Dadi Janki, the unusual subject of this biography, presides over a unique global spiritual empire run and led by women. Born in 1916 into a traditional Hindu family, she was expected to follow the standard pattern for Indian women of the day, which was to succumb to an arranged marriage at the earliest possible opportunity and then disappear from view.
But she had other ideas. Since the age of two, she has only ever wanted to connect to one being, and that is God. She never sought nor desired any other relationship and she managed to escape her unwanted marriage in order to dedicate her life to spiritual study, service and contemplation.
She joined the Brahma Kumaris, then in its infancy, in 1937, and for many years, ran centres in India. In the early 1970s, the decision was taken to try and introduce the movement to the West and Dadi Janki arrived in London with no real idea how she would do it.
Her task was made especially difficult as she arrived not speaking any English, with no money, no influence and nowhere to live. But with God as her constant companion, she never gave up and within 20 years of being in London, she established the Brahma Kumaris as a respected, influential, worldwide organisation.
This is the story of how she did it.
LIZ HODGKINSON has been associated with the Brahma Kumaris since 1981, when she wrote an article about them in She magazine.
Finding much to admire about their principles and way of life, she has stayed in close contact, while never formally becoming a BK herself. Liz has made several trips to their headquarters in India and has often shared public platforms with Dadi Janki and other senior sisters.
In more recent years, writing about the Brahma Kumaris and their impact has become something of a family industry. Liz is the author of two previous books about the BKs: Peace and Purity, an informal history of the organisation, and Why Women Believe in God, a series of conversations with the BKs' European Director, Sister Jayanti.
For the whole family, the Brahma Kumaris and in particular, Dadi Janki, have proved a subject of endless fascination and discussion and long may it continue.
For more than 30 years, Liz Hodgkinson has had an unusual r relationship with Dadi Janki and the Brahma Kumaris. She first came into contact in 1981 with her journalist husband, Neville, while writing an article on Raja Yoga meditation for SHE magazine. Though not attracted by meditation as such, she became interested in the teachings and over the years found benefit in applying many of them in her own life. She has also written several books with spiritually-oriented themes, including Peace and Purity, a history of the BKs.
Neville and Liz separated after their sons, Tom and Will, had grown up and while Liz continued working as a highly successful author and journalist, in 1994 Neville left full-time journalism to live and work at the BK retreat centre near Oxford.
Liz's continuing engagement with worldly matters has made her the ideal author of this biography of Dadi Janki. It focuses on Dadi's extraordinary achievement in carrying the BK teachings outside India, to establish the Brahma Kumaris as a significant global movement. This is not an official biography, but an affectionate and personal account based on a 30-year friendship. Liz particularly resonates with Dadi's strength of purpose and will, and her passion for women's empowerment. The book also illuminates Dadi's capacity to bring out specialities and qualities in others that they do not even know they have in themselves.
Liz draws on the stories of many BKs who have worked and studied closely with Dadi - including myself - to give a highly readable account of a remarkable soul.
It was in this stately home, now a Brahma Kumaris residential 1 retreat centre just outside Oxford, that I last met Dadi Janki, on 21 May 2015.
A number of delegates were there for a dialogue known as Call of the Time, where people from all over the world gather to discuss matters of current world concern from a spiritual perspective. Dadi Janki was expected at around 1 pm to head up this two-day meeting, and there was great excitement and anticipation of her arrival.
Would she make it? For Dadi is always in great demand and although she tries to fulfill those demands, at the age of 99 and a half, her poor old body is constantly in danger of packing up completely.
Not that she lets that stop her. She had flown into London from India about a week previously to begin a packed schedule of events, which included flying to the US, as well as travelling round the UK. I had driven to the retreat centre in the hope of having what might be one final glimpse, although it was not likely with so many people clamouring for her attention, that she would make any special time for me.
I was wrong. A few minutes after she arrived from London, there came the message: she wants to see Liz.
Dadi is not one to be disobeyed so I hurried from the dining room where I was just finishing lunch, to the reception area which was full of white-clad yogis sitting on the floor. Dadi, hunched up in a chair, was also swathed in white and was smiling benignly at the assembled throng.
Already - and she had only been there a few minutes - a potent aura of peace, love and calm had been created. I crept in at the back and she complained that she couldn't see me. `Here I am, Dadi!' I said, moving nearer to her.
After receiving a holy sweet known as toli, from Dadi, the group dispersed and I learned that I was to have a private audience with her. She rose up with great difficulty, helped by her two full-time carers and made her way to her own room which was again, all white.
When Dadi stands up, it is revealed just how tiny and frail she is. She can hardly walk and has to be taken everywhere by her carers. However, her mind is as sharp as ever and during the hour of our meeting, we talked about the book I had been writing about her.
"Are you finding it easy?" she asked.
"No, Dadi, I am not," I replied. "I have to try and describe how you have achieved so much, and it has not been a simple job."
