If this is Mother Love, we all need a lot more of it
Rosita Sweetman is well and truly Amma'd after meeting the 'hugging saint'
She's tiny and a great deal earthier than they make her out to be in the brochures, with huge, lively eyes, a wonderful smile, and so far, in her 54 years on this earth, she's estimated to have hugged somewhere around 28 million people worldwide.
She's Amma, the 'hugging saint' from India, who recently made her fourth trip to Ireland, dispensing 'darshan' in the National Show Centre in north Dublin, which was transformed into a fragrant temple of Indian beauty with banks of fresh flowers, incense, a band playing sacred bhagans and the delicious aroma of Indian food wafting in from the kitchens.
Amma, 'Mother', whom followers believe is a living saint, a Mahatma, described by renowned primatologist and conservationist Dr Jane Goodall (not a woman given to hyperbole), as "God's love in a human body", sits crosslegged, facing the stream of people coming towards her for their hug, or 'darshan'.
Men, women, teenagers, babies, grannies, grandads kneel, get a blast of that incredible smile, are reached for and pressed to Amma's bosom. Many start shaking as tears flow almost immediately. "My job," Amma says simply, "is to console." Her quest is Universal Motherhood. Unconditional love for all.
Notebook in hand, I'm jammed in beside Amma, a whirring fan, and her chief Swami, there to translate. I'm terrified. What if she's a swizz? What if she thinks I'm a swizz? And how exactly do you question a 'Living Saint'?
Swami is waiting, pen in hand. Okay, what does Amma hope to achieve with her hugs?
A vigorous stream of Kerala from Amma, who continues to hug, kiss, pat, whisper, smile, console, is translated by the Swami as, "Mother says she doesn't expect anything. She never tries to force anything. She is just trying to create a little space in people's hearts so they then will have a little space for another person."
"I'm just here to give," says Amma."If we all did that, we would have a heaven on earth! I know that is very difficult. It is a dream. But it's nice to have a good dream."
She smiles. "Love is the driving force of all life," says Amma, holding a little girl to her. "Without love we cannot take our life to greater heights. But these days it's as if we're giving birth to orphans. The mother and the father are both looking for their freedom and the children are forgotten. Because the children don't get love when they're little, their hearts are closed. Even if they get love afterwards, their hearts can remain closed for ever."
Mother Love, unconditional love, is the energy that cares for every living thing on earth, which is basically, what Amma has been doing for years.
Brought up in a poor fishing village in southern India, she did not have an easy start. Her parents, simple folk, were aghast at their hymn-singing "crazy girl" daughter, sharing the family food with starving indigents and preaching the joys of unconditional love; but, as her biography chillingly puts it, "neither repeated beatings nor her brother's attempts to have her stabbed to death could stop her".
She was turned into the family domestic and at one stage, things got so bad, Amma tried to die. Not that she blames her parents. They were simple people who just wanted their daughter to be normal,, be good, and get married like everyone else.
Amma, however, was having none of it, and the spirit that survived the ferocious childhood now runs one of the biggest humanitarian non-governmental organisations in the world, MAM, operating hospitals, laboratories, universities, schools, orphanages, free meals, legal aid, new homes for those affected by the tsunami (many houses were built while everyone else was still basically arguing).
Amma's spirituality is practical. Yes you pray, and meditate and sing but you also get out there and help the poor, the downtrodden, the desperate. Some 97 per cent of the money raised by her charities goes to those in need.
Now it's time for my hug. I kneel down, look into those sparkling eyes and am pulled forward, Amma leaning in to press her cheek, bruised black and purple from so many embraces, against mine, her hands, feather light, patting my back. The world falls away.
I was worried it was all going to be horribly soppy I hear gurgling laughter, and Amma is pressing her lips against my ear, her voice going, "Gurra gurra gurra gurra, ma, ma, ma ma", and now a voice deep inside me, so deep I never even knew it existed, is going, "Release! Release!" and I feel something unwinding inside, a wonderful letting go, and the voice urging, "Let it go! Let it go!"
Then, Amma holds me up, laughing that wonderful silver laugh, smiling into my eyes, kissing my hands, as I stand up, am handed back pen, book, bag, scarf, and I walk back down the hall feeling as if I'd drunk Life itself, or Goodness itself, and I can't stop smiling this enormous goofy smile, everyone I pass smiling back, knowing I've been Amma'd.
As I stumble back out into the rain-sodden reality of a November day in Ireland, I'm thinking, if this is Love, if this is Unconditional Mother Love, I want more. I want more!
Oh yes, I think we can definitively say she's the real thing all right, and I've definitively been Amma'd.