Sanghita Singh speaks to author Arundhathi Subramaniam about her latest release, Women Who Wear Only Themselves, a book where she reveals the life of four lesser-known female spiritual wayfarers.
What is it about these four women that prompted you to tell their stories?
This book was unplanned. I happened to meet Balarishi, a young adept of nada yoga (sound yoga) almost a decade ago. I found her mix of quiet authority and humility striking, and I wrote an article about her. In 2017, I stumbled upon Annapoorani Amma, a naked woman mystic who spoke of her living connection with a long-dead yogi. I found her so interesting that I went back a year later to interview her. A strange inner prompting propelled me to return and interview Balarishi as well.
And then the pandemic struck. In the great hush of 2020, I started reading the transcripts of these conversations, and I was astounded by the incredibly rich material I had. It struck me then that if I was so riveted by these voices, there could be some receptive listeners out there as well.
As I started working on these two essays, the idea of writing about two more women occurred to me. I wanted to write about women who were no less extraordinary, and that is how Lata Mani, the Marxist-mystic, and Maa Karpoori, the monk and friend, entered the picture. Imperceptibly, the mise en scène fell into place. After a year of writing in a fevered, near demonic fashion, the book was suddenly complete.
The common thread running through these essays is that they are about relatively unknown, contemporary female spiritual wayfarers. But otherwise, it is diversity — of approach, practice, temperament — that is the keynote of the book
Were you also unravelling your own spiritual quest through these woman? Do you think you were destined to meet them?
Well, if I were not a spiritual traveller, I would not have paused to have these conversations. None of these women are celebrities. They have chosen to remain relatively anonymous, and that is precisely what interested me. I find the “I am on social media with a million followers, therefore I exist” brand of wisdom somewhat amusing — and truth be told, alarming at times. The fact that they weren’t trying to be noticed is what drew me to these women.
Was I destined to meet them? Let me say that I know that interactions of this level of unguardedness, engagement and depth don’t happen often. Each of these conversations was a genuine “sharing” — vulnerable and deeply exploratory. Whenever such a conversation happens – whether with a mystic or otherwise – it is a special event. So, I was vaguely aware of a design — a design I was crafting and one that was unfolding. Destiny is an inseparable mix of intention and serendipity, isn’t it? It’s about leading and being led. And who knows whether the book is the end of the design? The weave may still be underway!
What were some unique traits you found in these women, which left you truly fascinated?
I think it was their independence and their courage primarily. Their life choices are not easy ones to make, particularly given the very different brand of mass consciousness that governs our world. Also, their lack of neediness, their decision to remain low profile, their lack of hunger for attention was invigorating.
And finally, I realised that each of them illustrates a different spiritual orientation. Someone observed that they were all from the same “tradition.” That is far from true. They point to the living heterodoxy of Hindu spirituality in the subcontinent, despite every effort to standardise it (to suit the zealots of every persuasion — religious and secular). I found these women’s differences quite dazzling. One is contemplative, another ecstatic; one intellectual, another devotional; one is a monk, another a tantric. One has a guru, another has none; one is guided by a goddess, another by a long-dead saint. One is naked, and another gave up her monk’s ochre to wear blue jeans! While each has her own partly inherited and partly invented vocabulary, they acknowledge diverse wisdom traditions. Collectively, they are a testimony to the wild plurality of sacred paths in our country.
Annapoorani Amma, the woman you begin your book with, is someone who almost startles the reader with her matted hair and choice of not wearing clothes. Did you find that it was a tough choice for her, being pulled in one direction by following her spiritual urge of giving it all up and by fitting in the norms that a woman must live by in the other?
Well, she took my breath away — not because of what she said, but because of how she said it and how she wore her body. I describe her in the book as a woman who inhabits her body like a lion. That is how I saw her — proud, fearless, blazing.
