The French and Indian population here have a favorite word: “full.” If there’s a lot of something or it’s big or it’s powerful, it’s “full ___!” Lots of monkeys in Badami? “Full monkey!” Lots of gurus in Thiruvannamalai? “Full enlightenment!” Full moon at the mountain? “Full Shiva, full Shakti!”
There are a number of ashrams here, and also a number of gurus, swamis, sadhus, yoga teachers, reiki teachers, deekshan circles, baijans and kirtans… The foreigners sample the spiritual practices here a bit like a thali. It’s hard not to. “Did you go to Shiva Shakti today? Yesterday, it was a little off, but today, full power.” “I like Aum Amma more. I was totally blissed-out after Amma, but Shiva Shakti doesn’t do it for me.” There’s lots of tasting and comparing and evaluating, which feels totally western.
There are at least three gurus in India with the name Amma. I was talking to my silent friend about one of them and I said “Which Amma are you talking about?” and he made a circle with his arms, so I knew he meant Hugging Amma. I was getting some chai and this old Jewish guy named Moon-ee (a traveler for 40 years) started chatting me up and convinced me to take a rickshaw with him to see Aum Amma. Aum Amma is a real jokester. We arrive at the small house, and do about half an hour of chanting (I don’t know the words, but I try to pick it up as we go.) Then her swami comes out and tells us she’s coming. Then he prepares her flowers and puts the garlands around her neck. And then she is revealed, full flowers, smiling and laughing, and rolling her eyes up high in her head. Swami takes a basket of flowers and drops them into her hand, bit by bit, and she rubs them all over her faces as she laughs. After a while, she begins throwing the flowers at us and I’m laughing, thinking, I could do this! Then, we each have a private moment with her. I walk into the little space, bow at her feet, and she pulls me up to her cheek and smooshes it against mine and I throw some of her flowers at her and I laugh and she laughs. And then we’re waiting for the rickshaw outside and I get full mosquito bites.
The plan I had for coming to India was to travel from temple to temple and experience the power of the temples. And honestly, I haven’t felt particularly moved by most of the temples I’ve been to. They’re incredible and old, and I appreciate the work and love it took centuries to carve, paint, and construct them. But I am much more moved by actual practice of self-inquiry, and the simple caves and spaces where people just sat for years and years and reached enlightenment.
This morning, we climbed part of Arunachala, the sacred mountain, and reached the caves where Sri Ramana Maharishi sat for seven years. It overlooks a set of temples and the city of Thiruvannamalai. A swami dressed in orange chanted outside the cave temple while monkeys shook the trees with perfect monkey-like abandon.