Mata Amritanandamayi Devi

Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, known to her admirers simply as Amma, a name that means “mother” in Malayalam, is a Hindu spiritual leader and guru who is revered as a saint by her followers and famous for her marathon hug sessions. She is the founder of Mata Amritanandamayi Math and was born Sudhamani Idamannel on September 27, 1953. It is estimated that Amritanandamayi has hugged more than 33 million people throughout the world during her 30 years of being the hugging guru . [Source: Wikipedia +]

April Dembosky wrote in the New York Times, “She began hugging strangers in her teens, first on the streets of her village in Kerala, India, then later in living rooms in Madison, Wis., and Dallas. Word spread about her message of unconditional love and, as many of her followers believe, the healing power of her embrace. [Source: April Dembosky, New York Times, July 10, 2008]

Matt Sedensky of Associated Press wrote: “Her tender approach and simple message have galvanized followers to amass in crowds thousands deep at stops around the globe. Part of the appeal of Mata Amritanandamayi, or Amma, as she is universally known, are teachings she says transcend any single faith, let alone simply her Hindu upbringing. "My message is not unique," she says through an interpreter. "There will ever only be one message capable of purifying man, nature, the atmosphere, the earth we live on and life itself. That message is: Act with compassion and love for all our fellow beings." [Source: Matt Sedensky, Associated Press, March 8, 2009 ^|^]

“At the end of her exceptionally long days, Amma climbs the steps to a simple studio apartment in a small peach-colored walk-up at the ashram. She will go to bed alone, having rejected her parents' numerous attempts to arrange a marriage. Amma received no formal education beyond the age of 10, and on this day, like every other, she has steered away from scriptural specifics. But her message is clear. It is about taking as little as possible and giving the maximum, about embracing the core of faith. It is, in essence, about a hug.”

Websites and Resources: Gurus
Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Why so many Indians flock to gurus - BBC News ; The Guru in Hindu Tradition, J Mlecko (1982), Numen (journal) ; Spiritual Gurus and Saints of Hinduism, India and the World ; Great Saints of India ; Gurus Gone Bad in India ; Guru choice and spiritual seeking in contemporary India, M Warrier (2003), International Journal of Hindu Studies ; Hindu Concepts of Teacher, Sanskrit Guru and Ācārya, Minoru Hara (1980), Sanskrit and Indian Studies ; Sanal Edamaruku's home page

Hugging Guru’s Life

Mata Amritanandamayi was born to a family of lower caste fishermen in 1953 in Parayakadavu (now partially known as Amritapuri), Alappad Panchayat, Kollam District, in the state of Kerala. in Parayakadavu, Alappad Panchayath, Kollam District, (now Kerala), India. The third child of Sugunanandan and Damayanti, she has six siblings. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Mata Amritanandamayi main ashram in her hometwon of Amritapuri in Kerala

Amritanandamayi family was poor. As part of her chores, she gathered food scraps from neighbours for her family's cows and goats. Through this she became aware of the poverty and suffering of others. Despite being scolded and punished by her family, she gave poor people food and clothing from her own home and began to spontaneously embracing people to comfort them and continued doing so over her parents objections. Regarding her desire to embrace others, Amritanandamayi said: "I don’t see if it is a man or a woman. I don't see anyone different from my own self. A continuous stream of love flows from me to all of creation. This is my inborn nature. The duty of a doctor is to treat patients. In the same way, my duty is to console those who are suffering." +

Matt Sedensky of Associated Press wrote: From childhood Amma “was said to have spent a great deal of time meditating, singing and chanting, fixing her eyes on a picture of Krishna. As her followers tell it, she felt compassion for others from an early age, even to untouchables, and was driven to tears by others' suffering. Her own family viewed her with disdain, even wondering if she was mentally ill, those who tell her story say, and she was beaten and treated as a servant. She even pondered suicide. All sorts of lore surrounds her story, including miraculous claims of turning water to milk and allowing a poisonous cobra to flick its tongue against her own. However it happened, though, as a young woman she attracted a following. Some ridiculed her and deemed her a fraud, but the number of devotees grew, and people began to journey to her in the 1970s. She became regarded as a guru, but unlike other Hindu spiritual masters, she allowed herself to be more than just seen, offering her touch to anyone who wanted it. Amma's touch is seen as having the potential to ignite one's spiritual power. [Source: Matt Sedensky, Associated Press, March 8, 2009]

