07 October 2001, Amritapuri
When you see thousands of people gathered in the auditorium south of the temple, and the stage filled with visiting dignitaries; when you see the brilliant orange and yellow robes of Amma’s monastics clustered behind and to Her right, and when you see seated just behind and to Her left the mother and father who raised Her; when you can barely see Her face because so many flower garlands almost hide it, and when Her feet are not to be seen at all because of the mountain of lotus petals covering them, you must not stop there.
Look deeper. Look through a small opening in the mantle of garlands. See Her hands, absolutely still, held near Her heart as they have been throughout the ceremonies. They are the hands of humility and service, patiently waiting while Her children perform the rituals that celebrate Her birthday.
Amma indulges Her children’s desires to have a birthday celebration on a grand scale; but there is for all of us the attendant risk that we will be swept away by the pageantry and forget that all of that is not really what Mother is about.
But She doesn’t forget. No matter how many people have come to see Her, how many dignitaries have come to honour Her, how many swamis and swaminis and family members attend upon Her, nor how many garlands and lotus petals adorn Her, She is always the same: the humble, simple servant of all who need the ministrations of the Universal Mother.
Watch Her carefully, and you will see that She is not changed by all this attention; She never loses Her central focus; She never fails in humility.
The conch is sounding. In the massive crowd everyone is craning to look towards the back of the hall. Police are restraining those whose enthusiasm propels them towards the pathway strewn with flowers, brilliant yellow and red petals that make a solid carpet the full length of the central aisle. First around the corner comes a brahmachari with a big brass gong; its stately tones announce Mother’s arrival.
But where is She? We see Her umbrella, held high by a brahmacharini – but where is She? She should be processing majestically down the center of this beautifully prepared path. Where is She?
She is picking Her way as carefully as She can along the outer edge of the walkway, almost pressed up against the crowd-restraining ropes. What is this?!
This is the same Amma we see daily, loving all life. Have you ever watched what happens when She comes down from Her room, and some loving devotee has made a small design of flower petals on Her bottom step? She will never tread on the petals; She will carefully step around or over them, but never bruise them.
But as She moves forward in the hall now, She is really not free to avoid stepping on flowers; the procession cannot reach the stage if She does not compromise. She bows to the situation and blesses the petals with Her reluctant tread.
Alongside, arms are stretching out expressing hearts yearning to touch Her. She raises Her Hands above Her head in a salute that means not what it does in the West (“I am victorious!”) but rather “I greet God in you.” Before She reaches the ramp that leads from the floor level up to the stage, She has removed the many garlands that had been offered to Her when She first came down from Her room; She mounts to the stage unadorned, a small woman in a simple white sari.
She reaches the stage. There is the chair, front and center, draped majestically with a silk sari. She turns towards the crowd, arms again raised high, palms joined to greet the Divinity in all Her children. Then does She sit? Not yet. She kneels, places Her Hands on the carpet before Her, and bends until Her forehead touches the floor. She holds this humble prostration for a brief moment, and lifts Her Head.
Then again lowers Her Head, a second, slightly longer prostration. Thousands of people are gathered to honour Her, and She bows down to them. This is the real Amma.
She turns toward the chair, waits a moment so that a velvet footstool decked with lotuses can be removed, and, carefully avoiding crushing the remaining flowers at Her Feet, She sits. According to custom, She is immediately welcomed with a garland; according to Her own simple humility, She removes this garland. She is a white place of radiance at the heart of a panoply of brilliant colours, and She sits very still, very modest, regal in Her humility.
Swami Amritaswarupananda prostrates and sits beside Her, ready to perform the pada puja. Swamini Krishnamrita Prana is on the other side, ready to assist. Certain preparations are underway: a pillow is moved, the tray is put into position, Her Feet are raised and placed in the tray…most of this occurs without apparent engagement on Her part; it is almost as if She has turned Her body over to those who will do the ritual. But don’t think She is unaware: in all the movement, Her foot touches something or someone (we can’t see what), and She immediately bends to touch the “victim” with Her hand, which then She touches to Her forehead and heart. This is a familiar gesture; it means, approximately, “Excuse me; I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.” She may be oblivious to all the fanfare, but She does not overlook her “offence”, how ever unintentional it was. This awareness and humility is the real Amma.
