She was once ostracized because she wasn’t like girls of her age. Her mother punished her for devoting more time to meditation. Refusing marriage proposals and disobeying her parents, Amma was considered a rebel. What they did not know was that she was experiencing what Hindus call “bliss” because of her spiritual revelations. From the moment she was born, her parents and the people in her poor fishing village had never seen such a queer person like Amma.
It took many years before her parents understood her calling. Her disciples soon grew and they established a trust to help spread Amma’s wisdom and gift. In India where women are not supposed to touch men, Amma did the unthinkable—she dispensed hugs. Regardless of race, gender, age, status, Amma comforted people who come to her for love. Her greatest legacy is genuine love. People feel it in her embrace. She doesn’t speak any other language but her native Malayalam but it doesn’t stop her from connecting to millions of people who have traveled from afar just to experience a mother’s love.
Perhaps it’s the sincere compassion she has for any living thing—may that be people, animals, trees—that makes her embrace a real comfort. Those she held in her arms could testify to the love and acceptance they felt when they were hugged by Amma. No words are exchanged but her soft muttering of prayers in their ears, they don’t understand but they feel bliss.
The secret to dispensing love according to Amma is self-purification. Unless you are pure inside, you cannot exude purity. That’s why she remains immersed in prayer and doesn’t see herself as a deity although many people look to her as a god. She preaches that if people just look inside them and be more attuned to their inner self, they are most likely to succeed in increasing their faith. It’s our lack of time for contemplating that robs us of the opportunity to grow in spirit.
Because of her unorthodox approach to spirituality, even atheists seek to come face to face with her and test her embrace. They usually just give in as she held them in her arms. Apparently, people who seem tough on the outside are those who easily crumble when shown with sincere love.
Before she became known as Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, Amma was born as Sudhamani Idamannel on 27 September 1953 to Sugunanandan and Damayanti. Sugunanandan is a fisherman and has long belonged to a family of the fisherman caste. Along with wife Damayanti, he raised his eight children in Parayakadavu (some now call it Amritapuri), Alappad Panchayat, Kollam District, Kerala. What they had was a simple life.
The baby before Sudhamani died so when Damayanti saw that her newborn didn’t cry, she feared that she too was dead. Sudhamani was also not moving. Damayanti was so scared that she began to panic only to be comforted by the midwife who told her that instead of crying, Sudhamani was actually smiling.
Sudhamani grew up as someone who’s way beyond her age. She began walking when she was only six months old and shortly started speaking afterwards. And she didn’t speak baby talk. What she was saying was easily understandable, which amazed Damayanti and Sugunanandan.
While most girls were busy playing with other kids, Sudhamani would be all by herself chanting prayers and singing hymns she herself composed. Her peers avoided her because she didn’t seem normal. When she was about a toddler, her parents noticed that she already knows some hymns that were not taught to her at all. She even muttered prayers and would sometimes be lost in her own thoughts.
She began primary school at the Kuzhitura Fisher School and was an excellent student according to her teachers. Sudhamani was quiet in class and always looked pensive. Her teacher were impressed by her ability to easily memorize long passages. As Indian learning is focused on memorization, Sudhamani was one of those who excelled. There was a quiet strength about her that drew people who were going through some sort of difficulty in life towards her.
Sudhamani was a compassionate girl. She didn’t mind hugging strangers who look forlorn. There was something in her embrace that comforted those who experience being in her arms. When she was nine years old, her mother became ill. Sudhamani decided to stop going to school so she could take care of her siblings and do all the chores around the house.
Her brothers recalled being taken care by the nine-year-old Sudhamani. She did everything around the house from cleaning to tending their animals. Early in the morning, she would go from one house to another to get left-overs to feed their animals. That’s when she got exposed to the extreme poverty in her community.
Although they were dirt-poor themselves, Sudhamani would not hesitate to bring homeless people food and anything she could get from the house to give to those who had nothing. At one point, she was beaten badly by her mother after she gave her earrings to a woman who had no money for medicine. She just couldn’t stand doing nothing while seeing others suffering.
