Some days ago, I was in the audience at a seminar in New Delhi. The esteemed speaker, a gentleman well-advanced in scholarship and years, was listing the notable saints and sages of Benares, the ancient sacred city. I listened keenly for the women saints of Benares. None was mentioned. I could not help ask the gentleman and other scholars on the panel – where are the women? They didn’t have an answer!
It is hard to imagine that in India, with its rich and ancient tradition of exploring the nature of truth and reality, and of spiritual adventuring and apprenticeship, that there did not periodically emerge women seekers, adepts and teachers. Yet this is what we are given to believe – that the women who did venture on to the spiritual path were few, and can literally be counted on the fingers of our hands. What’s going on here?
I think the problem is two-fold. One: of patriarchy, and two: of lack of documentation. And they are connected. Because women were not valued, their lives and pursuits were not considered worthy of documentation. This is a trend that is now recognised in history, not only vis-à-vis women but also those who were dispossessed and marginalised, and were the ‘common folk’. History has always been written under the aegis of those in power. In patriarchy, this would be the men.
This is the work of ‘Herstory’, or the recording of women’s experiences in their own voices. As many of the women interviewed for my research project on contemporary women’s spirituality, said, “It is not because there were few spiritually accomplished women that we don’t hear of them, it is because nobody wrote down their stories. Nobody thought it was important enough.”
Women masters have also not been documented because of their own wish to remain in the background – a sort of internalisation of gender-based cultural conditioning. For instance, there is an anecdote Tsultrim Allione recounts in her book, Women of Wisdom (Snow Lion Publications, 2000). Ayu Khandro is 114 years old, an accomplished woman master of Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet. Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche is a young 17-year-old student who is sent to her for spiritual instruction. And she says to him, “What can I teach you? Why do you want to know about me?” Allione remarks that she doesn’t believe there is one male teacher who would say the same thing in her position. The reason we know she existed at all was because Namkhai Norbu persisted with her, got her story, and smuggled it out with him when he escaped from China-occupied Tibet in 1959.
Since the beginning of 2006, I have been speaking to a diverse range of women, conducting interviews, travelling to homes, ashrams and nunneries all over India. Some of these women are gurus and teachers, some head monastic communities, while others juggle families and careers with their spiritual practice. They form a vibrant, motley group, and are drawn from a cross-section of religions, wisdom traditions, socio-economic backgrounds, even nationalities.
I have tried to be as inclusive as possible in terms of traditions and religions, and have given primacy to the spiritual over the socio-religious. This has meant emphasising the quest for deeper meaning, a seeking for the reality of life and, indeed oneself, over formalised religious institutions and practices.
What is women’s spirituality?
Despite being denied the option of valiant spiritual seeking and apprenticeship, women through the ages have managed to live spiritually rich lives. Some have ducked social mores to live as free-spirited thinkers. Others have lived within their families, and their inner journeys have been closely interwoven with their roles in their families and relationships.
Theirs is collectively what one refers to as ‘women’s spirituality’, different from mainstream wisdom traditions (or ‘men’s spirituality’). Does it have an idiom of its own, wedded to the rhythms of women’s lives? I will try to tease out its dimensions and defining characteristics through the examples of some of the women I have interviewed.
To begin with, because most of them couldn’t really leave their homes and relationships and set off to follow the call of the spirit, women found the means to look for meaning and achieve inner growth where they were. Even today, when many do have the option of checking out, the issues of homes, children and relationships remain. It is useful then to see how women living in the world (as opposed to a renunciate’s life) have harmonised the inner quest with their current contexts. Many wisdom traditions talk about the householder’s life with its myriad demands and problems as being a better testing ground for the fruits of spiritual understanding, than the rarefied and controlled atmosphere of an ashram or mountain cave. Women more than men, because of their circumstances, have exemplified this ideal of integration and harmony.
An outcome of this integration has been the incorporation and employment of their familial roles by women as opportunities for spiritual practice. Motherhood and parenting, nurturing and sharing, even household chores that women have been tied to in a way, have been creatively used as means for deepening awareness, connecting with a sense of being more spacious than one’s ego-self, for practicing compassion, patience, and unconditional love. By saying this, I do not intend to glorify patriarchal gender roles, but rather present an insight into how common householder women have practiced and achieved these spiritual values despite the repression and lack of opportunities. Those that got on to the path seem to have walked it with courage and skilful means – blood, bread, babies and all.
A movement that exemplifies this integration is that of Lakshmi Bhagavan, a spiritual teacher who lived in the city of Mumbai. Lakshmi Bhagavan lived in a one-room tenement, had been married and widowed, and earned her livelihood sewing children’s clothes. Her spiritual teachings were never didactic discourses, but in response to questions people put to her. Through her encouragement, discussion groups started around the country where women meet twice a day and talk about how best to cultivate and put to use spiritual insights in their daily lives.
The women of Lakshmi Bhagavan’s gatherings come from all walks of life: some face conflict and abuse, while others come looking for a more fulfilling way to live. Challenges are discussed, and the perspective of Divine Oneness applied to all issues. The basic teaching is of oneness, its applications are many and varied. All are welcome in the groups. Lakshmi Bhagavan actively discouraged and periodically spoke out against the making of any sort of distinctions, whether based on religion, caste or community, or self and other, for according to her this defiled the sacred unity in which we all exist, and which, in our realised selves, we are.
Because of the extraordinary development of women’s heart qualities, what with nurturing their families, and being natural emotional caregivers for their children, their spiritual paths too seem to acquire a primacy of emotion. It may play out in the form of their being more drawn to devotion, love and seva (service). Even when women study contemplative and logic-oriented disciplines, they bring a heart quality to its study that is unforced and unaffected. Women, for instance, don’t really need to be explained how to ‘care for all beings like a mother cares for her only child’ (a method of arousing unconditional love in Mahayana Buddhism)! And when they become teachers, they become mothers of the spirit – bringing warmth, nurturing and compassion to their students’ practice, even becoming strict when the need arises.
Women have innovated with emotionality as a path to inner realisation. To refine it into a spiritual practice, they have had to grow out of the confines of grasping and emotional bondage that often passes for love. One such path is that of Sufism, which, with its emphasis on an intimate love-relationship with God, can be characterised as a feminine path. Interestingly, many male Sufi mystics refer to themselves as women awaiting union with their Beloved (God). In this sense, their ‘maleness’ and their ego-self is surrendered to the Divine Beloved in a transcendental and transformational experience of love, and feminity becomes a metaphor for the spiritual thirst.
In these lines taken from a poem in Hindustani by Amir Khusrau (1253-1325 AD), addressed to his teacher and spiritual friend, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the poet adopts the voice of a lovelorn woman.
Chhap tilak sab chini re mose naina milaike…
(You have taken away my identity with just a glance)
Gori gori baiyan, hari hari churiyan
Baiyan pakar dhar linhi re mose naina milaike…
(In my fair delicate wrists are green bangles
Which you have held just with a glance…)
Medieval women mystics like Rabia and Lal Ded, Meera and Andal have expressed this transformational divine love and an intimate relationship with God in beautiful poetry. Their words are drenched with God-intoxication and a sense of uncompromising freedom. Meera says:
“The earth looked at Him and began to dance.
Mira knows why, for her soul too
is in love.
If you cannot picture God
in a way that always
you need to read
more of my poems.”
Though the spiritual path is by definition of the individual, driven by her inner seeking and understanding, it has an important social dimension as well. One of the ways in which women have engaged spirituality with society is through seva, or unconditional service.
Perhaps because they see the wisdom of engaging with the concerns of home and community, women spiritual seekers and teachers are often involved in issues of social justice, peacemaking, education and empowerment. Through serving causes that may be considered ‘worldly’ at one level, they are affirming allegiance with the ideal that lies at the core of an integral perspective – of the profound interconnectedness of life and all its phenomena, and its indivisibility into compartments (even if these compartments are those of spirituality and the world).
