One evening in early March, as Amma sat giving darshan on the stage and Swamiji sang the evening bhajans, a strange scene unfolded in front of the temple. A western man walking up to the International Office and asked for—or rather, demanded—accommodation. By default, the doors of Amritapuri are open to everyone. But in this man’s case, I hesitated. He seemed quite aggressive, and his face bore the marks of physical combat. Beyond that, he was reeking of alcohol and obviously somewhat intoxicated.
As he was filling out his registration form, I sat down next to him and suggested that he come back tomorrow, when he was sober. He protested immediately, but not in the way I expected. I had thought he was a drunk who had accidentally stumbled upon the doorstep of Amritapuri and was looking for a place to sleep it off. But the crestfallen look on his face when I asked him to come back tomorrow told a different story. The man explained, “You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for this moment. You don’t know where I’ve been. Now that I’ve finally reached here, you can’t send me away!” He was almost pleading, and his body was shaking—whether with fear, rage or some combination thereof, I didn’t know.
I decided to test him. “Do you have any alcohol with you now?”
“Of course,” the man admitted, and produced a one-liter bottle of vodka. “I drink this much every day.”
“Can I have it?” I asked. “You can’t keep alcohol here in the ashram.”
I was expecting him to say no, and give me an easy out. If he wouldn’t give up his alcohol, I could easily send him away on the basis of the ashram rules.
“Take it,” he said, and handed me the bottle. “I came here to overcome my weaknesses.”
Now I was stuck. I didn’t want to take responsibility for admitting an intoxicated, possibly violent man into the ashram premises. At the same time, he had clearly come with a pure intention. I decided to bring the man to Amma before checking him in.
I asked him to leave his bags in the office and come with me. He was quiet for most of the way, but as we neared the stage, he looked at me and asked, “I’m going to meet Amma? Right now?”
I told him yes.
“I’m scared,” he said.
I told him there was nothing to be afraid of, and that Amma accepts and loves everyone as they are, no matter where they have been or what they have done.
“I’m still scared,” he said.
“I’m scared I’m going to cry.”
I laughed gently. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I told him.
When he went for Darshan, I explained what had happened. Amma looked at the man with immense compassion and wiped the tears that had begun to flow down his cheeks. “My son?”Amma asked him. “My son? What’s wrong?” She held him close for a long time and then asked him to sit by her side as she continued to give darshan.
I was happy the man had been comforted, but I was still waiting for my answer. “So should I give him a room?” I asked Amma.
Amma seemed to consider the man for a moment. As she did, I contemplated all that she could see that I could not – his past, his future, the exact state of his mind, the depth of the precipice over which he was now standing on shaky legs, the balance of light and darkness within his heart. Then she looked back at me. “Yes,” she said, “Give him a room.”
I did. And then, in the course of the day-to-day rush of life at Amritapuri for those of us engaged in meeting the needs of the ashram’s ever-burgeoning population of international visitors, I forgot about him. Two days later, she suddenly asked me about him. “How is he doing?”
I hesitated. “Um, fine, I guess?” I shrugged. With Amma, there is no point in attempting to conceal our failings, so I made no effort to hide the fact that I actually had no idea how he was doing.
Amma looked disappointed. “You should check on him every day,” she admonished me.
Feeling chastened, I went looking for him, going up to the room we had allotted.
He seemed happy to have a visitor, and told me that he was doing ok. He looked shaky, but sober. He told me that today, he had eaten solid food for the first time in many days—maybe weeks. I told him Amma had been asking about him. “She remembered me?” Eric asked incredulously. I told him yes, and made an appointment with him for later that day to go and see her.
