At 8:30am, the Hugging Saint stands up for the first time after hugging streams of people for 14 hours straight. A month before, she was in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Finland, and the UK before making her way to California, not even a week before coming to Michigan. As a first grader, I remember thinking that she could be easily passed off as a celebrity while people flocked to touch her outstretched hands when she walked out of the hall after staying up all night (a seemingly impossible feat for a six year old like myself), meeting the thousands of people who had come to see her. After 12 years, she is in a way, still a rock star to me: achieving the impossible, spreading love and inspiration, sparking and embodying a movement.
Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, known as the Hugging Saint and affectionately called Amma (mother), is a humanitarian and the founder of Embracing the World, a global network of charitable activities with projects in over 40 countries. She is most well-known by the 34 million people who have gone to meet her, and she greets each one of them with a heartfelt hug.
Since I was young, I have been involved in Amma’s charitable activities. After the 2004 tsunami, my parents had gone to south India to help build houses for the demolished villages near Amma’s center. Even in such a time of turmoil, the center was a place of joy and peace as I would play in the warm Kerala beach sand. Only later, when I started volunteering in Embracing the World’s charity projects locally, did I start seeing the simple beauty that Amma’s life of serving others conveys.
AYUDH, the youth wing of Embracing the World, of which I am a member, has a Michigan Chapter at the University of Michigan. During the Christmas season last year, I had the joy of caroling with the group at the Sunrise Senior Home. What stuck with me most from that experience was not the volunteering itself, but rather the opportunity to interact with the residents of the center; some of them greeted us like friends. I heard stories that dated back to World War 1, and formed bonds with strangers and their families. That I will treasure forever, and it also had me thinking that I, as a 15 year old, can bring a little bit of joy to someone, a total stranger who I have never met before and may never again in the future. It clicked at that point that this is exactly what Amma is doing – reaching out to total strangers from all over the world with no conventional barriers of color or language or status.
Since then, I try not to lose an opportunity to reach out into the community more. I’ve found a rewarding experience in delivering meals through Meals on Wheels and listening to senior citizens make comments about the weather or their grandchildren, and most importantly, being heard.
The AYUDH members then decided we should take on an environmental program, and enrolled in Adopt a Highway. There are very few times in my life when I felt as vulnerable as I did, standing on the side of US 23 in a fluorescent yellow vest and gloves, picking-up garbage from the grass with one hand and holding an Adopt a Highway trash bag in the other. Yet on the way home, sipping blue Gatorade with other AYUDH members, I felt content knowing that the highway was six trash bags full cleaner than before.
This is what I’ve learned from watching Amma: that I have the potential to leave the world a little nicer. With a smile, a kind word, a friendly ear, an acknowledgment or a hug, I can be a candle sharing my flame to light millions of candles. That service is not lofty and unattainable but rather simple, caring, and human.
Parvathy Krishna, 16 years old