After the excitement of the Shaver’s Creek theatrical show and the night hike last night, Christine and I deserved to sleep in a bit. But we didn’t dawdle at her cabin for too long; the other purpose of my trip to the east was to meet the Hindu guru, Amma, in Alexandria Virginia. Most Americans have probably never heard of her unless they follow Eastern religions, or mysticism, but the lady is extremely well respected and loved throughout the world (worshipped by some, but we’ll go into that later) and how can anyone dislike a woman whose primary method of spreading her own brand of peace and love is by hugging people?

Yep, Mata Amritanandamayi, or Amma as those of us with weak European tongues usually call her, is a hugger. She probably is the Hugger – the lady has hugged 32 million people and counting. That number goes up by thousands every week, and last weekend in a Hilton conference room for 10 solid hours, she hugged thousands more – Christine and I included.

Not this kind of Hugger, you nerds.

And popular? That too. Even though Christine booked our hotel room in Alexandria a month in advance, we were still unable to get a room in the Hilton itself; it probably has been booked solid for that weekend since Amma’s North American tour schedule went live half a year ago. We contented ourselves with the Marriott, a mere 10 minute walk away. They had a free shuttle, anyway, although Christine warned me that if history was any judge, we probably would be hoofing it for certain trips between hotels.

Christine has seen Amma several times, including at her ashram in India. According to her, wait times for a hug can be as long as Amma herself is sitting in her chair, hugging people – as long as 9-10 hours for most of her visits. There’s never not a line stretching around the block to embrace her (they use a token/ticket system these days for that very reason) She told me that once she hugged people 22 hours straight. The woman probably has arm muscles that could crack a coconut, or at least in her younger days. Amma apparently has been doing this for decades now, ever since she was thrown out of school (and subsequently beaten by her ashamed parents) in primary school for collapsing due to religious hysteria. It was soon after that that she began preaching in her small hometown in India, gaining a small train of followers who thought this little girl with the wise words was really something. These days, those followers number in the million.

And worshiped? Yes, also that. Like I hinted at earlier, there are some people who go farther than just viewing Amma as a kind, wise old Mother Theresa of India. I’ve heard estimates that 15% of Amma’s devotees actually view her as the incarnated spirit of the Hindu goddess Kali. I don’t know how spread around this is; Kali kind of gets a bad rap in America thanks to a somewhat inaccurate portrayal of the goddess in the first Indiana Jones movie, The Temple of Doom.

I don't know how people got a bad vibe from this.

But most importantly – and generous. Amma’s charity system “Embrace the World” is pretty amazing, regardless of religious beliefs. She’s founded free universities, built free housing, and fed millions of India’s poorest children. Here’s a full list from (not affiliated with her) of what she’s done, and that’s just the stuff on record. Incarnate goddess or not, she definitely should be officially sainted by someone ASAP so that she gets a little more mainstream publicity in the western world. India and the world at large are better off because of her.

Anyway, Christine and I checked in, and I changed into clothes that were more “conservative” (i.e. long pants) and didn’t smell of mosquito repellent and campfires. Christine herself wore flowing white Indian clothes that she had bought while staying on the Ashram, and after comparing her lovely outfit with my own, and then the similarly-fancy men and women we shared the shuttle bus with, I felt distinctly underdressed. “Khakis and a plaid shirt will be fine” I muttered to myself. “Maybe you’ll be mistaken for a charity case and get an extra hug.”

You are now entering The Amma Zone. This is a "no shoes, get service" area

We got tokens labeled “S-2” in the conference center, and were funneled into a dining room that was referred to by one of the official Amma aids (looking resplendent in similar flowing clothes, except with the addition of green, blue, or red sashes) as “overflow seating.” Christine seemed momentarily disappointed, and she explained to me that when she’d seen her in previous trips to Chicago, they were in exposition centers so large that thousands of people could see Amma meditating, praying, and preaching from the stage. We had to content ourselves with a big-screen HDTV on the wall. Amma herself was in the largest room, the “dance hall” and there was at least one other overflow hall. We were handed small plastic cups of “blessed” water, and instructed not to drink them yet.

