Chapter 26: Tsunami!
This is the moment to awaken the love and compassion within us. This is the time to pray with our hearts and work with our hands. Let us lend a helping hand to those who are grieving and thus light lamps of kindness and compassion.
When the killer wave of the Asian Tsunami suddenly surged into the ashram on the morning of December 26, 2004, my wife Tarini Ma and I were up in our tenth floor flat and didn’t feel a thing. She had arrived the night before after spending two months on her own in Venezuela, and we were enjoying a leisurely breakfast together. It was only when I went out on our balcony to take in the view that I realized something was seriously amiss: the river was full of strange debris and was eerily foamy in appearance. At first I thought someone up river must have dumped a huge amount of garbage and soap powder into the water, but when I asked our neighbor, she said, “Didn’t you hear? A tsunami hit the peninsula half an hour ago! There was a huge earthquake off of Indonesia. They’re expecting another wave soon!”
What? No way! While we were eating our porridge? I ran around to the other side of the building to survey the ashram grounds, and there, ten floors below, was Amma, wrapped up in a large yellow shawl, wading through knee-deep waters! I quickly ran down the stairs to see her more closely and, from the fourth floor, I could see that her shawl was imprinted with OM Namah Shivaya mantras. I’ve never seen her dressed like that, either before or since; it must have been an urgent reminder to all of us to chant our mantras. She was surrounded by several of her swamis, and seemed to be giving instructions. Some brahmacharis near her were shouting to everyone in the building to not come down; apparently there was concern the second wave might be even higher.
Being by nature a bliss bunny, who had tried for fifteen years to remember that everything is Brahman, that suffering is an illusion, and that no event in time and space is real, my attitude was, “Wow, what an amazing leela! But only the Atman is real. And here I am with my beloved Amma!” So I joined my palms in a namaste and beamed a blissful smile down to Amma… but she psychically brushed it aside like an annoying insect; she was having none of my foolishness.
What I didn’t realize was that the tsunami had already killed more than 230,000 people around the world, and more than 60 had died that morning on the long, thin stretch of land between the ocean and the backwaters where the ashram is located. India’s west coast, where we were, had been hit with a surging wall of water six to ten feet high, which had wrapped around the bottom of the subcontinent – but on the eastern coast of both India and Sri Lanka, the killer wave had been 30 feet tall, wreaking total devastation. Even where we were, children had been ripped from their mothers’ arms and drowned, elderly people died in their beds, husbands and fathers had been crushed to death by falling walls. Many houses had been destroyed near the ashram – and more destruction was on its way. So, Amma was in crisis mode, doing all she could to protect the lives of the ashramites and provide for the victims.
She instructed a crew of brahmacharis to run immediately into the surrounding community, search all the houses and do all they could to help the victims. They went off as fast as they could through the knee-deep water.
After ensuring that everyone in the ashram was safely out of reach of the next wave, Amma made sure that anyone needing first aid received it. Several nurses were in action, checking up on the devotees, and amazingly, not one of the ashramites or visitors had been seriously hurt. The only injury in the whole ashram was a sprained ankle. Amma next made sure that all the ashram animals were brought to safety; all the cows, together with the ashram’s baby elephant, Ram, were led up the marble stairs into the large hall of the Kali temple, where they could be kept out of harm’s way.
Tarini Ma and I retreated to our room to await further instructions. It was clear that there would be no ashram lunch, as the kitchen was surely flooded with two feet of water! Tarini Ma had brought me a gift from Venezuela: a large bag of about fifty granola bars. As lunchtime approached, realizing that people in the building were probably hungry, I walked around handing out the granola bars, and they quickly disappeared. Our tiny way of chipping in to help!
Many clues later emerged which indicated that Amma had known about the tsunami in advance. An hour before the wave hit she had told one of her devotees, “Go out and move your car unless you want to see it floating!” A couple of hours before the wave came, some Westerners had been walking on the beach near the ashram, and noticed that the water had strangely receded, exposing a large stretch of sandy ocean bottom, and they had wandered out to explore the freshly revealed area. Without explaining why, Amma sent two brahmacharis running to the beach to bring all the visitors inside the ashram.
