Yesterday, for the first time in twelve years, I got hugged by Indian guru and divine mother Ammachi
. Ammachi, known as “the hugging Ma” is considered by her devotees an avatar, or an incarnation of God (or, in this case, Goddess). Her primary activity is traveling the world, often giving thousands of devotees at a sitting the divine dispensation of unconditional love in the form of a deeply heartfelt and holy hug. I have literally watched her do this non-stop for hours and hours at a time, without a break, greeting and embracing each person in an endless line of people as if they were the first.
My first hug from Ammachi was such a disaster that it took me twelve years to go for another. I think after yesterday’s experience, I may wait even longer for my next hug—maybe forever.
When I first met Ammachi, it was the early 90’s. I drove out to her ashram in San Ramon, east of Oakland, California. The place looked like it had been a ranch. I arrived in time for her morning darshan (Sanskrit for “meeting God”) at the old barn where it was being held. There were about two or three hundred of us there. I must admit I was skeptical. I felt spirituality had to do with divine understanding, and could not understand what could be gained by receiving a hug—no matter how loving—without a good dose of teaching to go along with it. But although Amma did sometimes teach, the main event around her seemed to be the hug.
I got in line with a mixed crowd of folks, many of whom seemed to be suffering physically or psychologically. I guess they were in need of some divine motherly love. For my part, I was too proud to admit I might need some of the same, but always ready for a new experience, I waited patiently on the off-chance that with the hug might come some transmission of spiritual insight or bliss.
I finally reached Ma after standing in line for what may have been an hour. An usher gently pushed me forward onto my knees and into her arms. Ma is a small but round Indian woman. An Indian sari covered her ample yielding flesh. She hugged me to her bosom at first, but then did something unexpected. She placed her hands on my head and pushed my face into her lap. It felt like I was drowning between her full soft thighs, my face mostly covered by the folds of her sari. Barely able to breathe, I tried to lift my head up, but she applied more pressure, pushing me down. Finally, gasping for breath, I pushed harder against her. She then lifted my face up, holding it between her hands, looked into my eyes, and, between repetitions of the mantra “Ma, Ma, Ma”, grinned and laughed at me. This went on for only a moment before she again pushed my head down into her lap with surprising strength, for another deep dunk between her thighs. She played this game with me several times, waiting until I was gasping for breath, pushing up against her hand as hard as I could, then lifting me up and laughing in my face, with a kind of girlish—naughty girlish—charm. Finally, she laughed again and let me go. I wandered away from her chair not knowing quite what hit me.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since that last hug from Ma. Over the years, my focus on intellectual understanding waivered. I began to wonder whether spiritual insight alone is all it’s cracked up to be. I started to feel that maybe the real secret is, as so many have taught, a heart full of love. After all, insights come and go, and different traditions use very different words and concepts. But what they all seem to point to, when all is said and done, is love. However you get there may not matter as much as whether you can find a way to embrace life, despite its inevitable pain—to love it, to love oneself and to love others.
Over the years I thought of going to see Ma again when she made her annual trips to the area where I live. Many of my friends always went, and they invariably spoke glowingly of the experience. But each time she came, I never seemed to find the time to make the hour drive to the ashram and to stand in line for what now, I heard, was often several hours, for a hug. But yesterday, I had nothing pressing at work, and it was a beautiful day for a drive to the country. Besides that, I felt called. So I took the leap and drove to Ma’s.
I arrived at an ashram much changed over the years. There were parking lots and parking attendants, and organized shuttles from the outlying lots to the main buildings. The barn had been remodeled into a simple but elegant hall. Due to the numbers of devotees, and the need for crowd control, tokens were given which determined the order of your hug. I got one in the group “1000-1100.”
I watched for hours as Ma sat royally, yet relaxed, and received one devotee after another. A tangible energy seemed to emanate from her end of the hall. I felt, at times, almost like I was watching a biblical scene. Holiness and peace pervaded the atmosphere. At times, I felt almost moved to tears, without knowing why. I watched and meditated and finally, after about four hours, it was my turn.
This time I was determined to put my natural skepticism aside. I had learned that in order to truly see the divine, you had to have faith. While discrimination is good, too much doubt clouds the vision. I decided I would open to Ma, as much as I could, as the embodiment of the divine feminine, as the embodiment of Mary, Tara, Shakti and all the other holy mothers and goddesses, as a manifestation of divine love.
Just in front of me was a mother with a three-year-old son. She placed the boy in Ma’s arms, and the child went completely limp. He laid in her arms in total relaxation, completely abandoned and surrendered. Ma herself seemed surprised. She opened her arms up and, with the boy still collapsed on her, lying utterly still, she laughed and said to us around her, “Look at this! Look! Look at this!”
Now it really was my turn. I tried to abandon myself to Ma as much as the young boy had. I collapsed into her arms. She hugged me to her. My head laid on her left breast. She leaned her head over mine, and said into my ear, loudly, “Ma, Ma, Ma” over and over again. Abandoning myself to the moment even further, I began to repeat “Ma, Ma, Ma” after her. It seemed involuntary. I was lying on her breast, repeating “Ma, Ma, Ma.” I noticed that as my mouth opened and closed to say the words, my lips were opening and closing on a wrinkle of her sari’s cloth, just over her breast, approximately where her nipple would be. I felt like a child, like a baby really, saying “Ma, Ma” and opening and closing my lips as if to suckle. Then I lifted my head, made a pranam to her, and it was over.
Like the first time, I wandered away half in a daze. At first I was happy. “That seemed to go well,” I thought. But then I began to think about what happened. Was my mouth really opening and closing on her breast as I said, “Ma, Ma” like a baby? Did anyone notice this? Did Ma notice this? Was she offended?
I had a fantasy that in the middle of my abandonment, one of the large orange-robed swamis who always seemed to be in close attendance to Ma noticed what I was doing. In my fantasy, his face darkened with outrage at what he felt was my obscene disrespect. He came over, picked me up by the scruff of the neck and—in a history-making move—had me physically ejected from Ma’s presence, to my undying shame.
How could I have let myself regress so far? Why would I do such a thing? What is wrong with me, I wondered? And I felt a bit dislocated from the event through my whole drive home, and for several hours afterwards. The spell finally broke—thank God—when my girlfriend got home from work, I told her the whole story, and we both almost collapsed on the floor with spasms of laughter at the absurdity of the whole thing.
In the end I think I’ll always be grateful to Ma for this experience. It is only due to her grace, that my career as a spiritual devotee is (I think) finally over. I don’t think I can look again to a guru for enlightenment or bliss. Ma killed that tendency with holy embarrassment and buried it with divine mirth.