Gurus, Priestesses, Saints, Mediums and Yoginis: Holy Women as Influencers in Hindu Culture

A special issue of Religions (ISSN 2077-1444). This special issue belongs to the section "Religions and Humanities/Philosophies".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (1 April 2023) | Viewed by 17971

Special Issue Editors


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Guest Editor
Department of Religion, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, TX 76129, USA
Interests: asceticism, devotion, and mysticism; gender and religion; religion, ritual, and performance; goddess traditions; gurus and divine personalities; ethnographic/narrative methodologies; theories and methods in religion; religion, globalization, and modernity

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Guest Editor
Department of Religious Studies, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC 29424, USA
Interests: history of religions; mysticism; Hinduism; Bengali Shaktism; Tantra; Bhakti; yoga; folklore; gender and women’s studies; ritual studies; anthropology of religion
Special Issues, Collections and Topics in MDPI journals

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

Holy women in India and abroad have touched and transformed lives through their spiritual power and leadership for millennia. There are many sources for their authority. Some of these women, such as the nineteenth-century saint Sarada Devi, have been ritually empowered by male saints, and others, such as the contemporary guru Swami Childvilasananda, have been empowered by male gurus. The well-known saint Anandamayi Ma claimed to be enlightened from birth, while the ‘hugging guru’ Ammachi gained status through visionary experience and possession by deities. As these examples illustrate, holy women’s leadership may be derived from different sources of power. Nevertheless, the relationship of the sources of power to the types of influence that holy women exercise in Hindu culture remains largely understudied. This volume fills a gap in the scholarship to contribute new analyses and explanatory models for future research on women’s religious leadership.

Applying the “influencer” concept to the study of religion, this Special Issue explores the varieties of strategies that holy women in diverse roles use for gaining and expressing power. The volume examines different concepts of holiness and leadership for men and women, the role of charisma, and the arenas of activity and accomplishment for holy women in India and abroad.

Questions the volume explores include: What sources of power engender and facilitate holy women’s authority and leadership in Hinduism? How do they bring others to their ways of thinking? How do they use their power to advance new revelations, organize new traditions, and build institutions? How do holy women relate their power to the broader Hindu patriarchal structures?

Scholarship on religious power features varied approaches, from history of religions and textual analysis to anthropology, sociology, and psychology.  It has generally prioritized male religious leaders’ lives and experiences of holiness, assuming the masculine perspective to be universal and normative.  This approach is then used to theorize how power and religious authority work, and how they shape individual and social understandings of religion.

Against this backdrop, this volume examines the influence of experience, power, culture, and gender on holy women’s authority in the Hindu tradition. Thus, the volume explores the depths and nuances of holy women’s power within and outside of the mainstream in Hindu culture.

Dr. Antoinette DeNapoli
Prof. Dr. June McDaniel
Guest Editors

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Keywords

  • revelation
  • gurus
  • Hinduism
  • holy women
  • charisma
  • mediums
  • trance
  • Bauls
  • poet-saints
  • priestesses
  • yoga
  • Bhakti
  • Tantra
  • ashram

Published Papers (11 papers)

