Mata Amritanandamayi (born 1953), known as Amma, is India's “Hugging Saint”—a spiritual leader who has given out hugs to some 30 million people in the course of her travels around the world.
When asked by Jesse Tarbert of the Seattle Times why she does it, Amma responded with a rhetorical question: “What is the motivation of a river? It just flows.” India has produced a variety of spiritual leaders who have gained adherents in Western countries, but Amma has been unusual in several respects, both in the West and in India itself. She is female, for one thing; most Indian gurus, or religious teachers, are male. And it is uncommon for a single woman in India, much less one of a religious vocation, to touch a stranger, much less embrace one wholeheartedly. Amma's path extends beyond hugging to a variety of humanitarian undertakings that have earned her several major awards. Emerging from a background in the Hindu faith, she has also been honored as a figure who crosses religious lines.
Born in Fishing Village
Amma was born in a poor village called Parayakadavu, in south India's Kerala state, on September 27, 1953. Her father was a fish-seller. She was given the single name Sudhamani. The names by which she has been known as an adult were bestowed by her followers: Mata Amritanandamayi means “mother of immortal bliss,” and Amma (or Ammachi) means “mother” in many south Indian languages. Amma's native tongue is Malayalam. She uses that language when traveling, relying on interpreters to communicate with attendees beyond her own retinue.
As is typical of writings about figures who are considered saintly, Web sites maintained by Amma's followers make various extraordinary claims about unusual spiritual powers and practices that manifested themselves during her childhood. When she was born, she smiled a beatific smile instead of crying. She is said to have been talking by the age of six months, singing by three years, and composing hymns and doing religious dances while still a young girl. Raised a Hindu, she heard a group of devotees discussing the god Krishna and went into a deep trance. Later, she carried a photographic image of Krishna in her pocket wherever she went. One account indicates that she spent hours in deep meditation as a child, another that her days were filled with hard physical labor to support her family after her mother fell ill.
Several facts emerge clearly from the tales of Amma's childhood. First, she was extraordinarily generous toward the frail elderly and other individuals suffering difficulties in the district where she lived. She cleaned their homes and helped them bathe, and she readily gave away food and clothing from her family's own meager stores. Her practice of giving hugs began during this period. Amma told Cathy Lee Grossman of USA Today that she decided to “make an offering of myself” to the poor and the sick. The second theme that recurs in discussions of Amma's early years is that her family was anything but supportive of her humanitarian endeavors. She was punished for giving the family's possessions away, and her spiritual intensity caused her father simply to conclude that she was insane.
Through her teens, Amma cultivated disciplines such as meditation, hymn singing, and yoga. When she was 21 she renounced the idea of marriage and dedicated herself to the spiritual life. At first, her deep trance states caused people to think of her as a medium, a channeler of souls from a world beyond. But before long a few began to regard her as a guru. Her father became convinced of her spiritual nature and bequeathed the family's small landholdings in Parayakadavu to her so that she could start an ashram, or spiritual community. By 1987, the ashram had more than 30 residents. Amma made her first foray abroad that year, stopping in France and Switzerland, and spending three months in the United States. Although the crowds that came to see her were small at the time, she succeeded in establishing the Mata Amritanandamayi Center (M.A. Center) in San Ramon, California, near San Francisco; it opened its doors in 1989.
Presided Over Interfaith Gathering
Amma slowly continued to gain followers beyond India, and in 1993 she served as president of the Centenary Parliament of the World's Religions, an interfaith gathering of 6,000 people in Chicago. In 1995 she addressed interfaith celebrations held in connection with the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in New York. While Amma continued to practice the Hindu faith, her message was a universal one. Her Web site (www.amma.org) proclaimed that “[m]y sole mission is to love and serve one and all. Amma's only wish is that her hands should always be on someone's shoulder, consoling and caressing them and wiping their tears.” Amma's gatherings attracted devotees of various faiths, and attendees experienced no recruiting attempts on behalf of any religious denomination or organization. Amma's spokesman Rob Sidon told Erin Hallissy of the San Francisco Chronicle that Amma “firmly believes that all the religions are great and they all lead to the same path.”
