It’s 8am on a cold October morning when we find ourselves on the terrace outside Alexandra Palace in a thick, freezing mist. Despite the only visible monument amongst the smog being the scary, spiky phallus of the Ally Pally radio tower, we are here to experience something wholly female. We’ve been sent by the New Statesman to see Sri Mata Amritanandamayi, a woman more often known as Amma, meaning simply "mother", and sometimes referred to as "the Hugging Saint". Here at the "People’s Palace", we are two people of the thousands will witness - and receive - darshan, a process whereby she embraces those in need of comfort and reassurance. Apparently Amma has hugged over 32 million people worldwide, and, considering the furore over our last New Statesman article, we are in desperate need of a cuddle.
As we queue and then sit waiting for Amma to appear, we discuss how unusual it is for a lone woman to be worshipped and revered in the context of religious or spiritual belief. While the Virgin Mary might be seen as an exception to that rule, particularly in the case of Catholicism, it’s important to remember that she only gave birth once, and is defined by the fact that she brought forth a world-changing male. Otherwise, Christianity’s ratio of saints is weighted heavily towards men. And apart from a Sacred Feminine denomination of Hinduism, almost all of the largest religions in the world are also heavy on the gods rather than the goddesses; female spiritual figures are often passively involved in a process that leads to male activity. Amma, meanwhile, has no biological children herself, but is considered a mother to everyone, actively seeking out those in need of embracing and bringing what she considers to be "divine love" to them through the power of her own affection. If you’re looking for the cult of motherhood, than this might be it.
Although Amma is often referred to as a Hindu spiritual leader, her teachings do not actually coincide with any one set of spiritual beliefs. Rather, she uses a range of practices and prayers from various different religions. We decided not to read up too much on Amma before meeting her, lest it taint our perspective of the experience, but it’s probably fair to say that we were expecting everything to be pretty new-agey and hippyish. And while the air smelled of joss sticks and there was the odd dreadlocked die-hard crusty in tie-dyed pyjamas present, on entering the palace we were confronted with a surprisingly varied "congregation" comprising men and women of all ages and races. By 8.30am, the place was packed, and the air was filled with the delicious smell of pakora (we had seven) as we prepared to meet the Mother.
Motherhood has always been a sticky issue for feminists. A recent Netmums study claimed that women of child-bearing age are rejecting the "feminist" label in part because of a perceived lack of respect for the mothering role. This is something that Amma appears to agree with. As she throws her arms around her followers, she talks to us briefly about her interpretation of womanhood. While Amma firmly believes in gender equality (she once said "In God’s creation, men and women are equal. But over the centuries, the sad condition of women has not significantly improved. Women, who give birth to humankind, should be assured an equal role in society"), during our short interview she expresses frustration at the idea that, in gaining rights, women have lost much of the respect that should be afforded to motherhood. It is motherhood, after all, that "sustains the world". As she juggles the act of cuddling and answering our questions, she explains what she believes has gone wrong with the struggle for equality: "Love is a great healer," she says, but "without love and understanding, men and women will collide - that is what is happening today." Particularly Amma says that, in the struggle for equality, "women should be careful not to develop an inferiority complex. That can kill their spirit, their courage, and their strength."
These views may not chime with feminist orthodoxy, but that’s not to say that Amma believes women should be nothing more than baby-producing machines. Much of her foundation’s charity work, which includes founding 5,000 self-help groups made up of over 100,000 women, providing vocational education, micro-credit loans and entrepreneurial, focuses on empowering women when they might otherwise have experienced motherhood as entrapment in the home. Thanks to a grant from the UN, they have developed sophisticated technology (based upon flight simulators for pilots) to train women struggling to make ends meet in their families to be plumbers. Use of the computer programme itself has done wonders to change a cultural perception of plumbing from "dirty, male work" to a skilled vocation, some of Amma’s volunteers explain. This sort of thinking has had real effect on the ground in some of the world’s poorest regions.
She herself has been no stranger to oppression. She first started hugging as a young girl, in a community where it was unheard of for a woman to embrace strangers, especially of the opposite sex. She is said to have suffered repeated beatings and even attempted murder at the hands of her own family before her vocation was accepted. Nowadays, she is recognised and referred to in India as a mahatma (translating literally as "great soul"), but says of her childhood that "women are expected to remain in the background... My family could not understand why I was so open and direct."
It is this openness and directness that seems manifest in the philosophy of Amma and her followers. They certainly appear testament to the notion of doing rather than saying, and the way in which they measure their success by statistical results rather than "spreading the faith" is reassuring. As we are both naturally resistant to any kind of dogmatism, whether from religious groups or political ones (including feminists), Amma’s work represents the kind of grassroots activity that we can get on board with. Making a practical difference to many women’s lives is more empowering than any amount of preaching or theory. Amma seems to practice equality in everything that she does, yet always on a foundation of the "feminine virtues" of compassion and nurturing.
It’s possible that the reason motherhood has lost its social reverence is tied up in the idea of female passivity. Yet here, in the centre of the gigantic hall, as we wait to be hugged by her, Amma seems anything but passive. She is not domineering, and yet she appears to hold an undeniable presence that demands respect. Perhaps the contrasting proactivity of the Amma phenomenon - and its resounding success amongst the world populace - speaks of a forthcoming change in perception. Everyone who’s been a mother knows that it’s certainly an active job, and that demonstrating a mother’s love is an active process (hence why, like many natural mothers, she only sleeps three hours a night).
Before we leave, Amma embraces both of us, and we definitely depart feeling more relaxed - we’re not about to up sticks and join the movement, but we’re definitely feeling less stressed out. Suddenly, strangers shouting at us on Twitter is of little concern. It’s quite some cuddle; not life-changing, perhaps, but very pleasant. Being mother to everyone must be a difficult task - but of course, even those with fewer than seven billion in their brood are worthy of society’s deep respect. And while Amma’s cuddles are cosy, we have to say: nothing, but nothing, beats a hug from your mum.