Transcribed from a press conference at Amritapuri
September 23rd 2005, Amritapuri
Q: Was the UN recognition of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math as an NGO because of its tsunami relief work? What is the implication of this recognition?
AMMA: No, the UN recognition was accorded on the basis of all the humanitarian work that the M.A. Math has done so far. With this recognition, the UN may entrust the Math with projects in the future. The Ashram would also be able to share its views with the UN members, and participate in UN forums.
Q: How many tsunami-relief houses have the Math finished building so far?
AMMA: We have finished 1,200 houses, and the piling for another 1,000 houses is going on. On September 27th, we will be handing over 550 houses to the beneficiaries. We have already completed and handed over 150 houses. We first finished building houses in Ernakulam, then in Aleppey, and then in Kollam. In Tamil Nadu, we have finished building houses in Nagapattinam and Kanyakumari, and have already handed them over.
Q: How long did it take the Math to build these 1,200 houses?
AMMA: For the tsunami-resistant houses, which need good piling, we took about three to four months.
Q: How long will it take to finish the houses?
AMMA: We should finish within another three to four months.
Q: There is a perception that some government agencies did not cooperate with the Math. Are you happy with the government’s attitude?
AMMA: Amma has nothing against the government. She does not pay much attention to what the government does or says. She concentrates on what she can do for society.
Just after the tsunami struck, Amma walked four kilometres to participate in the moksha deepam, a day to pray for the departed souls, to assess the situation, to see how much damage the tsunami had done, the evaluate the impact of the waves, how the houses had been washed away by the waves. Amma had to study so many minute details so that she could do justice to the work she was about to undertake. At that time, the government came up with a plan, meant for the tsunami-affected in Cochin. It did not have a staircase, nor a room upstairs. Amma thought this was not the right plan. Amma suggested that every plan for such houses should have a staircase and a room on an upper floor. This is because both grownups and children living here were gripped by fear. Even the change in the sound of the fan, caused by fluctuation in voltage, or the sounds of the wind would strike terror in the hearts of these traumatized people.
Amma also wanted the houses to have a column-bearing structure, and not a load-bearing structure, because a tsunami can cause a house based on a load-bearing structure to collapse. Tsunamis can even wash away huge boulders. When Amma submitted this plan, the government accepted it. So Amma does not have any difference of opinion with the government.
Q: Amma, has the recent attempt on your life emboldened your mission?
AMMA: Amma has no fear. Even the next breath is not in our hands. In any case, the body will perish one day. So rather than rust away doing nothing, it is better to wear away doing something beneficial to society. So there is neither courage nor a lack of courage. But Amma’s children are scared.
Q: Does the Math have any other experience in relief activities?
AMMA: In Gujarat, after the 2001 earthquake, the Math adopted three villages and built 1,200 houses. We also renovated temples and mosques there. In 1997, the Ashram provided assistance for people who had been affected by the earthquake in Lathur, Maharashtra.
Q: Was tsunami relief the first time the Ashram built houses?
AMMA: The housing project is not new to the Math. We have been involved in this work since 1996. We first undertook to build 25,000 houses, which we finished in 2002. Then in 2003, we announced a 100,000 house-building project across India, In addition to this, we have undertaken the tsunami-housing project.
Q: Is giving homes to the homeless the mainstay of Amma’s mission? Is your philosophy home-centred?
AMMA: Many other things are there: pension, orphanages, hospitals, nature protection… Amma doesn’t have any projects. Amma just flows, like a river. Most of the projects that Amma has undertaken happened spontaneously when the situations demanded them.
Born and brought up in this village, Amma has seen the pitiful plight of villagers not being able to sleep at night when it rains, when their thatched roofs leak. Some of them would have grownup daughters in their houses. Most people here work as fishermen. If they get a good catch, they will have food; if not, they won’t. So Amma’s life-long desire is that everyone should have a shelter over their heads and at least one meal a day.
Q: There have been some reports that houses built by the government in Andaman have not been satisfactory. The government had gone ahead without thinking about what the tribal folk were used to and what they needed. For example, the government built houses with tin roofs. Is the Math taking all this into account, before going ahead with the housing project? Are there any experts advising Amma?
AMMA: There are devotees who are engineers and architects, including experts from IIT who are volunteers, who design and build according to local custom and culture. Some of the householder devotees, who are professionals in this field, are also actively involved in the construction work. About 500 of them go every morning to do this seva work, including carrying bricks and shifting other construction material to the site. And no, we have not built houses with tin roofs.
