The Big Squeeze
Amma, the guru known as the “hugging saint,” has drawn 32 million people into her embrace – spreading a message of love, compassion and overpriced merchandise
They make the journey every year, thousands of people heading up an unmarked, unpaved road into the feral hills outside San Ramon, a suburb some 30 miles east of San Francisco. Their destination is the tranquil and sprawling grounds of the M.A. Center, an ashram named after Mata Amritanandamayi, a 58-year-old spiritual guru from southern India. Known to her devotees as Amma, an honorific nickname meaning “Mother,” she is most famously referred to as the “hugging saint” because of her trademark blessing: a big, rapturous hug that her admirers describe as a transformative event – an infusion of pure, unconditional love that works on you like an elixir, cleansing the soul and bringing about a higher state of consciousness. Wherever Amma goes, people wait for hours in order to kneel before her and be embraced, and they are waiting on the morning in early June when I first arrive: blissed-out clusters congregating around the ashram’s temple, everyone basking in a collective mood that is as seductive as it is unnerving.
Inside Amrita Hall, as the modest A-frame structure is called, Amma is surrounded by a dense, undulating throng. Clad in a billowing white sari, her rotund figure is perched atop her dais, a cushy throne draped in garlands and strewn with rose petals. A sly, benevolent smile spreads across her face as she pulls one person after another to her bosom. This is what she does nearly every day, breaking for only a few hours in the afternoons, and going until three, four, five in the morning. Her stamina is a point of reverence among her “children,” as devotees refer to themselves, more than a few of whom are sitting on the temple’s open floor in the lotus position, watching the proceedings projected on a massive screen hanging from the ceiling, tears streaming down their faces.
Amma devotes much of the year to touring the world in order to hold everyone from migrant workers to celebrities to Western yoga obsessives in her arms, and she is here on the second stop of her annual, 10-city tour of North America, a zigzagging seven-week sojourn across the continent that begins in Seattle and ends in Toronto, during the course of which she will dispense somewhere in the ballpark of 60,000 hugs, adding to the 32 million already under her belt. She attracts a diverse crowd, Amma does. Wandering the temple, I see aging hippies happily petrified in late-Sixties nostalgia, earthy suburban yuppies, square-jawed businessmen, macrobiotic hipsters, plenty of toddlers and teenagers, and the smattering of Indian immigrants who are on hand wherever Amma sets up camp. There are many who compare the environment of Amma’s tours to that once fostered by the Grateful Dead or Phish: a parallel reality where such positive vibes prevail that you never want to leave. In fact, some people do not leave, finding the Amma experience so intoxicating they travel with her from city to city, from country to country.
“For me, in the beginning, it was more about the social aspect of Amma, just meeting like-minded people,” says Gabriele Cook, an extravagantly tattooed 29-year-old whom I meet at the entrance. A former biotech researcher, Cook quit her job three years ago and has been with Amma on and off ever since. She has followed Amma through Europe and spent two extended stays at Amritapuri, Amma’s ashram in the southern Indian state of Kerala, which is where she lives when not touring and where many of her most rapt followers set up permanent residence. “It’s a pretty intense place, especially for a woman,” says Cook. “You have to stay covered all day, and it’s a hundred degrees, so it’s nice to see her in the West,” she adds with a laugh, “where I can have my arms exposed.” Cook plans to follow Amma to Los Angeles before catching up with the tour in Washington, D.C., New York and Boston. “Now, the whole thing is about me trying to become a better person,” she says, though later on she will joke, in a way that lets me know she isn’t quite joking, that she may have also been spending so much time around Amma for other reasons: “You know, so I don’t have to make a decision about what to do with my life.”