A Certain Grace
Going to Ione Skye and Ben Lee’s wedding in India was a journey of more than miles
If I'm going to write about Ben and Ione's wedding in India—which was, let me just say from the start, intensely profound and beautiful—there's no way around it: I have to write about Amma. Amma was the whole reason we were there, after all.
Ben first mentioned Amma to me after we bumped into each other on Laurel Avenue in West Hollywood, many miles from Amma's ashram in the south of India. As Ben and I—two Hebrew-day-school grads drawn to Eastern thought—became friends, I heard a great deal more about Amma and the profound shifts in Ben's life since he'd encountered this being. A little over a year later, I was invited to come to India for his and Ione's wedding this past December. The couple planned to be at the ashram for nearly three weeks, and guests were invited to stay as long as they wished. "It'll be a great opportunity to spend some time with Amma," Ben said.
Not your typical wedding invitation. It wasn't "ceremony at 5 o'clock, dinner and dancing to follow." If I wanted to go to Ben and Ione's wedding, I had to go to India. Luckily, I'm that dude—the dude looking for a reason to go to India. Whatever Kool-Aid Ben had drunk in India with this mysterious Amma, I was at least intrigued enough to take a sip. Now, I've danced with yeshiva bochers at the Wailing Wall, been to yoga retreats on organic farms in Hawaii, done medicine ceremonies with shamans in South America, studied the Vedas and meditated twice daily for nearly five years, even spent a not unpleasant Sunday morning at Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church. In other words, when it comes to that which might be considered spiritual, I'm kind of up for anything...within reason.
Ben Lee is an Australian singer-songwriter, and Ione Skye is an American actress. The wedding got a bit of media attention. It was widely reported that Ben and Ione were married with the blessing of their "guru," which was false. Sri Sakthi Amma—born in 1976 in Thirumalaikodi, a rural village near Vellore in South India—is not a guru. Gurus are enlightened masters who come from a lineage of enlightened masters. Amma is considered to be an avatar, a divine manifestation that assumes human form at a crisis point in history to help us get our collective act together. At 16, when most American teenagers are hoping to get behind the wheel, Amma revealed to his family that he was, in fact, the divine manifestation of the goddess Narayani. What's more, as if the "divine" thing isn't hard enough to swallow, devotees refer to Amma as "she." Even though she's clearly in a man's body—and bearded, no less!—it's accepted as fact by her followers that this is a feminine essence.
One of the things I love and respect about Judaism is that questioning and/or doubting is itself an intensely "Jewish" act. If you don't "wrestle with angels," you're not upholding your part of the bargain. In India, I became a professional wrestler, only I wasn't faking it. Life at the ashram mostly revolved around morning, afternoon and evening pujas—ritual prayer ceremonies—led by Amma. Wearing a long orange skirt with a big red dot on my forehead, I sat for hours on a cold marble floor watching Amma perform these rituals—rituals I found mostly impenetrable, made more so by blaring music, sweltering heat and the fact that nothing ever started when it was supposed to, so by the time it did, my body was in pain. And then I would look around, hoping I wasn't alone in my discomfort, only to be mocked by the adoring stares and mile-wide smiles directed at Amma.
What were they getting that was eluding me? What exactly was so unsettling about watching what looked to be a tubby Indian dude painting a cow or moving candles in a slow circle around a gold statue? And yet, if this was pagan nonsense, why was my nose pressed against the glass like a street urchin watching the wealthy feast? A kind of crippling doubt descended. I wanted proof. Walk on some water, for God's sake, make the cow fly, hit it! Was this Amma divine or one of the world's great megalomaniacs? I wasn't alone. Many of the guests were engaged in similar push-pull scenarios. Ben assured me he'd gone through more than a few and had come out on the other end. His theory is that Amma represents pure, unconditional love, and as most of us didn't grow up feeling unconditionally loved, we freak out.
It wasn't that I felt I was being taken for a ride. No one at the ashram asked for a cent beyond the $15 a night it cost to stay at the guesthouse. Something powerful was going on—I just couldn't personally locate it, as if my nervous system wasn't wired to be a receptacle for Amma's grace. I felt foolish, thick, Western. I also felt Jewish. Really Jewish. Could there be a less Jewish act than bowing before a golden idol? Worshipping a cow?
