A 53-year-old fisherman's daughter from Kerala, India, stands at the center of an empire of idol worship and charitable works—stands there and hugs her disciples. Amma, a mother figure revered by many as a goddess, commands a kingdom of philanthropy, volunteerism, and merchandising, Salon reports. The reporter even jumps the line and gets a hug.
The enterprise has detractors, but millions of dollars in foreign contributions each year fund one of India's largest humanitarian and relief organizations. Says one disciple: "She's taking money from crazy housewives and giving it to widows and disaster victims in India." An equally important number is 26 million: Amma has issued at least that many hugs.