I did my best to expect nothing. Waiting six hours for anything inflates expectations—much less for something you know will last two seconds and everyone says will change your life. They say she smells like roses, they say you may weep, they say it feels as if the divine mother herself is wrapping you in her nurturing arms and holding you.
So I waited.
I got to the Manhattan Center around 6 pm. Waited on a long line to get in, with a woman in an Om Namah Shivayah t-shirt and a gray ponytail giving out stickers and managing the crowds so the valets in the parking garage next door wouldn't get mad that we were blocking their way. The sticker colors represented varying degrees of experience with Amma. Mine was red—for never seen Amma, never had darshan (the Sanskrit word for teaching, the Amma word for hug). A total Amma virgin.
I came because my acupuncturist Paul told me I had to. A small photo of Amma sits on his windowsill altar. "I would sell books at the airport for her if she asked," he told me. I've heard about Amma, or Ammachi or Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, for years. She's a Hindu guru based in India with a following that has grown dramatically since she first visited the West in the late 1980s. Known as the "hugging saint," the idea is that, as an enlightened being, she emits shakti (energy) that can help you break through your suffering, wake you up to who you truly are.
But Amma's mission is not just to make you feel better. It's to help you feel compassion and help people. Her foundation has raised millions to create everything from hospitals and schools in India to building housing for survivors of the 2005 tsunami; in an Amma brochure, people from her foundation are handing over a Lotto-sized million dollar check to Katrina survivors.
Once inside the center, we were ushered up to a balcony and told to wait. After about half an hour we were herded into another line that wended downstairs to receive our "token," a yellow paper square with a letter and a number. Once we got that, the lines dissolved and we could just wait—there or anywhere.
I eyed the giant movie theater across the street, but drifted over to the mini spiritual
shopping mall inside instead. Tables were laden with saris, jewelry, Ayurvedic skin care and supplements, Indian textiles, and little Tulsi plants blessed by Amma herself—with profits going toward Amma's charities. And lots and lots of Amma stuff. Her round smiling face was on hundreds of book covers, DVDs, an Amma coloring book, in teeny gold and rhinestone frames, and on glossy photos of every possible size—from poster to wallet to thimble. There were Amma dolls, round brown balls with black yarn hair--and colorful knitted Amma doll sweaters sold separately.
Hundreds of us milled and shopped, New Yorkers on a spiritual materialism binge. I sifted through rudraksha mala beads and bought a plastic Amma wallet card with her photo on one side and a description of her on the other. I also bought a tiny dram of "Amma's rose oil," the scent she wears to smell like roses. In one area people were selling things that Amma had touched—or worn. I'm guessing these go over better in India; my American eye was not enticed by Amma's used pillowcases, cotton pastel nighties, a bathrobe, and even a white scrunchie, going for $5. And nobody else seemed too into it either, the table remained relatively unbought.
Then, suddenly, the minders cast white yards of fabric over everything. "Amma is coming," they whispered. Commerce stopped. We were told to be seated so everyone could see her (she's tiny). Nothing happened for a while. And being a bit ceremony-averse—and hungry—I went downstairs where they were serving up a great vegetarian Indian feast for $6 a person.
Continued on page 2: Was there a right way to be hugged? »