Amritanandamayi rejected numerous attempts by her parents to arrange for her marriage. Her life took a different path instead. In 1981, after spiritual seekers had begun residing at her parents' property in Parayakadavu in the hopes of becoming Amritanandamayi's disciples, the Mata Amritanandamayi Math (MAM), a worldwide foundation, was founded. Amritanandamayi continues to serve as chairperson of the Math. Today the Mata Amritanandmayi Math is engaged in many spiritual and charitable activities. In 1987, at the request of devotees, Amritanandamayi began to conduct programs in countries throughout the world. She has done so annually ever since. +

Hugging: a Form of Darshana

Hanuman hug

For Amritanandamayi's hugging is a form of darshana ( the auspicious sight of a deity or a holy person). As to how the practice began, Amritanandamayi said, "People used to come and tell [me] their troubles. They would cry and I would wipe their tears. When they fell weeping into my lap, I used to hug them. Then the next person too wanted it... And so the habit picked up." [Source: Wikipedia +]

When asked, in 2002, to what extent she thought her embraces helped the ills of the world, Amritanandamayi replied, "I don’t say I can do it 100 percent. Attempting to change the world [completely] is like trying to straighten the curly tail of a dog. But society takes birth from people. So by affecting individuals, you can make changes in the society and, through it, in the world. You cannot change it, but you can make changes. The fight in individual minds is responsible for the wars. So if you can touch people, you can touch the world." +

Amritanandamayi's darshana has been the centerpiece of her life, as she has received people nearly every day since the late 1970s. Given the size of the crowds coming to seek Amritanandamayi's blessings, there have been times when she has given darshana for more than 20 continuous hours. +

Hugging Guru’s Teachings

In the book The Timeless Path, Swami Ramakrishnananda Puri, one of Amritanandamayi's senior disciples, wrote: "The [spiritual] path inculcated by Amma is the same as the one presented in the Vedas and recapitulated in subsequent traditional scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita." Amritanandamayi herself says, "karma [action], jñana [knowledge] and bhakti [devotion] are all essential. If the two wings of a bird are devotion and action, knowledge is its tail. Only with the help of all three can the bird soar into the heights." [Source: Wikipedia +]

She accepts the various spiritual practices and prayers of all religions as but different methods toward the same goal of purifying the mind. Along these lines, she stresses the importance of meditation, performing actions as karma yoga, selfless service, and cultivating divine qualities such as compassion, patience, forgiveness, self-control, etc. Amritanandamayi has said that these practices refine the mind, preparing it to assimilate the ultimate truth: that one is not the physical body and mind, but the eternal, blissful consciousness that serves as the non-dual substratum of the universe. This understanding itself Amritanandamayi referred to as jivanmukti [liberation while alive].Amritanandamayi said, "Jivanmukti is not something to be attained after death, nor is it to be experienced or bestowed upon you in another world. It is a state of perfect awareness and equanimity, which can be experienced here and now in this world, while living in the body. Having come to experience the highest truth of oneness with the Self, such blessed souls do not have to be born again. They merge with the infinite." +

Amritanandamayi’s books include: “Awaken Children”, “Compassion: the Only Way to Peace,” “May Peace and Happiness Prevail,” “Infinite Potential of Women.” “Unity is Peace Living in Harmony Man and Nature.” “May Your Hearts Blossom,” “Understanding and Collaboration Between Religions,” “The Awakening of Universal Motherhood” and “Cultivating Strength and Vitality.” +

Hugging Guru’s Hugging Session

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attending Amritanandamayi's 60th birthday celebrations in KeralaAmritanandamayi

Reporting from Amritanandamayi’s ashram in Amritapuri in Kerala, Matt Sedensky of Associated Press wrote: “The droves who come here leave with no souvenirs, no memories of posh hotels, nothing more than they brought. All they came for was a hug...Far more than any oratory, any dogma, any writings, people are drawn here by her touch, and so they line up and wait in marathon hugging sessions that can stretch 20 hours and more. The guru's aides say she sleeps little, sometimes just an hour a night, but is as eager to hug her first visitor as her last. [Source: Matt Sedensky, Associated Press, March 8, 2009 ^|^]

