Darshan means “to see” in Sanskrit. Hindus believe the powers of the deity can be absorbed by the onlooker through his/her eyes when viewing an image of the deity. For Amma’s followers, receiving a hug from Ammais to experience darshan and to be blessed by Amma.

Amma the hugging saintI grew up in a religious household, but I’m not sure if I ever did believe in God. Hearing the world “God” brings me back to my Catholic upbringing, of countless Sundays at St. Mary’s Church in Flushing, Queens spent reenacting the Last Supper with a crème-colored wafer that tasted like cardboard. Surely even at 10 years old, I was concerned about cooties while I drank out of the same chalice as 200 other people.

Years later in my adult life, I find myself having to confront these complex emotions about my own faith. My boyfriend pointed out the ongoing irony in my life: I write for a online magazine on religion while still maintaining my “ambiguity with God,” as he so discerningly put it. Stubbornly, I was convinced the two didn’t have anything to do with each other. I could still write about faith while not believing in a God, I thought.

So when he requested that I attend an event for Independence Day with him to see Amma, a Hindu spiritual leader, I said yes. He has met her numerous times over 15 years, visited her ashram in San Ramon, California, and even props a photo of Amma on his home altar. Still, he’s a self-proclaimed “reverent individual who is neither religious nor spiritual.”

Unconsciously, I wanted to challenge my “ambiguity with God” after hearing many God-like things about Amma, like how she was able to erase all of your worries and transmit unconditional love through a single hug. But consciously, it was my girlfriend-duties I sought to fulfill, as the event was significant to my boyfriend. I secretly enjoyed the prospect of spending a holiday traditionally enjoyed with BBQ and fireworks in the presence of “The Hugging Saint.”

Mata Amritanandamayi “Amma” Devi was born in the Indian south-west state of Kerala in September of 1953. According to Amritanandamayichi – A Biography of Mata Amritanandamayi by Swami Amritaswarupananda, she was born into a poor family who scolded her when they found out she was bringing food and clothing from her own home to give to those suffering intense poverty in her town. She was 14 years-old.

To console suffering individuals, Amma would spontaneously embrace people, giving her the title “The Hugging Saint.” Amma’s parents were even more disapproving of her actions when they found out she was embracing men and tried to arrange marriages for the young Amma, which she rejected. Amma said, “I don’t see if it is a man or a woman. I don’t see anyone different from my own self. A continuous stream of love flows from me to all of creation. This is my inborn nature. The duty of a doctor is to treat patients. In the same way, my duty is to console those who are suffering.”

On May 6th, 1981 in Kerela, South India, the Mata Amritanandamayi Math and Mission Trust (MAM) was founded by Amma’s followers “to preserve and propagate the ideals and teachings of the Holy Mother.” Amma serves as President. Dozens of charitable activities throughout India are supported by MAM. Among them are disaster relief, education programs, and slum renovations. It has become a worldwide organization.

The most impressive effort lies in Amma’s Amrita University. Founded in 1994, the five-campus university offers 13 different majors ranging from Nano sciences, journalism, business, and ayurveda medicine (among others). MAM has collaborations with the business program of the State University of New York at Buffalo and on nanotechnology research with Arizona State University. Amma is Chancellor of the Amrita University.

So when I got the opportunity to see her, I thought to myself: How many opportunities does one get to meet a Holy Mother who has made such a difference in the lives of people? Amma didn’t seem to be fluff – someone who talked the talk but couldn’t walk the walk. She seemed to be an exemplary human being full of courage and faith.

Naturally, I wondered if meeting Amma had anything to offer regarding my own spiritual quest. Maybe there would be parallels between Independence Day, a holiday that acknowledges national freedom from colonial ties, and receiving darshan, an act of personal spiritual freedom.

Darshan means “to see” in Sanskrit. Hindus believe the powers of the deity can be absorbed by the onlooker through his/her eyes when viewing an image of the deity. There are 330 million gods and goddesses in traditional Hinduism. Images of each one has the potential to channel specific strengths to those who participate in darshan. For Amma’s followers, receiving a hug from Amma is to experience darshan and to be blessed by Amma.

