Chennai: India is a land of saints. There are no two opinions about it. But come to think of it on a Women’s Day and you start wondering why male saints of the country are celebrated more than the women. You do not need the fingers on your one hand to count the number of women saints / gurus who have attained glory in this punya bhoomi.
Which is not to say that there were no female spiritualists. There are many who recall with pride Gargi and Maitreyi of the Vedic period, who were philosophical giants. And then there is Meera and Andal who are revered to this day for their boundless devotion to Krishna / Ranganatha.
Bengali saint Sarada Devi, wife of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa – a great saint himself – is also counted among the female saints of India. Though unlettered and in spite of not leaving behind a body of written works, her mystical experiences and utterances still continue to mould many lives – even in this distant land of Tamilnadu.
These examples would put us at risk of being trashed as living in the past. So, waltzing into the present-day, we look around for women saints / gurus – would it be right to call them god women as opposed to god men? – who have created a lasting impact on society.
It would be wrong to call her the latest sensation but there is one woman guru who has broken the myth that only god men can make the cut in India. She is Mata Amritanandamayi whose base is Kerala but who has managed to spread her ‘love’ far and wide.
In the spiritual world of India that is ruled by the likes of Baba Ramdev, Sri Sri Ravishankar and Jaggi Vasudev, she is able to carve a niche for herself.
The religious leader – if you want a sanitised version of ‘god woman’ – is famous for her ’embraces’ that she has been practising since the late 1970s. Her embraces are her benediction to her followers and when she visits Chennai, she does this continuously for 10 to 12 hours, it is said.
The crowds that gather at the math premises in Virugambakkam, Chennai, have to be seen to be believed. Such is her draw. The spiritual icon does not stop with just religious work. She has spread her resources – mostly foreign aid – to set up a multi-speciality hospital, university and math with headquarters at Kollam, apart from charitable works.
Refer any book – er website – for the word matrilineal and the name of India would pop up as examples. There are elaborate explanations for the system, in which women enjoy certain liberties. The role of the man is more of a brother and uncle than husband, states one such reference book. Some communities in Kerala and the Khasi tribe of Meghalaya still practise the system. Yet, even in such groups, it is hard to find women spiritual leaders.
But is Mata Amritanandamayi a lone example of spiritual leader? In Tamilnadu, it is the woman who does the pooja in most homes. She mostly keeps viratham and devotedly prepares the different neivedhyams during festivals. Yet, one cannot say her spiritual growth is robust.
Perhaps, women need to become more competitive in this corporatised spiritual world to leave their stamp?