By Deepti Priya Mehrotra
Why is spirituality a source of much needed source of nourishment for women today? Do women relate to spiritual concerns in unique ways? Does spirituality empower women in real and definite ways? An examination of these core issues
Not my way of salvation,
To reject the world!
Rather for me the
Taste of Infinite Freedom
While yet I am bound
By a thousand bonds
To the wheel.
As I allow spiritual currents to enter my life, I recognize a certain brashness in my earlier rejection of the spiritual realm. Spirituality connects many different realities, like a bridge. I find myself stretching, embracing opposites. The more the universe seems to step in and take over. If I display courage, I know that it has, in some beautiful way, been gifted to me. I value solitude, yet begin to experience a fluid ease in relating with people. I feel a sense of personal growth—and deep gratitude. My feminist politics remains sharply etched: a concern for justice, well being, and dignity for all.
As I speak with other women about their spiritual concerns, some core issues emerge. As women seek to crave out new identities, does spirituality remain a source of strength, guidance and wisdom? How do women integrate the spiritual with the nitty-gritty of daily lives and varied responsibilities? Are women articulating spiritual concerns in ways that help empower them? Does a very basic spirituality shape the lives of ordinary women? Are there messages here that we need to tune into?
I hope these explorations provide glimmerings of a spirituality that is intense, caring, committed, and deeply inclusive.
SPIRIT AND FLESH
For women, typically, spirituality is not only otherworldly. It is as much about the body, about relationships and work, as it is about soul and spirit. Janet Chawla, a researcher specializing in women’s health and religio-cultural traditions, talks about her unease when a Buddhist teacher referred appreciatively to persons who, in response to the inner call, had left their families, even children. ‘This is very objectionable in a world where children are being abandoned for all sorts of reasons,’ she says. ‘This sort of spirituality valorizes renunciation and negates life, responsibility, the world.’ She projects the notion of a spirituality that respects life that cares for the personal and everyday details of living.
Across the board, women seem to respond to the element of love, which interpenetrates the world of material life. Tripta Batra, a Sikh woman from Delhi, India, has, from early childhood, valued ‘service, love, faith, being honest, kind and helpful’. She says: ‘I am a Sikh, but I believe that these are the basic teachings of all the religions of the world. All of them teach us to love and honor human beings, and God.’
St Therese, a Philippines scholar and writer, taught in a university for 26 years before she took the vows and became a cloistered nun. She calls Saint Therese, the ‘foundress’ of the religious order to which she belongs, a ‘genuine feminist’ whose ‘very life of the ‘little way’ provides us with such a clear, lived-out experience of the thirst for God.’
Commenting on her own role, she says: ‘My only contribution as a nun is through prayer, and the quiet pursuance of simple household tasks. I pray and share whatever God gives me.’ Yet, she emerges from the cloister to take special lectures at the university on philosophy, aesthetics and women’s studies.
Suffering can provide occasion for the active confirmation of faith—as we found during the aftermath of the ’84 riots (the brutal backlash on the Sikh community in India, as a result of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards), in which a number of Sikh women were widowed in the most violent of circumstances. Women whose lives had been so ruthlessly violated expressed the need to work out their grief through rituals of mourning and of collective path (scriptural reading).
At times like this, being part of a community that practices a certain faith and has mutually shared beliefs lays the ground for empathy and a sense of connectedness. A fundamental trust can then be rebuilt—a trust that is sorely needed to hold on to one’s sanity, keep intact one’s instincts for survival, and, in time, be able to again open oneself to light and growth.
Hurt, anger and fear are natural emotions and we need to allow ourselves the opportunity to feel them. But can women actually try moving out of the grip of situations of violence by refusing to participate? In Mother Wit—A Feminist Guide to Psychic Development, Diane Mariechild writes about women confronting violence: ‘You have been raped. Should you send negative energy to the rapist, hoping that he will break his leg, or worse? No, to do this would only perpetuate the violence as well as bind you to him because of the intense emotion. Surrounding yourself with white light and using affirmations to acknowledge your health, strength and wisdom are two ways of protecting yourself psychically. (This, of course, does not eliminate the need for protection on the physical level: having strong locks on your doors and learning self-defense.) If you have been the victim of a violent attack, it is important to confront your fear and anger and learn to release them.’
