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The power of a hug
George Iype in Kerala | September 25, 2003 01:41 IST
The high and mighty, poor and rich, young and old are lining up in Kochi for a gentle hug, a soothing word and a tender kiss.
The hope of an embrace from 'hugging saint' Mata Amritanandamayi has the coastal Kerala city bursting at the seams.
Domestic and international airlines are fully booked for a week; foreigners have landed in chartered flights; special trains are ferrying devotees; and hotels are fully packed as more than half a million followers of Amma have come to the city, which has a population of less than a million.
What brings people like President A P J Abdul Kalam, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Reliance chief Mukesh Ambani, Sycamore founder Gururaj Deshpande, US Senator Larry Pressler and actress Linda Evans to Amma?
"It is her hug," says French filmmaker Jan Kounen. Kounen should know, for he and long-time friend and French producer Manuel de la Roche are busy at the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium -- the venue of the four-day birthday celebrations of Amma -- shooting for a film, Another Reality.
"Her hug has fascinated me. I am exploring how a simple woman from Kerala has become a world saint through her gentle touch. You know, through her hug she connects us to the spiritual world," Kounen added.
Like him, hundreds of thousands of devotees silently queue up as Amma comes to one of the many specially arranged podiums to meet people.
"Look at her face. The spiritual light of her face is all that I need to forget the troubles and miseries of life," says Jonathan Swift, another devotee from Sweden.
Swift says a hug from Amma is "simply spiritual bliss". "She has hugged me at least five times in different locations abroad. I felt a kind of spiritual energy in me after Amma embraced me," Swift, who works with a Swedish pharmaceutical company, said.
In the last three decades, Amritanandamayi, born in the coastal village of Parayakadavu in Kollam, has hugged more than 30 million people.
A Los Angeles Times journalist once asked Amma: "Why do you hug people?" She replied: "This question is like asking the river, 'why are you flowing.'"
Some years back, Vajpayee visited Amritanandamayi. She embraced Vajpayee and whispered in his ears her patented mantra: "My son, my son."
"She is showing us the value of the right combination of spiritual ideals and practical wisdom," Vajpayee, now an ardent devotee of Amma, said after the hug.
Evan Jones, a physiotherapist from the United States, says she fell in love with Amma because "her gentle touch electrified me".
"The biggest thing about Amma is that she does not have a religion. Her religion is that of love and compassion. Her spiritual empire is love and service," Jones says.
Agrees Beverley Noia, an American who was professor of comparative religion at a New Mexico university. The idea of god always perplexed her. One day, she met Amma during one of her US visits. "I saw in Amma a real mother. I found that she is the answer to universal motherhood," says Noia who abandoned her job and joined Amma's ashram in Kollam eight years ago.
Noia says Amma has proved that religions and languages are no barriers for spiritual fulfilment and human service.
In 1993, Amma addressed Parliament of World Religions in Chicago; in 1995, she spoke at the Interfaith Celebrations at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York; in August 2000, she addressed the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders at the UN General Assembly; and in October 2002, she spoke at the UN World Conference of Women's Religious and Spiritual Leaders in Geneva.
"All these addresses were in vernacular Malayalam. But people understand the power of love, though she talks in Malayalam," says Jones.
What will Amma say when she addresses the CEOs and business leaders who have come from all over the world? One of her close aides says Amma will teach them the fine of art of combining business with social service and spiritual energy.
One of Amritanandamayi's aides says that in the last three decades, she "has built up a spiritual and service empire that include educational, charity and medical institutions across India and abroad".
Today, at the age of 50, Amritanandamayi heads huge projects --estimated to be worth Rs 1,000 crore -- to help the sick and poor across the country. The ardent CEO followers of Amma will definitely take note.
More reports from Kerala