Feminism - Iceberg Seekers
by Suma Varughese
An interview with Swati Chopra whose book, Women Awakened, explores the domain of women and spirituality
It is not often one gets to
interview one’s former
colleague. Swati Chopra has
been editor of our now defunct
quarterly, Life Positive Plus, and
later was a contributing editor to
this journal before moving out
into her own as a full-time writer.
Life Positive was Swati’s first
job, but even as a trainee, it was
clear that her heart belonged to
spiritual journalism. She strongly
resonated with the matter in the
magazine and practised its values
in her personal life. She belongs to
that precious band of trailblazers
for whom work is not just a means
to an income but is an expression
of her being.
Everything she has written both
in the publications she worked in
and as an independent writer of
books such as Dharamsala Diaries
(Penguin 2007) and Buddhism: On
the Path to Nirvana (Brijbasi Art
Press, New Delhi; Mercury Books,
London, 2005), reflects her powerful
commitment to creating
awareness of holistic living.
Her latest book, Women
Awakened, explores some of the
subjects dealt with in this special
issue: is there a difference in the
way women approach spirituality
and the way men do? Are women
discriminated against in the spiritual
In this interview, Swati Chopra
attempts to throw light on these
What led you to write a book on
women and spirituality?
The main motivation was to
explore the issue of gender and
spirituality. On the path, does
it matter if you are a man or a
woman, and if yes, how? The
quest was personal too – as a
woman and a seeker, I wanted to
know the terrain for myself, and in
writing about it, wanted to share it
with other seekers. Though there
are books available about women
teachers and gurus, they tend for
the most part to be hagiographies
written by disciples. I wanted to
question the women, and have
in-depth conversations, which
formed the raw material for subsequent
contemplation and the
Another motivation was to
record a spiritual version of 'herstory'.
Because history has almost
always been written by men.
Women – their perspectives, their
voices, their experiences – have
been glossed over. This is true of
spirituality too. I remember once
going to a seminar on Banares,
and a leading scholar was enumerating
spiritual luminaries of
that ancient city from the Vedic
age to the present. And there was
not one woman on his list until
Anandamayi Ma in the twentieth
century. Were there no spiritual
adepts who were women, or were
they simply unrecorded? So, this
lacuna does exist.
What are the key insights that
you stumbled upon in the course
of writing the book?
There are several, but here I will
mention three key ones. One,
that there is a women's spirituality
that is different from men's. I
was not sure about its existence in
any concrete way when I started
out. We walk the path to some
extent in our bodies, and this has
an impact on how we experience,
what we experience. For instance,
not being allowed certain teachings
because you are a woman, or
being considered an inferior aspirant
because of it, which amounts
to a second-class spiritual citizenship,
is a reality for many.
Two, at a certain depth of
understanding and practice, gender
does become irrelevant. If you
like, you can think of gender as a
quality, an accent, of being. It can,
and does, become transcended.
The purely spiritual processes and
experiences are similar for men
and women, like meditation, or
realisation, or enlightenment.
There does occur a state of genderlessness,
or "genderfulness" to use
Sadhvi Bhagwati's way of describing
her guru, Swami Chidananda
Saraswati of Parmarth Niketan
Ashram in Rishikesh. But until
then, there is quite a bit of experiencing
to be done in this body.
Three, spirituality offers women
a far more potent way to liberation
(I'm thinking 'women's lib'
here) than any waves of feminism
have achieved till now. The
eight women in the book offer
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
How important do you think is
the role of women in bringing
about the New Age?
The New Age presents an enormous
challenge to all of us in
terms of the imperative to spiritualise
our lives. In this context,
I would like to quote Pravrajika
Vivekaprana, a senior nun of Sri
Sarada Math, who says in the
book, "It is up to the women, I
believe… It is a question of whether
women are capable of looking at
themselves from an original point
of view… It is not a question of
becoming a mother or a sister or
a daughter and then not being
able to understand whether I can
live my spiritual path or not. It's a
question of understanding my real
identity." I think that is the challenge
for us all, women and men.
What do you think are the special
qualities that women stand for?
I wouldn't necessarily want to stereotype
certain qualities as being
a preserve of men and others of
women. But perhaps naturally
and instinctively, women nurture.
They care more, and they tend to
prioritise their relationships, which
is why many of them are uncomfortable
with the idea of upping
and leaving on a quest. They'd
rather be hidden, iceberg seekers
than leave the nest of relationships
they are connected with. In this
sense, they perhaps have a keener
sense for 'interconnectivity'.
Do you think we in India have a
special advantage because of the
acceptance of the Divine Feminine
Yes and no. We are fortunate to
have a robust, living tradition
Swati Interview.indd 88 3/23/2011 6:34:37 PM
of the Divine Feminine, when
it was suppressed and ceased to
exist in most cultures around the
world. In this tradition, God is
very decidedly 'She'. On the other
hand, there also exists hypocrisy
– we might worship Devi in the
temple, but are we able to discern
her presence in real women? We
must ask ourselves – despite this
tradition of the Divine Feminine,
why does India have a declining
female sex ratio? To me, there is
little use worshipping a deity in a
sanctum if we are not able to bring
that attitude into our daily lives.
If you were to trace the evolution
of women this far, what would
In this context, I would like to
share a phenomenon I call 'iceberg
seeking' in the book and which I
feel has been a characteristic of
women's spiritual journeys. An
'iceberg seeker' is a woman who
walks the path within her being,
silently growing in her practice.
It all happens so subtly in the
under-ground of her life that on
the surface everything seems to be
as before, except for the occasional
peak of compassion or equanimity
that blossoms forth spontaneously,
a direct result of her secret
When I asked Ven. Khandro
Rinpoche, a leading teacher of
Tibetan Buddhism and one of the
few women to be addressed with
the title 'Rinpoche', about this, she
said, "I see it as a very clever, skilful
way, a woman's way of surviving
in a rigid patriarchal society." She
gave the example of her father's
aunt whom nobody paid much
attention to. The moment of realisation
came when she remained in
unbroken samadhi for three days
at the time of death.
So many women are, and I suspect
have been, iceberg seekers.
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa
referred to his wife, Sri Sarada Ma,
as an "ash covered cat" in this context.
Sarada herself revealed some
of this quality of practice to a disciple.
"My boy, we are women,"
she said. "We can't get away from
household duties. When I make
rice, I first pour enough water in
the pot to cover the rice and keep
watch over it.
Swati with Mrinalini Sarabhai at her book launch
Now and then when
I get a little time I do some japa.
Then I place a pot of water on the
stove to cook dal. Till the water
gets hot enough for cooking I am
free, and so do a little more japa.
Once the dal is cooked I again sit
down quietly and repeat the mantra.
In this way, somehow, I manage
my daily japa. What else can I
do, my child?"
What is your hope for the book?
In response, I'd like to quote from
the introduction. "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
simmering in the heat of honest
enquiry, discovered in the crucible
of the awakened, aware self."
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