It is easy to participate in cycles of revenge and anger. But if one could bring back a certain inner balance, become focused and calm, one could creatively influence others to move in a different direction.
After a traumatic loss, Shah Jahan Begum helped create a women’s shelter home, Shaktishalini in Delhi. ‘My daughter was killed by her in-laws. I could not get justice, I was in despair. Yet I had faith in Allah’s rahmat (mercy), and began working in society, so that such horrors will never be repeated!’
In a situation of war, Shulamith Koenig, an Israeli author, writes: ‘As difficult as it may be, let us learn to be ‘pro’ not ‘anti’-pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian. All my life I was very proud that I was a Jew, a woman, an Israeli, a mother. Today, there are times when I am ashamed. I need to work together with my sisters from around the world to find a way forward. My question is this: How do we stop humiliating one another? How do we turn from the experience of humiliation, and yet not go on to humiliate others? How do we break the cycle?’
COPING AND CONNECTING
Renuka Jane Ramanujan, a sociologist, shattered by the loss of her first baby to a degenerative liver disease, says: ‘A friend of mine had been participating in Buddhist chanting. I went along. Chanting in the group has given me tremendous strength. I feel a sense of power, of control, again.’
Renuka draws succor from a basic faith that goes beyond the boundaries of religion. ‘I find having faith helps a person deal with problems in life and be less tense, because there is someone helping you. Women take on so much suffering and pain. There must be ways to deal with it. With prayers and chanting I create a clean energy field around myself. This helps me handle things in my own way.’ In the midst of conflicting and disturbing external situations, spirituality can provide an anchor. The inner core can be like a well from which one draws daily nourishment, to cope and survive with integrity.
Many women today are carving out their independent space and chosen paths. Simran, a young professional who went to Igatpuri in Maharashtra, India, for vipassana meditation, says: ‘I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Everything was going wrong—my parents wanted me to give up my work and marry; I broke up with my boyfriend; my boss started harassing me. When I went to Igatpuri I was in a daze, I didn’t know whether I would ever return. The quiet time there helped bring back a sense of purpose and determination.’
Aruna Roy, a seasoned social activist working in Rajasthan, India, admits: ‘My life is and for this I meditate. I have been for intensive vipassana courses in which complete silence is maintained for a certain period: two weeks, one month.’
Kamla Padmanabhan, 46, an acupressure practitioner who works long hours, says: ‘I have always been interested in naturopathy and the body’s natural ability to heal itself. With my son in college I was able to pursue my interest in healing. During treatments, I get so involved I even dream of my patients. Earlier, I would feel a sense of loneliness even while socializing in a party. In this work, I feel a strong sense of connection. My mother was religious, she would tell me that by serving people, one is serving God. So this work truly satisfies my spiritual instincts.’
Radha Bhatt, dedicated to the Gandhian vision, lives it out in her daily life. She runs Lakshmi Ashram in Kausani in Uttar Pradesh, India. ‘Gandhiji wanted this institution set up,’ she explains, ‘to awaken the hidden shakti of hill women, I came here as a young girl to study. Now, I teach girls from remote villages.
‘The day begins with a morning prayer and spinning. The schoolgirls spin as they pray together. Then there are classes and practical work. Satyagraha (upholding the truth) and sarvodaya (the upliftment of all) involve integration of the various elements of the self—the spiritual with the mundane.’ For Bhatt, this is a family, connected by bonds deeper than the blood ties.
ROOTS AND DEPTHS
During 1993-94, I was part of the Delhi-based Forum for Women and Religion. Here we explored spirituality and religion from women’s perspectives. These discussions became the starting point for a churning and reevaluation of my own skepticism.
I saw that my rejection of religion was essentially a reaction to the dogmas, arrogance and distortions that have crept into organized religions. I also began to notice a tremendous arrogance in the modern view of the human being as potentially all-powerful; in a way that pits the individual against nature, against other human beings, and against the softer, humane, emotional, intuitive and spiritual parts of one’s own self.
