CROWDS THRONGED to a Marriott hotel just outside Washington, DC, on a hazy afternoon this July for the final leg of the American tour of Mata Amritanandamayi, a 63-year-old South Indian woman known internationally as Amma or as “the hugging saint” because she has claimed to have physically embraced upward of 35 million people worldwide.
For many attendees in this progressive-leaning crowd, spending a day with a peace-touting Indian guru felt like a fitting rebuke to the tide of nationalism, hate crimes, and xenophobia that has marked President Trump’s first summer in office.
“A lot of what’s going on politically is fear-based, and Amma’s message is about being very open, being very loving, accepting, compassionate,” said Amy Young, a photographer who had driven in from Laurel, Maryland. And Jen Wofford, a political organizer from Takoma Park, Maryland, came to the hotel directly from a resistance action against Trump. “We have a president who is slipping into tyranny,” she told me.
As people waited for tokens to receive their embraces — the actual hug line would form hours later — video feeds showed Amma embracing sobbing survivors of Fukushima and kissing leprosy-pocked faces. In line, a lanky mandolin-player with a sandy brown ponytail strummed a few hymns. A pop-up vegan cafe offered organic hummus wraps. There were even hand-sewn Amma dolls for sale — arms outstretched, seeking an embrace.
The Indian saint, who sprang from humble origins as the daughter of a poor fisherman in the southern state of Kerala, seemed a welcome departure from the ugliness of US politics. An indefatigable humanitarian, Amma promotes compassion and unity, meditation and vegetarianism. She seems to float above reproach.
But in India, far from representing an escape from politics, Hindu gurus are potent political luminaries who do not float above the fray. Amma, along with self-styled saints like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who founded the controversy-courting Art of Living Foundation and was praised last year by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have arguably contributed to a rising tide of Hindu nationalism and a growing intolerance toward non-Hindu faiths.
“While using the language of universalism, tolerance, good health, and peace, they very clearly propagate a world view of India as a Hindu nation, Hinduism as a superior religion, and the need to make India (indeed the whole world) more Hindu,” wrote Indian historian Meera Nanda in 2011.
Amma’s inner circle — and certainly her followers — have been open about their distaste for Trump. “I’m sure Amma’s return has brought a wave of relief to everyone’s hearts,” said an orange-clad associate who introduced the guru to the stage during the program, as he chuckled in sympathy with the audience. The vast event room was overflowing, with attendees sitting bolt-upright on red chairs, eyes shining. “It’s only been one year since Amma last came to DC. But for many of you it must have felt like a very long year.”
But Amma seems to have a blind spot when it comes to the ruling Hindu nationalist, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Modi. She has met with both him and BJP President Amit Shah to give private blessings, and has been provided with a VIP security detail by the BJP.
Journalist Liz Mathew, writing for The Indian Express in 2015, reported that Amma had “helped the coming together of various Hindu organizations” as consolidated parties within the government, in order to launch a more powerful coalition. A source inside the BJP claimed Amma wanted to form political “platform of Hindu unity.”
While outside of India, Amma is admired for her New Age veneer and a seemingly ecumenical approach — including a Christmas pageant at her ashram in Kerala, and a repeated insistence on unity — both her spiritual lexicon and political vocabulary are uniformly Hindu. Amma’s multimillion dollar empire is part of the “explosion of popular Hindu religiosity” that has been given years of support by the “supposedly secular Indian government,” writes Nanda. She called this “soft Hindutva,” referring to the nationalist belief in Hindu hegemony that forms the ideological backbone of the BJP.
Modi, who recently crushed Trump in a bear hug during their first meeting, gave a 2013 speech in honor of Amma’s 60th birthday, which he attended describing himself as a “humble devotee of Amma.” In a laudatory speech from Amma’s bubblegum-pink headquarters, Modi invoked India’s ancient spiritual heritage: “The role model of Rishis, Munis, and Gurus” — seers, seekers, and sages — “is in front of us today.” He said that although people may talk about “inclusive growth” and “welfare of the poor” from an economic standpoint, the greatest guidance “for any Indian political party” remains the Puranas and Vedas — foundational Hindu texts. This is the rough equivalent of a Texas politician citing the Bible as a guide to health care policy.
Amma’s nonprofit organization Embracing the World has pledged $30 million to Modi’s “Clean India” movement, to aid in the construction of new toilets. It’s a staggering contribution, but her involvement in Modi’s “pet project” was couched in religious exclusivity: in her remarks, Amma spoke of the “sacred river” Ganges and cited water as “one of the five elements of nature that Indian culture deeply reveres,” not mentioning this is Hindu theology and not national culture.
In India’s ruling party, the notion of Hindu supremacy is alive and well. “There is nothing wrong in the Hindu rashtra concept,” said Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath, BJP’s newly elected chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, this past April, endorsing the view of India as a Hindu nation.
Even a push toward a vegetarian diet can quickly go political in India. The BJP has called for a ban on beef (a move critics have dubbed “food fascism”), shaking India’s foundations as a secular republic. The crackdown on beef-eaters — chief among them Muslims, Christians, and low-caste Dalits — has led to an outbreak of so-called “cow vigilantism,” where cattle traders have been slaughtered by lynch mobs. Almost all the violence has taken place after Modi assumed office in 2014.
Amma’s summer tour coincides with a spate of protests across India, which has seen scores of Hindus, many wielding “Not in My Name” banners, take to the streets to march against escalating attacks against Muslims. On June 22, a Muslim teen who was returning home from Eid shopping on the outskirts of Delhi was fatally stabbed by a mob of train passengers, witnessed hurling religious insults.
Back at the Washington, DC event, the only indications of the tumult at home were the security screenings — a first for Amma’s world tours. “It’s a sign of the times, unfortunately,” a volunteer bag-checker confided.
Toward the end of the night, as Amma asked the audience to join her in a prayer for world peace, and we were instructed to imagine “a shower of pure white flowers” blanketing the earth, while jumbo TV screens showed a screensaver like image of pixelated falling petals.
“Seeing the other will divide us,” Amma said in her native Malayalam. “Seeing the whole will lift us to the undivided state.” The audience members, eyes intermittently closed in prayer, held up their hands in unison and chanted, “Jai Ma!” (Victory to the Mother).
None of them seemed to note the fact that “oneness” is far easier to preach when you already represent the dominant political power. They had come to escape from politics, after all.