The “Hugging Saint” Amma’s recent visit to Dublin

First Person Opinion
By: Sarah Reilly

The ‘Hugging Saint’, Amma, recently ran a two-day “Embracing the World” programme in Dublin.

The event was held in the National Show Centre, Swords from 17th – 18th November 2012.

It was last month that I first caught sight of the promotional-posters, advertising Amma’s planned visit to Dublin and despite my initial skepticism, I decided to attend the event.

Intrigued by what her visit might entail, I wasted no time in contacting Amma’s press-team to get permission to take photographs and carry out interviews at the event. Many of the images I captured at the event can be seen in the slide-show below.

To kick-start my visit, I took a few minutes just observing the National Show Centre turned Buddhist-haven.

I soon got chatting to volunteers working on the many different stalls. Some appeared suspicious, and questioned my intentions. This is something I was taken aback by, considering that the event was very much a public one.

After a while, the volunteers warmed to me and opened up in relation to their various tasks.

Karma Thubten, a strict Buddhist and musician with the Dublin Satsang group, was one of those volunteers. “The Satsang group gathers regularly and we focus on Amma’s message of love, through music and meditation. I have been involved with Amma-Ireland the past few years. My life is governed by being compassionate,” he said.

The event was marketed as ‘free’, yet one could not help but notice the countless huge donations boxes which were scattered around the hall. Food was far from free or cheap for that matter, and everywhere I looked money was exchanging hands for one thing or another.

The event was also marketed as being all about “giving”, in which case I couldn’t help but question why so many items were on sale. Atulita Walkden Browne, who was volunteering on a traditional Indian clothes stand said, “All these beautiful pieces were brought over from India. They were given as gifts to Amma from Indian women and are being sold on today to raise money for her various charities”.

Other gifts that Amma had decided to sell on at the event were items of jewellery. Praveena Pichini, who was volunteering on one of the jewellery stands said, “The pieces featured here were worn by the statues in Amma’s temple in Kerala, South India. They are very valuable to Amma devotees”.

Namitha Schaefer was selling Indian Yantra cards. Each card cost 12 euro. Ms. Schaefer described the images on the Yantra cards as “traditional symbols” which are thousands of years old. “They are as they are and cannot be changed. All the symbols each hold different meanings. The Lakshmi Yantra for example, symbolises prosperity, love and beauty”, she said.

Volunteering on the handcraft stand, was Swaminc Krishna. “These handicrafts were made by Indian-natives whilst they said the Mantra, so the vibration they put in whilst making them adds positive energy. The people who buy these items are happy because their money is going to charity. All in all it is a beautiful cycle of giving”.

Also on-sale at Ms. Krishna’s stall, were items marketed as having been previously worn by Amma herself. But when asked no-one could tell me the price at which one of the key pieces, a heavy silver bracelet, was being sold for.

Sugandhi Brown was in charge of the Tulasi-tea stall. “Tulasi-tea is highly medicinal. It is considered a sacred plant in India and Amma recommends it for its healing properties”, she said.

Volunteer usher, Hillary Bodell explained, “I love Amma. Through following her, I have met a lot of people who are very loving and very kind and I’m really happy to be helping out this weekend.” Ms. Bodell first heard of Amma a few years ago. “I was very ill with a Multiple Sclerosis type condition and was wheelchair bound. Some friends of mine knew about Amma and told me about her healing power. I really believe Amma helped to cure me”.

It wouldn’t be far off the mark to describe Amma’s volunteers and followers as ‘disciples’, though they are obviously sincere in their beliefs. The highlight of the event for many Amma followers was the free hug or ‘Darshan’ as Amma refers to it.

Niamh Gallagher explained how she had received her first hug from Amma in 1994 and has been a keen follower ever since. “Volunteering at this event doesn’t feel like work. The weekend is going great,” she said.

There were alternative therapy and massage booths set up, with volunteer specialists carrying out the treatments. This acted as yet another fundraising method and the therapy booths were consistently booked out over the duration of the two days. Her supporters will point to the money that Amma donates to charitable causes. Her detractors will point to the ‘impressive portofolio of property’ amassed by her organisation as American magazine Rolling Stone pointed out in an article earlier this year.

As for me, while I have no qualms in supporting worthy causes, I remain more sceptical than ever in relation to such ‘spiritual’ organisations. Amma, whose real name is Mātā Amṛtānandamayī Devī, has ingeniously become a highly marketable and very powerful product.

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