In her career as an all-embracing saint, Mata Amritanandamayi -- lovingly known as Amma -- has hugged about 36 million people. That number would have increased substantially as she sat to give 27-hour darshan to her devotees on the occasion of her 60th birthday.
Perched atop an elevated platform in the centre of a massive stage, Amma goes about her business. In a span of about a minute, she has hugged roughly 6 people who have travelled a great distance, seemingly, for a touch of divine. Her white blouse is smeared with bindi and sweat marks as she pulls a devotee on to her shoulders and whispers into his ears, before he is hurled out of her embrace for the next person in queue. “She has to speed up her darshan according to the number of people present,” says a disciple who has known Amma since childhood.
A yatra led by scores of men from a nearby village enter the hall packed with devotees waiting their turn. Led by two Kathakali artistes dressed as Krishna and Garuda, the yatra stops right in front of the stage before the men break into a Vanjipattu (traditional song sung by boatmen) in praise of Amma. Meanwhile, filmmaker Shekhar Kapoor directs his crew to capture the scene for his documentary film on Amma. A sprightly European tunes her guitar. Her performance, a spanish bhajan, is up next.
“The sixtieth birthday is considered a milestone in Kerala. Amma didn’t want any fanfare but we wanted a grand celebration,” says a devotee who lives as a “brahmacharini” in the Ashram.
Every year, a sea of humanity floods Amritapuri -- Amma’s ashram in a charming coastal village nestled between the backwaters and the Arabian Sea -- to wish the world-renowned spiritual leader on her birthday. This year the crowd swelled to about 5 lakh people, who came expressly to take part in the three-day celebration that concluded on Friday. What draws them to this spiritual retreat -- complete with a cafe that serves vegan food and a swimming pool -- is Amma’s transformational hug.
Nearly, all devotees claim they feel a powerful energy and “pure love” pour out of Amma when they hug her. A middle-aged man appears visibly shaken and teary-eyed as he walks down the aisle after the darshan. “I am speechless,” he says.
A 60-year-old woman sitting on a chair begins to weep when asked about what she feels when Amma hugs her. “I have known Amma for 10 years and believe she is divine. Once when I was in my puja room and upset, I stared at her photo for answers and could feel her consoling presence,” she says wiping off her tears.
A young girl who studies in one of the 53 schools run by the Mata Amritanandamayi Math (MAM) has just met Amma for the first time: “I felt like my mother hugged me.”
While not everyone may be convinced about her divinity, Amma’s rise from a little village girl to one of India’s most influential and indeed richest godwomen is nothing short of a miracle. “Everything was against her -- caste, gender and background. Yet so many people come to her now for solace and spiritual guidance,” says Swami Ramakrishnananda Puri, a senior disciple who has known Amma for about 30 years. He isn’t very comfortable with the word “godwoman” and says “for Amma, god is in everyone”.
Swami Ramakrishnanda belonged to a Brahman family and gave up his banking career to devote his life following and spreading the teachings of Amma. He is now the treasurer of MAM, a charitable organisation that puts to use the donations it gets to run universities, hospitals, schools and various rehabilitation programmes. This year, MAM announced a Rs 50-Cr relief project to build houses in Uttarakhand to mark Amma’s 60th birthday. It also said it would adopt 101 villages across India to make them self-reliant.
Such massive dole can only be explained perhaps by the huge amount of donations flowing into the ashram that Amma’s devotees-- comprising many westerners -- are happy to give. A number of foreigners flock to Amma for peace, contentment and a dose of eastern spirituality.
Rama Devi (name given to her by Amma) is one such devotee who gave up life in the US to be with Amma. Deeply disillusioned with the “Me generation”, Rama met Amma first in the 80s and felt an instant attraction to her. “I have never witnessed her doing anything for a selfish motive. People find great solace in her love and compassion,” she says. Rama adds that a number of westerners are perhaps attracted to the ashram because they are “missing something” in their lives that Amma completes. “We have everything but lack love. We don’t know the names of our distant relatives.”
Jane, a British lady living in the ashram along with 3,000 other devotees, says she was very lost in life when she met Amma. Jane is in charge of cleaning the toilets in the ashram during the birthday celebrations. “I am happy here and enjoy gardening and seva,” she says, standing besides a stall that is selling “Amrita” herbal tea. A largish poster advertising Amrita "app" for devotees to get updates about the activities in the ashram is displayed next to it.
Isn't this a bit too commercial to be spiritual, I ask, dangling the Amrita mineral water bottle in my hand."Look at Amma, she's not commercial, things around her may be. But she is pure," says Jane.
Perhaps she is. But then so are a lot of other humanitarians who dedicate their lives to serving people. You won't find a queue of people waiting to meet them outside their houses and you certainly won't donate in crores to the cause they espouse. The belief that Amma is god-incarnate, in many ways, is instrumental in helping MAM carry out its mammoth social service agenda.
Apparently, it's not just the devotees who need a touch of divine.
"Amma is the best-promoted spiritual brand we have seen in recent times," says writer Paul Zacharia . The hug is the USP, he says, adding that very few people have the stamina to go on the way she does and she is making the most of it.