An embraceable ministry

Amma: The Indian humanitarian is said to dispense spiritual energy in her hugs.

July 16, 2004|By Matt Whittaker | Matt Whittaker,SUN STAFF

After giving an estimated 24 million hugs over the past three decades, Indian mystic Mata Amritanandamayi's embrace is still warm, unhurried and personal -- even though she sits for hours or even days on end, never turning away those who throng to her seeking spiritual blessing.

At La Fontaine Bleu in Glen Burnie, thousands came from across the nation yesterday for an impartation from the visiting humanitarian, popularly known as Amma. The 50-year-old is considered a living saint in her homeland and has been compared to Mother Teresa and Gandhi.

"The lady who told us to come said it's like if you had a chance to see Jesus on Earth," said Kelly Mixon, who came from the Lake Norman area of North Carolina with her husband, Pat, at the urging of an Amma devotee. "She hugs you like you're the only person she's hugged all day."

Amma's visit to Glen Burnie is part of a U.S. tour and came two days after she gave the closing address at this year's Parliament of the World's Religions in Barcelona, Spain.

Her spokesman, Rob Sidon, said that in addition to the individual blessings that she has given in 20 countries, she has inspired several international aid initiatives, including hospitals, homes for the poor and environmental protection.

"If she's in India, she's pretty much mobbed wherever she goes," said Sidon, who added that Amma has been known to sit for 20 hours straight, embracing as many as 40,000 people in a day.

Yesterday's gathering drew an estimated 5,000 people throughout the course of the day, and some were expected to stay well past midnight. The events typically last until the morning of the next day, Sidon said.

Amma attributed her stamina to an otherworldly force.

"I am not a battery that may die away," she said in Malayalam, a dialect from her home state of Kerala in southern India, through a translator.

As she spoke, she continued her embraces, handing out candy and sometimes giving fruit and sprinkling flower petals on those who knelt in front of her. "I am eternally connected to the power source, the supreme consciousness."

Sidon said Amma has been known to say: "Where there's love, there's no effort."

In addition to the embraces that are part of her ministry of darshan -- a Sanskrit term describing "audience in the presence of a holy person" -- she answers questions, including ones about spirituality, health and relationships, Sidon said.

"She's imparting part of her own spiritual energy," he said, adding that people who have been embraced by her report a "sense of unconditional love enveloping them, awakening to their own higher self."

On entering La Fontaine Bleu, visitors observed the Indian custom of removing their shoes at the door, where a stick of incense burned in a nearby potted-plant container. Orange-robed Indian swamis mingled with devotees and newcomers, some of whom wore white Indian-style loose-fitting robes, dresses and shirts.

Sara Stanek, 23, of Pittsburgh, said she felt empathy for those at the gathering because it seemed as if they were all seeking personal guidance.

"It's strange because a lot of these people I've never met, but I feel like I have something in common with them," Stanek said.

Vendors sold Indian food, and inside a spacious conference room, rows of chairs were set up facing a stage, where a group sang Indian devotional songs accompanied by a drum, electric bass guitar, keyboard and small cymbals.

Tables were set up to sell handmade dolls in the likeness of Amma, which she had blessed, with tokens from something she has worn or used placed in their heads. Other items included holy basil plants blessed by Amma, journals wrapped in silk from her clothing, and jewelry she had worn and blessed. A sign at a table selling aromas said the purchases contributed to her humanitarian projects.

After taking a number and waiting in line, people came to Amma for darshan, and some brought items for her to bless, including books, jewelry and photographs of loved ones, believing that her energy stays with the object.

Amma sat under a row of bright lights, swathed in a white sari and with a yellow and red bindi painted on her forehead to represent the third eye of consciousness. She pressed her cheek against those she embraced and kissed a baby who was set on her lap. Some brought her gifts of flowers or fruit.

Her central message is simple.

"The greatest message is to know who you are," she said. "The biggest security is to practice spiritual values in your life and to live accordingly."

She said asking why she does this "is like asking water why you are flowing."

Anna Heymann, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate, came from northern California to see her grandparents -- but "mostly to see Amma."

She said she has been coming to Amma gatherings since she was a year old. She has been to them in California, Washington, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Washington and three times in India.

"It's something I want to do," Heymann said. "She's just like a part of my life. She brings peace to me."

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