Excerpted from Chicago Tribune - Friday, July 3, 1998
Copyright © 1998 Chicago Tribune
"Where do you get the free hugs?" the man hurrying toward the Inland Meeting & Exposition Center in Westmont on Thursday morning asked the woman who was just leaving.
In there," was the answer, "but you'll have to get in line."
The new arrival was in for a long wait. Hundreds of followers of Indian mystic Mata Amritanandamayi -- more familiarly known as Amma, Ammachi or simply Mother -- had traveled from as far as California to receive a hug blessing from the 44-year-old guru since Tuesday, when she settled in at the Expo Center for a three-day Chicago-area stop on her 10-city U.S. tour.
In her homeland, where she oversees an 800-bed charity hospital in southern India and spearheads a handful of other humanitarian projects, Ammachi has embraced and blessed as many as 20,000 people at one sitting, according to aides. Wednesday evening in Westmont, more than 800 of the faithful and the curious participated in a free devotional program and one-on-one blessing session, known as darshan, during which the sari-clad, ever-smiling Hindu holy woman dispensed hugs, foil-wrapped candy and flowers from 10 p.m. until 3:30 the next morning.
At 10 a.m. Thursday, she was back after only a few hours of sleep, still smiling, ready to begin the final day of her visit here with a hugging marathon that drew several hundred people.
"When you are connected to the eternal source of energy, you are never exhausted," Ammachi said, speaking through a translator as she opened her arms wide to a family of three.
"I can feel the energy when she is in the room," said David Surette, 28, a graduate student in physics who had driven from Downstate Mascoutah to join the orderly line of barefoot or stocking-footed folks waiting to approach Ammachi. Visitors to the meeting room were required to stash their shoes on shelves near the door in a show of respect for the guru.
Surette, who heard about Ammachi several years ago through friends in alternative healing professions, described the experience of meeting the guru as "tapping into a grace dynamic" that brought about a "subtle, positive change" in his thinking.
"She teaches love and selfless service," said Vellore Menon, 56, a design artist who is a member of the Oak Brook-based chapter of Ammachi followers. According to Menon, 35 to 50 followers gather in the chapter headquarters once a month to read from Ammachi's books and other writings.