• Spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi, right, hugs a crying devotee during a spiritual discourse in Bangalore, India. (AAP)
The renowned spiritual leader and humanitarian, Mata Amritanandamayi, is best known for her healing hugs, having embraced a reported 33 million people worldwide. Alison Bone recalls her quest to meet the guru and receive a holy embrace.
By
Alison Bone

17 Jan 2017 - 12:05 PM  UPDATED 19 Jan 2017 - 9:24 AM

It was my first trip to India and I had been lured to Kerala by tales of a pink ashram rising from the jungle, and a female guru known as Amma, who gave loving hugs.

I had never been to an ashram before and arrived at Amritapuri Ashram expecting silence, stillness and smiles. I found a bustling, pastel pink mini metropolis bursting out of the palm groves. Hordes of Indians piled off buses, while westerners sheathed in white swept the pathways.

A pretty and plump woman of diminutive stature with a dazzling smile, Amma, was born into a family of poor fishermen. Ridiculed as a child for her eccentricities and habit of hugging strangers, she has risen to become one of India’s most revered female gurus.

Ridiculed as a child for her eccentricities and habit of hugging strangers, she has risen to become one of India’s most revered female gurus.

Her spiritual teachings of love and peace have struck a chord worldwide, but it’s her unique darshan (giving) in the form of loving hugs, that draws the masses. Around 3,000 people live at the ashram at any one time, and it receives up to 15,000 visitors a day, all drawn to the enigmatic Amma, lovingly referred to as ‘Mother’.

Making my way to the packed auditorium, I joined the queue for a hug. Through the throng I could just make out Amma on the stage, dressed in a white sari and flower garlands. Devotees, both western and Indian, seemed to form a guard around her, and as I finally got close, I overheard two of western women bickering. “It’s my turn to sit next to mother,” one of them said, “you sat next to her yesterday.”

Then it was my turn, and nothing else mattered, as this serene, beautiful woman – who smelled of flowers and seemed oblivious to the madness around her – took me in her arms and gently rocked me.

She radiated love and I found myself sighing deeply, burrowing into her arms like a child. I felt a little dazed as I walked away. It’s not like the hug changed my life or anything, but to have received such strong, unconditional love from a total stranger was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, perhaps even a little miraculous.

I was assigned to a bunk room with an elderly German lady who had taken a vow of silence (it said so on her badge) and a rapturous young Swiss woman who spent her time sitting cross legged on the floor, praying to a photo of Amma. There is something about mother,” she told me, “I can’t explain it, but I need to be near her.”

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I soon realised that ashram life wasn’t for me. Everyone seemed so sombre and serious, which I found odd when Amma overflowed with joy, but I stayed a few days because I was fascinated. Each afternoon I watched her receive the faithful. Some in wheelchairs, others clutching photos of a loved one. Many wept tears of joy as they stumbled away from her embrace.  She hugged for hours without a break and I marvelled at her patience and stamina. How could one woman give so much?

Her answer, “Where there is true love, everything is effortless.”

As is often the way with India's gurus, Amma has attracted some controversy, although far less so than some of her more illustrious counterparts. In her book, Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion and Pure Madness, ex-disciple, Gail Tredwell, who lived with Amma for 15 years, makes allegations including fits of rage behind the scenes. The claims have been refuted by the ashram as foundationless, with Ashram representative Sudeep Kumar, stating "the allegations were surprising and defy common logic'. 

Anyway, it seems to me that even the most holy and virtuous need to blow off steam sometimes. While the words divine, saint and godly are often used to describe Amma, she is surely a mere mortal and thus subject to human foibles.

Her answer, “Where there is true love, everything is effortless.”

While her hugs seem generous, even life-changing for some, it’s her humanitarian work that is the most tangible. Her network, Embracing the World  raises upwards of twenty million dolllars each year through donations and merchandising – from photos of her feet ($50) to her signature perfume. These days you can even order blessings online. The results are staggering; 45,000 houses built across India, 100,000 women helped to start their own businesses, 2.6 million people given free medical care, 1 million trees planted and the list goes on.

After the Boxing Day Tsunami devastated parts of Kerala, Amma’s relief operation was under way within hours, and 46 million dollars eventually channeled to victims. Inspired by Amma’s own selflessness, an army of volunteers, from top level adminstrators all the way down the chain, including westerners, mean that money raised goes direct to the needy.

As Nobel Peace Prize winner, Professor Muhammad Yunus, puts it, “Amma has done more work than many governments have ever done for their people. Her contribution is enormous.”

 


Shaun Micallef's Stairway to Heaven airs on SBS on Wednesdays at 8.30pm from 18 January 2017. Watch all the episodes online after they air on SBS On Demand.

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