For centuries, women have walked the inner path to spiritual realization, despite thorns placed in their way by patriarchy, discrimination and unequal opportunities. Where they couldn’t get past the confines of gender roles, women found ways to lead spiritually rich lives under the skin of their worldly selves.
When they did mange to step outside spaces designated for them by patriarchy, and found fulfillment as wanderers and mystics, their insights and experiences remained largely anonymous.
This anonymity persists. At a time when women gurus are becoming far more visible than ever before, there is nevertheless little understanding of a feminine spirituality.
Through the lives of eight women – Sri Anandamayi Ma, Sri Sarada Devi, Mata Nirmala Devi, Nani Ma, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Mata Amritanandamayi, Ven, Khandro Rinpoche and Sadhvi Bhagwati - Women Awakened explores the idea of feminine spirituality and what it actually means to be a spiritual seeker in today’s world.
It was memorable evening when Swati Chopra, a well-known writer on wisdom traditions, walked into my office and started talking about her new, yet to be published book, Women Awakened: Stories of Contemporary Spirituality in India. As we started talking, I was surprised to find myself asking her some of my own questions about this whole tradition of gurus and disciples that I have been lately questioning. Little did I know that Swati’s own book was not far from y own quest and we were deliciously amused that unknowingly we had already started a discussion on it.
Swati has explored a relatively less researched subject, living women gurus and renunciates. An independent, spiritually awakened woman, breaking the bonds of matrimony and domesticity, is a revolt; it is the declaration of autonomy in a patriarchal society that regards women as subservient, duty bound to serve their husbands, children and extended families while being kept on the margins of religious instruction and sadhana, if allowed into that realm at all.
Extensive interviews, readings and conversations unfold the lives of several women—Anandamayi Ma, Nani Ma, Sadhvi Bhagwati, Mata Nirmala Devi, Mata Amritanandamayi, Sarada Ma and Pravrajika Vivekaprana, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and Khandro Rinpoche—and also raise questions about several of the assumptions made not only about them but also by them. At least two strands run through the lives of all: the universal mother love that they shower on all and the insistence that wisdom and enlightenment are gender neutral. Even the river Ganga, by which some of them live, is a mother, which flows soothing her children and purifying all their sins with her unconditional love.
However, it also means that these courageous women have to evolve strategies on how to transcend the patriarchal norms that form a part of the collective ashram or sangha life and places them in a secondary position to their male counterparts or deprives them of learning or relegates them to the very tasks from which they had escaped. It is fascinating to see how the prejudices of caste and foreignness too oppressively play themselves out in these so-called religious collectives that have to be overcome without overt confrontation.
Their lives are sagas of courage, determination and the subversion of patriarchal norms through the subordination of their egos, only to reach higher points of spiritual evolution than everyone else. It is to walk with pinpointed concentration on the raz6r’s edge, cutting out all that appears irrelevant on the way to the aspired goal. But the journey is not without its many moments of bonding, love, humour and playfulness that relieve it of unmitigated arduousness.
Throughout the book, I heard echoes and could not but feel a sisterhood as I too go about negotiating my way in a man’s world as do many other women in different spheres, however humdrum they may appear in comparison. The book is written in lyrical prose that mesmerizes. Swati’s own love, compassion and understanding are to be found on every page as she makes her own journey together with them. What makes the book so valuable is Swati’s honesty. She does not shy away from raising questions pertaining to the women’s vulnerabilities, insecurities and even exploitation as they renounce everything to enter a world that demands unquestioning surrender, unswerving faith and absolute obedience.
Over the centuries, countless women have walked the inner paths of spiritual realization despite the thorns placed in their way by patriarchy, discrimination and unequal opportunities. Their journeys have been characterized by courage, determination, ingenuity and creativity. Where they couldn’t get past the gender roles assigned to them, they found ways to lead spiritually rich lives under the skin of their worldly selves, amidst the babble of babies and bread, home and family. When they did manage to step outside the spaces designated for them by patriarchy, and found fulfilment as wanderers and mystics, as god-intoxicated, wise madwomen, they remained largely anonymous, their heroism unsung, in sharp contrast to their celebrated male counterparts.