Drawn by the power of the very extraordinary faith that many ordinary people displayed, I began to understand that deeper growth and real empowerment come from an acceptance of the boundless potential of the human self. One can accept oneself as small yet integrally connected to all else. The wave is small if it sees itself as an isolated wave, but large if it knows itself as part of the limitless ocean—is able to become that ocean. It is important to understand and know oneself both as wave, and as ocean. For women, this points first of all to the significance of examining and deepening our own concerns, values and identities.
Through the Forum we began to reclaim the potential for positive growth that exists in most religions. If we look at often concealed—for our struggles.
In Kanpur, we asked a number of Hindu women why they believe in Sita as an ideal. Their answers are thought provoking, they said that she coped with extremely tough circumstances, and coped very well. Any other reason? ‘Yes. She brought up her children on her own. We too bring up our children, without much help. Sita’s example helps us, fills us with courage.’ Contrary to the notion of Sita as ‘weak’, women identify Sita as a capable, autonomous woman, who meets every challenge with strong, feminine grace and exemplary courage.
Costa Rican author Elsa Tamez writes: Jesus’ life exemplifies a new attitude towards women: a woman is recognized and respected as a person in herself; she is dignified; and she participates in society and in history as a transforming social agent of action…We in Latin America prefer to speak about a double struggle of women and the poor-part of the global process of liberation… Woman have found a new inspiration, when they read and interpret the Bible from the perspective of the poor, from the perspective of liberation.’
Urges Egyptian writer Nawaal el Saadwi: ‘In Islam and the Arab world, and in all our cultures, we must claim those things that are positive, and discard without hesitation those things that are negative. In Egypt we have a long tradition of women of power. For thousands of years, for example, we have had the Goddess Isis, and her tradition. Thank God, thank Goddess, we still have her spirit with us!’
Madhu Khanna, a scholar of medieval tantric traditions, says: ‘Feminine energy is central to tantricunderstanding. This energy has many aspects, benign as well as fierce. In tantric symbolizing the yoni(vagina) is energized and worshipped. Female power here denotes balance. It does not negate the male principle in any way, yet it is independent and sufficient in itself. Tantric representations are a rich source for understanding female power and autonomy. And they strike a deep chord with women.’
In her book Passionate Enlightenment—Women in Tantric Buddhism, Miranda Shaw writes that a large number of women—Dombiyogini, Sahajayogicinta, Lakshminkara, Gangadhara, Siddharajni, Mekhala, Kankhala and others—were highly respected gurus, yoginis (female yoga exponents), and advanced seekers on the path to enlightenment.
Anthropologists say it was women who discovered plants and adapted these for daily nutrition, medicine and agriculture, and made the first homes. Over the centuries men began to establish control over homes, families and fields. Ancient goddess-worshipping cultures gave way, in different parts of the world, to belief systems in which God, or godhead, reigns supreme.
In her book Devi and the Spouse Goddess, historian Lynn A. Gatwood shows that female status declined during the characteristics of the devis (goddesses) also changed. Over the centuries, the devis became weaker versions of their original selves. Even as marriage rules became rigid for high caste women, ‘the three gods of the Hindu trinity were given wives (Saraswati, Lakshmi, Parvati). Meanwhile, unadulterated village and regional devis continued to be propitiated by the non-literate majority.’ The motif of marriage as oppressive vis-à-vis the freedom of a life lived according to one’s own terms is a recurring theme throughout Indian mythology, poetry and culture. In the sixth century B.C. some women chose to become Buddhist bhikhunis (female mendicants) and described their complex motivation for doing so:
A Woman Well Set Free
A woman well set free! How free I am,
How wonderfully free, from kitchen drudgery,
Free from the harsh grip of hunger,
And from empty cooking pots,
Free too of that unscrupulous man,
The weaver of sunshades.
Calm now, and serene I am,
All lust and hatred purged.
To the shade of the spreading trees I go
And contemplate my happiness.
—Sumangalamata, 6th Century B.C.
Though I Am Weak
Though I am weak and tired now,
And my youthful step long gone,
Leaning on this staff,
I climb the mountain peak.
My cloak cast off, my bowl overturned,
I sit here on this rock.
And over my spirit blows
Of liberty I’ve won, I’ve won the triple gems.
The Buddha’s way is mine.
