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Transnational Gurus and the Making of a Modern Devotional Public

During the reception following the first South Asian performance I attended after moving to Denver, I met several members of the Denver Tamil community. Towards the end of my conversation with a woman from a village outside Chennai, she began to tell me about her devotion to Amma. She began by asking, “Do you follow Amma?” And without waiting for my response, she volunteered, “We are all Amma devotees here. We just went to see her in Las Vegas.” I knew that she came from a conservative Brahmin background; so, it was surprising to see her enthusiasm when she spoke about Amma. Curious to know more, I asked her how she became interested in Amma. She quickly turned to her daughter and asked her to share her first experience of meeting Amma. There was wonder and joy in her daughter’s voice as she told me of her plans to go see Amma again. This exchange was illuminating as I was unaware of Amma’s popularity in the broader South Indian Tamil community. Before listening to this podcast, it had seemed somewhat baffling that Amma would appear in Las Vegas. Dr. Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger explains how Amma’s embrace of her position as a transnational and “translocal” guru makes the broad reach of platforms such as Las Vegas fitting for her message.

The phenomenon of buying and selling spirituality has always been a part of public religious praxis. With transnational spirituality comes a neoliberal underpinning in which identities and cultural icons can become brands in which people can invest. Listening to Dr. Marianne Fibiger speak about Amma and her remarkable relationship with a broad community of devotees, I was struck by Amma’s uncanny ability to “market” her message to various groups. Fibiger describes this process as “hearing with different ears.” She references a devotee who remarks that Amma is “truly a saint,” in order to show how Amma has become “transnational” through a sort of Christianizing of her status as divine. It also appears to show Amma’s skills at making herself appealing to both local and universal communities. In many ways, Amma’s “universalism” dovetails with the efforts of early transnational yogis such Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo, and BKS Iyengar. They are able to repackage yoga as a universal health and wellness practice that does not require scriptural knowledge. Through a disciplined, embodied, practice, one would gain spiritual enlightenment. For Amma, hugging functions as both an act of love and darshan (seeing/experiencing the divine), helping to fashion a sort of humanistic theology (Lucia, 6).

Fibiger’s interview underscores the sheer numbers of Amma devotees as well as their varied backgrounds. The material presence of Amma is buttressed by a robust virtual one. Her website and social media presence are indicative of a savvy marketing platform. Her physical presence lends authenticity to her online brand. My response considers how transnational gurus such as Amma have learned to navigate a global neoliberal marketplace in order to sell their ideas. Amma, similar to conservative Indian public figure Ramdev, appears to have a keen understanding of her audience and how to disseminate her message and broaden her appeal. While Ramdev uses patanjaliayurved.net to market products building his name as brand, Amma’s website centers on building her brand by hawking her message. On https://amma.org/ the visitor is greeted by a smiling Amma with open arms, her tour dates emblazoned across her image. Linking a devotional picture of Amma with her next tour presents her persona and message as important and valuable commodities in high demand. Just below her image on the home page, the visitor will see four links detailing what Amma is doing now, how to donate, and information on Amrita Yoga (her signature practice). Here, the main facets of Amma’s brand emerge: charity, accessibility, and a doctrine to follow. The bottom of the home page has a brief introduction that describes Amma as a transnational spiritual teacher. Statements such as “she never asked anyone to change their religion” and “her entire life has been dedicated to alleviating the pain of the poor, and those suffering physically and emotionally” are designed to cement a vision of Amma as the accessible divine.

While her Facebook pages are largely centered on events and appearances, Amma uses her Twitter handle (@Amritanandamayi) to promote her message and build her brand as the “Hugging Guru.” The social media communities that form around Amma (e.g. unofficial “Amma” social media accounts) reinforce the transnational character of her message. These disparate groups of devotees form virtual networks through which Amma’s message disseminates. This devotional network further boosts the reach of Amma’s message and platform for charitable donation. Amma also has a series of apps (Amrita Apps). These apps provide links to her social media, news of her appearances as well as chants for sādhana (daily practice) and seva (service) opportunities. In these ways, Amma becomes a “full-service” spiritual guide, larger than just her person and her hugs. She also has several books and a few periodicals along with Amrita TV which continuously connect her devotees to her message (Lucia, 6). Through these virtual extensions of her material presence, Amma has transformed herself into a non-sectarian religious “brand,” competing for devotees in a growing soteriological marketplace.

 

Above, advertisements for one of the several shows on Amrita TV that features Amma. The network offers a variety of wholesome programming, including comedies and dramas, not just devotional programming. This program, Amritavarsham, aims to “promote world peace and imbibe the spirit of service among peoples of the world.” It opens with a brief message from Amma in which she shares “simple anecdotes and examples from day-to-day life to make it engrossing for one and all.” English subtitles are provided “so that people across the world can understand the meaning.”

Marianne Quvortrup Fibiger’s research on Amma highlights an important aspect of public religion: the making of a devotional public. Near the beginning of the interview, she calls Amma “a trans-local, transnational, global guru of today.” She then describes Amma’s appeal to her diverse community of devotees as rooted in her “authenticity,” which allows her to be a “traditional bhakti guru” as well as have “universal appeal.” Fibiger’s also points out the unsettling imagery of a large public darshan (40,000+) with Europeans in the front row in white and everyone else behind them, though she notes that these events were often a place for Hindus to reconnect with their faith. These communal gatherings of devotion provide a good example of the delicate balancing act Amma performs between the universal and local aspects of devotion. Transnational gurus like Amma must repackage religious praxis in the language of human connection in order to appeal to a diverse and broad constituency. In doing so, Amma and her message help build a public devotional community held together by commitment to abstract values such as love and spiritual harmony that are achieved through practices and teachings rooted in specific traditions. I think Fibiger’s comments on translation and understanding of religion are particularly interesting in this context. She suggests that transnational gurus like Amma can function, in a way, as translators of traditions, producing “bridges of understanding.” The questions that follow are: What is the content of this “understanding”?  And for whom is it understood?  Fibiger’s discussion near the end of the interview regarding her project on East and West spirituality underscores the ways in which these questions produce the boundaries within which these emerging spiritual identities are being forged and negotiated.

