Amma: She May Give Hugs, But She Ain’t No Saint!

Amma: She May Give Hugs, But She Ain’t No Saint!

So, I went to see Amma. My mom and I planned a girl’s weekend to SF to do some shopping, and decided to stop by to get our darshan on. Amma is known as “the hugging saint”. She tours the world giving hugs and preaching a supposedly simple message of love and compassion. She’s also known as the human embodiment of Kali, or the Divine Mother. Sounds right up my alley… Besides, I’ve been needing the healing to happen with all of my various spiritual and physical ailments. Why not? uch of what I’ve gone through lately is a result of working with Kali. My mother and I decided to attend one of her morning programs together this past weekend in San Ramon, just to check it out.

We both went in with an open mind and an open heart… I had no expectations other than it was going to be an adventure, and that I’d probably learn something in the process.
I was expecting an environment that matched Amma’s message of divine love, compassion, and selfless service. Instead, my mom and I were repeatedly stopped and haggled by Amma’s pushy white-clad program volunteers for different reasons. Multiple times we were interrupted for different reasons, asking if we’d registered, had our tokens, or if we wanted to volunteer to do a shift in the bookstore and cafeteria. It seemed that everyone we encountered seemed tired, weary, pushy, impatient, or just in a bad mood. It was very disconcerting. My mom and I joked that it seemed like Amma’s followers needed a hug worse than we did! There were far too many volunteers milling about and getting in the way of the crowd. It was a hindrance rather than a help. It made for a chaotic environment rather than a pleasant one.  To act so sour and unkindly in a room full of wanting, needing, hurting souls in need of the amazing hug that will answer all their prayers? It seemed strange to both of us, but we finally managed to get through the crowd and took our seats.

We soon realized that we picked the wrong place to sit, as throngs of people navigated the aisle right next to us to browse in the bookstore.The commercial aspect of it all was more Disneyland than love and selfless service. I was shocked by the overwhelming amount of merchandise with Amma’s likeness. Pictures of Amma, CDs, Amma statuary, Amma dolls, and beads worn by Amma? All this is well and good, but it seemed excessive and unnecessary. She is little better than a mascot. We both realized that people seemed to worship and pray to Amma like a goddess, which might explain all of the paraphanalia branded with her likeness. It reminded me more of a sporting event than a spiritual one. By the cash register, there was a basket of random items that had been given to Amma by others as an offering. All of them had price tags on them and were being resold! I have a hard time with that… It seems so unethical and rude towards her followers. Someone had offered her a tube of Icy-Hot, probably thinking it would sooth her sore painful muscles after a 12-hour Hug-a-Thon. That’s a very thoughtful gesture, but it still ended up in the basket rather than being given to someone who needs it more.

I also noticed that in the giftshop, there was a discerning lack of any Kali imagery. I wondered if perhaps images of Kali-Ma might be disturbing to some in the West. How can Amma be the purported “human embodiment of Kali” and not reflect that side of her? The small handful of Kali dolls were too cute to really be frightening to anyone.

When the meditation started, I tried to calm and center myself but I started feeling uncharacteristically nervous, fluttery, and out of sorts. I’m familiar with guided meditation, but I’ve never had anything like that happen before. I noticed a terrible knot of anxiety in the pit of my stomach, with my gut-brain reflex giving me a queasy “WARNING!!!” sign. I had no idea where it was coming from. I’m sensitive to energy and would normally take the time to do some shielding. I wanted to be respectful of Amma’s culture and tradition, so I did not take my usual course of action. I got so dizzy and nauseous that I spent most of the meditation with my hands over my eyes and my head between my knees praying to Kali that I wouldn’t throw up. In my spiritual practice, I do work with Kali on occasion. This crazy wave of anxiety that I experienced has only happened a few times in my life, and it was always associate with Kali-Ma. My mom just thought my blood sugar was low, but it wasn’t. It felt like Kali was trying to give me a warning, although I could be wrong. My gut-brain is seldom wrong, and my gut-brain is where Kali seems to lurk.

