By JAKE HALPERN
Published: May 25, 2013
The New York Times.
THERE are entourages — and then there is the retinue of Mata Amritanandamayi, a 59-year-old Indian guru known simply as Amma, or “mother.” On Friday, she began a two-month North American tour during which she will be accompanied by 275 volunteers. They plan to ride in four buses across the continent from Bellevue, Wash., to Marlborough, Mass., visiting 11 cities, including New York. And at each stop along the way, Amma will sit on stage for 15 hours at a stretch, greeting her thousands of devotees.
Amma is best known for literally embracing the masses; she has hugged millions of people around the world, a feat that has earned her the nickname “the hugging saint.” Her status as a spiritual therapist has attracted a large following in the United States. In India, however, what Amma offers is far more significant and complex. She has built a vast organization that is the envy of both India’s public and private sectors. As Oommen Chandy, the chief minister of the state of Kerala, told me: “From nothing, she has built an empire.”
I first heard about Amma roughly a year ago, when I was living in India teaching journalism as a Fulbright scholar. People kept telling me about a former fishing village in Kerala, in southern India, that was now a utopia in the jungle. Visitors talked about a mega-ashram, complete with a modern university and free health care, and described it as a gleaming cityscape where foreigners in pristine white uniforms swept the streets and scrubbed bird droppings off park benches. The entire community supposedly worshiped a middle-aged woman whose devotees came by the thousands, hailing her as a demigod.
They said she performed miracles, diverting storms and turning water into pudding. They said she’d built a place where everything, from light switches to recycling plants, worked as it was meant to — and, in India, this was perhaps the greatest miracle of all.
Lured by these tales, I decided to visit this place, called Amritapuri, to see for myself. To get there, I rode in a taxi through the backwaters of Kerala, past villages where bare-chested men fished from dugout canoes, a landscape that, unlike much of India, has changed little in centuries. When I saw high-rise buildings jutting above the canopy of palm trees, it was clear we were getting close. Traditionally, ashrams are quiet and secluded — much like monasteries — but Amma’s ashram was so vast and built up that it resembled a small metropolis.
After exiting the taxi at the main gate — there are no cars within the ashram itself — I set out on a series of footpaths that wound through a 100-acre campus containing the buildings of Amrita University (also founded by Amma) as well as dormitories, temples, restaurants and shops. I eventually reached a great hall where people were gathered, waiting patiently to meet Amma.
With the sort of effort required to navigate a New York City subway car at rush hour, I made my way through the crowd toward Amma, who was perched on a cushioned chair on a stage. One by one, people dropped to their knees and let her cradle them. In a span of roughly four minutes, she consoled a sobbing woman, chatted with an aged man and conducted a wedding. One of Amma’s many attendants, a volunteer who served as her press aide, helped me nudge, wedge and high-step my way to a coveted spot of honor at Amma’s feet.
I asked Amma how she maintained this pace. She smiled. Then she pinched my cheek and began to tickle me — the way a mother might tease a troublesome toddler — and said through an interpreter, “I am connected to the eternal energy source, so I am not like a battery that gets used up.”
In fact, Amma has energized an entire organization that often fills the vacuum left by government. When a tsunami devastated parts of southern India in 2004, it took the state government of Kerala five days merely to announce what it would do by way of aid and relief. Amma, however, began a response within hours, providing food and shelter to thousands of people; in the following years, her organization says, it has built more than 6,000 houses.
How Amma’s efforts are paid for remains something of a mystery. Her organization raises about $20 million a year from sources worldwide, according to a spokesman, but in India, the finances are not public. And the M.A. Center, her United States organization, is registered as a church and thus doesn’t have to disclose its finances the way secular tax-exempt groups do.
But this doesn’t seem to have dissuaded would-be donors. In 2003, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, then the president of India, was so impressed with Amma’s charitable work that he donated almost his entire annual salary to her organization. His enthusiasm may stem from the simple fact that Amma appears to do what politicians cannot. Mr. Chandy, the chief minister of Kerala, told me rather dejectedly, “The government has so many limitations, but Amma gives an order and next day the work will start.”
