Ma Jnanananda, a well-known south Indian guru, commenting on the tradition which regards women as unsuitable candidates for spiritual initiation or leadership, dismisses such ideas as "foolish and wrong. Of course, there are emotional differences between men and women, but these do not relate to self-realization".
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Did she feel that men and women are exactly equal in spiritual characteristics? "Have you ever seen the image of Shiva as Ardhanarishwara?" she responded. "He is depicted in two sexes but one body. It is primarily at the gross physical level that we must perceive precise distinctions. When the male and female elements are completely developed and complement each other in the same individual, the soul is fully realized. For myself I no longer feel that I inhabit the body of a particular gender."
My mother, Preet Vanti Mehrotra, who grew up in Dayalbagh, center of the Radhasoami Satsang faith near Agra, comments: "I have strong faith in my religion. I have grown up with it, studied it. Although I accept all the tenets, there is one that I question: women in our faith cannot be sant-satgurus.
"The sant-satguru has to be a man. If men and women are equal, why this ban? I have asked those senior to me, consulted the texts. Women, they say, can be aspirants, in the same way as men, that's good! But a woman has to go through further births: it is only as a man that the param dham (final destination) can be reached. I reject this!"
Through the centuries of patriarchal control, women have negotiated many layers and levels of existence, working out forms of resistance that are often unnoticed and subtle, though subliminally and powerfully effective. Women's articulation is often at odds with the dominant male voice.
Women need to speak in their own way, define their own truths, in voices that revision society and polity, relationships and religion. Bahena Bai's voice echoes through the corridors of time, poignant in its appeal to acknowledge the common humanity and spiritual unity of women and men, an appeal still relevant. More than ever today.
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|Students at Eden Girls' College in Dhaka, Bangladesh|
(originally founded as a school for Brahmo girls in 1873)
The Vedas Cry Aloud
The Vedas cry aloud, the Puranas shout,
"No good may come to woman"
I was born with a woman's body
How am I to attain Truth?
"They are foolish, seductive, deceptive—
Any connection with a woman is disastrous."
Bahina says, "If a woman's body is so harmful,
How in this world will I reach Truth?"
—Bahena Bai, 17th century.
tr. from Marathi by Justin E. Abbot—Women's Writing in India