An embrace that conveys love, compassion and healing- The New Indian Express

Amma has turned 70! For decades she has seemed ageless, a maternal figure almost since her twenties, revered by people far older than herself as “Amma”. And now the world (including me) is flocking to her ashram today to celebrate a milestone in a life of spirituality and service to humanity.

Mata Amritanandamayi, as Amma is known, is revered as “the hugging saint”. Born as Sudhamani Idamannel in a small and poor fishing village called Parayakadavu in Kollam, on September 27, 1953, she had a difficult childhood, facing poverty, discrimination, and abuse.

From her earliest days, she felt a deep sense of compassion and empathy for the suffering of others and began to embrace them as a way of comforting them. As a child, she shared her food and clothing with the needy, despite the opposition of her family. Thus began her spiritual journey — spontaneously embracing and comforting people in her village who were in distress. Today, she is known for her tireless devotion to serving humanity and spreading love, compassion, and spiritual teachings.

Amma is best known for her unique way of spreading love and comfort through physical embraces, or hugs. She has hugged millions of people from all walks of life, transcending barriers of nationality, religion, and social status. Her embrace conveys a deep sense of love, compassion, and healing. Amma’s famous hugs are her way of expressing her unconditional love for all beings. She believes that love is the essence of all religions and the true nature of God. She says, “Be like the honeybee who gathers only nectar wherever it goes. Seek the goodness that is found in everyone.”

That she has done. She has hugged more than 39 million people around the world and continues to travel extensively to meet her devotees and offer them spiritual guidance. I was one of them. I met her for the first time in New York at a devotee’s apartment near the United Nations back in 1999. I have been blessed to be hugged by her many times since, at her ashram in Kollam and also on her visits to New Delhi and other cities.

But there is more to Amma than the unconditional love expressed through hugs. Mata Amritanandamayi’s teachings revolve around the principles of love, compassion, and selfless service. Her core messages emphasize spirituality, personal growth, and the well-being of all. She emphasizes that genuine spirituality is based on selfless love and that love is the true essence of our existence. Her famous quote, “My religion is love,” encapsulates this teaching.

And love must be accompanied by action. Amma advocates selfless service as a means of spiritual growth and as a way to alleviate suffering in the world. She encourages individuals to perform acts of kindness and service to others without expecting anything in return. Sevais seen as a path to self-realisation and a way to express one’s love and compassion.

As a spiritual figure, she has stressed the idea of universal love and the oneness of all beings as a fundamental principle. Amma teaches that all religions and paths ultimately lead to the same truth and that the essence of spirituality transcends religious labels. Amma promotes interfaith harmony and dialogue, welcoming people from all religious backgrounds to her programmes. Her message is one of unity, emphasizing that we are all interconnected and part of a larger whole.

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Amma’s spirituality also aims at individuals. She encourages us to let go of grudges and anger, choosing instead to respond to adversity with love and understanding. To this end, Amma stresses that meditation and self-reflection are essential practices for spiritual growth. She teaches various meditation techniques and emphasizes the importance of finding inner peace and stillness within oneself. Amma also encourages the practice of prayer and devotion as a means to connect with the divine. She teaches that heartfelt prayers and devotional practices can help individuals deepen their spiritual connection.

Yet, Amma is very much aware that spiritual beings live amidst society, and her core teaching emphasizes the importance of selfless service (seva) and compassion as the means to attain spiritual realisation. In response to growing environmental concerns, she encourages responsible and sustainable living and advocates for the preservation of nature. Amma’s teachings are grounded in practical spirituality, emphasizing that spirituality should not be confined to religious rituals but should be a lived experience of love, compassion, and selfless service in everyday life. Her message of love and her actions as a humanitarian have inspired millions of people worldwide to lead more meaningful and
compassionate lives.

As one with a minimal formal education herself, Amma believes in the importance of holistic education that not only imparts academic knowledge but also instils moral and ethical values. She has established educational institutions, including schools, colleges, and universities, to promote holistic education that
emphasises character development alongside scholarship.