My own uncertainty would stand in stark relief to the certainty evidenced by Ben and Ione on their wedding day. Ben was perhaps the least neurotic groom I'd ever seen. And the day itself seemed touched by a certain grace from start to finish.
The morning of the wedding, we all gathered in a shaded structure behind the temples, the majority on the floor. Everyone looked spectacular in their traditional Indian attire, the women clad in saris, their feet and hands covered in henna. The regally dressed bride and groom emerged to gasps and grins ("They look like an Indian prince and princess!") and stepped onto a platform framed by an exquisite design made from crushed fresh flowers. Early in the ceremony, Ben was handed a walking stick and instructed to step away from the platform. We were told he would be going on a "pilgrimage," far from his bride-to-be. Ione's brother, Donovan Leitch Jr., was assigned to follow Ben and convince him to drop his silly pilgrimage, come back and marry Ione. It didn't take much convincing—Ben willingly returned to his beloved.
A team of priests—offering oils, spices and food to a fire—performed the marital rites, most of which were inaudible. At one point, the bride and groom's mothers were invited onstage, where their children washed their feet in gratitude—something I predict might take off in the West were more mothers to learn of it!
Eventually, Amma entered and sat on a throne, stage right, and joked with Ben and Ione as her feet were washed. (Those with foot phobias probably shouldn't marry in India.) She offered a blessing and some very nice words regarding the benefits of and wisdom behind marriage. Ben presented Ione with a necklace she was instructed never to remove.
Our traditional Indian clothes notwithstanding, there were enough familiar matrimonial touchstones following the ceremony to appease those with cultural vertigo. When we returned to the guesthouse, Ben's childhood friends Edo and Nadav busted out a hearty "Hava Nagila." (If you have the chance, I highly recommend doing a hora in India—few things will make you feel more hopeful about the fate of the world.)
After lunch was the usual round of toasts. Australian singer-songwriter Missy Higgins, who toured with Ben a few years back, sang a great cover of Roxy Music's "More Than This." Ben's words about Ione and Ione's daughter, Kate, moistened every eyeball, prompting Ione's friend Daphne to say, through tears, at the start of her speech, "Ione…you scored."
That night we took a two-hour bus ride to an Amma-funded orphanage, where we put on a talent show for the kids, who seemed overjoyed to welcome this singing, juggling, breakdancing, magic-performing gaggle of Westerners into their midst. Four returned the favor by performing a Bollywood-esque routine they'd choreographed. At one point, Ben began playing a peppy tune, and the place erupted into a dance party. There was one moment I'll never forget: A boy—he couldn't have been older than six or seven—grabbed my hands, and we began spinning. He had a look on his face that was so unambiguously blissed out it felt like I was getting a master class in what total joy looks like. Spinning in circles with that kid might have been the whole reason I had to go to India. Everything else paled.
Here's a good question: Who are weddings for? Well, that depends on who is getting married. The best weddings, I think, offer an intensely personal reflection of the couple while taking into account the people who've come to bear witness. Ben and Ione wanted to be married, but a full expression of who they were as a couple necessitated they do it near Amma. And they wanted their loved ones to experience Amma, knowing full well that those experiences might not be uniformly positive. It was brave, actually, given that most weddings are generally risk-averse affairs. As the ever quotable Daphne put it: "How nice of Ben and Ione to provide their friends with a space to have an existential crisis!"
Right before I left for the airport, Ben arranged for a few of us to sit privately with Amma. She gave us teertum (holy water), asked what we did back home and blessed us all to have a wonderful life. That was about it. Her smile, though, was notable: wide and inviting. I realized Ben was right: Whoever or whatever Amma is, she loves unconditionally. Judgment and condemnation are not in her repertoire. They're clearly in mine, human that I am, and I was granted the unique opportunity, thanks to Ben and Ione, to watch that judgmental mind roam wild. But after sitting across from Amma for all of 10 minutes, that mind was, thankfully, finally silent.
I think I know at least one thing Ben and Ione found in Amma, even if I was only able to get a taste: The byproduct of contact with the divine—if such a thing is contactable—is not raised voices or fists; it is silence, still and deep.