I WOKE up after my first night in the ashram to Amma’s plump, smiling face looming from a giant portrait above my bed. There was no escaping her gaze. Her photographs were everywhere — offices, lobbies, hallways, dining rooms, even elevators.
On the way to the cafe for breakfast, I passed a printing operation and met a bright-eyed worker who told me that his crew had just finished a production run of Amma’s biography, in Russian. This authorized story of Amma’s life, which has been translated into 31 languages, intertwines a tale of grinding Indian poverty with the fantastical: She was born poor, into a low caste, but as a child would give away whatever valuables the family had to the less fortunate, which prompted her father to tie her to a tree and beat her. From an early age, she hugged strangers. She eventually left home to live in the wild, where the biography relates that she survived by eating whatever she could find, a diet that included shards of glass and human feces.
By the time she was a young woman, the biography continues, she was performing miracles — kissing cobras, diverting rainstorms and feeding more than a thousand people from a single, small pot.
Gurus emerged thousands of years ago in India as learned explainers of the Upanishads, philosophical teachings underpinning the Hindu religion.
“The guru was someone to be awed,” says Karen Pechilis, an expert in female gurus who teaches comparative religion at Drew University in Madison, N.J. “You stand back, you keep your distance, and you are dazzled.” They generally weren’t big on snuggling.
Amma turned this notion on its head, Professor Pechilis says, by combining the role of the spiritual guide with that of the mother who protects and comforts.
Amma’s transformation from an eccentric girl into the mother guru started in the late 1970s. Word of her hugging spread, and she received a steady stream of visitors, many of them Americans like Neal Rosner, a Chicago native, who would take up residence. Mr. Rosner, who moved to India after graduating from high school and still lives at Amritapuri, told me he was one of the first to donate a significant amount — $10,000 from selling a rare coin collection — to improve the ashram. Before long, it had a dormitory, a free medical clinic and a vocational job-training center.
And then Amma was crisscrossing the globe to promote her Hindu philosophy, which espouses love, introspection and selflessness, as well as her many charities, which now include hunger and disaster relief, free health care for the poor, orphanages and recycling efforts.
Her trips have become increasingly elaborate. In each city, she takes over a hotel or a convention center, where she feeds and hugs thousands of well-wishers. Events also occur at Amma’s satellite ashrams; she has eight in the United States, including a 164-acre campus near San Ramon, Calif. The tours have helped Amma expand her following and generate donations for her hospital and her charities.
Over breakfast in Amritapuri, I chatted with Dante Sawyer, an American who has lived in the ashram for more than a decade and volunteers in the foreign visitors office. As I sipped my cappuccino, perused the cafe’s pizza menu and contemplated a swim in the ashram’s pool, I asked if these amenities weren’t a bit indulgent for a spiritual place.
“If this were a traditional ashram with just huts and rice gruel, there would not be this many people, or they would come for a day and then get the hell out,” he said. “Amma feels it would be a tragedy if people didn’t come here for their vacation because they couldn’t get a pizza — so, O.K., we have pizza.”
ONE day, Amma offered lunch to a gathering of several hundred devotees in an ornate temple. A team of 20 women scooped rice and curry onto plates that they passed from hand to hand — old-fashioned-fire-brigade style — until they reached Amma. Then she personally handed the meals to the followers. One of those receiving a plate was Maneesha Sudheer, a computer scientist at Amrita University.
Dr. Sudheer gained some attention for developing a landslide-detection program that impressed R. Chidambaram, the principal scientific adviser to the Indian government. One of Mr. Chidambaram’s goals is to create a system to predict Himalayan landslides, which cause hundreds of deaths and costly damages each year. The technology seemed so promising that Mr. Chidambaram made a trip to visit Amma at the ashram. He told me that Amma, who has only a fourth-grade education, was “far more successful” than the Indian government in attracting top-caliber scientific minds.
