The Big Squeeze
Amma, the guru known as the “hugging saint,” has drawn 32 million people into her embrace â€“ spreading a message of love, compassion and overpriced merchandise
Â On Amma’s third day in town, she grants me an interview. I have been told by countless devotees, one of whom was sleeping with 11 others in a room meant for four, that while on tour Amma lives as they do, and in a sense this is true: She sleeps alongside female members of her inner circle in a standard room with the beds removed. Yet unlike her followers, she also has access to the presidential suite, which is where I am led to meet her. Pictures of Amma have been hung on the walls, ornate scarves are draped over the furniture, flowers are everywhere, and the scent of patchouli or maybe sandalwood hangs in the air. Several of her inner circle, recognizable by their orange robes, are seated on the floor.
Then Amma appears, floating into the room in her signature white sari. Spotting me, her eyes light up as they did when I had received my hug, and she opens her arms and pulls me toward her ”“ this is just what Amma does. She then leads me into the suite’s living room and takes a seat in a plush armchair facing me. Though Amma has a cursory understanding of English, one of her swamis sits on the floor and serves as a translator. Two staff members are assigned to video our interview, while everyone else is quietly off to the side, and it is evident that, for them, this is a rare experience, getting to spend so much time with Amma in a private setting.Â
During our talk, Amma is as charming as she is opaque, with many of her answers digressing into the kind of metaphor-Âsprinkled monologues she favors when addressing large crowds. There are no sessions today, and I ask her what she does on her days off ”“ if, perhaps, she uses them to get a night of restorative sleep. “No, son, I didn’t sleep much,” she replies, explaining that after the previous day’s services, which ended at 5 a.m., she retreated to her room, where she first read the letters given to her during the hugging, and then spent a few hours answering e-mails. “I laid down at 9:30 and got up around 11:00.” She does not seem the least bit fatigued.Â
An hour with Amma is a long time for a devotee ”“ more than most spend in a lifetime ”“ but it is not so long for an interview, so I do my best to push things along. There are some who accuse you of being inauthentic, I say. How do you address that?Â
“I would not blame them,” she says. “When a poet sees a flower, he writes poetry about it; a scientist will conduct research on it; a boyfriend will give it to his girlfriend; a worm will eat it; a devotee of God will offer it to God. Similarly, each person comes with his own attitude. It’s their right. They have the right to accept or to reject. For me, both types of people are equal. All I am concerned with is what positive I can do. Different people will think different things ”“ that is the nature of the world. People have the right to have faith or not to have faith.”
Being a godlike figure to so many, do you have anyone whom you consider a god or guru?
“For me, everything in creation is God,” she says. “There is nothing but God. Every single object is a wonder for me.”Â
Trying to bring the interview back to a less celestial place, I ask what would happen when she “leaves her body,” as devotees refer to the death of a guru. Is there a plan in place to comfort your followers, not to mention control the charities?Â
“Our goal is to live in the present moment,” says Amma, who throughout the interview wavers between the first and third person when talking about herself. “Even the next breath is not in our hands. So Amma doesn’t think about anything like that. It will all continue forward. It is not ”˜I’ who made it grow.”Â
Moving on, I bring up her younger followers, particularly those who have given up much of their time and money in order to travel with her, to live at her ashram. Does she ever worry if they’re using it all as a form of escape?