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Research

15 pages, 246 KiB  
Article
The Spiritual Prodigy, the Reluctant Guru, and the Saint: Mirabai and Collaborative Leadership at Hari Krishna Mandir
by Nancy M. Martin
Religions 2024, 15(4), 486; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel15040486 - 15 Apr 2024
Viewed by 591
Abstract
This article explores the life and influence of Indira Devi Niloy (1920–1997) who in 1949 began to encounter the sixteenth-century saint–poet Mirabai during her meditative trance states. She would recount songs, stories, and teachings that the saint gave to her as well as [...] Read more.
This article explores the life and influence of Indira Devi Niloy (1920–1997) who in 1949 began to encounter the sixteenth-century saint–poet Mirabai during her meditative trance states. She would recount songs, stories, and teachings that the saint gave to her as well as scenes from Mirabai’s life that she witnessed as an observer and at other times experienced directly as a participant. Their ongoing relationship would have a tremendous influence on Indira Devi as well as her guru Dilip Kumar Roy (1897–1980) and the increasingly international community that grew up around them. Their interactions and Indira Devi’s reports in turn would also significantly influence the reception and perceived continuing relevance of Mirabai as both inspiration and authorization for women’s self-realization. Additionally, Indira Devi’s own story reveals a mode of female guruhood, with a distinct absence of identification with shakti or divine incarnation, a more egalitarian model for the guru–disciple relationship, and an alternate bhakti mode of male–female collaborative leadership with Roy. Further their experiences with Mirabai offer insight into the ongoing engagement of women and men with such influential women of the past, the intersubjective nature of the traditions that surround them, and what Mirabai’s message might be for women (and men) today. Full article
14 pages, 275 KiB  
Article
The Mahimā of Ājali Āi and the Persecuted Māyāmārā Śatra: Guru-Mā as Holy Patroness and Divine Mother
by Arunjana Das
Religions 2024, 15(1), 36; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel15010036 - 25 Dec 2023
Viewed by 681
Abstract
Every year around 200,000 Māyāmārā Vaiṣṇavas congregate in a small village in Mājulī, Assam, India, for the annual śevā, or worship service, to Ājali Āi, a 16th-century female figure. She was the mother of Sri Sri Aniruddhadeva, the founder of Māyāmārā Vaiṣṇavism, [...] Read more.
Every year around 200,000 Māyāmārā Vaiṣṇavas congregate in a small village in Mājulī, Assam, India, for the annual śevā, or worship service, to Ājali Āi, a 16th-century female figure. She was the mother of Sri Sri Aniruddhadeva, the founder of Māyāmārā Vaiṣṇavism, a religious sect originating in medieval Assam that experienced royal persecution and ethnic cleansing. Among contemporary Māyāmārā Vaiṣṇavas, veneration of Ājali Āi as the mother of the founding Guru has become popular, which is somewhat puzzling since historical information about her life is scarce. Nevertheless, as Guru-Mā, Ājali Āi today has become a symbol of holiness in Māyāmārā society with community members attributing to her mahimā, translated as a divine agency, mysterious glory, or supremacy. Guru-riṇ and Mātri-ṛin, categories that are a part of the Vaiṣṇava and the larger Hindu canon, can generally explain the holiness accorded to the mother of the Guru. In the case of the Māyāmārā Vaiṣṇavas, however, they are not sufficient to explain the power in the form of mahimā that the community ascribes to her in the present day to the degree of attributing to her the power to grant wishes. This exploratory chapter argues for a systems approach to understand the phenomenon of the mahimā of Ājali Āi in contemporary Māyāmārā society. The chapter finds that socio-economic and political forces interacted with extant legends around Ājali Āi and ideas around Āi as Devi and mother in complex ways to create the community’s contemporary understanding of Ājali Āi as a holy and loving maternal figure with mahimā—one who keeps a watchful and nurturing eye over the community and grants the wishes of ardent devotees. Full article
15 pages, 238 KiB  
Article
Goddess, Guru, and Sanghajanani: The Authority and Ongoing Appeal of the Holy Mother Sarada Devi
by Jeffery D. Long
Religions 2024, 15(1), 16; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel15010016 (registering DOI) - 21 Dec 2023
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 932
Abstract
Saradamani Mukhopadhyay (1853–1920), more widely known as Sarada Devi and, to her devotees, the Holy Mother, presents an illuminating case study of the various means by which, in many respects, a highly traditional and typical rural Hindu woman of her time, operating from [...] Read more.
