Today I had a hug. But not just any hug. I got a hug from the most promiscuous hugger in the world, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi, otherwise (thankfully) known as Amma. Amma has hugged (at last estimate) 30 million people. If Planet Earth was a village of two hundred people, one of them would have been hugged by the divine mother.
So what was the hug like?
Hell, I’m not answering that question – yet. You’ll have to read the rest of this article to find out.
Ok. Who’s this Amma?
You don’t know? Oh yeah. That’s just part of the Q&A conceit. Very clever. Amma is your mother. We are all her children. She is also an embodiment of the divine. A lot of people think that, apparently. That’s why they worshipped her feet when she arrived on stage. She’s a big cheese in the world of gurus and – in the same way that Henry Ford made his name with motor cars – Amma made her name with hugs. Hugs on the scale of mass-production. And don’t scoff either – through the power of hug, Amma has built one of the world’s biggest richest (and therefore most generous) charities. She is the proud owner of an ashram (er, monastery?) in India that houses more than 3,000 devotees. They live in 18-storey tower blocks in a gated community. But that’s just to preserve their spiritual purity and stuff. Amma’s so great she’s won loads of awards, including one from Cinema Verite, given to her by Sharon Stone. No I don’t get it either.
Who was getting hugged aside from you?
A couple of hundred people, I’d estimate. I went to the morning hugathon, which is significantly less well attended than the evening shindig, apparently. There were a lot of European folks, there on their spiritual journey and a lot of Indian folks, there, I guess, for more traditional reasons. I saw a woman – a woman of a certain type, the middle-aged mother with blonde hair beginning to fray – reading a book called Anatomy of the Spirit: The Seven Stages of Power and Healing, while her son played on a Nintendo DS. I overheard another woman – of the same certain type – twittering that she’d already bunked her daughter off school once this year ‘to visit Amma,’ making the divine mother sound like a favourite cartoon character. There was a young chap in the queue for hug-tickets dozing, his head slumped on his backpack, a bed roll poking out of the top -he looked like he’d spent the night in ecstatic anticipation. Another British fellow with an effete voice begged a steward that Amma hug him again, ‘I feel like she gave me part one of a two part thing!’ he implored. But Amma likes to give priority to people who are hug-less and I met a few people who lied about their hug-status just to get another one. The volunteers who poked and prodded us towards our hug-tickets, to our seats and to the hug itself were all dressed in pure white (some with dashing purple sashes) and were excruciatingly polite, like they were hiding some horrible perversion. Stop with the cynicism! Open mind!
What was the programme guide booklet like?
Ah – I was hoping you’d ask that question. It was very interesting. Full of adverts for things like Vortex healing, detox foot patches, theta DNA healing, sacred journeys, Vedic astrology, career intuitives, Tibetan singing bowls, past-life regression (recommended by a big brother winner), transformative yoga and supernutrients. A veritable A-Z of spirituality. And mumbo-jumbo. I expect. Must remember to keep an open mind. I did meet some Vortex healers, actually, and they seemed like jolly nice people.
What was the hugging-hall like?
Oh the hugging-hall was wonderful. It was packed full of hugging-memorabilia: teacups, candles, bags, t-shirts, saris, incense, books, magazines, DVDs, CDs, photographs, jewellery and assorted knick-knacks. There were also places to indulge in Ayurveda, naturopathy, massage and Vedic astrology. It struck me that this was not just about Amma – this was a fully-blown spirituality expo with Amma as the headline act. And, in between spiritual explorations, we could stuff ourselves with vegetarian dosas and bhajis and muffins.
What was the ceremony like?
On Amma’s blessed arrival, we worshipped her feet and gave a prayer of thanks to, well, Amma. Her right-hand man did all this, in a deep voice that resonated through speakers (with the bass turned right up). Then we all did a spot of meditation, to the sonorous tones of this bass-boosted gentleman. In fact, this part was rather sinister because we couldn’t see where the voice was coming from and at times he was almost hissing at us, whispering, urging us to love and peace as if it was, er, some horrific perversion. My neighbours, impatient for the hug, foot-tapped and coughed through this bit. I closed my eyes and solemnly meditated myself into a doze. Then we were onto the hugging. There was a strict ticket system and I was C2. The board clicked around, like a cricket scoreboard, and you had to be alert otherwise you’d miss your turn. C2 was quite early and I joined the queue, took off my shoes and edged closer and closer to the hug-machine.
Right – so what was the hug like, god-damn you!
It was nice. That’s what hugs are. I walked away smiling, beside myself with smilingness, in fact. I tried to suppress it, like a true Britisher, but failed. So I smiled a lot and felt a bit silly. I was surprised by how fervently she held me to her bosom. I tried to keep my distance, like a true Britisher, but her grip was very firm and, besides, she had some very important things to tell me. Unfortunately I don’t speak Malayalam so I have no idea what it was. I had been hoping for some sort of UN-style simultaneous translation. It wasn’t forthcoming, so I just knelt there, with my face in her breasts, drunk on her musky scent of incense while these words babbled over me. Then as soon as it had started, it was over: Amma pressed a sweet and a flower petal into my hand like I was her favourite naughty schoolboy and I was shoved out of the way for the next huggee. And I smiled.