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Meeting “The Hugging Guru”

July 26, 2010

From America Magazine Marlborough, MA. I was invited to speak last evening at an appearance in one of the Boston suburbs of the famous modern Indian teacher, Mata Amritanandamayi (literally, “the mother,” “the one entirely composed of bliss in the imperishable”)— Amma, mother, who tours the world regularly, and has been widely honored for her charitable works for the poor in many places. She is also famous for embracing those who come to see her. For she is also “the hugging guru,” and is known to receive for hours at a time whoever comes to her, embracing them warmly and with a loving smile. She is also considered, by many of her disciples, simply a divine person come down to earth. So I had the opportunity to speak a few words in introduction to her own lecture (in Malayalam, her native South Indian language, with a subsequent translation read by a discipline) and subsequent devotional hymns and a long evening of embraces. I was invited partly as a specialist in Hindu-Christian relations, and partly, I suspect, as a Harvard professor. But what to do, speaking a few word before nearly 1000 people (mostly Western, most “converted” to being her devotees) gathered to see this person they know to be divine? One might turn down such a request, of course, but if one does accept it, how to speak in a way that honors the occasion, respects her loving presence and good works, while yet also communicating something of Christian love too? It is quite a challenge to weave everything together in the right balance, definitely a Catholic and definitely standing before so large a group of very sincere devotee of Amma. So I pondered this for days, finally accepted the invitation, and eventually came up with the speech below; I showed up in my Roman collar, gave my talk, garlanded her, was embraced by her, spoke with her in Tamil for a brief moment, and enjoyed it all. But see what you think of my little speech. Did I say too much? too little? would you agree to speak on such an occasion? Here it is (though also click here for the summary and video excerpt posted by Amma’s organization): “Namaste, vanakkam, good evening. It is a grace to be here tonight with you. I know that we all travel by so many personal paths, yet by a singular invitation we are here together for a time, and that is good that it is so. I offer you this ancient Jewish blessing as we collect ourselves: “May the Lord bless us and keep us;  / may the Lord make his face to shine upon us,  / and be gracious to us;  / may the Lord lift up his face upon us,  / and give us peace. Amen.” (Numbers 6) “We are here tonight, gathered together with Amritanandamayi Amma. When we speak this name — Amritananda-mayi, “perfect, complete in the bliss of the imperishable” — the Sanskrit scholars among us may think first on a philosophical level, perhaps turning to the Upanisads to probe the meaning of “bliss” and “the imperishable.” We may eventually think of the undying spark within all beings, and of a bliss grounded in the highest immortal Reality. “But we also know that this name — Amritanandamayi — tells us something simpler and more immediate. We are invited to see how our guest — our host — is open to the undying Spirit that blows where it will — in, through, and around each of us. With her tonight, we learn again to stop covering our light with a bushel basket, and to share the bliss that is within us.” Click here to read the entire article.