India's guru of love conveys faith with an embrace

Chicago Sun-Times/July 6, 2006
By Cathleen Falsani

Her religion, she says, is love.

And her practice, in its purest form, is a hug.

Not a loose, back-patting, hips apart, quick grasp, like the kind that might be accompanied by an "air kiss."

When Amma, the 52-year-old Indian holy woman, hugs people, it's a firm, tender embrace. She cradles their heads -- men and women, children or pensioners -- to her right bosom like infants, all the while quietly telling them how much she loves them.

"Darling daughter, darling daughter, darling daughter," Amma whispered lovingly into the ear of one 30-something woman who had waited nearly four hours Wednesday in a meeting room at the Oak Brook Hills Marriott Resort to meet the cherubic woman who devotees believe is a living saint.

"Amma, amma, amma," the Indian woman known as "the hugging saint" quietly chanted into the kneeling visitor's ear. "To awaken the mother within you," the guru explained.

After a minutelong hug and several kisses on the cheeks, Amma -- bright-eyed, swathed in layers of diaphanous white cloth and smelling of hyacinth -- slipped a single Hershey's chocolate kiss and a red flower petal into the visitor's hand and sent her on her way before reaching out to embrace the next two women waiting in line on their knees.

'Mostly about the chocolate'

More than 3,000 people were expected to be hugged by Amma on Wednesday and today, when she will begin doling out the sacred love at 10 a.m. Admission is free. So are the hugs.

Amma was born into the Hindu religion, but now "her spiritual practices are universal," said Balan Nair, a retired businessman from Oak Brook who hosted the guru's visit. "She doesn't preach any particular religion. It's value-based. ... Love is the cure-all. That is her teaching."

Barrie Cole, a playwright and performer from Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, took her children Sita, 2, and Ruben, 4, with her to see Amma.

"It really doesn't make a lot of rational sense to wait in line for a couple of hours to get a hug from somebody who's supposed to be a saint, but it's not really about the intellectual or rational part of your brain," Cole said. "She's the universal mother, so we want to bring our children here and get blessed.

"It is pretty amazing that someone could be that present for thousands of people. So I think if there is such a thing as a realized being, it would be somebody like Amma," she said. "But for the kids, it's mostly about the chocolate."

'Without love, you can never really move forward in life'

Amma answers three questions from the Sun-Times:

Q.Why do you think so many different kinds of people come to see you?

A. There is no particular color, caste, creed or religion -- love is universal, and that's what I'm trying to give to people, and that's what I'm trying to awaken in others. And that's why people come.

Q.Why does it seem so difficult for so many of us to act lovingly?

A. Love should begin from the family. When parents love their children, they should not consider the children as objects. We can own a car or a house or property. We can consider them all objects. But you cannot consider children as objects. They are a God-given gift. Parents are just instruments.

Mostly people use each other. They don't consider each other as living beings, as somebody whom you should respect or love.

Parents even suppress their children because they project their own negativities on their children. And in the process, [the children's] hearts become closed. So they are neither able to give or take love when they become old. ... Have deep respect for children.

You may give education to your children or you may even give wealth to your children, but that's not enough. Unless you give proper values, spiritual values ... to your children, they will not go. It's like even if there is gasoline in the car, you need a battery to start the car. Without love, you can never really move forward in life.

Q.What does she see in the people when they come to her?

A. When a sculptor sees a rock, a rough rock, he sees the image that he can carve out of it. Likewise, when I see people, when I hold them, I see the divinity in them and not just the external appearance.

And just as a honeybee sees honey in flowers -- only honey in the flowers -- I see the sweetness in them, the sweetness of love in people.

Born: Sept. 27, 1953, to a poor family of fishermen in Kerala, India. Her given name was Sudhamani.

Hugging: Amma's devotees claim she personally has hugged more than 30 million people in the last 30 years. The nonsectarian guru believes the hugs alleviate suffering.

Fun facts: Amma spoke at the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago and has visited the Chicago area every year since 1989. Her charitable trust runs social service centers in 15 countries, distributed $1 million in medicine to tsunami victims, and donated $1 million to the Bush-Clinton Hurricane Katrina Fund.

Not-so-fun fact: Amma's followers stopped a knife-wielding man about 15 feet from the "hugging saint" during a prayer meeting in India last year.

Editor's note: Amma's answers were translated into English from her original Malayalam by her disciple, Swami Amritaswarupananda.

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