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Amma embraces a devotee surrounded by others in orange and white robes

Lifestyle & Belief

A small, Catholic, Midwestern farming town embraces an Indian ‘hugging saint’

Devotees believe that a single hug from Amma — known as a “universal mother” plugged into a divine, infinite energy source — can heal the world.

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Amma, India's "hugging saint," embraces a follower during the New York stop of her 10-city US tour, July 16, 2005. Considered a living saint in her homeland, Amma began hugging devotees at an early age. 

Credit:

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Waiting for an Amma hug feels like an eternity. 

On a warm, July night, hundreds of people line up in a grand hall tucked away on 142 rolling, green acres in rural Elburn, Illinois, to wait for a hug from Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, or Amma, “the hugging saint.” 

Her devotees believe that a single hug from Amma — known as a “universal mother” plugged into a divine, infinite energy source — can heal one’s soul — and the world. 

Devotees, along with curious first-timers, gather for an evening of devotional chants, meditation, vegan food — and the ultimate, universal embrace — as part of a four-day stop on Amma’s annual, North American summer tour. 

The Hindu guru used to give hugs at Chicagoland-area hotels, mostly in the western suburbs, where a growing Hindu community erected an elaborate Hindu temple. But about seven years ago, her followers identified Elburn — a small, predominantly Catholic farming community of about 6,100 — as an idyllic spot to establish MA Center Chicago, Amma’s seventh ashram in North America. 

“Amma is our inspiration for everything we do here. We live by her teachings … to alleviate human suffering through loving service [and] compassion in action."

Faith Pomeroy-Ward, MA Center Chicago resident and community outreach volunteer

“Amma is our inspiration for everything we do here,” said Faith Pomeroy-Ward, an MA Center Chicago resident and community outreach volunteer. Pomeroy-Ward, originally from Princeton, New Jersey, says she has followed Amma’s teachings for years and moved to Elburn with her family four years ago. Her mother followed last year.  

“We live by her teachings … to alleviate human suffering through loving service [and] compassion in action,” she said. 

photo of young Indian woman sitting near a window with long hair down

Amma as a young girl. 

Credit:

Amma Shop/Embracing the World 

Amma, originally from Kerala, India, endured an abusive childhood yet openly embraced anyone who crossed her path, performing miracles and healing others from the time she was 14, according to her believers. By 27, Amma had established an ashram in Kerala. She went on her first spiritual tour to Europe and North America at 33. Now 66, she heads a philanthropic humanitarian network called Embracing the World, which has donated more than $75 million to global disaster relief efforts. 

Related: A synagogue is born in a little Polish town, but no Jews are left

Amma comes from a long tradition of guru movements — including female gurus — in India, says Tulasi Srinivas, professor of anthropology, religion and transnational studies at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts.

“The power of this singular person is what is called in India as an ‘avatar of God’ — a manifestation … gurus have traditionally claimed that they are extra-spiritual human beings, but it is devotees who ascribe divinity to them,” Srinivas said. 

Some devotees will travel a great distance to get a hug from Amma. Chicagoans can hop on a 50-minute train ride to Elburn, the last stop on the Metra line. According to Embracing the World, Amma has hugged more than 39 million people, sometimes hugging people for more than 22 hours straight. 

“It's not just that the devotee sees God, but that the God sees her devotees; it's an interactional thing."

Tulasi Srinivas, professor of anthropology, religion and transnational studies, Emerson College

“It's not just that the devotee sees God, but that the God sees her devotees; it's an interactional thing,” Srinivas said.

Amma’s hug is her darshan or "blessing." Some believe Amma can speak 20 languages, levitate, divert destructive storms, cure infertility, read minds or heal physical ailments through touch. 

A woman exalts looking at a living god

An Indian female follower of Hindu female religious leader Mata Amritanandamayi (Mother of Immortal Bliss) exalts on the occasion of the leaders' 50th birthday in the southern Indian city of Cochin, Sept. 24, 2003. More than half a million people from 191 countries attended the 50th birthday celebrations dedicated to the religious leader known as Amma. 

Credit:

Dipak Kumar JSG/AA/Reuters

On this July night, outside the grand hall — once the gymnasium of a former Seventh-day Adventist Church boarding school — two women dressed in colorful kurtas make small talk. A couple sits on a bench, practicing a harmonious chant. Over the loudspeakers, a calm, male voice instructs visitors to get a mandatory token to step into Amma’s orderly hugging line. Everyone needs a token — even babies.  

