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'Hugging saint' embraces vendors too

Indian spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi, or Amma, hugs people in Cergy-Pontoise, outside Paris.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: You know how sometimes you just need a hug? Should you find yourself in New York City tomorrow with a couple of hours to spare, I think something can probably be arranged. For the past 22 years an Indian spiritual leader named Amma has been touring the country preaching love and compassion and the healing power of a good hug. New York is the eighth stop on her current tour. More than 8,000 people are expected to line up for a moment or two in her arms. And perhaps pick up some Amma souvenirs while they're at it. April Dembosky spent time at one of Amma's earlier stops.


APRIL DEMBOSKY: Going to an Amma hug-in is like entering a New Age theme park. There's constant music, groupies of all ages wearing saris and hemp clothing, and endless talk of love and peace. But rather than yoga or psychedelics, the spiritual high comes from the hugs.

LIZZY CORLEY: Every time I get a hug I just start crying hysterically.

Lizzy Corley is 14. Her parents have been bringing her to see Amma since she was two.

At 55 years old, Amma has hugged more than 28 million people since she gave her first hug in her native India, as a young girl. People regularly wait 10 hours to spend 10 seconds in her arms. They say her hugs promote enlightenment, calm anxieties, even cure illness.

While they wait, there is plenty visitors can do to keep themselves occupied. There's group meditation, live music, and English translations of her teachings on the sound system.

AMMA TRANSLATOR: If the wife and husband live in mutual understanding, the increasing sense of alienation between them will decrease.

And of course there's shopping. Amma's official boutique travels everywhere she does. It sells books, CDs, essential oils, sweatshirts, and mugs stamped with the Amma logo. There are bracelets blessed by Amma, necklaces worn by Amma. For the kids, the stuffed Amma doll comes in three sizes, a small for $45, the large, with legs, for $185.

Betsy Barnett works the cash register at the boutique. She explains that all of Amma's staff are volunteers. They pay for their own travel, food, and lodging during the tour. Some even donate extra cash, in addition to their time.

BETSY BARNETT: So say someone donates $10, it's really like $100 because there's no overhead, there's no administrative costs, there's no health insurance being paid.

But apparently all that money isn't lining the folds of Amma's sari. Signs at the boutique claim that 100 percent of net revenues go to her humanitarian projects in India. Her Web site says she sponsors orphanages, schools, hospitals for the poor, soup kitchens, disaster relief programs. But Amma's volunteers refuse to discuss how much money she makes.

CHRISTIAN BATTALIA: I don't think it's appropriate.

Christian Battalia was selling lemon bars at the Amma snack shack.

BATTALIA: I actually don't take care of any of the money issues at the end of the day.

All of her organizations are registered as nonprofit religious groups, so they're not required to file tax returns. But the San Jose Mercury News puts her total worth in the hundreds of millions. Traveling the world giving free hugs seems to be a recession-proof fundraising strategy. Stacy Palmer is the editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

STACY PALMER: People feel a very strong affiliation to their religion and to their obligations to give, so while every other cause typically sees some kind of decline during a recession, religious groups are usually insulated from it.

And if followers run out of sandalwood incense, they can log on to Amma.org and buy more. Vijay Menon volunteers every Friday at Amma's U.S. headquarters in San Ramon, Calif. He packs and ships orders to devotees in the U.S., Europe, Asia, even Antarctica.

VIJAY MENON: I think people want to feel a sense of closeness. So when Amma's not here they like to buy products.

So when the chanting drifts away and the smell of rose petals fades from the air, people will still have their Amma shampoo and tote bags to hold near their heart.

In San Ramon, Calif., I'm April Dembosky for Marketplace.

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Just look at some of her charitable activities and spiritual talks at htpp://www.youtube.com/ammafootage What inspired me were the emotional testimonials from patients of Amms's AIMS Hospital which gives totally free care to poor people.

