'Hugging saint' embraces vendors too

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

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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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