In traditional Hindu dharma, the seeker on the spiritual path – provided he is a man – has a clearly delineated chronological paradigm: he is an unmarried youth, a householder, a retiree in contemplation of hermitude, and finally, a renunciate. These stages of life, while restricted to those willing to fulfill their worldly duties before pursuing their inner calling, allow a space for devotion within the scope of society and even civilization. For the female seeker, however, no such prescribed model exists. Swati Chopra’s Women Awakened Stories of Contemporary Spirituality in India takes as its catalyst the practical difficulties of being female and spiritually predisposed within a patriarchal framework.
By interviewing or studying eight women who chose (or were chosen for, as it were) the ascetic life, Chopra explores the fundamentally transgressive stance that is the choice to break away from the designations and limitations of gender in the quest for God, presenting questions about threats to security along the mendicant path, rebellion against family, celibacy versus partnership, biological motherhood as opposed to “universal motherhood”, the place of femininity and emotionality, and being taken seriously once having entered the fold.
Most of these questions remain largely rhetorical. While the book begins on a peaceful, open note, as it progresses little emerges that is challenging or thought-provoking, and though each individual encountered is distinct in her own right, some chapters seem almost no different from others. The eight women mystics and seekers who are either personally interviewed, or whose work is discussed via their disciples are: Sri Anandamayi Ma, Sri Sarada Devi, Mata Nirmala Devi, Nani Ma, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Mata Amritanandamayi, Ven. Khandro Rinpoche and Sadhvi Bhagwati. Although each of them has a journey worth learning from, or at least investigating, and weighty questions are put forward in all cases, one comes away with very little illumination. Even figures as extraordinarily enigmatic as Anandamayi Ma, or as much of a contemporary phenomenon as Mata Amritanandamayi (better known as Amma, the hugging saint) are inadequately considered: neither the nature of their appeal nor the intensity of their own encounters with the divine are conveyed memorably.
There are large gaps in inquiry – six of the women seekers, including two who are foreigners by birth (Nani Ma and Sadhvi Bhagwati), are essentially rooted within the Hindu religion, though they may follow or have originated guru-centric cults. Only the book’s last two chapters, which also happen to be its most comprehensive and insightful, are interviews with two Buddhist nuns, one of British origin and the other a Tibetan of a yogic lineage. But the lack of diversity otherwise is striking, considering the many narratives from other faiths that Chopra could also have included – in syncretic India, surely it would not have been impossible to find a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh or Jain perspective, and these are only taking into account major traditions.
It’s also particularly interesting that the question of women’s roles within the scriptures is grappled with only in the chapters relating to Buddhism, where questions about the Buddha’s alleged misgivings about opening the sangha to female novitiates as well as the problem of a prayer in which one asks to not be given rebirth as a woman (because only men can achieve enlightenment) are posed to Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and Ven. Khandro Rinpoche. The texts of the Hindu religion, the focus of the remaining chapters, are not taken to task for the misogyny and other inequalities within them. Chopra’s rather beautiful evocation of the Devi Mahatmyam, though relevant and inspiring, presents only one perspective of the role of the female – divine and otherwise – in theological literature.
To the author’s credit, she maintains a very neutral tone throughout the book, almost as if her own narration is only incidental, and not integral to the heart of the matter at hand. Only once is a significant personal involvement encountered: when she attempts an Internet exercise proscribed by Mata Nirmala Devi and is unmoved by it, but by itself the episode says very little. While the lack of subjectivity, which could easily have manifested in proselytizing or argument, is refreshing, it also eventually becomes somewhat unexciting. Spiritual experience is profound in both its ecstasies and in the wretchedness of its longing – as the passionate Sri Ramakrishna, who emerges ironically as the bedrock of the chapter ostensibly about his partner, Sri Sarada Devi, illustrated. A little more sharing about Chopra’s own spiritual quest – as Carol Lee Flinders’ At The Root of This Longing: Reconciling A Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst, Margaret Starbird’s The Goddess in the Gospels: Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine or any of the numerous books of the past few decades that have explored a women-centric faith have done – could have enriched it by a great deal. Religion is structural, but spirituality is personal and individual. This is the book’s core message, but lost in its own telling.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.