During the previous year Amma had said again and again in her public discourses that Mother Nature was angry at humanity for our constant pollution and abuse of nature, and that painful changes and difficult times were ahead. After the tragedy we learned that the day before the tsunami, Amma had said to one of her swaminis, “The changes I have spoken of will start tomorrow.”
Another interesting point is that Amma had announced, four hours before the tsunami wave arrived, that darshan would be held in the Kali temple that morning, rather than in the big hall; this was a bit strange, since there were many people in the ashram that day. But in hindsight, the choice reveals Amma’s foreknowledge of the disaster. The hall of the Kali temple is twenty-five feet above ground, whereas the big hall, where large programs are usually held, is at ground level. Due to the change of venue, when the wave surged through the ashram almost everyone was safely above the water’s reach.
Some people may be wondering, “Well, if she knew about the tsunami in advance, why didn’t she announce it was coming?” I can only say that this leads us into complex theological territory. It is well understood in India that Mahatmas such as Amma know the past, present and future of all beings, and are fully cognizant of all that will happen in the Earth’s future. And yet Mahatmas also know the role that they are destined to play in God’s movie, and are fully aware of what they can say and do, and what they can’t. Amma’s public persona is that of a humble humanitarian. She never declares, “I am God, I know everything.” She teaches us to be humble through her own humility, and simply reveals what she is through her infinite Love and tireless service of humanity. So it is certainly not her role to get up and publicly predict disasters.
Even though Mahatmas have enormous power, it is not God’s will for them to prevent all suffering. After all, suffering is one of God’s best tools to help us awaken to our true nature. If life wasn’t full of suffering, most of us would probably be content with a life of sense pleasures, and wouldn’t bother to seek anything higher. Some people are destined, due to their past karmas, to die in natural disasters, and Mahatmas can only intervene to the extent that God wills. And to some extent, our unrighteous past actions and lack of faith may limit the amount of help Mahatmas can give us.
Great souls such as Amma are embodiments of pure compassion, and have taken birth to rescue those who are suffering in ignorance. Our suffering is by no means their fault; it is due to our own ignorant thoughts and wrong past actions that we suffer. Mahatmas are like lifeguards who are diving into the dark waters in which we are drowning in order to save us, making the highest kind of sacrifice to benefit humanity. The only proper attitude towards such great souls is gratitude, reverence, and love. Yet I have heard that many people come to Amma and wag their fingers in darshan, saying things like, “My cow is not giving enough milk these days! Aren’t you God? This is your fault!” Or, “I lost so much money in the stock market last week! Why didn’t you protect me?”
If we make no effort to sincerely follow Amma’s teachings in our lives, and don’t accept the instructions she gives us on a day-to-day basis, how can she be expected to fully protect us? If we don’t live with an attitude of real surrender, can we expect the highest kind of grace? Amma does all she can to bless and take care of us, but there are times when the law of karma has to take its course.
The second wave arrived within an hour, thankfully less harmful than the first. New instructions soon came from Amma: everyone, including those from the surrounding, should immediately go across the river, via the large ashram motorboats, to Amma’s university, where we could all be housed during the crisis. Tarini Ma and I quickly packed small bags and some bedding, and made our way to the ground floor – and there was Amma, personally assisting with the evacuation process, giving instructions to brahmacharis and caressing any frightened visitors. By this time most of the water had receded, and we were able to walk over the muddy ground to the boat jetty, where Swami Paramatmananda was graciously ushering people onto the boat.
When we arrived at the university we were guided by staff to the second floor, where we found a space to call home on the floor of one of the classrooms. Going downstairs again to see if there was any way we could help, we were impressed to see that brahmacharis had already managed to prepare lunch for thousands of people, along with huge amounts of tea. It’s amazing how quickly things can get done around Amma: her orders are followed without delay by those who know who she is.
