People often ask me with great curiosity why on earth I would wish to live in India, to potentially subject myself to the horrible degradations of women that exist in the strongly patriarchal society of this developing country? How, as a feminist, can I possibly expect to have a voice in such a society?
Many years ago, as a young girl growing up in Toledo, Ohio, I could have never imagined myself poised upon making such a dramatic life transformation. As Henry B. Adams says, however,
“A teacher affects eternity; she can never tell where her influence stops.”
I have been blessed to have many influential teachers throughout my life. My first teacher, in fact, was my aunt Tarumasi in India. Being a doctor at a time and in a place where so many women were uneducated and powerless, she taught me the importance of using whatever fortune we may have to uplift those who have very little. Tarumasi subsidized her medical services to serve the poorest: something looked down upon for an upper-class, educated woman like herself to do. She passed away exactly one month after her son due to contracting Hepatitis B from one of her patients. I was 11 years old at the time.
Though I have always known my purpose on earth is to serve people, her death caused me to ask many existential questions. The spark of my commitment to serve people in India was already lit and, burned more brightly as I set my intention then to serve society in her honor.
One of the most exciting discoveries in the yoga tradition for me has been the presence of many powerful women spiritual leaders and teachers throughout India’s history. Mira Bai first comes to mind. A legendary figure in Indian history, Mira Bai was born into royalty in 16th century Rajasthan. When she was five years old, there was a commotion on the street outside her palace. She rushed to her window to see what was happening. Mira’s mother explained that a wedding procession was taking place, with a bride about to meet her future husband.
“Who is my husband?” Mira demanded to know.
“Lord Krishna is your husband,” answered her mother.
Mira did not understand that her mother was joking. Mira devoted every second of every day to the worship of Lord Krishna. She composed passionate love songs to Krishna, one of which one day caught the attention of Prince Bhojraj. Her parents were thrilled to have found her a “real” husband. Her family’s joy soon turned to rage, however, as Mira was more devoted to God than she was to her husband. The family’s religion (like most religions) taught that complete surrender to God was the highest ideal, but politicians like the Chittor royal family she belonged to believed such ideals were useful only to manipulate the impressionable – not to take literally. Mira was forbidden to worship at the palace.
So she left the palace, with only a photograph of Krishna. She began to worship in public temples with the common people. Mira became immensely popular amongst local people, who gathered around her in large crowds. This caused her family to plan her assassination. The poison they gave her turned into nectar as it entered Mira’s mouth. The thick nails put into her bed felt like lotus petals under her body. While her relatives continued their angry tirades, Mira slept soundly. Akbar, the Muslim emperor of India during the time disguised himself as a Hindu monk to meet the princess saint himself. Mira was exiled by Bhojraj. She continued to wander freely throughout northern India until her death: her final offering to God.
Mira Bai is today one of India’s best loved women saints. There are many others like her who live even today. One of them is Ammachi. Known as the “hugging saint,” Ammachi (meanning “darling Mother”) is known for having hugged over 25 million people. Educated through only the fifth grade, Ammachi was born into poverty in a fisherman’s village in Kerala. Even her sari was on loan to her. And yet, she would give away her family’s possessions to those even less fortunate than her. She served others however she could, whenever she could. Much like Mira Bai, Ammachi devotes every waking moment of her life to the Divine. Her brother threatened to stab her to death with a knife for refusing to marry. But nothing would stop Mother from her devotion to God and desire to serve every person she met.
It is very unusual to hear of a saint who talks about subjects like infanticide, dowry and rape: the very real issues affecting so many women throughout the world. Without speaking a word of English, Ammachi has educated people at the United Nations and other important international gatherings about these issues. What I admire so much about her approach to women’s empowerment is that she comes from a lens of forgiveness and compassion rather than the anger that has marked the women’s movement in the past. Ammachi is like a modern-day goddess Lakshmi, receiving large sums of money, all of which she gives to the creation of schools, hospitals, orphanages and much more. I have had the great privilege of meeting this living saint twice in New York City. A city characterized by abundance of material wealth, I met thousands of New Yorkers falling at her feet for the blessing of spiritual wealth she shares through her embrace and powerful presence.
Yet another powerful modern-day spiritual leader is Dr. Kiran Bedi. The first woman police officer in India, Dr. Bedi is a famous tennis star. When she became the warden of Tihar Prison in New Delhi (one of the largest, filthiest and most violent prisons in the world), she had a vision to transform this veritable hell into a place for personal development: an ashram. Bedi organized a Vipassana meditation course with 1,000 prisoners. Today, courses are offered twice a month in Ward Four of the prison. (See “Doing Time, Doing Vipassana” to learn about my personal experience visiting Tihar.) Her innovation has affected changes beyond India. The use of meditation as a tool for personal transformation has spread to prisons of many other countries as a breakthrough in international prison reform.
Unlike in western countries, where women often try to make themselves more like men to acquire power, women in India earn power and respect through embodying qualities traditionally associated with a mother. As Gandhiji once said,
“ahimsa means infinite love, which means infinite capacity for suffering. Who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the largest measure?”
A western woman named Linda Johnsen has written a beautiful book “Daughters of the Goddess: The Women Saints of India.” It is a thin volume filled with jewels of wisdom. She reflects on her experience of meeting many Indian women spiritual leaders,
“If you are inspired to go and sit in the presence of these saints, you will meet women who have overcome far worse social barriers than we women experience in the West, probably than we can even honestly imagine. You will meet women steeped from birth in incredibly ancient spirituality, existing long before our own Western faiths were even formulated, and therefore holding an extraordinarily different perspective about life, about personal responsibility, and about human potential. You may be inspired, you may be displeased, you may simply be perplexed, but your own vision about who you are and what you can be will definitely be challenged.
Incidentally, most churches, synagogues and mosques remain opposed to female clergy. Yet the burgeoning prominence of women in the Indian spiritual tradition no longer strikes observers as unusual, and is quickly moving toward the norm. Perhaps as we once adopted yoga and meditation from the East, we will also learn to value feminine leadership in spirituality, inspired by the example of the liberated women of India.”
Having experienced a transformation in my own perception of myself and my place in the world, I can’t think of any reason why I wouldn’t want to live and serve in India. Offering my life as my message, I am humbled and blessed to have found a way to follow in the footsteps of the ‘liberated women of India,’ some of the strongest women in the world.