Amma is a late-night hugger. Seated on an elevated, custom-built, white chair, Amma delivers an hourlong lecture on her universal teachings — followed by devotional chanting — before the anticipatory embrace. 

Related: Russia gets its very first Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

For the restless, hungry or curious, there's a festival-like vibe. Volunteers in an adjacent dining hall cook up massive pots of vegan food. The entrance to the main hall is lined with a smorgasbord of Indian snacks and spiritual swag available at the Amma Shop: miniature books on Amma teachings, herbal tinctures, organic, heirloom seeds, tiny pendants featuring Hindu gods and goddesses, an array of incense, Amma portraits of every size and Amma dolls

There’s also a special selection of items for sale once worn or used by Amma —  her pillowcases, slippers, even a Salvatore Ferragamo leather handbag once gifted to her in prayer. 

Long after the sun goes down, it’s finally time to line up. At a stage adorned with an orange paisley backdrop, Amma, a plump woman with a round face and long, dark hair with a hint of silver pulled back, can be found wrapped in her signature white sari. 

Official Amma volunteers wearing green scarves remind first-timers to take off their shoes. They hand out laminated instruction cards explaining how to receive an Amma hug. At a small table, a devotee sells floral wreaths and Hershey’s Kisses as optional blessings for Amma. 

A living mystic moves to rural Illinois

The first North American MA Center was officially registered in 1989 in San Ramon, California, as a nondenominational, humanitarian nonprofit. To date, there are 12 MA Centers throughout the United States, but only two have the capacity to host Amma’s programs: San Ramon and Elburn.

In 2012, Amma gave her followers the blessing to purchase the century-old Broadview Academy that was shuttered in 2007.  The community began to renovate the 100-acre campus, transforming it into a “spiritual hub,” with an additional 42 acres of organic, medicinal echinacea gardens, an apple orchard and a raspberry-filled food forest. 

Pink and green Echinacea fields in Elburn

Medicinal echinacea fields grow at MA Center Chicago. Echinacea grows in abundance in Illinois, its native habitat, says Faith Pomeroy-Ward, an MA Center Chicago resident and volunteer. 

Credit:

Screenshot via YouTube video "Echineacea grace" 

Also in 2012, former Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn attended the MA Center Chicago inauguration and declared June 30 Mata Amritanandamayi Day. 

Related: Religion is alive and kicking in officially atheist China

Members had to request special use permits from Kane County to build and expand the center that’s located in unincorporated Elburn. 

“We are definitely a conservative, farming community. It's growing a bit, we had some subdivisions come in, which, of course, changes the makeup, but I still think we have conservative values,” said Jeffrey D. Walter, Elburn’s village president who served on the village board of trustees when the MA Center initially established roots in the area. 

“We are definitely a conservative, farming community. It's growing a bit, we had some subdivisions come in, which, of course, changes the makeup, but I still think we have conservative values."

Jeffrey D. Walter, village president, Elburn, Illinois

Amma’s devotees renovated the 30,000-square-foot gym into a great hall for spiritual programming, replete with grand chandeliers that dangle alongside the old basketball hoops, and several families moved into the smattering of homes on the property. 

Walter explains that Elburn suffered a major economic downturn in 2008 and welcomed the MA Center in 2012 as a much-needed boost to the local economy — area contractors benefited from the flurry of renovations and demolitions when the MA Center moved in. The village board voted unanimously to approve MA Center’s request to expand and sent letters of support to Kane County. 

“One thing that sticks out in my mind is that [MA Center] stepped up to volunteer to pay the property taxes on all the housing units there, even though, because they are a religious organization they wouldn't have to,” said Walter, who has attended several Amma events with his wife and received multiple hugs from Amma over the years. 

“We're Catholic, we belong to the Catholic Church here, and I know there are several members of our church who go out to the MA Center,” Walter said. “Last winter, [there was a] guy playing the sitar and another guy playing the tablas, and it was the most amazing couple hours of music we've ever experienced.” 

In January 2016, when the MA Center announced its plans to build an additional 72 townhomes and a 192 multi-unit residential facility within the next 15 years, several residents objected, citing zoning ordinance inconsistencies related to mixed-use development and drainage issues that could negatively impact nearby properties. The case is still in litigation. 

“We tend to grow organically,” said Pomeroy-Ward, with an “emphasis on restoring harmony with nature,” as one of Amma’s core teachings.