 

Reference

Lucia, Amanda J. Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

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.

 

The Hugging Guru: Amma and Transnationalism

In this interview conducted at the 2018 EASR conference in Bern, Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger speaks to Sammy Bishop about Amma, a guru who has become world famous for her healing hugs – apparently giving more than 33 million hugs over the past 30 years. They discuss the ways in which different audiences can interpret Amma’s message, and how she reconnects Hindus in diaspora with their traditions. Focusing particularly on the guru’s global reach, Fibiger discusses her fieldwork in Amma’s Kerala ashram, and how Western devotees in India are influencing developments there.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


The Hugging Guru: Amma and Trans-nationalism

Podcast with Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger (12 November 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Qvortrup_Fibiger-_The_Hugging_Guru_1.1

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hello. I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here at the EASR conference in Bern. I am here with Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger, who is Associate Professor at Aarhus University. So, thank you very much for joining us.

Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger (MQF): Thank you for allowing me to come here and talk about my subject matter.

SB: How is your conference going so far?

MQF: Oh, Great! There’s a lot of good panels and good keynotes. And I think you can see how religion, and the way that we are talking about religion, is changing – and that’s a really good thing.

SB: Ok. So your current research is focussing on Amma, the hugging guru?

MQF: Sure, yes.

SB: So for those people who aren’t so familiar with it, could you just tell us a bit about who Amma is?

MQF: Yes. She’s a transnational guru. She was born, in 1953, in Kerala, which is in South India. And she is from the fisherman class, a low-caste Hindu family. And she grew up and she had . . . This is very typical, that you look on her story in a religious-centred way. And she has some special abilities all the way. She did things all the way back to when she was about 9 years old. And this has just been developing. So you can talk about her going from being a very local girl with special abilities, becoming – what they say within the Hindu tradition – a kind of a Shakti representative, meaning that she has some kind of special female energy which is related the goddesses, which can incarnate in people. And from that she becomes a local guru you can go to and ask questions. But also – and this is the main thing about her – she also gives healing hugs. And from there, you know, it developed, she developed, the devotees around her became more, until she’s also became a guru for Western devotees. And that is where we are now. And what the organisation around her, called MAM writes on the webpage – please look into that it’s a really interesting read – she has given 35 million hugs all around the world. So what is interesting is that she’s appealing both to European Americans, she still appeals to local Hindus as well, and she also appeals to middle-class Hindus from all over India – and even Indians living in diaspora. So she’s a trans-local, transnational, global guru of today.

SB: And when it comes to these different groups of devotees, what’s the main appeal? Is there a different appeal for different groups? And does she pitch her message differently?

MQF: Yes. It’s – and this is what we always answer as researchers – it’s a both/and! So in one way she is saying the same things, but the ears that hear differ. So I think that what she says is translated and interpreted in different ways, if you look at local Indians, more transnational Indians and European American devotees. And that is what is interesting, that she can say something that in some ways goes into the mind or the brain, and the heart, to devotees from all over the world. And what I think – and this is one of my theses, or hyper-theses – is that she is balancing between being very traditional Bhakti guru, where she has a special devotionalism related to her . . . . And then she has a kind of authenticity, you know? It’s very open how you can see she is an Indian guru. And on the other hand she has universal messages. (5:00) And also that she’s a woman – I think that’s important. And she has this idea that she, herself, is incarnating a message. She is incarnating what she thinks is the main way of understanding religion, namely love, she says. “Religion is love, my religion is love.” And she thinks that she should be acting accordingly. So that’s why she also gives these hugs which should heal both the person that she heals, but – and this is very important in relation to the way we understand the world today – she will also heal the world which is “bleeding”, as she says. So she also has this kind-of very universal message that appeals to everyone. And when we are talking about this conference, you can hear how many who are referring to how climate changes, the Anthropocene – that it is the human beings in the world who are the main reason why the climate changes are so rapidly going the wrong way. And she is talking into that kind of discourse – which everybody thinks is important.

SB: Yes. And you mentioned briefly, there, the gendered nature of her message, and the name Amma obviously meaning mother. Can you say a bit more about that, maybe particularly regarding the climate change aspect, as well?

MQF: Yes. You can talk about this being a female . . . or representative of a kind-of female energy, on different levels. You can talk about it in relation to a deity worship, a goddess worship where the goddess is incarnated in that person in the world: someone thinks she is like that, and then she is a deity, and then they called her Devi Amritanandamayi, which is her name. And sometimes she’s Mata – mother – which . . . devotees I’ve interviewed have said, “She is like a mother to us.” You know? And she talks about her devotees as her children that she wants to take care of. And that is, you know, what you can do being a female. In another perspective she’s also related to mother earth, you know: that, being a female, she is kind of entangled in the understanding of the earth as a mother – which is the main reason for her life on earth – and, on the other hand, is also a mother who is bleeding. So she can be inscribed in different ways of understanding what a female, or the female, can do in relation to . . . also, to appealing to people in another way than if it was a male.

SB: And just thinking about her representing different things, as well, in this very kind of international span that she has: you mentioned, in your presentation yesterday, how she’s been representing Hinduism at the UN. Could you say a bit more about that?

MQF: Sure. Yes. It was back in 2010 when she was invited to the United Nations. And maybe she didn’t play the major role there, but she was invited and there was a speech that she created that gave her time to come and represent Hinduism there. And there was a man, he was the representative for public and private partnership in New York. And in the end of his talk he said, “What you do brings happiness to people. You are truly a saint.” And this is interesting, because he’s using the notion and conception of saint, which has Christian connotations. (10:00) So she, in that way, she was also inscribed in Christian, or a more universal understanding of her. She can be part of all kinds of denominations and relations to the world.

