Last night I got my long awaited hug from Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma), who is known in the media as the “hugging saint”. They say that during the past few decades she has hugged over thirty million people worldwide, sometimes over 50,000 in one day while sitting continually for over 20 hours.
As I moved forward in the line toward Amma I saw that her expression was often pained. They say Amma, who was born in 1953 in India into a modest family of fisherman, is often in pain when giving hugs to this virtually endless procession of devotees.
I was also surprised to see a toddler screaming and kicking as he was placed in Amma’s arms. From the photos I had seen and the super human stories I had heard, I imagined Amma to be a continually smiling being who transformed all distress and fear into harmonious serenity with a mere glance or hug. Yet the toddler continued to scream in Amma’s lap until his mother carried him away. Perhaps I expect too much from living saints or a woman many call the “Divine Mother”?
Yet others who received her embrace appeared to be deeply grateful. One man ahead of me broke into deep and soulful tears after he was hugged. A devotee told me that Amma provides a clear reflection to those whom she embraces. The experience of her embrace is referred to as “Darshan”, which in Sanskrit means seeing or beholding visions of the divine.
Given the thousands of people who came to experience Darshan at her Ashram (an intentional spiritual community) in San Ramon, California, there is a apparently strong hunger in the world for inspiration, love and a glimpse of the divine.
Amma considers giving Darshan to all who wish for it to be her primary calling despite the unrelenting line of pilgrims and the associated pain. Yet her large volunteer organization known as the “Amma Family” also manages dozens of charities, schools, hospitals orphanages; hospices, women’s shelters and other services, while building over 25,000 homes for the homeless each year.
Though she and her primary Ashram are based in India, she travels the world almost perpetually and has become a worldwide phenomenon. Her simple and non dogmatic message of love and selfless service transcends religious creeds and resonates universally.
Movie Trailer for “DARSHAN” – a film about Amma
As a “recovering Catholic” I’m repulsed by authoritarian and legalistic dogma and I’m highly skeptical of institutional religion or intermediaries. But I agree with Amma’s basic philosophy that ultimately love for humanity and nature and selfless devotion to both is our best antidote to war, scarcity, environmental destruction, famine and self destruction.
Who can object to her philosophy of love conquering evil and selfless service over coming selfishness? Thousands have volunteered their time and talents during her visits around the world, while many others have devoted their lives to serving her many charitable enterprises.
Her work and universal message of compassion has earned her worldwide recognition. Â She has spoken before the United Nations, the Parliament of World Religions and won international awards.
Yet she is criticized by some ex devotees who call her followers “Ammabots” and publish their experiences and opinions online in blogs and on forums online such as the “Ex-Amma Forum (a place where people who’ve left the Amma cult come together to help each other heal from their ordeal)”. One former member of the Amma family, Bronte Baxter, publishes the blog – cultofthehuggingsaint.com and writes:
“Amma’s brand of religion is a return to the infantile. She makes babies of grown men and women, giving them dolls to babble to and telling them she’s their mother. While speaking fine words about “the God within each of us,” her actions teach something different. Allowing people to pray to you, kneel to you, and worship you as God Incarnate is not the behavior of someone who wants people to recognize themselves as magnificent, powerful expressions of God.”
Amma is many things to many people. To her devotees she is the Divine Mother”. To others she is a demagogue. To learn more about Amma, visit the Amma Family website.
So what is one to believe? In my experience, most people will believe what they want to believe or perhaps need to believe. Personally, I believe in the transformative and transcendental power of love. I believe that we all have the divine spark within us and that we do not need to worship anyone or anything outside of ourselves.
The Universe is divine and we are all a part of the Universe. What do you believe? Feel free to post it by replying below.