Mata Amritanandamayi, affectionately called ‘Amma’, was born in a struggling fisherman’s family.
As she began growing up, she defied local sensibilities to embrace people who related their sufferings to her – an outlook that soon became her trademark, and earned her the nickname ‘the hugging saint’.
Her media adviser, Shubha Amrita Chaitanya, says her transformation from an unconventional girl to a mother guru began in the late 70s.
“I feel Amma’s hugging or embrace is not just merely physical, because there are many people who just give hugs physically but sometimes it just doesn’t touch you,” she said.
“I feel Amma’s embrace comes from the centre of her being.
“Amma says it is not just a mere physical act – through this (she) is sowing seeds of goodness in each one coming to her.”
According to those in charge of her ‘ashram’ or spiritual abode, it is believed that she has hugged over 33 million people in the last three decades.
She says she regrets the decline of spiritualism in the country.
“I think within families in India spiritualism is going down, values are getting lost and that is unfortunate,” she said.
“There has to be better communication…only then can we rise.”
With millions of followers across the world, Amma has taken on a number of humanistic and charitable projects – constructing hospitals and schools for the poor and needy, women’s shelters, orphanages and clinics both in India and abroad.
Her organisation raises over $20 million a year from sources worldwide.
Mikko Von Hurtzen, a heavy metal musician, is one of a devoted group of supporters including professionals, tycoons and software engineers.
“I feel my career as a rock musician is Amma’s doing, in a way – that she was the one who started it, because I was letting it go,” he said.
“But then she kind of rekindled that kind of aspiration and with her blessing we are doing well.”
Sociologist Dipankar Gupta says her popularity with foreigners shows a misplaced view of India as a home of spiritualism.
“I remember the time when The Beatles came to Mahesh Yogi – for a while they were really enamoured with him, and then they realised he was not the yogi he was cut to be and soon they lost interest,” he said.
“These people who come from abroad to the gurus and matas, they come for some magical relief again.
“This magical relief is not so much in terms of fortune, good health, better jobs, more cars, killing in the stock markets – but more in terms of inner peace they are looking for.”