The “Amma” with a magical hug

Author Bhavdeep Kang
The legendary “hug” - dispensed thirty six million times and counting
- is a full-on, vigorous maternal embrace, heft enough to leave the recipient tingling. In Emoji terms, {()} or big hug. A single squeeze or multi-hugs, to the accompaniment of a whisper, “My child, my child”. Cuddled against the soft bosom, sheathed in scented white cotton, the “hug-ees” have their oxytocin moment.

The hugfest, in place of the routine “darshan” or viewing of the holy person, went on relentlessly through the day, to the singing of devotional songs or Bhajans. or simply “Amma”, clearly equipped with kidneys of steel and a well trained stomach, didn’t rise from her chair even once until the last darshan-seeker had left! All the while, she spoke, chattering in her mother tongue with the privileged few who sat cross legged around her on the dais or dispensing advice to those who had come expressly to seek it. The “Jaddu ki Jhappi” (loosely translated to mean, a magical hug), wrung tears from the emotionally vulnerable. An extra hug, a soothing word and they withdrew, comforted... Next!

It was enchanting to witness Amma’s unhurried interactions, defying her crew’s efforts at moving the line along. Every devotee, whether child or adult, received a full measure of time and attention.

A firm hand pushed a darshan-seeker to her knees, another aimed her head at Amma’s well padded shoulder. Here came yet another hug. She is playful with her devotees. When a young girl complained of not getting enough time with her, Amma tied her shawl to the girl’s dupatta. There!

She allowed a baby to put its whole fist in her mouth and laughed delightedly over an offering of candied ginger. On her Sixty-first Birthday, one is told she “gave darshan” for twenty six hours non-stop. A ten hour stretch is par for the course. And with no discernible screening process, she is open to all manner of pathogens, poisons and psychopaths, because no one is ever turned away and no offering of food is ever turned down. Just take a number, grab a chair in the vast meeting hall and wait your turn.

How did the hugging start?

“It happened… spontaneously,’ explained Amma in Malyalam, with an aide-translator in tow.

“What does a mother do? She gives her children a hug. That is how it started. I hugged one and all the others wanted it too… Maternal values are decreasing in men and women. The qualities of a mother are needed in both. The hug tries to awaken these values of love and compassion in everyone.” Put simply the famous embrace is intended to “sow seeds” of good vibrations.

The devotees clustered around her “lotus feet” onstage, were a mixed bunch. However, white faces predominated - a group of professors from Oxford and Cambridge, who were visiting the (University) as part of an exchange program, clearly fascinated by the whole experience. Several of the brown faces spoke in discernibly “phoren” accents. There were a handful of local personages, sleek and self-assured. Scientists, businessmen, academics, bureaucrats. In the midst of all the wealth, influence, talent and academic brilliance sat Amma, the center of gravity, her celestially round face framed in halo of frizzy grey hair.

Kneeling at her feet was a tall, bearded man, who retained his dignity even as he was jostled off his knees by the press of bodies. Dr. Bipin Nair is dean of the Amrita school of Biotechnology, a post-doc from the university of Tennesse. He worked in Seattle with a pharma major before moving to Amritapuri, where he set up a research facility (the Centre of Relevance and Excellence In Biomedical Technology) under the aegis of the Central Government’s Department of Science and Technology (DST).

A couple of bodies away was a slight, gentle looking man, Dr. Shanti Kumar Nair, An IIT graduate who subsequently made his way to the University of Columbia and was a professor at the University of Massachusetts for two decades. He returned to India to set up the Amrita Center for Nanosciences and Molecular Medicine (ACNSMM). And then there was Dr. Krishnashree Achuthan, a slim, vibrant young woman techie in a cotton Kurti, who gave up a lucrative career in the US and moved to Amritapuri as head of the center for cyber-security systems and networks.

It leaves one with a touch befuddled… How does an uneducated , low-caste fisher-woman, born in abject poverty and by all accounts, ill-treated by her own family, attract the best and brightest to a remote backwater of Kerela? More Importantly, why did Prime Minister Narendra Modi ,make it a point to show up for her sixtieth Birthday, shortly after being designated the Bhartia Janta Party’s prime ministeial nominee? Why do millions - forty million, claimed her aide - regard her as universal mother, a veritable fount of unconditional love and compassion? What is Amma really all about?

[ Excerpted with permission from “Gurus : Stories of India's Leading Babas” by Bhavdeep Kang,
Westland Books, June 2016. Views expressed are the writer’s personal ]
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