Amma -- Over 20 Million Hugged
By Kali Om
Read the Yoga Chicago version (with photos) here.
All I remember about my first trip to see Amma, in 2002, was that there seemed to be a lot of hippies in Lisle. I thought Amma’s handlers were somewhat rough when they guided me to receive a hug from her, and I didn’t feel much during the hug itself. This trip was a lot different.
My non-yoga friends say I’m the worst hugger ever, so when I told them I was going to see Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (or “Amma,” the Hugging Saint), they thought I was going to learn to embrace people more warmly. But in reality, I wanted darshan (audience in the presence of a holy person) again, in the hopes something may have changed in me.
Amma is a self-realized spiritual leader best known for her 35 years of hugging people. But she's also a humanitarian who devotes herself to myriad charitable projects that include schools, orphanages, clinics, hospitals, hospices, women’s shelters, homes, disaster relief and pensions for the elderly. She also inspires others to volunteer to help the poor. Seen by her followers as the embodiment of pure love, Amma has said, "Ninety percent of all the problems in this world stem from lack of love and from one's need for love.” Hence the hugs, which she dispenses until the last person in line has had darshan with her. Apparently she sleeps just a couple of hours a night.
Born into a poor Kerala (South India) fisherman’s family in 1953, Amma was forced to quit school at the age of 10 and take on all the family’s housework--which she did, blissfully. She also got in trouble for handing out food to those poorer than her and for sitting in a blissful state. She refused to be married off by her family and eventually became known as a mystic and for her hugs. She started visiting the US in 1987, and in 2002 she received the United Nations’ Gandhi-King Award for Nonviolence. She’s also the first major spiritual figure in India to allow women to serve as temple priests. Her Amritapuri Ashram in Kerala, built on the site of the house where she was born, draws seekers by the thousands.
She spent a hot July weekend giving darshan at the Indian Lakes Resort in Bloomingdale as part of her 10-city summer tour of North America. When I arrived after the long drive from the city, I was hot, tired, crabby and overcaffeinated. So it wasn’t all that surprising when, after a prolonged search for a parking space, I accidentally did the equivalent of locking my keys in the car.
When I went inside the busy convention center, the first person I saw was my friend Amy Beth, who greeted me warmly (I could learn a thing or two from her, too). When I told her about my predicament, she said, “Oh, let’s just call Triple A.” She made the call, and while we waited to hear back from them I noticed that the rustic convention area consisted of several large round rooms--kind of like giant yurts--and that the lobby boasted both a waterfall and fireplace.
The crowd was about half-Indian and half-Caucasian, and many wore Indian clothes--and some of the women sported white Kerala-style saris with gold borders. One young man was dressed as the spitting image of Shiva, complete with a moon in his hair.
The walls were decorated with pictures of Amma, descriptions of her good works and signs, such as: “No one is an isolated Island” and “Each action we perform has an effect on others.” The snack area sold “Amba” juice, superb chai and healthy snacks of both Indian and Western variety. The atmosphere was busy but calm.
Still waiting for AAA, I ditched my sandals in the downstairs shoe room and enjoyed a delicious South Indian meal ($6) served by Amma’s massive seva or “selfless service,” team--most of whom were dressed in all white. I also found the seva person who was handing out tokens to see Amma. She was careful to ask me if it was my first hug; newbies get priority, as do people with young children and other “special needs” groups. But since I’d seen Amma in 2002, I was given a token for a spot in line; it wasn’t certain whether I’d get to see her that day or not.
One of the adjoining rooms served as a large vending area where you could do “shop-asana.” Items for sale included jewelry and malas (prayer beads), some of which had been worn by Amma (starting at $100), rugs, clothes and thermoses used by Amma, a 2006 Amma calendar, handmade Amma dolls and outfits, blessed thulsi plants ($10), and Amma books, CDs, magnets, photos and rings. There was incense, body lotion, shower gel and essential oil. Signs told us that the proceeds benefited tsunami relief, and they were even selling handbags made from distressed “tsunami silk” from a flooded tailor shop at the ashram.
While waiting for darshan, you could also get free gemstone and puja recommendations from a cyber-astrologer who took a cell phone call during my friend’s consolation (incidentally we were both told to wear yellow sapphire and red coral--both of which were being sold next door). The program was free and open to everyone, although there were discreet donation boxes placed here and there, and a table where anyone could sign up to do seva, working in the snack shop, chopping veggies, cleaning up the kitchen, etc.
