An exclusive excerpt from Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women who wear themselves: Conversations with Four Travellers on Sacred Journeys (Speaking Tiger, 2021).
The primary motivation behind this book is simple. Thirst.
Hopefully, a shared one.
As a seeker, I have spent years thirsting for conversations. With spiritual teachers, with fellow travellers committed to the life of the spirit. I cannot complain. My life has been rich in conversations.
I have had conversations with seekers of various persuasions. I have spent long hours listening to the yogi and mystic who later became my guru. I have eavesdropped on countless conversations with mystics in books—Shirdi Sai Baba, J. Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharishi, Nisargadattai Maharaj, Osho. I’ve even imagined the lapping waters of the Hooghly quieting to listen to the extraordinary exchanges between Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his disciples.
But another kind of thirst remained.
A thirst for conversations with women. Women of our times. Contemporary women. Women who improvise their way through their lives even as we speak. Women walking the spiritual path right now—sometimes confidently, sometimes haltingly, but who still feel compelled to walk it.
The Indian spiritual landscape is not devoid of its women. We are routinely reminded of an illustrious litany: Maitreyi, Gargi, Andal, Karaikal Ammaiyar, Akka Mahadevi, Janabai, Muktabai, Bahinabai, Lal Ded, Rupa Bhavani, Gangasati, Meerabai. The list is long and varied. There are well-known figures in more recent times too, from the 20th-century mystics, Anandamayi Ma and The Mother of Pondicherry, to contemporary guru, Mata Amritanandamayi. Remarkable women. Beacons for many even today.
But what of the quiet women? Women who never founded large institutions, women who never created legions of devotees or social media acolytes to document their lives in hagiography and legend, and sing their praises in folk song and sacred verse? What of them?
There was no crusading zeal that motivated this book. There was no schematic design. No spirit of advocacy. But there was a longing to listen to the voices of lesser-known women—women who choose to live in relative seclusion and shadow, and yet burn brightly. Women whom I met, accidentally, in the course of my own journey, and who generously allowed me a glimpse of their light. Something shifted within me after each of these chance encounters. I did not leave any of them unmoved.
These women made no effort to impress. They were gracious enough to share their life journeys, without trying to flaunt their attainments, win recruits, or garner publicity. I am a seasoned listener, and instantly alert to subtle attempts to broker deals. There were no bargains being hatched here. I write about these conversations primarily because they were so remarkably free of agenda.
These women are not spiritual celebrities. Some of them have their own local following, but they are not in the glare of the spotlight. Their abodes are not mandatory halts in Lonely Planet guides for international pilgrims.
Their self-containment intrigued me. They will never rank among the metaphysicians and sectarian founders (all male—and dutifully archived in treatises on the exoteric history of religious traditions). Instead they are among those who leave behind a fragrance that is seldom acknowledged, indeed seldom noticed. They remind me of the many women who have walked the world down the centuries, undocumented—sometimes perhaps content to be so. And yet, I cannot help feel a twinge when I think of them—those consigned to the junk folders of history by steamrolling narratives. That twinge was also one of the reasons behind this book.
My initial encounters with the women in this book were unplanned. I happened to have spent large swathes of time in southern India in the past decade, and so, not surprisingly, that is where these meetings happened. They are not meant to represent the religious plurality of the Indian subcontinent, although I do believe that they reveal the still-unvanquished hospitality of vision that characterizes its spiritual ethos.
These women inspired me. Sometimes by what they said. Sometimes by how they said it. Sometimes by their words, sometimes by their presence. Always by their independence. Each of them reminded me—in their own, very particular ways—of that old and beautiful metaphor of the lotus in the marsh.
The terror of uncertainty is more blazingly evident in our world than it ever has been. To carve a path between the certitudes of a frozen faith and the dogmas of arid materialism can be challenging. I marvelled at how these women held their own in a world so conceptually fragmented. A world that divides the material and the spiritual into such impermeable categories. How did these women tune into their own inner guidance? How did they come to terms with that simple but oddly elusive truth: that we are both flesh and spirit? That we do not have to masquerade as simply one or the other?
Above all, how did they find their freedom in a world where a spiritual ecosystem is particularly hard to find? What is a spiritual ecosystem, someone once asked me. One where spiritual seekers aren’t apologetic about who they are, I told her. Where they are encouraged to explore, to question fearlessly. Where they are not bullied by purveyors of faith into conclusion. Or by votaries of reason into a knee-jerk scorn for anything beyond the ken of their rational minds. One in which the inner journey is not seen as escapist, but as enriching— both for the seeker and the world she inhabits.
For a long while, I have wanted to be among those who live close to the blazing fire that animates a faith. Not the sentries and spokespersons, but the seekers, the sadhakas. Those whose lives have little to do with the appurtenances of religious identity.
I feel a need to speak of them, because they are the spiritual spine of a living tradition. They do not have recourse to public relations agents and marketing managers; indeed, they are unlikely to seek them. They often opt for the murmur over the megaphone. They choose to drop their voices, rather than try to outshout the racket. They manage—through the din of social media, through the rant of political rhetoric of every hue—to be themselves. They are the unsung reasons why a faith endures.
A faith would be a heap of bones without this anima, this volcanic inner core. And yet, the defenders of sectarian ghettoes and identity politics speak so little of that heart centre—the centre without which there would be no faith to speak of.
Excerpted with permission from Women who wear themselves: Conversations with Four Travellers on Sacred Journeys written by Arundhathi Subramaniam (Published by Speaking Tiger, 2021)
About the Book
Sri Annapurani Amma left the safety of home and family to follow the summons of a long-dead saint. Like Akka Mahadevi and Lal Ded before her, she chooses to live naked, and sometimes delivers prophecies, but what shines through is her humour and crazily one-pointed devotion to her path.
Soon after her tenth birthday, Balarishi Vishwashirasini was predicting futures—in no time she was transformed into a guru. Now in her thirties, this gifted teacher of nada yoga admits to sometimes feeling she’s missed out on a real childhood.
Lata Mani, a respected academician in the US, was plunged into the path of tantra after a major accident left her with a brain injury. Today, she talks of how the spiritual life is deeply anchored in the wisdom of the body—not unlike the soaring yet rooted redwood trees of her adopted home.
Maa Karpoori, a feisty young woman, found her calling when she joined a local yoga class. Through a rollercoaster ride that catapulted her from marriage to monkhood, she retains her fierce independence and contagious joy of living.
In this extraordinary book, poet and seeker Arundhathi Subramaniam gives us a glimpse into the lives of four self-contained, unapologetic female spiritual travellers. Sensitive, insightful and spare, Women Who Wear Only Themselves is a revelation and a celebration.
About the Author
Arundhathi Subramaniam is the award-winning author of twelve books of poetry and prose. As poet, her most recent book is Love Without a Story. As anthologist, her books include an anthology of bhakti poetry, Eating God, and a book of essays, Pilgrim’s India. As prose writer, her work includes The Book of Buddha and the bestselling biography of a contemporary mystic, Sadhguru: More Than a Life. She has worked over the years as poetry editor, curator and critic. Her book, When God Is a Traveller, won the Sahitya Akademi Award 2020; was the Season Choice of the Poetry Book Society, UK; and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize in 2015. Her awards include the inaugural Khushwant Singh Poetry Prize, the Raza Award for Poetry, the Il Ceppo Prize in Italy, the Zee Indian Women’s Award for Literature, the Mystic Kalinga Award, among others.