Photo: Marcello Ronfanti
The first time I see her, she's clutching a man to her bosom, has him in a headlock, really—only his white mop of hair is visible. She's putting muscle into it, cocking her head to the left and pressing her cheek to his forehead, whispering urgently in his ear. Her face is awash in affection and what I can only describe as relief, as if she were embracing a long-lost son.
To watch Mata Amritanandamayi, or Amma, the so-called hugging saint, in action, is to see anew the most ordinary of human gestures. Seated on a squat throne covered with a pink sari and festooned with flowers on a stage in a Best Western banquet hall in suburban Massachusetts, India's most gregarious spiritual guru is mobbed by handlers and followers who have waited in line for hours to fall into her arms. But despite the crowds in the hall, and the bazaar-like sprawl of vendors hawking T-shirts and mango lassis to benefit Amma's charities, it's hard to peel your eyes away from the woman herself. Or should I say the hug. When I arrive on a stifling Tuesday evening, she's working her way through a line of several hundred people. She'll keep hugging strangers without so much as a bathroom break until around 5 A.M., as she has done most nights for the past four decades, each embrace more fierce and fervent than the last. Amma (the name means "mother" in various languages), 60, has espresso-colored skin, a blingy nose ring, a round face framed by gray wisps of hair, and eyes that sparkle with near-constant delight. On a mission to comfort her children, i.e., humanity, she has given more than 33 million hugs, to poor villagers in India, to orphans in Kenya, to Sharon Stone.
In some ways the hugging seems too commercial, too easy, too cute (it's been called "about as challenging and exotic as a Hershey's Kiss"). But that Amma has made a life out of hugging millions of people all over the world is nothing short of amazing. She was born in a poor fishing village in Kerala, where it was frowned upon for women to touch others. Aides say she gets less than two hours of sleep a night, if she sleeps at all. "The power of love can make you do anything," explains Swamini Krishnamrita Prana, one of Amma's 14 orange-robed monks, many of whom travel with her. "If a mother has a sick child, she'll stay up for three days straight in the hospital."
It makes sense that anyone who has done something 33 million times would be exceptionally good at it. After several friends swear Amma's hugs are blissful, transcendent, a high that lingers, I grow curious. There is something appealing about an outpouring of love from a woman who doesn't know me and never will, who comforts with no conditions, who does not judge or instruct or even speak English. It's never occurred to me to visit an Eastern guru, but—stop me if you've heard this before—since the birth of my son last year, I've felt a sort of creeping spiritual panic (my mortality is one thing; his is another). As a failed Mormon, I can appreciate the passive simplicity of visiting Amma. No Bible stories to believe, no strict rules to inevitably break: Just bury your head in her bosom and wait for existential comfort, for lightning to strike.