300 Hours, 8,500 kilometres & 700,000 hugs

Bharata Yatra 2004

28 March 2004 — Kolkata, West Bengal

When the brahmacharis finished unloading the buses and lorry holding all the sound-system and bookstall items this afternoon, there was a feeling of something coming to a close. It was the last unloading of the tour. Amma’s program in Kolkata tonight is the last of Bharata Yatra 2004.

Since 7 January, Amma and Her children have travelled throughout India—from cities in Kerala to Tamil Nadu to Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. It’s been more than 8,500 kilometres and 300 hours on the bus, and—for Amma—more than 700,000 hugs.

But if this was somewhat of a grand finale for Amma’s children, it seemed to have no such impact on Amma, who went about giving Her program as always—full of laughter, energy and enthusiasm. Amma was welcomed by a number of dignitaries when She stepped onto the dais. Shri. Ashok Kumar Ganguly, the Honourable Justice of the Kolkata High Court, was there to give an address and to officially release a Bengali version of Jyotirgamaya Volume One, a collection of Amma’s teachings published by the Mata Amritanandamayi Math.

Shri. Ranjendra Kumar, IAS, Principle Secretary, Government of West Bengal, also spoke and released a Bengali version of Awaken Children! Volume Five .

Justice Ganguly said that for him meeting Amma has been “a lifetime achievement,” and that how any one who works for Amma’s charitable projects “is blessed in all respects.”

During Amma’s satsang, bhajans and darshan, Amma was the same Amma as on the first day of the tour back in Trivandrum—cracking jokes, wiping away tears and talking to the brahmacharis around Her about the many charitable projects She is planning or already has underway in West Bengal.

The program, which was held at Kolkata’s Eastern Railway Colony, continued on to the early morning.

Tomorrow, most of Amma’s children will board the buses for the long five-day ride back to Kerala. But Amma will fly on to Australia, Malaysia and Singapore to meet Her children there—for Her, the yatra never really ends.


Amma in Kolkata

Bharata Yatra 2004

27 March 2004 — Kolkata, West Bengal

Amma’s first program in Kolkata was held in the middle of Richie Park, Maddox Square under a magnificently constructed temporary structure. The backdrop to the dais was done up in ochre and white and covered with purple orchids.

The two chief guests of the program were the Honourable Chief Justice Shri. A.K. Mathur of the Kolkata High Court and Shri. Rajendra Kumar, IAS, Principle Secretary, Urban Development.   Both men delivered short addresses about Amma, and Chief Justice Mathur helped Amma distribute checks to destitute women, as part of the Amrita Nidhi pension program, which has now been extended to Kolkata.

The night grew cool and breezy about the time Amma began singing bhajans, including Bengali versions of “Ma Jagadambe Darshan Tere” and “Ananda Janani.”


“Only My Mind is Different”

Friday, 26 March, — Durgapur, West Bengal — Bharata Yatra 2004

The program in Durgapur ended not long after sunrise. Soon the buses were all loaded and everyone was ready to go on to Kolkata.

Ever since darshan had ended, a group of about 100 devotees were waiting around Amma’s car, hoping to see Her off. Many of them held small red roses in their hands. They weren’t deterred by the heat, which, at around 40 degrees Celsius, was considerable.

Then just before 4:00, Amma came down from Her room. Seeing the Durgapur devotees waiting, She called them all to come into Her arms one more time. Then She got into the waiting car and road off.

But then the car stopped, and Amma got out.”Why haven’t you cleaned this ground? You were free all afternoon. You could have easily cleared all the waste,” She asked. She was referring to the grounds of the Amrita Vidyalayam, where the program had been held. It was full of paper plates, plastic cups and other trash. Amma immediately started picking up, and told all of the brahmacharis to come and start cleaning. But, of course, everyone—the brahmacharinis, as well as the Western and Indian devotees—joined in.—

Some of the devotees spent most of their time trying to prevent Amma from picking up trash Herself, but Amma would not be deterred.”My body is made of the same five elements as all of yours,” She said, scooping up a pile of rotting potato curry with Her bare hands. She then added softly,”Only my mind is different.”

