by Dan Kapelovitz
These aren't ordinary humans. The more than 1,000 folks gathered at the Radisson Hotel near LAX last week are willing to wait hours on end, suffer through boring speeches and endure endless chanting Ñ all for a hug. Not just any hug, mind you, but a sacred embrace from a small, heavyset holy woman from India named Sri Mata Amritanandamayi ("Mother of Immortal Bliss"). Her friends call her Amma, which translates to "Mother." The 50-year-old guru claims to have given more than 21 million hugs.
I get in line at 6:30 p.m. A host asks me if I've ever received "darshan," which is Amma-speak for a blessing in the form of a "tender, healing embrace." Since I'm an Amma virgin, she hands me a fluorescent-orange, circle-shaped sticker. "Amma likes to know if this is your first time," the host explains.
"Amma gives those with orange stickers extra-long hugs!" one hug junkie beamed. A woman wearing an orange adhesive admits that she's been hugged before.
I can't wait for my life-altering Amma hug, but I have to. Another line to pick up my "darshan token" awaits me. Mine reads, "351 to 400," which means that after 350 people have pressed their bodies against Amma, it will be my group's turn.
Every new religious movement needs a famous follower. Amma will have to settle for indie-rock guitar god J Mascis. Dinosaur Jr.'s front man is a hardcore Amma devotee, so much so that he schedules his tours to coincide with the holy woman's itinerary. I don't see Mascis anywhere, but I do catch a glimpse of record producer Rick Rubin.
Around the convention center, Amma volunteers have set up numerous merchandise tables to sell all things Amma--pens, magnets, calendars, T-shirts, window decals, dolls and 8-by-10s. (My favorite picture depicts a Photoshopped Amma hugging a blue baby Krishna.) One sign points to "the most fragrant way to donate." For three bucks, you can purchase a coconut and carry it around all evening, only to eventually hand it back to Amma as a sacred offering. Or, for a mere $250, you can buy a pair of sandals, upon which Amma will personally place her feet. According to the saleswoman, Amma acolytes take home these sweat-dampened shoes and build an altar around them.
While I'm wondering if all the money goes to help the needy, as is claimed, the Holy One arrives. Amma wears a flowing, white cotton robe and sits cross-legged on a stage in front of a large, framed picture of herself while a bearded swami lays down some teachings. He tells the story of the materialistic man who's so upset when a truck knocks the door off of his Lexus that he doesn't even notice his arm is also missing; when this fact is pointed out to him, all he can think about is his lost Rolex. The easily amused crowd delights in this parable. I want my hug.
Next, there is much chanting and music. Amma violently swings her arms in the air as she sings through a headpiece microphone ˆ la Britney Spears. The songs are pretty good, except that each one lasts about 20 minutes too long.
Around 10 p.m., high-ranking converts herd the first 100 embracers into a line. I watch a few folks receive the darshan. Many of them immediately pass their hug onto a nearby loved one. A few cry tears of joy. One just-hugged woman enthuses, "It really opened up my heart."
Near midnight, I'm finally allowed to enter the darshan line. I'm forced to walk the last 10 yards toward Amma on my knees. Devotees manhandle me ever closer. A man tells me to remove my glasses. I never learn why.
I am now mere feet away from the goddess-like being. What's going to happen? Will I experience everlasting peace and happiness? Will I wet myself?
Amma puts her arms around me, positions her mouth next to my right ear, and says something that sounds like, "ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma." After about 10 seconds, a robed disciple shoves a flower petal and a Hershey's Kiss in my hand. It's over.
Disappointed that I waited five hours for that, I walk over to a friend of mine who received the hug two years ago.
"You don't really feel it for a couple of days," he informs me.
I hope he's right, because right now I could really use a hug.
(This article first appeared in LA Weekly July 2, 2004)
Here's a Letter to the Editor in response to this article:
NEW AGE FRAUD OF THE MONTH
Open your eyes, Dan Kapelovitz. The reason one is asked to remove one's glasses before receiving the blessing and embrace of Amma should be obvious even to someone who barely passed their PSATs--she hugs thousands in a single meditative sitting and could easily be injured by a person's spectacles, particularly those of the myopic lightweight who phoned in his little New Age Fraud of the Month rundown. You don't really need a hug, dear boy; you need a slap--from God. Then maybe you'll be forced to find another outlet for your absurdities. You'll go back to school awhile, or live with Mom and Dad. No doubt they will hug the shit out of you--you won't even have to take a number.
--Bruce Wagner, Los Angeles
For the record, I never took the PSATs. But I did manage to pass the SATs. Which wasn't difficult, since it's impossible to fail either test.
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