Below is a transcription of a book discussion I had with Amanda Lucia last spring at the University of California, Riverside (home to so many fantastic scholars of American religious history in the present and the past). The audience comprised faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and members from the community.
(ejb) It is hard to find an analogue for Mata Amritanandamayi, the “hugging saint,” the “goddess,” or “Amma,” whatever you prefer to call her. Like Oprah Winfrey, she is a contemporary woman adored by millions who has the power to organize and distribute millions of dollars each year. Thousands upon thousands wait to be hugged by her, and while Pope Francis has become a media darling because of his class-leveling actions, she has embraced lepers. Recently, I sat with Professor Amanda Lucia of the University of California, Riverside, to discuss her fantastic new book Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace. The point of our conversation was not simply to receive a taste of her book, but also to consider how it connects with contemporary trends in the study of religion in the United States.
(ejb) Q: To begin, can you give us the “who, what, where, and when” of your book and Amma’s ministry?
(ajl) A: Well, the first time I was in India I was on the UW Madison College Year in India program in 1996-1997. I was living in Varanasi and researching Hindu ascetics, sadhu babas, and renouncers. I was trying to study female ascetics, but I had this old male brahman assistant who said simply: “They don’t exist. Every woman who is a female ascetic is doing so because her husband died or she has no other means of supporting herself.” But then later that year, I was in Kerala and it was there that I ran into this huge pink ashram and the famed female guru Amma or Mata Amritanandamayi. According to her hagiographies her life story goes something like this: Amma was born in 1953 in a small South Indian fishing village to a fisherman’s caste. As a young child she began to feel the suffering of others, and she began hugging people in order to alleviate their suffering. Many people found these hugs to be comforting, healing, and miraculous in some cases and a cult of devotees formed around her. Now she travels around the world hugging tens of thousands of people every single day without rest. She hosts public programs that are free and open to the public that will last for about 10-20 hours at a time, during which individuals line up and she hugs them one by one by one. Even though darshan is usually a visual exchange between a deity and a devotee, taking Amma’s darshan is a hug.
I didn’t see Amma performing darshan until I went to Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago in 2004. There were maybe five to ten thousand there that night and I had no idea of what to expect. I immediately noticed two distinct groups of people who were there: Indian Hindus who were very traditionally dressed, often dressed up, there to take Amma’s darshan and then there were “alternative” looking American metaphysicals (spiritual seekers) who were neither Indian nor Hindu, but were very much taking a part of Amma’s darshan. The book then drew out of the central question of how are these widely disparate cultural groups of devotees working together? How are they finding resonance within the same stimuli in different ways? How and when do they come together and where do they fall apart into their culturally distinct communities? Those were the questions that struck me at the outset and they became the central project of the book. And then of course, the secondary aim was going back to my first question back in 1996 of how could a woman become a very famous guru even though the scriptures tell her that she can’t? In the most traditional Hindu moral codes (shastras), it’s not allowed. But here you have this very famous female guru who seems to be thumbing her nose at Hindu prohibitions regarding caste and gender all over the world - so what role do traditional hierarchies of caste and gender play in her religious authority and her global organization?
One important point that I should mention at the outset is that for Westerners, many people think ‘oh, that’s nice, she’s hugging people – everyone wants a hug.’ But in India and in Hinduism, conservative Hinduism particularly, a hug among strangers is a radical transgression, especially for a woman of low caste to be hugging all persons regardless of gender, caste, illness, and so on. As Selva Raj put it, Amma’s hug is her “discourse of defiance.” This story emerges from my analysis of the ways in which Amma is publicly thwarting caste and gender restrictions that would prohibit such behavior.