Here I am, in the deep embrace of a stranger. She folds me into her arms, coos into my ear, and gently kisses my temple. Who is this woman?
"My son, my son, my son, my son," she says, rocking me back and forth. "Love you, love you, love you."
This tiny, cherubic Indian woman holds and kisses me — just as she has more than thousands of other New Yorkers at Columbia University. They will wait for hours, kneeling in line, for a one-minute caress.
Her name is Mata Amritanandamayi and she is affectionately called "Amma," or "Mother." Her followers compare her to Mother Teresa and say she has embraced more than 20 million people all over the globe.
Amma is now on a 10-city U.S. "hugging tour," which includes stops in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington and Boston. She is traveling with an entourage of 50 supporters, volunteers who say she is changing the world with simple tenderness.
Swamis Direct Traffic
On my knees, I wait. Chanting, drumming and the twang of a sitar fill the room. At noon, several hundred people, many who had waited since 8 a.m., kneel in concentric circles around her. Swamis, clad in orange suits, direct the traffic.
Nobody can deny there is something magic about her — it's her energy, an unbelievable ability to work 18 hours a day, often seven days a week. She works in two sessions — morning and evening — always smiles, and breaks only to meditate, eat and sleep.
This is an easy day for her. In India, she can reach out to 15,000 people. Many unwashed. Many in rags. When it is time to go home to eat her rice and curry supper, her white sari is often blackened from soot.
She has known poverty herself, and her rise to prominence is inexplicable. She came from the Indian state of Kerala. Born to fisher folk in 1953, she left school at a young age to care for her family. In her early 20s, she began offering her blessing to others. The lines around her simply grew, and now she has millions of followers.
In 1993, Amma served as president of the Centenary Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. In 1995, she spoke at the United Nations' 50th anniversary commemoration.
Cranky New Yorkers Take Hug Break
At Columbia University, many Hindu people kneel on the lines. So, too, do Christians, Jews, and, presumably, people of other faiths. Amma rarely preaches. She says she embraces all faiths. It seems her doctrine is fairly universal — she hugs people as a mother hugs a child.
Her followers refer to this hug as a darshan — Sanskrit for an audience or session in the presence of a saint. Her U.S. spokesman Rob Sidon says, "Other holy people in India don't allow themselves to be touched like this. Amma breaks with tradition."
I look around me. Here are fellow New Yorkers — rich, educated, and hardened to flimflams. Why do these people wait for hours? Again I ask, where does she get her energy?
I am next in line, kneeling before Amma, watching her work. She sits on a wooden chair adorned with flowers and caresses a 35-ish man, whispering into his ear. Her eyes are closed. I can't imagine that they have never before met.
Some call it supernatural. There are stories that she has cured lepers. But that is in India. In a city of cranky Americans, it's simply a miracle that hundreds of people will wait in line for something that, theoretically, should be waiting for them when they get home — a simple hug.