By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The woman in the white dress with her head thrown back is laughing silently. Or maybe she's crying. It's hard to tell. The people all around her in the Universalist Church also look blissed out, or else dejected, it's not easy to discern which is which, since rapture is so often close to hysteria.
The hundreds are here for Mata Amritanandamayi, also known as Ammachi, or Ma, an Indian guru who wears a white sari, and a diamond in her nose, and whose self-adopted Sanskrit name translates, perhaps somewhat unhumbly, as "mother of immortal bliss." The guru was born, as her press material notes, in the "remote backwaters" of South India (Kerala, actually, the Marxist Indian state with the subcontinent's highest literacy rate) to "destitute fisherfolk," with a bluish cast to her skin. She heard her calling early and was withdrawn from schooling, conceivably because she had already begun to attract large crowds to the spectacle of her falling into "God-intoxicated" states.
Now, at 44, Ammachi is not merely a holy person but a registered Charitable Trust. She oversees a large ashram in Amritapuri with 200 branches throughout India, and affliliated centers here and in France, Australia, Mauritius, and, improbably enough, on ultraremote
Reunion Island. She operates a hospital and has a book publishing arm, and her own CD-ROM (From Untruth to Truth), and her own documentary (River of Love), and a videotape division (Vintage Scenes 1982, The North Indian Tour, A Day with Ammachi, In the Footsteps of The Mother). She is in the United States making a whistle-stop tour, with appearances in 10 cities, and drawing hordes who claim to see in her a living saint, a miracle worker, a true adept.
"Ammachi is the embodiment of pure love," asserts the writer Deepak Chopra, whose feel-good Hinduism has made him a well-remunerated fixture on both the lecture and bestsellers circuit. "Her presence heals." The healing method is simple enough. "If you wanted to put it in high-concept form," explains Rob Sidon, one of Ammachi's devotees, "you could say, 'Hindu holy woman heals with hugs.'"
The hugs are administered in marathons, one per customer, take a number, please. Already tonight at the Universalist Church there are 500 people signed up for "darshan," or worship; each has been issued a green sticker to indicate a place on line. "That way they can wander around or whatever and they don't have to sit in one place for hours," as one American devotee declares.
The hugging won't begin until after some hours during which the guru speaks and sings and leads a group meditation. It won't conclude until well after midnight. "That's nothing," says a devotee named Do (pronounced due), a former corporate sales manager who gave up "hustling and bustling" in 1993 to follow Ammachi full time. "In India, Ammachi has been known to hug 20,000 people at a stretch."
Can a person be forgiven for thinking that, if someone came running to say he'd just seen
Jesus preaching on the steps of the 72nd Street subway stop, most New Yorkers would reply, "Whatever"? This is a tough market for prophets. It's not an easy town for seekers, either, which may be why so many of those who've come to Central Park West to see the woman they call "Ma" appear to be from elsewhere.
"I'm a librarian in Pennsylvania," says Laurie Lee, "I'm using my vacation to accompany Ammachi." Lee is not alone. There are followers from throughout the tristate area and also from California and New Mexico here tonight. Some of them are in charge of selling "Bouquets for Mother," at $7, $5, and $3, and some are dispensing $3 Hershey's Kisses that are the holy woman's signature snack. All appear transfixed, perhaps as much by the presence as by her message, which, when she does speak, turns out to be surprisingly free of spiritual hocus-pocus. "Many people ask
Mother about true love," Ammachi says through a translator. "In fact, that is the purpose of this birth. There is a great shortage, a great scarcity of true love in modern society and life should be a continuous exchange of love between family members."
Larry Richmond concurs. "The more you observe Mother, the more you sense the qualities of her power," explains Richmond, the New York coordinator of Ammachi's tour. Richmond describes the guru as a kind of ur-mother, a force that could fuel a thousand Freudian seminars. "She's enormously consistent," he says. "She never wavers. She always has her mind and heart focused. Just being with her opened my heart. It's like Jesus said, 'The kingdom of God is in your heart.' Am I quoting that correctly? You know, Mother shows you where the heart is."
"She's available," he continues. "She's only interested in her children. The bottom line is people go up and are received by Mother in the traditional darshan and being in presence of a realized soul, not only do they get the presence but the warmth of a loving embrace. She gives everyone what they need 100 per cent. She really absolutely plugs in to what each person is. People are totally crying their hearts out when they've seen her. The room fills up with light. This very noticeable love that radiates from her. She's like a giant shady tree on a hot summer day. And the question is, 'Do you want to take refuge beneath it or do you want to build a spiritual life there?' "