The man from AAA spent nearly a half-hour jimmying open my car door (the insides of which are rusted). Afterwards I felt a thousand pounds lighter in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be stuck in the suburbs all night. Suddenly, things seemed to be going my way, and when I went back inside I was given a token for darshan!
Just 15 minutes later, I was ushered to a line that went up the middle of the round room to Amma. She wore all white and sat on a stage decorated with gold curtains and a blue background. A gaggle of disciples hovered nearby--the women in all white and the men in khakis and white shirts. First we sat on chairs, two abreast, and then as the line moved forward we kneeled, waiting for darshan. Several times Amma’s helpers asked me if I was a “single” and for a moment it reminded me of a ski lift line. There were a lot of families and couples in line, and apparently they don’t want her to have to give too many group hugs in a row. Bhajans (devotional music) was being played, and one of the people in white offered to watch my purse.
As I got closer, the handlers started to position me into place--and they were surprisingly gentle! Everything is choreographed carefully so that there’s very little space between hugs. I was kindly handed a Kleenex to wipe the sweat off my face, and I got choked up as I saw a family getting a group hug in front of me. When it was my turn, Amma pulled me to her and I felt something inside me start to melt. It was a real hug, full of compassion and love, and lasted for some time as she patted my back and chanted into my ear something that sounded like “amamamamamamama.” I thought about my late mother and recent heartache (suffice to say I haven’t felt lovable in some time) and let go. Amma smelled of jasmine and roses. After some time she stopped chanting and pressed a rose petal and Hershey’s Kiss into my hand (the kid in front of me had gotten an apple). She may have put sandalwood paste on my third eye; I’m not sure. Crying, I moved away from the stage. One of the white-clad handlers had the sweetest look on her face as she handed me the Kleenex box (they’re very big on the Kleenex).
After awhile I stopped my blubbering and composed myself and looked for my friends. I experienced that rare feeling not only of being exactly where I should be, but also that even rarer one: that everything would be OK.
By 4:45 p.m. the last person had been hugged. Everyone stood up and Amma rushed out. She had been there since 10 a.m.! I started thinking about rearranging my schedule so I could come back for Sunday’s Devi Bhava program, in which Amma dresses in a bright sari and headdress and “reveals her innate Divine nature.” It’s also when she hands out mantras to those who want them.
Since the evening program didn’t start until 7:30, we retired to a friend’s hotel room. The atmosphere reminded me of prom, except that we had juice boxes and granola instead of champagne and beer, and we shared a good laugh picturing Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush getting a group hug from Amma.
Later we were standing in back waiting for the evening program to start when some men approached us and placed chairs beneath us--another small miracle. We sat comfortably as one of Amma’s followers who sat on stage gave a talk about Amma as she looked on. She told stories that encouraged us to cultivate compassion and follow a spiritual path.
When she was finished, Amma whispered a prayer and told stories in Malayalam that were translated by a handsome man with a beard. “Amma knows that 90 percent of the people here have various problems. Dwelling on them won’t make it go away. It’s better to cultivate an attitude of devotion.” One of my favorite stories was about a man who was planning to wash his car and got sidetracked over and over again by other tasks that needed to be done--and didn’t finish any of them. “He said, ‘I have been very busy all day,’ but he did not get anything done. He said, ‘Something must be wrong with me--I need therapy. But first I must wash the car.’ So be present. It’s OK to make plans. But constant anxiety about the future leads to tension in the mind.” During the talk we could hear cheering from a wedding party across the hall.
Amma told several more stories, discussed karma and likened hatred to “swallowing poison and expecting the enemy to die...by cultivating good thoughts, negativity will be erased.... Only the present is in our hands.” She finished by saying that the cure for all of our wounds is love. “Begin with your family. Love is the foundation of a happy life; when you love God you see everything.” When she was done, we could faintly hear the Elvis Presley song “I Can’t Help Falling in Love” playing across the hall.
I was able to return for the Sunday evening Devi Bhaba program and arrived just in time to be greeted by two rows of white-clad followers holding puja (worship) trays and looking expectantly at the door. It didn’t take me long to figure out that they were there to greet Amma. I went into the main hall and found a spot on the floor, near the back, and again I felt like I was exactly where I should be. Each place was marked by a donation envelope and a Solo cup lid. They showed a video about Amma’s life, and as holy water was being passed out in little Solo cups, someone’s cell phone went off. A short time later Amma came out and spoke for about an hour.
