By Deepti Priya Mehrotra November 1997 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 theTaste of Infinite FreedomWhile yet I am boundBy a thousand bondsTo the wheel. —Rabindranath Tagore 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
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