On the television, Amma began speaking in her native Malayalam, which was occasionally translated into English by a bearded and bespectacled South Asian man with a deep and resonant voice. I saw several of the younger people around me nod off as his rumbling voice filled the room through the large speakers next to the TV. The sermon preached love, understanding of others, tolerance and peace. This didn’t exactly seem groundbreaking to me, as a Christian, but I’m sure others would disagree. I had to hold in a snort when the man reminded us “You can take this cup of blessed water and add a few drops of it to a larger container of water throughout the year. Then the entire amount of water will become blessed.” But I worship a guy who confused his entire founding religious body when he said “eat my body and drink my blood” (original Catholics had apparently never heard of metaphors or symbolism) so I guess I shouldn’t talk. Then we spun in circles a few times while saying “Ohmmmm” as Amma and her translator watched us silently through the television. I became lighthearted, and also lightheaded.

There's Amma on the screen! And this is the closest I got to photographing her; no pictures were allowed in the ceremony room

With the opening sermon and prayer concluded, Christine and I hurried to the main ballroom in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Amma. But all we could see at the head of the audience was a large four sided chamber of curtains, about 12 feet square. The golden curtains had already swung shut and the large room had taken on a festive air. Dozens of tables were set up in the back with various New Age and Amma related merchandise for sale. Christine told me that almost all of the items were made by her devotees, and donated to the sales tables. Almost 100% of the proceeds are donated right back into the charities that Amma founded. Seems like a pretty neat setup.

Amma’s devotees also provided an inexpensive vegetarian buffet dinner, as well. All the food and labor was donated, and like the merchandise, all profits went to the charities. For $7.50, I could eat as much as I wanted of the tasty rice, salad, spicy bean sauce, and bread. For dessert there was some sort of sweet noodle and pistachio thing. I wasn’t sure what it was, and it was too sweet for me anyway, but Christine seemed to like it. As the sole dining room was packed with hundreds of people, we went outside and sat on the hotel’s “back yard” lawn with dozens of others, looking at the stars and listening to the ever-present bullfrogs making sweet love in the nearby pond. I eyed the outdoor swimming pool, separated from nature by a mere wrought-iron fence, and wondered if evening swimmers shared the pool with the frogs.

We checked the large flip-board numbers at the head of the ballroom. They were only on C-5. It would be hours before S-2 was reached (I’m sure each number/letter set was given to hundreds of people) and Christine still wasn’t feeling very good. We walked back to our hotel, a mere 15 minutes away but a very hot walk, even at 10PM, and napped until 3 in the morning, when we figured that it was probably our time, or beyond our time. My knowledgeable companion assured me that they wouldn’t kick us out if we had slept past our numbers, although we might be tsk tsk’d at. As it turned out, there was no problem at all, even though they were already onto the W’s when we arrived. With a fast beating heart, I handed over my square of laminated paper to the green-sashed attendant, and took my seat in The Official Amma Hug Waiting Line (Right Side). Christine took a seat in the chair behind me, not the one next to me. I was a bit confused by this, but didn’t question it. I figured everyone else knew what was going on, even if I didn’t.

I was handed a yellow piece of paper with the title “What is a mantra?” written across the top. I took it without question when the attendant, an older woman, handed it to me, but the young woman who sat down next to me raised her eyebrow in confusion and asked in a thick Spanish accent, “I already have a mantra from Amma. Do I need this?” The attendant replied “yes. There’s new information on the card. Amma would like everyone to read it.” The two of us sat in silence for a few minutes while we read through the information, pausing only to get up and take the next seats in front of us as they opened up and the line shifted forward. It seemed to me like if I selected a mantra, and repeated it quietly to myself whenever I could, it would help me achieve peace and enlightenment. Perhaps it’s the Hindu equivalent of a rosary. Christine had already told me that I shouldn’t choose one lightly; once a person receives a mantra from a spiritual leader like Amma, that leader becomes that person’s guru. The woman next to me handed her card back a few minutes after me and said, “I do not quite understand. Am I supposed to select a new mantra? Should I?” Pursing her lips, the attendant replied “No” and that was the end of it.

