Sathya Sai Baba and Mata Amritanandamayi:
Some Comparative Notes
Copyright © Brian Steel 2003
By: Brian Steel
I was looking forward to witnessing the guru Mata Amritanandamayi in action yesterday, without having to travel to her ashram in Kerala, India. Her darshan appearances in Sydney and Melbourne had been announced in Australian spiritual magazines as part of her month long tour of Australia , Singapore and Malaysia (countries in which she has groups of followers, ten at least in Australia alone). With only forty kilometres to travel, I could hardly refuse such a special opportunity.
My karma, and that of the whole of this South Asian region, ruled out this experience, including the customary brief "hug" for each person present, because "Ammachi", as she is affectionately known to her many followers, had recently been advised to cancel the tour due to the strict quarantine rules imposed by many countries to guard against the presently raging SARS epidemic.
Another reason for wishing to see her in public, inter-acting with her followers and newcomers, was that my curiosity had been aroused by the fact that, since the fallout from the escalating controversies over Ammachi=s fellow guru, SSB, in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh, some of his disaffected devotees had been finding solace in Mata Amritanandamayi's ashram and presence. (Some stalwart devotees of SSB are also devotees of Ammachi, of course, including several very prominent Indian politicians, although, to my knowledge, the Home Minister, Mr L.K. Advani, is only a devotee of the Kerala guru.)
Indeed, it is instructive to compare these two very famous South Indian gurus with large followings in India and overseas. They are probably the two MOST famous living Indian gurus. Both come from humble origins in villages, and prefer to speak their local languages (Telugu, and Malayalam). Both have built their ashrams and their charitable foundations in these rural surroundings, and both currently are well served by attractive and busy Websites (www.sathyasai.org and www.ammachi.org). Both are considered Divine and miracle makers by their devotees and both teach the twin virtues of love and service to others.
But there are also interesting differences to note between these two "neighbouring colleagues". For example, Ammachi celebrates her 50th birthday this year and so SSB's Mission is almost 30 years senior to hers. Nevertheless, Ammachi has not only attracted many overseas followers but, unlike the mainly stay-at-home SSB (one brief visit to Africa in the 1960s), she has already visited Western countries, and has announced a busy two month return visit to her USA devotees in June and July of this year (in addition to the regional tour that has just been cancelled, to my chagrin). Unlike SSB's trademark walkabout darshan with the dispensation of vibhuti, brief greetings, and group interviews to a favoured few, Ammachi's visible and tangible contact with all her individual devotees is the famous hug, for which those present very briefly lay their head on her lap and she soothingly strokes their head, at the rate of 2,000 or more "hugs" per hour, and for many hours non-stop when there are tens of thousands of devotees present.
In addition to her personal overseas tours, Ammachi's international profile has been enhanced by several invited public speaking appearances at ecumenical gatherings in the USA and Geneva (1993: Chicago, at the Parliament of World Religions; 1995: New York, at the Interfaith Celebrations at the Cathedral of St John the Divine; August 2000: New York, at the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders - at the United Nations; October 2002: Geneva, at the Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders.) In this international ecumenical spiritual activity, Ammachi is following in the venerable footsteps of other famous Indian godmen like Swami Vivekananda (Chicago, 1893, at the World Parliament of Religions) and Paramhansa Yogananda (Boston, 1920, 'The Science of Religion', at the International Congress of Religious Liberals). Thus began for Yogananda a lengthy and fruitful sojourn of 32 years in the USA with his Self-Realization Fellowship.
One final comparison and contrast between Mata Amritanandamayi and SSB: Both are subject to controversy. In the case of SSB, the controversies are deep-rooted, multiple, and copiously documented. Criticisms of Ammachi by the Indian Rationalists are much slimmer and of more recent date, and seem to consist mainly of some recently published criticism by a Rationalist and the unwelcome international attention attracted by alleged strong reactions from Ammachi's Organisation and Indian supporters.
The parallel progress of both these famous gurus and their Organisations will naturally continue to attract public interest and discussion - such is the price of fame these days - but, logically, given the appreciable difference in age, Mata Amritanandamayi is likely to be physically guiding, hugging, and inspiring her flock for many more years than SSB.
See Sathya Sai Baba 'Amrita'
and also Sathya Sai Baba & Halagappa's 'Thieves Temple'