Last Thursday around 2 AM, folding up batik banners with gold-printed tantric diagrams in a hallway leading to the Oak Brook Marriott’s Grand Ballroom, it occurred to me that I could steal them all and no one would know. I’d volunteered to help clean up after an appearance by the revered Indian holy woman Mata Amritanandamayi–better known as Amma, Sanskrit for mother–who tours the world granting divine blessings in the form of hugs. But it seemed like stealing from an organization whose mission is to spread love might be, I don’t know, wrong somehow.

I returned the banners to a woman inside the ballroom who was selling loose-fitting clothing with similar motifs and took some time to try to orient myself. I’d been there over an hour, and thought by working behind the scenes I might come to better understand why there were about a thousand people there, their footwear deposited in endless rows of shelves outside the ballroom.

Even as we were packing up, Amma wasn’t finished hugging everyone–not even close. She sat on a bench on a stage in the front of the room, inside a sort of makeshift tent draped with glittery pink, purple, and gold fabrics. Upon arriving everyone who wanted to be hugged was handed a ticket with a group number on it and then took a seat in the ballroom to wait. Some people had wrapped themselves in blankets and fallen asleep. Others were meditating or reading. Hundreds of people whose number had recently been called stood in a long, snaking line that ended in Amma’s arms. Some hung flower garlands around her neck; some held out jewelry or other objects for her to bless. Sometimes whole families would go up at once, and Amma would scoop all of them in together, holding them as they wept or laughed. Sometimes someone would show her a photo and Amma would smile, kiss it, or furrow her brow with compassion. She’d rub backs, kiss foreheads, wipe tears, giggle, and no matter what, sprinkle rose petals and hand each person a gift: a piece of fruit, a flower, a Hershey’s Kiss.

According to her Web site, Amma has hugged more than 25 million people from around the world. Amma’s followers believe that her hugs allow people to feel pure, unconditional love, and that this feeling can heal their spirits. In an interview following her acceptance of the 2002 Gandhi-King Award for Nonviolence, Amma said that her god is all of humanity and “everything that can be seen.” She said she “loves everyone and everything and they love me as much.” She is so selfless, says her press liaison, Janani, that when she tours, she hugs everyone who comes to see her, continuing into the wee hours of the morning–sometimes longer. She sleeps one or two hours a night, if that. Twelve years ago in Australia Janani noticed a discolored mark on Amma’s cheek–a bruise, she says, from people knocking their heads into hers as they dove in for the embrace. The mark is still there today.

Amma, who is 52 years old, was born in a fishing village on the Malabar Coast of southwestern India. According to a biography by Swami Amritaswarupananda, she had darker skin than her siblings, and her family treated her like a servant. She was forced to drop out of school at the age of ten because her family decided her punishment for ecstatic, incessant dancing and chanting would be doing all the chores, cooking all the meals, and tending to the farm animals. Still, all her spare time was devoted to praising Krishna.

As she grew older, her religious devotion deepened and local people began to follow her, some believing she was a deity. She began her practice of hugging strangers as a teenager. Word of her powers spread, and people started traveling to her village to see the “little godwoman.” Amma built her first ashram on a tenth of an acre of land in 1981 and it has since grown to occupy five acres and houses some 2,000 devotees at any given time.

Amma has been touring internationally since the late 80s and doesn’t charge worshipers anything. Her followers, who travel on their own dime, says Janani, raise money for her charities (which include earthquake relief, food and shelter for the poor and homeless, and a tree-planting program) by selling any number of items from a traveling bazaar. On the myriad tables inside the Marriott ballroom were essential oils, Vedic astrology charts, the aforementioned batiks, dozens of books and pamphlets by or about Amma, photographs of Amma, and many, many items she’d blessed or worn, including plants, crystals, jewelry, shoes, and bottles of Escada perfume. You could even buy a strand of her hair for $7.

Finally, around 4 AM, it was my turn to meet with Amma. I was a little nervous. As I crept toward her on my knees like I’d seen the others do, I worried that she could sense that I had briefly contemplated stealing from her people, and that sometimes I’m a bad person.

I sat in front of her and gazed into her big brown eyes. She looked a little tired, but she smiled. Someone behind me gently pushed my back down and I laid my head in her lap. She put her arms around me and I rested mine on the sides of her thighs, cautiously holding onto her hips. Amma leaned down toward my ear and whispered, “Ma, ma, ma, ma,” first gently, and then in a huskier tone, and then almost demonlike, as if she were speaking to my dark side, telling it that it was loved too.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mireya Acierto.