MUMBAI, INDIA–As you wait in a line, a chorus of vocalists accompanied by keyboards, drums, and hand cymbals sing devotional songs, amplified over a loud speaker. The line slowly inches forward. A din of chatter fills the air. A devotee dressed in white wipes your face with a tissue, and then a sea of hands pushes you forward into Amma’s waiting arms. Large and round, she wears a white sheath, her graying hair pulled back from her face. She clasps you to her breast, kisses your cheek and whispers in your ear, “My darling, my darling, my darling, my dear.” In about three seconds, the sea of hands grabs you, pulling you away from Amma like a rolling wave.
Dubbed the hugging saint, Amma, which means “mother,” is the head of the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission Trust, a spiritual and humanitarian organization based in the south Indian state of Kerala. Her followers estimate she has hugged more than 26 million people over the last 36 years. Her embrace, called “darshan,” is the centerpiece of a worldwide movement based on what she calls the religion of love, the unity of existence and service to humanity.
“Amma is hugging everybody like that because she says that she’s seeing herself in everyone and she’s seeing divinity in everyone,” said Brian Harvey, who goes by the name Gautam, an American devotee who has lived at Amma’s Kerala ashram since 1999. “At the same time, it’s the simplest gesture there is in society. Every culture, every society understands what a hug is. It’s a universal expression of love.”
Her followers practice devotion to her as a guru and, for some, the living embodiment of God.
Mayuri Anchin, 17, an Indian follower of Amma, has been a devotee for six years. This year, she has brought 23-year-old Priti Masavkr from a town an hour away to meet Amma for the first time. “She is a god,” Anchin said. “She is everything.”
But not everyone is won over by Amma’s embrace. Meena Menon, a journalist in Mumbai and self-described atheist whose mother is a devotee of Amma, said she doesn’t see Amma’s charisma nor does she “buy” into the idea of a hug as a salve for the soul.
“You’re constantly looking for external factors to bolster your confidence and people like this cash in on that weakness, you know, which we as human beings have,” Menon said. “I don’t want to be nasty and say she’s taking advantage, but definitely she is benefiting in many ways. I can think of few people in this country who can command such a large crowd, get so much money.”
Some Indians have been highly critical of Amma and other so-called “McGurus” whose new brand of assembly line Hinduism leaves some feeling skeptical. In 2002, Sreeni Pattathanam published his book, “Matha Amritanandamayi: Sacred Stories and Realities,” in which he alleges cover-ups of suspicious deaths at Amma’s ashram, where a community of 3,000 devotees live. The book, published in Kerala, caused an uproar and a politicized legal battle between the author and some of Amma’s followers.
The criticism has followed Amma overseas. In the U.S., Jody Radzik, 47, writes a blog called Guruphiliac. A 25-year practitioner of Vedanta—a Hindu movement that teaches the divinity of the soul and the oneness of God—Radzik aims to debunk many gurus’ divine claims.
“When you pull aside the curtain, there’s a human being back there,” said Radzik, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M. “Everyone is a human being. Any good guru is not going to make believe they are anything else.”
Though Amma makes no claims herself, he said, “These gurus do everything they can do to play up their supposed divine status. Amma is the prime example. She’s silently cultivating her divine status through her organization. But if you ask her she’ll say, ‘We’re all God.’”
Nonetheless, Radzik and Menon conceded that Amma’s charitable work is impressive. “That kind of generosity, simplicity you see in very few people, very few leaders in this country,” Menon said.
Radzik agreed. “I think she is the best of the big time gurus,” he said. “She’s certainly not a crook, not a child-molester. She’s donated millions to the tsunami relief effort.”
The money the organization receives, officials of her ashram say, funds its charities. In recent years, the organization pledged $46 million for Indian farmers, $23 million in tsunami relief, $1 million to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, and additional aid for victims of the Kashmir and Gujarat earthquakes. The Mission Trust also runs hospitals, schools, a university, free housing programs, children’s camps, an orphanage, and soup kitchens that feed more than 2 million people a year. The organization also has more commercial endeavors like Amrita Television, a 24-hour satellite channel available throughout South Asia, Europe, Australia, Canada, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and on the Internet. Programming includes news, game shows, reality shows, soap operas, movies, and devotional programs.
“It’s a brand,” said Maheshi Loaiza, 45, a Colombian-born follower of 18 years and former Catholic nun who now works as a graphic designer in Connecticut. “It’s like putting the ocean in a glass. You cannot say with words what Amma is.”
With an entourage of 200 devotees from 20 countries, each year Amma tours India and elsewhere abroad where she maintains centers, including the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, and Singapore. In Mumbai alone, an estimated 15,000 people turned out for a public program in Shivaji Park on March 15 and another 5,000 came to Amma’s Mumbai temple two days later. When Amma tours the U.S. in June and July this year, her organization expects 30,000 participants in 12 cities, with 10,000 people in New York alone.
Amma spends 12 to 18 hours a day dispensing hugs. While on tour, her days off are used to travel. At her ashram in Kerala, where she lives, Amma gives hugs four days a week. The rest of her time is spent meeting with disciples and managing her empire.
“She’s really like the CEO of this whole organization,” Gautam said. “Nothing escapes her.”
At the Mumbai temple, which sits atop a hill in the Nerul section of Navi Mumbai, a religious bazaar awaits visitors. Volunteers man booths selling books by and about Amma, CDs, subscriptions to a monthly magazine, and artifacts, such as the garlands devotees place around Amma’s neck (100 rupees each).
