The Holy Predicament
Absurdly, in the case of ‘Mata Amritanandamayi’, it is the ‘Devi’ herself who is propagating patriarchal ideas. And the idea of purity as a non-menstruating woman does not seem to have been a myth created around her by a man, but she has just internalized it, because Gail accounts shows ‘Amma’ propagating such stories from the very beginning, even before an ashram was set up in her name. Now, the question is, from when on did we have this bizarre idea of woman being impure, unclean and shameful because she menstruates?
After having finished reading the book Holy Hell; A Memoir of Faith, Devotion, and Pure Madness by Gail Tredwell, I couldn’t help but write this. The book is totally unputdownable for its detail and an incredible understanding of the inner realms of author’s own life. Often interspersed with humor which makes for constant laughs, Gail helps us see not only the inside politics of Mata Amritanandamayi Math but her journey throughout India as a spiritual seeker is quite revealing. It’s an engaging book and will definitely be useful for all those who are interested in gender, politics, and religion. Often I found myself chuckling and thinking ‘avarkkangane thanne venam’ (she deserved it!). Its fun to see what happens when grass is always greener on the other side. Here, in a ‘third world country’ like India, when girls are struggling with limited resources to get an education, stand on their own feet and be resourceful, there comes a woman from a ‘first world country’ in search of occult and spirituality and falls into what she later finds as ‘a hell’! The book worked as a hypertext where one incident after another lead to similar examples in the story of Sr. Jesme narrated in Amen, or reminded me of several experiences I had heard of or encountered in my own life.
(Both the women were termed insane when they challenged the status quo. Sr. Jesme was however lucky to have had a career and after taking a voluntary retirement could avail pension to support a living. Gail on the other hand is left high and dry; with no education, career or resources to support her after leaving an institution where she worked her best 20 plus years of life). The umpteen accounts such as a government official tipping the Math of a raid from the Income Tax Department, or money being sent to ‘Amma’s family, or ‘Amma’ having a sexual liaison with ‘Balu swamy’ or that several paragraphs of Amma’s ‘teachings’ were in fact lifted word for word from Osho’s books did not come as a surprise, simply because there is no element of surprise in such things. However what caught my eye was when I read ‘Amma’ proclaiming to be the ‘Divine Mother’ because she does not menstruate, thus segregating her from the ‘regular’ womenfolk.
Patriarchy is pushed down women’s throat by most of the religions in the world. Even spirituality that is preached by many of these religions seems to rest upon strangulated female sexuality. For example, in Christianity, it was the shrewd intellect of St. Augustine who started the idea of ‘Original Sin’ that succeeded in pushing women to the margins. As it comes through his autobiographical work Confessions, Augustine was a sex addict who even after being ordained as a Christian priest and was practicing celibacy, was unable to ward off the sexual thoughts from his mind. His preoccupation with such feelings took a wrong turn and from then on seems to have started the woman-hating inside the Church. The forbidden fruit in The Bible became a symbol of sex and sin, devil the initiator into sexual thoughts and fantasies, and woman the devil’s agent. The miraculous Virgin Mother Mary was pitted against the temptress Eve, an archetype which later represented all women on earth. From then on women’s sexuality became a threat that prevented men from reaching God. Even though this happened in the fourth century, to this day the true representative of God remains to be a man. Even though St. Paul who passed obnoxious comments on women was completely in favor of women priestesses, or that the foundations of Christianity show women at the helm, or that the women had a crucial role in the early church, the Catholic Church continue to refuse women’s position other than as laity or nuns. Even though The Bible is considered the sole written authority on any matters concerning Christian faith and practice, the Church simply refuses to see the Letter to the citizen of Rome by St. Paul (Chapter 16).
Absurdly, in the case of ‘Mata Amritanandamayi’, it is the ‘Devi’ herself who is propagating patriarchal ideas. And the idea of purity as a non-menstruating woman does not seem to have been a myth created around her by a man, but she has just internalized it, because Gail’s accounts show ‘Amma’ propagating such
stories from the very beginning, even before an ashram was set up in her name. Now, the question is, from when on did we have this bizarre idea of woman being impure, unclean and shameful because she menstruates? A menstruating woman is denied entry in a temple. A woman of menstrual age group whether or not she is having period at the time is forbidden from climbing Sabarimala, where the deity is born from two male gods. (Ironically, even homosexuality is a crime in such a society). By considering menstruation as a crime, ‘Amma’ even denies her bodily/ biological existence as a woman and metamorphoses into the ‘Divine Mother’!
IIn a country like India, an ashram or a convent might be the only option left for women who don’t want to enter wedlock. It’s true that there is no pressure to have sex, no pressure to give birth, and no pressure to take care of a husband in such a structure where women can also enjoy a communal living. Sadly, the very place turns out to be where women are being violated and abused. While most women who enter such institutions live there, as Gail rightly assumes, because of ‘no choice’ rather than ‘by choice’, what’s confusing is the curious case of women who have choices yet chooses to blindly buy such blatant lies of a non-menstruating woman, and other equally vexing notions propagated by various religious institutions. Why it is that women allow themselves to be demeaned, made fool of, and to be considered second rate citizens? Is it because religious institutions with their vested interest ask you to move beyond rationality to attain spiritual bliss? Or, is it because as Gail’s life experience reveals, women have a ‘nice dose of low self-esteem’ because the society they live in marks and views them as inferior? How does one even try to explain this phenomenon?
(Rose Merin is PhD scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru Uuniversity, New delhi”