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Karthik Bala

Student at UT Austin. I like to write sometimes.

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Last summer, my parents took me to see Mata Amritanandamayi A.K.A Amma A.K.A The Hugging Saint.

They purported that the hugs of the Hugging Saint have the supernatural power to cure diseases, depression, etc. It sounded like a giant placebo, and I didn’t want to go. This magical lady hugs you and suddenly you’re filled with energy? I’m sure. My parents, however, unwaveringly confident that hugging Amma would change my life forever, dragged my protesting self to the car.

To my surprise, San Ramone’s Amma Convention attracted a lot of white people; the kind of white people I could envision being damned by a conservative as “socialist, treehumping, freeloading hippy bastards”. I like this kind of person, however, and looked forward to hearing their reasons for coming. Adhering to the “organic” vibe of the place, a vegan coffee-shop and a stand selling vibrant accessories made of plastic beads stood outside the convention center.

After an hour and a half of waiting and a few vanilla soy chai lattes made from organic beans harvested by fairly compensated migrant workers, we were called inside to see Amma.

Not yet, actually. First, I was unwillingly subjected to various heartfelt anecdotes vouching for Amma’s superhuman kindness. I’m not being sardonic here— the anecdotes really made Amma’s kindness seem superhuman. The speeches were followed by an hour of meditation. I try to meditate at home sometimes, but my upper limit is a hard 15 minutes. My body was not ready for this hour long ordeal. One thing I remember was that every time we said “oooooooohmmmmmmmmmmmm” the kid next to me would start his “ooooooooohhmmmmmm” during the middle of the crowd’s “oooooooohmmmmmmm” so he could outlast everyone and flaunt his lungpower. I thought that was pretty funny.

After sitting uncomfortably until I was bored to the verge of death, we were handed cards by volunteers which basically told us when we could go up and be hugged by Amma. As I squirmed around in my hard plastic folding chair watching those in front of us hug Amma, I noticed about 25% of people would walk away from Amma crying. Were all those people really that deep into the placebo effect? No, you can’t just cry like that because of a placebo, can you? Is she actually magical?

As I pondered these questions, my family was finally called up. I was the first. Some assistants pushed me, surprisingly roughly, into a chair, and before I could register what was happening, nudged me into a hug with Amma. The hug lasted about 10 seconds and she chanted something in a different language in my ear. It ended, and as I looked into her eyes to thank her, I noticed the genuinely happy expression on her face, even after sitting there for hours hugging hundreds of people. There is no doubt that Amma is a wonderful and selfless individual, yet as I walked away from the hug, I felt exactly the same. No urge to cry, no surge of energy, no elation of mood. Only a dull pain in my legs from sitting down for so long. Maybe I was not the target audience for Amma’s life changing hug as I have parents that love me unconditionally (and whom I’m not grateful enough for). For someone not in my position, the hug may be a much needed reminder that someone in the world loves them, no matter how terribly their relationships with family or friends are going.

My mom was among the 25% that cried post-hug. When I asked her why she cried and what she felt during the hug, she simply said the hug made her emotional, but she couldn’t explain why. Though I still don’t believe Amma is magical and the hug didn’t have an effect on me, she really is a saint and I can see why some people might be so affected by it.