SB: So, taking it down to your current research at the moment: as I understand it, it’s been on her ashram in Kerala. So could you tell us a bit about the groups of people who are there and what goes on there?

MQF: Yes. Kerala, her ashram in Kerala is called Amritapuri, and I visited it for the first time all the way back in 2006- 2007, when I did fieldwork in Kerala about goddess worship. And I thought, “I need to go there!” And I was kind-of struck by the way it was organised, because it was organised by European American devotees. And I was kind-of “Well,” you know, “Is it a new way of colonising – not the land, but the tradition?” And I went to have a hug. I needed to see what she was doing. I didn’t feel that much, I must admit! But then I had to take a kind of token. You take a token and you queue up. And I was sent to queue up. There were two queues: one for the Indians and one for European Americans. And you think, “No! We can’t do it like this!” But it seems like the Indians actually didn’t mind. And what I saw was, also, seeing how she was doing very big darshans where 40,000 people, at least, came from all through India. And I saw how the European American devotees were organising everything. And they were sitting in front in white gowns, when all the different Hindus were sitting in the back. But, you know, and then I was thinking about, “How come it is like that? Is it a good or bad thing for the traditions of India?” And what I can see today is that this kind of translation – the European American devotees are trying to translate the local Indian tradition to a more global one – this is now appealing to the growing Indian middle-class in India, which is really interesting. And it has not only to do with guru worship or guruism, but it also has to do with the relationship between what we can call . . . it’s wrong to call it between East and West. And what you can see is that it’s an example of this dynamic: how I think it’s very important that you understand religion not as rooted in one context, but that we follow its route around the world. And I think its Clifford who says that you look at not roots, but routes – you know, how it’s travelling. And in the travelling the tradition is changing. But what is interesting, when it comes to the globalised world, these kind of changes are not only good for . . . not only a way that devotees in European countries understand the tradition, but now, also, because this translation of the tradition is turning back to India. And suddenly, middle- class Indians – Hindus, who are in many ways secularised and feel disconnected from the tradition that they grew up in – get reconnected to the Hindu tradition again. So this is interesting, I think. And it’s a new way of looking at how ideas, which are circulating very quickly, are translated in such a way that the appeal is wider than you believe it would be, thinking from a first order perspective.(15:00) And I think that’s interesting. And I also did a fieldwork in Mauritius among Hindus there. You know, in Mauritius, Hindu’s are a majority, but they also, in many ways, are secularised – understood as making a compartmentalisation between being religious. And in other ways they are very much secularised. And I think Amma was visiting for the first time in 1987. And a lot of people suddenly understood the tradition that they didn’t understand any longer, through her way of . . . . And also, the European and American devotees who were travelling along with her, they were kind of reconnected to the Hindu tradition again. So this is, you know, a way of understanding this kind of entanglement of different ways of translating or understanding religion. And it’s a crucial example of religion as context-related but also a very dynamic phenomenon.

SB: And when it comes to European and American devotees having a great influence in the organisation, do you find certain people kind-of laying claims to the tradition, and other people critiquing the involvement of these Western devotees as well?

MQF: Yes, of course you’ll find someone who thinks that we need to take the tradition back to the Indian roots again. Or some conservative Hindus think that she is too inclusive. And some are criticising the way that she is dealing with some of her right-hand people who are representing the MAM tradition, when they are doing things which is – in their perspective – not part of the Hindu tradition. So what you’ll see . . . and it’s the same when some Hindus think, or are arguing, that we need to get yoga back to the Hindu or Indian tradition again. So, you will always see that, you know, when things are changing someone wants it to stop. And they want to root it back in a tradition which can also be difficult to define. So you see this kind of . . . the way people want to get hold of it again and not make it open for the whole world.

SB: Yes. It seem that a lot of the discourses around it are fairly similar to the ones that happen around yoga, as well. Do you find it helpful comparing the two?

MQF: Well, yes you can do that. But the difference between them is that Amma is a guru, she’s a person, and yoga is a phenomenon. And so I mean it’s easier to get hold of, or grab onto, the messages of a person who’s still alive, than get a hold on yoga which has been changing since it was . . . . And people even don’t know when it started. Should we go back all the way to pre-Vedic tradition when it comes to yoga? Or should we kind-of place it in the Upanishadic tradition? And things like that. So, I mean, here you can actually take her messages and you can try to decipher it and try to criticise it because it’s there. (20:00) And yoga’s a floating signifier.

SB: Yes. Are there are certain ways in which Amma was able to claim authority as a guru?

MQF: Yes. And I think that’s very important as well. So it’s good that you asked me that question. Because on the one hand, she has this kind of universal message. On the other hand, she’s very much inscribed in Hindu guruism, in Bhakti devotionalism, and she also understands herself as a karma yogi – as a yogi who acting in the world. So I mean, in one perspective she’s inclusive, in another perspective she’s also exclusive. And that, I think – this kind of balancing between inclusivism and exclusivism – makes her so appealing both for Indians and also for Europeans and American devotees. And in relation to that, I think it’s so interesting to see . . . . You know, I’ve been interviewing devotees especially in Denmark where I’m from. And they are telling me how they are really trying to stick to the Indian tradition. So in some ways, and understand me correctly, in some ways they are trying to be kind-of more traditional than a lot of Hindus are, living in India or around Persia. They are telling me they would like to learn some mantras in Sanskrit; they are having a guru purnima, where they have a special day where they are devoted to their guru, which they do in the month of June, everywhere. And I was participating in one of these guru purnimas, and they were very anxious to do the puja in the right manner. And because I was there, they were kind-of, you know, “Did we do it the right way? Or should we do it like that with flowers?” And things like that. So I mean that is also interesting, right? So . . . that she’s never changing her behaviour as being an Indian guru I think is important, as well. And it’s appealing to America European devotees.

