Globalization is good and necessary, whispers the guru, her arms circling yet another stranger, her words translated into English by an attendee. “But at the same time, families are disintegrating, people are becoming isolated islands, there is no communication€¦ there is no love.”
So says Amma, the Indian-born spiritual leader who over the last two decades has gained an international name for her simple insight and her signature public act. Amma — full name Mata Amritanandamayi, age 56 — is known as “the Hugging Saint.”
In Los Angeles this week, thousands of devotees have billowed through a windowless conference room at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport to see her. Mostly, they have one goal: During the guru’s annual sojourn to Southern California they hope to disappear for a short while into her embrace.
With this, they hope, will flow a touch of enlightenment and a great deal of what she says is the salve for the world’s problems: love.
Amma is part of a small clutch of Indian spiritual masters who, over the last two decades, have found increasing popularity in the United States and other Western countries.
“She represents the third wave of Indian gurus to come to this country and establish themselves,” said Karen Pechilis, a professor of Asian religions at Drew University in New Jersey. The first wave came in the late 1800s, Pechilis said. The second, in the 1960s, was typified by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru followed briefly by the Beatles. The ’60s gurus were men, and many were wrapped in controversy over financial and sexual impropriety.
The third wave, though, is composed largely of women who are trying to distance themselves from the old scandals while placing a stronger emphasis on charity work. They include leaders such as Mother Meera, known for communicating her intentions with a look into the eyes, and Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, who believers say can transmit enlightening energy through a television.
Pechilis said Amma’s darshan, her hallmark embrace, bumps against deeply rooted Indian cultural views. “She’s distinctive because she has such an emphasis on physical contact,” Pechilis said, adding that Indian culture is not typically tolerant of the sight of men and women touching in public, particularly if an embrace comes from a woman such as Amma, a villager born into a low caste.
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