I'm a semi-regular Marketplace listener and felt compelled to respond to your coverage of Amma "the Hugging Saint", and the commerce that goes on around her. While the facts are that 100% of Amma's proceeds go to her charities, the tone of your reporter was incredulous that something like that could actually be true. But if one were to go to India as I have and observed Amma's charitable operations, from her hospitals colleges schools and orphanages to the thousands upon thousands of houses built for tsunami victims, one would see that this is indeed true and that what she and her followers have done is outright mind-boggling. And so while some Amma dolls are being sold for over $100 (and made from genuine silk sari's worn by Amma at that), the money is going to poor people in need. Doesn't it really say more about us, made cynical by our less-than generous capitalist system, that we can't accept that such selfless giving and true humanitarianism is indeed happening on this planet. I'm wondering if your reporter actually received a hug, because once hugged, most people see what a win-win proposition being with Amma is and are more than happy to participate in her commerce.

Nice neo colonial attitude April. Of course you would not say the same about the pope or go forbid Islamic leaders (more out of fear).

I am more close to atheist of Indian origin than follower of any cult. But I have little to dispute Amma on financials since she doesn't get benefitted at all personally. Even if you have problem about the Amma's organization as a corporate to fund local social sitmulus, her sourcing of funds much cleaner than indulging in war profiteering.

I am more concerned about the way NPR is headed than the actual "News" itself.

This is a sarcastic, uninformed and un-researched article.

What an interesting commentary this article makes about humanity. With all the pros and cons about AMMA, it all boils down to the most basic need for human contact and caring. Turn off your ipod, tv, computer, etc. and spend some "hug" time with a human who really needs love! You will both be glad you did!

Your story about Amma was rather amusing not necessarily for the content but the way the presenter pronounced the word AMMA. Amma is from the Indian
state of Kerala where they speak a language called Malayalam.
In Malayalam, Amma means mother but only if it is pronounced with a lot of stress on the MM part of AMMA. The presenter pronounced it as AMA which in Malayalam means Turtle. So in essence, she said "people were waiting to get a hug from turtle...I got a hug from turtle etc. I realise the vast majority of your listeners will not know the difference but for people like me that speak Malayalam it was rather amusing. I remember NPR had broadcast a similar story about this Amma a couple years ago and even then the presenter pronounced the word AMMA as AMA.

I am disappointed that Market Place is sarcastically casting aspersions on the Amma show. You wouldn't see them ridiculing the Pope in that way!

I have no way of knowing whether all the money that changes hands at her events goes to charity or not. But I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I was at her Dallas event a few days ago to get my hug for the first time. I felt she and her volunteers were sincere. The messages I heard during my 6 hour wait were genuinely spiritually and philosophically uplifting. I've had a lot of experience with fundamentalist "Christian" hawkers who definitely in it for the money and I wouldn't put her in that class. She is not "religious", rather she focuses on messages of hope and physical help.

Kelly Harrison, PhD

Maybe certain people would hug thousands of people a day if it made them approximately 12 billion dollars per tour. Not to mention if they were worshipped as god, had people kiss their feet, had their own gigantic ashram filled with people devoted to them who thought they was god, people committing suicide over them, leaving their families and children, waiting on them hand and foot, working for free, making all of the items they sell for free, and then keeping all of the money and maybe throwing it on a few charities just so they could keep the whole thing up etc. etc.

If that were the case certain people would hug people until they couldn't hug people anymore.

Wow! Maybe we all just need a hug. Did the interviewer get a hug? Wouldn't that be part of her interviewing process, to experience that which she is reporting? Maybe if this were an article on drugs that might be a bad idea. So what was she so afraid of? What is her Bias. It certainly didn't seem impartial. It seems like she would be well suited for CNN, MSNBC or some large network where they like overly opinionated reporters. Maybe April would be a good fit for a Christian Network?
I for one have a difficult time contemplating giving out a few thousand hugs and being kind and sweet the whole time, and this lady gives them out by the millions... Come on, that is fascinating! I did find some other articles with ease that gave a much more well rounded picture of what Amma is all about and her affect on the the lives she touches and the charities that she has dedicated her life too.
Needless to say April, two thumbs way down for impartiality. Better luck with CNN.

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