Ammachi, also known as Amma and Mother of Immortal Bliss, is on the last leg of a two-month hugging tour of the U.S. For 30 years she has made a name for herself and gained millions of followers worldwide who turn out to behold—and be held by—the Indian-born guru. Ammachi has reportedly issued as many as 10,000 hugs in one marathon session. On a recent day 2,200 lined up outside the Ramada Hotel ballroom in Andover, Mass., to get their hug. "When there is love, there is no tiring," says Ammachi, 46, whose white sari may be sullied beyond the power of bleach with the smudged mascara of the faithful. "Only by expressing love can you feel it."
Couldn't the woman Deepak Chopra calls a living saint just wave? Or offer a collective blessing? "Hugging helps them to unfold and to awaken their true nature," Ammachi explains. Back home, says Sbalakrishnan, city editor of the country's largest newspaper, The Times of India, "she has a huge following, and there are always huge queues of people wanting to see her."
Her brother Suresh says Ammachi showed her saintly side early by giving away family possessions—without her parents' permission—to the less fortunate. "Since she loved all beings equally," he says, "we felt she was crazy."
Ammachi asks for nothing in return, but the grateful often give her money and jewelry. Through a charitable trust, she and her volunteers reportedly feed an estimated 50,000 poor Indians monthly. "She has set up hospitals, homes and hospices to relieve people's suffering," says Sbalakrishnan.
"She makes me believe in love," says Cynthia Jenkins, 36, who got a hug. Adds husband David: "I know this sounds wild, but when I pray to her, she answers my prayers." They also received a smudge of sandalwood paste on their foreheads, a shower of rose petals and a Her-shey's Kiss—a token Ammachi offers exclusively to her U.S. devotees.