Minutes before she got up to leave the hall, devotees of Mata Amritanandamayi or Amma lined up near the exits. If only for a moment, they wanted to catch a glimpse of India's foremost spiritual leader, feel the touch of her hand or share a look from her smiling face.
Amma, meaning mother, had just been sitting on stage for hours. Thousands flocked to see her at the LAX Hilton. And, one-by-one they approached on their knees to rest their heads against her shoulder.
The embrace and the blessing they received have become a trademark of this renowned spiritual leader called the “hugging saint.” She's said to have embraced more than 38 million people worldwide.
Recently, while in Los Angeles as part of her North American visit, she must have hugged thousands more. And I was one of them.
Four years ago, Amma's nonprofit Embracing the Word transformed the dilapidated former Eagles lodge on Catalina Avenue into the MA Center LA in Redondo Beach. It's a spiritual center as well as an art deco event space. Net revenues from weddings and other parties are used to fund community service projects.
Amma is perhaps most known for her teaching of selflessness and loving compassion, though it’s her charity work that has physically improved the lives of millions of people around the globe.
Embracing the World, the non-profit she founded, has served more than 10 million meals for the homeless and hungry throughout India. In 49 North American cities they serve 150,000 people every year as well as providing meals to needy children in Nairobi, Australia, Spain, France, Slovenia, Mexico, Brazil and Costa Rica, among others. Additional projects dedicated to providing homes for orphans, healthcare, education and employment are all provided through charitable donations from her devotees.
As I approached Amma Thursday afternoon to receive a blessing, the stage was crowded with people waiting for a moment with her. They surrounded her on stage as helpers passed her tiny Hershey’s kisses and a flower petal to give out. Some, like me, received a bracelet and an apple.
One of her handlers explained in her native language that I was a journalist and Amma's face lit up with a smile. Although she doesn't speak English, her body language exuded compassion.
I knelt at her feet and she took my head, pressing it against her shoulder. Her white robe was stained with makeup from the many who embraced her before me. She had been hugging people for almost four hours at that point.
As she took my head in her arms she whispered into my ear something like “Wooshaaa, wooshaa, wooshaa."
Having studied Buddhism and other religions, I was skeptical of this hugging practice to make you whole. But as Amma uttered these words of prayer, I did feel a tingling come over my body. It was as if her words and her presence so close to me were somehow enveloping my being with kindness.
Afterward I spoke with Swamiji, Br. Dayamrita Chaitanya, one of Amma’s senior disciples who has been travelling with Amma for 35 years. He said most people who come to see Amma are searching for something, which they don’t realize. So many of us are, of course, looking for happiness.
“What she does is give them guidance,” he said. “She says we are all looking for happiness, but we look for it in outside objects or through relationships, but we don’t hardly realize that it’s within each of us. So she is directing them to look within rather than outside.”
Though her background is in Hindu, Amma's message is universal. Her teachings on inner harmony and serving others is not new, of course. Many others including Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Teresa and leaders of other world religions have all taught similar things, even extending the hand of charity.
Swamiji said what attracts people most to Amma is her “utter selflessness and her compassion for human beings.”
She doesn’t want followers, he explained. What she wants is for people to give back to society and serve others with compassion.
“It’s not only charity,” he said. “She has inspired so many people.”
After Amma met Marc Benioff CEO of Salesforce, she encouraged him to donate a certain percentage of the company’s profits to charity. Benioff took the message to heart and during a commencement address at UC Irvine in 2014 he pledged his commitment to do just that.
“She’s the only one who has hope for humanity,” said Swamiji. “She makes me go forward and brings enthusiasm to what I do. Most people talk but she walks the talk.”
For longtime devotee Diana Ho, her love for Amma developed after the 2004 Asian tsunami when her aid organization was able to assist evacuees faster than most international charity groups. Amma opened the doors to her Amrita University in India, and provided food and shelter to thousands displaced by the tsunami, she said.
“She sent medical teams into the field and people flocked to her with only the clothes on their back,” Ho said. “Some lost family members and some were injured. She didn’t sleep for days consoling villagers who were weeping and crying.”
Along with serving others, a large part of Amma’s message involves caring for the planet and promote sustainability. At the convention space at the Hilton, recycling and composting was encouraged in the dining hall. Even separate bins were placed in the restrooms to compost the paper towels.
Her group has also planted more than 1 million trees with the hopes of reversing the effects of global warming.
Amma's environmental message especially touched Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand, who addressed Amma’s devotees in brief remarks on one of the nights. Brand said that his fight over the past 17 years to bring parkland to the site of the current AES power plant had relevance to Amma’s teaching.
“I never really thought to stop and think about what we were all doing, really think about it, until I was shown the teachings of Amma and learned to look at events and people through the lens of compassion,” Brand said. “You wouldn’t think wanting to build a park would create conflict, but it has been filled with conflict. It’s through conflict we learn to better understand people and the way they see the world.”