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Her institutions focus on imparting values, ethics, and spiritual teachings alongside academic knowledge. The lodestar among them is the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, a multi-campus research university that offers courses in engineering, medicine, biotechnology, nanotechnology, ayurveda, and social sciences.

Above all, her humanitarian work is extraordinary. Amma is the founder and chairperson of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math (MAM), a worldwide foundation that runs various charitable projects in areas such as education, healthcare, disaster relief, environmental protection, women empowerment, and community development. (As a former UN official myself, I am proud that MAM is an NGO with special consultative status to the United Nations.) Through MAM, Amma has initiated and supported numerous humanitarian projects, providing free housing, medical care, education, and disaster relief to those in need, both in India and abroad.

Thanks to Amma’s sense of compassion, Amrita Hospital (which has two branches, one in Kochi and one in Faridabad) is a world-class healthcare facility, equipped with state-of-the-art technology and highly qualified staff, which provides a wide range of medical services, including free medical care to poor patients. With a bed capacity of more than 1,300 in Kochi and 2,600-plus in Faridabad, Amrita is the largest private-sector hospital in the country. Amrita  Hospital is a shining example of how excellence and care can converge for optimal health outcomes. It is guided by the vision and mission of Amma, who says, “The real service to society is done when we serve others without any selfish motive.”

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In the same spirit, MAM also constructs and distributes free houses for the homeless. Her “Amrita Kuteeram” project has provided shelter to more than 45,000 families who were living in slums or on the streets. “Amrita Nidhi” gives lifetime monthly pensions to widows and mentally and physically challenged individuals who have no source of income or support. Under “Vidyamritam”, MAM grants scholarships to thousands of poor students.

As I realised from the start of my acquaintance with her, Amma’s teachings and humanitarian work have earned her a global following. Mata Amritanandamayi is a well-known and respected figure in many countries around the world. She has visited more than 40 nations and has been invited by various governments, organisations, and institutions to share her message of love, peace, and harmony.

Her worldwide travels and the accessibility of her programmes in different countries have allowed her to connect with, and literally embrace, people from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Foreigners who have attended her programmes or received her darshan often speak of the profound impact she has had on their lives.

Foreigners appreciate Amma’s ability to transcend cultural boundaries and connect with people on a human level. A hug needs no translation! Her approachable and motherly demeanour is often seen as comforting and nurturing. Her humanitarian efforts resonate with people worldwide, and she is widely seen as an icon of selfless service. Her focus on environmental sustainability and her organisation’s initiatives to raise awareness about ecological issues have led to her being hailed as a spiritual leader who actively addresses contemporary global challenges.

Mata Amritanandamayi’s contributions to humanitarianism and spirituality have received widespread recognition. She has received numerous awards and honours, including the Gandhi-King Award for Non-Violence, the James Parks Morton Interfaith Award and recognition by the Parliament of the World’s Religions as one of the most influential spiritual leaders of our time.

President Bill Clinton praised Amma for her efforts to rebuild communities after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon thanked Amma for her support of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and declared, “You have touched the lives of millions of people across the world.” Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall appreciated Amma’s compassion for all living beings. She said, “She is an amazing woman. She has so much love in her heart for every creature on this planet. She is a role model for all of us who care about the future of our world.”

As the famous Beatle, singer-songwriter Paul McCartney put it, “She is a great soul. She gives so much love to everyone who comes to her. She makes you feel good inside. She is a gift to humanity.”

Amma’s life, work, beliefs and achievements are an inspiration for millions of people who seek to live in harmony with themselves, others, and nature. She teaches that everyone has the potential to realize their true nature and serve humanity with love and compassion. She says, “Don’t be discouraged by your incapacity to dispel darkness from the world. Light your candle and step forward.”

Amma leads by example, living a simple and humble life. She encourages her followers to practice simplicity, humility, and contentment in their own lives, emphasizing that material wealth should not be the ultimate goal. When we celebrate her birthday today, we are not just celebrating an individual, but a life, a cause, and love itself.

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