Where are the holy women of India?


India is a land of mysticism and spirituality. From the time immemorial, people concerned themselves with the  search for truth. They  pursued their quest through various means. Some meditated, while others sang and walked. Few days ago I came across some intense portraits of holy men of India – sadhus in the northern plains of Ganga. This wasn’t the first time I saw those images. People in the west have been fascinated by them for as long as they existed. Perhaps not that long, because when British first discovered the Hindu religion, they were turned off by the torso flashing sadhus of India and therefore they did not find this religion very pleasant to their eyes and preferred Islam , which was how they thought the East should look like – pure and clean with the followers and preachers fully covered. But the question is that how is it that most sadhus that I came across – living or dead, on website or in real blood and flesh –  they are mostly male? I myself visited Gangotri once in the middle of melting glaciers and there was not a single woman there.  Like cold, hunger, warmth, anger, shouldn’t the quest for truth or a desire to be with God pervade the souls of men and women alike? Any Indian can desire to eat mango irrespective of the gender.  I began thinking why I found more men in this pursuit than women. 

Siddharth Gautam went to find the truth. Why didn’t his wife think of doing the same? I might not be completely correct, but all the twenty four Tirthankars of Jains are males. From Bhakti movement, apart from Meera Bai and Akka Mahadevi, there is no one else carrying the female flag. And so far, I was considering only the ones that focused on truth and God and nothing else and not the ones that speak on TV every day. Even if one discounts for the fact that there are less women anyway in the world, the holy women will still be disproportionately less than male sadhus. I wondered why.

First, the thought of pursuing spirituality must have visited many women. But they were more tied to responsibilities. The patriarchal and male dominated world we live in, which was even more so in the earlier times — would such system allow a woman to leave the parents, if she was not married, or leave her children and husband, and put ashes on her body and meditate under the Banyan tree? Siddharth Gautam left ( and of course returned later), but could his wife leave for the same reason? Is it the society that does not allow that independence for women or are women biologically wired to not not care and can think of being a wondering saint only after ensuring that their families are happy?

Second, Safety. Is a woman living alone in the forests of western ghats or some cave in Gangotri safe? One sexual violence and she would be in misery for many years to come.  This is very unfortunate though. The responsibility of creating and bearing life has pulled women down even in this noble pursuit. If anything, world should thank the female gender for choosing to allow her body for the purpose of continuum of life.   And not punish her for having this gift.

Finally, deserting a regular life or never having one  is not the only way seek salvation and pursue spirituality. It could very well be possible that many housewives  have been enlightened beings. But why they did not become popular or immortal in religious and historical texts? Because that visibility might require leading an ascetic life. Not to say that that is why sages have that lifestyle – for visibility.

Holy or unholy, women are an important part of the diversity that makes it worth living on this planet. Hopefully, with more re-engineering of society, women too will enjoy freedom to pursue their desires, in they way they want.

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