We were at the front of the line now, and a new attendant asked me with a smile “How many people in your group, and what language?” I told her two and English. I guess Christine and I were going to get a hug together. Several people in line were holding small tokens or apples or candy. I wasn’t sure why. Now, Christine and I were seated next to each other, as a “group” and we proceeded up the small set of steps to the stage, where Amma had been sitting for six straight hours now, hugging people from A to W. Our language preference was asked once again (presumably if we had replied “Malayalam” Amma may have chatted with us for a few minutes extra, as I’d seen her do on the big projector screens arranged on either side of the ballroom, showing every hug in high definition, thanks to a set of cameras aimed into the curtained cube.

And then it was my turn. Amma sat in her chair, covered in leis given to her by devotees and in a red silk robe, smiling at me. Almost 60 years old, she sits for the hugs she gives at these ceremonies (I would, too) and so I knelt before her, and her attendants gently pressed me into the woman’s arms. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, or if I should be hugging her as tightly as she was hugging me (I assumed not and did not; her ribs must be quite sore by now) but I found my face buried in her right shoulder. She murmured something into my ear, a kind of low, gravely phrase in what I assume was Malayalam…it sounded like “Molo mahn, molo mahn…” She smelled of perfume and incense.

The attendants gently drew me back from Amma, who was now looking at Christine. I was shifted over to Amma’s left shoulder, Christine was now seated on my left side, and then the two of us were both drawn back in for a hug, although this time my left arm was around Christine, and Amma’s arms were around us both. I wondered why it was done this way, but was just told, “when Amma hugs two people, the man is always hugged first, then the two of them together.” My ears were muffled in the folds of Amma’s robe, but I heard her saying things to Christine this time. And then it was over, we were being helped to our feet, and I stumbled towards the stage exit steps, feeling a little dizzy from all the perfume I’d just inhaled.

Christine wanted to wait until the end of the hugging part of the ceremony to end (which she said that in years past generally was around 6 or 7 in the morning), but in the end our tiredness and the uncomfortableness of napping on the Hilton conference center floor won out and we decided to go back to the Marriott to sleep and end our Amma experience. I can only imagine how some of those little kids there felt when we saw them at 3 in the morning; wide, glazed eyes as their mothers rubbed their backs. The closing of the ceremony was really nice, I was told – Amma stands up, for the first time in hours (she never takes bathroom breaks while hugging) and then makes eye contact with every person in the room. I was intrigued and skeptical about this claim; a single person can’t hope to make eye contact with every person in a room that seats thousands of people, I thought. But apparently she does. And this superhuman woman, who can sit for 9 hours at a time and hug thousands of people without a toilet break, who has brought together millions of followers from countries all over the world with little more than a overarching mantra of peace, love, and hugs, is probably the only living person who could prove me wrong, that I’m just a doubting Zachary Thomas.

Did I feel more at peace or more zen after the whole experience – did I feel as if I had a major spiritual event? No. But I didn’t feel very spiritual after six straight years of growing up in a parochial Lutheran school, either. My Christian faith grew on me slowly, over time. Some people can be overpowered by faith and by the presence of God, and be left weeping on the floor, overcome by ecstasy. Some people, like me, just let faith be a matter of acceptance, trust, and tradition. Am I happy I went, and that Christine suggested it to me? Yes – quite a bit. It was interesting to see and finally take part of something I’ve heard so much about. And did my heart beat faster with nervousness and excitement when Amma’s arms embraced me? Yes. I was hugged by the modern equivalent of St Theresa, a woman with pure goodness and hope in her heart, and I felt a little closer to humanity, the millions of other people who have been in those same arms, when I laid my head on her shoulder.

Amma’s North American tour schedule is available here. Like everything else she does, it’s all free.