The Hugging Saint

A guru named Amma has drawn 32 million people into her embrace - spreading a message of love, compassion and overpriced merchandise

hugging saint
Pari Dukovic
Amma receiving one of her devoted followers in New York this July.
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They make the journey every year, thousands of people heading up an unmarked, unpaved road into the feral hills outside San Ramon, a suburb some 30 miles east of San Francisco. Their destination is the tranquil and sprawling grounds of the M.A. Center, an ashram named after Mata Amritanandamayi, a 58-year-old spiritual guru from southern India. Known to her devotees as Amma, an honorific nickname meaning "Mother," she is most famously referred to as the "hugging saint" because of her trademark blessing: a big, rapturous hug that her admirers describe as a transformative event – an infusion of pure, unconditional love that works on you like an elixir, cleansing the soul and bringing about a higher state of consciousness. Wherever Amma goes, people wait for hours in order to kneel before her and be embraced, and they are waiting on the morning in early June when I first arrive: blissed-out clusters congregating around the ashram's temple, everyone basking in a collective mood that is as seductive as it is unnerving.

Inside Amrita Hall, as the modest A-frame structure is called, Amma is surrounded by a dense, undulating throng. Clad in a billowing white sari, her rotund figure is perched atop her dais, a cushy throne draped in garlands and strewn with rose petals. A sly, benevolent smile spreads across her face as she pulls one person after another to her bosom. This is what she does nearly every day, breaking for only a few hours in the afternoons, and going until three, four, five in the morning. Her stamina is a point of reverence among her "children," as devotees refer to themselves, more than a few of whom are sitting on the temple's open floor in the lotus position, watching the proceedings projected on a massive screen hanging from the ceiling, tears streaming down their faces.

Amma devotes much of the year to touring the world in order to hold everyone from migrant workers to celebrities to Western yoga obsessives in her arms, and she is here on the second stop of her annual, 10-city tour of North America, a zigzagging seven-week sojourn across the continent that begins in Seattle and ends in Toronto, during the course of which she will dispense somewhere in the ballpark of 60,000 hugs, adding to the 32 million already under her belt. She attracts a diverse crowd, Amma does. Wandering the temple, I see aging hippies happily petrified in late-Sixties nostalgia, earthy suburban yuppies, square-jawed businessmen, macrobiotic hipsters, plenty of toddlers and teenagers, and the smattering of Indian immigrants who are on hand wherever Amma sets up camp. There are many who compare the environment of Amma's tours to that once fostered by the Grateful Dead or Phish: a parallel reality where such positive vibes prevail that you never want to leave. In fact, some people do not leave, finding the Amma experience so intoxicating they travel with her from city to city, from country to country.

"For me, in the beginning, it was more about the social aspect of Amma, just meeting like-minded people," says Gabriele Cook, an extravagantly tattooed 29-year-old whom I meet at the entrance. A former biotech researcher, Cook quit her job three years ago and has been with Amma on and off ever since. She has followed Amma through Europe and spent two extended stays at Amritapuri, Amma's ashram in the southern Indian state of Kerala, which is where she lives when not touring and where many of her most rapt followers set up permanent residence. "It's a pretty intense place, especially for a woman," says Cook. "You have to stay covered all day, and it's a hundred degrees, so it's nice to see her in the West," she adds with a laugh, "where I can have my arms exposed." Cook plans to follow Amma to Los Angeles before catching up with the tour in Washington, D.C., New York and Boston. "Now, the whole thing is about me trying to become a better person," she says, though later on she will joke, in a way that lets me know she isn't quite joking, that she may have also been spending so much time around Amma for other reasons: "You know, so I don't have to make a decision about what to do with my life."

Amma is unusual among Indian gurus in that she is, to put it in Western terms, completely self-made. Gurumayi, for example – featured prominently in Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love – the only other living guru who approaches Amma's level of global recognition, was appointed to her position by her own guru, after years of study and dedication. But Amma never had a guru. Her devotees believe she is the rare being who has achieved full enlightenment on her own, a divine soul in a human body. As evidence of this, they tell you the stories all of Amma's followers know by heart: about how as a young girl growing up in a small Kerala fishing village she had an abnormally compassionate nature, giving her own food to more needy strangers and consoling the sick; about how her parents, conservative Hindus, didn't know what to make of her, and as Amma came of age they hoped to arrange for her to be married; about how Amma rejected this, angering her relatives to such an extent that one tried to poison her for bringing shame upon the family; about how Amma lived, and continued to spend most of her time outside, alone, meditating in a small temple she built on the property; about how people began hearing of this mysterious young girl and made pilgrimages to see her, and when they did, she opened her arms to them and pulled them close; about how Amma once sucked the pus out of the contagious wound of a leper; about how people began calling her Amma, it was just a natural instinct; and about how today Amma's own mother, now a believer, along with the rest of her family, calls her Mother.

But Amma, like many who find success without being born into it, can trace her current prominence not merely to her natural charisma but also to her savvy at harnessing it on a large scale. Her ashram in India, for instance, built on the land where she grew up, was once little more than a few huts; today it has evolved into a kind of city unto itself, with soaring high-rises, some 5,000 permanent and semipermanent residents, and up to 15,000 visitors on a busy day. A university and a hospital exist in her name. She has used her prominence to start a network of charities, called Embracing the World, which focuses on providing food, housing, education and medical services to the impoverished. According to Amma's organization, her charities bring in an average of $20 million in donations annually – however, it's difficult to say just how much Amma's group is worth. Evidence of her material gains can be seen in the impressive real-estate portfolio Amma has amassed over the years. The M.A. Center in San Ramon, founded in 1989, is her oldest outpost in the U.S.; more recently she acquired a $7.8 million mansion in Maryland, once owned by the Shriver family, to serve as her D.C.–area ashram, as well as properties outside Chicago and Boston, not to mention those scattered throughout Europe.

The tours double as fundraisers. At San Ramon, I can take only a few steps in any direction before running into a donation box, and outside the temple a number of vendors are doing brisk business selling clothes, coffee and "Amba Juice" smoothies. Inside, meanwhile, a large portion of the temple has been turned into a kind of bazaar specializing in all things Amma: T-shirts, hoodies, books, DVDs, magnets, key chains, essential oils, body washes, mantra counters. There is jewelry Amma has blessed ranging from silver bracelets costing $800 to a silver crown for $5,000. One of the most sought-after objects for sale is the Amma doll: a stuffed, handcrafted replica of Amma whose design seems inspired by the Cabbage Patch Kids. It comes in small, medium and large – $45, $90 and $180, respectively – and the idea is that it provides a kind of cosmic hotline to Amma when not in her presence. "Sometimes, I need a hug from her, and that same feeling of all-accepting love and softness is there," a nameless devotee says of the dolls on the Amma Shop website. "It is as if she is my little piece of Mother." Inside the temple, a number of people take to clutching their Amma dolls while staring at Amma, as if trying to double the dose of enlightenment, and seeing them it is impossible not to be reminded of how the line where devotion blurs into obsession, where faith morphs into fanaticism, can become so thin and porous that you can cross it without ever knowing it.

"When I first started traveling with Amma, I thought it would be, like, six months," a young woman tells me on my second day at the ashram. "That was six years ago." Indeed, I spend three days at the site, a sleep­deprived blur during which time takes on malleable properties. While waiting for my own hug, I wash dishes and serve food, something all attendees are encouraged to do in order to understand the value of putting others before yourself. Then, after spending countless hours on the periphery, I decide that it's time to enter Amma's arms, to experience the Experience. Whereas the prevailing mood on the grounds is casual, a kind of collective hang, there is a palpable shift in energy as I get to the front of the line. Aside from those waiting for hugs, there are many others clamoring just to be closer to Amma, pushing forward with the ferocity of concert­goers trying to reach the edge of the stage. Aside from these fervent admirers, there are about a hundred people who have just received a hug, and who, as part of official post-hug protocol, are now seated in a semicircle around Amma's dais, digesting the sensation. And finally there is the team working to prepare people for their hugs, some taking those in line by their shoulders and positioning them on their knees, while others make sure everyone removes their glasses, while still others sit wrapping Hershey's Kisses in rose petals, which Amma hands out after every hug. Two people volunteer for the job known as "stargazer," a role in which you sit at Amma's feet and stare at her raptly. This is one of the most prized jobs on the tour.

These workers, many of them in their twenties, all wear the green plastic bracelets indicating they are official members of Amma's staff, a force numbering 275 for the North American tour. These are coveted spots. People will tour with Amma on their own for years in the hopes that their dedication will earn them a staff spot the following year. (I meet one staff member who has just graduated from Cornell Medical School and is preparing for her residency come fall, another who paid his way playing online poker.) The "staff" label, however, is somewhat misleading to someone with a traditionally capitalist perspective, in that Amma's staff is made up not merely of those willing to volunteer their time but also of those willing to pay to volunteer their time. This year's cost to be a staff member is around $2,000, not including airfare to Seattle, where the tour began.

Her hugs are referred to as darshan, a Sanskrit term roughly meaning "visions of the divine," and as gratitude for this vision it is customary to bring Amma a gift before your hug. People are coming to her with everything from coconuts to candy bars to handmade crafts, and for those who forgot to bring something, a table is set up at the start of the line where gifts for Amma are for sale: bouquets of flowers ranging from $5 to $20, a Toblerone bar for $5. (One staff member, I notice, has the job of collecting the bouquets in a basket and then running them back to the table, where they are resold throughout the day.) Before my hug, a plump guy in his forties with greasy brown hair shows up with a package of pecan cookies for Amma. She opens it with the zeal of a small child, and as she places a cookie in her mouth, two of her staff members rush in, cupping their hands under her mouth to ensure she doesn't dribble any crumbs into the hair of the man, whose face is now buried in her chest. As Amma holds him, she hands what is now a Blessed Cookie out into the crowd, and I watch as it is broken into minuscule pieces – crumbs, really – which are savored by those surrounding her.

Eventually, it's my turn. The chaos around Amma is unnerving, a chaos she seems immune to, but as she pulls me into her arms something happens: All goes silent and peaceful, like closing the door to a party, and I wonder if this sudden jolt, from chaos to calm, is at least part of the hug's appeal. At one point Amma breaks from her embrace and stares into my eyes, and then pulls me in again, tighter, this time whispering something in my ear that I can't quite understand. Mamma Mamma Mamma. The thing people say about great politicians, about how they provide you with the sense, however illusory, that you are all that matters – Amma has that. I feel better than when I entered her arms, there's no denying that much, yet like coming down from a high, this euphoria fades quickly, especially once I rejoin those in the post-hug pool around Amma.

"I'm telling you, man, she's like Jesus, but on Earth," whispers the young man next to me, a guy I will get to know over the next few days, and who will ask, repeatedly, if I can help him find work since he's spent all his money traveling with Amma. "I'm in a really great place right now," he adds, "and I owe it all to Amma."

Earlier this year, in January, a 53-year-old Australian woman named Gail Tredwell posted a message in a Yahoo Group dedicated to former devotees of Amma, or "Ex-Ammas," as they refer to themselves. Tredwell was 21, an impressionable young woman who had become enamored with the idea of finding a guru while backpacking through India, when she first journeyed to see Amma. That was 1980, and at the time Amma's followers consisted of a handful of Indians from nearby villages. Tredwell ended up staying for 19 years, becoming Amma's first Western devotee, learning to speak fluent Malayalam, Amma's native tongue, and witnessing Amma's steady evolution into the phenomenon she is today. Referred to by some devotees as "Amma's shadow," Tredwell had taken the Indian name of Gayatri, and was later renamed Swamini Amritaprana, signifying that she was officially recognized as a member of Amma's inner circle.

Tredwell left the organization in late 1999, but didn't reveal her reasons for doing so until her Internet post in January. Tredwell's background made it hard to discredit what she had to say. The post began with her personal reasons for defecting ("loss of faith," "not happy for years") before going on to paint, in brushstrokes both vague and disquieting, a portrait of life with Amma that gives one pause. Tredwell wrote of "backstabbing, cruelty, hatred, power struggles." She wrote of "secret things going on," and of "too much scheming, plotting, planning and suspicion." Most distressingly, she wrote of "terrorism – in a subtle sense, not with guns or anything" and of "violence (mental, emotional, psychological and physical)."

Today, Tredwell lives in Hawaii, working a variety of jobs while writing a book about her time with Amma (currently titled For the Love of God: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion and Pure Madness). She is polite and direct, sounding not so much bitter about her experience as disappointed. "It was in San Ramon where I finally left Amma," she says. "It was all very top-secret. I told only two other people, and I did not tell them where I was going, since I knew they'd be interrogated. I waited for a moment when I knew the residence where we stayed would be empty, and then I was driven out, hiding under a blanket on the floor of the back seat. That was 12 years ago, and it took me years to get over the whole experience."

Tredwell says that as Amma's popularity grew and as Amma spent more time on stages, receiving people for long hours, she grew increasingly irritable when out of the public eye. "She was really a whole different person," Tredwell claims, and tells me a story about how once, when she made a mistake cooking rice, Amma pulled her to the floor by her hair and kicked her. "That kind of thing was not uncommon." (Another former devotee, who asked not to be named, tells me she was once slapped by Amma and witnessed similar treatment of others at the ashram in India.)

Tredwell was also bothered by what she saw as a shady undercurrent surrounding Amma. Tredwell asserts that Amma quietly gave money to her parents and six siblings, who had once been modest fishermen but came to live in palatial houses. When I ask how Tredwell knew Amma was giving her family the money, she laughs. "Because I was often the one bringing them the cash and gold," she says.

Amma and her organization deny all of Tredwell's accusations, reject any notion of financial impropriety and maintain that the kicking incident simply never happened, saying, "It is not in Amma's nature to harm anyone, only to love." They add that despite Tredwell's harsh claims, "Amma still loves her and holds her very dear to her heart."

Another devotee, Prasannan Jyotish, who left the organization last year after two decades and now lives in his hometown of Vancouver, agrees that Amma's organization, despite advocating selflessness, is plagued by its share of hungry egos – this, in the end, is why he left, though he has since reconciled with Amma. Life at the ashram, he says, can often feel like a battle for Westerners – the language barrier and the unfamiliar culture can make them feel unwanted and unappreciated. As far as abuse goes, Prasannan says he has never seen Amma hit or kick anyone, and explains Tredwell's allegations in cultural terms. "The relationship between guru and disciple is a very complex one, going back literally thousands of years," he says. "Sometimes a guru will scold a devotee as a kind of test. Has he learned? Has he surrendered? Yes, sometimes we may be scolded even if we don't deserve it, but the objective isn't to say we've done wrong but to see if we've gone beyond the surface." In other words, as in any system of belief, the moment you lose faith is the moment when structures that once seemed sensible suddenly seem questionable, even senseless.

Tredwell, for her part, wants me to understand that she does not believe Amma is a fraud or a charlatan. She believes Amma is "not a normal human being" and that her reserves of love and compassion are genuine. "It's just that I don't believe she's 100 percent divine." She pauses. "It's hard. People really, really, really want to believe that in Amma there's this savior, this embodiment, and that belief is very euphoric. But the problem is the common devotee gives all that credit to Amma – that it's Amma's energy he's feeling – when in truth it's only indirectly because of Amma. The energy and euphoria they're feeling is ­actually their own, all this love that people are pouring on Amma. They think they're feeling Amma's love, but it's actually just their own love, projected back onto them."

I follow Amma's caravan of four charter buses and the camper in which she travels to Los Angeles, where she sets up in the Hilton at LAX. The environment could not be more different from San Ramon, the serene grounds of the ashram replaced by the Hilton's grand ballroom, a mauve-carpeted chamber lit by twinkly chandeliers. The crowd, too, is notably different, the hippieish overtones gone in favor of a polished, slicker demographic: Silver Lake kids with skateboards jutting from their backpacks, surgically enhanced trophy wives, dudes with Bluetooth headsets wedged in their ears. Apparently, Sharon Stone is planning to stop by at some point, and I hear a devotee remark that he had seen Rosario Dawson the year before, as well as Brian Grazer, the spiky-haired producer.

On Amma's third day in town, she grants me an interview. I have been told by countless devotees, one of whom was sleeping with 11 others in a room meant for four, that while on tour Amma lives as they do, and in a sense this is true: She sleeps alongside female members of her inner circle in a standard room with the beds removed. Yet unlike her followers, she also has access to the presidential suite, which is where I am led to meet her. Pictures of Amma have been hung on the walls, ornate scarves are draped over the furniture, flowers are everywhere, and the scent of patchouli or maybe sandalwood hangs in the air. Several of her inner circle, recognizable by their orange robes, are seated on the floor.