Her devotion to Krishna also became apparent in that she would sometimes not sleep in the house. Her mother would look everywhere for her and find her sleeping at the beach or under a tree. Sometimes, she’ll be missing and would go home and just fall unconscious. Either that or she would fall laughing and rolling and wouldn’t remember anything when she was asked about it.
Soon her mother became really upset because she devoted almost all of her time to praying and meditating. At one point, she was seen by her mother meditating almost the whole day and the chores in their house were left undone. This stressed Damayanti and she began to punish her daughter for her lack of responsibility.
This went on and on until she became a teenager. It even went out of hand. She would roll in the mud calling out to Krishna and would bring photos of the gods with her. Whatever she did, she was always worshipping. It scared her parents to the point that they felt they had to do something.
Amma Refused Marriage
Sugunanandan and Damayanti decided that in order for their daughter to lead a normal life, she has to be given away to marriage. The couple looked for a possible partner for her but she kept turning them down. She’d tell her parents that she didn’t want to get married. Sugunanandan just ignored her as it was unthinkable in their society to say no to one’s parents.
In their third attempt, Sudhamani violently said no. To make her parents understand that she meant to stay unmarried, she got a pole and ran after her suitor screaming and threatening to kill him. That scared all men in their community and nobody dared to court her. Sugunanandan was also convinced that his daughter was never going to get married.
Her First Miracle
When she was in her early 20s, people began flocking at their home as they heard of Sudhamani’s devotion to Krishna. Some of them believe that she’s a saint. One time, she was challenged by the people to prove her true identity.
Despite her unwillingness to show them a miracle, they still kept urging her to do so. Someone got her a bowl of water. After stroking the water and softly saying prayers, the water turned into milk pudding. The people were amazed and they began to worship her.
That turned Sudhamani’s life around. Devotees began coming from different parts of Kerala and some volunteered to be her disciples. But this also caused strain to her parents. Some people spread bad rumors about her family and some of their relatives avoided them, thinking that she was a fraud. Her mother was so distressed that she cried for days, worrying Sugunanandan. Desperate, he decided that it’s best for the whole family to just drink poison and die instead of living detached from everyone. Unknown to them, Sudhamani was listening.
She thought it would be best to leave her human body by drowning. She wanted to give up her spirit to the sea, which she considered as her home. As she was going further and further to the sea, her mother saw her and called her father to pull her out of the water. That transformed Sugunanandan and Damayanti. They vowed that they would support Sudhamani’s calling. From then on, she was treated by her family as a saint along with their neighbors who used to avoid her in the village.
The Mata Amritanandamayi Math Foundation
It was around that time when more disciples turn up at their doorstep. Sudhamani was then called Mata Amritanandamayi Devi and no longer referred to as Sudhamani. Everybody called her Amma because of the way she made everybody feel a mother’s unconditional love. When more and more people began to see Amma, her disciples decided to establish the Mata Amritanandamayi Math Foundation.
She was initially against the idea but was soon persuaded by her disciples. She made them promise that establishing a trust will not turn her vocation into an office-like organization. What she wanted to have was a gathering of family, not some sort of bureaucratic group. The trust was founded in 1981 and has since then grew into a large congregation.
People from other parts of the world heard of Amma until she became an international sensation. Some of her followers are Hotmail founder Sabeer Bhatia, US senator Larry Pressler, and Jr. Martin Luther King’s daughter Yolanda King.
In 1993, Amma served as President of the Hindu Faith and became a recipient of the Hindu Renaissance Award. She has also begun speaking in international gatherings attended by thousands of people. She became known as the “hugging saint” because of the power of her embrace. Her tour would comprise of her dispensing three hugs a minute to each and every attendee. It didn’t matter that it took her almost a day of non-stop hugging and talking.
