Google the word “guru” and you get a list of technology wizards, stock experts, religious teachers, freelance writers and even a rap singer. The mixed bag of results actually makes sense — according to the Oxford dictionary, in the West a guru is either a spiritual teacher or an expert in a particular field.
But in Sanskrit, gu means darkness, and ru means light; a guru is someone who transforms ignorance into enlightenment. Sounds wonderful in theory — who wouldn’t want to associate with such a person? But you have to do more than just be in the guru’s general vicinity; the relationship is very much that of teacher-student. That makes some adult Westerners nervous — we’re leery of giving anyone parental power over our lives. We fear that we’ll be taken advantage of and ripped off, and that we’ll lose our selves rather than finding our souls.
There are plenty of sad stories about gurus gone bad, but there are also many people who say they’ve benefited greatly from their association with a guru. Prashant Michael Rao is one of the latter. Since 1996 Rao, a musician who was raised in Pakistan and now lives in Vancouver, has been a follower of Mata Amritanandamayi, who is also known as “Amma” (Mother) or the “Hugging Saint.”
For the past 35 years, Amma has dedicated her life to giving people big hugs — she’s embraced more than 25 million people throughout the world. Rao, 56, says Amma is a constant inspiration, a miracle worker and a very down-to-earth woman. I spoke with him about what it’s like to follow a guru, his conversion from Catholicism to Hinduism and how his spiritual beliefs manifest in his music
You are visiting the Bay Area this week to see your guru. What do you do — what happens — when you see her?
She gives darshan, which literally means the gaze of a saint considered to be holy. But with Amma, things are not traditional. She not only looks into the souls of visitors but she also hugs them, which is highly unusual. We sit in her presence and meditate while she does this. Being with her helps me achieve more stillness of mind. And for me, that is the whole point.
Your meditation experience is different when you’re near her?
Yes. It is said that in the presence of someone who is realized your soul awakens. [That is] a catalyst for spiritual growth.
When you say she is “realized,” what does that mean to you?
Someone who has transcended the ego and the body. Most of us think we are just a body or our thoughts because we experience things through our senses and analyze it with our minds. Only a saint realizes that this is not the case. They live from their essence and know they are one with everything.
Where do you see this spiritual path leading? Put another way, what do you think is the purpose of your life?
To be free from temporary joys and sorrows — to find out what my essence is and live from that place. Most of us don’t know who we are.
Do you think that it’s really possible to know yourself completely?
It’s difficult because the only way we really can do it is to go beyond the ego and the body. You have to stop the chatter, stop thinking. The masters tell us that there is nothing to find. There is only stuff to remove. There are clouds to remove so that you can see that the sun is shining. There are doors to open so that you can see that it’s daylight outside.
And how does that happen?
The guru inspires you and points the way. But you still have to do the work. It’s a dance, a dance of grace — the guru knowing what you need, what is blocking you and what can help you in your transformation. But you still have to exert some energy and effort to look within. The guru can give you the food, but you have to lift it in your hands and eat it.
You grew up in an area of Pakistan that is now Bangladesh. And your father was Catholic. Is that how you were raised?
Yes. I used to go to church every Sunday. I did everything that Catholics do until I went to boarding school when I was 13, and then I couldn’t because my whole school was Muslim.
When I was a teenager, I was very much influenced by the 1960s sort of philosophy that had nothing to do with religion — it was more to do with spirituality. And so I dropped my Catholicism. I like the path of yoga and meditation. And I do believe that you need a guru to show you the way, just like if you are serious about any art. The inner path is so much more subtle and unknown than any worldly art or science. So you need some help.
A lot of people, especially in America, bristle at the idea of a guru. To them, it sounds like you’re turning over your will — and sometimes your money — to someone else. Do you have any of those concerns?
No, because I understand why I’m doing this. I think most people misunderstand what it really means [to follow a guru]. Perhaps there have been many charlatans posing as gurus and that’s messed it up. But a guru is not someone whom you give everything up to. The guru is a mirror to guide your inner self, but [that mirror is] encased in another human being who has realized himself, who has realized the truth and can point the way to you. So you are really just surrendering to yourself. You are surrendering your ego — your sense of “I-ness” — the idea that I’m contained only in this body. That’s all.
In certain ways, it’s a very intimate relationship, isn’t it?
It is and it becomes very deep. In fact, it becomes deeper than the relationship between lovers because you sense limitations in your companion or your beloved, your partner. But with a guru these limitations do not exist … because they are one with you.
How do you know that a guru is really an enlightened being?
Traditionally, you are supposed to check the guru out for a long time to see how authentic he or she is. In the case of Amma, most of us have been shown something that convinces us of her power.
I have had many inner experiences over the years that convince me that she is who she says she is, sometimes during a darshan itself. [These experiences include] visions or other insights that might not mean anything to anyone else — but they point me in the direction I need to go. I can see where she is directing me and how it can positively affect my life if I make certain internal or external changes.
One thing I value more than those experiences is the feeling — and many others have said this — of love. I know that’s a vague concept, but there is a certain feeling I’ve had, mostly in meditating around her during sessions for three or four hours. Sometimes she’s giving hugs and the music is playing late at night, and I have this extra energy. Instead of being tired while sitting, I get this strong feeling of love. It’s very subtle. Your thoughts slow down, and you go into such a charged state where you can feel what it means to embody love. It’s very hard to describe, but I think that is what people keep coming back for. I have never felt this kind of love any other place.
How did you first encounter Ammachi?
I saw her in Seattle in 1996. Some people mentioned they were going to see her, and after they came back they seemed to be very charged up about the experience. And so the next year I went, too, and immediately as I got her hug I just felt the reality that this is it! This is definitely real. She is a mahatma, a great realized being. And she knows me. This is someone and something I should be open to.
How often do you see her?
I try to go to India to see her at least every year. I was there last winter and before that during the tsunami. I was actually in the temple playing music when the tsunami was going on outside. We didn’t even know it was happening. People came running into the temple. I was about 10 feet from Amma, and everyone was rushing in, and I thought maybe there was an earthquake or something. Then we walked outside, and there was the water up to the front steps.
How did Ammachi react to this?
She took her sari off and she threw it in the water. This sounds like a fantastic story, and I didn’t see it directly, although I saw her later without her sari on. But people said she offered her sari to the ocean, and then the water started receding.
Do you think that story is true?
I don’t know whether it is, but there are lots of stories like that about her being in touch with nature. There’s one story about her as a young woman. She was sleeping outside and she would be fed — a cow would come up to her and actually sit down and lift its leg so that she could suck its teats and eat. And an eagle would fly over and drop a fish, stuff like that.
I want to ask you about your music. How does your spiritual life impact you as a musician?
It makes me aware that you need to play from your center. Make it an act of devotion or an offering to people. Bring something, rather than just be self-indulgent.
If there was one particular message you wanted to get across in your music, what would that be?
I’m writing some songs that are devotional in nature, mainly to God and to guru. But mostly when I play, I try to use music as a vehicle for others to go deep into themselves. I feel especially that instrumental music creates and expresses things, subtle feelings that you can’t put into words. I think that’s very precious.
Pursuing a spiritual path can sometimes become very self-centered. People can use it to detach from the world around them. How do you avoid that?
I think real spirituality is about embodying the teachings in everyday life. The ideal is that you don’t change anything in your outer life. All the changes happen inside and in your attitude outward about what you are already doing in the world. You start to offer your work in service to others and the living planet.
Keeping that worldview and caring about the world is very integral to your spiritual path.
Yes! I believe that if you aren’t striving to be one with everyone and everything, then you’ve really missed the point of any spiritual practice.
During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.