She told more stories and gave more advice (see sidebar), and at one point her translator lost his place and paused, and we all laughed (with him, of course), and Amma threw him a big smile. Around 7:20 I understood why they recommended bringing a cushion to the talk.
After the talk ended, Amma led us in chanting and meditation. We were told that the water has healing qualities and that we could drink it then, put it in a water bottle, or take it home. We were told that we could make a donation if we liked and were asked not to walk in front of the stage. They also said we were free to wander the grounds but that we must be back in the hall by 3 a.m.
After a leisurely South Indian dinner with a large crew of Chicago yogis and kirtan wallahs (aficionados), we headed upstairs for more shop-asana. I saw devotees making Amma dolls and beading necklaces. The bhajans, sung and played live by a group sitting on the floor and facing Amma, were loud and exquisite. The video screens showed people getting their hugs from Amma, who was wearing a special outfit, and I noticed a seva person wiping off a man’s bald pate. A man wearing dreads and tie-dye started dancing in the aisle, and some children joined him.
Several bigshots received darshan that night, including Mr. Arun Kumar, Consul General of India in Chicago. After garlanding Amma and receiving her darshan, Kumar welcomed Amma to Chicago and remarked, "Today is a great day for Chicago to have such a holy person among us. I have always dreamt of meeting her. That desire has been fulfilled today." He spoke about Amma's compassion and how she has been a guiding force in disaster relief; both in the aftermath of the massive Gujarat earthquake of 2001 and the tsunami of 2004 (she is also providing relief in the wake of the recent flooding in Bombay). "Anyone concerned about the poor is truly great," he said, praising Amma's exemplary charitable work. He concluded his speech by saying, "I am sure that with her great presence today, we will all be blessed."
Just before midnight I enjoyed some uppama (a savory Indian cream of wheat dish) and my number was finally called around 1:15. As I got closer to the stage I was able to watch the group from The Amma Center of Chicago that was chanting the beautiful bhajans in front of the stage. There were scores of people on the stage, talking to Amma, helping people get mantras and overseeing the hugging. When my turn for darshan finally came, I was so tired, happy and thankful that it didn’t really resonate until much, much later.
As I left the place around 2 a.m. there were still people everywhere--talking, shopping, eating and sleeping. I felt calmer and lighter than I had in months (although I’m not sure if my hugs had improved), and I thought of the words Amma had spoken earlier: “We should do everything with an attitude of self-surrender, and unburden our worries periodically so we can relax....How long can we hold a hot cup of coffee in our hand? Five minutes is OK. One hour, you feel pain. All day--you call for an ambulance. Put the cup down and rest before picking it up again. If we carry it all the time, eventually we will collapse.
“Before you leave, unburden the weight of your mind here, because once you’re back in the world you may have to carry it again.”
Amma recently gave her blessing to open The Amma Center for Spiritual Studies and Community Services, which is in the fundraising stages and will be located in western DuPage County. According to the website, “The Chicago center will be intended for satsang, prayer, meditation, devotional music, organizing volunteer services, and to spread Amma’s teachings for human value improvement. When finished, it is expected to be a building where 250 devotees can assemble”--with ample parking, of course. They also plan to teach IAM--the Integrated Amrita Meditation technique, which incorporates pranayama and some asana and is said to be effective even for first-timers. For more on the center, and to learn about ongoing local satsangs based on Amma’s teachings, visit www.ammachicago.org. Amma usually visits Chicago in early July. To find out more about her teachings, tours and her ashram in India, see www.ammachi.org or www.amma.org.
AMMA-ISMS FROM HER RECENT TALKS IN CHICAGO
Creativity is not an obstacle to a spiritual life, but we must keep in the back of our minds that nothing in the material world gives the joy of the spiritual life.
When we suffer, we should turn inward to find the cause.
No one loves us more than they love themselves.
You should love others, but not become too attached.
A true master will not ask you to give up everything, but to take enough for your own needs and share with others.
Even if a gesture is small, we should try to give to others. Life is an echo; we get back what we give back.
God is pure consciousness that dwells in everything.
In order to receive grace, we must cultivate humility. When we bow down, grace will automatically flow to us.
Anger is the greatest obstacle to grace; it is like a knife with both ends sharpened.
All of our actions should bring happiness and joy to others.
Instead of giving up when things are difficult, we should hold onto God’s feet more tightly.
Spiritual practice is like getting a polio shot--the benefits are not immediately apparent