Mata Amritanadamayi, known as Amma the Hugging Saint, is a woman of Indian birth who has amassed a huge worldwide spiritual following. Though her practice and religion is Hindu, she is a strong advocate for peace between religions, and her principal means of communicating this is through hugging people who visit her, which she feels expresses a divine motherly connection between herself and others. Her ministry, begun in 1981, emphasizes charity to the poor and ill, addressing disease, and promoting an end to suffering through the mother’s love of a hug. It is her hope that her hugs, sometimes as many as 20,000 a day without break, give to people a sense of the divine nature in their hearts.
Amma is not only known to people of India, but is known by much of the world. She’s embarked on several foreign hugging tours, and has been instrumental in raising money to assist victims of disasters like Hurricane Katrina, for which she donated over a million US dollars (USD). She’s addressed the United Nations, given speeches at UN Peace Summits, represented her Hindu religion in interfaith conferences, and received the Gandhi-King Award for Nonviolence in 2002. Despite her emphasis on assisting the poor, her actions did come under fire in the US in 2007, when she chose to stay at a Los Angeles hotel that was in the midst of a labor dispute with its workers.
It is unclear whether Amma clearly understood the implications of her actions, but given the criticism of this decision, Amma’s star shines a little less brightly in media treatment. Still, to many Amma is considered a saint, on par with Mother Theresa, in her goal to attain universal motherhood through the simple act of compassionate touch. It is certainly not the case that Amma can be accused of using donations to her charitable organizations in an abusive manner. Her work “hugging” is usually carried on for sometimes 16 hour stretches without breaks for food or even water.
To some ardent followers, Amma is truly a saint, and they ascribe to her the ability to produce miracles and heal people. These claims have not been widely substantiated. What can be verified is that Amma the hugging saint early in life knew that she must devote her life to the disenfranchised. As a child she gave any possessions she had away, and instead of marrying, chose to follow a path of attaining universal motherhood. She has certainly succeeded in some respects with millions of devotees in India, and many followers throughout the world, not all of them of her faith. In fact, up until the 2007 hotel controversy, she had been widely accepted as a holy woman, if not a saint, by people of many faiths, including some religions diametrically opposed to Hinduism.