Profile: India's 'hugging saint' Mata Amritanandamayi | Asia Pacific

Profile: India's 'hugging saint' Mata Amritanandamayi

Profile: India's 'hugging saint' Mata Amritanandamayi

Updated 8 October 2013, 15:30 AEDT

Mata Amritanandamayi is best known for embracing the masses of India, and further afield.

Often known simply as 'Amma', she's hugged millions of people around the world, earning her the nickname "the hugging saint."

Her status as a spiritual therapist also attracted a huge following. So what makes her so popular?

Presenter: Murali Krishnan

Speaker: Mata Amritanandamayi; Shubha Amrita Chaitanya, Amma's media advisor; Dipankar Gupta, sociologist; Mikko Von Hurtzen, rock musician

KRISHNAN: It's bustling at Amritapuri, the headquarters of Mata Amritanandamayi located in the tranquil southern Indian state of Kerala. India's famous spiritual guru, affectionately called 'Amma', is celebrating her 60th birthday and a sea of followers from across the world has poured in to join in the festivities.
Amma was born into a struggling fisherman's family. As she began growing up, she defied local sensibilities to embrace people who related their sufferings to her. It soon became her trademark, and she came to be known as the 'Hugging Saint'. Her transformation from an unconventional girl to a mother guru began in the late 70s, say her followers.
Shubha Amrita Chaitanya is Amma's media advisor.
CHAITANYA: Well I feel Amma's hugging or embrace is not just mere physical because there are many people who just give hugs physically but sometimes it just doesn't touch you. I feel Amma's embrace comes from the centre of her being. And Amma says it is not just a mere physical act. Through this, Amma is sowing seeds of goodness in each one coming to her.
KRISHNAN: According to those in charge of her 'ashram' or spiritual abode, it is believed that she has hugged over 33 million people in the last three decades.
With millions of followers across the world, Amma has taken on a number of humanistic and charitable projects - constructing hospitals and schools for the poor and needy,  orphanages and clinics both in India and abroad. Now, she has built a vast network that is the envy of both India's public and private sectors.
But Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist, who has studied spiritual persons in India closely, has a different take.
GUPTA: When foreigners take to such people, this is a special class of non-Indians who are looking for some kind of spiritual solace and they come to these god men because in their minds, they view India as a home for spiritualism which I think is largely misplaced. 
KRISHNAN: But her devoted supporters vouch for work. Many of them including professionals, rock stars, tycoons and software engineers have abandoned their careers to be in her service.
Mikko Von Hurtzen, a heavy metal rock star, says Amritanandamayi has helped him greatly.
HURTZEN: I feel my career now, as a rock musician is Amma's doing in a way that she was the one who started it and because I was letting it go. But then she kind of rekindled that aspiration and with her blessings we are doing well.
KRISHNAN: On her part, Amma regrets the decline of spiritualism in the country.
AMMA (IN MALAYALAM - Kerala's language): I think within families in India, spiritualism is going down, values are getting lost and that is unfortunate. There has to be better communication… only then, can we rise.
KRISHNAN: Many followers say she was born with the unique ability to touch a person's emotional core and solve all the troubles of modern life, just through a hug.
Mr Gupta again.
GUPTA: I remember the time when The Beatles came to Mahesh Yogi. For a while, they were really enamored with him. And then they realised he was not the yogi that he was cut to be and soon they lost interest. These people who come from abroad to the gurus and matas, they come for some magical relief again. This magical relief is not so much in terms of fortune, good health, better jobs, more cars, killing in the stock markets but more in terms of  inner peace they are looking for. And they're not finding it, wherever they are, and I don't think these people really last the wash.

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