“Here, on these lush banks of the Arabian Sea near India's southern tip, along backwaters dotted with coconut and cashew trees, Amma has built the capital of hugs. Her ashram, or spiritual center, is a maze of buildings reached by boat or a footbridge over a river. Eventually, visitors find a large open-air auditorium with a group of men playing music and chanting, and lines of plastic chairs full of people awaiting their turn to walk up the ramp at stage right. When they finally make it, they enter a space so full of people it is hard to move. ^|^

“Amma is finally in sight. She is wrapped in a sheer white sari. Her dark hair is tinged with gray and pulled back, her face round, her features soft. Her ears and nose are pierced, and a red and gold dot is worn between her eyebrows. Her smile is beaming but imperfect. She looks older than her 55 years. She offers hugs as aides come to her with varied questions about her multimillion-dollar charity network of hospitals and orphanages; she gesticulates frequently as she talks.^|^

“When the time comes, the visitor is nudged to sink to his knees before Amma's makeshift throne covered in gold fabric. And, in an instant, it happens. She holds the visitor's head tightly between her shoulder and face, uttering in Malayalam what is unintelligible to the non-speaker. Some, she simply holds, others she gently strokes or pats their backs. Some are brief encounters; others last several minutes. Some sob. Others can't help but to break into a gaping smile of their own. Some tremble, believing they have been given a divine touch. Nearly everyone seems moved. When it is over, Amma offers her visitor a small gift - often a hard candy or piece of fruit - and the line moves on. All told, her aides claim she has done this more than 25 million times.” ^|^

Hugging Guru’s Followers

Amritanandamayi has millions of followers, some of who regard her as divine. People wait for hours in lines for one her trademark “darshan” hugs. Among here devotees are A,P.J. Abdul Kalam, the Indian President and father of India’s nuclear weapons program, and Linda Evan, of the television show Dynasty. Some of her followers passionately kiss and stroke chairs that she sat on.

“The feeling is like sunshine or moonlight shining on me,” Zhen Joy Lin, who has been hugged by Amma several times on visits to New York, told the New York Times. “I feel the best part of humankind.” "Her hugs are really like a sermon," Vasudha Narayanan, the director of the Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions at the University of Florida, told Associated Press. "In her touch, in her hugs are the greatest teachings." [Source: Matt Sedensky, Associated Press, March 8, 2009 ^|^; April Dembosky, New York Times, July 10, 2008 |=|]

Sedensky wrote: “The experience so moves some that they give up their lives to follow the guru. Dante Sawyer was editing a jazz magazine in New York when he first met Amma in 1998. He had never felt anything like it. "You really experience a love that's given completely, selflessly - it's just like sunlight pouring out," said 35-year-old Sawyer, who is known at the ashram simply as Sachin. "It's a love that doesn't have demands of you." Two years after first meeting Amma he moved here to dedicate his life to her work. Countless others have similar stories to tell.” ^|^

Kelly Flynn, 36, a slow-blinking, slow-talking devotee who has accompanied Amma on her last four world tours, told the New York Times: “Everybody wants to do that job,” referring to giving out small presents to people after they get hugged. “If staff people fight over anything, it’s over that.” [Source: April Dembosky, New York Times, July 10, 2008 |=|]

Dembosky wrote: “Ms. Flynn met Amma while she was a student at the Berkeley Psychic Institute in California. “I was developing my abilities, but not becoming open-hearted,” Ms. Flynn said. “That’s why I switched to Amma.” Ms. Flynn left the institute and sold her half of a plant nursery business to join Amma’s group of about 150 full-time volunteers on tour. They are paid nothing and cover their own transportation, food, and housing expenses. Ms. Flynn rode a bus Monday night from Chicago to New York, then slept just two hours on the floor of a nearby gymnasium before reporting for duty to help cook vats of lentil soup and prepare bins of garden salad to be sold to Amma’s devotees. |=|

Sedensky wrote: “Critics remain, charging Amma's movement amounts to a personality cult. They question the finances of her organization or even claim it is linked to radical groups. Amma and her followers reject such accusations. Swami Amritaswarupananda Puri, considered Amma's most senior disciple, says the guru has attracted so many followers because she is accessible to anyone and allows people to feel the presence of God. "She is humble but firm as the earth," he writes. "She is simple yet beautiful like the full moon. She is love, she is truth, she is the embodiment of renunciation and self-sacrifice." ^|^