After lunch, as we were walking through the ground floor we happened to pass by a room where Amma was giving darshan to some of those who had lost family members in the disaster. It was a heart-wrenching scene, with parents weeping inconsolably for their dead children, and desperately seeking solace in Amma’s arms. Amma herself had tears rolling down her cheeks. A brahmacharini told us that Amma had not eaten all day, and that when she had offered her a glass of water, Amma had refused it, saying, “How can Amma take water on a day when so many people have died?”
In addition to the high quality medical clinic inside the ashram, which has always been free for the public, the ashram immediately set up roadside clinics in several places in the community, where the injured or sick could easily come to receive free care and medicine. Food stalls were also set up along the beach road, where breakfast, lunch and dinner were distributed free to the local people, and Tarini Ma and I volunteered to serve breakfast in one of them, honored to be doling out upama (savory porridge) to these humble folks, many of whom had lost everything: relatives, houses, fishing boats, and any source of livelihood. Amma made it clear that everyone in the surrounding communities was welcome to stay at the university and receive free meals there.
As per Amma’s instructions, construction immediately began on several large shelters to provide housing for all who had lost their homes. The cement foundations were poured within two days; up went corrugated tin walls, windows, doors and a roof – and only six days after the tsunami, the shelters were formally inaugurated, and the homeless had a place to call home. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, local politicians spoke in glowing terms of Amma’s rapid response to the crisis. The national, state and local governments had been hamstrung due to red tape and political quarreling, and had done very little to assist those affected by the tragedy, but Amma had acted without the slightest delay to help the victims in every aspect of their lives. A couple of days later, the ashram was full of people from the surrounding towns, who had come to receive the substantial gift of money Amma was offering to any and all victims in the region, to help them buy necessities such as fishing nets, food, household goods, washing soap and clothing. All in all, Amma donated more than $46 million in aid of various kinds to the tsunami victims. She even constructed a high quality concrete bridge from the peninsula over the backwaters to the mainland, so that residents could quickly flee to safety in case of another tsunami, rather than have to rely on wobbly canoes for their escape.
Soon the work began of building new houses to replace those which had been damaged or destroyed by the killer waves. Amma wanted the new houses built strong enough so that they could withstand the impact of an earthquake, and also to have a second story accessible by stairs, so that in the event of another tsunami people could quickly climb to safety. To make them earthquake resistant, the houses were built with huge, heavy bricks, each one weighing several kilograms. These super bricks were carried to the worksites by hand or wheelbarrow by the devotees, many of whom worked all day in the hot sun for months on end to bring the project to completion. Hundreds of houses went up, not only on the peninsula where the ashram is located, but also on India’s east coast, where the destruction had been even more horrific. Amma also constructed new housing in Sri Lanka, where many thousands had died in the disaster.
To date, more than 45,000 houses have been built by Amma’s organization throughout India, not only for victims of natural disasters, but also for the poorest of the poor – and Amma has promised to build at least 55,000 houses more.
Two weeks after the tsunami, Amma gave a three-day retreat for all the children in Kerala who had been affected by the disaster, and personally taught swimming classes for the children in the ashram pool, to help them overcome their fear of water.
Dozens of fishing boats were built by the ashram and donated to those who had lost theirs in the catastrophe, together with outboard motors and new nets. Hundreds of sewing machines, and training on how to use them, were given to local women, so they could provide sustenance for their families at a time when many fishermen still felt too afraid of the ocean to take their boats out in quest of fish.
There were several women on the peninsula who, after having had one or two children, had opted to have their fallopian tubes tied to prevent more births – and then lost their only children in the tsunami. Amma offered to pay for them to have operations at AIMS hospital to have their tubes untied, so they could give birth again. The videotaped testimony of one such woman, overflowing with gratitude after she had been enabled to give birth again, is a powerful revelation of the beauty of Amma’s compassion in action. This is Love itself flowing to humanity, joined with the highest kind of practical wisdom.
