'Hugging saint' returns to East Bay worship site

The sign marking the turn-off on Crow Canyon Road in rural Castro Valley reads simply "M.A. Center." The dirt road leads into a hidden valley where a rustic worship hall serves as a Hindu ashram for one of India's most popular gurus.

The M.A. stands for Mata Amritanandamayi, the charismatic "hugging saint," who is popularly known as "Amma" -- mother. This quiet ravine, with signs marking "Amma's vegetables" and "Amma's flowers," is the U.S. headquarters for a burgeoning spiritual movement that runs charity hospitals, schools and scientific institutes in India. It is all inspired by Amritanandamayi's hugs, which are said to be energizing and bliss-inducing.

Tuesday, the 50-year-old guru is coming to the Castro Valley ashram for 12 days on one of her twice-a-year U.S. tours, and she is expected to dole out 10-second hugs to thousands of seekers. Experts on religious sects say her group appears to be a benign, or harmless, personality cult. But Amritanandamayi and her vast enterprise -- estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars -- have not escaped controversy back in India.

Critics in her home state of Kerala warn of what they call the group's "unhealthy" political ties to Hindu fundamentalists, who advocate Hindu supremacy in India's multicultural secular state. An author who criticized claims that the guru had performed miracle cures is being threatened by a devotee with criminal prosecution for religious defamation, prompting protests by free-speech advocates.

Amritanandamayi's message, however, is one of compassion, peace and tolerance, her supporters say.

The child of a low-caste clan of fishermen, she was born blue -- the color of Krishna -- walked and talked at 6 months and started meditating at age 3, according to her official biography. With only a fourth-grade education, she defied hostile relatives and survived abusive parents to pursue a spiritual path after a childhood of trances and mystical visions. Later in life, her charitable work earned her comparisons to Mother Teresa, India's beatified Catholic missionary. Amritanandamayi opened orphanages and built homes for the poor.

"Receiving my first hug from Amma was such an overwhelming experience. I felt a quietness, a peacefulness, and I understood for the first time what unconditional love was," said Ron Gottsegen, 68, a former high-tech entrepreneur.

Gottsegen sold his successful electronic security alarm company, Salinas-based Radonics, and donated the 167-acre property used for the Castro Valley Ashram. He now lives most the year in India, volunteering his time as managing director of the guru's medical institute and hospital in Cochin.

Supporters say Amritanandamayi has hugged as many as 30 million people worldwide -- 5 million in the United States -- since her first such embrace 30 years ago in her father's cow shed in a backwater hamlet on the coast of the Arabian Sea. Besides Castro Valley, the sect maintains ashrams in Santa Fe, N.M., and Ann Arbor, Mich., and 80 smaller groups around the country. There are M.A. Centers and worship groups in 32 other countries.

"In India, gurus are unapproachable, but Amma is different. She's there until the very last person meets her," said Indra Sahadevan, 36, who quit his job as an executive at the San Jose software firm Selectica to devote himself to the sect.

He plans to return to his native India later this month to develop a business plan for a biotechnology research and development center under what he described as a non-profit "conglomerate" of Amritanandamayi's enterprises, which include a satellite television station. The biotech center would do outsourcing work for U.S. companies, he said.

Sahadevan was one of about 100 people who gathered at the Castro Valley ashram on a recent Saturday evening to attend weekly public service. Dressed in white, they joined the dozen or so residents under the rough wooden beams of the worship hall's vaulted ceiling for the singing of hymns and chanting. Amritanandamayi is worshipped as the incarnation of the Vedic goddess Kali, the destroyer of the ego, as well as the preeminent deity Lord Krishna.

Swami Dayamrita, the saffron-robed leader of the ashram, sat at a lectern before a garlanded altar and a huge photo of the guru, giving a casual sermon on the importance for followers to practice seva, Sanskrit for service. Amritanandamayi's brand of seva is a devotional volunteerism that ranges from doing chores at the ashram to helping out at local soup kitchens. A big seva is following the guru on tour, at people's own expense, raising funds for the organization by selling books and tapes.

Other than seva, there's little in the way of formal spiritual practice demanded of Amritanandamayi's devotees in the intervals between their ecstatic hugs. The guru encourages people to continue going to their churches, synagogues and mosques, Dayamrita said.

Cult experts describe the psychological effect that charismatic religious leaders have on their followers as an emotional catharsis that follows an arousal into a "state of suggestibility." The same may apply to Amritanandamayi's hugs, they say.

"She's pretty much the same as one of our fundamentalist Christian evangelists," said Joe Szimhart, a veteran deprogrammer and cult counselor. "Whether she has holiness is beside the point. People are going to feel her charisma and experience something ecstatic."

Amritanandamayi's divinity was the subject of a book published in 2002 by Sreeni Pattathanam, a zealous "rationalist" and longtime detractor of the guru. He attacked stories about faith healing and cited published reports about deaths at the group's head ashram in Kollam, urging police to investigate.

Instead, the Kerala government gave permission to a member of the sect to prosecute Pattathanam, his editor and his publisher on criminal charges of conspiracy and insulting the religious beliefs of a class of citizens, according to court documents. Pattathanam said the case, which is pending, has had a chilling effect on free speech in Kerala.

A spokesman for the group said the book made scurrilous, damaging claims but that the organization was not connected with the lawsuit. The plaintiff, a resident of the main ashram, was acting on his own, he said.

"You can't criticize Mata Amritanandamayi today," said Paul Zachariah, a noted Christian columnist in Kerala, which has a sizable Christian population.

"I respect the way Amma came up from the lowest caste to the top. She herself is probably very innocent politically," Zachariah said. "But it's the people around her. I call her a puppet to the Hindu fundamentalist groups that want to use her. These are some of the most poisonous people in India."