She looked astonished. "But I have done nothing," she said.
"You've only started a major spiritual movement in the West from scratch," I reminded her.
She pointed upwards. "It was God who did everything. I was only the instrument."
As we chatted, Dadi said that she had never been like other girls, as from the age of about two, she had experienced a powerful connection with God. Nearly a century later, that connection is as strong as ever and has enabled her, she would say, to achieve the impossible.
I have known Dadi for more than 30 years but this time, I experienced a new, even physical, intimacy and closeness as we hugged each other. In the past, I have to say, I have been much in awe of her but this time, and any remaining barriers were broken down completely. Dadi has a unique ability to make everybody who comes in front of her feel special, and this time I felt I truly connected with her.
For I, you might say, was chosen as the 'instrument' to write the definitive book about her, and that meant I had to establish a close rapport with my subject. Nearing the end of my task, I finally felt that I had done so.
Perhaps, for her part, she has sprinkled the book with some gold dust. I can only hope so, and also hope that I have been able to do her justice.
For this little old lady who can now hardly walk or talk has been responsible for starting a major spiritual movement in the Western world, for persuading hundreds of thousands of people to study and take up the unusual practice she introduced to the West, of Raja Yoga.
Dadi even captured my own husband, which makes my relationship to her even more poignant. I often tell people that he left me for a woman thirty years older.
And our son Will has written a book, The House is Full of Yogis, which tells the story of how his father gradually became an adherent to the teachings of an austere, uncompromising Indian spiritual movement led by women. The rest of the family did not become BKs, although we are all close, and lost in admiration of what Dadi Janki has achieved.
There is no doubt that I was sitting in front of a very unusual woman, somebody who has had a profound effect on my own family, and who can be considered one of the great spiritual leaders of our time. Yet for all her success in foreign lands, she remains largely incognito. Dadi, who herself lives a life of extreme discipline and asceticism, has inspired many thousands of Westerners to relinquish their creature comforts, take up their beds, as it were, and follow her example.
When you meet her or come in front of her, Dadi Janki seems serene and happy, always smiling and pressing gifts into your hand. But it has not been easy to introduce the secular and cynical West to this movement.
In answer to the question as to what she felt she has achieved, she said that the message she had to impart was so important that it had to be heard all over the world and not just confined to India. But would any Westerners be interested in what she had to say? That, she said, was her major challenge.
Crossing the cultural and religious barriers was by no means straightforward, but she persisted and gradually gained adherents. When I asked how she had chosen her first Western disciples, she said she had to ask herself whether they were able to live the simple life. "When people understand the difference between the material world and the spiritual world, they become interested in the message," she said. "I had faith that the early Westerners who came to classes and meditation sessions could understand the teachings and as such, could be instruments to share them with others.
"When the heart is honest," Dadi said, "the Lord helps." She was right. The first Westerners to come and hear Dadi's message in a tiny little flat in London had the courage, faith and inspiration to take the teachings into all parts of the world, so that there are now BK centres in over 120 countries and in just about every major city. "I saw them as God's children," Dadi said, "rather than Westerners, or even as men or women. But I did wonder at first how it might be possible for people of all faiths and backgrounds to accept these teachings."
Exactly what these teachings were, who precisely Dadi Janki is and how she achieved what might be considered the impossible, will be examined in this book. One true miracle is that I was able to meet her at all, as she had been quite literally on death's door in India, where she has been based since 2005, when she became worldwide head of the BKs at the age of 91.
Her doctors there had not expected her to survive her latest bout of severe illness and at times, this most stoical of humans had been screaming out in pain. She had to be airlifted to hospital, was for a time on an intravenous drip and as a result, almost hourly bulletins were circulated to all the world's centres, so that they could prepare themselves for what seemed inevitable.
And yet, against all the odds, she rallied round and survived, reviving enough to take two arduous flights to Heathrow, one in January 2015 and the next in May. These days, Dadi travels first-class, her fare paid for by a benefactor, but she still has to get to and from the airport and on and off the plane.
Among the people pleased to meet her in London was His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales and at very short notice, a meeting was arranged at Clarence House. It was not an easy task, not only because The Prince himself has such a busy schedule, worked out months in advance and with back-to-back meetings, but also because Dadi can hardly walk and might collapse at any moment. So the logistics of getting the two together needed, as Dadi might put it, much help from Him up above.
Him up above obliged and the meeting took place. The Prince himself is not without courage, and Dadi has long admired the way he has stood up to criticism and battled on. Although born into a royal family and often treated with courtly deference wherever he goes, he has also had to face many adverse and even vicious comments on what he has tried to achieve. His strong beliefs have always resonated with Dadi and this was their third meeting, a true meeting of minds and hearts. As for me, I was left with the daunting task to trying to get to the heart of the mystery that is Dadi Janki.
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