Q: Did Amma have any premonition of the tsunami before it struck?
AMMA: Amma does not like to predict anything. Even if Amma feels something, she does not openly express it. However, in 2002, at the end of the US tour in Boston, Amma felt that something bad would happen during the period starting from the end of 2004 and in 2005. So Amma told the devotees that this period would be bad for the entire world, and asked everyone to chant, “Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu” (“May all the beings in all the worlds be happy”). This message was published by a magazine [What is Enlightenment?]. Devotees circulated this message by email to everyone. Some devotees from US were so frightened that they wanted to migrate to Australia or Canada. When the tsunami struck, there were about 1,200 Westerners here in the ashram. There were a total of 20,000 people here. Before the tsunami, people were running to the seashore because they had heard that the sea had receded. But Amma warned them that the sea would flow in, and therefore asked everyone to move upstairs. So we made everyone move to the upper floors. Amma also asked everyone to drive their cars to the mainland. If all these steps had not been taken, at least 5,000 people would have died [in the Ashram]. More people would have died here than anywhere else.
Q: Amma, do you think there will be similar natural calamities in future?
AMMA: When Amma looks into nature, she sees that nature’s fury is not yet abated. Nature is still turbulent, agitated. Only the cool wind of prayers can shift these dark clouds. Only this moment is ours; even the next breath is not ours. Amma has heard that the butterfly’s life span is only one day, yet it flutters around joyfully. Likewise, we should live joyfully. If there is fear, you cannot live happily.
Q: What did the Math do during the recent monsoon that hit Mumbai?
AMMA: The Math sent two fully equipped ICU ambulances, as well as medical and paramedical staff. We took medicines worth 20 lakh rupees. We were there for two weeks, providing food, medicine, clothes, vessels, etc.
Q: How much have you received in terms of donation for your tsunami-relief activities?
AMMA: We never asked for donations. We did not even announce a fundraising drive in our ashram publications. Amma also did not want devotees to solicit for funds. But 60 per cent of Amma’s devotees have an attitude of sacrificing for the world. That is Amma’s real wealth.
Q: What are the future activities of the Math?
AMMA: Before the tsunami, Amma had thought of undertaking two projects. One concerns the suicidal rate in Kerala, which is much higher than that of other states. Amma wants to do something about this. The other project is to rehabilitate the sex workers in Mumbai and Kolkata–creating more awareness among them, introducing self-employment programs for them, building schools for their children. But because of the tsunami, we couldn’t invest funds in these.
According to the latest figures, there are 35,000 sex workers in Kolkata alone, mostly, girls between eight and 13 years. If we save them before they are 18, they must be returned to their homes, according to law. And if that happens, they will go back to prostitution again. So there are legal loopholes. Amma is still discussing the project with legal experts.
Q: Amma, could you elaborate on the project to tackle to problem of suicide?
AMMA: Amma is doing a study on this. The saddest thing is that parents who want to commit suicide kill their young children first. Amma has asked a team of devotees to gather newspaper clippings over the last five years, and find out more about what people commit suicide, so as to study this issue thoroughly.
Amma is also thinking about starting a village for people with suicidal tendencies so that we can attend to them personally. Children of such parents are more likely to develop suicidal tendencies. Most of these people have borrowed heavily from loan sharks.
Q: You talk about dharma, but at the same time what we see here are so many social-welfare activities. Would you like to be known as a religious leader, spiritual leader or social worker?
AMMA: Amma doesn’t have any desire. You can call her what you want: “mother,” “she,” “woman”…. I don’t care. Amma has offered herself to the world. Once you become an offering, you have no claims.
Q: Amma, you have such a big following and you are so powerful and people adore you. Have you ever thought of going to politics? You would win.
AMMA: Amma does not have any desire to enter politics, because, in politics, there are always two (two political parties). When you represent a political party, you cannot serve society fully. If you are ruling, there will be an opposition. Amma does not have any party, she can serve everyone; she can serve better. If the government gets 1,000 rupees, only 10 rupees go to people because they have to pay their administration and workers. It’s like pouring oil from one vessel to another. By the time we reach the last vessel, there is no oil left. Whereas if Amma gets 10 rupees, it goes to people as 1,000 rupees, as in Amma’s ashram, there are tens of thousands of people willing to serve without remuneration.