Now begins Her stillness. With no flourish, She becomes composed, Her hands forming a mudra (symbolic gesture) in Her lap, Her eyes softly closed. At six minutes before nine in the morning, the ritual washing of the Guru’s feet begins. Children from the orphanage in Parippally are playing traditional temple music, swamis are chanting, and all eyes are fixed on the small, motionless figure in white, a mysterious blend of absence and Presence.
After the ablutions, the deep tray with its scalloped edges is removed and a simple silver one is put in its place. Mother has remained immobile. Having carefully dried Amma’s Feet, Swamiji gently applies the light brown sandal paste and red kumkum, and centres on Her feet a single perfect lotus in full bloom. He adds another lotus to the left of the first, and a third to the right. Amma has still not moved. Standing, he carefully places a garland longer than Mother is tall around Her neck, draping it down along Her lap, to the floor, where it encircles the plate and Feet. He places a second garland over the first; this one ends before the floor. In a movement so subtle it was missed, Her Hands have slipped into a slightly different mudra now; still they rest peacefully, Her eyes remain closed, Her body is unmoving: composure at the heart of fanfare.
If you are able to look closely, you will see those small and graceful hands, thumbs and forefingers touching, remaining unmoved there behind the flower garlands while Swamiji chants the Divine Names and thousands of voices respond, “Om Amriteshwaryai Namah” . You will see the pink and white lotus petals that Swamiji is offering as he chants; they are falling softly at Mother’s feet. Your eyes will move to Her impassive face.
Are the eyelids trembling with the effort to remain closed? Not at all. You see only utter stillness. Where is She?
She does not move when the camphor lamp is circled before Her; She does not stir when Her elder monastic children garland Her and prostrate, nor when Her parents add their garlands. Her brown face is tiny in a riot of pink and cream and white flowers, and still She doesn’t move when Swamini Krishnamrita has to lift off some flower malas to make space for more. But She isn’t really elsewhere, for when the visitors among those fortunate enough to garland Her on this day come forward, She seems to feel the presence of guests, and graciously stirs to greet them: to this one, a quick glance; to the next, a smile; now She herself removes malas to make place for the next ones. She bends down to the mountain of lotus petals burying Her feet, takes a handful, showers them on those who approach. She is “back with us,” but not so much to accept gifts as to give them. This is how Amma is.
The garlanding goes on for some time: there are family members, staff members from AIMS, visiting monastics, representatives of the political world, custodians of our culture, women and men from so many walks of life! And there is someone who, in bowing, loses his glasses; they fall into the pile of flowers at Her Feet. She sees, and with no thought whatsoever for Her own dignity, She bends over, picks them up, touches them respectfully to Her forehead, and, smiling, hands them to him. This is how Amma is.
Just before nine-twenty, the garlanding ends. The sari-covered chair has served its purpose, and Mother will return to Her more usual seat: a low platform (peetham). She is ready to stand, but first bends down to clear the space at Her Feet: She raises the edge of the cloth there; this lifts the flowers out of the way. We know why.
Her peetham, beautifully draped in gold and burgundy silk, with Her usual small carpet asana centered on top of that, is brought and set in place. Amma steps forward and without hesitation lifts the corner of the luxurious covering and speaks an order. Immediately it is removed. With Her ordinary asana alone on the bare platform, She takes Her seat, and in exactly the same words, and with precisely the same gestures that She uses every time She gives a talk, Mother greets the divinity within all those thousands who sit before Her on this, Her Birthday. Before Her satsang, reflecting everyone’s awareness of the present condition of the world, She leads these thousands of people in chanting, nine times, “Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu”, a prayer that all beings in all worlds be happy. The chanting ends with the prayer for peace: “Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.”
Now She will talk, She will lead bhajans, She will greet and be greeted by visiting dignitaries, listen to their speeches, give them special awards – do all the formalities scheduled for this special day’s festivities. This is a long program, from before nine in the morning until past noon – all the heat and noise and sweat and confusion will have readied most people for a much-needed break: lunch and a rest.
