- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

I visited a Hindu saint last Saturday.

She was ensconced in rose-petaled splendor on a padded chair with a lavender slipcover at one end of the ballroom at the Hilton McLean Tyson’s Corner. As rows of devotees approached her, then knelt, she simply embraced them in a 20-second hug. For that reason, Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, 55, is known as the “hugging saint.”

Her followers say she has hugged 28 million people.

According to her literature, she raises money for a stunning number of charities, schools, hospitals, an orphanage, earthquake relief, housing projects, even a bridge in her home state of Kerala in southwestern India. Entering the ballroom, I saw how she does this: The place was a huge bazaar hawking all manner of India-themed crafts, foods and religious material. The smell of one vendor’s caramel popcorn filled the air.

Nearly everyone wore white and was barefoot. Timbrels and flute music tinkled in the background. A crew from National Geographic TV wandered about.

The object of everyone’s veneration was wearing a lei around her neck. She had a plate of apples and Hershey’s kisses to her left and boxes of rose petals that her attendants sprinkled on the supplicants who knelt before her for their hug.

“Amma,” as they call her, says she’s called to express love to people in the most down-to-earth way possible: the all-embracing hug. According to her bio, as a young girl from a lower-caste fisherman’s family, she didn’t buy the pervading philosophy that it’s simply some people’s fate to suffer.

“If it is their karma to suffer,” an inner voice told her, “isn’t it your dharma [righteous duty] to help them?” And so, she has founded a religion in which she is its mother figure although she has no biological children.

I threaded my way through groups of seated disciples, catching her between hugs. What message does she have for America, I asked. She responded that people need to be more flexible during this current economic crisis.

“They should be willing to do any job, irrespective of their education or qualifications,” she said through a translator.

“We know that if you hold a glass, you must be careful or it will break. Much awareness and alertness is needed at this point of time. Everyone should be a role model because knowingly or unknowingly, someone is looking up to you for inspiration.”

How does she see God, I asked.

“For me, there is nothing but God,” she said. “Everything is consciousness. I see God in everything. Every moment I am worshipping God.”

Then, looking up from a hug, she asked, “Isn’t this worshipping God?”

Her local followers prepare vegetarian dinners once a month for battered women in Rockville and Fairfax. Amma “satsangs” — group prayer and chanting — are held monthly in Bethesda and Germantown.

“She spends every moment of her life for others, not for herself,” says Ken Steben, an investment adviser who is her local coordinator.

Not all is rosy within the ranks. Not only is there an ex-Amma Yahoo group, there’s also a Web site: cultofthehuggingsaint.com, that ascribes occult powers to the guru and questions whether all the money she raises for charity ends up where it should.

However, the “Sarlo’s Guru’s Rating Service” Web site — a very off-the-cuff effort — awards Amma a three-Hershey’s-kisses rating as being one of “the greats” among the spiritual masters.

I saw one of the devotees reading a list of 108 “names of the divine mother,” so there’s definitely some heroine worship going on here.

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at [email protected]

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