THERE are entourages -- and then there is the retinue of Mata Amritanandamayi, a 59-year-old Indian guru known simply as Amma, or “mother.” On Friday, she began a two-month North American tour during which she will be accompanied by 275 volunteers. They plan to ride in four buses across the continent from Bellevue, Wash., to Marlborough, Mass., visiting 11 cities, including New York. And at each stop along the way, Amma will sit on stage for 15 hours at a stretch, greeting her thousands of devotees.
Amma is best known for literally embracing the masses; she has hugged millions of people around the world, a feat that has earned her the nickname “the hugging saint.” Her status as a spiritual therapist has attracted a large following in the United States. In India, however, what Amma offers is far more significant and complex. She has built a vast organization that is the envy of both India’s public and private sectors. As Oommen Chandy, the chief minister of the state of Kerala, told me: “From nothing, she has built an empire.”