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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.