I uneasily envisioned a room full of barefooted New York City yogis and traditional Hindu devotees waiting for their turn to be eyeball-to-eyeball, then bosom-to-bosom, with the holy one. Drum beats would fill the quarters while women dance with their turquoise and magenta saris twirling around their uninhibited bodies. Scents of spiced Indian food would trail along our nostrils. But what I found instead was an unexpected relief.

We arrived at 6:30 pm, 30 minutes before the doors of the Manhattan Center in Midtown opened. I found out later that the Manhattan Center was originally built in 1906 as the Manhattan Opera House by Oscar Hammerstein I. In an interesting twist of events, the Unification Church, a new religious movement founded in Korea, bought the property in 1976 and still owns it today.

Lines of people waiting to enter wrapped around the corner of the block and onto 9th Avenue. Most were dressed in white, a sacred color that symbolizes purity, peace, and knowledge. The pattern was set by Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge, who is always shown as wearing a white dress sitting on a lotus.

Indian families came together wearing white tunics and sandals. Then, there were folks like me, first timers, who had no idea what they were getting themselves into, looking as dumbfounded as ever, wearing tones of black, brown, and gray.

Amma’s volunteers offered drinking water, housed in compostable, environmentally-friendly clear cups, while we waited in the sweltering July heat wave of New York City. With an excited voice my boyfriend leaned over to tell me that volunteers accompany Amma on worldwide tours to be in her presence. People in line finally moved.

I was told to unfold my arms as I passed through the door of the center, presumably to obtain a paper ticket that determined my turn to receive darshan from the hugging saint or perhaps because crossing my arms was simply bad karma.

“’E-Z,’” I said as I read my ticket out loud. Ea-sy was my destiny.

Once inside the auditorium, we were ushered onto the second tier of the auditorium. On the stage a banner read, “To bring compassion and peace in this world,” along with Amma’s name. A white open tent decorated with flowers and sequins was set up underneath the banner. Along both sides of the stage were two large TV screens. Cables and extension cords met in a camcorder at the center of the floor space.

I watched the space fill up with people, first the floor space, then the first tier, second tier, and third tier. I was astonished at how packed the auditorium was getting and feared chaos. But all of us were systematically seated by Amma’s volunteers. When the program started, I estimated about 4,000 people had arrived. Amma’s volunteers distributed holy water blessed by her in small containers with lids.

Swami Ramakrishnananda Puri, one of Amma’s main disciples, called for silence within the crowd. Amma began to speak. She is a dark skinned woman dressed in white cloth that wrapped around her heavy-set body as she said cross legged. Her black hair tied neatly behind her back in a single braid. Surrounding her were children, sitting cross legged and fidgety like kids get sometimes.

Amma talked about the illusion of security, and warned that relying too much on the feeling of security can drive a person towards fear. A baby’s cry in the audience cut through her words for a moment. Then, Swami Puri got on the mic and instructed all of us to sit up straight in our seats.

Four thousand people inhaled air and exhaled the sacred incantation ‘Om’ in unison with Swami Puri leading. Three Om’s were all that was required in preparation for reading the Vedas, which is considered to be the oldest scripture in Hinduism. A prayer session on suffering and freedom was read from a large projector screen. This was Amma’s sermon.

Another set of Oms sealed the prayer segment of the event. Hand drums came out; people left their seats to view the merchandise tables; lines formed along the vegetarian food stands; and poles with letters and numbers went up in the middle of the ground level to show which groups were next to receive darshan.

It was going to be a long night, I thought. So my boyfriend and I took action and made a bee-line to the vegetarian food. No darshan would be complete without a satisfied belly. A food train was forming, as each person behind the stand handed my plate over to the next person after adding a scoop of their dish.

At the end of the food train, I left with a plate full of rice biriani, fresh paneer with curried peas and cauliflower, a well-cooked naan bread, and a dollop of sweet kitcherie . As a symbolic gesture, one was to take grains of rice or pairs of peas from the guru’s plate onto one’s own.

