This was Chalanda Sai Ma's debut in Chicago, the latest appearance of a growing number of women spiritual guides either from India or claiming wisdom gained there. Called "divine mothers" by their followers, they are a new, female face of an old tradition: the guru abroad in the United States.
"Over the past five or six years there has been this phenomenon going on," said Guy Spiro, publisher and editor of The Monthly Aspectarian, a Chicago magazine of New Age spirituality. "Divine mothers have become much more visible."
Sai Ma had flown in from Los Angeles, where she said she met many famous people. Her introduction to Chicago took place last week in a hall in Unity Church, where a shoeless assembly of about 200 awaited her.
Some hailed from Fairfield, Iowa, home of the Maharishi University of Management. Others had been following Sai Ma on her six-city U.S. tour. Still more were local, having learned about it from posters or by word of mouth. "I think her message is supremely simple," said Charlie Whipple, 53, a chocolate sales manager from Boulder, Colo., who is following Sai Ma on her tour. "You don't have to meditate, you don't have to have any particular abilities. All you have to be is human." Sai Ma took her message next to Indian Lakes Resort in Bloomingdale, Ill., for three days of sessions.
Over a century has passed since Swami Vivekananda introduced Americans to Hinduism in his famous 1893 visit to Chicago for the Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition.
Sai Ma claims no sectarian affiliation. Born on Mauritius, she said in an interview, she left for France at 20, then went to her current home of India to learn from guru Sai Baba in his ashram outside of Bangalore. Asked to explain her philosophy, she answered, "I just want to make them feel loved. It doesn't matter if they love me or not. For them to feel loved."
Sai Ma is relatively new on the divine mother scene. It is a path once traveled in the U.S. by Anandamayi Ma ("Ma" is a form of the word "mother"), who died in the early 1980s. In recent years Chicago has hosted Karunamayi and Ammachi, the so-called hugging saint. Asked her age, Sai Ma said, "I am ageless. But my body is 49."
Many of the divine mothers make public their acts of munificence, and Sai Ma is no exception. She recently returned from activities in Uganda ("Giving faith and love," said her personal assistant, Marci Shimoff, who is a co-author of the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series), and she has worked in Bosnia ("handing out blankets") and Israel, where she led 1,500 people in a sunup-to-sunset service along the Dead Sea.
Humanity in Unity, the charity established to spread her message, was formed in 2000 and took in $128,279 from course fees in the final six months of that year, according to its latest tax return.
For those experiencing Sai Ma in Unity Church, hearing the message may have been less important than how it was said. "Usually there's nothing new in the words," said Mukti Broner, who has seen two other divine mothers in Chicago this year. "But if you get the connection in your heart, for me anyway, the words aren't necessarily earth-shattering, but the heart connection - that makes me figure there's something there."
In the two-hour ceremony Sai Ma sat in an upright chair, smelling a single white gardenia, as a compact disc played the rhythms of mambo. "Shake out your chakras," Sai Ma told the crowd, and they shook their wrists as if shooing away gnats. "Expand your consciousness now, in this room, in the whole city!"
Later she led the crowd in rousing Sanskrit mantras and began a chant in Hebrew. She invited Dawn Silver, a co-owner of Healing Earth, to the podium and placed a thumb firmly against her forehead. "She breathed life into me," Silver said afterward.