Love Story


By Alan Reder  |  

You won’t find Darshan: The Embrace, Jan Kounen’s documentary about the Indian guru Amma, in the romance section at Blockbuster. But it’s clearly about falling in love—a bottomless love of all life and the mysterious source from which it springs.

“The creator is creation,” Amma says as the camera escorts her past the crowds and down a bustling street in Calcutta. “It’s divine power that we see in different forms…I see God in everyone and love and help them.”

This message, which captures the essence of Amma’s work, may sound like standard guru boilerplate, but it expresses the apparently transformational power of the Amma experience. Enthralled by her indiscriminate, profound love of others, people fall for her, and through some kind of mystical contagion, become an extension of her charity work. “When she saw me, she got up from where she was sitting and rushed over and embraced me,” an Englishwoman in the orange robes of a renunciate says, recalling her first encounter with Amma. “I was in shock because I had never seen someone give so much love to a stranger before. Love was just the essence of Amma that overflowed from her…Amma planted a seed of service inside us that made us want to give our lives to serve the world.”

You sense the Amma magic in the film’s many sequences about the guru’s darshan sessions. “Darshan” means “audience with a holy person,” and with one as popular as Amma, you may have to wait hours in line for your opportunity. One scene captures Amma on a day in which she embraced 45,000 people over a 21-hour period. And it seems that no one leaves disappointed. You see Amma continuously smiling, nodding, and just intently being with every person in turn. That’s when the love sparks.

Count director Kounen himself among the millions who’ve fallen for Amma’s charms. His poetically shot and edited film—which follows Amma and her entourage on their travels, starting in
Kerala, where Amma was born—is as much about Amma as it is about her adoring devotees. And from the looks of Kounen’s sweeping shots of the hundreds that come to see her, it seems that the director has joined the believers, too.

That said, Darshan rarely tries to persuade. Amma is never shown as more than human. In fact, she moves with almost painful stiffness for a 53-year-old in the birthplace of hatha yoga. “When I serve people, I have no special experiences,” she says, confirming her ordinariness. “I remain here in this world.”

Darshan gives insight into the spirit of karma yoga (the yoga of serving others), which with bhakti yoga (the yoga of love and spiritual devotion), sums up the Amma path. Her seva (service) résumé starting charitable projects that together have built more than 100,000 houses along with clinics, orphanages, hospices, and a 1,300-bed hospital for the poor; many monthly pensions obtained for widows and abused women; tens of millions of dollars pledged by her supporters for victims of natural disaster; numerous schools constructed for every educational level; trees planted for the environment.

Kounen devotes little of his 92-minute film to those accomplishments. Instead, the documentary is sprinkled with pearls of wisdom from the Bhagavad Gita, including the famous karma yoga dictum: “You have the right to act but not to the fruit of action. Never make the fruit of action your motive.”

Kounen says he started out willing to portray his subject either positively or negatively, depending on his experience. But he soon found himself moved by her and, while not a disciple, unexpectedly gained “the vision of another dimension of existence” in her presence.

And that goes to the heart of the mystery of Amma and the guru phenomenon itself. To skeptical viewers of Darshan, Amma’s modesty and generosity will seem wildly out of joint with the royal treatment and adoration she accepts everywhere she goes. But the guru-disciple dynamic is what enables her to do what she does: love on a massive scale.

Darshan: The Embrace (IFC Films) is available on DVD.