As a university student, I stumbled on an essay by the feminist theologian, Valerie Saiving Goldstein. She observed that if the obstacle for men on spiritual journeys was often pride or hubris, the problem for women could well be ‘a dependence on others for one’s self-definition.’ That gave me pause. On the one hand, I was drawn by a spirituality that spoke of transcendence. On the other hand, I wondered what it meant to transcend an identity even before I’d owned it. Did it make sense to surrender a self (however limited, however unoriginal) without valuing it, in the first place?
That question still churns at the heart of my recent book of conversations with four women on sacred journeys. There are other questions too. ‘The self that hovers in between is neither man nor woman,’ says the 11th-century mystic poet, Devara Dasimayya. Perhaps that is true of the spiritual destination. But what of the journey? In a world where genders are differently socialised, can spirituality ever be gender-neutral?
Did female seekers relate to words like ‘surrender’ and ‘submission’ — words expediently used to subordinate women in cultures worldwide? How did they differentiate between peace and passivity? Between self-transcendence and self-reclamation? Between being a devotee and a doormat? And in a world divided between blistering rationality and jingoistic religiosity, how did they live out their parallel lives? How did they hang in there? Between my university years and these conversations, I had a spiritual journey of my own. One that continues to unfold. One that has taught me, above all, that the worldly and the sacred aren’t at war. That we can be, and are, both flesh and spirit. My love of the Bhakti literary traditions also taught me that devotion isn’t about grovelling servitude, but a spirited, sometimes argumentative, resolutely non-hierarchical passion for the divine. The Bhakti women poets, in particular, take my breath away with their ecstatic intensity, their jaunty irreverence.
The quiet women
Four women became the subjects of this book: a naked woman mystic, a nada yogini who works with a primal sound, a contemplative writer whose spiritual journey unfolded after a traumatic brain injury, and a monk who sees her path as one of joyful abundance rather than self-denial. I had my doubts about the enterprise. These were decidedly oddball women. They did not represent a bland “vanilla” spirituality. They were intense — at times, downright eccentric. But that is precisely what made them fascinating. I decided that readers would be richer for knowing that they exist.
For each offers a moving glimpse of the life of the contemporary female spiritual wayfarer. One speaks of how a male intellectual establishment challenged her legitimacy. She says she was initially intimidated, but gradually learnt to deal with it. “I have learnt to say, ‘I don’t know’ and simply offer the person a cup of coffee or tea. It is not my role to satisfy people. I can only give them what I am capable of offering.” Another speaks of social hostility. Deemed insane by those around her, she turned to her guru for help. He reminded her that while her goal was one-pointed, the rest of the world was torn between hectically varied goals: lust, money, fame, family, power, god. Who then was really “insane” here?
Yet another woman — a monk — speaks of how she still reinvents her journey on the precarious path of spiritual commitment. “I’ve realised blind surrender gets you nowhere. Impulsive revolt also gets you nowhere.” A fourth speaks of how she attempts to bridge her previous training as a Marxist feminist with the catastrophic suddenness of her spiritual initiation. “I am still trying to find language,” she says simply. The vulnerability of these women, and their independence of spirit, moved me. What they share is a fierce commitment to the journey, and an ability to speak of the sacred and the human in the same breath. These are women who have cast aside costumes. Who refuse to wear borrowed plumes — of passively inherited faith or unexamined piety.
(The author has just published Women Who Wear Only Themselves: Conversations with Four Travellers on Sacred Journeys with Speaking Tiger Books.)