Dr. Sudheer invited me to her lab at the university, reached by a short walk from the temple. She showed me a gigantic landslide simulator that she had helped design to test her wireless landslide sensors. Many of the labs looked like ones you might see at M.I.T., save for the fact that Amma’s picture was displayed more or less everywhere.
Amrita University has 17,000 students, who pay tuition that is much higher than that of state-run schools. Critics complain that the university caters mainly to the wealthy, and to a great extent it does, but it’s hard to argue with the school’s success. Its medical school is generally well regarded, and Amrita also offers a dual-degree program in business with theState University of New York at Buffalo.
“We call Amma the best headhunter there is,” said Bipin Nair, who is a dean of Amrita’s school of biotechnology and is leading an effort to create an affordable insulin pump for diabetics. “Every year, when she comes back from a trip to North America or Europe, she has a list of people who have expressed their desire to be a part of the ashram.”
Born and schooled in India, Mr. Nair did postdoctoral work at the University of Tennessee at Memphis. He landed a job at a biotech company in Seattle and bought a six-bedroom house, and yet he felt dissatisfied. He and his wife, Dr. Geetha Kumar, met Amma during one of her American tours and decided to move to the ashram in 2004.
Mr. Nair does not take a salary, working only for room and board. “What we live in now is probably smaller than most bathrooms in the U.S.,” he told me, but added: “I don’t have to do anything. I am not paying a mortgage. I am not cooking, cleaning or shopping — everything is taken care of — all I need to do here is focus on my work.”
People who work without pay keep costs down at the ashram, a selling point that entices donors. “When someone gives one dollar to Amma,” one ashram spokesman told me, “it is really worth 100 times more than that, because if you give that same money to another institution, they have to pay the administrative costs.” Benefactors have included people like Jeff Robinov, the president of the Warner Bros. Pictures Group.
Amma’s fund-raising success, especially within India, also hinges on the fact that people “trust her more than the government,” which is so mired in red tape as to be ineffectual, says John Kattakayam, a sociology professor at the University of Kerala, who studies the role of women in Indian society. Amma inspires this trust, he said, even though there is no financial transparency at the ashram and “everything is secret.”
The ashram’s treasurer, Swami Ramakrishnananda, acknowledged that its finances were not open to the public, but he added that it is audited annually both by the Indian government and by the ashram’s own internal auditors. I asked if there was an official, like a chief compliance officer, who could be contacted if people saw money being misused. “Yes, of course,” Mr. Ramakrishnananda replied. “They can go directly to Amma.”
In the United States, a charitable organization typically has to file for tax-exempt status, be approved by the I.R.S. and then file an annual Form 990 detailing, among other things, how much money it collected, what it paid its top employees, who served on its board, and whether it spent money on lobbying. If, however, an organization declares itself a church — as Amma’s center in the United States does — it is not required to do this and there is far less transparency and public scrutiny.
In general when it comes to religious organizations, there is a “possibility for abuse,” saysRoger Colinvaux, a law professor and expert on tax-exempt organizations at the Catholic University of America. “Churches don’t have to apply for tax-exempt status, they don’t have to file an information return, and it is difficult for the I.R.S. to audit them.”
V.S. Somanath, dean of Amrita’s business school, said: “By God’s grace we have not been hit by any scandal, and so people are willing to open their wallets and their purses. The image is clean. Amma is like Jack Welch — she’s a great communicator — and the growth is spectacular.”
LATE one evening, Amma granted me an interview in her cramped sleeping quarters, which felt all the smaller because several of her advisers, dressed in saffron-colored garb, were also present, sitting cross-legged on the floor. There was also a press liaison, a two-man camera crew and an interpreter who relayed my questions from English into the local language of Malayalam.
“You are not like a guest to me,” Amma told me as I sat down. “Your doubts will be the doubts of the world. So you may ask anything.” Her tone was intimate. Everyone waited for me to speak.