Once the darshan line started, I grounded a bit and tried to feel a little bit better. Both of us waited and watched. My mom commented on how phony some of the people on the stage seemed. At one point, I looked up towards the darshan line, and noticed a woman who appeared to buckle at the knees in front of Amma. Out of spiritual ecstacsy? I thought maybe, until I noticed the attendants pushing and pulling at her as she tried to adjust the small child whom she held on her hip. This alarmed me a bit, but maybe she just lost her balance? Pushy jerks, I thought. That’s not terribly compassionate or loving behavior.

As I reached the very last chair, there was a row of two or three people kneeling before Amma, waiting for their own hug. The attendants were chaotically forcing them down on their knees, with two or more shoving them forward. There was a couple in front of me… A heavyset gentleman who winced in pain as they prodded at him to kneel. His wife held a one-year-old child on her hip. Just like the other woman from earlier, she lost her balance as they pushed her downward. She tried to keep her little one safely in her arms, but they paid her no mind. Their only intention was to keep the line moving, not at all caring that she nearly dropped her child. They jerked her husband to his feet, and his knee appeared to give out and he sunk to the ground. They yanked at his shirt instead of helping him up It hurt me to see this. There was no reason to be so rude and pushy.
Did they care? Did they try to be as gentle and loving as the woman three feet away from them is supposed to be? No. Not at all.

I figured out what I was supposed to do, which seemed to be kneel, duck and cover! As I went to kneel down on my own, I was pushed down by an attendant on the side while also being pushed forward by another in back of me. I was lost in the chaos of other devotees and bodies surrounding Amma, and there wasn’t a moment where some attendant wasn’t rushing me forward, pulling at me or pushing me down. Multiple people were asking me questions, but I had only momentary awareness of them. I know an attendant accepted my offering of flowers, but I couldn’t physically see (I bet they recycled them and put them back in the flower booth). I tried to cover my head. The noise and the heat from the bodies was unbearable. For a minute or two, I completely blacked out. I was conscious of my feet being in the material world, but my head went somewhere else. I only saw white and nothing else. I don’t know where I was, but I was momentarily comfortable. I felt someone wash my face and push my head towards Amma’s white robed knee. I felt a hand on my back, and I decided that I needed to let all that go, and just be in the moment. No turning back now! l felt my fist clench firmly in protest, but was not able to instruct my body to release it or even move. Amma hugged me, robotically, and very matter of factly as she muttered something in my ear. It was too garbled to make out any specific sounds, like static blowing in my ear. I felt this, but still could only see white. As she spoke, I drifted into a place of grey nothingness for just a moment. It was blank, vacant, and felt like it was trying to squash my light. Within an instant, I was jolted back to reality. Someone pushed some rosepetals and a Hershey Kiss into my hand and two attendants jostled me from my stupor and pulled me away before I even got the chance to pull myself to my feet.

I still couldn’t see, but somehow I navigated through the throngs of devotees sitting at her feet. I came to as they literally shoved me off the platform. It was a relief to find that I could finally see my own two feet on the carpet. When I finally got to a spot clear of people, I threw my hands up in front of me, as a gesture of protection. I had no idea what was happening. I was lightheaded, dizzy, and felt spaced-out, like I was painfully coming down off of some quick and etheric high. I looked frantically behind me for my mom, who was a few spaces behind me in the darshan line, but she’d already been forced to kneel. An attendant stopped me and asked me if I’d like to sit down. “No! I’m going outside now, thank you very much!” I snapped, completely lucid and completely pissed off. I did not enjoy that experience in the least. I hadn’t heeded my gut reaction that something was very wrong.

How did I feel? Terrible. Confused, bewildered, and angry. I was angry to see others treated that way with no one sensitive to their obvious needs. I felt like Amma had invaded my space somehow, first through her followers and then through her odd effect on me. I felt like she wanted to take all that was good in me, just like Kali takes all of the bad. There was no love there. If being manhandled like a puppet or a side of beef is love, then I’m just not interested. That’s not love. While in Amma’s perfunctory and mechanical embrace, I felt nothingness. Nothing.
I saw my poor mom wandering around just as dazed as I was. We quickly composed ourselves and left. Both of us decided that this was really more of a dog and pony show masquerading as spirituality. I’ve always been at odds with my relationship with Kali, but not anymore. I don’t trust Amma, and I don’t think she is who she markets herself to be.