This hiddenness, and the anonymity that stems from a ‘second- class spiritual citizenship’, persists till this day, at the dawn of the second decade of the twenty-first century when few male bastions remain untouched by feminine presence. At a time when women gurus have become far more visible than ever before, via new age media like television and the internet, there is still little understanding of a spirituality that could be qualitatively, even uniquely, feminine. For even when women gurus are written about and their voices heard, it is either in uncritical hagiographies or in discourses that tend to be gender-neutral and rarely address the issue of an empowered femininity. Because most spiritual paths lay such an emphasis on material and physical detachment, even ‘dis-embodiment’, that they tend to render the body, the personality attached to it, and consequently its gender, irrelevant, the possibility of a ‘women’s spirituality’ rarely gets scrutinized or acknowledged.
In my view, while the aspirant might ultimately reach a stage that is beyond gender, it is worth exploring how gender impacts the experience of the spiritual path. For instance, a ‘spiritual glass ceiling’ comes into play every time women are denied certain teachings because they are women, are not given as free an access to knowledge, cannot touch or teach certain scriptures, are told they are inferior and cannot reach the acme of perfection (nirvana, moksha, kaivalya, in different traditions) in their current bodies. Also, women’s emotionality and psychology might differ from men’s and, accordingly, their needs, priorities and values, what is precious to them, might also be dissimilar. All these factors must be taken into account when we think about the process of negotiating the spiritual path as a woman. Because, simply, it may not be quite the same as it is for a man.
These are some of the ideas that form the core of this enquiry into contemporary feminine spirituality, which has taken the form of extensive interviews with women across the spectrum of spiritual traditions, lineages and hierarchies, and includes gurus and teachers, nuns and novices, lay practitioners and householders, movements led by women, for women. A lens kept purposely wide-angled captures women within wisdom traditions as well as free spirits who shake off any attempts at classifying them like they would pins and combs from their wild, unruly hair.
You might well ask—how did this book come into being? As a spiritual seeker, and as a woman, I suppose Women Awakened has much to do with my own quest and questions. In its making I have drawn extensively from the well of my experiences and observations, gathered and examined over the years, illumined in different degrees by various sources of knowing.
One of the key inspirers of this book is my mother. Not just because she is my mother, but because in her life I have had the chance to observe a ‘woman awakened’. Her spiritual journey began when I was an early adolescent, and continues till today. In these two-odd decades, through sustained and diligent effort, she is a woman wonderfully transformed. A woman whose heart and mind and being are in balance. Who can let go of corrosive emotions and love almost without discrimination. A woman who is, quite simply, happy.
Watching her do this while balancing a career, single parenthood and the demands of living with ageing in-laws planted the thought—could there be a ‘feminine spirituality’? A variant path that is unique to the business of being a woman, that fills the interstices of her day and plays out in her space which could, in equal parts, be messy, emotional, stressed, worldly-wise, practical, efficient, nurturing? Just as my mother worked her spiritual practice into the commas of her day—in between teaching high school history, lugging provisions home, cooking and cleaning, ministering to her family (which included a tumultuous teenager.’)—and used the inevitable frustrations and irritations as opportunities to make theoretical knowledge practical, and function more mindfully, perhaps other women did too. Surely, this has been going on for a long time, perhaps ever since the first man opted out of home, work and family to pursue his inner call? The woman he left behind might have heard that call too. But there were babies to raise and feed, fields to tend, animals to rear. And so she practised through it all, her inner life deepening under the surface of her daily self, a phenomenon I have called ‘iceberg seeking’ in this book.
What has emerged from this quest to investigate the ground of feminine spirituality is a cluster of extraordinary experiences in women’s voices that pertain directly to the mysterious and little- explored realm of spiritual adventuring. Their stories, which take place in real life and real time, as in they are contemporary to us, gleam with the fireflies of insights that came to them on the path, and which they hand to us as credible ways of understanding our selves, our identities, our place in the world. They are examples of the kind of liberation that is meaningful and enduring because it is based upon a profound, inner transformation. This understanding of liberation, as a fruit of spiritual endeavouring, is a radical addition to the aggregate of social, political, economic, cultural and linguistic freedoms that women’s movements have sought, are still seeking, around the world.
In sharing their stories, in describing their lives, in articulating their choices, in alternating between the shadows and penumbrae of light that have splintered their lives, these women of spirit hold back little. In sewing these conversations together into a cloak of a book that will be beautiful and warm, inspire and heal, I have tried to retain the original flavour of the conversations as much as possible. So that the book reads like an intimate conversation in the inner courtyard, where women have taken off their veils and slipped into an idiom that is familiar and frank, honest and unhesitating, marked by a deep seeing that often delves into undercurrents and nuances to emerge with a jewel of fresh perspective. The writing is not tightly wound around individual subjects alone—it moves back and forth, and spirally, to weave a fabric that includes elements from folklore, ancestress’ her story, literature and poetry, philosophy, gender politics, and many such assorted threads that add to the richness and colour of the narrative.