I soon broached the subject of the failure of the Indian government to provide services. She told me: “It is like somebody gets bitten by a snake and, by the time they figure out what kind of snake it is, the person dies. That is what happens with government intervention.”
The most striking example of this, she said, occurred after the 2004 tsunami, when her relief operation effectively stepped in for the government.
More recently, in 2011, Amma organized a cleanup at Sabarimala, a mountaintop temple in southern India, which attracts religious pilgrims — more than Mecca each year — who leave thousands of tons of trash. Ostensibly, the man to fix this problem was K. Jayakumar, who manages Kerala’s nearly one million government employees. Mr. Jayakumar, however, told me bluntly that, in his experience, you simply couldn’t pay people to do this kind of work well. So he called Amma.
She dispatched 4,000 followers, who got the job done in a few days. At the time, Amma was in Spain on a hugging tour, but she monitored the cleanup via webcam. She succeeded where the government failed, and for a simple reason, Mr. Jayakumar told me: she possessed divine authority.
“It is an advantage,” he said. “The only thing is, if she makes a mistake, nobody will point it out.”
During our chat, Amma told me that she and her “children” never disagree and that this was one key to her success. “Even if the people in the government stand together and do things, they can’t implement their actions without discussing it over several meetings,” she said. “I’m not blaming them, but this is the only way they can do it.”
Wasn’t there ever a single occasion, I asked, when one of her devotees contradicted or doubted her? “To date there has been no major difference of opinion between Amma and her children,” she told me, matter-of-factly. “Until now, we have functioned as one mind.” What’s more, Amma said, she always led by example. “I am the first person to get down into the septic tank and clean the feces,” she said.
Perhaps inevitably, Amma’s authority occasionally ends up shaping the personal lives of her followers. I talked to one middle-aged American follower who said he racked up $40,000 in credit-card debt for multiple trips to India to see Amma. “I figured people take loans for education, for houses, for cars,” he said. “I’m doing it for my spiritual growth.” Two of my guides later tried to dissuade me from talking further with the man.
Another foreigner, who has lived at the ashram for years, told me that longtime residents were “not supposed to make big life-changing decisions without telling Amma.” She sometimes has “really strong opinions about whether certain people should have kids,” said the devotee, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being identified as a dissenter within the community.
In our conversation, Amma was adamant that she does not tell her devotees when to marry, whether to have children or how to live their lives, and she seemed intent on dispelling the notion that her organization was in any way a cult.
“I don’t like it when people say that I have divine powers,” she told me. (This preference had not influenced her authorized biography, however, which discussed at length the miracles she had performed.) “I don’t tell people that you can only attain enlightenment through one way,” she said. “If you think love is a cult, then I can’t do anything. My religion is love.”
DURING the days I spent at the ashram, devotees kept asking me if I sensed Amma’s divinity. My honest feeling was, not really. That being said, I understand how other people might feel that way about her — especially in India, where the failure of services and infrastructure is often a given.
In the city where I lived, Trivandrum, the electricity failed so often that whenever I turned off the lights, my 3-year-old son would exclaim, “Power’s out!” A more disturbing example involves Bihar, India’s poorest state, where the government’s public distribution system is supposed to provide free grain to the impoverished masses. But studies have suggested that only between 10 and 45 percent of the grain reaches the intended recipients, with the rest effectively stolen and sold on the black market. All of this is to say that when someone emerges who can get things done properly and efficiently — even some of the time — it’s easy to understand why that person can seem superhuman.
This became most apparent to me one afternoon while speaking with Dr. Krishna Kumar, a pediatric cardiologist who trained at Boston Children’s Hospital. I followed him around as he met with patients at Amma’s AIMS Hospital, a 1,500-bed facility in the nearby city of Kochi. Dr. Kumar said that when he finished his training, in 1996, there were many pediatric cardiologists in the United States and just a handful in India. That fact alone inspired him to return to the subcontinent.
