Amma, The Hugging Saint

A spiritual skeptic investigates the hug felt by some 32 million devotees

Ricardo Moraes/AP

A few years ago I started doing yoga, a discipline that allowed me to tick many attractive boxes: it was rooted in the Eastern spirituality of my beloved hippy ideals, it promised sculpted limbs without the treadmill and, well, it was all about me: My body, my definition of “spiritual inner calm.” Wading through my post-university pseudo-intellectual haze, I marveled at the placid young yogis with their spiritual insights and incredible Lululemon-clad yoga butts. And so like most urban, educated westerners my participation in yoga was mainly rooted in self-indulgence and narcissism while vaguely insinuating to others that I was high-minded enough to “get” yoga’s spiritual overtones (I didn’t, really). Admission: there was a brief period in my teenage years when I was the kind of person who wore jangly ankle bracelets and carried a book of Zen Koans to coffee shops.

So when I heard that Amma was coming to Toronto I was both interested and skeptical. A Hindu spiritual leader, Amma is sometimes referred to as The Hugging Saint, a nickname picked up because she offers free, lingering hugs to devotees after leading them in group meditations. A hug from Amma is said to be a transformative experience and people around the world line up for hours for an embrace that lasts less than a minute. She’s been receiving people nearly every day for 30 years and has hugged an estimated 32 million people. Apart from snuggling those in need, she’s also dedicated her life to some remarkable humanitarian work.

I had no skepticism about Amma: she sounded pretty great. But on a cloudy day in a hotel conference room near Toronto’s airport, I was wary of the crowd the guru would attract. You know the type: those that use this kind of experience as coolness currency to drop at their next dinner party; the fashion dilettantes in it more for the bangles than the Bhagavad Gita; the cultural appropriators. I guess it takes a (mostly reformed) one to know one. I was curious to ask them if they thought getting a hug from a brown lady in a sari would be a more spiritual experience than getting one from an American nun in mom jeans? Why, I wondered, do we embrace Eastern practices to mark ourselves as more intellectually evolved?

The conference room smelled like sandalwood. Stalls sold scores of Indian jewelry and saris and countless books about Amma. Fruit, saplings and flower garlands could be bought and presented to the guru as an offering before the hug. There were a lot of earnest devotees, those who knew the word to every prayer and some that had been coming to see Amma since she started touring North America in 1987. But there was also that Quebecer with a popped collar telling me he thought Amma was a “very great soul” while trying to look down my shirt. And there were those hip, ‘festival’ parents who walked around barefoot and bought some of the fruit offerings to shove in the mouth of their screaming toddler. There was also the familiar sound of jangly ankle bracelets.

“I was with a clairvoyant for eight hours the other day,” a woman said to her friend as they picked over some saris worn by Amma (double the price of the other saris). “She kept getting my name wrong.”

When I approached Amma, she looked me in the eye for a moment. It was that same look my parents gave me when they were proud of me. And with that look, I melted. She pulled me down to her large bosom, which was wrapped in what felt like bed sheets against my cheek, and chanted a little something in my ear. She smelled of sandalwood and warmth and I felt soothed. Wanting to be an active participant of the hug, I gave her back a little pat and rub. She’s been hugging people for hours, I thought, she could probably use it. Aware of the hug lineup behind me, I broke first. She giggled and pulled me to her again. When the hug was finally over, she put a little dot on my forehead (which I later found out was sandalwood paste, meant to calm anxious temperaments). She offered me a flower petal, two Hershey’s Kisses and an apple (I noticed she mostly offered others just the flower petal and one Hershey’s Kiss).

Hindus believe humans are born divine. Buddhists believe strengthening the mind through concentration brings wisdom and freedom. It’s no wonder Westerners, taught that we’re each a snowflake, gravitate toward religions that consider us special and capable right out of the gate. While some flaunt Eastern beliefs as a progressive veneer, the core sentiments are often reduced to diversions, like Ayurvedic facials and yoga retreats; self-important pseudo-spiritual exotica for the Eat, Pray, Love audience.

And in that room, where everyone was smiling at each other waiting for their embrace from a guru flown in from India, I hugged that woman, collected my chocolates and I was not immune. I felt special. 

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