Women spiritual masters who employ the ideal of motherhood in their relationships with their students are able to tap into this psychological space that dates back to our early infancy, and where we feel completely loved, thereby helping us get out of destructive emotional patterns born of insecurity and stress. To the guru as mother, we can bring our broken selves and hope to be made whole again.
In my experience, almost all women leading spiritually-oriented lives become engaged in social service of some kind or another in response to an inner calling to relieve the suffering of others. For instance, the nuns of Sri Sarada Mission.
The Sarada Mission is an independent sister organisation of the Sri Ramakrishna Mission, and takes its name from Ma Sarada, also known as the Holy Mother, who was Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa’s wife, and a realised spiritual master in her own right. Managed by the nuns themselves, the Sarada Mission provides women the opportunity to lead spiritually oriented lives, which includes education, scriptural knowledge, and active involvement in social service. In this, the Mission carries forward the legacy of Sister Nivedita, the Englishwoman who followed in Swami Vivekananda’s footsteps in making spirituality practical through her pioneering work in women’s education, her social activism, and her participation in the movement for India’s independence from the British in early 20th century.
These women bring spiritual insights and values to bear upon the problems of the world. Insights such as interconnectedness, compassion, dissolution of the ego-self and so on, can become powerful agents of change if applied appropriately in the social sphere. Also known as ‘engaged spirituality’, it calls for a widening of the sphere of spiritual practice, that spirituality needn’t remain confined to cloisters and ashrams, but spread out into the world and find creative and contemplative ways of dealing with its issues.
This is a space of innovation, and I will speak of the work of two women who have taken on this challenge in our times.
Mae Chee Sansanee Sthirasuta, a prominent woman spiritual leader of Thailand, started a centre some years ago to teach meditation. The suffering she witnessed among people who came for the courses inspired her to do more. Several projects were born out of this inner call, which have included working with abused women and children, taking care not only of their physical needs, but their spiritual well-being as well, and attempting to transform their pain into love. Realising that it was not enough to help the victims because they were not the only ones who suffered in a conflict situation, Mae Chee began visiting prisons to help inmates become aware of their innate goodness, and act from a place of service and love in order to “break the cycle of violence,” in her words.
Another spiritual innovator is the American ‘engaged Buddhist’ Joanna Macy, who has used the teachings of Buddhism to foster a new kind of environmental activism – one that is attuned with and based on the interconnected nature of reality. She is an eco-philosopher, and has created a ground-breaking theoretical framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application. Her wide-ranging work addresses psychological and spiritual issues of the nuclear age, the cultivation of ecological awareness, and the fruitful resonance between Buddhist thought and contemporary science. Many thousands of people around the world have participated in her workshops and trainings. Her work helps people transform despair and apathy, in the face of overwhelming social and ecological crises, into constructive, collaborative action. It brings a new way of seeing the world as our larger living body, freeing us from the assumptions and attitudes that now threaten the continuity of life on Earth.
In the Asian context, because they have been otherwise so repressed, women’s spirituality carries an additional patina of social revolution. Women spiritual masters, poets, and yoginis have been harbingers of change. By walking the path of inner revolution, they have broken through walls of prejudice, and widened the possibilities available to all women.
Also, when we speak of women’s empowerment today, we tend to emphasise its need in social, political and economic spheres – in the workplace, in social systems, in marriages, and family situations. But what about inner empowerment, born in the individual’s being, which comes of self-knowledge and freedom from ignorance? It can be argued that external liberation is of little use without inner freedom. It is imperative then, to distil a contemporary paradigm for women’s empowerment based on this inner spiritual aspect, through the examples of women who are walking on the difficult path of spiritual heroism, and have risen beyond their social and economic contexts to achieve liberation of self, mind and being.
First published in the September 2007 issue of Life Positive.