Tue, Sep 30, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Spreading love one hug at a time

The guru known as Amma bridges India's social gaps with her soft temperment and lots of hugs

By Amy Waldman  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , KOCHI, INDIA

Devotees for he guru, Mata Amritanandamayi, known as Amma, or mother, line up for water, during a celebration of her 50th birthday, at a stadium in Kochi, India, Saturday. Amma, a woman of humble roots has been transformed into a global guru worshiped by millions around the globe.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

In a palatial room, about 100 mostly Indian-born business leaders discussed long-term strategies for uplifting India's masses this weekend. About 3km away, those masses spiraled around a stadium, waiting for a short-term uplift -- a hug, and a few whispered words of reassurance -- from a small and, some say, divine woman in white.

They represented two faces of the Indian meritocracy, which has proved capable of producing some of the world's most successful technology entrepreneurs and of transforming a woman of humble roots into a global guru worshiped by millions.

This weekend they overlapped, brought together to celebrate the 50th birthday of the guru, Mata Amritanandamayi, known as Amma, or Mother. She was joined by India's deputy prime minister, Hollywood stars, peace advocates and hundreds of thousands of devotees, who lined up for her trademark "darshan" -- the hug she has bestowed on what her followers say is 20 million people.

As part of the event, President APJ Abdul Kalam had brought together Indian and Indian-American business leaders to help realize his vision for making India a developed nation by 2020. Some of the executives were Amma followers. Others were initiates, like Sriram Viswanathan, a managing director at Intel, who described his hug as "pretty dramatic." Others said they would give interviews only if they were not asked questions about spirituality.

But their distance was hard to maintain. Even if he felt distaste for the Amma hagiography, including the regular references to "her holiness," any corporate titan would have to admire her advertising campaign. The chief executives were subjected to repeated showings of videos about her life and good works. In the stadium where the main celebration was held, banners featured her sayings next to the names of commercial sponsors.

The city was blanketed with her image, including larger-than-life posters of her walking on water.

It was an apt image for some of her followers -- like Sindhu Nataraj, a 25-year-old housewife who waited in line to see Amma for hours this morning -- who say they see her as God. When she vacated a chair, men and women knelt to stroke and kiss it. Her presence, even the mere thought of her, made some devotees weep.

This dark-skinned woman with a glowing smile has a Clintonesque ability to focus intensely on whoever is in front of her, even if she has been hugging for 10 hours straight. Like many empires, hers began small. She was born to a poor, low-caste family, the legend goes, which mistreated her and then cast her out when she began to speak of her visions of God. Eventually, a small, dedicated group of devotees gathered, moved by her compassion.

She has founded an 800-bed hospital, a medical college, and a university. She has built thousands of houses for the poor. She has an ashram in Kerala that is home to 1,800 people, and about two dozen ashrams abroad, including a complex in northern California. This week she was being transported in a white Mercedes.

Much of her financing comes from overseas, but Hindu nationalists, usually wary of foreign support or religion in India, are also among her fans.

Much like the executives, many of whom now live in the US but commute back to India, she has built a bridge to the West. On her initial visit to the US, recalled Steven Fleisher, one of her early devotees there and now general counsel of her nonprofit foundation in America, perhaps a dozen people came to see her. But her following grew. In 1997, her followers decided to "launch" her.

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