Mata Amritanandamayi is the name of the saint known most popularly as “the hugging saint.” To her devotees she is merely Amma, a word in Sanskrit that means mother. To some she may even be the more charming Ammachi, or Amritachi, variations on a word that since the beginning of written language has been used to refer to the nurturing essence of motherhood.
When I think of motherhood lately I think of stories often traded in YouTube: a tiger that after losing her cubs suckled to health three baby pigs; a dog who obliged to nurse four pestiferous kittens; a donkey who lactated a horse; a human toddler who wondered away from an Afghanistan village to be found by its search party in a cave, lactating peacefully from mother bear, wedged between her cubs. When I think of motherhood I think of transcending boundaries of identity with simple compassion. When I think of these stories I think of connection, and the need for every last living being to experience that connection.
Stories like these abound on the news and the internet. It seems to me that the spirit of Motherhood is the most compassionate and most tangible proof that love matters more than the differences we build around ourselves to justify violence and hate. It seems to me that Motherhood is godliness.
I once met the hugging saint called Amma. Amma sits in a chair from around 6 in the morning to well into the night, sometimes as late as 4 or 5 am. I’ve been told, she can sit without a break, hugging people, for more than 20 hours. I was a witness to a few of these hours and was impressed: she certainly had more energy than me. She doesn’t take a break.
In all this time she waits open arms for her devotees who line up before her. She hugs them. That is all she does. Occasionally she will hold them longer if the devotee is crying or explaining a sad story, or if a child is in her arms who needs her hair braided again, or in any case, a bit of attention. Amma obliges with love. Not with the promise of salvation, nor with a charge of miraculous phenomena. What you get is simple: a hug, and all it represents to you.
For such a small thing, how many people do you think would be willing to line up, and for how long? The spirit of motherhood and the need for nurturing apparently is stronger than we imagine. In India, the number of devotees Amma embraces in a single day is as high as 50,000. When I saw her in Boston, there were 7,000 of us to juggle in order to get a minute in the presence of Amma’s smile and to inhale the scent of jasmine from her bosoms. For myself, I waited three hours on my knees, only so I could fold my American feminist body in half to kiss Amma’s feet, driven by an inner compulsion to show my respect for the spirit and essence of motherhood. Then I got my hug.
Thousands were lined up behind me. I was tired. I could not imagine how Amma must have felt, bending down to us, a smile perpetually blooming on her face, her loving words spilled in a strange litany of assurances I barely understood: “m’daughter, m’daughter’ m’daughter” she seemed to say, although someone pointed out that it sounded more like “mrooty, mrooty, mrooty.”
No matter. Amma stayed up until 5 am that morning, without a break, hugging, cooing, reassuring people with her words. The next evening the drill started all over again. Hug. Hug. Hug. Laugh. Hug. Sometimes she’ll take a break and sing.
I told myself that I would not expect a miracle. I reminded myself that two people’s experiences are not the same with Amma. When I hugged her, I felt hugged. I was dizzy and disoriented when she let go of me. Two of her devotees had to help me up and out, and the question that came up to me was, “what happened?” I felt a little shaken, as if I’d visited another universe in the time it takes to sip a cup of tea. But in the end, I knew only that I had been hugged by a woman whose heart would never be closed or hidden from me.
Amma says, “I’m not a swimmingpool. I’m an ocean.” She means whenever we want her, we find her. The ocean hugs the earth. It isn’t much of an effort to find it. The ocean is inexhaustible, immense enough to satisfy all our longings for nurturing love. It doesn’t take a saint to love Amma. It doesn’t take a devotee or a religion. You want a hug? There’s Amma. She will give you one and expect nothing in return.
Although that is not quite like it. Amma gives public events, and those are free. If you want meditations lessons and more time with the organizations, there are workshops you can attend. The first workshop with Amma exonerates you from “seva” the service that every devotee must give in order to make the event happen, but also in order to cleanse out his/her bad karma. The idea of spending $400 to meet Amma in a bad hotel and also have to serve in the kitchen for the privilege didn’t interest me much. I was glad that on the first visit I was exonerated from seva.
In retrospect three years later, as I continue to feel the gratitude for Amma’s simple message, her hug, filtrate through all the walls and barriers I have built aournd myself, as I call out to Amma to experience peace in my heart, I know that I have missed out on seva. I want to serve. I want to serve without the feeling that I’m being imposed upon. I want to serve because motherhood serves; because cubs need feeding; because a lost todler needs warmth and a tit to suckle, because giving is the only real gift that anyone can give themselves. Seva reminds us that our toil and its products do not belong to us. They are part of our deal with life. We serve so that others may benefit. The rest will fall into place.
Now I wake up thinking of Amma. I go to bed thinking of Amma. I call to Amma when I’m lost. It is so simple, really. Amma I need a hug. Just like when I was a child and I needed my mamma to give me a hug, to hold me and reassure me that there was at least one person in the world that wold love me for what I was, no matter my shortcomings, no matter my mistakes. Amma is that for me. Amma is my prayer for a calm, uneventful day. Amma is my prayer for seva. I have no children. I hope that I can serve someone, as a mother does, touch one being in the simple way, effacing myself and my ego from the equation, and merely provide the nurturing spirit that will find its way to the mouth of a needy child.
I don’t do well with the worship of humans. I don’t do well with the worship of religions either. Amma is not a god to me; she is not a religion. She is a principle. A nice one, of hope, compassion, and giving. When I call to Amma, I call to the archetypal mother in myself. When I connect with her, my desire is only to hold her and show her my love, and to give my service for her. In these moments I feel closer to god than with the ecstasies of kundalini or the energy of shakti. And I feel thankful, thankful, thankful for Amma mother, Amma in the dog who bred the kittens, Amma in the donkey who saved the horse, Amma in the bear that saved the child, Amma in the saint that holds her loving arms out to 50000 broken hearts, smiling, smelling of jasmine and incense, and chanting “m’daughter m’daughter m’daughter” in her beautiful mother voice.
**Please note: Mamma is the Italian spelling for mother or mama. I have deliberately chosen to use the Italian spelling, as I grew up speaking Italian, and this was the very first word I learned to speak.