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Today, between 50-70 people live on the property year-round with their own water supply and septic systems. They now have a Montessori school and lease several acres of land to local organic farmers. Pomeroy-Ward says the center hosts an array of programs with something for everyone, ranging from permaculture and tincture workshops and spiritual retreats to nightly devotional chanting and Saturday scripture sessions. 

People stand before tree seedling with hands folded in prayer

AYUDH is the international youth wing of Amma's foundation, Embracing the World. Members plant trees to honor the first anniversary of the MA Center Chicago. 

Credit:

Screenshot via YouTube "Chicago 1st anniversary tree planting"

“What Amma is doing in the world is so important — it transcends all boundaries set up by political systems, cultural systems and constructs,” Pomeroy-Ward said. “We are people who wish to do good work in the world that transcends these borders.” 

East meets West in the rural Midwest 

It’s no surprise that Hinduism — and Amma, in particular —  has taken root in the rural Midwest, Srinivas said. America has always been a pluralistic landscape with a vibrant South Asian diaspora population along with a history of Westerners who have sought answers to their anxieties from the East. 

Chicago resident Eric Jensen, a private investment trader, first encountered Amma in 2002 after years spent trading in the late '90s, when internet stocks skyrocketed.

“People were making a lot of money, but they weren’t necessarily happier than those without money.”

Jensen sought spiritual refuge from the “materialistic road” that he says seemed to have no end in sight. An intense spiritual awakening at a yoga retreat in the Bahamas eventually led him to Amma’s teachings. He fully immersed himself in Amma's mantras — at the gas station, grocery store, home. Over time, Jensen says, the practice "rewired" him. 

“Given the anxiety in America right now, given the need for acceptance and given the kind of place America is in now, given the #MeToo movement — the rejection of male authority figures — I think Amma is uniquely positioned."

Tulasi Srinivas, professor of anthropology, religion and transnational studies, Emerson College

“Given the anxiety in America right now, given the need for acceptance and given the kind of place America is in now, given the #MeToo movement — the rejection of male authority figures — I think Amma is uniquely positioned,” Srinivas said. “A lot of gurus get picked up by America and then exported to the world based on what America needs at the moment … a mother's embrace. What can replace it? Nothing. Total love and total acceptance. And everyone wants to feel that.” 

Srinivas points to the ’60s and ’70s when America went through a sexual revolution and sought refuge in India’s sacred Kama Sutra as guidance for their spiritual awakening. In the ’80s, as new money led to existential emptiness, she says, Americans turned to otherworldly gurus to transcend the material world. In the mid-'80s, sexually liberated Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, convinced his followers to create Rajneeshpuram, an intentional community in the hills of Oregon, which ended in an armed standoff

“I think some people are leery because it's not a Christian religion — they can't put a label on it — but [those] who have gotten involved found it a great place to be,” said Walter, the village president who worked closely with Pomeroy-Ward and the MA Center to draft an Amma Proclamation, declaring an annual Amma Week in Elburn this year. 

A man gets a hug from Amma.

Amma, who is considered a living saint in her homeland, began hugging devotees at an early age, and is said to have hugged at least 39 million people worldwide. 

Credit:

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Following Amma requires a “suspension of disbelief,” a departure from dualistic thinking that allows you to live in the space between reality and the imagination. Some devotees describe a transcendent beauty in the ritual worship of a "living goddess" as a selfless act, but there's also the reality of rent and bills to pay. 

In a spiritual lecture before the hugging began, Swamini Krishnamrita Prana, from Amma's inner circle, praised “people who pawned their family jewels for a bus ticket to see Amma.” She emphasized: “We are the precious jewels.” Congregants also heard messages such as “karma is like a credit card,” and each person has a “spiritual bank account.” Puja — ritual prayers performed remotely by priests on a seeker's behalf in Amma's ashrams — are for sale for $35 to $250. 

“Philanthropy is the template of most gurus,” said Srinivas, whose book, "The Cow in the Elevator: An Anthropology of Wonder," explores how temple economies work. 

Amma has amassed an army of volunteers who believe seva or “selfless service" will improve one's karma. As devotees dive deeper into Amma’s teachings, they often dive deeper into their pockets, too, on the premise that their money goes 100% to charity and disaster relief. 

“As you get more involved, it sort of can take up a lot of your time if you let it,” said Jensen, the private investment trader. 

Religious groups led by a charismatic figure with enormous influence over people’s lives can lead to real problems. Some academics and psychologists who study guru movements say what often gets missed about religious groups is the factor of undue influence, when a single individual holds too much power and undermines one’s free will.