—Mettika, 6th Century B.C. translated by Uma Chakravarty and Kumkum Roy in Women Writing in India
In the fifteenth century, Mirabai chose her own spiritual path and way of life. Muses historian Parita Mukta: ‘Mira’s bhakti(devotion) must be seen essentially as enunciating the principle of love in an age and a society marked by war, vendetta and the rising power of the state. Bhakti enabled Mira to uphold a life based on love. It enabled her to establish a direct relationship which was of her choice and which was self-directive.’
Resisting social norms and obligations that she found morally and personally repulsive, Mira upheld an alternative code of ethics. She spurned the power of ruler and husband, paid allegiance only to Krishna, and kept company with itinerant bhaktas (devotees), dancing and singing in their company. Even today, her bhajans (devotional songs) are preserved and widely sung, especially by women, peasants and the working classes.
RECLAIMING THE POWER OF THE SPIRIT
Dhapa, an 80-year-old Rajasthani midwife, describes a baby’s advent into the outer world as ‘mukti‘. For her, mukti(freedom) is not the cessation of the cycle of birth and rebirth. Rather, it is liberation from one state into the next. Mukti is what is appropriate for the given moment in time: the snake shedding skin which has fully lived out its purpose, the being moving from darkness into light, and, once again, transiting into darkness.
Wise women of our land celebrate and value continuities and connections, seeing the cosmic in the mundane, preserving practices wherein body, emotion, mind and spirit are inextricably intertwined. The human being engages in a spiraling dance that comprises movements of birth, life, death—each appropriate in its own place, its own time. For Dhapa, there is no valorization of the ‘otherworld’, no denigration of ‘this’ one.
For Sudha Hingorani, a housewife, spirituality exists at many levels: ‘Our Upanishads contain some of the fundamental questions of life: the search for truth, beauty, and goodness (Satyam Shivam Sundaram). One feels there still must be some source, some gurus, who will provide authentic answers.
‘There is a revival of interest in spirituality, I think what people are seeking is balance. Intellectually there is jnana(knowledge) yoga, but practically speaking, people need to get back equanimity and poise, bring down stress levels. Our lifestyles are out of balance. Consumerism creates tremendous imbalances, affecting everybody at a very intimate level.
‘I turned to reiki, pranic healing and acupressure as a practical need when my five-year-old daughter developed rheumatic arthritis. I found reiki very powerful. It gave me strength. I think women as a group are more comfortable with these systems. After all, the root of healing are the kitchen, the witch, the garden and forest.’ Reiki, the universal life force energy, is recognized as feminine much like shakti (female power) or prakriti (nature). These are notions of energy: powerful, creative, flowing through the cosmos. Women’s actual lives, of-course, are a strange blend of power and powerlessness.
Documentary filmmaker Saba Dewan, comments on some Banda women she met: ‘Shanti had been beaten black and blue by her husband and in-laws. Yet, by her own definition, Shanti is not a victim; she is ‘the chosen one’ who has stood by her beliefs and accepted the consequences of doing so.
‘I was fascinated enough to follow through and explore her world. She is a classic yogini figure: ambivalent, willful, as well as nurturing. I made the film Khel, and for me this opened up something at many levels. I visited yogini temples, read texts, began bonding with certain symbols and spaces which earlier were totally outside my worldview. I emerged from the experience feeling very humbled.
‘Coming from a privileged class we are arrogant because we can negotiate the world. But here was another world which I lacked the skills to understand. I had a sensitivity and respect for this world which came from my father, who had related to Sufism. So there was an openness to this dimension. The strength of people’s beliefs awoke an emotional response in me. For me spirituality became a bonding with something bigger than one’s self—with a certain mystical force.
‘I realize that people exist at many different levels. Ram Kali is a Kol, a tribal who has lost her forest and land, been dispossessed; Shanti is poor, low-caste, a victim of domestic violence. But this is not a multiplicity of identities, a plurality of visions. Each person is so many different beings, can be defined in so many different ways. This helps me look beyond a reductionist viewpoint that puts people into neat slots.
‘For me spirituality and sexuality are related issues; I see both as autonomous spaces that women can reclaim. I found myself stimulated to question anew my own roles in life. Although I have never been bound by very conventional role-definitions, still there are many internalized attitudes. Certain contradictions in my own choices became starker.’
