With teachings and a healing touch that have inspired millions, Mātā Amritānandamayī Devī (more simply known as Amma) is a much-loved spiritual leader and guru from India, who is best known for embracing the masses – quite literally.
Yep, known as ‘the hugging saint’, Amma is rumored to have hugged more than 37 million people from around the world over the last 30 years.
When she’s not busy in a warm embrace, Amma also assumes the mantle of a dedicated humanitarian, tirelessly working for the upliftment of society through activism surrounding individual welfare, the environment, and animal rights.
In this article, we’ll be uncovering the essence of Amma’s spiritual philosophy, her numerous humanitarian efforts, and the deep impact she continues to make on the lives of those who cross her spiritual teachings and path.
More specifically, we’ll be looking at:
- Amma’s Life & Background
- Amma’s Teachings
- Amma’s Impact & Controversies
Amma: Life & Background
Amma was born in 1953 in a small fishing village in the scenic state of Kerala, India under the birth name Sudhamani.
This name, which translates to “bright”, “wealthy,” and “one who lives an eventful life”, would swiftly prove to be a prescient choice, as Amma would soon go on to lead a remarkable life that continues to leave indelible marks on the world.
Indeed, despite being born into a humble family with limited means, Amma’s destiny was marked by something greater.
From a young age, Amma was reported to have displayed exceptional abilities, including being able to walk and talk at just six months old and composing her own hymns to worship her favorite Deity, Krishna, at the age of five.
Starting a Life of Spiritual Service
A few years later when Amma was 9, her mother became very ill leaving Amma responsible for many chores. This included gathering food and other supplies for her family, which required her to venture into the local villages and neighborhood homes.It was on these township ventures that she was confronted with the intense poverty and suffering of other beings for the first time. This, many argue, is where her spiritual journey of compassion began.
These experiences led her to question suffering and to contemplate the causes and solutions, which filled her with deep empathy and will to improve the lives of others.
Amma immediately started her charitable work. Redistributing the provisions from her family home, she began offering food, clothing, and assistance to those she saw suffering.
Even amidst heavy resistance and punishment from her parents, who were of humble means, Amma persisted in her efforts to help those in need – and so started her reputation as a healer and guru.
Her Life as The Hugging Saint
As well as offering people material assistance, Amma’s desire to relieve the sufferings of others also led her to spontaneously embrace people.
Despite being highly controversial for a young female to touch and hug others, especially men, Amma continued, with her hugs offering individuals much comfort during times of sorrow, for which they affectionately began to refer to her as “Amma,” meaning “Mother.”
Explaining how she became to be known as the hugging saint, Amma said:
“People used to come and tell [me] their troubles. They would cry and I would wipe their tears. When they fell weeping into my lap, I used to hug them. Then the next person too wanted it… And so the habit picked up.”– Amma via Medium
While some have reported Amma’s embrace as unremarkable, others have told of the profundity of the experience.
For example, NPR Reporter Allison Bryce remarked “With great force, she took me in her arms and I was [. . .] overcome with a profound sense of comfort, clarity, and calm, I staggered off stage and sat down.”
TV journalist and personality Louis Theroux, known for his straightforward and earnest reporting, described his hug with Amma: “I felt like something had touched me in a way I couldn’t explain” and “I felt like crying [. . .] I had fallen under her spell.”
Further experiences of those who have hugged Amma can be found here.
Amma: Philosophy & Spiritual Teachings
Profoundly moved by the immense suffering she witnessed, Amma delved into the teachings of Hinduism, which explain individual suffering to be a result of one’s past karma, the consequences of past actions.
While embracing the teachings of Hinduism, Amma firmly rejected the idea that individuals should be abandoned to endure perpetual suffering, and refused to accept the concept of karma as a legitimate justification for apathy or inaction in offering support.
“If it is one man’s karma to suffer, isn’t it our dharma (life’s purpose/duty) to help ease his suffering and pain?”– Amma
Guided by this simple question, Amma has embraced a life of service as tightly as she embraces those who meet her, committing to a life of compassion for all sentient beings, and encouraging others to do so too through her various teachings.
Inspired by her exposure to Hinduism, these teachings echo the wisdom and philosophy of such seminal texts as the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita, emphasizing the importance of karma (action), jñana (knowledge), and bhakti (devotion) for spiritual growth.
However, Amma does not restrict herself or her followers to Hindu spiritual teaching. Instead, she embraces and encouraged a diverse set of spiritual practices, religions, and prayers, acknowledging their common themes and potential to purify the mind.
These teachings are outlined on her website and in her various books and cover a range of topics and questions. From service and selflessness to family life and parenting to nature and the environment – Amma’s spiritual guidance is diverse and practical.
Some of her most prominent teachings can be (very!) briefly summarised as follows:
- Selfless Service: Emphasizing the transformative power of sincere, selfless service, Amma encourages us to perform acts of kindness and compassion without expecting anything in return.
- Love & Compassion: Amma advocates for the practice of unconditional love, empathy, and understanding, in order to cultivate harmonious relationships and deeper connections with others.
- Universal Spirituality: Amma subscribes to a universal spirituality that transcends religious and cultural boundaries. She highlights the common essence found in different traditions and encourages individuals to respect and learn from diverse spiritual paths.
