As outward appearances go, Amrita looked like any other 7 year old in her fishing village, in Kerala, India. Brown skin, oiled hair, pigtails, and dressed in the traditional modest long skirt with a loose blouse. Her father was a poor fisherman and she was third oldest among seven siblings.
Like all other kids, she would walk to and from the village school every day. One day in her schoolyard she noticed a pregnant stray dog, resting in the shade of a giant tree. Some boys were hurling stones and sticks at it. You know how cruel little boys can be, without even realizing it. Amrita requested them to stop but since when do little mobsters listen to little girls?
So Amrita did the next best thing. She affectionately patted the dog and coaxed it to find sanctuary under another tree, some distance away. A few days later, she was delighted to see a litter of four puppies. They were cute and playful. Amrita shared some of her lunch with the doting mother who was suckling her young ones.
However, the following day, the scene could not be more different. As Amrita approached her school, she picked up an incessant wailing. She rushed and found that it was the same young mother. Next to her were the lifeless bodies of two pups. The remaining two were nowhere to be found. Clearly, she had been yowling in grief for a long time. Amrita was viscerally tormented. She started speaking in Malayalam, her mother tongue, to the distraught mother in soft comforting tones.
“I feel your pain. It is terrible to lose your children.”
Amrita slowly walked towards her.
“I cannot bring them back but I want you to know that I love you.”
She gently sat down and continued to apply the oral balm.
“Don’t feel that all is lost. Surely there is a greater plan.”
By then, a crowd of boys had formed, some silently evaluating the merits of an assault on the noisy dog.
“Mother says, pain becomes tolerable if you share it. I’m here to share your pain.”
Amrita caressed the dog with long smooth strokes on her back. She continued whispering tender words of comfort. The dog rolled over and put her head in Amrita’s lap. Amrita sat there embracing the dog for an over an hour, chanting the few Hindu mantras she knew. The bereaved mother slept and the crowd dispersed.
From that day onwards Amrita withdrew into a silent shell and became something of a loner. She made a habit of leaving home in the pre-dawn stillness to go to the beach. There, she would sit for hours in the lotus position, facing the Arabian Sea with eyes closed in deep contemplation. At times it would seem she had stopped breathing, with no rhythmic rise and fall of the chest. Flies would settle on her face, birds on her head, stray dogs and cats around her. Even squirrels would come to rest against the warmth of her body.
Three years passed in this meditative phase where Amrita remained peacefully reclusive. Being lost in a world of her own, she acquired the reputation of an eccentric.
“Every village has to have an idiot,” they would say, unkindly.
Village people, including her own family, gave her a wide berth for she had miraculously memorized hundreds of arcane scriptural verses. It was as if she had plucked them out of thin air. She had also developed some strange habits. Animals of all species were drawn to her. Goats, buffaloes and even horses would come to her in the street and nuzzle against her. She would pet them affectionately and speak to them.
While it was sporadically acknowledged behind closed doors that little Amrita had a certain inexplicable charm and ‘energy’, gossip never scaled the threshold of comprehension. But then humans are not really known to value intuition over intellect.
It was only in her 11th year that Amrita revealed herself to the world. It was as if the pupa had shed the chrysalis and emerged as a resplendent butterfly. She dazzled with an ethereal glow.
It so happened that a fisherman in her neighbourhood died, leaving behind an inconsolable family of six. After the funeral rituals concluded and the relatives departed, Amrita decided to stay back with the grieving family. She spoke to each one of them and hugged them. She spoke of the divine voices that had whispered to her over the waves, as she sat meditating. She shared the truth of the infinite love in the universe for all living creatures. Thus was revealed her superpower of compassion.
There were other incidents in the village, the usual misfortunes in the cycle of life when the human spirit is crushed by the forces of destiny and Amrita was always around wielding little else than a kind voice and a warm hug. She would be found anywhere a tear was being shed. She hugged every hapless soul even the ones belonging to the lower castes.
Her fraternizing with the lower castes caused considerable commotion in their little village. Centuries of societal rules, that have held humanity in balance, don’t disintegrate overnight. The old equilibrium of the caste system may not have been desirable, but it was a system that seemed to work. The division of labour and segregation of peoples was foundational to the administration of any society. The village chief couldn't allow a chit of a girl to upend it all. He proposed a move to ostracise Amrita’s family, polarizing the community.
Amrita's family were understandably anxious. Her older brothers had an added concern, for they did not relish the idea of her hugging all and sundry. She was coming of age, after all.
“Who would ever marry her?” Her father lamented.
While the village was swirling in such turmoil, the village chief’s young son was reported lost at sea. His fishing expedition had been lost in a typhoon. The chief’s wife was hysterical and when all else failed, Amrita was sent for. Amrita’s beatific calmness pacified the lady. Those who witnessed the episode claim that Amrita draped herself on the lady, like a fabric of divine light.
Steadily, Amrita’s renown grew and people started seeking her out. The diseased, the heartbroken, the hopeless, even from the neighbouring villages, arrived at her doorstep. They took to calling her Amma, or Mother. Many came bearing gifts - clothes, food, and money. Amma distributed these offerings to those in need.
When she turned 16, Amma took a vow of chastity. With the help of friends and family, she built a commune, close to the village, where she would receive all those who needed hope and a hug. She delivered sermons on the need to adopt a simpler way of life – to be kind to one another, to take care of the environment and live frugally. With time, she came to be known as the Hugging Saint.
Amma’s fame grew over the years, and the rich and famous flew to her from all over the world. Politicians, Businessmen, Rockstars, and Film actors queued up for her hugs. She’s met Presidents and Queens, and even Pope Francis. Yet in a typical day, she can still be seen hugging the homeless and the lepers, infusing love and hope, like a mother would.
Amma is nearly 67 years old now and is said to have hugged nearly 37 million people globally, translating to more than 1500 people, every living day.