Later that night I had a dream where Amma’s eyes flashed white without pupils or irises, and her tongue lolled out fierce and fiery like Kali herself, and in that dream I told her to go away and leave me alone because Amma is not welcome in my spiritual house. Ever.

I’m not alone in that…

I wanted an adventure, and my gods always deliver.

It’s June and things are finally getting better all over.

I’m thankful for all of my resources and I’m glad that I saw the writing on the wall.


7 thoughts on “Amma: She May Give Hugs, But She Ain’t No Saint!

  1. Blessings to you Dear One. I appreciated reading this account of your experience at the Amma Ashram at San Ramon. It sounds like you attended one of the Devi Bhava sessions during the one or two times a year Amma comes to San Ramon. I have probably been to Devi Bhava 6 or 7 times at this point. I find the experience to be mostly positive. Your very detailed description of your experience was helpful to me. As I was reading, I was laughing out loud because so much of what you described is so close to my experience of Devi Bhava. Perhaps what we both have experienced there is an aspect of Indian culture that is foreign to both of us. Of course there is one significant difference–I consider myself a devotee of Amma’s and have nothing but positive regard for both her and the work she does in the world in spite of my very similar experience of Devi Bhava to that which you describe.

    And that’s OK. In one respect you are more generous than I. You refer to the various volunteers at these events as “attendants.” I call them “handlers” and “bullies” because that’s how they seem to me. The first time I went to Devi Bhava I was so put off by their behavior and energy, I decided to forgo getting a hug from Amma because I didn’t want to be “manhandled” by them–literally! I have that time and almost every time since experienced these people in almost the exact same ways you describe. I wear glasses. The first time I went for a hug one of the handlers grabbed my glasses right off my face and placed them in a basket. From that point on until when I left the platform I was essentially blind. Oy Vey! Still, somehow I’ve been able to move past all of that to what I believe to be the essential experience of Amma and what she brings to the world and me personally.

    I believe the most basic truth here is that everyone experiences spiritual teachers in their own way, a way that is neither right nor wrong but simply is. And I believe it is always correct to follow your instinct and intuition no matter what.

    Namaste’ and Peace to you Dear One!

  2. Hello Raven- You’re quite right! Many paths up the mountain, and all that. 🙂

    It’s been a little bit of time since it all happened, and in giving it some thought, it did have a positive end result that helped me with something I’ve struggled to balance.

    I learn from everything I experience, and I’m glad I went for the experience of it! It wasn’t perfect, but deliberately putting myself out of my comfort zone yields the best lessons, spiritual and otherwise.

    Learning is what matters most. Lesson learned? 😉

  3. Great article!! If you want a real good read to follow up on what you found read the new book from Amma closest attendant right from the very start before she even had an ashram in India, Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion, and Pure Madness by Tredwell, Gail (Oct 29, 2013) . It is amazing what people will endure out of a searching need to find that “something” in their life. The book is a page turner for sure!! Or read the Rolling Stone article “The Hugging Saint”.

  4. Read Gail Tredwel’s Book ” Holy Hell – A Memoir of Faith, Devotion and Pure Madness” You will be enlightened about 90% Eastern Gurus !

  5. Good God – I was at the San Ramon ‘Hug Event’ in 2009 – and I’m wondering if that is the same event you attended? It took place on a Saturday, as I recall, and while my religious practice is different than yours, our reactions were absolutely parallel. The difference? I knew that NO WAY was I going to the hug part of the day. I told the woman who’d invited me that there were so many people without ‘hug tickets’ that I wanted to give mine away. I caught the next carpool down to my car and left.

    I saw the Hugging Saint when she didn’t realize anyone besides her assistants was there. It was as she left her air-conditioned Lexus to enter the praying area. Wow.

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