On a steamy mid-July weekend, the Amma North American Tour rolled into town, presenting devotees of Mata Amritanandamayi the opportunity to see her without a bothersome trip to an even steamier mid-July India. Ms. Amritanandamayi—thankfully, for the Hindi-impaired, better known as “Amma” or “Mother”—visits the U.S. every year as part of her mission to administer a darshan, or hug, to you and me and absolutely anyone else on the planet who needs or wants one. Yes, a free hug.
Hugging strangers is her life’s goal, and she’s embraced tens of millions of people—the healthy, the sick, the rich and the poor—in her 50-odd years of life. Amma doesn’t quite fit the profile of a guru, for she asks nothing of her many followers other than support for her worthy humanitarian projects (such as providing for the poor in her native India). She is actually revered by her followers more as a saint: someone so completely selfless that she will embrace anyone and everyone with her pure love. According to her press kit, she’s even “sucked poison from a leper’s lesions in India.”
On her Web site, Amma says: “My 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, even while breathing her last …. Amma always says that the purpose of human birth is to realize the Self or in other words, ‘to realize who we really are.’”
Never one to shy away from finding out who I truly am, and as a New Yorker who could use a big hug but prefers it in a disease-free environment, I went to the Manhattan Center on 34th Street on a recent Sunday around midday, to get a feel for what her mission is all about. I got a sense of the size of the crowd inside by the number of shoes in the hall outside. There were a lot of shoes.
Barefoot, I entered the auditorium and was confronted by a veritable swami’s flea market: stalls selling everything from incense to body lotion to those fashionable wacky rubber bracelets in every color with, naturally, Amma’s really cute logo imprinted on them. Cancer? Diabetes? No; Amma!
While I mingled with shoppers fingering the various wares—including a truly frightening Amma doll—Amma herself somehow appeared in the auditorium (what, no applause?) and sat on some cushions directly below the stage.
But I wanted to get hugged on Monday night, the night of the Devi Bhava (“ceremony in celebration of the Divine Mother”), where I was told the darshan would be the ne plus ultra blessing of the three-day event. I wanted the special hug.
And, not surprisingly, at 6:30 p.m. on Monday evening, the line to get in was already halfway around the block, populated by a mix of New York Indians, true devotees clad mostly in white and eager first-timers, none of whom seemed to mind the long wait to get in the doors.
After about an hour of standing in the stifling heat—and having memorized the schedule of movies across the road at the Cineplex—I entered the doors to the hall, where a mountain of shoes confronted me. The estimated number I was given, in the mid-thousands, led me to believe that it was going to be a very long night.
A gaudy gold and white tent had been set up onstage, and Amma and her closest aides sat peacefully cross-legged in front. She spoke in intervals and at length in Hindi or in the Kerala dialect, followed by her translator, who repeated her words in a heavily accented English. The message was nothing I hadn’t heard before. The Indians seated around me seemed content and relaxed but not particularly in awe, whereas some of the Americans glowed and displayed a beatific smile that only the converted seemed to wear. They did seem happy, I have to admit, even though I’m not sure why.
Little plastic containers of water were passed around by Amma’s helpers. For a moment, I wondered if I’d just taken a swig of the Ganges.
A neighbor assured me that it was “holy water” blessed by Amma and therefore medicinal in nature. She said that one should normally save the water and add it to a bottle at home, thus making all of the water holy, and then transfer some from that bottle to a new one, thus making that water holy, and so on and so on. Indeed—but alas, it’s too late for me to create my own endless supply of holy water.
There were a few minutes of meditation, which I was unable to participate in because of the constant squeals of little children all around me. Then, free to leave the Manhattan Center and come back for my darshan later (although everyone was advised to return before 3 a.m.), I headed over to Hell’s Kitchen for a steak frites and a glass of Jack—probably not the ideal pre-hug meal.
When I returned a little after 10 p.m., Amma was seated inside the gaudy tent with what looked like a plastic silver crown on her head. She was receiving and hugging a long line of people who slowly and awkwardly moved forward on their knees. I watched as men, women and children faithfully shuffled toward Amma, got their hug and quietly exited the stage. I noticed two severely handicapped kids who were carried by their parents to her arms. I could see the joy in their parents’ faces.
But I was also impatient. I decided to head up front and see if there was any way that my first-timer status could be used to my advantage. The lovely ladies in charge of the “priority section” were horrified that I might actually leave without a hug.
“Amma doesn’t want you to leave before she hugs you,” one kind lady said to me.
I was glad to learn that Amma felt that way about me.
After a few minutes of slow (and painful) shuffling, we finally came face to face. An assistant thoughtfully wiped my forehead with a tissue. Amma looked nothing like her doll up close. She put her arms around me in full embrace and whispered “Ma, ma, ma, ma” in my ear over and over and over. Perhaps for 30 seconds. Then she released me gently, and a couple of rose petals and Hershey’s Kisses were pressed in my palms. And that was it: a nice big hug and a few pieces of chocolate.
And I felt good! But maybe that was because I knew I was going home to bed. Or maybe I don’t know yet what really happened to me.