Friday, October 9, 2009
The Life and Teachings of Jillellamudi Amma
I began reading The Life and Teachings of Jillellamudi Amma with some misgivings. Part of an early youth spent as an atheist is still with me; besides, I am used to devotees making all kinds of legends about their masters. And as I began reading, I wondered if some of my doubts were turning true. I found some incidents mentioned at the beginning of the book testing the boundaries of my willingness to believe. But I decided to read on, partly because the book is so beautifully produced and partly because I had heard such beautiful things about the woman saint whom they call Jillellamudi Amma. I have a close friend who has childhood memories of being in the lap of Amma. Once, he tells me, he was sitting in Amma’s lap and taking bites from a guava in his hand when Amma asked for it. He said he couldn’t give it to her – it was ‘jootha’ since he had bitten into it and what is jootha should not be given to anyone. Amma laughed and said it was fine with her, she did not mind, and accepting the fruit from his hand took a bite from it and returned it to him. I loved the incident and felt I had to know more about the woman saint who did that.
I do not know when I started looking at the incidents mentioned in the book with more trust and openness. I know for sure that one of the incidents that made an impact on me was Amma’s placing her foot on the heart of a gentleman devotee of hers in an act of blessing and giving strength. No, it is not the effect the touch had on the devotee that impressed me, but the fact that she touched him with her foot itself.
This is how the book explains the incident. Lakshminarayana [L.], a devotee, was on a visit to Amma;s place, accompanied by his wife. “He wanted to perform puja to her. In the course of an absorbing discussion with her children [devotees], Mother invited L. to sit nearer to her cot. But L. said that he was afraid to do so. “Why should you fear Mother,” asked Mother and placing one of her feet on his lap, she placed the other near his heart.”
In the traditional Indian culture, a woman does not place her foot on a man’s chest, whatever her relationship with him. Some male saints are known to have done so, as Sri Ramakrishna once did to young Vivekananda. But I had never heard of a woman saint doing that, either to a female devotee or to a male devotee. And that is what Jillellamudi Amma had done. I knew one thing for sure. In order to do that, either she had to be completely fake, or a very great saint, a powerful yogini. I had no reason to believe that she was fake – nothing that I had heard about her or read about her told me so.
Lakshminarayana’s relationship with Amma as portrayed in The Life and Teachings of Jillellamudi Amma makes fascinating reading, partly because he begins with no faith in Amma. “Though willing to accept that some sort of an Intelligence lies behind the order in Creation, he was averse to the worship of sadhus, sannyasis, mahatmas and the like. Even if these existed, L. felt that more harm is done to society by the existence of innumerable “counterfeits.””
This is how the book describes Lakshminarayana’s first encounter with the miraculous. “Strangely enough, he once dreamt that he was taken to a temple by his aunt and that, when he prostrated at the feet of the Goddess, though only to satisfy his aunt, tears rose in his eyes. The toes of the idol’s feet stirred a little when the tears fell over them. Surprised, he looked up at the face of the Goddess. He found a living form there. She patted him gently, saying, “You need not shed tears. I am always there for you.”
The dream puzzled Lakshminarayana, but otherwise did not alter his life in any way and he more or less forgot it though every time he recalled it, every detail appeared before his mind, with total vividness.
Years later, after he had become a devotee and regular visitor to Amma’s ashram, something happened that brought this dream to his mind with the force of a lightning strike. Let me quote the incident straight from the book.
“During one of his visits, Mother playfully referred to L. as “the man from Guntakal.” L. felt very badly and was on the verge of shedding tears because, if he were transferred to such a distant place, he wouldn’t be able to visit Mother so often... Mother noticed his intense feelings and asked him to sit near her. He rested his head on her lap and wept silently. Tears flowed profusely from his eyes and fell on the toes of her feet. The toes stirred a little. He raised his eyes to look at Mother’s face. She smiled most benignly and, patting him affectionately, assured him: “You need not shed tears. I am always there to look after you.””
The book winds up the incident saying, “The dream that he had years earlier, even before he heard of Mother, had now come to pass!”
The transformation of the nonbeliever Lakshminarayana to a firm believer in Amma and her powers provides some of the most fascinating reading in the book.
A few years after Lakshminarayana had his original dream, he got married and set up his family. It was his aunt that first suggested that he visit Jillellamudi for Amma’s darshan. He refused, since he did not believe in such things, though he did allow his wife to accompany his aunt on the visit. It was his wife’s subsequent persuasion that eventually took Lakshminarayana to Jillellamudi first and Amma left a powerful impression on him on that first visit itself. He had allowed his wife to persuade him because he was depressed, but the moment he reached Amma’s presence, all worry and gloom disappeared from him. The result was that he now began visiting Amma’s place regularly.
It was on one of these visits that Amma put his foot on his heart.