SB: Just to change the topic slightly: you raised the idea, there, of your presence as a researcher kind-of affecting the behaviour of devotees slightly, as well. So, talking about research methods, were there certain problems that you came up against? Could you say a bit more about that?

MQF: Yes. It’s always difficult just to be a fly on the wall when you are there. And when you have presented yourself as being a researcher and not an Amma devotee, people are very much concerned about “How do we, then, represent the tradition that you want to write about?” And also, you know, “In what way will you . . . . Are you having a critical point of departure, or do you want to kind-of do it in a way that could promote our tradition?” And I think it’s very important, as a researcher, that you tell them, you know, the reason for being there. And also I think it’s very important that when you write, you write the things in relation to being a researcher. And it has to do with the big discussion: emic or etic? Or also, the big discussion around this kind-of phenomenological relation to the tradition, which I know a lot of anthropologists think is important: that you can’t do research on something that you haven’t kind-of been part of yourself. I think it’s important. And people could criticise that. And I try to stand three steps behind what I’m actually doing. (25:00) And I think people are accepting that. I might not get all the answers that a person who will be part of the Amma group. But I get some other answers. And I put it into . . . . And I think that’s important, too – and that’s the way I’m brought up, in academia – that you have some kind of theoretical point of departure when looking at empirical phenomenon. And I’ll always do that. And it can give some backlash, but as long as you as researcher are very clear in your mind in the way you’re writing, and also towards the one you are going forward in relation to, I think you do what you can do. Someone will disagree with that, but I think from my perspective, it’s important.

SB: So, going forwards as well, where do you see your research going in the future?

MQF: Well, I think it will go in a different direction. I’ve always been interested in Hinduism diaspora. And the reason for being interested in that field, particularly, is firstly to see how religion is changing in relation to the social and cultural context, but also because Hinduism is so difficult to define. And I’m not going to tell you. But I’ll just say it anyway, that I’ve promised my students I will retire if I get to know what I’m actually an expert in!

SB: (Laughs)

MQF: But I think it’s very important that Hindus in diaspora are trying to put some words on what is the Hindu tradition. Being away from where the tradition has been part of culture for ages, suddenly you try to figure out, you know, what do we want to keep? And what do we want to leave behind? And I think that’s interesting both in relation to Hinduism, but also in relation to understanding religion as a dynamic phenomenon. So my research will keep on trying to look on Hinduism diaspora but also I’ve done a book with one of my colleagues called Eastspirit about how ideals, concepts, notions are circulating between what we call East and West. And what I think is so interesting is to see also how this is changing the way that Europeans are looking on their lives in the world, but in a way that . . . . I have also written an article where I’m not talking about the process of Easternisation of the West, but what I’m trying to argue for a new concept called the “Weasternisation”, meaning that the Eastern concept and notions are translated in a Western way, so they give meaning also in Western countries. And I’ve also been researching, and I would like to do a bit more about it, about how Indian or Hindu tropes are getting new meanings in a European context. Especially, as an example, you can talk about karma, which in many ways in European context is a kind of a feel-good notion. And if you compare what karma actually means in India, it has totally changed. Also, in relation to the understanding of reincarnation as “another go” – a new possibility – I think that’s interesting too. And you can’t say that the way you understand reincarnation or karma is wrong. It’s just embedded in a new European context, which makes it possible for the concept to change. So I think that’s really interesting. (30:00) And I think that’s so important. But also, in the discussion of how notions from Hinduism and Buddhism . . . it’s not the kind-of worldviews “coming to Europe”, it’s not kind-of “now it is taking over another worldview”. It is more like something . . . a part of a new way of understanding yourself. So it’s not that you have to choose between your old worldview and the Eastern one. But you can combine it. And I think it’s interesting how come that concepts from India . . . it’s much easier to be entangled, or be kind-of a floating signifier that could be rooted in a Western tradition as well. So that’s some of the things I would like to work on. And there’s a lot of things to do, so I hope someone else will take up these ideas!

SB: Yes, I look forward to seeing that as well. Marianne – thank you so much for your time.

MQF: Thank you for allowing me to talk a little about something I’m really interested in, in a research perspective.

SB: Thank you.


Citation Info: Qvortrup Fibiger, Marianne, and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “’The Hugging Guru: Amma and Transnationalism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 12 November 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 9 November 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-hugging-guru-amma-and-transnationalism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Gurdjieff and the Study of Contemporary Religion

gurdjieffGeorge Ivanovich Gurdjieff was born around 1866 in Russia and came to prominence in the inter-war years in Europe and the US as a “spiritual teacher” or proto-New Age guru. As well as a complex cosmology, Gurdjieff taught that the average human being was literally asleep, and that “waking up” required a great deal of work and “conscious suffering” His work was continued by his pupils following his death in 1949, and a number of books on his teachings remain in print today. To discuss his importance to the study of religion, David Robertson speaks to two remarkable scholars, Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, and Steven Sutcliffe of the University of Edinburgh.

We discuss Gurdjieff’s image as a “guru”; how deliberate was it, and where did he learn about the Eastern teachers he modelled himself upon? We discuss how much we should treat Gurdjieff as a sui generis “special case”, as Gurdjieffian scholars have tended to, or whether we would be better to treat him as a type, like Blavatksy, Steiner, Crowley and others. This then turns the discussion to the issues of researching figures like Gurdjieff whose legacies (and archives) are tightly controlled by their followers, and who often aren’t seen as worthy of study by the academy and publishers. We conclude with a consideration of Gurdjieff’s importance (or lack thereof) on the later New Age milieu, and popular culture more broadly.

And did Robert Fripp hire Toy Levin for King Crimson because he looks like Gurdjieff?

You may enjoy our previous interviews with Carole Cusack on “Cultural Production” and “Invented Religions”.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, yoga mats, plant pots, llama-shaped snacks and more.

