- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2003

COCHIN, India — California businessman Stephen Parr has traveled a long way for a hug.

Mr. Parr is one of hundreds of thousands of people who flocked to a sports stadium in southern India this week seeking spiritual fulfillment in the arms of religious leader Mata Amritanandamayi, a Hindu woman who hugs her devotees. Her followers claim she has given 30 million hugs in 30 years.

Amritanandamayi, known by her followers as “Amma,” which means “mother” in many Indian languages, is marking her 50th birthday with a four-day celebration that started Wednesday.

Amritanandamayi chants the name of the Hindu deity Krishna on a stage as her devotees sit cross-legged, singing songs from different religions, in which the name of a god is not specified.

Among the participants Wednesday was Yolanda King, daughter of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

“The most profound thing about her is she doesn’t preach from the platform of one religion. She touches everybody. So Christians love her, Muslims love her, everybody loves her,” Mrs. King said in an interview.

Organizers estimated that half a million people attended the celebrations looking for spiritual transformation and encouragement to help those less fortunate.

The activities included forums on conflict resolution, interfaith dialogue and peace building — and lots of hugs.

“Outsiders might find it crazy. But those who have experienced her hug know that they go back transformed,” said Mr. Parr, 50, who runs a film archive in San Francisco.

“As we make more and more money, we are less and less in control of things. Peace comes from living for others. Life is all about showing love. Once she hugs, you know,” Mr. Parr said.

A maternal figure who hugs her devotees in a gesture of blessing, Amritanandamayi, whose full name means “Mother of Absolute Bliss,” travels most of the year, meeting people from several cultures and religions.

Amritanandamayi, whose birthday is today, was born in a southern Indian fishing community, treated as low-caste in Hinduism. When she was 10, she refused to go to school, preferring to meditate.

Her parents thought she had gone mad. She ran away and took a vow of celibacy and service in the 1970s, her followers say. During the next three decades, she won over millions with her constant smile and firm hugs.

Her disciples are hoping this week’s celebration — which has attracted some of India’s top politicians, artists, executives and poor villagers — will bring new people into her embrace.

Dressed in the traditional orange and saffron sacred Hindu colors, they carry cell phones to direct thousands of volunteers, erecting the stage, cooking, and cleaning toilets.

Amritanandamayi — one in a long line of Indian holy men and women who have captivated spiritual seekers around the world — has inspired rich and successful people to make a priority of serving the poor.

Many followers say they believe that Amritanandamayi herself is a god, which has drawn criticism from more conservative Hindus.

Some devotees have quit their careers and traveled to dusty Indian villages where she works, although her organization, the Amrita Ashram, does not give the number of full-time participants.

Prem Nair, 46, said he quit his job as a professor of medicine at the University of California to serve in one of the group’s hospitals.

The 800-bed hospital treats people for free in Cochin, also known as Kochi, a city of 1 million, 1,320 miles south of New Delhi, India’s capital. The bulk of the organization’s operations are focused around the city in southern Kerala state, but aid work is done throughout India.

Followers say they often face ridicule when they talk about their devotion to the so-called “hugging saint.” But they say her work has been increasingly appreciated amid news of disaster and conflict.

“After September 11, there is a big change. People know that Amma’s message of love is the answer,” said Elizabeth Rose Raphael, a 40-year-old writer based in New York.

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