The Miracle Hug Lady

ByABC News
July 17, 2001, 12:26 PM

N E W  Y O R K, July 12 — -- 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.