But at the end of the last event on the special program, Mother will not take a break at all. No lunch and no rest. She will stand so that Her peetham can be moved closer to the edge of the stage, and She will begin to hug all those thousands who have come to share Her birthday.
To widows who receive monthly pensions from Her special program, She will give a birthday present: a new sari. To the anxious She will give advice and encouragement; to the grieving She will give solace; for a school child She will hold and bless a set of pencils; with a woman who just received a promotion, She will celebrate, and with a father whose children have returned from abroad She’ll rejoice. These are the gifts the Divine Mother gives Her children on Her birthday.
Six in the evening. Mother has been on stage since before nine. Can’t She go rest now? She stands, and from every direction you hear “Amma Amma Amma!”. Look at Her right shoulder — was that dress ever white? It is dark with traces from all the faces that She has pulled close this day. She bends in a quick, small bow, and steps down from the stage. The children from the Parippally orphanage are grouped close to the aisle and She stops to laugh with them, and to stretch Her arms out as far over the railing as She can so that as many orphans as possible can touch their Mother.
She moves along the aisle now, and people are still calling out to Her and stretching their hands towards Her. The brahmacharinis near Her try to intervene, knowing that in the fervour of the moment a devotee might grab Her Hand and forget to let go, or touch Her Face and unintentionally scratch Her. It is the attendants’ job to protect Mother’s body, but She is not co-operating: She scolds them, shoos them away, and makes Her way close to the rail to comfort a distressed daughter.
Does She get pulled or scratched or wrenched in these last moments before going to Her room? She does. But the expression of Her love and compassion for Her children is not to be limited by concerns for Herself. This, too, is our Amma.
Shortly after six, Mother reaches Her room. Who wouldn’t be ready to collapse now: have a leisurely bath, a slow, nourishing meal, and a good long sleep? Mother. In less than two hours, She will come back out. For Devi Bhava. But it isn’t Sunday! Never mind. It is Amma’s practice to give Her children the gift of Devi Bhava on Her Birthday, so She will do that. Over twenty-two thousand tokens have already been given out. It will be a long night.
It was a long night. Bhajans, then Devi Bhava. Mother in white and gold, as always on Her Birthday. At Her fastest speed – such as is necessitated in Calicut, famous for immense crowds – Amma can give nearly two thousand hugs in an hour. It is a gruelling pace, but She can manage it, and Her children wait for hours for their swift embraces: such is their faith and confidence and love. So on this night, if Mother maintains Her top speed, it is possible that the darshan that begins by 9:15 p.m. will end a bit under twelve hours later, before nine in the morning.
Of course, it doesn’t. She can’t resist taking the extra time needed to listen to a destitute man’s story of his losses, or to rejoice with a young couple who bring their new daughter for Her blessing. So darshan is still going strong at nine. And at ten. At ten-fifteen, She stands; it is finished at last.
No, it isn’t. More people come pouring in from both sides, and She sits again, hugs and whispers, consoles, listens, laughs…pours out Herself. The line ends. She stands. Sits again. More people have come running. She does not turn them away. At last, She stands. Her sari is adjusted, Her crown is straightened, She will step to the edge of the stage now – no, wait: another darshan! Amma, standing, embraces once again.
Devi moves to the edge of the stage and showers Her children with flower petals. It is a beautiful reversal, for ordinarily it is the devotee who offers petals to the deity. But what else, what else but a reminder of the Divinity in All would we expect from our Amma, embodiment of perfect Love and Humility?
Shortly before eleven on the sunny morning of the day after Her birthday, Mother climbs the steps to Her room. She pauses there, once again in Her plain white sari, completely natural and simple even though She has just accomplished another marathon. In plain clay pots at the top of the stairs live not impressive grand lotuses but ordinary little blossoming ramblers. Their small flowers make the perfect setting for the smile of this humble servant and Mother of the World.
*Mudras are formal positions of the hands, with associated spiritual meanings.