Behind the celebrity big hug

Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), Sep. 13, 2002

Politicians who endorsed the world’s biggest hug for peace may not be aware of the religious subtext , writes John Safran.

Say what you like about bible-types bashing on your door on Saturday mornings, at least they’re open about who they are (Mormons/Jehovah’s Witnesses) and what they want (your soul). Similarly, the Pope wears a clearly identifiable tall hat so you know when he’s chewing the fat that his position isn’t secular, it’s being informed by the Good Book.

Then we have people who don’t always lay their theological cards on the table. After last year’s World Trade Centre disaster, a group called “National Mental Health Assistance” offered counselling to the distressed, convincing American Fox News to run a hotline number on screen. Five hours later the network pulled the number after discovering that ringing “National Mental Health Assistance” got you through to the Church of Scientology.

Which brings us to this week’s “World’s Biggest Hug for Peace”, which tried to break the Guinness Record in this important category. The Australian effort was held in Wollongong. The press release said it was an “attempt to inspire communities globally to a non-violent and personal approach to resolving the tragedies on and after September 11, 2001”. What a cause. I mean who in their right mind is anti-hug?

Not the politicians who gave their endorsements on the Web site. The man known for his cold, monotone delivery, Greens Senator Bob Brown, tells us: “The world needs more hugs, big hugs, record hugs. So go well.” Liberal MP Alan Cadman chips away at his party’s icy Montgomery Burns image by declaring “Hugging is friendship and love. Congratulations on your attempt.” Then there were NSW MPs Robert Oakshott, Lee Rhiannon and Ian Cohen adding their voices to the “celebrity” line-up.

To hype us up for the global snuggle, “World’s Biggest Hug” provide us with quotes from people such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and, hang on, a disproportionate few from some guy named Sri Chinmoy. And over at its Web page, several links take us to sites associated with Sri Chinmoy. Sri Chinmoy? That’s the name of a spiritual teacher born in Bangladesh and now living in New York, and of his movement. Opinions on the man range from “wise and humble beacon of light” to “a little kooky but harmless” right through to “dastardly cult-leading freak”.

Chinmoy’s official introductory literature weaves around whether he’s leading a “faith”, analogous to, say, Buddhism, or whether he’s promoting a relaxation course, analogous to the yoga class you take at the local gym.

His critics are less ambiguous. The American Atheists organisation labels him a “Hindu religious cultist”. When British politician David Wilshire found out Chinmoy’s group was holding a meeting in a parliamentary committee room, he complained “there will be claims that we support the cult, and more young people will be tricked into signing up for total obedience to a cult, the leader of which claims to be able to lift elephants and paint 16,000 pictures a day”.

When contacted, “Biggest Hug” organiser Sabine Holt acknowledged that both she and the other person named in press releases, Surnirmalya Symons, were followers of Sri Chinmoy. One could argue that a big group cuddle in a park comes under the category of quasi-meditation and maybe they should have declared their faith-based interest in the event’s promotional material. But Holt says it was a secular hug, or at least a non-denominational hug, with other key players unconnected to Sri Chinmoy.

Maybe. However it’s hard to deny that the supposedly non-religious “Hug” Web site encourages schools to get involved, and tilts the surfer towards Chinmoy material, where you hear a lot about how it is of “paramount importance” to have “faith in one’s Guru” even if what he wants you to do is counter-intuitive.

And what of the endorsements from politicians? The bald, blue-gowned Chinmoy has been wrapped over the knuckles before for erroneously claiming he is officially endorsed by the United Nations.

Natasha Stott Despoja, a woman who definitely needs a warm embrace after recent events, also backed the Big Hug. Yet her media adviser said this stamp of approval came without Despoja knowing the “Hug” may have a religious subtext.

Please don’t label me a bitter bastard, lashing out because I wasn’t hugged enough as a child. I’m not anti-hug. I’m pro-hug. Pro-fully disclosed hug, where our hands are above our waists so we can all see what’s going on.

PS: Despite celebrity endorsement, Australia’s “World’s Biggest Hug” failed to break the Guinness Record set by 899 bankers at a New York conference in December 2000.

We appreciate your support


Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this service free of charge.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)

More About This Subject

This post was last updated: Nov. 30, -0001