Whenever there is a major natural disaster anywhere in the world, Amma immediately sends help. In the case of earthquakes or floods in India, as soon as news of the disaster arrives, Amma sends teams of doctors and volunteers, along with medical supplies, food and clothing. Amma’s AIMS hospital has a mobile operating theater contained within a bus-sized vehicle, which goes directly to disaster sites to perform emergency surgeries. Since that vehicle is connected to some of the world’s best hospitals via satellite, the doctors can instantly consult with expert surgeons to ensure the best possible outcome for their patients.
Amma recently donated an $8 million aid package to the victims of the Uttarakhand’s devastating 2013 floods. A large team of volunteers from the ashram is currently reconstructing thirty-five entire villages there, while serving the victims in any way they can and helping rebuild their lives.
Tarini Ma and I were with Amma in Bhuj, Gujarat, in 2002, the scene of the horrific earthquake a year earlier, the occasion being Amma’s inauguration of three new villages, each one consisting of several hundred houses and a community center, which the ashram had built for those whose homes had been destroyed in the tragedy. It was profoundly touching to not only witness Amma handing over the keys of the new houses to these beautiful Gujarati villagers who had suffered so much, but also to see the ruins of their previous homes in the surrounding area, stark reminders of the earthquake’s destructive fury.
When disasters strike in countries outside India, Amma requests her devotees in those countries to go and serve the victims in whatever way they are able – and she also provides a remarkable degree of financial aid. She donated $1 Million to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in the US, and similarly large amounts to the victims of the recent Japanese Tsunami and Typhoon Haiyan, which tore apart the Philippines in 2013. After the horrific earthquake in Haiti in 2010, in addition to sending a team of volunteers, medical supplies and money, she also created an orphanage there. This is in addition to a new orphanage in Kenya, where many of the participating children have AIDS, and an orphanage for 500 children in her home state of Kerala, which she has been running for many years, and which consistently turns out some of the most successful high school graduates in the state.
Although there are many great humanitarians in the world today, I don’t believe any individual is doing as much to serve and save the planet as Amma. As Pulitzer Prize Winner Alice Walker put it, “Amma presents the kind of leadership we need for our planet to survive. This is the most heroic person I’ve probably ever met.”
In addition to natural disasters, India is currently facing another kind of crisis, this one largely man-made. In recent years there has been an epidemic of farmer suicides, more than 300,000 since 1995. This is largely due to the despair farmers have fallen into over the huge debts they have accrued through purchasing the expensive, genetically modified (GM) seeds that are virtually the only choice available on the Indian market now. Monsanto now controls 95% of the supply of cotton seeds available in India, which has allowed them to raise prices to astronomical levels. Since GM seeds were introduced in India, seed prices here have increased by 8,000 percent! Ironically, Monsanto’s GM cotton turned out to be vulnerable to infestation, so even after farmers had made a huge investment in seeds, in many cases their entire crop was ruined. There are other factors contributing to this crisis also: climate change has shifted weather patterns, so rains have become unpredictable, and floods and droughts have increased, which have often wiped out the farmers’ work completely, leaving them hopelessly indebted to lenders.
Amma has responded to this crisis with a huge fund to support the farmers and their families, and provide scholarships for the farmers’ children, thereby taking some of the crippling financial burden off of their shoulders.
She also runs a program which provides pensions for 100,000 poor widows, thereby preventing them from starving or from having to enter the sex trade to survive. She also offers numerous programs of vocational training for poor women in outlying areas, helping them to create some level of financial independence for themselves and their families. Amma’s food programs in India provide 10 million free meals each year.
I really don’t know what the poor of India would do without Amma’s help.
Whenever there is a problem that Amma can help with, she does so immediately, with full commitment, penetrating intelligence and all the resources she can come up with. As Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, said, “Amma has done more work than many governments have ever done for their people… Her contribution is enormous.”
For the latest information on Amma’s ever-growing network of humanitarian projects around the world, see www.embracingtheworld.org.
On behalf of all those who have been helped (including me), I just want to say, with all my heart,
Thank you, Amma!
Connect with me on:
Those in India should click here: