The Hugging Saint

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"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."

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