Hugs and (Hershey's) Kisses 

Amma, queen of the spiritual embrace, visits Castro Valley to pass out bodily harmony.

On Wednesday morning, the parking lot at the Castro Valley ashram looked like a Subaru dealership. Four-door wagons were parked in neat lines as their Gore-Tex-clad owners headed out into the rain. The motorists trotted to a carpool pickup site to catch a quarter-mile ride up to the prayer hall of the MA Center.

Hundreds had arrived to receive a hug from a woman they called Amma. The Indian-born guru also is referred to as "The Divine Mother," or simply "Mother," and is, according to her disciples at the center, a "living saint." The center, located in a tight canyon, is Amma's West Coast headquarters.

As a few of us waited at the carpool stop, Mary, a middle-aged woman from Belmont, drove up in an Audi wagon and waved us into her car. "I hope I'm not dragging mud in here," one soft-spoken woman said as she slid onto the leathered interior.

"Oh that's okay," Mary replied with a smile. "Mud is welcome!"

Amma's followers believe that her embrace, also called the darshan, "allows people to experience true, unconditional love," according to the program guide from her 2005 summer tour. "When Amma holds someone it can help to awaken the dormant spiritual energy within them, which will eventually take them to the ultimate goal of self-realization." Huggees take numbered tokens and wait in line for hours, sometimes days -- Amma turns no one away. According to Amma's Web site, Reuters estimated that she has hugged twenty million people.

As Mary steered up the muddy incline, she asked if it was anyone's first visit to see Mother. It was mine. "Oh, wonderful," an Indian man in the backseat said. "Many treats just for you, newcomer!"

"Yay," Mary said as she clapped her hands in front of her steering wheel. "It's wonderful. ... She's wonderful. Make sure you tell them it's your first time. You'll get a lower number."

Along the route, we passed a small plot of tilled soil with a sign that read "Amma's Vegetable Garden." Across from it we passed "Amma's Rose Garden" and up the road we came upon "Amma's Orchard." Across from the orchard, workers inside a white tent cut vegetables beneath a sign that read "Amma's Kitchen."

Mary dropped us off at the bottom of a long driveway where followers in white clothing streamed through the open doors of the Prayer Hall. Mary asked if one of us would snag a token for her while she parked. One passenger reminded her that organizers prefer visitors take tokens only when they arrive. "I've just ... got to get back to the Peninsula today," Mary said.

It sounded like an explanation to skirt protocol. So we nodded, said nothing, thanked her for the ride, and headed toward the hall with the others.

A hug does not come without rules. As the event's brochure noted, "We request that you respect the Indian traditions by dressing conservatively and avoid wearing sleeveless shirts, tight clothes, or short skirts." Eyeglasses and large jewelry also are unwelcome; they can poke into Mother.

Inside the hall, which looked like an open-air barn, devotees wore all white to signify their purity and inner peace. The scent of lavender and rose petals wafted through the crowd while chants and sitars flowed. Two slow-moving lines led to the front, where Amma sat on a small perch surrounded by her assistants. Her handlers ushered the huggees along and made sure weepers didn't linger too long. Some devotees kissed Amma's feet before getting nudged away.

One of my carpool friends waved over a "Host" and told him it was my first time. My host, Vijaya Stallings, showed me where to remove my shoes and get my token. I got group 301-400, which didn't seem like a first-time favor: Numbers posted at the front of the hall indicated Amma was now serving 1-100. Stallings said Amma averaged two hundred people an hour, so it wouldn't be long. "Mother has stamina," he said with bright eyes. "One time I saw her go from 11:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m." He said he'd help me with the lay of the land -- the bookstore, where I could buy a portrait of Mother for a "donation," was to the left; massage and horoscope readings were upstairs; restrooms were out back.

Other hosts with red hearts hanging around their necks could answer questions about Amma's philosophies, Stallings said. "Anything you want to learn about Mother's love," he added.

Stallings led the way to a seating section reserved for newbies. We sat quiet and cross-legged just to the left of the guru. Visitors had purchased apples and oranges at the door to give to Amma as a blessing. Stallings said the money went to Amma's charities, including her goal of raising $23 million for tsunami refugees. So just before hugging Amma, people handed her the fruit, which she passed off to an assistant, who placed it in a box around back.

Mary, my ride to the hall, took a seat next to me and asked if I'd gotten a low number. When I showed her my token, she looked confused. She'd landed a number for the next batch of worshipers, 101-200. We silently agreed: I'd gotten screwed.

I took a seat in the back of the hall and waited. My plan was to sit there and time it perfectly so I'd be first in line when my group was called. For what seemed like hours, I watched people's demeanor shift after receiving their darshan. A college girl with a star tattooed on her neck had cried, giggled, and busted out into hysterics in the span of ten seconds. One dude got his darshan, walked to his seat near me, and began waving his arms as if he were back-stroking.

A few minutes later, luck came my way: A woman asked if I wanted to trade tickets. She had to get back to work and wanted a higher number for later. She'd trade her 201-300 for my 301-400. Not long after, my new group was called, and I got in line right away. Mary was now eleven spaces ahead of me.

Our group was ushered into two single-file lines that led to Amma. Folding chairs were provided, so every few minutes we'd move up one chair until we got within thirty feet of Mother. From there we moved to the floor, inching our way on our knees. A female host walked between us and kept us evenly spaced, using what looked like a lollipop as a herding device. I asked her what it was.

"It's Amma's foot, see?" the host said.

"What flavor is it?" I asked.

"Probably rose."

Once on the ground, the line came to a slow grind. Across from me, a mother tried to corral her five-year-old son from running up and down the line. He broke free and bolted toward the back of the hall. "Don't worry," a woman consoled the mother. "He'll be back when it's time."

As we inched forward, I could see Amma's chubby cheeks, upturned in a permanent grin. For most hugs, she drove the person's face into her bosom. For others, she merely rested her arms over the person's shoulders the way a tired bicyclist leans over the handlebars. She'd been at it for at least three hours.

Every now and then she'd look up at one of her assistants, speak a few words, and the assistant would shuffle away. When Amma returned her attention to the huggee, she'd squeeze the face in her chest, lower her head and chant a few words into the person's ear. A few seconds later, an assistant would pass something into Amma's hand, who'd slip it into the huggee's hand, and an assistant would tap the person, stand him or her up, and move the person away.

The perfume of rose petals got stronger as we moved closer to Amma. The five-year-old had returned, and now he'd caught the attention of several news photographers who hovered above us. Amma picked him up and pressed his face close to her cheeks. The boy's mother wrapped her arms around Amma's waist and buried her face in Amma's chest. Shutters clicked.

Amma turned to an Indian news channel that was interviewing her and spoke in her native language, Malayalam, as she held the boy. Finally, she released him and gave the mother a brief embrace. Once released, the mother knelt and kissed Amma's feet until an assistant pulled her away.

Suddenly, an assistant grabbed my left hand and moved it into Amma's waist. "Put your hands here," the assistant said. "Turn your head. Lean in."

Soon it was dark. Amma had cradled my head close. She chanted into my ear in her native language. It sounded like "Nor-mal nor-mal nor-mal nor-mal. Be, nor-mal nor-mal nor-mal nor-mal."

She released her grip and slipped something into my palm. She smiled. I backed up, and an assistant quickly ushered me away.

When I got to the back of the hall, I opened my hand: a single rose petal and a Hershey's Kiss. Chocolate. Of course. The world needs more chocolate.



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