The mystical experience defies rationality and women going through it usually invite dismissal. Arundhathi Subramaniam’s latest book, Women Who Wear Only Themselves: Conversations with Four Travellers on Sacred Journeys, has in it four unique women who carved a spiritual path for themselves in the wake of a cataclysmic experience. There have been blazingly memorable women mystics in India, but the four profiled here walk their own paths, independent and unnoticed, without acolytes or steady funding.
“Women turn out to be more oriented to spirituality than men, for reasons unknown, and of course they are more likely to be disbelieved,” says Tanya M. Luhrmann, a renowned scholar of religion, whose work focuses on voices, visions, the world of the supernatural and the world of psychosis. In her book How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others, she says that mystical experience is important because it makes God real to people, it is “this-world evidence that the world of the faith frame is real”.
Subramaniam recounts how for Sri Annapurani Amma, her late guru, Sadashiva Brahmendra is a grandfather figure whose “presence” sees her through times of need. Balarishi Viswashirasini uses nada (sound) to commune with the Divine, her vocal outpourings akin to glossolalia. Lata Mani, a Marxist and feminist, experienced a rebirth into clarity after a traumatic accident. Maa Karpoori found herself crying unstoppable tears in the presence of a yoga teacher through whom crucial people entered her life.
Describing spiritual transformation can be like pinning thin air to paper. But the author is a master at conversation as her biography, Sadhguru: More Than a Life will testify. Here, too, her gentle, yet probing questions elicit self-sufficient answers like this one from Sri Annapurani Amma: “…he (her guru) works only if you hold him as your very life breath”. Or take this precise answer from Lata Mani, analysing the author’s question about the Marxist-mystic link: “Spiritual teachings are unitive philosophies. When they are practised at their deepest level what you experience is your intimacy with the whole of the universe. So it’s an individual journey, but it’s not an individualist journey.”
As interpolator in these conversations, Subramaniam’s prose hits the mark when it is more show and less tell, as in this summing up of the charming child-turned-guru, Balarishi: “…I am fortunate to have met her at this point in her life when she is not merely accessible, but capable of both reflection and vulnerability. She is a woman who still speaks of herself as process, not product; who hasn’t yet allowed image to obscure her reality as a mystic.” Interpolation gets in the way where the writing veers into excess and over-explanation, as in the preface, afterword and the profile of Maa Karpoori. Also, to elide lines of verse by redoubtable mystics and saints into a part of a para to corroborate a point is to rob them of their power.
The layout of the book—a poem by the author prefacing and closing each profile—works beautifully, award-winning poet that Subramaniam is. Poetry works through compression and can often illumine inner expansion, which is the subject of this book.
The mystical experience is a headstart in preparing the mind and heart for the long haul—the path to self-knowledge and an understanding of the truth. It is a headstart unavailable to the average seeker—and therefore Subramaniam’s stories of these women help us see them in a vast continuum, calling to mind also Barbara Newman’s study of women mystics in medieval Christianity, From Virile Woman to Woman Christ: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature.
Traditional teachers of the scriptures point pragmatically to the flip side: The public, if primarily looking at mystics for siddhis (accomplishments of a miraculous nature) or quick-fix solutions, may fall prey to delusion. This book reminds us to keep the questioning mind alive; and not be dismissive of someone for whom Shiva is not a deity, but a guru at arm’s reach whose sleeve she can tug.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Visions Of Clarity")