Podcasts

Transnational Gurus and the Making of a Modern Devotional Public

During the reception following the first South Asian performance I attended after moving to Denver, I met several members of the Denver Tamil community. Towards the end of my conversation with a woman from a village outside Chennai, she began to tell me about her devotion to Amma. She began by asking, “Do you follow Amma?” And without waiting for my response, she volunteered, “We are all Amma devotees here. We just went to see her in Las Vegas.” I knew that she came from a conservative Brahmin background; so, it was surprising to see her enthusiasm when she spoke about Amma. Curious to know more, I asked her how she became interested in Amma. She quickly turned to her daughter and asked her to share her first experience of meeting Amma. There was wonder and joy in her daughter’s voice as she told me of her plans to go see Amma again. This exchange was illuminating as I was unaware of Amma’s popularity in the broader South Indian Tamil community. Before listening to this podcast, it had seemed somewhat baffling that Amma would appear in Las Vegas. Dr. Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger explains how Amma’s embrace of her position as a transnational and “translocal” guru makes the broad reach of platforms such as Las Vegas fitting for her message.

The phenomenon of buying and selling spirituality has always been a part of public religious praxis. With transnational spirituality comes a neoliberal underpinning in which identities and cultural icons can become brands in which people can invest. Listening to Dr. Marianne Fibiger speak about Amma and her remarkable relationship with a broad community of devotees, I was struck by Amma’s uncanny ability to “market” her message to various groups. Fibiger describes this process as “hearing with different ears.” She references a devotee who remarks that Amma is “truly a saint,” in order to show how Amma has become “transnational” through a sort of Christianizing of her status as divine. It also appears to show Amma’s skills at making herself appealing to both local and universal communities. In many ways, Amma’s “universalism” dovetails with the efforts of early transnational yogis such Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo, and BKS Iyengar. They are able to repackage yoga as a universal health and wellness practice that does not require scriptural knowledge. Through a disciplined, embodied, practice, one would gain spiritual enlightenment. For Amma, hugging functions as both an act of love and darshan (seeing/experiencing the divine), helping to fashion a sort of humanistic theology (Lucia, 6).

Fibiger’s interview underscores the sheer numbers of Amma devotees as well as their varied backgrounds. The material presence of Amma is buttressed by a robust virtual one. Her website and social media presence are indicative of a savvy marketing platform. Her physical presence lends authenticity to her online brand. My response considers how transnational gurus such as Amma have learned to navigate a global neoliberal marketplace in order to sell their ideas. Amma, similar to conservative Indian public figure Ramdev, appears to have a keen understanding of her audience and how to disseminate her message and broaden her appeal. While Ramdev uses patanjaliayurved.net to market products building his name as brand, Amma’s website centers on building her brand by hawking her message. On https://amma.org/ the visitor is greeted by a smiling Amma with open arms, her tour dates emblazoned across her image. Linking a devotional picture of Amma with her next tour presents her persona and message as important and valuable commodities in high demand. Just below her image on the home page, the visitor will see four links detailing what Amma is doing now, how to donate, and information on Amrita Yoga (her signature practice). Here, the main facets of Amma’s brand emerge: charity, accessibility, and a doctrine to follow. The bottom of the home page has a brief introduction that describes Amma as a transnational spiritual teacher. Statements such as “she never asked anyone to change their religion” and “her entire life has been dedicated to alleviating the pain of the poor, and those suffering physically and emotionally” are designed to cement a vision of Amma as the accessible divine.

While her Facebook pages are largely centered on events and appearances, Amma uses her Twitter handle (@Amritanandamayi) to promote her message and build her brand as the “Hugging Guru.” The social media communities that form around Amma (e.g. unofficial “Amma” social media accounts) reinforce the transnational character of her message. These disparate groups of devotees form virtual networks through which Amma’s message disseminates. This devotional network further boosts the reach of Amma’s message and platform for charitable donation. Amma also has a series of apps (Amrita Apps). These apps provide links to her social media, news of her appearances as well as chants for sādhana (daily practice) and seva (service) opportunities. In these ways, Amma becomes a “full-service” spiritual guide, larger than just her person and her hugs. She also has several books and a few periodicals along with Amrita TV which continuously connect her devotees to her message (Lucia, 6). Through these virtual extensions of her material presence, Amma has transformed herself into a non-sectarian religious “brand,” competing for devotees in a growing soteriological marketplace.

 

Above, advertisements for one of the several shows on Amrita TV that features Amma. The network offers a variety of wholesome programming, including comedies and dramas, not just devotional programming. This program, Amritavarsham, aims to “promote world peace and imbibe the spirit of service among peoples of the world.” It opens with a brief message from Amma in which she shares “simple anecdotes and examples from day-to-day life to make it engrossing for one and all.” English subtitles are provided “so that people across the world can understand the meaning.”

Marianne Quvortrup Fibiger’s research on Amma highlights an important aspect of public religion: the making of a devotional public. Near the beginning of the interview, she calls Amma “a trans-local, transnational, global guru of today.” She then describes Amma’s appeal to her diverse community of devotees as rooted in her “authenticity,” which allows her to be a “traditional bhakti guru” as well as have “universal appeal.” Fibiger’s also points out the unsettling imagery of a large public darshan (40,000+) with Europeans in the front row in white and everyone else behind them, though she notes that these events were often a place for Hindus to reconnect with their faith. These communal gatherings of devotion provide a good example of the delicate balancing act Amma performs between the universal and local aspects of devotion. Transnational gurus like Amma must repackage religious praxis in the language of human connection in order to appeal to a diverse and broad constituency. In doing so, Amma and her message help build a public devotional community held together by commitment to abstract values such as love and spiritual harmony that are achieved through practices and teachings rooted in specific traditions. I think Fibiger’s comments on translation and understanding of religion are particularly interesting in this context. She suggests that transnational gurus like Amma can function, in a way, as translators of traditions, producing “bridges of understanding.” The questions that follow are: What is the content of this “understanding”?  And for whom is it understood?  Fibiger’s discussion near the end of the interview regarding her project on East and West spirituality underscores the ways in which these questions produce the boundaries within which these emerging spiritual identities are being forged and negotiated.

