Mata Amritanandamayi, better known as Amma or the Hugging Saint, has arrived in New York, the second to last stop on her 2013 North American tour.
Amma, in case you’re not familiar, is a spiritual leader who give out free hugs. Followers consider a hug from Amma “Darshan,” a blessing with the power to heal, comfort, and bring good fortune.
According to estimates, she has embraced something like 32 million people around the world at this point.
The experience can be a powerful one, as people who have been hugged will attest:
I felt an intense energy running through my body and it grew stronger the closer I got…then my head was gently pushed down onto Amma’s left shoulder as she held me. In my ear, I heard her whispering, “Ma,Ma,Ma,Ma,Ma” or something close to that. I had no idea what it meant or what it was supposed to do for me, but I felt the tears coming and I began to weep in her arms. I cried like a child cries to it’s mother when it has been hurt and she just held me there for a few moments, and then it started to pass. I prayed so hard in my head to just get one look into her eyes before I left her. I was pulled to my feet, but I couldn’t look away from her. A few moments passed and suddenly my prayer was answered. Amma in the midst of everything she was doing for everyone, looked right up at me. I was breath taken. I saw the whole world shining right there in her eyes. And I could’ve just stayed there forever. I felt like I had 100% of her attention in that moment and it ripped right through me down to my core like nothing I have ever felt before.
Actor Jim Carrey described his experience a little more succinctly: “I was feeling down about life ‘n’ love. Then I met a woman named Ammachi and she gave me back my smile. Darkness cannot compete with her. :^)”
According to her website, Amma’s hugging-habit was forged early in life. After her mother became gravely ill when she was just nine years old, Amma began going door-to-door gathering food scraps (a recent Times profile notes that, according to her authorized biography, she survived during this time “by eating whatever she could find, a diet that included shards of glass and human feces”). It was around this time that “Amma also began to spontaneously embrace people to comfort them in their sorrow. Responding to her affectionate care, they began to call her Amma (Mother).”
See also: Darshan, the Embrace.
Amma has parlayed her hugging into a burgeoning spiritual empire, one that reportedly rakes in $20 million a year. Much of that money goes to charitable projects. The Times, for example, notes that when a tsunami hit southern Inda in 2004, Amma’s people were on the ground rebuilding five days before the government got there.
Amma is not without controversy, though. The spiritual leader has been accused misusing funds and of leading a cult. (To the latter charge she answers, “If you think love is a cult, then I can’t do anything. My religion is love.”)
Need a hug? Here’s how it works.
The token line opens today at 9 a.m. Amma will arrive at 11 a.m. The guru will perform a short meditation before beginning to give out hugs at 11:30. Organizers expect Amma will continue hugging until about 5 p.m. Programs on Friday and Saturday will follow a similar format, except on Saturday, Amma will open the program with the Atma Puja–“a ritual ceremony for world peace.” For more details, check out the guru’s website.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Amma lost her mother at the age of 9, forcing her to leave school to help care for her family. In fact, Amma’s mother was only gravely ill.