“Amma has done more work than many governments have ever done for their people… her contribution is enormous.”
— Prof. Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Founder, Grameen Bank
The story of Amma and Embracing the World, as much as it is a chronicle of a rapidly expanding humanitarian movement, is also a story about the power of an idea – that each of us has a responsibility to help those less fortunate. Ultimately, it is a story about what happened when one person decided to offer her life wholeheartedly for the sake of others.
Amma was born in a remote coastal village in Kerala, South India in 1953. Even as a small girl, she drew attention with the many hours she spent in deep meditation on the seashore. Despite her tender age, her compositions revealed remarkable depth and wisdom. When Amma was nine years old, her mother became ill, and she was withdrawn from school in order to help with household tasks and the care of her seven siblings. As she went door to door gathering food scraps from neighbours for her family’s cows, she was confronted with the intense poverty and suffering that existed in her community, and in the world beyond it. Where Amma encountered people in need, she brought them food and clothing from her own home. She was undeterred by the scolding and punishment she received from her family for doing so. Amma also began to spontaneously embrace people to comfort them in their sorrow. Responding to her affectionate care, they began to call her Amma (Mother) when she was just nine years old. In turn, she naturally referred to them as her children.
Amma was deeply affected by the profound suffering she witnessed. According to Hinduism, the suffering of the individual is due to his or her own karma — the results of actions performed in the past. Amma accepted this concept, but she refused to accept it as a justification for inaction. Amma contemplated the principle of karma until she revealed an even more profound truth, asking a question she continues to ask each of us today. “If it is one man’s karma to suffer, isn’t it our dharma (duty) to help ease his suffering and pain?”
With this simple yet profound conviction — that each of us has a responsibility to lend a helping hand to those less fortunate — Amma moved forward with confidence in her life of service and compassionate care for all beings, uniquely expressed by the motherly embrace she offers to all who seek solace in her arms.
In Amma’s community, it was not permissible for a 14 year old girl to touch others, especially men. But despite adverse reactions from her parents, Amma followed her heart, later explaining, “I don’t see if it is a man or a woman. I don’t see anyone different from my own self. A continuous stream of love flows from me to all of creation. This is my inborn nature. The duty of a doctor is to treat patients. In the same way, my duty is to console those who are suffering.”
Amma’s spiritual mission had very humble beginnings. The first seekers who gathered around Amma often slept outdoors, as they gave up their huts to provide shelter for people who had come to receive Amma’s darshan. They ate only after providing food for their guests. Sometimes, in order to provide food for her disciples, Amma would go and beg for alms from neighboring houses. After dark, they had just two lanterns to see by. Ten years later, they had finally raised enough money to build their first prayer hall. Just before construction was to begin, the administrators of a local orphanage came to Amma in despair. They told Amma that they were out of funds and before long, they would have no choice but to turn the 500 children who had been living there, out onto the street. Amma used the money that had been saved to build the prayer hall to assume care of the orphans instead. With this, Embracing the World was born.
Each of the humanitarian projects that followed began in the same way; with someone coming to Amma and sharing their sorrows. Amma provides spiritual solace and emotional comfort, but she also wants to provide concrete solutions for the problems people bring to her. When people told Amma they were living in thatched huts with no doors to provide safety for their daughters, Amma initiated a house building project which has now provided shelter and security for more than a quarter of a million people. When people told Amma they could not afford a single painkiller, let alone the specialized medical treatment they needed, Amma built the Amrita Hospital which has treated more than 3 million people free of charge since 1998. When they told her they couldn’t afford specialized medical devices which were imported from outside India, Amma asked researchers at her university to develop their own low-cost solutions which would be affordable and accessible for everyone. In this way, Embracing the World has grown into a global organization dedicated to helping meet people’s basic needs wherever and whenever possible. Augmenting these efforts, ETW also works in the fields of environmental conservation and sustainability to help protect the future of our fragile planet. Through Amrita University, researchers are innovating new means of delivery of goods, knowledge, information, energy, and healthcare so that they can get help to those in need here and now, wherever they are. Amma’s vision – that caring for the poor and needy is the real worship of God – continues to be the guiding principle to this day.