Hugging Guru in Manhattan

Describing part of a three-day hugathon at Manhattan Center in New York, April Dembosky wrote in the New York Times, “The line started outside on 34th Street, entered the lobby and snaked up the stairs to the balcony. It veered left at the aisle, then downstairs again to the rear orchestra section. “Stay to the right-hand side,” one of the line controllers said, kindly but firmly. Those at the head of the line received a numbered token, a place holder for another line. Some waited up to seven hours for their turn. When that moment finally came, they all got what they came for: a hug. More than 8,000 people were hugged on Tuesday and Wednesday, and one person was doing all the hugging: Mata Amritanandamayi. , 54, known to her followers as Amma, or Mother. [Source: April Dembosky, New York Times, July 10, 2008 |=|]

“The scale of Amma’s hugging operation is such that it has become an assembly line of love, whose efficiency depends on hundreds of sari-clad volunteers. Before receiving a hug from Amma, the devotees were helped by at least 10 volunteers. Three collected the numbered tokens and ushered groups of 30 at a time to a double row of conference chairs leading to Amma. Four more guided the devotees forward from seat to seat as the line advanced; another wiped their faces with a tissue, removing sweat and urban grit before it could stain Amma’s white sari. |=|

“At the front of the line, a volunteer helped one woman from the chair to her knees. She held her ponytail and pushed her forward into Amma’s lap. No seconds were wasted, no energy squandered on Amma reaching forward. Amma held the woman, first lightly with one arm, then tightly with two. Volunteers to Amma’s left prepared a parting gift, a Hershey’s kiss and a couple of flower petals, that they slipped into Amma’s hand. As Amma pulled away, she handed the woman her gift, and another volunteer steadied her to her feet and guided her away. The encounter lasted about 30 seconds. |=|

“At the Manhattan Center, she was interviewed while engaged in a triple hug, cradling a man in her left arm, his wife and son in her right. “For me there is no difference between materialism and spirituality; they are one and the same,” she said. “For example, if your left hand is in pain, the right hand will spontaneously console the left.” She squeezed the family again, then released them into the crowd. She looked up as she lifted her arm around the next person. “If you ask a river, ‘How do you flow?’ it can only say, ‘I just flow.’ So likewise, I just flow.”“ |=|

Hugging Guru’s International Humanitarian Efforts

Amrita School of Engineering in Kollam

Amritanandamayi is known for having a very savvy marketing team. She is involved in bringing information technology to rural areas, She has worked with Sabeer Bhatia, the founder of Hotmail, and other American entrepreneurs. With her money she has established a medical school, 800-bed hospital, a university and thousands of homes for the poor.

Dembosky wrote: “The hugs are free, but during the long wait the visitors can shop at the traveling store for items like scented eye pillows, chanting CDs and acupuncture treatments. The proceeds help to finance Amma’s hospitals, orphanages, housing projects and disaster relief efforts, most of which are in India, the volunteers said. Hugging up to 50,000 people in a 20-hour session, a frequent occurrence in India, would seem to leave no time for her to direct those projects. So sometimes she does it all at once; often, when she is in India, she will speak with her hospital and orphanage directors while the devotees cycle through her arms. [Source: April Dembosky, New York Times, July 10, 2008 |=|]

According to Sedensky: “Her spiritual star power drives not only her popularity, but the success of international humanitarian efforts fueled by millions in donations. A visitor to her ashram is not asked to give anything, but many around the world do, funding her many Indian charitable endeavors, as well as massive relief for those affected by events such as the Asian tsunami. She has a sleek Web site. Her movements are tracked on Twitter. She even has a logo. [Source: Matt Sedensky, Associated Press, March 8, 2009 ^|^]

In July 2015, Amritanandamayi delivered the keynote address at a United Nations Academic Impact conference on technology and sustainable development, co-hosted by Amrita University. The event was attended by delegates from 93 international universities. In Amritanandamayi's address, she requested the scientific community to infuse its research with awareness and compassion, stressing the importance of keeping the aim of uplifting the poor and suffering in mind when undertaking technological research. [Source: Wikipedia]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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