Chachi, 61, lives in a joint family, in a small town of Uttar Pradesh, India. She was married early, and relentlessly mistreated by her sister-in-law. Over the years, she has suffered from some very apparent neuroses. She washes vegetables obsessively, afraid there is a needle hidden between the leaves.
But she has come into her own in a world of gods and goddesses, which, she claims, respond to her efforts to propitiate them. ‘Now everybody comes to me for help,’ she says. ‘They come when they have exams, or illness, or want to marry. I fast. Whatever I ask for, comes about. Of course it is tiring. I cannot take on everything for everybody.’
A COMMON HUMANITY A COMMON SPIRITUALITY
In Delhi, four young women have recently created a center consecrated to the vision of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Called The Gnostic Centre, it regularly holds workshops, readings and meditation sessions. At the inauguration of the center earlier this year, Ameta Mehra introduced all four as being professionals: Ritika is a lawyer , Anuradha an educationalist, Seema an interior designer, while Ameeta herself manages a stud farm.
Ritika says there is no gender distinction in the realm of the spiritual, for: ‘Spirituality deals with One Reality, the Divine, in which there is no distinction between men and women. It’s true that generally men are more vital and emotional, women closer to the psychic and mental. But it is not uniformly so: you will find some men more psychic and mental, some women more vital and emotional.’
Ritika’s conviction underlines a very significant metaphysical reality which is acknowledged by virtually all religions: that sexual identity is insignificant at the level of the Ultimate Self. The soul is ungendered, beyond gender.
Yet, organized religions often privilege the male persona. Says Shah Jahan Begum: ‘I am deeply religious. Our religion does not teach injustice violence. The Prophet taught that women are equal to men. We have female divine teachers in Islam—the paigambarzadis. The Prophet allowed four marriages but only if a man can treat his wives with absolute equality. Many marriages nowadays are actually against our religion—men are, discarding the first wife, abandoning the children. I encourage our women to read the Koran, the hadiths, so that we can understand for ourselves and use our own minds to interpret what is our religion.’
Ma Jnanananda, a well-known south Indian guru, commenting on the tradition which regards women as unsuitable candidates for spiritual initiation or leadership, dismisses such ideas as ‘foolish and wrong. Of course, there are emotional differences between men and women, but these do not relate to self-realization’.
Did she feel that men and women are exactly equal in spiritual characteristics? ‘Have you ever seen the image of Shiva as Ardhanarishwara?’ she responded. ‘He is depicted in two sexes but one body. It is primarily at the gross physical level that we must perceive precise distinctions. When the male and female elements are completely developed and complement each other in the same individual, the soul is fully realized. For myself I no longer feel that I inhabit the body of a particular gender.’
My mother, Preet Vanti Mehrotra, who grew up in Dayalbagh, center of the Radhasoami Satsang faith near Agra, comments: ‘I have strong faith in my religion. I have grown up with it, studied it. Although I accept all the tenets, there is one that I question: women in our faith cannot be sant-satgurus.
‘The sant-satguru has to be a man. If men and women are equal, why this ban? I have asked those senior to me, consulted the texts. Women, they say, can be aspirants, in the same way as men, that’s good! But a woman has to go through further births: it is only as a man that the param dham (final destination) can be reached. I reject this!’
Through the centuries of patriarchal control, women have negotiated many layers and levels of existence, working out forms of resistance that are often unnoticed and subtle, though subliminally and powerfully effective. Women’s articulation is often at odds with the dominant male voice.
Women need to speak in their own way, define their own truths, in voices that revision society and polity, relationships and religion. Bahena Bai’s voice echoes through the corridors of time, poignant in its appeal to acknowledge the common humanity and spiritual unity of women and men, an appeal still relevant. More than ever today.
The Vedas Cry Aloud
The Vedas cry aloud, the Puranas shout,
‘No good may come to woman’
I was born with a woman’s body
How am I to attain Truth?
‘They are foolish, seductive, deceptive—
Any connection with a woman is disastrous.’
Bahina says, ‘If a woman’s body is so harmful,
How in this world will I reach Truth?’
—Bahena Bai, 17th century.
tr. from Marathi by Justin E. Abbot—Women’s Writing in India
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