There are two things you need to know about me.
One: I think that hugging anyone who isn’t a close friend or a family member while sober is a strange and disturbing thing to do and I try to avoid it at all costs.
Two: I am deeply suspicious of anyone who is claimed to be a saint, a divinity or a ‘realized soul’, especially when the claim is made by New Agey westerners. Don’t even get me started on gurus and ashrams.
Actually, make that three: much of my life has been dictated by my masochistic love for the Discomfort Zone and a stubborn need to prove people wrong.
And so, when I heard that Amma, the Hugging Saint, was touring south India with her cohort of devotees, I had no choice but to change my travel plans and go see her in Madurai.
Whenever I get cornered into a hug I am very grateful for my long arms – I can wrap them around a person while maintaining a healthy distance, implying a hug without having to actually go through with it. But I suspected that I wasn’t going to get off that easy this time.
Mata Amritanandamayi, or Amma, is a pro who hugged her way from humble beginnings in a small Keralan fishing village to a veritable empire of good deeds with world-wide charitable missions and a large and very enthusiastic following. The headquarters of her cuddly empire is her ashram in Amritapur which is dominated by a high-rise building towering over the Keralan backwaters, and is home to 5000 permanent and semi-permanent resident devotees and sees as many as 15000 visitors on a busy day.
Amma herself spends most of the year touring the world, hugging her way across Australia, Europe and the Americas where everyone from high-powered yuppies, Hollywood celebrities, harried housewives and minimum-wage workers carve out precious time in their agendas to spend a day waiting in line so that they may kneel at the Mother’s feet and receive a hug.
Hugging is her way of bestowing darshan (A sanskrit words meaning, roughly, “visions of the divine”), which she does constantly and tirelessly, in marathon sessions of blissed-out cuddles. Her website claims that she has embraced more than 32 million people over the past 30 years and much has been made of the transformative power of her tight, loving hugs.
This time, I would have to go all in.
My decision to leave the Alpine vibes and homemade chocolate of Kodaikanal and return to the sweaty, smelly chaos of Madurai just to get hugged by Amma was met by some pretty strong reactions, and everyone seemed to have an opinion. She was a selfless saint making the world a better place on the one hand and a hypocritical fraud who has grown obscenely rich with the help of her brainwashed western devotees on the other.
“That Amma, I hate her!” exclaimed an Indian man with a viciousness that I would not have expected from someone so cheerful and mild-mannered. “Some of my friends are completely in love with her, like she is really their mother. Amma this, Amma that… but she is just a liar, and she is so rich!”
Inevitably, Amma and her ashram are mired in controversy and accusations of corruption. Gail Tredwell, who was Amma’s first western devotee and one of her closest assistants for twenty years, left the organization in 1999 and has now written a book about her experience, in which she writes of “backstabbing, cruelty, hatred and power struggles” and even claims to have been slapped and kicked around by the Hugging Mother, who seems to be cracking under the public pressure. The Ex-Amma Yahoo group describes itself as a “discussion and healing group for victims of the cult of Amma” and currently counts 380 members.
But allegations of brainwashing, corruption, tax evasion and suspicious deaths are pretty standard fare for any guru worth her salt and Amma’s popularity doesn’t seem to have taken much of a blow. The breathless infatuation of her devotees of course says more about them than about Amma herself. I, for one, was fascinated by the mass hysteria revolving around this unprepossessing plump little woman whose motherly affections seemed to fill a gaping hole for so many people.
On the morning of my Hugging Expedition I gave myself a stern talking-to in the mirror. I will not scoff. I will keep a straight face and I will not roll my eyes at the mention of ‘energies’ and ‘auras’. I knew that the latter, especially, was going to be difficult, but I wanted to understand what drew her devotees to her and for that, I would have to infiltrate their ranks for a day.
The problem was, of course, that I am so clearly not One Of Them. The closest I have ever come to a religious experience was standing in the front row of a Rolling Stones concert, staring in sweaty awe at Mick Jagger prancing around onstage. When it came to hugging saints, I had no idea what to expect or what was expected of me. I reluctantly left my photo camera at home, knowing that I would not be allowed to use it. As it was time to leave I felt like a nerve-wracked suitor going on a first date. What if I come too early? Or too late? Am I dressed appropriately? And why am I doing this again?
