WOODLAND HILLS — They say she can see their souls, this tiny Hindu guru who attracts thousands of sick and healthy men, women and children seeking spiritually refreshing hugs.
They came Thursday morning by the hundreds, chanting and meditating, barefoot and cross-legged, to pack the Grand Ballroom of the Warner Center Marriott and patiently wait for hugs from a 46-year-old woman named Mata Amritanandamayi.
Known worldwide simply as Amma or Ammachi, the spiritual leader and humanitarian from southern India hugs for hours and hours, cradling adults like babies, whispering comforting words and showering them with rose petals and, as a sweet offering, Hershey's Kisses.
"It's a first step to meeting God," Victor Garayh, 51, of Highland Park said after his hug. "It's pretty amazing. It's profound. It felt like she could see my soul."
People came from as far away as San Diego and Palm Springs for eight-hour hugging sessions Wednesday and Thursday in Woodland Hills, part of Amma's 10-city U.S. tour that also includes stops in Santa Fe, Dallas, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Born into a poor fisherman's family, Amma was an outcast partly because of her dark skin. From her life of poverty and rejection she learned to comfort the afflicted, her followers said.
For 25 years, Amma's spiritual hugs and charitable works, including orphanages, women's shelters, hospices and vocational education programs for the poor, have helped her to become what many Hindus and non-Hindus consider a living saint.
Although raised Hindu, Amma, whose name in Sanskrit means "Mother of Immortal Bliss," embraces people of all religions. Through an interpreter, she said her hugs are meant to "awaken the motherhood within" by providing a feminine balance to what she sees as the masculine energy dominating society.
"[The hug] is not just a physical contact but a spiritual one," she said, as a weeping woman buried her head in Amma's lap. " . . . If there is no love, there is no unity, there is no peace."
The hugs are free, although donations are accepted and used to help the poor in India and worldwide, said Rob Sidon, a tour spokesman who, a few years ago, quit a job with a major corporation to follow Amma.
One of Amma's major projects has been support of the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Center, an 800-bed, state-of-the-art facility in India that offers pediatric and cardiac care, organ transplants, neurosurgery and other treatment free to the needy.
In August, Amma will be part of a delegation speaking at the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. She has also participated at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago and the United Nations Interfaith Celebration in New York.
"Her stamina is remarkable," said Sannyasi Arumugaswami, managing editor of the 12,000-circulation, bimonthly magazine Hinduism Today, which named Amma Hindu of the Year in 1993. She sometimes hugs hundreds of people in a 12-hour sitting, he said.
"She's pretty genuine," Arumugaswami said by telephone from his office in Hawaii.
Fifteen minutes before Amma arrived Thursday at the Warner Center Marriott--in a dark Mercedes, which Sidon said is not her car but that of a volunteer driver--crowds of people gathered in the hotel lobby chanting a Sanskrit mantra as a salutation.
They followed her into the Grand Ballroom, where they meditated for 10 minutes or so before lining up for hugs.
For years, Sava Soto of San Diego has traveled to receive hugs. She even brought her foster son, Willy, when he was 6 months old and not expected to live because of a genetic illness.
Soto credits Willy's four years since that moment to Amma's hugs.
"She's a saint," Soto said. "She's pure love. . . . Her hugs are not an intellectual thing that can be described. It's a feeling thing."
Amma will offer hugs again at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the Warner Center Marriott.