While hugging people, she answers questions about faith. All these gatherings are free. They do not charge but they accept donations. It’s amazing how people gave a lot to her foundation. Because of the donations they received, Amma’s foundation was able to establish schools, homes, a hospital, and orphanage. Aside from that, the organization became known for giving hefty donations. So much was the money they were receiving that the foundation was able to help not only people from India but also those overseas. They pledged 23 million dollars to tsunami relief and gave one million dollars to Katrina relief.
Her Hug, Her Darshan
Amma’s darshan is her hug. Darshan, in Hindu belief is the opposite of karma. So if karma is misfortune, darshan is good luck. Her followers believe that her hug brings fortune. To some, it’s material, to others spiritual.
According to a BBC write-up about her:
One American devotee, Rob Sidon, 43, said: "When she embraces there is a sense of selflessness. She shares what people really want: unconditional love."
Another American, Stephen Parr, said: "Peace comes from living for others. Life is all about showing love. Once she hugs, you know."
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Mata Amritanandamayi Mutt (Founder and Chairperson)
- Embracing the World (Founder)
- Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University (Chancellor)
- Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (Founder)
- Parliament of the World's Religions (International Advisory committee member)
- The Orden Bonaria (Honorary member)
- President Swami Vivekananda's 150th birth anniversary celebration committee
Awards and Achievements
- 1981: Founded the Mata Amritanandamayi Math Foundation
- 1993: Served as President of the Hindu Faith
- 1993: Received the Hindu Renaissance Award
- 1993: Delivered 'May Your Hearts Blossom' at the Parliament of the World's Religions 100th Anniversary
- 1995: Delivered the 'Unity Is Peace' at the Interfaith Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations
- 1998: Received the Care & Share International Humanitarian of the Year Award
- 1999: Subject of the River of Love: A Documentary Drama on the Life of Ammachi
- 2000: Delivered the 'Living in Harmony' at the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious & Spiritual Leaders
- 2002: Awarded Karma Yogi of the Year
- 2002: Received the Gandhi-King Award for Non-Violence by The World Movement for Nonviolence
- 2002: Delivered the 'Awakening of Universal Motherhood' at the Global Peace Initiative of Women
- 2004: Delivered 'May Peace & Happiness Prevail' at the Parliament of World's Religions
- 2005: Received the Mahavir Mahatma Award
- 2005: Received the Centenary Legendary Award of the International Rotarians
- 2006: Received the James Parks Morton Interfaith Award
- 2006: Received The Philosopher Saint Sri Jnaneswara World Peace Prize
- 2006: Delivered the 'Understanding & Collaboration Between Religions' at the James Parks Morton Interfaith Awards
- 2007: Awarded the Le Prix Cinéma Vérité
- 2007: Delivered 'Compassion: The Only Way to Peace'
- 2008: Delivered 'The Infinite Potential of Women' at the Global Peace Initiative of Women
- 2009: Delivered 'Cultivating Strength & Vitality' at the inauguration of Vivekananda International Foundation
- 2012: Featured in the Watkins' list of the top 100 most spiritually influential living people in the world
- 2012: Delivered 'Coexistence and Engagement Between Cultures'
- 2013: Awarded the first Vishwaretna Purskar (Gem of the Word Award) by Hindu Parliament
- 2010: Received an honorary doctorate in humane letters at The State University of New York
Wikipedia (Mata Amritanandamayi)
BBC News (Devotees flock to hug Indian guru)
USA Today (Amma: the Hugging Saint)
Rediff.com (Amritanandamayi Unhurt in Attack)
Go Dubai News (Mata forgives attacker; disciples see larger design)
Embracing the World (About Us Page)
Amrita.edu (Amma on Education)
The New Indian Express (60th birthday celebrations of Mata Amritanandamayi set to begin on Wednesday)
IBN Live (Modi praises 'Hugging Amma' Mata Amritanandamayi in Malayalam)
Zee News (Mata Amritanandamayi Devi – The hugging saint)
Amma.org (How She Began)
Amma.org (Awards & Honors)
Yahoo (Devotees join 'Amma', India's 'hugging saint' Mata Amritanandamayi)
About (Global Guru Amma)