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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
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Her devotees believer that Amma is the rare being who has                                                        achieved full enlightenment

These workers, many of them in their twenties, all wear the green plastic bracelets indicating they are official members of Amma’s staff, a force numbering 275 for the North American tour. These are coveted spots. People will tour with Amma on their own for years in the hopes that their dedication will earn them a staff spot the following year. (I meet one staff member who has just graduated from Cornell Medical School and is preparing for her residency come fall, another who paid his way playing online poker.) The “staff” label, however, is somewhat misleading to someone with a traditionally capitalist perspective, in that Amma’s staff is made up not merely of those willing to volunteer their time but also of those willing to pay to volunteer their time. This year’s cost to be a staff member is around $2,000, not including airfare to Seattle, where the tour began. 

Her hugs are referred to as darshan, a Sanskrit term roughly meaning “visions of the divine,” and as gratitude for this vision it is customary to bring Amma a gift before your hug. People are coming to her with everything from coconuts to candy bars to handmade crafts, and for those who forgot to bring something, a table is set up at the start of the line where gifts for Amma are for sale: bouquets of flowers ranging from $5 to $20, a Toblerone bar for $5. (One staff member, I notice, has the job of collecting the bouquets in a basket and then running them back to the table, where they are resold throughout the day.) Before my hug, a plump guy in his forties with greasy brown hair shows up with a package of pecan cookies for Amma. She opens it with the zeal of a small child, and as she ­places a cookie in her mouth, two of her staff members rush in, cupping their hands under her mouth to ensure she doesn’t dribble any crumbs into the hair of the man, whose face is now buried in her chest. As Amma holds him, she hands what is now a Blessed Cookie out into the crowd, and I watch as it is broken into minuscule pieces ”“ crumbs, really ”“ which are savored by those surrounding her. 

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Eventually, it’s my turn. The chaos around Amma is unnerving, a chaos she seems immune to, but as she pulls me into her arms something happens: All goes silent and peaceful, like closing the door to a party, and I wonder if this sudden jolt, from chaos to calm, is at least part of the hug’s appeal. At one point Amma breaks from her embrace and stares into my eyes, and then pulls me in again, ­tighter, this time whispering something in my ear that I can’t quite understand. Mamma Mamma Mamma. The thing people say about great politicians, about how they provide you with the sense, however illusory, that you are all that matters ”“ Amma has that. I feel better than when I entered her arms, there’s no denying that much, yet like coming down from a high, this euphoria fades quickly, especially once I rejoin those in the post-hug pool around Amma. 

“I’m telling you, man, she’s like Jesus, but on Earth,” whispers the young man next to me, a guy I will get to know over the next few days, and who will ask, repeatedly, if I can help him find work since he’s spent all his money traveling with Amma. “I’m in a really great place right now,” he adds, “and I owe it all to Amma.”

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Earlier this year, in January, a 53-year-old Australian woman named Gail Tredwell posted a message in a Yahoo Group dedicated to former devotees of Amma, or “Ex-Ammas,” as they refer to themselves. Tredwell was 21, an impressionable young woman who had become enamored with the idea of finding a guru while backpacking through India, when she first journeyed to see Amma. That was 1980, and at the time Amma’s followers consisted of a handful of Indians from nearby villages. Tredwell ended up staying for 19 years, becoming Amma’s first Western devotee, learning to speak fluent Malayalam, Amma’s native tongue, and witnessing Amma’s steady evolution into the phenomenon she is today. Referred to by some devotees as “Amma’s shadow,” Tredwell had taken the Indian name of Gayatri, and was later renamed Swamini Amritaprana, signifying that she was officially recognized as a member of Amma’s inner circle. 

Tredwell left the organization in late 1999, but didn’t reveal her reasons for doing so until her Internet post in January. Tredwell’s background made it hard to discredit what she had to say. The post began with her personal reasons for defecting (“loss of faith,” “not happy for years”) before going on to paint, in brushstrokes both vague and disquieting, a portrait of life with Amma that gives one pause. Tredwell wrote of “backstabbing, ­cruelty, hatred, power struggles.” She wrote of “secret things going on,” and of “too much scheming, plotting, planning and suspicion.” Most distressingly, she wrote of “terrorism ”“ in a subtle sense, not with guns or anything” and of “violence (mental, emotional, psychological and physical).” 

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