Amma Wants to Hug You

N E W  Y O R K, July 11, 2001 -- Hundreds of people lined up at a college Auditorium Tuesday to get a hug from an Indian spiritual leader whose followers say they feel uplifted when they embrace her.

Mata Amritanandamayi, also known as "Amma," or mother, has been known to spend as many as 20 hours hugging attendees at her services.

She is appearing through Wednesday at Columbia University in upper Manhattan as part of a 10-week U.S. tour. The audience Monday night at Columbia included a broad mix: college students, young couples with small children in tow, and a smattering of older followers. "I can't explain whether it's her individual energy or an energy within the group," said Zack Kurland, 28, of New York. "It's an uplifting feeling."

Social, Spiritual Leader in India

Amritanandamayi was born in the Kerala state of India in 1953. She was removed from school at a young age to look after her family and soon began watching over others in her village. She began her spiritual endeavors as a young woman, encouraging others to social service and to express love for others. Later she started a program in which people could go to her and receive her blessing — a hug, or darshan. After two and a half hours of songs, chants and meditations on Monday, Amritanandamayi, seated in the center of a large stage, received her devotees. As they approached, the followers fell to their knees and patiently waited their turn. She greeted each with a warm smile and outstretched arms. Each darshan resembled an embrace between two old friends who hadn't seen each other in years. Most hugs included a kiss on the cheek, an encouraging whisper in the ear, and loving caresses on the back and arms.

750 Hugs on Tuesday

Devotees followed an honor system under which those who had never participated in a darshan were allowed to move to the front of the line. Organizers said more than 750 people received tokens that allowed them to climb on stage and receive a hug. In 1993, Amritanandamayi served as president of the Centenary Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. In 1995, she was a speaker at the United Nations' 50th anniversary commemoration. Caroline Finnegan, 24, a New Yorker at her first Amritanandamayi service, said she was looking forward to what she had heard was a "powerful and loving experience." "We don't really have too many of those in Manhattan," Finnegan said.