The hugging saint makes her U.S. home in San Ramon.
Indian spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi (at bottom), often compared to Mother Teresa, gives out hugs in Singapore in March. Her U.S. center is in San Ramon.
Roslan Rahman/AFP/getty images
Mata Amritanandamayi has hugged almost 27 million people—the most recent estimate. Known as Amma, or Mother, she offers an embrace said to be so blissful, so life changing, that people wait more than 15 hours for a few seconds in her arms.
Amma began hugging people as a teenager in her hometown in India. Gradually, she built a cadre of devotees around the world who were attracted to her spiritual teaching: to love and to serve. People of all faiths live by her example and carry out her massive charity projects. To spread compassion, Amma, now 55, spends several months of each year doing hugging tours around the globe. She visits the East Bay every June and November—at her U.S. headquarters in San Ramon.
The M.A. (Mata Amritanandamayi) Center sits on more than 164 acres of rolling hills and gardens off Crow Canyon Road, between San Ramon and Castro Valley. Ron Gottsegen, the owner of a Bay Area electronics company, helped acquire the land in 1989 to open the ashram, a spiritual community where people could live by Amma’s teachings.
“I was a very successful businessperson, but there was always something missing in my life,” Gottsegen says. Then in 1987, he met Amma in Berkeley, during her first visit to the United States. “She just captivated my heart right from my first meeting,” he says. He sold his business and dedicated his life to Amma and her charitable work.
Today, just over a dozen people live at the ashram. Some rise at 5 a.m., chant together until 6:30, and then meditate. They gather again in the evening for dinner in the shared kitchen—where photographs of Amma line the walls and a portion of the meal is offered to her on a countertop altar—followed by two hours of devotional songs and prayers. During the day, some residents go to school or work—as nurses or teachers or construction hands. Others with independent incomes (everyone pays rent and expenses) work full-time on Amma’s volunteer projects.
On Saturdays, the residents welcome some 100 visitors who have come to donate their service. Adults and children till soil in the vegetable garden, and a crew of volunteers from an ecology nonprofit grafts apple trees in the orchard. In the warehouse, older women inventory boxes of donated medical supplies—latex gloves, syringes, catheters, and gurneys—that will be shipped to Amma’s charitable hospital in India.
In the main house, Annette Bachich, a devotee who just moved to San Ramon to be close to the ashram, sits at a table stacked with returned fundraising letters. The inner donation envelopes will be reused in future mailings, and Amma’s photograph will be cut out of the solicitation letters and buried—out of reverence.
“All of the workers are her devotees, who do work for free,” says Bachich, who, in addition to volunteering her time, gives donations to Amma’s charities. “I know my money is going directly to the people. There is no waste whatsoever.”
Amma, who is often compared to Mother Teresa, has raised millions of dollars for disaster relief, including $46 million for tsunami victims in Asia and $1 million for Hurricane Katrina victims. She deployed scores of volunteers to both regions. She’s started hospitals, orphanages, schools, and housing projects all over India. In the United States, her volunteers run more than 40 Mother’s Kitchens, four of them in the Bay Area, which feed the homeless every Saturday.
When the ashram grounds open for Amma’s June 3–10 hug-a-rama, devotees will purchase healthy Indian and Western meals in the warehouse-turned-dining hall, and splurge on books, CDs, and Amma-themed mugs for sale in the temple bookstore. But they will think more about their souls being enriched by Amma’s warm embrace than about their purchases helping worthy causes.
“I broke into tears. I could barely walk,” Bachich says of being hugged. She sat down next to Amma afterward and meditated for two hours. “I was totally transformed. In those two hours, all the heartbreak of my life was just gone. I’ve been happy ever since.” ■