 

Reference

Lucia, Amanda J. Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

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.

 

The Hugging Guru: Amma and Transnationalism

In this interview conducted at the 2018 EASR conference in Bern, Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger speaks to Sammy Bishop about Amma, a guru who has become world famous for her healing hugs – apparently giving more than 33 million hugs over the past 30 years. They discuss the ways in which different audiences can interpret Amma’s message, and how she reconnects Hindus in diaspora with their traditions. Focusing particularly on the guru’s global reach, Fibiger discusses her fieldwork in Amma’s Kerala ashram, and how Western devotees in India are influencing developments there.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, George Michael’s “Faith” LP vinyl, the cult classic Mall Rats, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


The Hugging Guru: Amma and Trans-nationalism

Podcast with Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger (12 November 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Qvortrup_Fibiger-_The_Hugging_Guru_1.1

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hello. I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here at the EASR conference in Bern. I am here with Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger, who is Associate Professor at Aarhus University. So, thank you very much for joining us.

Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger (MQF): Thank you for allowing me to come here and talk about my subject matter.

SB: How is your conference going so far?

MQF: Oh, Great! There’s a lot of good panels and good keynotes. And I think you can see how religion, and the way that we are talking about religion, is changing – and that’s a really good thing.

SB: Ok. So your current research is focussing on Amma, the hugging guru?

MQF: Sure, yes.

SB: So for those people who aren’t so familiar with it, could you just tell us a bit about who Amma is?

MQF: Yes. She’s a transnational guru. She was born, in 1953, in Kerala, which is in South India. And she is from the fisherman class, a low-caste Hindu family. And she grew up and she had . . . This is very typical, that you look on her story in a religious-centred way. And she has some special abilities all the way. She did things all the way back to when she was about 9 years old. And this has just been developing. So you can talk about her going from being a very local girl with special abilities, becoming – what they say within the Hindu tradition – a kind of a Shakti representative, meaning that she has some kind of special female energy which is related the goddesses, which can incarnate in people. And from that she becomes a local guru you can go to and ask questions. But also – and this is the main thing about her – she also gives healing hugs. And from there, you know, it developed, she developed, the devotees around her became more, until she’s also became a guru for Western devotees. And that is where we are now. And what the organisation around her, called MAM writes on the webpage – please look into that it’s a really interesting read – she has given 35 million hugs all around the world. So what is interesting is that she’s appealing both to European Americans, she still appeals to local Hindus as well, and she also appeals to middle-class Hindus from all over India – and even Indians living in diaspora. So she’s a trans-local, transnational, global guru of today.

SB: And when it comes to these different groups of devotees, what’s the main appeal? Is there a different appeal for different groups? And does she pitch her message differently?

MQF: Yes. It’s – and this is what we always answer as researchers – it’s a both/and! So in one way she is saying the same things, but the ears that hear differ. So I think that what she says is translated and interpreted in different ways, if you look at local Indians, more transnational Indians and European American devotees. And that is what is interesting, that she can say something that in some ways goes into the mind or the brain, and the heart, to devotees from all over the world. And what I think – and this is one of my theses, or hyper-theses – is that she is balancing between being very traditional Bhakti guru, where she has a special devotionalism related to her . . . . And then she has a kind of authenticity, you know? It’s very open how you can see she is an Indian guru. And on the other hand she has universal messages. (5:00) And also that she’s a woman – I think that’s important. And she has this idea that she, herself, is incarnating a message. She is incarnating what she thinks is the main way of understanding religion, namely love, she says. “Religion is love, my religion is love.” And she thinks that she should be acting accordingly. So that’s why she also gives these hugs which should heal both the person that she heals, but – and this is very important in relation to the way we understand the world today – she will also heal the world which is “bleeding”, as she says. So she also has this kind-of very universal message that appeals to everyone. And when we are talking about this conference, you can hear how many who are referring to how climate changes, the Anthropocene – that it is the human beings in the world who are the main reason why the climate changes are so rapidly going the wrong way. And she is talking into that kind of discourse – which everybody thinks is important.

SB: Yes. And you mentioned briefly, there, the gendered nature of her message, and the name Amma obviously meaning mother. Can you say a bit more about that, maybe particularly regarding the climate change aspect, as well?

MQF: Yes. You can talk about this being a female . . . or representative of a kind-of female energy, on different levels. You can talk about it in relation to a deity worship, a goddess worship where the goddess is incarnated in that person in the world: someone thinks she is like that, and then she is a deity, and then they called her Devi Amritanandamayi, which is her name. And sometimes she’s Mata – mother – which . . . devotees I’ve interviewed have said, “She is like a mother to us.” You know? And she talks about her devotees as her children that she wants to take care of. And that is, you know, what you can do being a female. In another perspective she’s also related to mother earth, you know: that, being a female, she is kind of entangled in the understanding of the earth as a mother – which is the main reason for her life on earth – and, on the other hand, is also a mother who is bleeding. So she can be inscribed in different ways of understanding what a female, or the female, can do in relation to . . . also, to appealing to people in another way than if it was a male.

SB: And just thinking about her representing different things, as well, in this very kind of international span that she has: you mentioned, in your presentation yesterday, how she’s been representing Hinduism at the UN. Could you say a bit more about that?

MQF: Sure. Yes. It was back in 2010 when she was invited to the United Nations. And maybe she didn’t play the major role there, but she was invited and there was a speech that she created that gave her time to come and represent Hinduism there. And there was a man, he was the representative for public and private partnership in New York. And in the end of his talk he said, “What you do brings happiness to people. You are truly a saint.” And this is interesting, because he’s using the notion and conception of saint, which has Christian connotations. (10:00) So she, in that way, she was also inscribed in Christian, or a more universal understanding of her. She can be part of all kinds of denominations and relations to the world.

SB: So, taking it down to your current research at the moment: as I understand it, it’s been on her ashram in Kerala. So could you tell us a bit about the groups of people who are there and what goes on there?

MQF: Yes. Kerala, her ashram in Kerala is called Amritapuri, and I visited it for the first time all the way back in 2006- 2007, when I did fieldwork in Kerala about goddess worship. And I thought, “I need to go there!” And I was kind-of struck by the way it was organised, because it was organised by European American devotees. And I was kind-of “Well,” you know, “Is it a new way of colonising – not the land, but the tradition?” And I went to have a hug. I needed to see what she was doing. I didn’t feel that much, I must admit! But then I had to take a kind of token. You take a token and you queue up. And I was sent to queue up. There were two queues: one for the Indians and one for European Americans. And you think, “No! We can’t do it like this!” But it seems like the Indians actually didn’t mind. And what I saw was, also, seeing how she was doing very big darshans where 40,000 people, at least, came from all through India. And I saw how the European American devotees were organising everything. And they were sitting in front in white gowns, when all the different Hindus were sitting in the back. But, you know, and then I was thinking about, “How come it is like that? Is it a good or bad thing for the traditions of India?” And what I can see today is that this kind of translation – the European American devotees are trying to translate the local Indian tradition to a more global one – this is now appealing to the growing Indian middle-class in India, which is really interesting. And it has not only to do with guru worship or guruism, but it also has to do with the relationship between what we can call . . . it’s wrong to call it between East and West. And what you can see is that it’s an example of this dynamic: how I think it’s very important that you understand religion not as rooted in one context, but that we follow its route around the world. And I think its Clifford who says that you look at not roots, but routes – you know, how it’s travelling. And in the travelling the tradition is changing. But what is interesting, when it comes to the globalised world, these kind of changes are not only good for . . . not only a way that devotees in European countries understand the tradition, but now, also, because this translation of the tradition is turning back to India. And suddenly, middle- class Indians – Hindus, who are in many ways secularised and feel disconnected from the tradition that they grew up in – get reconnected to the Hindu tradition again. So this is interesting, I think. And it’s a new way of looking at how ideas, which are circulating very quickly, are translated in such a way that the appeal is wider than you believe it would be, thinking from a first order perspective.(15:00) And I think that’s interesting. And I also did a fieldwork in Mauritius among Hindus there. You know, in Mauritius, Hindu’s are a majority, but they also, in many ways, are secularised – understood as making a compartmentalisation between being religious. And in other ways they are very much secularised. And I think Amma was visiting for the first time in 1987. And a lot of people suddenly understood the tradition that they didn’t understand any longer, through her way of . . . . And also, the European and American devotees who were travelling along with her, they were kind of reconnected to the Hindu tradition again. So this is, you know, a way of understanding this kind of entanglement of different ways of translating or understanding religion. And it’s a crucial example of religion as context-related but also a very dynamic phenomenon.

SB: And when it comes to European and American devotees having a great influence in the organisation, do you find certain people kind-of laying claims to the tradition, and other people critiquing the involvement of these Western devotees as well?

MQF: Yes, of course you’ll find someone who thinks that we need to take the tradition back to the Indian roots again. Or some conservative Hindus think that she is too inclusive. And some are criticising the way that she is dealing with some of her right-hand people who are representing the MAM tradition, when they are doing things which is – in their perspective – not part of the Hindu tradition. So what you’ll see . . . and it’s the same when some Hindus think, or are arguing, that we need to get yoga back to the Hindu or Indian tradition again. So, you will always see that, you know, when things are changing someone wants it to stop. And they want to root it back in a tradition which can also be difficult to define. So you see this kind of . . . the way people want to get hold of it again and not make it open for the whole world.

SB: Yes. It seem that a lot of the discourses around it are fairly similar to the ones that happen around yoga, as well. Do you find it helpful comparing the two?

MQF: Well, yes you can do that. But the difference between them is that Amma is a guru, she’s a person, and yoga is a phenomenon. And so I mean it’s easier to get hold of, or grab onto, the messages of a person who’s still alive, than get a hold on yoga which has been changing since it was . . . . And people even don’t know when it started. Should we go back all the way to pre-Vedic tradition when it comes to yoga? Or should we kind-of place it in the Upanishadic tradition? And things like that. So, I mean, here you can actually take her messages and you can try to decipher it and try to criticise it because it’s there. (20:00) And yoga’s a floating signifier.

SB: Yes. Are there are certain ways in which Amma was able to claim authority as a guru?

MQF: Yes. And I think that’s very important as well. So it’s good that you asked me that question. Because on the one hand, she has this kind of universal message. On the other hand, she’s very much inscribed in Hindu guruism, in Bhakti devotionalism, and she also understands herself as a karma yogi – as a yogi who acting in the world. So I mean, in one perspective she’s inclusive, in another perspective she’s also exclusive. And that, I think – this kind of balancing between inclusivism and exclusivism – makes her so appealing both for Indians and also for Europeans and American devotees. And in relation to that, I think it’s so interesting to see . . . . You know, I’ve been interviewing devotees especially in Denmark where I’m from. And they are telling me how they are really trying to stick to the Indian tradition. So in some ways, and understand me correctly, in some ways they are trying to be kind-of more traditional than a lot of Hindus are, living in India or around Persia. They are telling me they would like to learn some mantras in Sanskrit; they are having a guru purnima, where they have a special day where they are devoted to their guru, which they do in the month of June, everywhere. And I was participating in one of these guru purnimas, and they were very anxious to do the puja in the right manner. And because I was there, they were kind-of, you know, “Did we do it the right way? Or should we do it like that with flowers?” And things like that. So I mean that is also interesting, right? So . . . that she’s never changing her behaviour as being an Indian guru I think is important, as well. And it’s appealing to America European devotees.