Saradamani Mukhopadhyay (1853–1920), more widely known as Sarada Devi and, to her devotees, the Holy Mother, presents an illuminating case study of the various means by which, in many respects, a highly traditional and typical rural Hindu woman of her time, operating from within the categories of Bengali Hindu society, was able to navigate these categories in ways that did not undermine, but rather enhanced, her agency, enabling her to shape her social reality in creative and transformative ways. Inhabiting the traditional role of mother and nurturer while carrying it out in a highly non-traditional manner, Sarada Devi played a central, often behind-the-scenes, role as a major influencer of an important modern Hindu spiritual movement—indeed, the first such movement to be able to boast an international following. Having no biological children of her own, Sarada Devi became the mother to this movement and to the monastic order dedicated to carrying forward the vision of her husband, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836–1886), as interpreted both by herself and his disciples, the most prominent of whom was Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), who is well known for having brought Ramakrishna’s teachings to the Western world through his lectures in America, including at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893 and his founding of the first Vedanta Societies, starting in New York in 1894. Full article
16 pages, 252 KiB  
Article
Between the Boundaries of Asceticism and Activism: Understanding the Authority of the Sadhvis within the Hindu Right in India
by Koushiki Dasgupta
Religions 2023, 14(9), 1100; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14091100 - 25 Aug 2023
Viewed by 932
Abstract
Given the emergence of the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement in the early 1990s, a group of female ascetics and sadhvis displayed tendencies of eschewing conventional gendered images and reinforcing the ideals of virtuous motherhood and female warriorhood in an effort to establish women’s alternative [...] Read more.
Given the emergence of the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement in the early 1990s, a group of female ascetics and sadhvis displayed tendencies of eschewing conventional gendered images and reinforcing the ideals of virtuous motherhood and female warriorhood in an effort to establish women’s alternative authority in the public and private domains. In order to galvanise women’s participation in the public sphere, these sadhvis allowed women to assume roles that would otherwise be reserved for men on the grounds that men are no longer living according to their dharma. In reality, the sadhvis were reorganising the feminine space within a predominately masculine Hindutva movement by recommending a level of politicisation of women’s private responsibilities in the public sphere with a distinctive articulation of particular gender stereotypes. Taking into account these factors, my aim in writing this essay is to examine the ramifications of the agency and authority that these sadhvis achieved while actively participating in the Hindutva movement. This paper also aims to find out which types of approaches they employed to address the conflicts between conventional womanhood, asceticism, and heroic femininity in the arena of public life. Full article
18 pages, 882 KiB  
Article
Mirra Alfassa: Completing Sri Aurobindo’s Vision
by Patrick Beldio
Religions 2023, 14(8), 955; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14080955 - 25 Jul 2023
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 2141
Abstract
Mirra Alfassa’s influence, power, and authority are essential to the integral yoga according to Aurobindo Ghose, yet most scholars have so far refused to examine their contours. Aurobindo saw her as the incarnation of the divine mother or Mahāśakti and said her spiritual [...] Read more.
Mirra Alfassa’s influence, power, and authority are essential to the integral yoga according to Aurobindo Ghose, yet most scholars have so far refused to examine their contours. Aurobindo saw her as the incarnation of the divine mother or Mahāśakti and said her spiritual growth “followed the same course” as his, which radically universalized Rāmakṛṣṇa’s teaching of vijñāna, which he called “supermind” and she “the domain of love”. Aurobindo left key parts of his supramental vision incomplete in his writings; however, Mirra claimed to complete it with new revelations that I call the “Descendant Manonāśa Period” of their practice. Manonāśa or “mental annihilation” is central to what scholars call “Yoga Advaita”. Mirra’s revelations include: 1. a posthuman vision of a sexless supramental humanity that is evolving now and in the future; 2. this evolution is coming with a cost: the mind and vital natures are being destroyed as we are going through an anatomical metamorphosis surpassing the one that yielded homo sapiens 300,000 years ago; 3. this shambolic process centrally involves what Mirra called “the psychic being” or evolving soul, somehow stimulating its materialization into what she called “the glorified body” in her early life in France. Though Aurobindo did not make a direct connection between the psychic being and what he called “the divine body”, he thought from the beginning of their partnership in the 1920s that her body could endure supramentalization better than his, no matter how it unfolded. Full article
19 pages, 329 KiB  
Article
Good Queen, Bad Queen: Gender, Devotion, and Mythmaking in Women’s Histories
by Sundari Johansen Hurwitt
Religions 2023, 14(8), 954; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14080954 - 25 Jul 2023
Viewed by 1079
Abstract
How do we remember and write about powerful women and the impacts they have had on history? Who tells their stories, and to whose advantage are those narratives constructed? And what happens if we look carefully and acknowledge that when they enter historical [...] Read more.
