The American media have dubbed her the "hugging saint." This 53 year-old south Indian woman named "Amma" - the word means "mother" in Sanskrit - is actually a religious guru known for the hugs she gives those who seek an audience with her. She is reported to have millions of devoted followers in her native India. But she has a following as well in the United States, where tens of thousands of Americans already sold on the healing power of yoga and meditation, have lined up to see and experience Amma on her annual North American tours.
The large open auditorium at the Manhattan Center is a swirl of sound and color on the first day of Amma's visit to New York, as vendors sell intricate Indian silks and religious objects, as well as photographs of Amma, and tout her many large-scale charitable projects - from tsunami relief, to support for universities, hospitals and orphanages. Chanting and sitar music add to the atmosphere.
But the absolute focus in the room is chubby, dark-skinned Amma herself. Hour after hour, wearing flowing white traditional dress, she sits at the foot of the stage, hugging those who have lined up for her embrace, whispering holy blessings, offering them candy, fruit and extra prayers.
This is darshan, the Sanskrit word for the act of basking in the presence of a holy person. It's a rite normally associated with Hindus. But most of those gathered here are Caucasian Americans like "Anjali," who has received darshan from Amma every year for 13 years. "I am here for love, Amma's divine love," she says. "Amma's message is compassion. And I think we have such a need for that, especially in New York where everything gets so hectic and we are so busy trying to pay the bills, and we have so many problems. And we come to Amma and we feel that sense of peace."
Many, like Tracy from suburban New Jersey, learned about Amma only recently, and decided to come see her in the hope that Amma might sooth the emotional pain she feels. "I've got to get better within myself," she says. When asked whether she has been hugged yet, she smiles. "Not yet. I can't wait. I'm going to cry like a baby. She's gonna get it out of me. All the bad stuff."
Amma's background and style are Hindu, yet she does not ask others to adopt that path. Indeed, she encourages people to look more deeply into their own religious traditions, whatever they are. At the root of all authentic teachings, Amma says, are love and compassion, which she tries to convey through the nurturing mother image she projects.
That was an effective form of communication for "Janini," Amma's archivist. She says that when she first saw Amma, she was a university professor -- and a deep skeptic. "And I kept watching for the slip, the flaw, the little thing that would give it away as a hoax," she recalls. "I never saw it. And the more I sat there, the more she seemed to me to be the real thing. … So I had this reflection. I thought 'Look, if God, or the Divine is gonna break through in our universe in these days, this is the face of God we need to see. We need God the Mother. We don't need to have the Judge, and we don't need the Lawgiver right now. We've got lots of laws and we just break them. We need love.'"
A tea merchant named Lee says that, over time, Amma's love has brought positive change to his life, and through him, to the people he knows. "My experience with her has made me more tolerant and more compassionate," he says, "so my life gets better because I am better to the people around me."
Amma is often compared to Mother Teresa or Gandhi in her devotion to the poor, whom she believes we are duty-bound by God to serve. But the people coming to see her on her North American tour are relatively affluent Americans. When asked why she comes to the West to embrace them, Amma says through a translator that material wealth is no indication of true riches.
"Even if you have a good house, a good car, enough money, enough food, still life is not complete. There is something lacking. So even if they have air-conditioned houses, they cannot sleep if there is no peace of mind. There are even people who commit suicide in their air-conditioned homes. Why? Without peace, without love, everything is empty."
Janini adds that there are two types of poverty that Amma addresses. "One is a poverty of the heart, and one is a poverty of physical goods such as shelter and food and so on." Janini quotes Amma as saying: "If we can just solve the poverty of the heart, the other will take care of itself," and explains that physical poverty will be taken care of "by those whose hearts have come alive. There is a starvation for love. Not to be loved, but to be loving. She's trying to help us get there."
To judge from the large crowds Amma has attracted on her North American tour, that help seems to be deeply appreciated.