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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

David Amsden Sep 10, 2012

Photo: Pari Dukovic

 Amma is unusual among Indian gurus in that she is, to put it in Western terms, completely self-made. ­Gurumayi, for example ”“ featured prominently in Elizabeth ­Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love ”“ the only other living guru who approaches Amma’s level of global recognition, was appointed to her position by her own guru, after years of study and dedication. But Amma never had a guru. Her devotees believe she is the rare being who has achieved full enlightenment on her own, a divine soul in a human body. As evidence of this, they tell you the stories all of Amma’s followers know by heart: about how as a young girl growing up in a small Kerala fishing village she had an abnormally compassionate nature, giving her own food to more needy strangers and consoling the sick; about how her parents, conservative Hindus, didn’t know what to make of her, and as Amma came of age they hoped to arrange for her to be married; about how Amma rejected this, angering her relatives to such an extent that one tried to poison her for bringing shame upon the family; about how Amma lived, and continued to spend most of her time outside, alone, meditating in a small temple she built on the property; about how people began hearing of this mysterious young girl and made pilgrimages to see her, and when they did, she opened her arms to them and pulled them close; about how Amma once sucked the pus out of the contagious wound of a leper; about how people began calling her Amma, it was just a natural instinct; and about how today Amma’s own mother, now a ­believer, along with the rest of her family, calls her Mother.

But Amma, like many who find success without being born into it, can trace her current prominence not merely to her natural charisma but also to her savvy at harnessing it on a large scale. Her ashram in India, for instance, built on the land where she grew up, was once little more than a few huts; today it has evolved into a kind of city unto itself, with soaring high-rises, some 5,000 permanent and semipermanent residents, and up to 15,000 visitors on a busy day. A university and a hospital exist in her name. She has used her prominence to start a network of charities, called Embracing the World, which focuses on providing food, housing, education and medical services to the impoverished. According to Amma’s organization, her charities bring in an average of $20 million in donations annually ”“ however, it’s difficult to say just how much Amma’s group is worth. Evidence of her material gains can be seen in the impressive real-estate portfolio Amma has amassed over the years. The M.A. Center in San Ramon, founded in 1989, is her oldest outpost in the U.S.; more recently she acquired a $7.8 million mansion in Maryland, once owned by the Shriver family, to serve as her D.C.”“area ashram, as well as properties outside Chicago and Boston, not to mention those scattered throughout Europe. 

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The tours double as fundraisers. At San Ramon, I can take only a few steps in any direction before running into a donation box, and outside the temple a number of vendors are doing brisk business selling clothes, coffee and “Amba Juice” smoothies. Inside, meanwhile, a large portion of the temple has been turned into a kind of bazaar specializing in all things Amma: T-shirts, hoodies, books, DVDs, magnets, key chains, essential oils, body washes, mantra counters. There is jewelry Amma has blessed ranging from silver bracelets costing $800 to a silver crown for $5,000. One of the most sought-after objects for sale is the Amma doll: a stuffed, handcrafted replica of Amma whose design seems inspired by the Cabbage Patch Kids. It comes in small, medium and large ”“ $45, $90 and $180, respectively ”“ and the idea is that it provides a kind of cosmic hotline to Amma when not in her presence. “Sometimes, I need a hug from her, and that same feeling of all-accepting love and softness is there,” a nameless devotee says of the dolls on the Amma Shop website. “It is as if she is my little piece of Mother.” Inside the temple, a number of people take to clutching their Amma dolls while staring at Amma, as if trying to double the dose of enlightenment, and seeing them it is impossible not to be reminded of how the line where devotion blurs into obsession, where faith morphs into fanaticism, can become so thin and porous that you can cross it without ever knowing it. 

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”˜When I first started traveling with Amma, I thought it would be, like, six months,” a young woman tells me on my second day at the ashram. “That was six years ago.” Indeed, I spend three days at the site, a sleep-­deprived blur during which time takes on malleable properties. While waiting for my own hug, I wash dishes and serve food, something all attendees are encouraged to do in order to understand the value of putting others before yourself. Then, after spending countless hours on the periphery, I decide that it’s time to enter Amma’s arms, to experience the Experience. Whereas the prevailing mood on the grounds is casual, a kind of collective hang, there is a palpable shift in energy as I get to the front of the line. Aside from those waiting for hugs, there are many others clamoring just to be closer to Amma, pushing forward with the ferocity of concert­goers trying to reach the edge of the stage. Aside from these fervent admirers, there are about a hundred people who have just received a hug, and who, as part of official post-hug protocol, are now seated in a semicircle around Amma’s dais, digesting the sensation. And finally there is the team working to prepare people for their hugs, some taking those in line by their shoulders and positioning them on their knees, while others make sure everyone removes their glasses, while still others sit wrapping Hershey’s Kisses in rose petals, which Amma hands out after every hug. Two people volunteer for the job known as “stargazer,” a role in which you sit at Amma’s feet and stare at her raptly. This is one of the most prized jobs on the tour.