How do we remember and write about powerful women and the impacts they have had on history? Who tells their stories, and to whose advantage are those narratives constructed? And what happens if we look carefully and acknowledge that when they enter historical narratives, many of these “women” are not adults, but actually relatively young girls? Rani Rasmani Dasi (1793–1861) and Bar-rajā Phuleshwari Kunwari (also known as Phulmati and Pramateshwari) (d. 1731) are each remembered as powerful women influencers of popular religion in South Asia, though in very different ways. These two “queens” were each remarkable women who variously defied, upended, and upheld common assumptions and narratives about caste, gender, power, and religion in Hindu society in early modern India. This study critically investigates the work of Rasmani and Phuleshwari’s many chroniclers, biographers, and hagiographers, questioning received narratives and attempting to construct a glimpse of them as living girls and women. What do we actually know about them, about their activities and motivations? And what can we know, when so much of the evidence is unreliable? Thrust into unfamiliar social, political, and religious environments as young girls, they grew into deeply religious women who used their considerable influence and resources to promote their own visions of divine power. They also became full participants in and beneficiaries of problematic power structures of domination and exploitation. But with closer investigation, it appears that much of what we think we know about these women is incomplete or, in the case of Phuleshwari, completely unreliable. Full article
21 pages, 270 KiB  
Article
Shakti in Village India: Priestesses, Sadhikas, Bhar Ladies, Ayes, Bhaktas, Witches, and Bonga Girls
by June McDaniel
Religions 2023, 14(6), 789; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14060789 - 14 Jun 2023
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 2023
Abstract
In this paper, we shall examine some major religious roles for women in West Bengal, India, and the challenges they must face. Among the Santals, an Adivasi group, religious women must avoid being called witches, for women’s power is seen as dangerous and [...] Read more.
In this paper, we shall examine some major religious roles for women in West Bengal, India, and the challenges they must face. Among the Santals, an Adivasi group, religious women must avoid being called witches, for women’s power is seen as dangerous and religious social roles are traditionally forbidden to them. Some women have been called by deities to become trance mediums, colloquially known as ‘bhar ladies’, and this role is generally not accepted by family members. Girls have had to undergo exorcisms by male healers to get them to renounce the gods that have called them to this role, while married women must deal with husbands who do not want their wives going into public trances. Many such women have learned tantric practices to control the trance possession. In rural areas, the combination of ascetic practices and stories known as bratas (vratas) are taught to young girls by female leaders called ayes. However, in more urban areas, this role has been taken over by male brahmin priests. We also see women in the bhakti tradition, who run ashrams and lead worship and who must deal with male devotees who question a woman’s leadership abilities. All of these involve challenges, and many of these women have developed strategies to deal with the difficulties of being a religious influencer in their societies. Full article
16 pages, 309 KiB  
Article
Revisiting the Experiential World of Women’s Bhakti Poetry
by Karen Pechilis
Religions 2023, 14(6), 788; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14060788 - 14 Jun 2023
Viewed by 2228
Abstract
My recent research on an early female bhakti saint brought to the fore differences between her perspective as represented in poetry attributed to her and her medieval biographer’s representation of her concerns. Through that study, the widespread academic use in recent scholarship of [...] Read more.
My recent research on an early female bhakti saint brought to the fore differences between her perspective as represented in poetry attributed to her and her medieval biographer’s representation of her concerns. Through that study, the widespread academic use in recent scholarship of traditional biographies to interpret female bhakti saints became especially visible and problematic to me. In this experimental essay, I consider what patterns we might find if we prioritize the poetry attributed to influential female bhakti saints, navigating the significant issues of subjectivity, voice, and utterance to discern the contours of their devotional subjectivity as an authoritative nexus for conceptualizing and expressing individual and group devotion. In contrast to scholarly assurances that female bhakti saints are internally steadfast or that they are mainly troubled by external situations, I argue that their devotional subjectivity voices their realization that diverse embodied experiences of contestation are generative for a shared sense of devotion. Full article
23 pages, 2080 KiB  
Article
Gender, Education and Citizenship as Ideological Weapons of an ‘Army of Holy Women’ in Bengal: The Matua Matri Sena
by Sukanya Sarbadhikary and Dishani Roy
Religions 2023, 14(6), 787; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14060787 - 14 Jun 2023
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 2688
Abstract
This paper seeks to analyze the recent phenomenon of the development of a Matri Sena (literally, an ‘Army of Holy Women’) among the Matua sect of West Bengal, India. Historically known to have suffered caste-based untouchability and forced migration due to communal conflict, [...] Read more.