When I met him a few hours later, he was already starting to look like a new man. He had showered and shaved, and was wearing new, neatly pressed clothes. Amma embraced him and asked him how he was doing. He told Amma how he had just started to eat solid food again. She nodded and asked him to sit right next to her again. When I met him later, he expressed amazement and wonder about watching Amma do what she does. “How can one person have that much love to give?” he mused aloud. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Amma continued to ask about him, and I continued to check on him. Every day he looked a little better. Finally I decided he was strong enough that I could break a bit of bad news to him. I told him there was a problem with his visa. It was not a serious problem, but he had neglected to complete some necessary paperwork, and it would require one or more trips to the Foreign Registration Office, which was about two hours away by car. He seemed to take it well, and started making plans to make the trip. However since Amma had personally received him upon his arrival and asked us to accommodate him and watch over him, I felt it was proper to go and speak to Amma before he went. He readily agreed. When we explained the issue to Amma, she agreed that he go. But she wanted him to be accompanied by another ashram resident. “Otherwise, he may drink,” she explained. When I told him what Amma had said, he seemed surprised but touched. “She really cares that much about me?” he asked.
“She asks about you every day,” I told him.
He was flabbergasted, but the words seemed to sink in. I arranged a devotee to accompany him to the Foreign Registration Office, and he was able to clear up the situation the same day. In the process, he made a new friend and learned that Amma has an ashram in France where he could stay when his visa expired and he returned home. He started to do seva with his new friend in the ashram compost department. He said the physical work helped him mentally, and also helped him to sleep at night.
A few days later, something else came up. “I got a call from Chennai,” he said. “They are going to put my things out on the street unless I come to pick them up.” He was planning to leave any minute. I told him we should go and tell Amma before he left. “Really?” he asked.
“Don’t you tell your mother when you are leaving her house?” I asked him.
He smiled ruefully. “My mother died a long time ago… she was a wonderful woman and she knew a lot… but I have a mother again in Amma. My mother helped me as a child, but she’s been gone for a long time, and I have had to face the world alone. Amma can guide me in my adult life, and help me face the challenges I can’t face on my own.”
I was worried about him leaving the ashram for three days so soon after he’d quit drinking. I had told him not to leave the ashram grounds as I was concerned he would succumb to temptation. “I have a confession to make,” he told me. “I’ve been out of the ashram,” he said. “Twice I went into the village. The first time, when I walked by the liquor shops, I was laughing inside. The very same places I used to rush into for refuge, and I didn’t feel any attraction toward them. I knew they weren’t my home anymore. But you know something even more amazing? The second time I went out, this morning, I didn’t feel anything at all. It was like they weren’t even there.”
During darshan, he explained to Amma that he had no choice but to go back to Chennai, and that he would just go and pick up his things and come right back. “Don’t drink,” Amma advised him, and hugged him tightly.
As we walked away from Amma, I repeated to Eric what Amma said in case he’d missed it. He looked like he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and he was sort of doing both at once. “She knows me,” he mused.
“So don’t drink,” I said, trying to give him additional strength.
“I won’t,” he said. “For her, and for myself.”
This is how Amma changes us. Focusing on the goodness left in us, Amma loves us and accepts us completely. Because she sees that goodness, we believe it is there, and because she loves that goodness, it becomes valuable to us, and we want to nurture it, and grow it.
For the three days he was away, Eric called me every day, to let me know that hadn’t fallen off the wagon. I had the feeling that it was also to keep a connection to Amma and his new family at the ashram intact, and I made sure to tell him we were looking forward to his return. Seeing him gain a new lease on life was inspiring for all of us, and reminded us of what Amma can give us if we open our hearts.
He had wanted to receive a mantra before he left, but he hadn’t gotten a chance. Over the phone he told me that whenever he passed a bar, he chanted Om Namah Sivaya and it gave him the strength to keep walking.
Eric called me this morning and said he had reached Trivandrum safely, and was in a car back to Amritapuri. I could hear the excitement and anticipation in his voice, knowing that he would be able to come back to Amma without having strayed from her instructions—to show her that he had been a “good son”.
This is the love that shines in and through Amma. The love that can awaken the innocence of a child in a man who has been through decades of hard living.