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Amma, “the hugging saint”, is a contemporary guru from south India with a considerable international following. She is famous for hugging people during the meetings with her followers. These hugging sessions turn into big festive events, that last for many hours with thousands of people being hugged at a time. Her followers claim that Amma hugged more than 33 million people; this seems a bit too much, but the way she does it, these is no doubt that she hugged loads of people. So is it all about that? Yes, there is nothing more to it.
Amma was born in a remote village in Kerala, south india, in a poor fishermans family. As a child she used to collect food scraps from the neighbours to feed the family cattle, and she experienced the intense poverty and suffering of people. She started helping others with the clothes and food from her own home. She also started hugging people to comfort them in their sorrow. Her family was against it, as she hugged both men and women, which was considered unacceptable. Despite being punished, she continued hugging, saying she just sees a human being in need, and she has to help. Her family tried to arrange her marriage a few times, but Amma always rejected it. More and more people started coming to meet her and receive a hug. Eventually she gained a reputation of a saint, and people started living around her at her family’s land. With time the property turned into an ashram, which by now grew to a size of a small town. Since 1987 Amma started travelling to other countries. As her ahsram grew, she became increasingly involved in different charitable activities. Since the beginning of 90-s she received numerous awards for her humanitarian efforts. Her organisation, Mata Amritanandamayi Math, is involved in helping the victims of disasters, empowering women, fighting hunger, improving public health and providing education for the poor. The reports about this charitable activity are contorversive, some praise it for effectiveness, while others critisize it heavily. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Amma’s teachings are extremely simple. First of all, the very word “Amma” means “mother”, that name was given to her by her followers. That’s how she is advertised – like a mother, who will hug and comfort you, and wipe your tears. They even sell dolls of Amma with a widespread arms ready to hug, so whenever people need to share something, they can talk to a doll. It is hard to imagine something more childish even in the rich world of indian spirituality. Amma’s teachings are expressed in one sentence – “serve all, love all”. This is actually a reverse of a famous slogan of Sathya Sai Baba “love all, serve all”. That gives you an idea of how original her teachings are. Everything started just with hugging, but when she became a guru, she had to deliver some “teachings”, so she did. But there is nothing except for hugs. Her followers practice “karma-yoga”, meaning service, working for the ashram. That’s their whole spiritual practice. And that is fine as such, but there is quite some controversy involved. The critics, including some of the former insiders, speak about hypocricy, abuse, violence and rapes, suspicious deaths and the misuse of funds. Amma’s accounts has never been checked officially, which is no wonder, since she is well-connected with the state govenment, and according to some sources, with the hindu nationalists. The officials of Kerala claim she does so much service to people, and her work is so effective, that even to think of suspicion is sacrilegious. All the criticism is heavily suppressed with the help of the government. In fact, though she is preaching religious unity, her movement is entirely hindu. Hence the government support. And it seems there is too much money involved now. She doesn’t charge for hugs. But she sells all kinds of “blessed” objects, religious ceremonies, which you can order online, courses in the ashram and seats at her university. Her family reportedly receives a good part of her wealth.
Amma is another example of how a simple religious movement can turn into a big financial structure. And how money and power corrupt people. Amma’s movement is absolutely pro-establishment. So it is bound to grow. It seems for some it is enough to get into the arms of a mommy to quench their spiritual thirst.

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