This can sometimes lead to coercion and exploitation that happens along what psychologist Steven Hassan calls an “influence continuum” ranging from the healthy to extreme. It depends on how these groups control the environment and to what extent one’s identity becomes enmeshed or supplanted by the group. 

Amma certainly has her critics. In fact, there’s a detailed account from former devotee Gail Tredwell in "Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion, and Pure Madness." Tredwell spent 20 years as Amma's personal assistant. 

Walter, Elburn's village president, says he’s aware of  “Wild, Wild, Country,” the Netflix documentary about the downfall of the guru Rajneesh and his red-robed followers in Oregon, but that the MA Center is “nothing like that, you know, with weird people walking through your town, causing trouble. They’re our neighbors, and none of us have ever assessed anything negative about them expanding or growing.” 

Livestock, corn and soy used to keep Elburn ticking, but that's changed in the last 15 years. Now that the economy has improved, Walter says the village board plans to build new parks and subdivisions, but also “keep the charm of a small, country town and make it a great place to raise a family.” In his view, the MA Center fits with that vision.

The ultimate hug

Receiving an Amma hug is a highly orchestrated, public performance on stage in front of hundreds of devotees and onlookers. Personal photos and recordings are strictly prohibited.

The hug demands surrendering to the notion that this is no ordinary hug, but one from a god in human form. 

Amma hugs each person according to carefully prescribed rules regulated by her inner circle, who surround her in a flurry of commotion. Each person must kneel before Amma, carefully place their hands on either side of her chair, and lean in. 

Her attendants firmly push you into Amma’s rose-scented bosom, and then it’s happening — she wraps her arms around you, whispers a blessing in your ear and — in a flash — releases you. When it’s over, her attendants pull you up from your knees and tear you away from Amma’s embrace. 

An Amma hug has been described by first-timers and devotees alike as “profound,” “powerful” and “entrancing.” 

But academics and psychologists also note that when the rules of a normal, patterned interaction like a handshake or hug suddenly get disrupted, it can lead to what’s called “confusion induction,” a moment of disorientation akin to hypnosis. Once in that state, it feels as though anything’s believable — and possible. 

“I volunteered to help those get up after the hug ... Sometimes, people are a little disoriented so I helped them up after they'd gotten a [hug] from [Amma] and the effect she had on people was all across the spectrum: Some people were crying, some people were laughing, [some] would hug me spontaneously as if I was a long-long lost friend.”

Eric Jensen, private investment trader, Chicago, Illinois

“I volunteered to help those get up after the hug,” Jensen said. “Sometimes, people are a little disoriented so I helped them up after they'd gotten a [hug] from [Amma] and the effect she had on people was all across the spectrum: Some people were crying, some people were laughing, [some] would hug me spontaneously as if I was a long-long lost friend.” 

Amma looks lovingly at a devotee

Amma, "the hugging saint," embraces a follower during the New York stop of her 10-city US tour, July 16, 2005. Considered a living saint in her homeland, Amma, began hugging devotees at an early age.

Credit:

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

After the hug is over, devotees may linger near Amma to witness the embrace of others and then walk offstage to shop for objects that can serve as a portal back to the feeling of that embrace. It’s what Srinivas calls “proximate desire.” 

“Guru movements have always understood the power of material objects. Taking a statue or picture — it's a kind of spiritual tourism, really. You go, you get a hug, you feel transformed, and you want to remember the moment, so you buy a picture of Amma — which is blessed — and [it] gives you a feeling of being close. That becomes really important to the movement,” Srinivas said.

Jensen, the private investment trader, didn’t seek out a hug from Amma this year in Elburn, but said he carries Amma’s teachings with him as part of his spiritual practice. 

“I don't feel that Amma is in the world for people to follow her. She's here for people to realize their [own] true nature. Amma showed me that if you can see the divine in Amma, you can see it in everyone.”

Eric Jensen, private  investment trader, Chicagao, Illinois

“I don't feel that Amma is in the world for people to follow her. She's here for people to realize their [own] true nature. Amma showed me that if you can see the divine in Amma, you can see it in everyone.” 

Elburn’s village board president reiterates that the MA Center is the most accepting place he’s ever been. “Amma’s message is love — loving each other and treating each other right.” 

The message is clear enough, but living it can be hard.

“People think [too] dualistically,” Jensen said. “They say — this person's a god, this other person is not a god. But what Amma — and Hinduism — is about, is that divinity is within everything … Everyone is a god."

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