July 9, 2002
1745 IST

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Healing with hugs and kisses

Chindu Sreedharan in New York

I am blessed!

So I have been told by an engineer, a doctor, an architect, a video editor, and a journalist -- all in the course of a single afternoon at Columbia University.

"You are so lucky!" said bearded, happy Kamal Bijlani, once a Boston-based computer consultant, now a brahmachari. "She spoke to you so much!"

"Your life is going to change!" assured Dr Shyamala Sukumaran, mother of two, a Malaysia-settled physician. "When she hugs you, it is like being hugged by love -- what did she tell you?"

"Wow!" went light-eyed Irish catholic Meg Hanley, who edits video films. "Nobody gets to talk to her like that!"

As I moved through the crowds at Columbia's Roone Arledge Auditorium, more people smiled, nodded at me -- hey, pal, we saw you, how did you manage it?

What I 'managed' was time with Mata Amritanandamayi, a crazily busy, always-smiling 49-year-old spiritual leader from Kerala, India. To be more precise, some shared time with her, when she answered my queries as she went about her daily routine of dispensing her special medicine-for-all-ailments to devotees: hugs, and, in some cases, kisses.

And, yes, I also managed a longer-than-usual embrace and some chitchat at the end of it.

The hug is trademark Mata Amritanandamayi -- 'Amma/Ammachi', which means 'mother' in Malayalam, to her devotees across the world.

She is short, the stoutness of middle age about her, clad in a white sari that contrasts sharply with her dark skin and black hair. She wears dark brown bead earrings, a golden nose stud, and two bead-bracelets each -- one dark brown, the other saffron -- on her wrists.

Dubbed the 'hugging saint', she is said to embrace more than 20,000 people in a single session. Devotees smile, laugh, sob, weep, cry when she holds them, first to her right shoulder, then the left, and sometimes in her lap.

Her hugs are free. Devotees say being clasped by her is 'comforting', 'divine' and 'inspirational', that it 'provides inner peace', 'a calmness from the bottom of your stomach', even 'salvation'.

"Embracing symbolises giving," said Mata Amritanandamayi. "It is loving, and love is what there is a shortfall of in the world."

You need a numbered token for her embrace, and you join the lines, sitting double-line, till you reach her. Families are clasped together, singles, well, singly.

The hug is comfortable, neither loose nor tight. She leans forward from her chair as she pulls you to her white-draped shoulder, which mingles the smell of sandalwood and ash.

Then she murmurs in your ear. In my case, 'ammayude ponnukutta, muthee, ponnukutta-ponnukutta-ponnukutta-ponnukutta', over and over again -- translation, 'Mother's darling son'.

Did I feel 'changed'? Not really. Could be that my profession, the skepticism it demands of me rather, stood in the way.

But around me there were tens, hundreds -- the first session in New York City saw 1,000-odd people; just a fraction of what she sees during the same time back home -- who seemed deeply moved by her.

Like, for instance, Bill and Cindy Mullen. Bill was in a wheelchair, his right side paralysed after a stroke in 2001. A friend told the couple about the 'guru from India', and here they were.

"Oh, it felt good, just good," Bill said, his speech unclear. "She hugged me, massaged my leg and chest, you know."

"It will do us good," his teary-eyed wife was sure. "That hug...I was just overwhelmed with it... with its generosity."

Vijayatha, an old follower of Mata Amritanandamayi, said her belief in 'Amma' grew gradually, over the years. "It has changed me -- made me more patient, more understanding."

Her husband Vasanth didn't look on himself as a devotee. "I have taken her blessings. She has some powers, certainly -- in any case, it is good to get blessings from anyone, no?"

Italian Salvatore Tassona and his Indian wife Mohini were weeping as they came away. They were hardcore devotees, they told me, since 1994.

"It is such a beautiful feeling," Mohini said. "She is so compassionate... I was skeptical about her initially, but she is really genuine. She's definitely in commune with god."

Rama, one of Mata's sanyasins, was busy by the many stalls that lined the sides, where white-clad volunteers sold everything from Amma calendars, beads, diaries, comics; to medicinal oils for mental energy ($6.50), anxiety ($18.95), deep rest ($12.75) and invincibility ($17.50); and Amma books, CD-ROMs and video cassettes.

An American and Catholic by birth, Rama, once a landscape architect, said it was "Amma's overwhelming spirituality" that attracted her.

"How she affects you is not something you can put your finger on," she said. "The example of her life, its simplicity, her humanitarian aspects [she runs several charitable institutions]... Maybe it is because you don't find such noble examples like her in the West -- for me, Amma is the perfect expression of divinity."

She is not alone in that belief. At 4 pm, as Mata Amritanandamayi hugged the last of the token-holders, people lined the path to the BMW that arrived to carry her away.

As she walked briskly through, still smiling, she held her hands at shoulder level, letting people touch her -- among them, a red-moustached, stout gentleman.

"Did you see that?" he exclaimed. "She touched me!"

Mata Amritanandamayi, currently on a spiritual tour in the US, was in NYC from July 8 to 10.

The story of a swami

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