Over the past 25 years, Embracing the World has learned a lot about effective delivery of aid to those in need, and has built an infrastructure capable of delivering a broad range of humanitarian services on a massive scale. Amma has always said that it is her dream that one day, everyone in the world would have their basic needs met.
Today, Amma’s birthplace in Kerala has become the headquarters of Amma’s India based spiritual and humanitarian organization, the Mata Amritanandamayi Math (MAM), and the worldwide headquarters of Embracing the World. Home to 4,000 people, thousands more visit every day from all over India and the world. The centre’s residents and visitors alike are inspired by Amma’s example and dedicate themselves to making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate.
Currently active in more than 40 countries around the world, Embracing the World exists to help alleviate the burden of the world’s poor through helping to meet each of their five basic needs — food, shelter, education, healthcare and livelihood — wherever and whenever possible. The belief is that having these needs met is the fundamental right of any human being, and that it is the responsibility of each of us to strive hard to ensure that one day, every human being can live in dignity, safety, security and peace.
Amma teaches that everyone — rich or poor — has the power to make a difference in the life of another, and that no selfless gesture is insignificant. Rather, it is the selfless actions we perform for one another that hold the keys to true peace — peace in the individual, peace in the community and peace among diverse cultures, nations and faiths. Amma’s centres in many countries contribute to this humanitarian effort by inspiring people to serve selflessly in the building of a better world.
Truly a citizen of the world, Amma holds free public programs throughout India, Europe, the United States and Australia, as well Japan, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Canada, Africa and South America. In her talks, she offers words of wisdom and guidance on both personal fulfillment as well as the most pressing matters of our time.
From climate change to terrorism, cross cultural tensions to poverty and women’s rights, Amma’s observations invite each of us to get involved in the process of rebuilding a concerned and caring society. As 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri said: “Amma is truly such an enormous fountain of energy and love and compassion. I think if all of us were to get even a fraction of it within our own beings, there would be only joy in the whole world… Whatever little I can do with her inspiration, I will strive my best to accomplish it.”
To this day, Amma concludes her programs by embracing each person attending the event. Far from a brief book signing or walk along the rope line, these personal, one-on-one meetings take up the vast majority of Amma’s time. Amma has given this motherly embrace, known as her darshan, to more than 34 million people throughout the world. She has been known to give darshan for more than 22 hours without interruption.
The most personally accessible spiritual leader alive today, Amma may well be on a first name basis with more people than anyone else in the world. When people pour out their hearts to Amma, she offers them emotional solace, spiritual guidance, and concrete solutions to their problems. Receiving Amma’s embrace, many feel inspired to offer selfless service to those in need. In this way, this simple yet powerful act a mother’s embrace has become both catalyst and symbol for the growing international network of humanitarian initiatives that is Embracing the World.
For more than 20 years, Amma has been a regular keynote speaker at international forums concerned with world peace and religious harmony, where she has been honored with awards and accolades for her vision and example. In 1993, the Parliament of the World’s Religions Centennial named her President of the Hindu faith. She addressed the United Nations’ Millennium World Peace Summit, and was presented with the 2002 GandhiKing Award for Nonviolence by UN Messenger for Peace Dr. Jane Goodall and the late UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello. In 2006, Amma, along with 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei and actor/humanitarian Richard Gere, was presented with the James Parks Morton Interfaith Award by the Interfaith Center of New York for her role as an out standing spiritual leader and humanitarian. While presenting the award, Reverend James Parks Morton said of Amma, “You embody everything that we stand for.”
Throughout her life, Amma has embraced and comforted more than 34 million people. When asked where she gets the energy to help so many people while also building and running a massive humanitarian organization, Amma answers: “Where there is true love, everything is effortless.”
Author: Alena Steffen