This paper seeks to analyze the recent phenomenon of the development of a Matri Sena (literally, an ‘Army of Holy Women’) among the Matua sect of West Bengal, India. Historically known to have suffered caste-based untouchability and forced migration due to communal conflict, the Matua community’s current political motivations surround the issue of ‘refugeehood’ and Indian citizenship. Given this background, the emergence of the Matri Sena as a complex identity among a religion–caste–gender–nation nexus is oriented towards bipartite objectives: one, to actualize the gender-egalitarian ethos that informs Matua religious foundations, and two, to claim legal citizenship status for its community members precisely through a new gendered ideology. We argue that the women gurus of the Matri Sena are able to realize their religious/political aims by fashioning themselves as mothers of an ideal family, community, and by extension, the nation. In deploying their specific gendered ideological constructions, they enact their new roles as influencers in both private and public Matua lives. In such renderings, the woman guru’s mother-figure emerges as a political subject through crucial engagements with Matua religiosity on one hand, and dominant Hindu nationalist discourses on the other. In this article, we critically analyze ways in which the Matri Sena constructs a new maternal notion of religio-political power, and how such power furthers both collective Matua aspirations and contemporary national imaginations. Full article
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22 pages, 14356 KiB  
Article
Urban Devis: Fashioning Lay Women’s Holiness in Krishna Bhakti Networks
by Claire Robison
Religions 2023, 14(6), 786; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14060786 - 14 Jun 2023
Viewed by 1299
Abstract
Although many Hindu communities today foreground women as religious authorities, some lineages officially recognize only men as gurus and renouncers. If official models of religious authority are gendered masculine, what space do women have to embody holiness? This article investigates this question with [...] Read more.
Although many Hindu communities today foreground women as religious authorities, some lineages officially recognize only men as gurus and renouncers. If official models of religious authority are gendered masculine, what space do women have to embody holiness? This article investigates this question with reference to women in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), a transnational religious organization that has developed prominent communities in India and abroad. Amidst an ongoing disagreement about whether women can be gurus in the organization, this article considers how devotee women are cultivating spaces of religious authority in their temple communities and online media forums through embodying Krishna bhakti as a form of vernacular holiness. This includes the development of personal websites and the use of YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok to produce media content that ranges from overtly devout recordings of temple lectures to subtle signals towards Krishna bhakti in the aesthetic style of social media influencers. Case studies discuss women affiliated with ISKCON communities in India and the US. Full article
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36 pages, 8335 KiB  
Article
Everyone Drinks from the Same Well”: Charismatic Female Gurus as “Religious Feminist Influencers” in South Asian Hinduism
by Antoinette E. DeNapoli
Religions 2023, 14(6), 785; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel14060785 - 14 Jun 2023
Viewed by 2286
Abstract
This article examines the emergent leadership of two female gurus in South Asia who have declared their status as Śaṅkarācāryās (i.e., heads of monastic institutions) based on revelatory experiences. They have done this in order to change patriarchal monastic (akhāṛā) culture and [...] Read more.
This article examines the emergent leadership of two female gurus in South Asia who have declared their status as Śaṅkarācāryās (i.e., heads of monastic institutions) based on revelatory experiences. They have done this in order to change patriarchal monastic (akhāṛā) culture and challenge entrenched ideas of women’s inferiority in Hindu society. By combining ethnographic data and a gender studies-centered analysis of their narratives and teachings, I shall investigate the role and impact of gendered charismatic authority on modern women’s monastic lives. Their self-declarations as Śaṅkarācāryās profoundly break the conventional patriarchal mold for the type of guru women can be and the kind of authorized religious power they can have in this male-dominated role; thus, I term these gurus as “religious feminist influencers”. I argue that the gurus invoke charismatic authority by emphasizing the immediacy of the personal realization of the divine, the potency of the female body, and religious emotions, such as radical love, as sources of revelation. By “performing [these] revelation[s],” they construct alternative ways of practicing Hinduism, defined around modernist ideals such as gender equality, inclusion, and women’s rights. Moreover, they promote the normalization of women’s institutional leadership at the pinnacle of the monastic hierarchy. Full article
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