For a woman who is revered by millions as the Goddess incarnate, Mata Amritanandamayi, or Amma, has a surprisingly down-to-earth quality. She laughs easily and often, throwing her head back. There is nothing self-important or vain about her; even her translator and disciple, Swami Amritaswarup, occasionally teases her, singing devotional songs to her as if they were characters traipsing through an Indian film and earning more laughs from the guru.

Our interview was conducted on the stage of Roone Arledge Hall, at Columbia University, as Amma, dressed in a simple white sari, gave darshan (literally, 'a vision of') to hundreds of spiritual seekers who lined up for a long hug. Even as she answered questions, she continued embracing her devotees, offering words of comfort along with a Hershey's Kiss. Divinity or not, it becomes clear just what makes grown men weep at her touch. When they're hugged, however briefly, many feel that the crowd recedes and the world fades away. The Goddess becomes the mother, a child in her arms.

You had a difficult childhood, and many of your devotees come to you with heavy hearts. Can true understanding and compassion come to us only after great suffering?

For those who have a spiritual understanding, this will happen. Not for everyone. If you understand the essential principles in life, then sorrow can become the light in the darkness. But normal human beings sometimes become deeply depressed when faced with challenges of life's sorrows and pain. Whereas the spiritual seeker channels all his energies to God, the pain and the sorrow. He pours out his heart to God, to a higher reality. For him, it becomes a source of great understanding and compassion.

So pain is necessary?

It's not that it's necessary. It's just the nature of the world, it's the nature of experiences, the nature of life, that it will bring pain and pleasure, failure and success. But how you receive it, and how you look at it, how you evaluate it, is more important.

So a normal human being, he doesn't receive it with a positive attitude. So it becomes a source of unhappiness and sometimes even culminates in depression. Whereas a spiritual seeker channels that to God, the pain and sorrow, he pours out his heart to the Divine. Then it becomes a source of compassion, and it really deepens your understanding.

It's like, in the heat of the sun, ice melts and mud hardens. When there are trials and tribulations in life, our faith and our determination should become stronger, like the mud that hardens. We should not be like the ice that melts.

As the wax melts, the candle becomes brighter. Likewise, in the case of a spiritual seeker, when there is more pain, when there is more sorrow and suffering, his inner light becomes more and more brighter.

Is the wax representative of the ego?

It can be compared to the ego, but it depends on how you interpret it. You're going beyond the body and the mind mechanism. Basically, it's the ego or the mind or the thought process. A spiritual person--or a person who has a higher goal in life, like self-realization or God-realization--gains more awareness and alertness while going through the pain and sorrows of life. Suppose you have a headache and you suddenly become aware of your head. Until then, although we have a head, we have a forehead, we're never aware of it. It's the way you look at it.

Some people become depressed and they even reach a dead end of life, but others utilize it as a path to attain more understanding and also to move closer to God.

The story of your childhood is filled with many miracles. Aren't you worried that these miracles will distort your true message?

I'm not interested in all these miracles. There are no miracles which don't exist already on Earth. The biggest miracle of all is the miracle of mental peace. That's the only miracle I'm interested in. I never did anything. [In her youth, Amma was often berated by her elder brother, who disapproved of her spiritual ways. As the story goes, he one day destroyed the oil lamp that she and her followers used for prayers. She then instructed her distraught followers to fashion lamps out of seashells, substituting water for oil. The lamps managed to stay lit overnight.] They wished to bring water, so I said, "OK, go ahead and do it."

They alone did it. I didn't touch anything with my hand. They wished it themselves. I have no interest in it. They were the ones who created an uproar.

When we went there [the temple], there was neither oil nor lamps, so what was I supposed to do? I just told them to go get some seashells and pour a little water into them.

There are many people who do not believe in you, and others who do not question a thing you say. Is a little skepticism a good thing, or is complete surrender necessary?

A little bit of skepticism, but it should be born out of inquisitiveness. Some people's questions are born out of ego. That won't help you to know the reality. You will be closed. You will be obstructed, your view will be obstructed by the ego and the egoistic thoughts. People who are willfully ignorant are difficult to teach.

Someone who pretends to be asleep is harder to wake up than someone who actually is asleep. So an inquisitive nature is good.

All the scriptures, like the Bhagavad Gita, or the Upanishads, they're all in dialogue form. The disciple asks questions to the master and the master replies. But they were very genuine. The questions were very genuine and the disciples or the questioners were very sincere.

But finally, we have to go beyond all questions and all doubts. All the questions we express should be to go beyond. It's like when you look at a flower. The insect or worm will completely destroy the flower. And the scientist will make it an object of research. And the honeybee will come and suck the nectar from the flower. And the poet will write a beautiful poem, looking at the flower. And the believer in God will offer it to God. It's the same flower. Likewise, you can look at an object or a person or an experience in different ways, it depends on your mental constitution and your inherited tendencies from the previous lives.

There will come a time when all the answers will be answered from within. We will not have to ask the questions externally.

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