Alexandria Some people are huggers, some are not. Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, also known as Amma, is definitely the former. With over 30 million hugs and counting, she is known as the "hugging saint."
"She is a saint," said Ken Steben of the Potomac Amma Center, "she is like love embodied."
Before she became an international figure of compassion, Amritanandamayi was a girl from an isolated fishing village in Kerala, southern India. But at an early age, she showed an uncommon interest in showing compassion to others. By age 14, she began to spontaneously embrace others, even men, despite the heavy taboos in her community of a woman touching another man in public.
However, she was able to positively affect members of her community, and she soon began to be known as Amma, or mother. Amma continued to teach others the principles of love and compassion, and used hugs as an expression of her teachings.
Nonetheless, she is not limited to hugging. Amma has helped facilitate the spread of orphanages, shelters, food pantries, healthcare providers, and schools. While the spread of these charitable organizations began in India, they now reach more than 40 countries in the world.
Particularly, Amma has helped the empowerment of women in India. Embracing the World, an umbrella organization that has spawned from Amma's humanitarian actions, claims to have loaned 3,500 microcredit loans to women's groups in India and the Andaman Islands.
"You can only feel love by expressing it" is one of Amma's many proverbs on love. Amma has grown into an international symbol of love and compassion. She has addressed the United Nations General Assembly, the Parliament of World Religions and various interfaith organizations.
Others attest to the power of Amma's presence. Dr. Kanwal Kehr, the head of nephrology at the Children's Hospital, has been seeing Amma since 1997. Kehr attributes much of Amma's appeal to her uncommon patience. "She can sit 10 to 15 hours at a stretch," Kehr said, having spent time with her at a weeklong retreat, "I couldn't do it. The degree of patience she has is impressive."
John Graff, a software engineer, first visited her in 1994 when friends encouraged him to see her. "They told me: 'this is a woman who imparts an incredible uplifting energy, and she engages her whole life to selfless service in humanity,'" said Graff, "so I was inspired to see her."
Amma has since inspired Graff to redouble his efforts to show compassion towards others. Specifically, he has volunteered at the Potomac Amma Center's food kitchen and has been a regular event organizer for Amma's D.C. area visits.
All are welcome. No payment is necessary, no questions are asked. "People from all faiths come," said Steben, "Christian, Jewish, whatever, we get people from all walks of life."
For those that are curious about visiting Amma, but may be hesitant, Steben, Graff, and Kehr are encouraging. "Go with an open mind," said Graff, "and you will be very pleasantly surprised."
Amma will be in the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center, 5000 Seminary Road, Alexandria, July 6-7. Programs begin 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday. Admission is free of charge, and tokens are given out an hour in advance. A token is needed to receive a hug.