THE BLOG

Maybe the World Just Needs a Hug

05/13/2014 04:41 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2014
vaniAmrita/Flickr

So, I'm sitting at my computer, thinking, "It's Mother's Day. That should mean something."

(Drum roll and a dull thud in the background.)

In that quiet, early morning moment, the concept meant nothing to me. I'm not a mother (at least not in the biological sense). My own mother passed away 21 years ago. Few of my friends have children. And if they do, they're long grown.

"Surely," I wondered, "There must be some over-arching meaningfulness to this day's celebration?" Something more than a Hallmark card and the cliché of burnt pancakes on a breakfast tray served by smiling faces? Something that would include me and every other single, divorced, widowed, childless woman under the sun?

Something that honored "The Great Mother" and woman's spirit in general?

But no. Sighing, I opened my to-do file, deleted Blog on M-Day and checked Facebook to find that a friend had posted the following quote from Mata Amritanandamayi, better known as Amma, the Hugging Saint:

Wherever you see happy, peaceful individuals; wherever you see children endowed with noble qualities and good dispositions; wherever you see men who have immense strength when faced with failure and adverse situations; wherever you see people who possess a great measure of understanding, sympathy, love, and compassion towards the suffering, and who give of themselves to others -- you will usually find a great mother who has inspired them to become what they are.

Intrigued by the synchronicity and touched by the quote, I Googled "Amma."

There were hundreds, if not thousands, of sites mentioning her, praising her, questioning her, exalting her. Among them was a New York Times article by Jake Halpern called "Amma's Multifaceted Empire, Built on Hugs."

Seeing the title I felt an instant twinge of... what? Fear? Inevitability? Sorrow? Fully expecting a scathing exposé of religious corruption and greed, I read the article and was... surprised.

Yes, there was the slightly nuanced sense of a dogged reporter sniffing for garbage. And the word "empire" in the title guaranteed that Halpern inevitably brought up the subject of Amma's organization's $20 million a year income from donations, its tax-exempt church status in the United States and its thereby unexamined account books. But he also made it clear that her finances are annually audited by the Indian government (unlike any church in the U.S.). Then, he moved on.

Sadly, I can't miss the fact that I'm leading my own discussion of this remarkable woman with money talk -- surely the measure of my own tainted perceptions and disappointment with Western "authoritative" religion and the fallen state of so many priests and Bible-pounding preachers.

Sadly, I'm not accustomed to stories of genuine spiritual blessing.

I don't read about the feminine heart and hands that endlessly give with little or no thought of return. In my country the Great Mother is nothing but a moldy archetype, a storybook ideal of fecundity and nurturing that's nice to tell children. But in the real world? The open heart is seen as an ineffectual work model at best.

The Great Mother has no place in the boardroom or on the Senate floor because, as much as we idolize love, we also think it's wimpy. Love makes you weak. Love is about sex. Love is reserved for lovers. And yet look at what one woman accomplishes with a hug and a glowing smile.

Born in impoverished conditions and with a fourth grade education, the 61-year-old Hindu spiritual leader has built a south India ashram complete with a university, a hospital giving free or inexpensive medical care and science labs looking for breakthrough technologies to help humanity. Her organization was first on the scene after the 2004 tsunami off Sumatra, feeding and housing thousands. The government of Kerala (a state in South India) sometimes turns to her to get jobs done the government can't (or won't) handle. According to Halpern, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the former president of India, was so blown away by Amma's charitable work that "he donated almost his entire annual salary to her organization."

Is her life free from the taint of all scandal? Not possible in today's world. Yes, there are whispers and plain statements questioning all the "miracles" attributed to her.

But in a world that so desperately needs love, perhaps the fact that there is a woman in the world who has hugged an estimated 33 million people and who shows no signs of stopping, who lives in deeply humble circumstances and who gives tirelessly of herself in pursuit of a vision for a better world is miracle enough.