The Hugging Saint

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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.

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