An Indian spiritual leader who has been recognized for embracing millions of people around the world has become the subject of criticism by some religious and labor leaders in Los Angeles for her decision to hold events at a Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)-area hotel that is at the focus of a labor dispute.
Amma, known as the “hugging saint of India,” arrived in Los Angeles Sunday, June 17th, as part of a ten-city U.S. tour and began her five-day stay at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport hotel on Century Boulevard in Westchester.
During her visits to cities such as Los Angeles, Amma, 53, whose real name is Mata Amritanandamayi, holds free public events where she gives visitors an individual “healing embrace.” She has been giving these embraces since she was a teenager and has reportedly given over 26 million hugs in her life.
Thousands were expected to receive an embrace from the spiritual leader during her visit to Los Angeles, but her choice to stay at the Hilton LAX has been criticized by some labor leaders who have called for her to relocate.
The hotel has, since late August, been the subject of a boycott called for by some hotel workers and members of the Unite Here Local 11 union. Dozens of elected officials and religious and labor leaders have endorsed the boycott, according to Unite Here.
The union claims that the hotel has aggressively fought efforts by employees to organize and has been charged with more than a dozen alleged labor law violations.
Hotel officials have denied the claims of harassment of workers and said the boycott has not had any major impact on business.
Since the boycott was called, several groups, including the California Teachers Association, have canceled their scheduled events at the hotel, according to the union.
At a rally held outside the Hilton LAX Monday, June 18th, some labor and religious leaders were hoping that Amma would follow and move her event from the hotel.
Alluding to Amma’s recognition for giving embraces, Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen of Temple B’nai Tikvah in Westchester said there are “many ways to hug a person.”
“She can hug everyone out here simply by moving her business elsewhere,” said van Leeuwen, referring to the rally participants.
Hamid Kahn, executive director of the South Asian Network, spoke at the rally, saying Amma has spread love around the world but “unfortunately her stay at the LAX Hilton is in stark contrast to her teachings.”
In a letter addressed to Amma, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun Magazine, who was to receive an award from Amma’s supporters, said he would decline the award because of her decision to hold events at the Hilton LAX.
“Amma, there is no possibility of creating a more loving and caring world that I know you are so committed to so long as spiritual leaders like yourself fail to link spiritual ideals to concrete social justice for poor and working people,” Lerner wrote in the letter.
A housekeeper at the Hilton LAX, Isabel Brentner, said she sent a letter to Amma informing her of the labor dispute at the hotel and asked her to reconsider her stay there.
But Rob Sidon, a spokesman for Amma, said the “hugging saint” was not informed of the ongoing labor dispute at the hotel until she arrived in the U.S. to begin her tour.
Her event at the Hilton LAX was part of a two-year contract, Sidon said. If she had decided to change venues for the event, the cost “would have been untold” because of the money already raised, as well as a big disappointment for the people who had planned to come to that location, he said.
In learning of the boycott, Amma, “a foreigner” in the U.S., decided she didn’t want to get involved in a local dispute, Sidon said.
“She felt it was inappropriate for her to get involved in a domestic labor dispute,” Sidon said.
As she offered her embraces to awaiting visitors at the Hilton LAX Monday, June 18th, Amma said through her translator that she does not expect to receive anything in return from the people she hugs.
“I do not expect anything from the people,” she said.