On the Global Guru Circuit: From India to the West and Back Again

Above, Amritapuri—“Amma’s abode”—is located on the original site of her family’s home along the southwestern coast of India. In addition to serving as Amma’s main ashram, it is also her organizational headquarters and adjacent to Amrita University campus. Photo from https://www.amritapuri.org/ashram

By Dr. Amanda Lucia, University of California-Riverside

Many of the points Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger made during her interview resonated with existing research on transnational Hindu gurus and particularly on Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma). Before I began publishing on Amma and her devotees, Maya Warrier had written an excellent book on Amma’s movement in India, Hindu Selves in a Modern World, published in 2005. There are also important articles by Warrier, Selva Raj, and several unpublished dissertations that address Amma’s movement directly, often through the lenses of transnational religion, modernity, globalization, and gender.

Above, A devotional video depicting Amma’s unique darshan embrace, available at https://www.amritapuri.org/amma

But while Amma is a particular guru who is innovating a particular form of global Hinduism, she is also embedded within a much broader field of transnational religion. The growing body of scholarship in this field reveals that Amma is not so unique as she tacks between the particular and the universal and speaks in different registers to resonate in different contexts and with different demographic audiences. Amma is both a South Indian bhakti saint and a tantric, and a religious exemplar who appeals to those of all faiths with universalistic affirmations like: “My religion is love.” As such, she exemplifies a new tradition of Hindu gurus who have effectively transformed their local and particular messages and identities to become palatable within both the Indian context and to global audiences.

In fact, the proselytizing gurus of the late nineteenth and twentieth century exported many local Indic ideas that have become globally commonplace today – yoga, meditation, karma, reincarnation, and the imaginary of India as a spiritual epicenter. These global gurus were a product of the colonial encounter in India and many aimed to reform Hinduism or at least highlight those aspects that they believed would be most palatable to modern, Western audiences. They spoke what Srinivas Aravamudan has called Guru English, signifying both the practical fact that they spoke clear British English and that they spoke in a transidiomatic register, utilizing a theolinguistics that enabled religious cosmopolitanism. Indic religious ideas were refracted and reflected through the ambivalent and polyvalent language that these gurus used, rendering them comprehensible to vastly different audiences simultaneously.

Fibiger mentions this in her interview as she notes divisions between Indian and Western devotees at Amma’s ashram in Kerala. She suggests that Amma’s ashram in India is organized by Euro-American devotees and questions whether the privilege given to Euro-Americans is not a form of neo-colonialism. In actuality, Amritapuri, Amma’s ashram in Kerala, supports a staff comprised of both Indians and whites and the majority of the senior leadership is Indian. However, Fibiger accurately recognizes that at Amritapuri devotees are divided quite starkly into Indians and Westerners; at Amritapuri, there are Indian and Western canteens, kitchens, and darshan queues, as Maya Warrier discusses in her field research in India. In my own ethnographic research in the United States, I found similar patterns of de facto congregationalism that divided the devotional community along ethnic lines. Such divisions are practical expressions of the different aims of ethnic communities of devotees and represent tensions and fissures in the expansion of a local religion into a transnational context. This practice persists despite the fact that Amma preaches a message of equanimity and unity in diversity.

Fibiger also describes Amma as one among many contemporary transnational gurus who have transformed localized Hindu traditions into universalized spirituality and are now targeting the growing Indian middle classes with their messages. In fact, contemporary transnational gurus contribute much to the study of globalization, embodying what Tulasi Srinivas has argued are reverse flows of knowledge from India to the West. As transnational gurus have increasingly mobilized globally in multidirectional patterns and occupy significant virtual spaces of connectivity, the ideal that religious traditions are dependent on geographical fixity has become increasingly destabilized. Hugh Urban has written of Bhagvan Rajneesh/Osho’s transnational guru movement as series of hyphal knots. Such a view is similar to what Arjun Appadurai recognized as the cellular structures of global terror organizations or what John Urry and Manuel Vasquez have attempted to identify as complex, multidirectional, and layered flows and migrations of religion in globalization. In fact, even as early as 1970, Agehananda Bharati suggested the idea of the “pizza effect” to describe the transnational mediation of ideas and practices related to Sanskrit, yoga, tantra, and meditation from India to the West and back again.

Fibiger is quite right to note the dynamic and multifarious entanglements of transnational guru movements as they move through territories of translating and understanding. Such movements create unique spaces for religious innovation, and Fibiger accurately notes that there are conservative detractors from Amma’s inclusive reforms of modern Hinduism. As Amma rearticulates her message through multiple cultural and religious contexts, the way her embraces are interpreted reveals as much about the local context as they do about Amma. Fibiger’s initial forays into these territories prove that she will be a welcome conversation partner in this exciting field of research.

References

  1. Amanda Huffer [Lucia], “Hinduism without Religion: Amma’s Movement in America,” CrossCurrents, Religion in Asia Today 61 no. 3 (2011): 374-398 and Amanda Lucia, “‘Give Me Sevā Overtime:’ Selfless Service and Humanitarianism in Mata Amritanandamayi’s Transnational Guru Movement,” History of Religions 53 no. 4 (2014): 188-207, and Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014).
  2. Maya Warrier, Hindu Selves in a Modern World: Guru Faith in the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission (New York: Routledge, 2005).
  3. Maya Warrier, “Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contemporary India,” International Journal of Hindu Studies 7 no. 1/3 (2003): 31-54 and “Modernity and its Imbalances: Constructing Modern Selfhood in the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission,” Religion 36 (2006): 179-195.
  4. Selva Raj, “Ammachi,” in The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States, ed. Karen Pechilis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  5. See for example, Bhavana Upadhyaya, “Amma’s Daughters: A Transmodern Study of Personal, Gender, Cultural, and Religious Identities amongst Women in the Amma Community in the United States” (dissertation, University of New Mexico, 2010).
  6. Fibiger accurately mentions the Christian connotations to the term “saint,” but nevertheless, it is commonly used in the South Asian context.
  7. Srinivas Aravamudan, Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 7.
  8. Warrier 2005: 130
  9. Lucia 2014: 182-225.
  10. Tulasi Srinivas, Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism through the Sathya Sai Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 7.
  11. Hugh Urban, Zorba the Buddha: Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2015.
  12. Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
  13. John Urry, Global Complexity (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003); Manuel Vasquez, More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  14. The pizza effect was the process by which an idea or cultural form traveled away from its home country, was transformed abroad, and then re-introduced to the home country in its new form. Agehananda Bharati, “The Hindu Renaissance and Its Apologetic Patterns,” Journal of Asian Studies 29 np. 2 (1970): 267-287.

 

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