I asked for directions to the Mata Amritanandamayi Math at the front desk of my guesthouse. The receptionist unwillingly tore his eyes away from the TV set and scribbled down the bus number. As I turned around to leave, he shouted after me:
“Please recommend me to Amma – tell her that Shankar needs a new house!”
Stumbling off a creaky old bus an hour later, Amma’s face was beaming at me from large bill boards, gently nudging me in the direction of a large hangar with a corrugated iron roof which has been draped in white and yellow cloth for the occasion. Rows upon rows of brown plastic chairs were slowly filling up with people to the soundtrack of multivocal chanting.
Sitting down, I find myself surrounded by her white-clad western devotees. They all look determinedly serene, either chanting along with the men on stage or staring into the middle distance with expressions of appreciative patience, eagerly awaiting the Mother’s appearance. The hundreds of Indians arriving to the hangar are a much more jovial crowd, in colourful saris and kurtas, chatting excitedly while their children run around playing, fighting, and generally making an unholy racket.
A girl in a green sari appears out of nowhere, clutching a silver jar and pouring water into my hand with a small silver ladle. I stare at her, water dripping onto my lap. What the hell am I supposed to do with this? But she has already moved on, pouring water into the cupped hands of my neighbour, who takes a sip and rubs it over her forehead and hair. I quickly copy her, pretending I know what’s going on and feeling like a total tit.
My neighbour is a tall angular German woman with the austere face of someone who has given up vanity a long time ago. She first met Amma in 1991 and has been living in her ashram since 1994. Realizing that I am a clueless heathen and an Amma virgin she kindly explained the basics to me:
“She is a Mahatma, a Great Soul. We believe that she is a fully realized spirit in human form who has come to earth to show people the way to enlightenment. Of course, Amma would never claim that about herself, but has been proof of it throughout her life. She teaches the importance of selfless love – we are currently living in the dark age of Kali Yuga, where love is only given with something expected in return. Amma gives darshan by hugging with true selfless affection and thus spreading selfless love, which is the only thing that can reverse the ill effects of greed and ego. Once a person has been at the receiving end of such selfless love, he is himself transformed. Humanity is big, but it is made out of people, and so the problems of humanity can be addressed one person at the time.”
A grey-haired Swiss woman, who was listening to our conversation, reassures me that I have made the right choice:
“Seeing her is the best thing that can happen in your life. There is simply nothing better!” She says with the matter-of-fact tone of a primary school teacher telling me that calcium is good for my bones.
All around me, her devotees have only one topic of discussion: Amma. Most of them had travelled with her before and have sat in on her hugging events dozens, if not hundreds of times. But it seemed they just couldn’t get enough, gushing about her warmth and humility and recounting their favourite Amma moments to each other.
When I am asked about my reasons for visiting I mumble something about hearing what a wonderful experience it is. The devotees are all friendly to a fault, beaming at me with an infuriating lack of cynicism. These men and women have chosen, at least in theory, to devote their lives to selfless service in a bid to overcome their ego and make the world a slightly more pleasant place. Try as I might, even I can’t really find fault with that. And yet, looking at their earnest faces, so friendly and benign, I feel an intense urge to scream.
By now the swamis have wrapped up their chanting and left the stage. A video is being projected onto a large screen behind the stage, extolling all of Amma’s good deeds as skinny orphans with large, accusing eyes are sent to school, hospitals built by Amma’s organization provide free healthcare and Amma herself shovels some dirt around to inaugurate the large rebuilding effort that was undertook after the tsunami. Amma the Humanitarian is then replaced by Amma the Serial Hugger. A long montage set to swelling music shows her embracing endless processions of devotees all over the world. They kneel before Amma, tears streaming down their faces, reaching towards her with greedy devotion. The Mother would laugh merrily, or sigh sympathetically, dry their tears and envelop them in a big tight hug, whispering comforting words in their ear. The camera zooms in on the blissed-out faces of her western devotees enjoying their hug and babies laughing in her arms as she tickles their bellies. The video leaves no room for doubt: everyone is having a jolly good time.