I must also mention here something about the process of sculpting this book into the form you hold in your hands. The women who are at the centre of each of the eight chapters are as much representative of an idea or issue as they are individuals with incredible stories to share. So if Mata Amritanandamayi and Nirmala Devi are emblematic of the phenomenon of woman gurus who came to be regarded as embodiments of the Great Goddess, Devi, they are also women navigating their way through the thorny circumstances of caste and class, scorn and apathy, the burdens of familial expectations and universal adoration. If Nani Ma and Tenzin Palmo are renunciates who speak of the relevance of sannyasa and a woman’s right to it, they are also women who have spent a lifetime on an odyssey as much physical as emotional, travelling out of the land of their birth, shepherded by charismatic gurus, into their present forms where they evince a diamond-like clarity that cuts each thought, word and action into perfect, exquisite shape.
A crucial factor that determined the inclusion of women in this book was their accessibility and willingness to be interviewed. Some voices that could have contributed much unfortunately could not be included because they were not available for interviews, or were located in places I found difficult to travel to. While email exchanges were useful in making initial contact and setting up visits and meetings, I was unwilling to use these as substitutes for one-on-one conversations where I had the chance to question, counter-question, and probe where necessary.
In the cases of Anandamayi Ma and Sarada Ma, who are central to contemporary feminine spirituality but are no longer ‘in form’, I spoke with close students and long-time followers. When it turned out that Mata Nirmala Devi was too indisposed to meet me at her home in Pune, I asked to be introduced to her husband, C.P. Srivastava, instead. Unprepared though I was, that conversation turned up a windfall, revealing unexpectedly the view from the ‘other side’, what it meant to be a ‘universal mother’s’ spouse, to be seated at the left hand of the Goddess, so to speak.
When I initially began casting my net for ideas and subjects, I decided to be open to as many conversations as came my way. In all, I have spoken to more than double the number of women who eventually came to inhabit these pages, travelling to their homes and hermitages, meeting them in conferences and coffee shops, sharing their space and food, participating in their rituals and daily regimen, chatting with their children, co-seekers, their gurus. When I actually started writing, I realized the problem of plenty I had, and eventually needed to accept that not all could be accommodated within a single book. It was a decision difficult to make, and execute, to leave out some and include others, though I do believe that the ones who do not turn up as actual voices are present as whispers of wisdom that lingered in my mind and informed my writing. Absence, then, is certainly
Most of the women I interviewed generously gave of their time and energy in speaking about issues that required them to introspect, analyse, explain their positions and thoughts and, at times, grapple with ideas that were new and contrary to their own. On my part, because my motivation was to enable a frank exchange, as opposed to putting them in a spot and extricating information, I tried to conduct the conversations in a ‘safe space’. I questioned respectfully and without scepticism. I certainly did not shirk from asking difficult questions, or criticize foibles where I found them obfuscating and obstructive to the spiritual process. Overall, I have chosen to focus on what would be of use to many in their spiritual quests, and what would help unravel the mystery of feminine seeking, rather than what would merely be enjoyable, or make for a good read. In this sense, I have hoped that this book might become a friend to my co-seekers on the path, one that takes them by the hand and walks with them a few steps, and perhaps shines a light on something that lay in the dark till a few moments ago.
The idea of the spiritual friend is a beloved and abiding one in spirituality, finding favour in traditions as diverse as the Sufi and the Buddhist. The Sufi Friend points out the path to the Beloved, to reach whom is the goal of spiritual endeavour, indeed of human life. And the Buddhist kalyana mitra, ‘auspicious friend’, encourages one to avoid what is harmful and practise what is wholesome. This book, and the women whose voices ensue from its pages, are friends of the spirit, sisters of our collective soul. If we are willing to listen, they will sing to us of possibilities and potentialities, of germinating seeds and budding shoots, of what we are and what we can become. Women and men will find something of value, heart-lessons shimmering in the heat of honest enquiry, discovered in the crucible of the awakened, aware self.
Come then, let’s walk together awhile. Let’s talk of the truth of this moment, in which we can…awaken.
My feet walk with the Friend. My hand touches hers often. We talk, We smile, We float on falling leaves, and settle on the red-brown earth.
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