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'Hugging saint' is compassion in action

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 27, 2006



MARLBOROUGH, MASS.

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.

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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.

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."

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