'Hugging saint' is compassion in action

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Some have traveled many miles to the Boston suburbs, from upstate New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey. All come to spend time in her presence – and to receive the tender hug she has given to some 30 million people in several countries.

The small, smiling woman in a white sari is on her yearly tour across the US, drawing thousands at each stop. People sit in line for hours just to be enfolded in that motherly embrace, perhaps asking her a fervent question about a decision that troubles them or the deeper purpose of life.

Amma – the affectionate name for Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi – has been dubbed "the hugging saint" by international media. But her unconventional spiritual practice and her teachings aim at a deeper impact.

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The Indian guru wishes to comfort wounded hearts through an expression of unconditional love, but also to awaken in people what she calls the "healing qualities of universal motherhood." Both men and women can express these qualities, she teaches. "The love of awakened motherhood is a love and compassion felt not only towards one's own children, but towards all people ... to all of nature," she says. "This motherhood is Divine Love – and that is God."

For her devotees, it is Amma's example that draws and holds them. "She is compassion in action," says Rob Sidon, an American who first encountered Amma during a trip to India, and now acts as a spokesman for the Mata Amritanandamayi (M.A.) Center in Castro Valley, Calif. (This and two regional centers in Santa Fe, N.M., and Ann Arbor, Mich., offer the public a contemplative environment, classes, retreats, and volunteer opportunities.)

In addition to her hugging sessions (which can last for hours, a full day, or overnight, depending on the number of people), she has spurred a host of humanitarian activities in India and elsewhere. They include charitable hospitals and hospices, free housing for the poor, a widow's pension program, orphanages, and schools for destitute children.

According to Amma's followers, funds for humanitarian activities come from donations, sales of items on tours, and books and CDs of her talks, sayings, and devotional songs.

The M.A.center in the US donated $1 million to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund. And Amma committed $23 millionfor rebuilding after the South Asian tsunami.

Yet for 35 years, this daughter of a poor Keralan fisherman has been dispensing hugs as the central gesture of her life. As a child pulled out of school to work for her family, Amma felt compelled to ease the suffering of elderly neighbors. She washed their clothes and bathed them.

Experiencing physical abuse at home, she says she always knew there was a higher reality beyond the physical. As a girl, she spent hours in meditation and composing devotional songs. She decided not to marry but to devote her life to embracing the world.

Amma – who has also traveled to Europe, Africa, and Australia on that mission – has been coming to the US since 1987. Many at this three-day retreat at a Marlborough, Mass., hotel have seen her before. "Friends recommended I go five years ago because her amazing presence tends to open people's hearts," says Monica Martynska, a singer from Princeton, N.J. "She's changed my life."

Ms. Martynska has taken up meditation and chanting. "It's designed to quiet the chattering mind and turn us inward ... so we can act from the center of the heart instead of being so reactive," she explains.

As Amma receives individuals or couples in the main hall, a swami teaches her meditation method in another room. Born within a Hindu context, she emphasizes that love and compassion are the essence of all religions. Amma set up temples in India, stirring controversy by consecrating women priests as well as men.

"She wants womanly qualities to rise up and take their rightful place in the world," says Beverley Noia, now known as Janani. Formerly a professor of comparative religion at Regis University in Denver, a Catholic institution, she serves as Amma's videographer and archivist, recording the guru's global experience. "She's taught me to be a feminist without anger."

An independent filmmaker has produced a documentary on the teacher titled "Darshan." Premiered at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, it will be released in the US in August. Darshan is Sanskrit for "audience with a holy person" and is the name given to the lengthy hugging sessions.

Amma's inclusive outreach has brought her stature on the world stage. She was invited to speak at the UN's 50th anniversary in 1995 and at the Millennium World Peace Summit in 2000. In 2002, she won the Gandhi-King Award for Nonviolence, and in May 2006, an interfaith award previously given to the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu. Many compare her to Mother Teresa.

While some people tend to deify her, the guru says that everyone is divine, and that each one must seek to get rid of the ego and find "their real Self."

"We human beings are just instruments of God so we should not be egoistic," Amma emphasizes in an interview. "We should have the awareness that 'I am just like a pen in the hand of a writer, or a brush in the hands of a painter.' "

The tireless teacher responds to questions through an interpreter (her native tongue is Malayalam). With each query she turns to smile and communicate eye to eye even as she continues to embrace the faithful. Afterward, she bestows on this reporter a warm hug, a gentle backrub, and a laughing kiss on the cheek.

In addition to the three regional centers, there are small groups across the US, called satsangs, where devotees meet weekly for meditation and singing. But they must also live out their spiritual practice through seva – selfless service.

Chinmayi Ruiz, for instance, who hosts a satsang in Concord, Mass., joins with other volunteers for Mother's Kitchen. On a regular basis, they cook food at home and take it to serve at various community shelters.

In Amma's words: "It is through selfless sharing that the flower of life becomes beautiful and fragrant."

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