May 9, 2007 -- In the south of India lives a woman who has dedicated her life to helping others through the simplest of gestures -- an embrace. She is said to have blessed and consoled more than 26 million people throughout the world.
In Malayalam, Amma's native language, the name Amma means "mother" -- an apt name for the woman revered as a holy being.
Amma, known to many as the hugging saint, traveled to Chennai, the fifth most populous city in India earlier this year.
Chennai is blanketed with her image; her face is on street buses and there are larger-than-life posters of her around the city.
Amma's Winter Tour of Southern India
Having many devoted followers, Amma often addresses massive crowds -- as many as 200,000 packed into an outdoor space as big as a football field during her stop in Chennai. She has gained near superstar status among her followers around the world, all through her simple act of hugging.
After speaking to the overflowing crowd, followers rushed to the stage and patiently waited hours for their turn at darshan -- the Sanskrit term which means "vision" and is used to describe the meeting with a holy person. Through 16 straight hours, Amma hugged each and every person while offering advice and guidance to many troubled hearts.
She is not selling salvation or offering physical healing or a chance at prosperity. Instead, Amma seems to have tapped into a deep and essential human need -- the need for affection and the human touch.
Betsy Barnett, an American from New York, has been a devotee for the past 10 years. She described Amma as someone with infinite compassion and motherly love, who makes a relentless effort to uplift and to relieve suffering.
"Slowly, slowly I'm learning how to love," Barnett said. "To me that means to love without expectations, without attachment, but being able to really…feel purely loving toward others. And it's hard."
From Humble Beginnings to Devoted Followers
Amma is the daughter of a poor fisherman and a member of one of the lowest castes in India. She attended school until the fourth grade, but had to quit to help out her family. As a young girl Amma spent hours in meditation, singing chants to her God.
She began with small acts of charity at the age of 7 years old, inspired by the desire to ease people's suffering. She washed the clothes of her elderly neighbors, bathed them and even brought them food and clothing from her own home.
"I used to visit villages when I was young," Amma said. "In some of the homes there would be a lot of food available and everyone was happy. In yet another house, the mother and children would be huddled together and crying. When I saw that, I brought things from my house and gave it to them."
Amma has inspired and started many humanitarian services, from charities and orphanages, and founded an 800-bed hospital, schools of higher education and soup kitchens at home and abroad.
Her devotion to her cause is reflected in her followers. She travels with hundreds of unpaid volunteers who have gladly uprooted their lives to serve her.
Are Hugs the Answer to the World's Problems?
Amma's popularity, while impressive, is not a new phenomenon. There have been a number of Indian spiritual leaders who have become popular in the West. The Maharishi were made popular by the Beatles in the 1960s, Sai Baba has more than 30 million followers worldwide and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was well-known for his popularity in the United States before his death.
For Amma, her life as a spiritual leader has also brought material benefits. Her headquarters in Kerala are indeed grand -- but according to her organization, the money comes from the sale of souvenirs, her personal effects and contributions.
While it is hard to know exactly how much money Amma has, she certainly spends a lot on her charities. She has been honored at the United Nations for her humanitarian service, and her charitable contributions have made international news. In February, she handed over the keys to 1,100 new homes in Nagapattanam for survivors of the 2005 tsunami.
Still her simple message is to love and serve one another, and most of her time is still spent hugging those in need.
"Love is not ordinary," Amma said. "Love is what sustains life. Whatever we do it is only to get love. There are two types of poverty in this world. The first one is, you know, financial. The second is poverty due to lack of love, the second one is more important. If we have compassion, we will automatically help."