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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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These types of media reports are precisely why this group will never be revealed for what it is. Because of this, more and more people will be roped into the group and lose EVERYTHING. Do some investigating of your own before going and getting what seems like a nice hug from a saint. Look beyond the surface. I did, and it potentially saved by son his life.

Type in "amma cult" into Google and you'll find plenty of info that you won't find at an Amma event. If they told the truth they would never make the billions of dollars that they do.

I heard that they recently purchased a fighter plane from the Indian defense department. How much did that cost and why didnt the moneys go to charity?

Someone needs to do a REAL INVESTIGATION on this group. It has gone unchecked for too long and media reports that show her as merely the hugging saint are contributing to the mess.

While I must admit that I really don't know that much about Amma, as a dyed in the wool skeptic, I am totally mystified by the fanatical devotion of her followers. I know someone personally who is a follower who goes to India every year to spend months on her ashram. It cost him his marriage. It is all beyond my understanding.

Wow...what a sensationalist coverage, and I am not even a fan of Amma. This article reeks of intolerance towards other kind of spirituality, aside from Abrahamic religions. Does April Dembosky only condone of Catholic and evangelical style power and money grab ?

I am surprised at PBS, and I am reconsidering contributions for its member stations if such bigotry continue. This article should be withdrawn.

(I do not represent Amma, the MA Center, or her charitable trust in India. The following is my own personal response.)

My concern or interest in this report comes mainly from the fact that I'm a member of this organization and Amma is our spiritual leader. But it also comes from having done academic research about Amma, her groups in the US, and her charitable trust in India. That process taught me a lot about the value of qualification and about the importance of accuracy. So it disappointed me to hear April Dembosky - with 10 years of journalism experience and a Masters in Journalism from Berkeley - do less than I would.

For my own peace of mind, I'd like to respond to some of what she said:

The first interview is with a teenager raised with Amma. The teen says that every time she is hugged by Amma she starts "crying hysterically". I have to wonder why Ms. Dembosky chose to begin her piece with this interview. Yes, it's attention grabbing. But it's also sensationalist. The scene was already set as a "New Age theme park" with "groupies of all ages", and now the first person we hear is a teenage girl who cries hysterically as part of her normal experience.

The Amma Shop is something that comes up in most of the pieces done on Amma. People are skeptical, even concerned about the idea of selling things in connection with a spiritual event. And they should be. Everyone remembers a certain guru from India who had a parking lot of luxury cars. But a prejudiced mind can still choose an unbiased eye when seeking to report the truth of a situation.

Ms. Dembosky reports that Amma's website "says she sponsors orphanages, schools, hospitals for the poor, soup kitchens, disaster relief programs," but then immediately follows with, "But Amma's volunteers refuse to discuss how much money she makes." To show this, Ms. Dembosky plays part of an interview with a man working a snack shop stand. This is like interviewing a bank teller about a bank's investments. The man even says he doesn't deal with the register at the end of the day, so why would she choose this interview to "qualify" her statement that Amma's people "refuse to discuss" money?

Then, Ms. Dembosky submits this: "The San Jose Mercury News puts her total worth in the hundreds of millions." That statement dangles, unsupported and unqualified by some basic facts. For example, "total worth" includes all assets. That means it includes the schools, universities, clinics, and the hospital. How much does a fully equipped, state-of-the-art hospital cost? I don't know. Maybe a few hundred million dollars. The other thing that I feel should be clarified is that Amma doesn't own any of this herself.

About the Amma Shop merchandise, Ms. Dembosky focuses on the jewelry, shampoo, and tote bags. And she mentions the dolls: "For the kids, the stuffed Amma doll comes in three sizes, a small for $45, the large, with legs, for $185." The Amma dolls are widely misunderstood; I don't know if I understand them. But I do respect their value for Amma's devotees, the children and adults who buy them, hug them, keep them on their altars.

The Amma dolls are expensive for a reason. Each one is hand made. I don't know if this is still the case, but three years ago there was a 3-6 month wait for the large dolls because each one was prepared with devotion by a skilled doll maker. Which brings up another reason: each one is prepared while the maker chants mantras. This has a lot of value for many people, and deserves the same respect it would if it were mandalas and the artists were the Tibetan monks so loved in America. Finally, each doll is wearing a dress cut from material worn by Amma, and rudraksha bead malas with guru beads blessed by Amma, further infusing it with spiritual value.

I don't feel like Ms. Dembosky said anything untrue in her report. And I acknowledge that my perspective can be influenced by my personal beliefs. But so can hers, and every other person seeking to describe or explain what happens at an Amma hug-a-thon. As a journalist, she has an extra obligation to the perspective she presents. As a writer, she knows that, so I'm not sure what that says about her given the scenario she chose to describe.

Thanks for reading.

Spending any time around Amma will challenge you to suspend your belief system in almost all counts. Yes it is true she has hugged 28,000,000 times, raised money for orphanages, hospitals, disaster relief, schools, etc.and continually inspires countless people to volunteer their time to tend to the less fortunate. Perhaps the only thing more impressive is the generosity, humanity, love and miracles Amma awakens in the heart of those she touches. These qualities are far more valuable than any material possessions or monetary worth. Amma has a lot to teach us. She gives us an opportunity to share selflessly and make a real difference. I can only pray that we as Americans can let go of our fear of losing our money and start putting the well-being of our fellow beings first and foremost. After all, you can't take money to heaven.

Weak sauce. I did more research for my blog post about Amma, than you did for your NPR story.

As someone who has gone to India to stay in Amma's ashram in Kerala, I was distressed by the subtle but obvious snide and cynical tone of this "news" article. Amma lives in "widow's" clothes -- a sari of simple white cotton. The money people choose to spend on incense or CDs or dolls goes to support her MANY charitable efforts in a VERY poor country. Nothing is for herself. Sadly, this "news" story seems to reveal more about the cynical young woman who created it than it does about Amma and her good works.

If you are interested in how this spiritual teacher spreads the love and
the wealth, take a closer look at her track record. She has created orphanages in India and now is building one in Kenya. Immediately after hurricane Katrina she donated 1 million dollars to help the USA. Her followers do intensive volunteer work in their own local cities around the world. She has been working on worldwide green reforestization and recycling projects, too. These are just a few of the many ways this amazing lady shares her love and influence. I hope this inspires to you give of your heart, time and money to those in need as well. Take care.

I've attended a hug-in, and I'm at a loss to explain her appeal, except that she appeals to the incomplete sense of self that American consumer culture inculcates in most of us and the spiritual destitution that it such culture promotes.

I wish that Amma would spread the proceeds from her hugs more locally, rather than funnel it all back to India. These days, we're a third-world country, too.

Just checking the numbers: 28,000,000 hugs is a lot. Assuming she started at age 10, she's had ~17,000 days to give hugs. That's about 1,650 hugs a day, or about 91 an hour over 18 hours of active hugging a day every single day. I can believe. If she squeezed her hugging into 10 second hugs, she could get the daily quota in in a little over 4.5 hours, but that's still every day for 45 years.

Is she really that prolific? Quite an accomplishment if so.

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