This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Amma receives SUNY honorary degree

Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, affectionately known as Amma, speaks to an audience in Lippes Concert Hall. Photo: NANCY J. PARISI

  • “Spirituality is not religious study. Spiritual education is a training that helps us to truly understand ourselves. It gives us strength and helps us comprehend the deeper realms of knowledge.”

    Mata Amritanandamayi Devi
    Chancellor, Amrita University
  • Read a translation of Amma’s address.

Published: May 27, 2010

In an event likely to be remembered as one of the most unusual in UB history, Mata Amritanandamayi Devi—affectionately known as Amma—received a SUNY honorary degree May 25 in Lippes Concert Hall in Slee Hall, North Campus.

UB President John B. Simpson and SUNY Trustee Eunice Lewin awarded the honorary degree during a colorful ceremony that included original music composed for the event, an Indian classical dance performance and music performed by Roland E. Martin on the C.B. Fisk organ.

“Through her leadership of Amrita University, as well as through her humanitarian work, Chancellor Amma exemplifies the value of international collaboration and dedicated public service in the global arena,” said Simpson. “Her personal example and leadership demonstrate the critical importance of international and cross-cultural cooperation, exchange and dialogue, and it is in that spirit we honor Amma with the conferral of the SUNY Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters.”

Most striking were the lengthy remarks given by Amma, who is founder and chancellor of Amrita University, a leading private university in India with five campuses in three southern Indian states. Since 2006, UB has partnered with Amrita University on collaborative activities that include a dual-master’s degree program in management, specifically management of information technology services. In the field of computer science, a second UB-Amrita dual master’s program is pending in embedded systems, which is a high-demand area in India. Additional collaborative programs in medicine and social work are in development.

The growth of the UB-Amrita partnership can be attributed, in large part, to Amma’s “behind-the-scenes role in nurturing and encouraging our institutional relationship,” said Provost Satish K. Tripathi. “From the beginning, she has seen the potential of this partnership for the benefit of our respective universities and our faculty and students. Moreover, in these challenging times, it is heartening to know that our students’ worldview and life approach are expanded and enriched through their appreciation of the transformational impact of global humanitarian work, which is modeled exquisitely by Chancellor Amma.”

UB’s connection with India was visually evident throughout the afternoon. Many women from the Buffalo and UB Indian communities were attired in beautiful saris. Present were many prominent members of Buffalo’s Indian community, including former Amherst Town Supervisor Satish Mohan and UB’s own Provost Tripathi. Many of the university’s 1,100 Indian students—the largest single national group on campus—were on hand as well, displaying obvious pride on this occasion.

Speaking in her native Malayalam, Amma stressed the attainment of spiritual values and the power of discriminatory thinking to make wise choices in life and therefore help advance humanity and alleviate suffering. Her analytical commentary about modern society and education—coupled with her poetic storytelling and numerous metaphors—showed just why she is both a spiritual leader and the leader of one of the fastest growing private institutions of higher learning in India. Seated on the Lippes Concert Hall stage while delivering her speech, Amma was flanked by two attendants. One of them was Amritaswaroopananda Puri, president of Amrita University and head swami. Standing at the podium and interpreting Amma’s remarks in English was Krishnamrita Prana, a senior swami who is originally from Australia.

Amma said her remarks stem from direct experience—a life “of listening to millions of people from various cultures and nationalities, and to the hard realities of their lives.” The audience had earlier seen “Embracing the World,” a video depicting Amma’s extensive charitable work as founder of Mata Amritanandamayi Math, a humanitarian organization headquartered in Kerala.

At a time of disintegrating family life, increased depression, conflict and other ills, Amma cited as a positive “the blossoming of discriminative thinking—the ability to differentiate that which uplifts us from that which pulls us down. Devoid of discriminative thinking, knowledge is incomplete, like flower without fragrance, like word without meaning, a flame and its light.”

What’s needed, she said, is “values-based education” and managing one’s own mind—apprehending the inner world as much as the external one—through meditation and humility. “Spirituality is not religious study,” she emphasized. “Spiritual education is a training that helps us to truly understand ourselves. It gives us strength and helps us comprehend the deeper realms of knowledge. It gives us the ability to face life’s challenges with courage and equanimity of mind. This is why spirituality is known as manasa vidya—the science of the mind.”

In comments especially befitting an academic audience, Amma memorably described the arduous path of study and why it needs to be undertaken. “Studying is a form of austerity,” she said. “It’s a process, like the bud unfolding into the beautiful fragrance-spreading flower. Understanding this, we should approach our topic of study with love and patience. The treasure house of knowledge is not outside; it is within us. To open its doors, we need a reverential attitude.

“In true education, neither the student nor the teacher should approach anything with a closed mind. Discarding divisions–such as superior and inferior, significant and insignificant–everything should be seen in its own place.”

Moreover, she said, before deciding whether a discovery is beneficial or detrimental, contemplation “with a meditative mind” is called for. And here again, she offered a pithy analogy: “If we only exercise our upper body, the muscles of our arms will bulge, but our legs will become like bamboo sticks. Can we call this balanced growth?”

Amma recalled the story she told a research scholar working on her PhD thesis who was profoundly discouraged by the slow progress, and how this tale emphasizing faith, patience and confidence ultimately helped the young scholar.

“Once, seeing a large group of snails moving along, a flock of birds approached their leader and asked where they were going. The leader snail replied, ‘We’re heading for the forest. We’ve heard that we’ll find plenty of fresh leaves and flowers there.’ Hearing this, the birds said, ‘Are you kidding? That forest is facing a drought. There isn’t even a single green leaf to be found there!’ But the leader snail replied, ‘That’s no problem. By the time we get there, there should be plenty of leaves again.’”

A spiritual culture also entails respect for the sanctity of all beings, said Amma, who decried the environmental degradation threatening natural existence. “If we do not stop exploiting nature and all life-forms for our temporary selfish gains, we will destroy the world,” she said.

Finally, Amma turned to the poor, for whom she has demonstrated utmost compassion through her charitable work and steadfast advocacy. One does not need a lot of money or a high position in society to help those in need, she said. “A kind word, a compassionate glance, a small favor—all these can bring light into their lives and into ours, as well.”

Noting his goal to send more UB students to India as part of the partnership with Amrita University, Stephen Dunnett, vice provost for international education, called Amma “a strong proponent of Amrita’s expanding cooperation with U.S. institutions of higher education and she has placed particular emphasis on the connection to UB, which has borne fruit in a number of ways.”