With so many people helping, the grounds were clean within 15 minutes, and Amma was back in Her car, moving down the road.

The minds of Mahatmas are completely pure and detached. The minds of the rest of us are tainted with countless preconceptions and selfish desires; they are agitated and sluggish. This is why we are unable to perceive what Amma sees as plain as day: the inherent oneness of all creation. How to transform ourselves to that elevated state? As Amma frequently says,”Selfless service is the soap that purifies.”


House visit in Durgapur

Friday, 26 March, —Durgapur, West Bengal — Bharata Yatra 2004
Driving out of Durgapur, Amma made two “house calls”—a slow drive-by of the new Durgapur Amritakuteeram housing colony currently under construction, and a long walk through the first one, which has been home to 108 families for one year now.

As Amma moved around the colony, She picked up babies, handed out prasad and gave people quick, loving embraces. The beneficiaries were very excited to have this special visit from Amma, the one who’d removed them from the roofless squalor in which they had only recently lived.

The new Durgapur colony is coming up through a cooperative effort between the Mata Amritanandamayi Math and the local government.   The initial phase of the colony comprises 238 houses, with the possibility of a thousand in total coming in the near future. Like all Amritakuteeram houses, the Durgapur homes are given away free to destitute homeless and slum-dwellers.


Amma in Durgapur

Bharata Yatra 2004

25 March 2004 — Durgapur, West Bengal

After a long drive from Varanasi, Amma and Her children reached Durgapur, West Bengal just after sunrise on the morning of March 25th. The program was held at the industrial city’s Amrita Vidyalayam School, which has been in operation for just under a year now.

By the time Amma took the dais at 6:30 p.m., more than 10,000 people had come to listen to Her satsang and bhajans and to have Her darshan.

The night’s chief guest was the Honourable Justice Shri. Tapan Sen of the Jharkhand High Court. He gave a touching speech, explaining how important Amma has become in his life, and presented pension certificates to 15 women, symbolic of the 500 destitute widows the Mata Amritanandamayi Math is now providing to the area’s poor as part of the Amrita Nidhi program.

Amma sang almost all of Her bhajans in the local language, including version of “Ma Jagadambe” and “Ishwari Jagadeeshwari,” thrilling Her Bengali-speaking children.

Upon the conclusion of the bhajans, an impressive display of fireworks were set off, burning in the form of two fruit-bearing trees.

Durgapur is a town built up around a steel plant. It is 40 minutes south of the birthplace of Jayadev, the poet who composed the Gita Govinda, and is also near Shantiniketan, the university founded by India’s most famous poet, Rabindranath Tagore.


I felt Kashi to be like Brahman itself

Wednesday, 24 March, Bharata Yatra 2004 — En route to Durgapur.

In 2004, Amma gave Her first programme in Varanasi, a place considered by many to be the holiest city in all of India. Built on the banks of the Ganga, Varanasi or Kashi, as it is also known–is famous for its proximity to the river, its Vishwanath Temple and its cremation grounds. It is widely believed that anyone who dies in Kashi attains liberation; so many Hindus relocate there in their final years. The city stands today much as it did thousands of years ago–bullock carts pull people through the streets, sannyasins meditate in the burning grounds, and thousands still come every day to bath in its sacred waters. Very little has changed–except now the river not only carries away half-burnt corpses but also the pollution of many local factories. Amma gave darshan on the grounds of Kashi’s Town Hall, right in the busiest part of the city.

The next day, on the road to Durgapur, Amma stopped to have lunch with the devotees and disciples traveling with Her in the yard of an old coal factory. As food was distributed, one of Amma’s Western daughters took the opportunity to ask Her about Kashi. She had always heard so many special things about it, she said, but during Amma’s programme there, she admitted to not having felt any of the city’s legendary splendour. In fact, she mainly found it dirty. Was something wrong with her, she wondered? And what was Amma’s experience there like?

“For Amma God is not a separate entity,” Amma said, going on to explain the difference between the way She perceives the world and how Her daughter does. “The sculptor sees the idol in the stone. The bee sees honey in the flower. Amma sees God in everything; so I felt Kashi to be like Brahman Itself.”

Amma then went on to say how so many Mahatmas have done tapas in Kashi, and that the divine vibrations of their austerities resonate there. She also explained that the thousands of people praying every day in the Vishwanath Temple has a powerful effect on the atmosphere. “The atmosphere in the liquor shop is very different than that of the one in a temple–is it not?” Amma asked. But at the same time, Amma said, you must have faith in a sacred place in order to have an experience there. “But for one who has faith in the Guru all the sacred rivers are there at the feet of the Guru,” She said.

Explaining the intensity of the faith many Hindus have towards Kashi, Amma explained how in the olden days elderly people would walk there all the way from Kerala–practically the whole length of the country–in order to die in the city. Amma said it would take them more than six months to complete the pilgrimage.

“Only when you are thirsty will you come to know the beauty of water. The fish may not know it, because they are in the water all the time. Maybe you are like a fish,” Amma said.

“Kashi is like Brahman,” Amma said again; this time explaining how, due to their faith and surrender, the people who come there are able to focus on God in spite of the city’s dirt and commotion. “They are focused on God, so they don’t see the dirt as dirt and excreta as excreta,” Amma said. “In Kashi, you will see businessmen along the streets haggling and cheating, priests trying to beguile the faithful, oxen walking, cow dung. In the river you can see dead bodies being carried away, people taking bath, people doing their morning business on the shore, and people drinking from the same river. But when a real devotee sees the Ganga, he or she doesn’t feel squeamish.” Then She added, “If you explore any cavity in the human body, you will find only filth. Compared to that, Kashi is not that filthy.”

Then Amma told a little story: “Once a man came to a sacred place to purify himself from all his sins. When he reached there, he saw that all the people were joking, playing and doing business. The pilgrim asked, ‘Hey, what kind of sacred place is this?’ He then heard a voice from above: ‘They at least pray once a day. You didn’t even do that. Since you came, you’ve only looked at other’s mistakes and shortcoming. Compared to you, they are better.'”

Then Amma compared Kashi to Assisi, the town in Italy where St. Francis had lived. Amma said how the citizens of both cities are adamant that the buildings and roads not be changed; they want to keep them the same as they were in the olden days. The only difference, She said, is that they maintain Assisi better than Kashi, and keep it cleaner.

“If someone dies and you put them in the ground, they will only be eaten by worms,” Amma said. “If you put them in the river, fish will eat them, and birds will also get a share. ‘Let the dead body also be of some use to the world’–this is the attitude of those throwing bodies into the Ganga. The people here catch fish to eat, so they feel they should also feed the fish. Some people worry about the pollutants that come from the half-burnt bodies that flow down the river. Amma feels the poisonous chemicals coming from the factories are poisoning the Ganga much more than these bodies. Some people had initiated efforts to clean the Ganga but the local people believe that there is no need to try to purify the Ganga, that she purifies everything, she is never defiled; and the river does have a very powerful current.”

Kashi, Assisi, the Ganga–all are made holy by the Mahatmas who’ve graced them. In that sense, had not the coal factory where Amma was sitting become just as sacred? Perhaps, one day, it too would even become a pilgrimage site. Lunch and Amma’s satsang were both finished and everyone began boarding the buses to go on to Kolkata. Indeed, traveling with Amma is a pilgrimage, just one where the pilgrims move with the Goal not to it.


Deep inside there is a bond

Wednesday, 24 March 2004 — En route to Durgapur, West Bengal

It was dark, but Amma’s face shone clearly in the glow of the portable lamps. She had been singing bhajans in Bengali, but now She wanted a story with a moral, a frequent request of Hers when sitting with Her children.

One of Amma’s Finnish devotees stood up and began to speak. She told Amma how at one of the recent programmes, she had become quite depressed. She had started to feel her connection with Amma diminishing; it suddenly seemed to her as if they were strangers. She decided to go near Amma, hoping it would make her feel better, but sitting watching Amma laugh and joke in Malayalam as She gave darshan only intensified Her sense of distance. After a little while, she got up and decided to go outside the programme to have a cup of tea at one of the local chai stalls.

Drinking her tea, she suddenly saw another woman about the same age as her rummaging through a pile of trash for food. Almost impulsively, she got up, bought the woman some food and walked over to where she was searching. As she handed the lady the plate, something happened. She told Amma that when their eyes connected, she felt that they had connected. The differences of culture and country fell away. For that moment, they understood each other and were one. And in that connection, she felt her connection with Amma.

As the lady’s story was translated to Amma, it was clear she was touched. “She was searching for food for the body, and you where searching for food for Atman– the soul,” Amma said. “The attitude of giving will bring the experience of completeness. The compassion will help you in the search.

“Sometimes you may not feel thirsty, you may not feel bonded to Amma. That doesn’t mean you don’t have any love for Amma. It is there; it is the reason why you are feeling the bond’s absence in the first place.”

Then Amma explained how our longing for God should have an intensity like one starving for food. When you are starving, first you will beg for food. If you don’t receive any, you will start begging for money. If you don’t get any money, you will resort to stealing.

“‘I am not feeling connected, I am not feeling the bond’–this thought itself is part of the bond. Deep inside there is a bond.”


Embodiment of love blesses Varanasi

Bharata Yatra 2004

23 March 2004 — Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

“Hara Hara Mahadeva! Hara Hara Mahadeva!” As Amma sang bhajans in Shiva’s city, this is how the thousands of assembled devotees responded. Varanasi, or Kashi, is considered by many to be India’s holiest city. It is said if you breathe your last here, Lord Shiva himself will come to initiate you in the taraka mantra, enabling you to finally cross the sea of transmigration. Shiva’s consort, Ganga Devi, courses through this ancient pilgrimage centre, washing away the sins of all who take a dip in Her, and Shiva has been worshipped for thousands of years in the city’s Viswanath temple.

“Ganga Devi is like Amma,” says one of Amma’s senior disciples. “She takes the dirt of all who come to Her and washes it away, leaving them pure and clean. All you need to do is take a dip. The only difference is you must come to the Ganga. Amma flows to you.”

This is actually the second time Amma has come to Varanasi. The first was in 1989. Then, Amma’s feet blessed the city’s legendary temple. The holy rivers, the holy temples, the holy cities—in truth, it is the Mahatmas who sanctify them. Thus it is said in the Narada Bhakti Sutras. This is why Kashi holds such a power, such an allure. Countless are the Mahatmas who’ve walked her streets, meditated in her burning ghats, bathed in her waters.

Shri. Shankarprasad Jaiswal, MP, was on the dais to welcome Amma to Kashi. After garlanding Her, he said, “More than 1,000 years ago, Adi Shankaracharya came from Kerala to bless Kashi as the embodiment of knowledge. Now, another Avatar has come from Kerala to bless this land as the embodiment of love.”

At the beginning of Amma’s one-night stay in Varanasi, She gave away pensions and houses to the city’s destitute, as part of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math’s Amrita Nidhi and Amrita Kuteeram programs. Three of the women who received free homes were unable to walk and had to be lifted to Amma’s arms to receive Her darshan. Amma’s program was held on the grounds of Kashi’s Town Hall, right in the centre of the city.

The night was full of bhajans in praise of Mahadeva. Amma sang “Om Namah Shivaya” and “Bhola Nathare Kashi Nathare,” and Amma’s swamis sang songs such as “Shiva Shiva Hara Hara” and “Pannaga Bhushana.”

Tomorrow Amma leaves the city of Shiva for the cities of Shakti—Durgarpur and then Kalighat (Calcutta).


Amrita Nidhi recipients of Varanasi

Tuesday, 23 March 2004 — Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

It was way past midnight in the holy city of Varanasi when they entered the darshan line, most aided by walking sticks. In fact, they seemed as old as the city itself: a disoriented-looking lady with incredibly thick glasses, a handicapped woman dragging herself forward by her hands, a blind man guided by his almost-blind wife. They had been brought for Amma’s darshan from the village of Kanchampurkiri, not far from Allahabad, by one of Amma’s devotees.

When the first old lady came for darshan, Amma had to bend way over in order to take her into Her arms, as she was suffering from somewhat of a hunchback. The next woman had to be lifted. All around tears were flowing. Amma then called one of Her swamis to come and record their names, addresses and stories, so they could be considered for Amrita Nidhi, the Math’s free pension programme.

Through Amrita Nidhi, the Mata Amritanandamayi Math has been providing to India’s poor since 1998, initially in South India. During Amma’s in 2004 North India Tour, the programme expanded to eight other Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh. Beneficiaries receive enough to ensure they get at least one good meal a day.

Angani is around 60; she does not know her exact age. She has been a widow for more than 20 years. After her husband’s death, she worked in the fields, harvesting grain and coriander. The long hours in the sun have aged her skin. Since she has lost most of her eyesight, she cannot work anymore. Daily, she now goes out to beg for food. If she is lucky she gets enough for one meal a day. Her daughter does not come to see her anymore; her husband forbids it. Angani cries as she talks about how she has to beg for food; “If only I could get my eyes back.”

Sahadev is completely blind. His wife, Ranjani, who is also poor-sighted, guides him. She begs for food on the street. “We eat every other day,” she says. “There is no more.” She starts crying as She is telling her fate. They have one son. He drives a rickshaw and has six children. “What can he give us?” she asks.

“He hardly makes enough to support his family.” Ranjani starts crying, and then Sahadev starts talking. He has four more daughters, but they all live with their husband’s families. They have not seen them for years and have lost all contact. “It is because we cannot invite them. We cannot even offer them tea or food. How can we receive our daughters then?” Sahadev breaks down and buries his face in his turban.

Maana is 55 years old. She is handicapped and has been a widow for the past five years. Her husband was also handicapped, and they were used to a life of begging. Since her sister’s death, Maana also has to care for her mentally retarded niece. They are entitled to a government food ration because of their handicaps, but it is distributed through the village chief, she says, and he gives it to his own family.

Sukrana lives with her son. He supports his mother and himself with the few rupees he makes in the cotton mill. “It is not enough to live on, so I have to go out begging. If I beg for eight hours, maybe I have 10 rupees; this will give us two good meals.”

Sahjina is 85 years old. She still works everyday, seven days a week. From early morning to the late evening she washes vessels and pots in a local restaurant. She earns Rs. 150 a month. She earns so little because she cannot work very hard anymore; so her boss lowered her salary.

Panchu works in a shop that sells rice and grains. She sits in a corner all day removing small stones from the rice. For this, her boss pays her only in food; sometimes only half a meal when he feels she has not worked hard enough.

Once their stories are verified by the Ashram, Panchu, Sahjina, Sukrana, Maana, Ranjani, Sahadev and Angani will be entitled to be part in the Amrita Nidhi pension programme, which will eventually benefit over 50,000 people.


Lucky Lucknow

Bharata Yatra 2004

21 March 2004 — Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Amma arrived in Lucknow just before dawn this morning, marking the beginning of the final phase of Bharata Yatra 2004: three one-night programs in the cities of Lucknow, Varanasi and Durgapur and then two in Calcutta.

This part of India is so rich with history. Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, was originally named Lakshmanapur, after Lakshmana, the younger brother of Sri Rama who founded the city thousands of years ago. It is situated only a few hours drive north of Ayodhya, the kingdom of Sri Rama. Tomorrow, Amma will be driving to Varanasi—the city of Lord Shiva, considered by many to be one of the holiest places in India.

The Lucknow program took place on the spacious greenery of the Kolvin Talukadar College, under a cool, open sky. The chief guest was Shri. Revati Raman Singh, the Honourable Minister of Transport, who both spoke and helped Amma distribute certificates for free homes in the area as part of Mata Amritanandamayi Math’s Amritakuteeram project. Other dignitaries gracing the dais were Lucknow’s mayor, Dr. S.C. Rai; Shri. Vidyasagar Gupta, MLA; and Shri. Suresh Srivastav, MLA—all of whom helped distribute pension checks to destitute women of Lucknow, as part of the Math’s Amritanidhi program.

As Amma finished each of the night’s bhajans—including “Sri Rama Bolo Ram”and “Lalitamba”—the devotees would cheer, saying, “Bolo Amritanandamayi Devi Ki Jai!”