We ate the delicious vegetarian food, chatted with others also waiting for darshan, tapped our feet to the continuous drum music, and browsed through the merchandise stands. There was a mélange of items to look at and services to purchase: books, incense, Amma memorabilia, lotions and potions, bags and shawls, sacred crystals and beads, chair massages, and customized Astrology readings.

Goddess Devi Bhava was the deity Amma took on that night. This deity brings even more powerful transformations and healings during darshan. I watched Amma hug person after person in the room. She was no longer wearing just white, but a fantastic ensemble. On her head was a metallic head dress that pointed towards the sky. As she moved front to back leaning over to give hugs, her white and purple sari swayed. People brought offerings of strings of flowers that rested on her neck. Her volunteers held steady the individual receiving darshan, perhaps for the possibility of fainting to the floor.

It was quite a scene – an exhilarating one.

It was 12:30 am and my ticket number wasn’t even close to being called. Then, on my way back from the restroom, I notice my ticket was gone from my breast pocket. Panicked with the thought of waiting all these hours just to go home empty-handed, I felt myself getting frustrated.

As gracefully as possible, I returned to my seat. My boyfriend was engrossed in a conversation with Pablo, a man sitting next to us.

Pablo was in his early 50s with peppery hair and a faint Puerto Rican accent, despite the fact that he left his home country over 20 years ago. He was the type of person who looked you in the eyes when you spoke to him, listening attentively with care and concern. I learned that he received darshan twice that day, once in the morning service and once earlier in the evening.

I explained to them what had just happened, that I lost my ticket after waiting nearly 6 hours. Amma’s volunteers had strict guidelines for being able to receive darshan; one must have a ticket handy to stand in the appropriate line. As my tired eyes grazed the floor, it stopped upon a square strip of light blue paper with a letter and a word.

E-Z was lost, but Z-2 was found. I took it as a sign for me to stay.

As my ticket group got closer, I moved from the 2nd tier of the auditorium to the ground floor. I met a lovely woman name Samera, an African American woman who has taken a 5-hour MegaBus trip from Cambridge, Massachusetts to New York City every year for the last 8 years to see Amma. Her eldest son, who attends Northeastern University as a senior, enrolled himself in a meditation retreat last year at one of Amma’s global satang centers.

“Amma is just pure love,” Samera said. Samera giggled as she confessed that she’ll put a spoonful of holy water in her casserole to give it an extra “Amma flavor.”

The Holy Mother’s embrace came at 3:30 am for me. By then, I had had two cups of chai tea and felt hypnotized by the nonstop drumming. I was asked to take off my shoes when I reached the stage in order to respect the sacred ground of Amma’s presence. Her volunteers held onto my arms and encouraged me to come closer to her. “What language?,” the volunteers asked. “English,” I replied.

Just as I was about to lean forward, we were interrupted by a young Indian boy asking Amma for advice. He expressed that his mother hadn’t been going to Temple lately and wanted to know what he should do. Because he didn’t speak her native language of Malayalam, the volunteer translated the boy’s concern to Amma. Amma’s advice to the young boy was to keep encouraging his mom to visit the Temple. Amma also expressed that she doesn’t want to get in the way of family issues.

This was a poignant moment for me. Amma was no longer a deity, but a regular person who had immense joy in her heart. From this seed of joy, she was able to build hospitals and schools. Relief programs were started for global catastrophic events – such as earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. Amma also established foundations to give aid to poverty stricken countries.

The young boy took Amma’s advice and disappeared. Amma’s kinky jet black hair grazed on my left cheek as I came closer to her. She hugged me with both her arms, all the while whispering a phrase over and over. “My daughter, my daughter, my daughter,” she murmured in my ear.

I left her arms with a Hersey Kiss in my hand and flower petals in my hair. The entire occurrence lasted about 20 seconds – right when her volunteers stood me up and turned me around, to make room for another person to receive darshan. I smiled and giddily walked off stage to find my shoes.

The sun was preparing to rise as I left the Manhattan Center. The security guard wished, “Good morning.” Making my way back to the train station to head home, I was drunk with emotions from my new religious experience.

Unsure if I found God, but finally beginning to find comforts within the irresolutions, I felt the holy water swish in my bag as I carried it back home.