She seems to delight in each and every hug, beaming happily at the adoring crowds surrounding her, basking in the sheer joy of it all. Indeed, to quote Amma herself (who, like so many gurus, schizophrenics and megalomaniacs, has the unnerving habit of referring to herself in the third person), “to lovingly caress people, console and wipe their tears, until the end of this mortal frame is Amma’s wish”.
As I watched the on-screen procession of hollow-eyed westerners breaking down on Amma’s ample bosom I had the vague feeling that I had seen it somewhere before. All the bottled-up frustrations and misery finally finding an outlet in the soft comfort of an accepting hug. And then it hit me – it was the nameless protagonist of Fight Club breaking down on Bob’s majestic moobs. The resemblance was uncanny. He develops a full-fledged addiction to the cathartic release of support groups, and similarly many of Amma’s devotees follow her around on her tours, eager for just one more fix.
And there I was, sneering from the periphery, yet inexplicably drawn to it with a kind of morbid fascination. Does that make me Marla Singer? I could think of worse things.
When the person we had all come to see finally walked on stage at noon a hush fell over the hall. A short woman with a plump childish face, wearing her signature plain white sari, she sat on the dais in the centre of the stage and started singing. Smaller screens surrounding the stage displayed Tamil and English translations:
“If I were the breeze, what would I do?
Oh Amma, I would follow you everywhere.
If I were the earth, what wold I do?
Oh Amma, I would rejoice in supporting your feet.”
And so on and so forth into eternity.
Amma is famous for her devotional singing, but the repetitive melody has a rather anesthetizing effect and soon I am nodding off in my seat. I find myself unable to fully appreciate the supposedly overwhelming joy of being in Amma’s presence and head for the canteen instead, where I can keep track of her speechifying on a screen while drowning my boredom in gallons of sweet chai. It takes another hour of singing and speeches before the hugging can begin.
Suddenly the crowd springs to life and the hangar fills up quickly as everyone who had remained outside descends upon the stage. By the time I make it back into the hall the previously placid and sleepy scene has turned into sweaty mayhem, with thousands of people queueing, jostling and elbowing their way towards the Mother, clutching in their hands colourful tokens with letters on them, which were all a part of some nefarious and largely futile attempt at organization.
The process of getting a hug from Amma is not unlike applying for an Indian visa: a lot of paper shuffling, a complete lack of reliable information and long waiting lines. I find perverse pleasure in watching the staff slowly lose their composure as they realize the enormity of the task before them, completely overwhelmed by the numbers of people that showed up.
I join ranks with a handful of other clueless westerners. No one knows exactly when we are supposed to swap our time cards for tokens, where we could do it or how a token translates into a hug, but we are all doing our best to put on a brave face and pretend we’re really Enjoying The Experience. It is five o’clock before we are all herded together and told to wait for our tokens.
Two cameras are pointed at the stage so that the waiting masses can see the Hugging Mother in action. The scene in front of me is a world away from the joy and cosy intimacy promised by the promotional video or the “chilled out vibes of love and, like, total acceptance” that apparently permeate her visits in the West. In India, religion and spirituality are an inextricable part of the loud, messy and crowded lives of the believers. This is not a quick dip into eastern spirituality, a solemn cathartic moment with a hip Indian Guru that you can humblebrag about over your skinny decaf latte. Here, a saint has come to town, dispensing darshan through her divine embraces. Some people have travelled for days, spending money that they do not have so that her blessing might make their lives a little easier. They have no time or patience for the reverent silences and rapt gazes of recreational spirituality. This here is the real deal, and everyone is demanding their rightful share.
At the epicentre of this needy, adoring crowd, Amma is looking distinctly grumpy. She has been squeezing the living daylight out of her devotees for three hours by now, and judging by the size of the waiting crowd she still has a very long day ahead of her. Her face is distorted into a grimace of pained acceptance, framed by a halo of frazzled greying hair that have escaped her ponytail. Her pure white sari is stained just below her right shoulder – a big oily dark brown smudge marking the spot where each devotee’s forehead is pressed into her shoulder, leaving behind a thank-you of sweat and vibhuti, the sacred ash that Hindus smear on their foreheads.