Unlike traditional Hindu temples, Amma’s temple has only one idol: a four-sided stone, carved with the faces of four Hindu gods, one to a side, underscoring Amma’s message of unity. Next to the shrine, priests prepare “puja,” or devotional worship, before a photo of Amma. Devotees pay to have puja performed, but darshan is free.
Manik Rognath More, a resident of Nerul, has seen Amma three times. “It’s like God has come down from the heavens and has come to meet me,” he said.
In the main hall of the Mumbai temple, hundreds of devotees sit on the floor, watching Amma give darshan on a raised platform. The band sits behind Amma with a group of her closest disciples. The platform is decorated with garlands of orange marigolds and bouquets of red hibiscus, white and yellow daisies, and purple dendrobium orchids. Metallic streamers in gold, red, green, blue and silver hang from the ceiling. The air is smoky from burning incense. For those who can’t see, flat-screen televisions broadcast the darshan. Followers queue up early in the day to receive numbered tokens. The screens call token holders to line up for the embrace—A-1, A-2, A-3, etc.—women in a line to the left, men to the right.
Pradeep Kumar Gupta, a devotee of 12 years originally from Delhi, waited six hours in the 90-plus degree heat to hug Amma. “I’m going to get blessing,” he said moments before. Gupta turned to Amma after he suffered a series of mishaps such as a house fire and car accident. “I requested, ‘God, please come in front of me. I will talk to you,’” he said. “Then I found Amma. Now I am very relieved. Now, no problems with me.”
Krishna Mendan of Mumbai also hoped to receive Amma’s blessing. “I believe in Amma,” he said. “A very good guru and a very good gentle lady.”
Amma, whose origianl name is Sudhamani, was born in a poor fishing village in Kerala in 1953. She received minimal education, never married and never had children. As a female from a low caste, Amma’s rise as a religious leader has been controversial in a Hindu society where typically only men of the highest Brahmin caste can become priests. And in a break from Hindu custom, Amma ordains women as priests as well.
Through her hugs, Amma has revolutionized Hindu thought and appealed to people outside of Indian tradition, according to Dr. Selva J. Raj, professor of religious studies and department chair at Albion College in Michigan, who teaches Hinduism and has written articles about Amma for a number of books and encyclopedias. As a specialist in Hindu-Christian relations, he followed one of Amma’s U.S. tours as a scholar, not a devotee.
“In the Hindu tradition, contact of any kind often produces pollution,” he said. “You touch the guru’s feet as a sign of respect, but you don’t get a hug. That is not traditionally appropriate.”
But Amma transgresses customary Indian gender roles and social status through physical touch, Dr. Raj said.
“It’s the centerpiece of Amma’s teaching in a way,” he said. “Teaching love in a physical, tactile way. That’s what appeals to people I think. Her teaching of love comes alive in the physical contact of the embrace. And she appeals to an audience that is non-Hindu.”
For Western audiences, accustomed to the hug-and-a-kiss hello, Amma’s embrace is a physical reminder of God in their daily lives.
“Not God is up there and untouchable,” said Loaiza, who travels with Amma as a translator in Spanish speaking countries. “With mother it’s different. You have God within you.”
Thus her appeal centers on the immediacy of relating to an actual person, rather than a remote deity.
“It’s tangible,” Dr. Raj said. “You can feel, touch. You can listen. Human beings always look for someone who transcends themselves. If that person is touchable and experience-able, it gives a flavor to their quest. Sometimes the ordinary people need something to touch. The hug goes a long way.”
As each person reaches Amma’s arms, one of her senior disciples, dressed in orange, tells her in what language to whisper.
“She said, ‘my baby, my child.’” Masavkr said, of Amma speaking in Hindi. “It feel like my mother is hugging me.”
During Amma’s embrace, a few other disciples place hands on the person being cradled, such that it resembles a huddle or group hug.
Devapriya, a 23-year old American devotee from Portland, Ore., first met Amma when she was 12. “It feels, like, totally safe and like a loving experience,” said Devapriya, who moved to Amma’s ashram when she was 17. “Like any memories I have with my own mother, but much more expansive.”
Some followers throw garlands around Amma’s neck, and Amma in turn gives selected devotees “prasad,” a blessed offering of fruit from a plate sitting to her right. More than a few devotees break into tears as they are pulled from her arms.
Behind the scenes, members of Amma’s team of volunteers keep the tour running smoothly, performing “seva,” or service. They do everything from unloading sound equipment to chopping vegetables in the kitchen.
Ardash, a middle-aged disciple who lives in Majorca, Spain, refills the fruit plate for Amma’s prasad near the darshan line. Helping him is Sanjeev, a 23-year-old follower from Finland. Now in Mumbai, they have come to India to work on Amma’s tour.
Borrowing a metaphor from the fruit he is handling, Sanjeev likened Amma’s darshan to a seed. “Amma plants a seed into your heart,” said Sanjeev, a disciple for seven years. “It might not nourish right now. It can, like, blossom in many years afterward.”
Other devotees agreed. Dante Sawyer, who goes by the name Sachin, an American follower from South Deerfield, Mass., has been living with Amma since 2000.
“That first hug is the doorway,” said Sachin, 34. “In today’s world, Amma has to give some way for people to start interacting with her. So this hug is that way. It’s the beginning. It’s the spark.”