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AFP/September 26, 2003

An Indian mystic who embraces her devotees as a form of blessing may bring individual comfort but lacks the depth of character to develop this into a mainstream movement, analysts said.

They also warned that Mata Amritanandamayai, known as Amma (mother) or the "Hugging Saint" for the more than the 25 million hugs she has given to her devotees, was playing a "dangerous" political game by cosying up to Hindu fundamentalists.

Amma is currently celebrating her birthday, brushing shoulders with Indian Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani and President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

About 8,000 foreign devotees from 191 countries are participating in the festivities along with Indian business and global religious leaders in this southern Indian city of Cochin, the financial hub of Kerala state.

"There are two aspects to her personality," said B.R.P Bhaskar, Kerala's noted political columnist. "One, she came up facing tremendous odds and opposition from her community. The other is her ability to attract foreigners.

"Such a huge fan following for a holy woman has not been witnessed in recent years and I think it is due to problems of unemployment, job losses and the resultant frustration creeping in," Bhaskar told AFP.

He said the hospitals, hospices, schools and homes built for the poor were funded by donations received from her devotees, mainly foreigners, and drew a parallel with Hindu holy man Satya Sai Baba.

"There is a link to both. The disciples realised the potential of both figures early, but in the case of Baba the movement failed to be one of social awakening," Bhaskar said. "The same is bound to happen in Amma's case."

India has produced numerous holymen such as Baba, Sri Sri Ravishankar and the former Baghwan Rajneesh, but Amma is the only holy woman to hit the global limelight.

In Kerala, lower caste Hindu holy man Sree Narayana Guru in the early nineteenth century helped the "untouchables" gain entry to temples and broke the rigid caste systems that existed then.

"Hugging by Amma will certainly bring a level of personal comfort to a follower. But if you compare with Guru then we see the social upliftment angle completely missing from the picture," Bhaskar said.

Organisers said four million devotees were expected to attend four-day festivities ending Saturday.

On the first two days beginning Wednesday about 100,000 devotees streamed into a local stadium braving the heat, waving flags with Amma's picture and singing songs praising her.

Paul Zachariah, a writer in both Malayalam (local language of Kerala) and English, slammed Amma's movement, arguing that a personality cult was not healthy.

He said her organisation's close links to the Hindu radical groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, National Volunteer Corps) was a source of worry, a view backed by columnist Bhaskar, but denied by officials of Amma's organisation.

"It is a fact that the RSS has taken over the organisation lock, stock and barrel. She is proving to be, knowingly or unknowingly, dangerous political material. These political parties will use her at some point of time for their ends.

"It is only when the RSS took over the organisation that the upper caste Hindus' acceptance came," he told AFP.

"She is coming out as a pawn in a bigger game. The birthday bash has been an orchestrated one with foreign funds playing a big role. Devotees have been offered free shelter and food," Zachariah said.

Columnist Bhaskar echoed Zachariah's views.

"The ruling (BJP) party sees there are political gains to be made," Bhaskar said. "There is no other reason I see for the deputy prime minister to attend this event (birthday bash)."

Amma was born in 1953 to a poor fishing family. At 10 her parents took her out of school to do family chores.

She refused marriage and became a mystic, starting from a young age to embrace her devotees, a behaviour that the traditional Kerala society initially condemned. Some threw stones at her.

Her fame spread and in 1993 she served as president of the Centenary Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. Two years later she was a speaker at the United Nations anniversary commemoration.

In 2002 she received the Gandhi-King Award for Non-Violence, previously awarded to Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela.

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