“I thought I should use my training to make some difference back in India,” he told me. He said he landed a job at a private hospital in New Delhi but quickly became “deeply disheartened” that the hospital was turning away 90 percent of would-be patients because they couldn’t pay; that number included children who might die from a heart problem that he could have fixed.
Dr. Kumar said he wanted to practice medicine in a different way but saw no other options. Then, one day in 1997, he got a call from Ron Gottsegen, the chief executive of Amma’s hospital, who encouraged him to come work for Amma. “I was very skeptical,” Dr. Kumar said. “I didn’t believe that a religious leader could run a medical institution.”
Even when he met Amma, he wasn’t entirely convinced. When I asked him if he ever had a spiritual epiphany in her presence, he replied: “Not at all — nothing like that whatsoever.” Instead, he said, Amma has “grown on me” over time. He is grateful to her, he said, for giving him a chance to build the kind of practice that helps poor people. At Amma’s hospital, patients must pay at least some portion of their bill, though often it is a minimal amount.
Late in the day, Dr. Kumar met the mother of a teenager who had just had open-heart surgery, at almost no cost. He told the mother, who worked as a maid and earned roughly $40 a month, that her daughter would be fine. The woman was so overcome with relief that she began to weep and dropped to her knees and touched her head to the doctor’s feet, and then to my feet as well. Afterward, I asked Dr. Kumar what that was about.
“It is a sign of extreme respect,” he replied uncomfortably. “As doctors, we almost have a godlike status in India. It is unfortunate — we do not deserve it — we are just human.”
LAST July, near the end of another two-month United States tour by Amma, I traveled to Alexandria, Va., where she was holding a hugging session at a Hilton hotel. The place bustled: there were families who traveled with Amma for their summer vacations and first-timers who wandered in on a whim.
“My therapist told me to come,” Leslie Sargent, a high-school guidance counselor, said. Moments later I met the therapist, Sharon Bauer, who seemed pleased to see her patient. “The energy that Amma transmits deepens our sense of inner essence,” she said.
Amma’s organization says that the purpose of these events is not to raise money and that foreign contributions account for only a third of all donations. Nonetheless, donation boxes were placed at almost every turn, and donations can be quite sizable. In 2009, one benefactor bought the former home of Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver near Washington for $7.8 million and donated it to Amma as a local meeting house.
The entire back portion of the Hilton’s ballroom had been converted into a mini-mall, where visitors could buy an array of Amma-related products. At one shop, some crystals cost as much as $500. A vendor told me that “if Amma touches the crystal, some of her energy goes into it.”
A medicinal shop sold a tincture from the flowers in Amma’s garland that promised to fight “colds, flus, stomach aches and even cancer.” And, next to a pole on which four security cameras were mounted, a table was laden with sweaters, bathrobes and nightgowns. “These are items that Amma has worn,” the saleswoman said.
Proceeds from all the sales go to Amma’s organization, for charitable work and to cover expenses.
As I mingled with the shoppers, I bumped into a couple from Washington, D.C. — Ian and Debra Mishalove — who run a yoga studio. Mr. Mishalove had just bought two necklaces.
I asked what motivated them to support Amma financially. “I know very little about what she does,” he acknowledged, “but I have seen literature about her helping people in need.”
“She has charities alleviating hunger and helping with disasters,” his wife added.
“This is the nicest kind of commerce,” he said.
We parted ways, and I headed over to the jewelry shop where Mr. Mishalove had just bought the necklaces. The saleswoman, Nihsima Sandhu, 48, from San Francisco, told me that she previously worked at Saks Fifth Avenue, but that she now sold jewelry for Amma instead, which gave her much more satisfaction.
The saleswoman paused to tell a customer that Amma had, in fact, touched a particular item. Does that mean, I inquired, that the item is blessed? The saleswoman smiled and then assured me, “Everything in this room is blessed.”