SB: Just to change the topic slightly: you raised the idea, there, of your presence as a researcher kind-of affecting the behaviour of devotees slightly, as well. So, talking about research methods, were there certain problems that you came up against? Could you say a bit more about that?

MQF: Yes. It’s always difficult just to be a fly on the wall when you are there. And when you have presented yourself as being a researcher and not an Amma devotee, people are very much concerned about “How do we, then, represent the tradition that you want to write about?” And also, you know, “In what way will you . . . . Are you having a critical point of departure, or do you want to kind-of do it in a way that could promote our tradition?” And I think it’s very important, as a researcher, that you tell them, you know, the reason for being there. And also I think it’s very important that when you write, you write the things in relation to being a researcher. And it has to do with the big discussion: emic or etic? Or also, the big discussion around this kind-of phenomenological relation to the tradition, which I know a lot of anthropologists think is important: that you can’t do research on something that you haven’t kind-of been part of yourself. I think it’s important. And people could criticise that. And I try to stand three steps behind what I’m actually doing. (25:00) And I think people are accepting that. I might not get all the answers that a person who will be part of the Amma group. But I get some other answers. And I put it into . . . . And I think that’s important, too – and that’s the way I’m brought up, in academia – that you have some kind of theoretical point of departure when looking at empirical phenomenon. And I’ll always do that. And it can give some backlash, but as long as you as researcher are very clear in your mind in the way you’re writing, and also towards the one you are going forward in relation to, I think you do what you can do. Someone will disagree with that, but I think from my perspective, it’s important.

SB: So, going forwards as well, where do you see your research going in the future?

MQF: Well, I think it will go in a different direction. I’ve always been interested in Hinduism diaspora. And the reason for being interested in that field, particularly, is firstly to see how religion is changing in relation to the social and cultural context, but also because Hinduism is so difficult to define. And I’m not going to tell you. But I’ll just say it anyway, that I’ve promised my students I will retire if I get to know what I’m actually an expert in!

SB: (Laughs)

MQF: But I think it’s very important that Hindus in diaspora are trying to put some words on what is the Hindu tradition. Being away from where the tradition has been part of culture for ages, suddenly you try to figure out, you know, what do we want to keep? And what do we want to leave behind? And I think that’s interesting both in relation to Hinduism, but also in relation to understanding religion as a dynamic phenomenon. So my research will keep on trying to look on Hinduism diaspora but also I’ve done a book with one of my colleagues called Eastspirit about how ideals, concepts, notions are circulating between what we call East and West. And what I think is so interesting is to see also how this is changing the way that Europeans are looking on their lives in the world, but in a way that . . . . I have also written an article where I’m not talking about the process of Easternisation of the West, but what I’m trying to argue for a new concept called the “Weasternisation”, meaning that the Eastern concept and notions are translated in a Western way, so they give meaning also in Western countries. And I’ve also been researching, and I would like to do a bit more about it, about how Indian or Hindu tropes are getting new meanings in a European context. Especially, as an example, you can talk about karma, which in many ways in European context is a kind of a feel-good notion. And if you compare what karma actually means in India, it has totally changed. Also, in relation to the understanding of reincarnation as “another go” – a new possibility – I think that’s interesting too. And you can’t say that the way you understand reincarnation or karma is wrong. It’s just embedded in a new European context, which makes it possible for the concept to change. So I think that’s really interesting. (30:00) And I think that’s so important. But also, in the discussion of how notions from Hinduism and Buddhism . . . it’s not the kind-of worldviews “coming to Europe”, it’s not kind-of “now it is taking over another worldview”. It is more like something . . . a part of a new way of understanding yourself. So it’s not that you have to choose between your old worldview and the Eastern one. But you can combine it. And I think it’s interesting how come that concepts from India . . . it’s much easier to be entangled, or be kind-of a floating signifier that could be rooted in a Western tradition as well. So that’s some of the things I would like to work on. And there’s a lot of things to do, so I hope someone else will take up these ideas!

SB: Yes, I look forward to seeing that as well. Marianne – thank you so much for your time.

MQF: Thank you for allowing me to talk a little about something I’m really interested in, in a research perspective.

SB: Thank you.


Citation Info: Qvortrup Fibiger, Marianne, and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “’The Hugging Guru: Amma and Transnationalism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 12 November 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 9 November 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-hugging-guru-amma-and-transnationalism/

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Gurdjieff and the Study of Contemporary Religion

gurdjieffGeorge Ivanovich Gurdjieff was born around 1866 in Russia and came to prominence in the inter-war years in Europe and the US as a “spiritual teacher” or proto-New Age guru. As well as a complex cosmology, Gurdjieff taught that the average human being was literally asleep, and that “waking up” required a great deal of work and “conscious suffering” His work was continued by his pupils following his death in 1949, and a number of books on his teachings remain in print today. To discuss his importance to the study of religion, David Robertson speaks to two remarkable scholars, Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, and Steven Sutcliffe of the University of Edinburgh.

We discuss Gurdjieff’s image as a “guru”; how deliberate was it, and where did he learn about the Eastern teachers he modelled himself upon? We discuss how much we should treat Gurdjieff as a sui generis “special case”, as Gurdjieffian scholars have tended to, or whether we would be better to treat him as a type, like Blavatksy, Steiner, Crowley and others. This then turns the discussion to the issues of researching figures like Gurdjieff whose legacies (and archives) are tightly controlled by their followers, and who often aren’t seen as worthy of study by the academy and publishers. We conclude with a consideration of Gurdjieff’s importance (or lack thereof) on the later New Age milieu, and popular culture more broadly.

And did Robert Fripp hire Toy Levin for King Crimson because he looks like Gurdjieff?

You may enjoy our previous interviews with Carole Cusack on “Cultural Production” and “Invented Religions”.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, yoga mats, plant pots, llama-shaped snacks and more.