Monday, June 8, 2009

Getting hugged by the great one

If, after love shopping on the internet, you're still not getting enough (love, that is), you can always wait in line for a free hug from Amma, the "Hugging Guru" from India.

Amma is like the rock star of hugging. For 30 years, Indian spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi, to give her her real name, has been hugging people, and is said to have hugged people 26 million times. She was visiting on tour in our area, so some friends and I decided to get our first-ever hug from the greatest hugger on earth.

We were on the edge of suburbia in America, but it was like stepping into a time machine and landing in India. Her temple even smelled and sounded like India.

Welcome to the Amma shopping mall, from the moment you enter the village, made of little wooden kiosks exactly like you'd see on the street in Mumbai. All kinds of "Ammabilia" foe sale here -- Amma keychains, Amma gold jewelery (blessed by Amma), Amma diamonds (worn by Amma), Amma food, Amma chai, Amma photos, Amma cards, Amma altar items. Most of her most devoted followers are dressed in simple, modest, flowing white clothes. Others are walking around barefoot.

There are clothes from India, and all sort of spiritualabilia and quasi religious tchotchkes. (Sort of like what you find at Lourdes in France, or around any temple in India, only Indian temples are devoted to deities and not living saints.)

You can buy roses or fruit to give as an offering to Amma, and what's funny is, after someone gives her these things, an assistant whisks them away into a basin of water, and they are brought back to the cash register again so they can be given to her, recycled over and over and over again.

She is laughing and conducting business, reading notes, and signing documents and running hundreds of charities and this
huge global operation while she hugs people, often hugging for 23 hours at a time without ever even getting up to use the bathroom. (My friends and I whisper to each other, "How does she do it? Is it a spiritual power? Or does she wear Depends?) Amazingly, she is said to run more than 20,000 global charities while hugging people.

Since it was my first time, I checked in at reception and was given a green dot to wear and told that this would enable me to sit in front and meditate near her. "This is the only time in your life you will get the green dot," the assistant told me. I was also handed a little ticket, like you'd get at the DMV, with a "darshan number". You can shop around and browse the kiosks while you wait for your number to be called.

(Imagine how fast the state of California could solve its budget woes if the DMV took a lesson from Amma, and not only sold useful items for your car like mud flaps and designer license plate frames that you could browse and shop for while waiting in the "DMV mall", but then had DMV employees who greeted you with: "That will be $583 and you need a smog certificate first before you can get registered. Awwwww, you look so disappointed -- can I give you a big hug?").

Waiting for a hug from the great mother is more like waiting to see Santa Claus than the DMV or an emergency room. The air is ripe with anticipation.

There were assistants busily wrapping Hershey kisses in rose petals and handing them to Amma, a fascinating act of cooperation that kept the line flowing quickly and smoothly. Patiently, nodding off from time to time as it was already well past 1 am, I waited in a long line of beige folding metal chairs, moving forward from one chair to the next.

I tried to snap a photograph of the line, but her assistants ripped my cellphone away from my hands off when I tried to take a photograph. The fact is, like most celebrities, (and yes, even Santa) Amma's photos are either very old, or heavily retouched. Hugging tens of thousands of people a year is wearing on her. Her hair is gray, she's quite overweight, and she has wierd dark blotches on her face, and deep dark circles under her eyes. She has a big, sparkling diamond pierced lotus blossom in her nose. (Presumably to soon be placed in the case of jewels "worn by Amma.")

(It reminded me of when I was a little girl, and my great grandmother would tuck little rosaries, cards with angels on them, and handmade doilies and handkerchiefs blessed by the priest into the jars of cookies she sent at Christmas.)

Amma's face lights up and she absolutely glows when she smiles, and beauty radiates from her. It is a beauty unlike any other, the beauty of pure love. Despite the fatigue, she seems to enjoy giving hugs, very very much.

I could feel the energy from the doorway to the temple, and as I got closer and closer, inching up chair by folding metal chair, I could feel this bright, white energy radiating out of her. It was almost hard to get near, kind of like a force field.

Finally, I arrived at a little red stool where someone motioned me to kneel. The energy now was radiating in a way that made me feel a bit disoriented.

When it was my turn for a hug, she grabbed me (or someone pushed me) forward and buried me in her enormous breasts, which smelled like rose petals. There were assistants and her entourage buzzing all around me, everyone dressed in white, and the energy was confusing and i was dazed, maybe from the waiting, the fatigue, the chanting...and then she started shouting this gibberish in my ear, and it sounded angry, it sounded like "MURDER." but it was, i guess, in her language, and more like: "murrrrrbeulash" and she repeated quickly it over and over again. What did it mean? Was it a mantra for me? A secret message?

Then she thrust a Hershey kiss wrapped in a rose petal in my hand, and something, a force, (one of her assistants?) pushed me away, and I reeled backward. Amma then used the manual clicker in her hand to record my hug, and before I could sit down, she was on to the next. You can't expect a lot of personal attention from the hugging saint. You have to share her.

When I tried to stand up, I was dizzy and almost fell over. I fell into a deep meditative trance, and stayed that way until the chanting stopped, and someone nudged me and said the darshan was over. It was well past 2 am by then and the crowd started to trickle outside into the gardens. I guess even Amma needs to pee and get some sleep.

When I told this story to my friend, he quipped:

"I hear they sell Amma's pee there as well, but it's really, really expensive. You have to know the right people. It's called, "gurine" as in "guru urine." The black market on this stuff is phenomenal. It's said that her golden essence will sprout roses in winter."

Uh, I think I'll pass on the pre-owned altar items, thank you. The hug will stay with me for a long time.

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