Hugging Indian Guru Has Legions of Backers

COCHIN, India (AP) – California businessman Stephen Parr has traveled a long way for a hug.

Parr is one of thousands of people flocking to a sports stadium in southern India this week seeking spiritual fulfillment in the arms of religious leader Mata Amritanandamayi, a Hindu woman who hugs her devotees. Her followers claim she has given 30 million hugs in 30 years.

Amritanandamayi, known by her followers as “Amma,” which means “mother” in many Indian languages, is marking her 50th birthday with a weeklong celebration starting Wednesday.

Organizers of the event expect half a million people, including India’s President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, to attend, looking for spiritual transformation and encouragement to help those less fortunate.

Planned activities include forums on conflict resolution, interfaith dialogue and peace building – and lots of hugs.

“Outsiders might find it crazy. But those who have experienced her hug know that they go back transformed,” said Parr, 50, who runs a film archive in San Francisco.

“As we make more and more money, we are less and less in control of things. Peace comes from living for others. Life is all about showing love. Once she hugs, you know,” Parr said.

A maternal figure who hugs her devotees in a gesture of blessing, Amritanandamayi has admirers in the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. She travels most of the year, meeting people from several cultures and religions.

Parr, who wore an Indian loincloth around his waist and a loose shirt, said he has not given up his business but finds himself increasingly drawn to spiritual quest.

He said Amritanandamayi, whose full name means “Mother of Absolute Bliss,” welcomes all religions.

Amritanandamayi, whose birthday is on Friday, was born in a southern Indian fishing community, treated as low caste in Hinduism. When she was 10, she refused to go to school, preferring to meditate instead.

Her parents thought she had gone mad. She ran away and took a vow of celibacy and service in the 1970s, her followers say. During the next three decades, she won over millions with her constant smile and firm hugs.

Her disciples are hoping this week’s celebration – which has attracted some of India’s top politicians, artists, executives and poor villagers – will bring new people into her embrace.

Dressed in the traditional orange and saffron sacred Hindu colors, they carry cell phones to direct thousands of volunteers, erecting the stage, cooking, and cleaning toilets.

Amritanandamayi – one in a long line of Indian holy men and women who have captivated spiritual seekers around the world – has inspired rich and successful people to make a priority of serving the poor.

Many of her followers have quit their careers and traveled to dusty Indian villages where she works, although her organization does not say how many are full-time participants.

Prem Nair, 46, said he quit his job as a professor of medicine at the University of California to serve in a hospital set up by Amritanandamayi’s organization, the Amrita Ashram.

The 800-bed hospital treats people for free in Cochin, a city of 1 million, 1,320 miles south of New Delhi, India’s capital. The bulk of the organization’s operations are focused around the city in southern Kerala state, but aid work is done throughout India.

The organization plans to launch orphanages and set up a lawyers’ consultancy for the poor people during the event.

Amritanandamayi chants the name of the Hindu deity Krishna on a stage as her devotees sit cross-legged, singing songs from different religions, in which the name of a god is not specified. Many of them say they believe she herself is a god, which has drawn criticism from more conservative Hindus.

Elizabeth Rose Raphael, 40, a New York-based writer, said she spent four years at the ashram before rejoining her family and will probably keep returning to India.

Followers say they often face ridicule from friends and family when they talk about their devotion to the so-called “hugging saint.” But they say her work has been increasingly appreciated amid news of disaster and conflict.

“After Sept. 11, there is a big change. People know that Amma’s message of love is the answer,” Raphael said.

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