The growth of Amma's popularity to the level of worldwide phenomenon was due partly to her personal warmth and to the unique qualities of her encounters with her audience. Beginning around 1997, however, there was also an organized effort to “launch” Amma, as Amy Waldman put it in the New York Times. Sidon, a professional marketing specialist whose path to the position of spokesman began when he attended an Amma event (in Indian terms, a “darshan,” or an audience with a saint), contacted media outlets to publicize Amma's appearances and later organized a billboard advertising campaign. The results were impressive. Amma attracted various high-profile devotees, including former Dynasty star Linda Evans and Yolanda King, a daughter of the Reverend Martin Luther King.
The backbone of Amma's popularity, however, was formed by the thousands of ordinary individuals who flocked to her events, seeking not only a hug but also a chance, if only for a few moments, to unburden themselves of their problems. Sidon told Hallissy that people might ask about anything from why their cows were not giving enough milk to “a priest wondering if he should remain a priest. Sometimes she'll whisper something”—translators were on hand at her appearances outside her home region—“or it could be as general as ‘darling daughter, darling daughter.’ ” Simple as the encounters were, they had a powerful effect upon some devotees. Those receiving hugs from Amma were required to wipe their faces with tissue beforehand, for if they did not, Amma's sari would become streaked with makeup mixed with tears.
Amma's appearances began to fill large public spaces; on tour in the U.S. in 2004, she made a stop in one of the giant ballrooms at New York's Manhattan Center. Devotees might receive a small token that helped in keeping the lines flowing smoothly, but they would nevertheless have to wait for hours. Most were undisturbed by the long wait, and many returned year after year. “Every time I come I receive a blessing and a lesson, and I carry it with me for the year,” suburban Seattle resident Gwendolyn Benedict told Tarbert. “Please do not hug Amma, let her hug you,” a sign might read. After receiving their hugs, those leaving the stage where Amma sat might find themselves holding a flower petal or a candy kiss. Devotees reported a sense of calm and well-being after receiving their hugs.
Founded Hospital and Schools
Amma's mission, however, extended beyond her personal appearances. In her home state of Kerala, various charitable works owed their existence to her efforts. The most ambitious was the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, which opened in 1998 with more than 30 departments and ten specialty laboratories. The AIMS Hospital, with 1,300 beds, provided care for 751,098 patients between 1998 and 2006, and the Amrita Kripasagar hospice offered care for terminally ill patients—something usually out of reach of ordinary Indian families. Under the umbrella of the center in San Ramon, Amma operated soup kitchens in 30 American cities. She donated one billion rupees (about $23 million) to aid survivors of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and an additional $1 million for relief after Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005.
It was Amma's humanitarian activities that attracted Sidon and other devotees. “I was very impressed,” he recalled to Eric Kurhi of the Contra Costa Times of his early meetings with Amma. “It wasn't so much just the hug, it was the whole philosophy, the humanitarian effort behind it. Amma is walking the talk.” Many who came to Amma's appearances were drawn by sheer curiosity. And for others, she had an appeal on multiple levels. “You can take her as a sweet woman from India who gives you hugs up to the divine mother incarnate,” Stella Petrakis of San Francisco told Hallissy. Her activities included the provision of social and medical services, spiritual teachings and secular education, and environmental protection under the auspices of her GreenFriends organization, which planted 100,000 trees annually in Kerala. As of 2005 the Amritanandamayi Charitable Trust operated centers in 15 countries, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Britain.
These activities earned Amma a variety of awards beginning in the early 2000s. She was given the Gandhi-King Award for Nonviolence in 2002 and the James Parks Morton Interfaith Award in 2006. In 2007 she won a special humanitarian award at the Cinema Verité Film Festival in Paris, France, presented (by actress Sharon Stone) in connection with Darshan, a documentary that chronicled her life and activities. Several books of Amma's teachings, some of them in dialogue form, were translated from Malayalam and issued by the M.A. Center in San Ramon.
By 2007, not slowed by a 2005 attack by a man with a concealed knife, Amma had hugged an estimated 30 million people. She was noted for refusing to leave an event until all who had come for a hug had received one, even dispatching helpers into the crowd to tell visitors that she hoped they would not leave before she had a chance to meet them. In one 24-hour period in 2003, on her birthday, she reportedly hugged 75,000 people—three per minute with a few short breaks, but she showed few signs of tiring of her international schedule. “Just by feeling (someone's) pain you cannot resolve it,” she told Grossman. “You have to do something. If you see a blind person who is crying, why suffer for him when you can hold his hand and help him across the street?”
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