An Indian Spiritual Teacher Visits the U.S.

India gets a lot of attention about its booming economy, but it is still considered a spiritual center for many Westerners. Amma, an Indian saint, visits the United States every year.

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India continues to draw Westerners searching for a spiritual experience. And one of India's best known gurus, or spiritual teachers, is known as the Hugging Mother. To reach people beyond India, she goes on a world tour every year. NPR's Allison Bryce brings us the story of Amma.

ALLISON BRYCE: Going to an Amma program in America looks at first a bit like going to church.

(Soundbite of music)

BRYCE: There is music, even if it's not a recognizable hymn. There's the preacher, even if she's just 4'11", wears a white sari and sports a huge sparkling nose ring. And of course there's the sermon, even if it isn't in English.

AMMA (Hugging Mother): (Through translator) The individual, there's a conflict in individual's mind that it manifested as war. So if there can be conflict in our minds, there can also be peace.

BRYCE: Amma is joined at the hip by her translator, Swamigi(ph). He wears a saffron robe and glasses on his long nose. He translates from Amma's native tongue, Maliala(ph), her thoughts on the importance of patience or of helping others or of creating a more peaceful world.

AMMA: (Through translator): Then it manifests as peace. So that's also possible.

BRYCE: But around 10:00 o'clock at night, it's suddenly not like church at all. People jump up and rush to form long lines on either side of the hall. Kneeling, they wait and scoot forward. And Amma, covered in rose petals, sits on a low throne. She hugs each person one after the other.

(Soundbite of music)

BRYCE: Jerry Butch or Anni Rudin(ph), as he is called, is a 29-year-old Canadian who travels with Amma. He says in India he's often used as a puller. After Amma gives someone a hug, he yanks the person out of her arms so the next person in line can go in.

Mr. JERRY BUTCH (Puller): In America it's very relaxed and very calm. But in India you come up - the hug is probably about three seconds long, and then the next person is put in place quite quickly.

BRYCE: And in India, the hugs can go on all night long.

Mr. BUTCH: Just to watch them stand in line for eight to 12 hours for a three-second hug is really inspiring to see. It's really beautiful.

BRYCE: The hugging can go on for quite a while in this country too. The audiences are smaller here. But Amma's embraces last longer.

I was granted an interview, so I walked up onstage with my microphone. Speaking through Swamigi, Amma said that world peace really is possible if we all work on it.

AMMA: (Through translator) So Amma says that it is just like, you know, trying to straighten the curly tail of a dog. You know, if you put it, every day you put it hundred times in a tube, you take it out immediately, you take it out, it curls back to its original position. Like what's in the process of making the world a good place so we'll become good.

BRYCE: After she spoke, an attendant asked if I wanted a hug. I felt a little guilty. I did cut in line. But I shoved my radio gear into someone's arms and dropped to my knees. With great force, she took me in her arms and I was enveloped in a scent of rose. It was a powerful hug, a powerful moment, really. Overcome with a profound sense of comfort, clarity and calm, I staggered offstage and sat down. I had to pick up my recorder later. I'd left it behind.

BRYCE: Allison Bryce, NPR News.

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