Alleviating Human Suffering One Hug at a Time

ByABC News via via logo

Dec. 20, 2006 — -- Thousands wait in line, often for hours at a time, to receive what they say is unconditional love -- a hug from a woman dressed in a simple, white sari.

They call her Amma, which means "divine mother."

Amma is affectionately known as "the hugging saint." She is a 52-year-old Indian woman who dispenses hugs and in the process has gained international acclaim. She says she wants to comfort wounded hearts.

When asked what she thought Americans needed, Amma responded simply.

"Peace and love," she said through her translator. "That is universal."

Amma began her hugging sessions in India. Today, she travels the world to spread her message of peace, coming to the United States twice a year. ABC News met her at her bucolic ranch in Northern California.

Rani and her son Vishnu flew from Atlanta to get a hug from Amma. They have been Amma devotees for four years, and Vishnu even has an Amma doll.

"I'm going to get it blessed by Amma at the Darshan," he said.

Supporters say Amma has given 26 million hugs around the world, sometimes as many as 40,000 a day. No one is turned away.

"I like myself," Amma told ABC News. " I love myself, so I love everyone."

The guru's followers seem mesmerized in her presence. Some come for guidance, while others come for spiritual healing.

One rabbi said Amma had helped her deepen her faith in Judaism.

"I think she reminds us of where we came from," she said.

Amma says her true mission is to care for the poor around the world. Her followers say her charitable organization has helped millions of people, primarily in her home country of India.

Her group has also committed $23 million for victims of the 2004 South Asian tsunami. She raises money selling books, tapes, and even her personal effects.

A Northern California shop contains thousands of items that Amma's followers say came from her home in India. Devotees can buy anything from a hairbrush Amma once owned to a towel, which goes for $30.

Supporters say her charity rakes in $5 million a year in the United States alone.

Amma's work has been internationally recognized. She addressed world leaders at the United Nations in 2000.

Amma has come a long way from her roots as the daughter of a poor Indian fisherman. She defied her traditional Hindu upbringing by embracing strangers, which was unheard of for a young woman.

She hopes to alleviate human suffering -- one hug at a time.

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