- Overcoming Ego & Attachment: Amma encourages us to seek the transcendence of ego-driven desires and attachments, advocating for detachment, surrender, and non-identification with the self in order to no longer experience or generate suffering.
- Environmental Stewardship: Recognizing the spiritual and practical importance of environmental conservation, Amma emphasizes dedication to sustainable practices and responsible actions to protect, connect to and live in harmony with nature.
- Devotion & Sadhana: Amma encouraged individuals to regularly engage in various spiritual practices to deepen their spiritual journey, including meditation, prayer, chanting, and self-reflection, service, yoga, and more.
Through following these teachings and abiding by the laws of karma, Amma believes that we can refine our minds, escape suffering and get closer to our true nature as eternal, blissful consciousness. This realization, she calls jivanmukti.
If you want to learn more about Amma’s teachings, I really recommend watching Science of Compassion – A Documentary about Amma on youtube – it’s less than an hour in length and is a great introduction to her life and work.
Amma: Her Impact & Legacy
Her Social Impact & Initiatives
Beyond her role as a spiritual luminary, Amma is also respected as a dedicated humanitarian and social visionary, providing service during natural and man-made disasters, as well as founding and funding various far-reaching social initiatives.
Home to around 3,000 residents, this ashram has become a hub for humanitarian efforts, which focuses on addressing the five essential needs – food, shelter, healthcare, education, and livelihood – via Embracing the World – a global network of charity organizations.
Its impact is widespread, reaching millions of individuals across India and beyond.
For example, Mother’s Kitchen, an Amma initiative started in 1987, feeds over 150,000 people annually in North America alone. Similar programs exist in various countries, including Mexico, Kenya, Brazil, and Australia.
Amma’s organization has also constructed over 47,000 houses for the homeless in India and runs an orphanage for 500 children in Kerala.
Education is also a core focus at Amma’s Ashram, which founded Amrita University, a research institution with multiple campuses and a strong emphasis on research and development to uplift marginalized communities.
Amma’s Ashram has also made a number of dedicated efforts towards disaster relief and environmental protection, playing vital roles in relief efforts following natural disasters, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and numerous floods.
Other efforts by the Ashram includes managing a hospital in Kochi that provides free healthcare and surgeries to millions and donating substantial funds to the Indian government’s “Clean the Ganges” program.
With the list of charitable efforts associated with Amma and her organization far too decorated and expansive to cover here, I encourage you to check out the more comprehensive list of her humanitarian efforts here.
As is a theme amongst revered gurus, even the most cherished figures are not immune to the swirling currents of controversy – and Amma is no exception. Some of the most famous include:
#1: Critique of “miracles” and suspicious deaths:
Sreeni Pattathanam wrote a scathing book that claimed that all of Amma’s miracles were falsified. He also highlighted a number of suspicious deaths in and around her ashram, calling for police investigations.
These claims were dismissed by the Keralan government, who charged Pattathanam with offending religious sentiments and making libelous statements in the book.
#2: Source of funding and foreign aid:
Some concerns have been raised about the sources of funding for Amma’s ashram and social initiatives. Whilst there have been calls for an investigation, the funding for Amma’s initiatives remains somewhat undisclosed.
Her organization reportedly raises over $20 million annually from global sources, but the financial details and statements are not publicly available.
#3: Allegations of Assault:
Gail Tredwell, a former student of Amma, self-published a memoir in which she made some serious allegations against Amma, including claims of physical assault.
The book claims that Balu, a senior follower of the ashram, engaged in sexual abuse towards the author over an extended period. Additionally, it accuses Amritanandamayi of displaying rude and aggressive behavior, subjecting the author to years of mistreatment.
These allegations, however, have yet to be substantiated, meanwhile, Amma and her ashram representatives have denied them all.
Awards and Accolades
Over the years, Amma has garnered an illustrious resume of awards and accolades from international and regional organizations, including:
- 1993: President of the Centenary Parliament of World Religions
- 1993: Hindu Renaissance Award as “Hindu of the Year” from Hinduism Today
- 1998: Care & Share International Humanitarian of the Year Award from Chicago
- 2002: Karma Yogi of the Year from Yoga Journal
- 2002: Gandhi-King Award for Non-Violence by The World Movement for Nonviolence
- 2005: Mahavir Mahatma Award from London
- 2005: Centenary Legendary Award of the International Rotarians from Cochin
- 2006: James Parks Morton Interfaith Award from New York
- 2006: The Philosopher Saint Sri Jnaneswara World Peace Prize from Pune
- 2007: Le Prix Cinéma Vérité from Cinéma Vérité, Paris
- 2010: Honorary doctorate in humane letters from The New York University
- 2012: Top 100 most spiritually influential living people in the world by Watkins
- 2013: Awarded first Vishwaretna Purskar (Gem of the Word Award) by Hindu Parliament
- 2014: One of the 50 most powerful women religious leaders by The Huffington Post
- 2019: Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Mysore
- 2023: Chair, Civil 20, an official Engagement Group of the G20
Further Reading on the Women of Yoga
If you’ve enjoyed this article on Amma Mata Amritanandamayi, why not check out our articles about the women of yoga: