I soon broached the subject of the failure of the Indian government to provide services. She told me: “It is like somebody gets bitten by a snake and, by the time they figure out what kind of snake it is, the person dies. That is what happens with government intervention.”
The most striking example of this, she said, occurred after the 2004 tsunami, when her relief operation effectively stepped in for the government.
More recently, in 2011, Amma organized a cleanup at Sabarimala, a mountaintop temple in southern India, which attracts religious pilgrims — more than Mecca each year — who leave thousands of tons of trash. Ostensibly, the man to fix this problem was K. Jayakumar, who manages Kerala’s nearly one million government employees. Mr. Jayakumar, however, told me bluntly that, in his experience, you simply couldn’t pay people to do this kind of work well. So he called Amma.
She dispatched 4,000 followers, who got the job done in a few days. At the time, Amma was in Spain on a hugging tour, but she monitored the cleanup via webcam. She succeeded where the government failed, and for a simple reason, Mr. Jayakumar told me: she possessed divine authority.
“It is an advantage,” he said. “The only thing is, if she makes a mistake, nobody will point it out.”
During our chat, Amma told me that she and her “children” never disagree and that this was one key to her success. “Even if the people in the government stand together and do things, they can’t implement their actions without discussing it over several meetings,” she said. “I’m not blaming them, but this is the only way they can do it.”
Wasn’t there ever a single occasion, I asked, when one of her devotees contradicted or doubted her? “To date there has been no major difference of opinion between Amma and her children,” she told me, matter-of-factly. “Until now, we have functioned as one mind.” What’s more, Amma said, she always led by example. “I am the first person to get down into the septic tank and clean the feces,” she said.
Perhaps inevitably, Amma’s authority occasionally ends up shaping the personal lives of her followers. I talked to one middle-aged American follower who said he racked up $40,000 in credit-card debt for multiple trips to India to see Amma. “I figured people take loans for education, for houses, for cars,” he said. “I’m doing it for my spiritual growth.” Two of my guides later tried to dissuade me from talking further with the man.
Another foreigner, who has lived at the ashram for years, told me that longtime residents were “not supposed to make big life-changing decisions without telling Amma.” She sometimes has “really strong opinions about whether certain people should have kids,” said the devotee, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being identified as a dissenter within the community.
In our conversation, Amma was adamant that she does not tell her devotees when to marry, whether to have children or how to live their lives, and she seemed intent on dispelling the notion that her organization was in any way a cult.
“I don’t like it when people say that I have divine powers,” she told me. (This preference had not influenced her authorized biography, however, which discussed at length the miracles she had performed.) “I don’t tell people that you can only attain enlightenment through one way,” she said. “If you think love is a cult, then I can’t do anything. My religion is love.”<nyt_text>
DURING the days I spent at the ashram, devotees kept asking me if I sensed Amma’s divinity. My honest feeling was, not really. That being said, I understand how other people might feel that way about her — especially in India, where the failure of services and infrastructure is often a given.
In the city where I lived, Trivandrum, the electricity failed so often that whenever I turned off the lights, my 3-year-old son would exclaim, “Power’s out!” A more disturbing example involves Bihar, India’s poorest state, where the government’s public distribution system is supposed to provide free grain to the impoverished masses. But studies have suggested that only between 10 and 45 percent of the grain reaches the intended recipients, with the rest effectively stolen and sold on the black market. All of this is to say that when someone emerges who can get things done properly and efficiently — even some of the time — it’s easy to understand why that person can seem superhuman.
This became most apparent to me one afternoon while speaking with Dr. Krishna Kumar, a pediatric cardiologist who trained at Boston Children’s Hospital. I followed him around as he met with patients at Amma’s AIMS Hospital, a 1,500-bed facility in the nearby city of Kochi. Dr. Kumar said that when he finished his training, in 1996, there were many pediatric cardiologists in the United States and just a handful in India. That fact alone inspired him to return to the subcontinent.
“I thought I should use my training to make some difference back in India,” he told me. He said he landed a job at a private hospital in New Delhi but quickly became “deeply disheartened” that the hospital was turning away 90 percent of would-be patients because they couldn’t pay; that number included children who might die from a heart problem that he could have fixed.
Dr. Kumar said he wanted to practice medicine in a different way but saw no other options. Then, one day in 1997, he got a call from Ron Gottsegen, the chief executive of Amma’s hospital, who encouraged him to come work for Amma. “I was very skeptical,” Dr. Kumar said. “I didn’t believe that a religious leader could run a medical institution.”
Even when he met Amma, he wasn’t entirely convinced. When I asked him if he ever had a spiritual epiphany in her presence, he replied: “Not at all — nothing like that whatsoever.” Instead, he said, Amma has “grown on me” over time. He is grateful to her, he said, for giving him a chance to build the kind of practice that helps poor people. At Amma’s hospital, patients must pay at least some portion of their bill, though often it is a minimal amount.
Late in the day, Dr. Kumar met the mother of a teenager who had just had open-heart surgery, at almost no cost. He told the mother, who worked as a maid and earned roughly $40 a month, that her daughter would be fine. The woman was so overcome with relief that she began to weep and dropped to her knees and touched her head to the doctor’s feet, and then to my feet as well. Afterward, I asked Dr. Kumar what that was about.
“It is a sign of extreme respect,” he replied uncomfortably. “As doctors, we almost have a godlike status in India. It is unfortunate — we do not deserve it — we are just human.”
LAST July, near the end of another two-month United States tour by Amma, I traveled to Alexandria, Va., where she was holding a hugging session at a Hilton hotel. The place bustled: there were families who traveled with Amma for their summer vacations and first-timers who wandered in on a whim.
“My therapist told me to come,” Leslie Sargent, a high-school guidance counselor, said. Moments later I met the therapist, Sharon Bauer, who seemed pleased to see her patient. “The energy that Amma transmits deepens our sense of inner essence,” she said.
Amma’s organization says that the purpose of these events is not to raise money and that foreign contributions account for only a third of all donations. Nonetheless, donation boxes were placed at almost every turn, and donations can be quite sizable. In 2009, one benefactor bought the former home of Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver near Washington for $7.8 million and donated it to Amma as a local meeting house.
The entire back portion of the Hilton’s ballroom had been converted into a mini-mall, where visitors could buy an array of Amma-related products. At one shop, some crystals cost as much as $500. A vendor told me that “if Amma touches the crystal, some of her energy goes into it.”
A medicinal shop sold a tincture from the flowers in Amma’s garland that promised to fight “colds, flus, stomach aches and even cancer.” And, next to a pole on which four security cameras were mounted, a table was laden with sweaters, bathrobes and nightgowns. “These are items that Amma has worn,” the saleswoman said.
Proceeds from all the sales go to Amma’s organization, for charitable work and to cover expenses.
As I mingled with the shoppers, I bumped into a couple from Washington, D.C. — Ian and Debra Mishalove — who run a yoga studio. Mr. Mishalove had just bought two necklaces.
I asked what motivated them to support Amma financially. “I know very little about what she does,” he acknowledged, “but I have seen literature about her helping people in need.”
“She has charities alleviating hunger and helping with disasters,” his wife added.
“This is the nicest kind of commerce,” he said.
We parted ways, and I headed over to the jewelry shop where Mr. Mishalove had just bought the necklaces. The saleswoman, Nihsima Sandhu, 48, from San Francisco, told me that she previously worked at Saks Fifth Avenue, but that she now sold jewelry for Amma instead, which gave her much more satisfaction.
The saleswoman paused to tell a customer that Amma had, in fact, touched a particular item. Does that mean, I inquired, that the item is blessed? The saleswoman smiled and then assured me, “Everything in this room is blessed.”