Her staffers, stone-faced veterans of countless such huggathons, make sure that things run as smoothly as possible.
Two men from the ashram are wiping down peoples’ faces with endless piles of tissues, making them presentable for their imminent audience with the Mother herself. On the screen I see a disembodied hand unceremoniously thrust the head of a devotee into Amma’s shoulder. She clasps her hands around the poor man’s neck, mutters something in his ear and already he is pulled away to make space for the next devotee. A blonde woman sitting behind Amma has been entrusted with the task of removing the garlands that people put around her neck in the split second between hugs, her hands always hovering nearby. Every now and then a cell phone is shoved into Amma’s face and she rattles off her blessing into it while her arms continue with the hugs.
I studied her face while the endless line of people filed past, head-butting her right shoulder. She did a pretty poor job of exuding an aura of love and comfort worthy of a saint, but she didn’t look alike an evil mastermind either. Rather, she looked like a woman who had cornered herself into a life of smiling and cuddles and could really use a holiday.
Perhaps that was just me being cynical. Perhaps, under that miserable exterior, she was having a whale of a time. But if we assume for a moment that she is, in fact, merely human, it’s got to be difficult to stay in character all the time. When, as a precocious 14-year-old in a small Keralan fishing village, she gave her food to the needy and hugged the suffering, did she imagine that her future would entail marathon hugging sessions where her hug would become as perfunctory as scanning groceries at the check-out at a supermarket?
Gail Tredwell’s story might be completely true, but watching Amma on stage that day I couldn’t really blame her for slapping people around every now and then. A single day of her life would certainly send me on a murderous rampage.
I tried to feel excited about my impending hug. But really, I just wanted to leave. I had been in the hall since nine in the morning and the novelty had worn off a couple of hours ago. What exactly was I trying to prove anyways? I did not believe in the power of her darshan and was not looking to be saved. And I was sure that she would be about as miserable giving the hug as I would be receiving it. If Amma’s aim was to minimise human suffering through acts of selfless love, surely that was counterproductive? Perhaps I should selflessly give up my shot at a squeeze from the world’s biggest hugger so that she might wrap up her shift a couple of seconds earlier?
If I was being honest with myself, the only reason I was still there was the story. It was a story about getting a hug from Amma, and for that a hug was needed. But then, who decides? It’s my story. It could also be a story about waiting for eight hours to get a hug, and not getting it.
At this point we had been goaded away from our corner and started queueing in the general direction of the stage, but not really sure where we were supposed to go. The women in front of me were still bravely attempting serenity while surrounded by the shouting, pressing hordes. It was crowded. It was sweaty. It was loud. It was exactly like returning home on the Ubahn after the Karneval der Kulturen in Berlin.
And just like that, I was done with it. I’d had enough. I travel alone in part so that I can leave whenever I want to and it was time to go.
“Oh no, but you are so close!” exclaimed the woman behind me. I smiled and shrugged, giving my token to a woman nearby who still didn’t have one.
The moment I disentangled myself from the undulating crowd I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I stopped at the exit to enjoy the evening breeze against my skin.
“Did you get your darshan already?” a blonde woman in white asked me.
“No, they’re still queueing. But I’m leaving.”
She looked at me uncomprehendingly:
“What do you mean, you are leaving? You didn’t get darshan!” As far as she was concerned, I was walking away from a hug from God herself.
For me Amma was at best a nice and compassionate lady who liked hugging people and at worst a psychopathic fraud. Whatever the truth, I was glad to have left.
I bought a sickeningly sweet butterscotch ice cream cone from a street stall vendor and slowly made my way to the bus stop, enveloped in the bustle and hum of another dusty Indian evening, enjoying the taste of diabetes and freedom.
Perhaps my cynicism made me impervious to the transformative powers of Amma’s presence. Or perhaps she was just a fallible human being having a bad day. She might be a wonderful woman, full of fluffy good intentions and with a charismatic presence that brings comfort and relief to those in need. For all I know she might even be a saint. But she sure as hell isn’t Mick Jagger.