Then Amma appears, floating into the room in her signature white sari. Spotting me, her eyes light up as they did when I had received my hug, and she opens her arms and pulls me toward her – this is just what Amma does. She then leads me into the suite's living room and takes a seat in a plush armchair facing me. Though Amma has a cursory understanding of English, one of her swamis sits on the floor and serves as a translator. Two staff members are assigned to video our interview, while everyone else is quietly off to the side, and it is evident that, for them, this is a rare experience, getting to spend so much time with Amma in a private setting.

During our talk, Amma is as charming as she is opaque, with many of her answers digressing into the kind of metaphor-­sprinkled monologues she favors when addressing large crowds. There are no sessions today, and I ask her what she does on her days off – if, perhaps, she uses them to get a night of restorative sleep. "No, son, I didn't sleep much," she replies, explaining that after the previous day's services, which ended at 5 a.m., she retreated to her room, where she first read the letters given to her during the hugging, and then spent a few hours answering e-mails. "I laid down at 9:30 and got up around 11:00." She does not seem the least bit fatigued.

An hour with Amma is a long time for a devotee – more than most spend in a lifetime – but it is not so long for an interview, so I do my best to push things along. There are some who accuse you of being inauthentic, I say. How do you address that?

"I would not blame them," she says. "When a poet sees a flower, he writes poetry about it; a scientist will conduct research on it; a boyfriend will give it to his girlfriend; a worm will eat it; a devotee of God will offer it to God. Similarly, each person comes with his own attitude. It's their right. They have the right to accept or to reject. For me, both types of people are equal. All I am concerned with is what positive I can do. Different people will think different things – that is the nature of the world. People have the right to have faith or not to have faith."

Being a godlike figure to so many, do you have anyone whom you consider a god or guru?

"For me, everything in creation is God," she says. "There is nothing but God. Every single object is a wonder for me."

Trying to bring the interview back to a less celestial place, I ask what would happen when she "leaves her body," as devotees refer to the death of a guru. Is there a plan in place to comfort your followers, not to mention control the charities?

"Our goal is to live in the present moment," says Amma, who throughout the interview wavers between the first and third person when talking about herself. "Even the next breath is not in our hands. So Amma doesn't think about anything like that. It will all continue forward. It is not 'I' who made it grow."

Moving on, I bring up her younger followers, particularly those who have given up much of their time and money in order to travel with her, to live at her ashram. Does she ever worry if they're using it all as a form of escape?

"Spirituality is not a form of escapism; it is courage," she says. "The dog chews on the dry bone, thinking that it is getting flesh, but in reality the taste it is relishing is coming from the lacerations ­inflicted by the bone upon its own gums." She does not deny that some may come to her for less than pure reasons, but, somewhat jarringly, she seems to avoid any responsibility in this, deflecting it all back onto her followers. "Someone who does not know how to swim will drown if he tries to swim in the ocean waves," she says. "Someone who knows how to swim enjoys it. That is the difference."

Does she believe, like her devotees do, that she has achieved true enlightenment?

"If I say I have, then there will be two – an ego arises. It is not a matter of calling it a flower, but of becoming the flower. One cannot know the sweetness of honey by writing 'honey' on a piece of paper and licking it."

Assuming, then, that she does know the sweetness of honey, so to speak, I wonder how long it takes to achieve such a discerning palate – how long, in other words, does a devotee need to spend in her presence to reach enlightenment?

"Whether you stay for many years or just a small amount of time, what you accept depends upon your mental attitude," she says. "It is at the base of the lighthouse that it is the darkest. A mosquito will never get milk from the udder of a cow, only blood. The bee draws honey from the flower, but the beetle only drubs through the dirt."

And so it goes, her talk growing ever more metaphysical and impenetrable until my time is up. As I get up to leave, Amma stands, and again embraces me, pulling me in close and tight for a long time. I close my eyes, and, for a moment, give in. Darkness. Warmth. Calm. For those few seconds everything she has said suddenly makes perfect sense, the way dreams seem real until you wake up. Then she lets me go, and inevitably the harsher light of reality intrudes once more.

This story is from the August 16th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1163: August 16, 2012
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