish children of Amma were not coming to Her at the expense of their own religious training. They were asked: “You said, ‘Divine Mother.’ Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are spoken of as patriarchal religions and their characterizations of God refer to ‘Father’, and ‘Judge’, and so forth. Is there any precedent within Judaism for an openness to the Divine as expressing itself in the feminine?”

Joy’s reply was swift: “Yes Shekinah. There’s one Face of the Jewish God, which is the Shekinah, it is the queen that comes in, the immanent form of godliness, so it’s here, so tangible, that you can touch. And on Shabbas (Sabbath, Jewish holy day of the week), which begins on Friday night and goes through Saturday when three stars come out (…) the facet of God that we are most being with is the Shabbas Queen, the Shekinah, and we welcome Her in on Friday night, and we dance and sing in Her praises, and with that aspect of godliness on Shabbas.

And then her face lit up as she shared a precious reminiscence from her own wedding day: “The day that a bride and groom are getting married is the day that it’s said that the bride and groom are the most connected to God. So on that day, instead of just hoarding all those blessings, it’s very important in Judaism to open yourself up as a vessel, and give those blessings to other people. So at traditional weddings you see the bride sitting in this beautiful throne, called the chair, and lines of women coming up to her, bowing in front of her, and asking for her blessings.

So it’s much like being Amma for the day.”

An interview by Janani Noia

Amma, let us hear your voice

4 June 2002, San Ramon, CA

Today was the first day of programs at Amma’s San Ramon ashram.

Before Amma began giving satsang this evening, She asked if it would be enough if She simply answered any questions Her children might have, rather than giving a discourse as She usually does at the beginning of a program. One might have thought that Amma’s children would jump at such an opportunity. And a few did. But the majority of the crowd seemed to want a traditional satsang. Amma feigned dismay, though of course we know that She is beyond preferences.

Laughing, She said that Her children have heard many spiritual discourses, and we already have an intellectual understanding of spirituality. Thus, She warned that anything She said would be a repetition of what we have already heard. Still, the majority seemed in favour of a satsang.

Remember that most of Amma’s Western children cannot understand a word She says. Amma speaks in Her native tongue Malayalam, and, here in the United States, Swamiji translates Her words into English, a language most of us can understand perfectly. Then we can laugh at Her jokes and meditate on Her teachings. And if we have seen Amma a number of times, as many of us have, it is a message we have heard, one way or another, many times. Being Truth, how much can Amma’s message change?

But there is another part of this process, beyond the translation, beyond words. Because Amma does talk to us Herself, even though we cannot understand. And for those few minutes, in between translations, we have nothing to do but listen to the sound of Her voice, speaking in a language we cannot understand. And some of us will watch Amma’s dynamic, charming expressions and Her animated gestures as She speaks, but some of us will close our eyes and just listen. And we are like new-born infants, who do not grasp the meaning of the words our Mother speaks to us, but we know that because She is speaking to us, She loves us. And the sound of Her voice, for those of us who do not understand Malayalam, conveys only one meaning: the fact of Her love.

And so when She asks us if we don’t want to hear the same things over again, many of us protest. Because many of us have not seen Her for months or even the best part of a year. And across those long, cold months of Her absence, it was Her voice that we missed, that we forgot how to hear in our own hearts. And so it is that we say, no Mother, tell it to us again. Say anything, Amma, but let us hear your voice.

The Mother of all kinds of children

1 June 2002,Seattle

Mother enters the States in Seattle, holds a day of public programs and a three-day retreat, and the “US Summer Tour” is begun.

When She reaches the venue for the first morning program, as will be the case for every morning program for the next month and a half, there is a pada puja, She sits for meditation, and then She sits for darshan.

Darshan for ALL kinds, as always, everywhere: first, some small children, usually the quickest to reach that welcoming Lap.

Families, couples, friends, singles…all kinds come to Mother. Most you might call “anonymous.” To look at them, you wouldn’t know their stories: that this one has cancer, that that one is celebrating her son’s graduation, that those two are expecting a third by Christmas, that this other child is hoping for a puppy. You would know only that they have come to the Mother who welcomes all kinds, for any reason or none at all.

All kinds. Some more readily distinguishable than others:
there is the woman in a grey robe, her head shaven, Eido Frances Carnay, the head of the Buddhist community at the Olympia Zen Center. She has brought some of her students to meet Amma. The Zen teacher clasps her hands in front of her and bows slightly. Mother looks softly pleased as She holds the nun firmly by her shoulders and gazes into her eyes, and then envelopes her hands in Her own for a moment.

Here’s another candidate for darshan; all nearby watch as he moves softly, purposefully, till he is close enough to Mother’s outstretched Hand to sniff it, and then turn a soulful gaze up towards Her laughing eyes: will She give him what he longs for? Indeed, She will, then and there: She unwraps a Hershey’s Kiss and holds it out to him. In one quick snap he’s taken it into his mouth and stepped back out of the way so that his blind companion can move to Mother’s lap.

After her darshan, he is ready to lead her away, but Mother calls him back for another Kiss. That business accomplished, tail wagging, he leads his friend to the side.
The morning darshan program continues, and there comes to Mother’s lap a living gift: She caresses it, sniffs it, presses it to Her heart, and only then hands these blooming flowers, complete in their pot of earth, to someone nearby who will have to see to it that someone gives it a home in Mother Earth.

We remember a few years ago when someone gave Mother a tiny living Christmas tree in its own pot. The ashramite who carried it on the long flight home to India became so attached to it that when customs officials in one country tried to confiscate it she burst into tears and was allowed to keep it!

In the States, as everywhere, Amma receives all kinds in only one way: Her way of Love. All people, all animals, all plants – all beings are loved by their Mother.

And so, with quiet eyes, an open heart and a ready embrace, Mother began blessing America at the end of May.