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Amma Conquering the World One Hug at a Time

The 58-year-old humanitarian and spiritual leader has hugged 32 million people since she started her one-woman intercontinental crusade in 1987.

Amma Nilima Mehra

Amma with one of her followers Nilima Mehra.

Photo By Dayna Smith/for the Washington Post

The double-air kiss remains the no-fail greeting for fashion types, but Amma is all about the hug.

The 58-year-old humanitarian and spiritual leader has hugged 32 million people since she started her one-woman intercontinental crusade in 1987. She typically hits 25 countries each year, spending about eight months on the road. Nearing the close of her 26th summer tour, Amma spoke with WWD in between hugging it up with thousands of strangers at New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center North. Whether they were smiling, chanting or nearly convulsing (as some appeared to be), Amma gave them “darshan,” a spiritual blessing in the form of a motherly hug. And each last one was accounted for, thanks to the finger counter attached to her left hand.

Born Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, one of eight children, she was raised in India by her fisherman father and stay-at-home mother. As a child, she was repeatedly punished for hawking her mother’s jewelry to buy food for the neighborhood’s needy. That meager start eventually lead to the Embracing the World foundation. Her outreach has provided more than $60 million worth of free medical care, 40,000 homes for India’s homeless and financial aid for 50,000. She said, “Normally in India, society imposes a set of rules and regulations on women. I went beyond those rules. I was like a railroad track, only going in one direction. That is why I became like a river, flowing all over.”

Mary Ellen Mark recently shot a project at the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS hospital) and Amma has other well-known supporters.

Last week, India’s former president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, gave her a shout-out via his Facebook page, and Katy Perry has tweeted about her, too. Sharon Stone, fashion photographers Marc Baptiste and Terry Richardson, former model Irina Pantaeva, Kelly Cutrone and Kelly Bensimon have turned up recently to see her. The way Amma sees it, everyone has love to give. She said, “It’s important that everyone must have a deep feeling of motherhood and they need to express it — both men and women. That feeling of motherhood is being destroyed. That should be reawakened.”

Standing in the Javits Center last week, Baptiste recalled meeting her for the first time last year. “After we hugged, she asked me when I was going back to Haiti. I had just returned from Haiti a few days before. I was like, ‘What is going on with this woman?’” he said. “It is the craziest thing. She says all these words you can’t understand [in Malayalam]. But it is a beautiful feeling. You feel superlight.”

Free and open to the public, her gatherings center on two types of poverty — the kind caused by the lack of food, clothing and shelter, and the type that calls for love and compassion, which she insists can correct the first. Proceeds from the chai tea and Indian delicacies, books, artwork and clothing that are sold benefit Amma’s various charities. Giving of one self is the greatest luxury in her eyes. “You can buy a $10 watch or a $10,000 watch, and they both will do the same thing — tell time. But if you buy the $10 watch, you can use the money you saved to help others,” she said.

As for how she keeps her strength up, she sounds Kerouac-an. “In true love, there is not duality. There is no fear. I see everyone as a part and parcel of myself. Suppose there are 100 parts of the world in reality there is only one source. Love in everything is the manifestation of the same consciousness,” she said. “When I see people’s happiness, I become one with that happiness and when I see their pain, it becomes my pain. But I am beyond that all. Just by consoling people and supporting human beings, I become one with their problems. I become like a river that embraces everything.”

Asked about the secret to the perfect hug, she said, “Like a doctor doesn’t differentiate between man and woman, or nationality, race, class or creed — for him, everyone is a patient. There is no secret. It is open to everyone. It is an expression of the love I feel within.” she said.

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