I cannot imagine what it takes to make that kind of life choice. We talk of great poets like Lal Ded and Akka Mahadevi today and marvel at their ability to walk the world without the sanctuary of family, institutional support and clothing. But to meet someone today who exercises this choice was fascinating. She awed me. When she spoke of how she no longer sees herself as mother to her sons, we could all feel the terrifying knife edge of that renunciation. Each of us in that room was tearing up.
Now, you may ask, does this mean every spiritual person must choose this life? Obviously not. I am not advocating — or denouncing — any path. Instead, the book invites us to listen and to have humility enough to suspend judgement. There are many ways to live in the world, and everyone’s life choice doesn’t have to be a reproach to our own. But it can be an interrogation if we allow it to be. As I say in my poem on Annapoorani Amma, when I left her hermitage, I wondered who was really crazy here — her or the world into which I was emerging.
Your Marxist cousin Lata Mani, a scholar and historian who you feature in the book, discovers her path, literally by accident after her traumatic car crash. Now, she talks about communicating directly with the Devi? What did you feel about her radical transformation?
Lata being a cousin is, honestly, incidental. I didn’t know her well in her pre-accident avatar. We knew each other as presences in the extended family landscape. Had it not been for the fact that both of us stumbled — in our own very different ways — into spiritual journeys, I suspect we would still not know each other particularly well!
But yes, I find her truly remarkable for the precision and depth of her articulation as well as the palpable serenity and radiance of her presence. What is striking about her journey is its radical nature, its dramatic topsy-turviness — a terrible car accident that transformed an intellectual into a bhakta, a Marxist-feminist into a mystic. But what is even more striking is the way she tries to weave a language that integrates her past and her present. She has not abandoned her political and intellectual orientation; she is simply allowing it to deepen, to ripen. She doesn’t view the sacred and secular as antagonistic. Her tantric practice helps her see the two as deeply connected. And her devotion to the Goddess is something that I feel a deep kinship with. That makes her more truly my “clan” than any blood does!
It’s interesting that all your women belong to the south of India – was that sheer coincidence?
Absolutely. As I say in the preface of the book, that is only because I have spent long spells of time in the south in the past decade. I have absolutely no doubt I’d find remarkable women all over the country and indeed the world.
At one point, I thought of turning it into a larger book of interviews with women from other parts of the subcontinent and other faiths as well. But simply ticking off regional and religious boxes could turn it into a somewhat tokenistic, impersonal anthology. There’s room for that kind of book, but I didn’t think it was the right approach for this one. The sense of personal surprise and the varied conversational textures of these meetings gives this book a certain intimacy and authenticity. Since there are several books on Himalayan yogis in Indian sacred literature, perhaps it’s not a bad thing to have a book on unsung south Indian women mystics for a change?
The women in your book have had very different life journeys — one is a mother, another married before she took to monkhood, another is living overseas and one found her spiritual calling in childhood. Was it a revelation that the divine can come to you at any stage of your life? That you don’t have to go after it?
Indeed. Self-awakening can happen at any point as these women’s journeys testify — in childhood and in adulthood as a seductive invitation and as a seeming catastrophe! And often unexpectedly too. There’s a lovely poem by Arun Kolatkar in which a traveller to a pilgrimage town finds the sacred not in the temple but in the eyes of an old beggar woman. What I loved about these women is that they aren’t “goody-goody”, docile or obedient in any way. They’re spirited, quirky, sometimes eccentric and above all, they’re human. They remind us that these are the only prerequisites for the spiritual traveller – to be alive, open to surprise, and human.
What was your personal take away from these women?
These women touched me in the way the finest poems do — quietly, imperceptibly, profoundly. What do I take away from poems? Nothing really, except that they enrich my life and subtly alter my map of the world. What do I take away from these women? Gratitude for their disarming candour and vulnerability and inspiration to travel my own journey with renewed commitment and integrity.
Arundhathi Subramaniam is an award-winning best-selling author and poet. She has co-authored Adiyogi: The Source of Yoga with Sadhguru, the globally-acclaimed mystic and yogi and written his biography titled More Than A Life
Photo credits : Meetesh Taneja