A piece for Salon on the hugging saint.

The amount of “skeptical” hostility directed towards this (IMO) very balanced piece was a stark lesson in the limitations of writing about religious culture in anxiously secular publications.

“Years of spiritual tourism have taught me that the magic often lies with the devotees rather than the object of devotion, and the scene before me is deeply charming — the spiritual equivalent of comfort food, like a sweet rice pudding scented with rose water. The endless flow of huggees are first asked to kneel, remove any glasses, and mop up their sweaty brows with a Kleenex before being guided into the enveloping embrace of the Mother. After half a minute or so, the devotees are plucked out of Amma’s arms, and the guru hands them flower petals, sacred ashes or maybe a foil-wrapped Hershey’s kiss…”