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Guru fights world's 'poverty of love,' one hug at a time

  • Story Highlights
  • Mata Amritanandamayi's religion is rooted in Hinduism but not tied to it
  • She uses hugs as a way to minister to people and teach service to others
  • She believes the lack of love is more significant than financial poverty
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By Delia Gallagher
CNN
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KERALA, India (CNN) -- Mata Amritanandamayi is known as the "hugging guru." Some days, she will sit for up to 20 hours straight as tens of thousands of devotees line up to feel her embrace and hear her whisper motherly advice.

Mata

Mata Amritanandamayi, aka the "hugging guru," embraces everyone she meets in an effort to spread love and healing.

Followers come from all over the world to Amma's ashram, or spiritual center, in Kerala, South India, to get a hug; many choose to stay.

"There are two types of poverty in the world, financial poverty and the poverty of love; the second is more important," says Amritanandamayi, who goes by Amma, which means "mother".

Amma grew up poor, in the same seaside village on the southern tip of India where she built her ashram. Villagers believed she could cure sick cows. As a young girl, she was known to take what little food her own family had and share it with others.

Although Amma shies away from describing herself as psychic or magical, some followers think she is divine.

"I have only one feeling," says Navaratnama, a young girl from Mangalore, who traveled 11 hours on a train to see Amma. "That I have touched God."

Navaratnama says she hopes to become pregnant and decided to make the journey to Kerala after Amma appeared to her in several dreams. Video Followers flock to Amma's hugs »

Amma greets her followers with a steady gaze and a smile; she listens to their concerns or sometimes just hugs them. Many are too emotional to speak. On a typical weekend day, some 30,000 followers visit the ashram to feel her embrace. Amma says her message to each person she meets is love.

"I want to awaken motherhood in both men and women," Amma says, referring to selfless love. "Motherhood is something that is fast disappearing from the world."

Roughly six months each year, Amma leaves her ashram and travels the world, holding meetings in hotel ballrooms in major cities in the United States, Europe and South America. From these places, she gathers even more devotees, many of whom visit her ashram in India as volunteers.

Gautam is a fair-haired, freckle-skinned 31-year-old from California who has been living at the ashram for eight years. Before Amma renamed him, he was known as Brian Harvey and worked at Yahoo.

"Before I met Amma, I think it was the typical American lifestyle of living for myself, trying to make myself as comfortable as possible," Gautam says.

He was attracted by Amma's emphasis on selfless service to others, he says. Gautam now dresses all in white and works for free as one of Amma's aides. He has even picked up the local language, Maylayalam.

The ashram is mix of foreigners and locals working side-by-side. They send out Amma's newsletters, serve guests in the cafe (one for Western food, one for Indian food) and organize the thousands of visitors who come for a day, a week or several months.

Roughly 80 percent of India's 1.1 billion people are Hindu. The religion's rituals vary, but generally they are performed by male priests and consist of offerings of sweets, incense, fire and flowers.

Amma's ashram is rooted in the Hindu tradition, but not tied to it. Here you will find female priests conducting ceremonies in the temple. A picture of Jesus hangs in Amma's private quarters. Visitors of all denominations are welcome.

Amma has no formal education, and her philosophy is not of the intellectual kind. She teaches love of neighbor as a means to self-fulfillment and peace. Service, rather than study, is the focus of her work. Unlike many Hindu gurus, Amma does not preach any particular spiritual practice, such as yoga, meditation or chanting.

"Fundamentally, what everyone needs is mental strength and self-confidence, to manage the mind just as we manage the outside," she says.

An Indian newspaper reported that Amma's income was around $80 million last year, although her representatives would not confirm this figure. The money comes from private donations and the sale of books and CDs.

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Much of this money is in turn given away to help the poor or the those affected by natural disasters. Amma has donated millions of dollars to help the victims of the tsunami in South Asia and Hurricane Katrina in the United States. She also runs a series of homeless shelters in 38 American cities.

"I have no desires, no pleasures," she says. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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