“Once Mother asked L. to be present for three days during the ensuring Sankranti. But when the time came for him to visit Jillellamudi in accordance with Mother’s words, a notice was issued by his office that no one should leave the place without prior permission. It looked as though this was intended for L., who was known to be visiting Jillellamudi almost every weekend. L. did not want to seek the permission of his boss. “If Mother really wants me to go there, the boss should himself send for me and permit me to go,” he said to himself, “or else I shall stay here only, shutting myself up in my house, without taking any food for three days.” Mysteriously, before the office closed for the day, the boss himself sent for him and told him that he could leave if he so wished!”
Several other incidents speak of Amma’s powers and of her miraculous presence in the life of Lakshminarayana and his wife. “For instance, after the birth of their first daughter, one day Mrs and Mrs L argued and quipped about the child resembling one of them. The next week, when they visited Jillellamudi together, they were disappointed to see the very large number of visitors, for they could not have a personal interview with Mother. When they wanted to leave the village along with several others who were seeking Mother’s permission to leave, Mother gave prasadam to all except these two! She sent word to them and granted them a personal interview. Mrs L. was holding the newborn daughter in her lap.
“Your daughter resembles your sister-in-law,” said Mother gazing at the child.
Mrs and Mr L. just smiled in reply. Then Mother admonished them in feigned anger: “Don’t you have anything else to discuss at home?””
Here is another similar incident. “In those days they were visiting Mother as frequently as possible – once a week or a fortnight. Whenever they came, she used to refer to the various victuals they had prepared on various days at Guntur, and what was wrong with their preparation and taste! One day she referred to the pancakes that Mrs L. prepared on a certain day in her home in Guntur: “The hotel-made pancakes taste better, don’t they?” asked Mother, looking intently at the face of L.”
Those were precisely the words he had spoken days earlier when his wife had given him the pancakes she prepared!
“Then she turned to Mrs L. and advised her: “You are preparing them in a curved pan, they must be roasted n a flat one.””
I would like to quote here one last incident from the life of L. related to Jillellamudi Amma. One night, when he and his wife were together in bed, it occurred to them that it was not proper for them to keep Amma’s photograph in their bedroom and they shifted it to the little shrine they had in the kitchen. “Later, when they visited Mother for the weekend, Mrs L. without stating what had happened, just said to Mother: “Pardon us, Mother.”
““It’s no mistake! It is what is most natural. When you believe that I am omnipresent, what is the need to hide anything from me? There is no need to feel guilty about it,” Mother replied.”
I have been discussing Amma based exclusively on one part of one chapter from The Life and Teachings of Jillellamudi Amma – the fourth chapter, titled “At the Feet of the Mother.” Chapter one is titled “A Short Sketch of Mother’s Life” and chapter two, “The House of All – A Symbol of Synthesis.” Chapter three is “The Miracle That Is Mother” and has subsections with such interesting subtitles as: “The Baptism of Tears,” “The Subtle Alchemy,” “When Mother Speaks,” “In the Presence of the Mother” and “The Incredible Mother,” all dealing with different aspects of the Amma-experience. Chapter five is titled “With Her Children” and gives us snippets of her conversations with her disciples and devotees. The final chapter, “Sayings,” consists of her sayings about herself, about God, the Way, the nature of humanness, death, and so on. In addition to these six chapters, the book also has a Postscript and an Introduction. The book, as was mentioned earlier, is beautifully produced and the cover design by Girija Nair is a delight to the eyes.
The publishers have done a great service to spirituality in general and Indian spirituality in particular by bringing out this beautiful book on a great modern saint, who is not as widely known in India outside Andhra Pradesh as she should be, though her fame outside India seems to be somewhat better established.
Timothy Conway, Ph.D., says about the mother: 'Anasuya Devi is, to my mind, one of the greatest spiritual presences ever to be embodied in this planet, a highly remarkable Divine Mother of modern times.'
One of the most remarkable things about Amma is that she lived the life of a village householder all her life.
Before I end, here are a few sayings by Amma on different subjects.
• Reality itself is my state.
• I am the beginning and I am the end.
• I cannot be known; you know me only when I make myself known to you.
• Not teaching anything is my teaching.
On God and the Way
• If Knowledge is Brahman, why not Ignorance?
• Where is the question of a good way to Atman, when everything you see is that?
• Adopting sannyasa is not right; one should become a sannyasi.
• Bestowing the nearness of God is initiation.
• Experience bestows faith; faith cannot bestow experience.
• Mindfulness is real worship.
• Every word becomes a mantra through mindfulness.
• The meeting point of “I” and “Thou” is the substance and meaning of Brahman.
Profound, lovable, unforgettable sayings, all of them! If you ask me, though, I would pick up “Bestowing the nearness of God is initiation.” How beautifully and effortlessly she takes the word diksha [initiation] to a new height!
The Life and Teachings of Jillellamudi Amma, by Ekkirala Bharadwaja, Editions India, An imprint of Stone Hill Foundation Publishing, Cochin, 2007. [firstname.lastname@example.org] 176 pp, Rs. 195, ISBN 81-89658-44-1.