Women have been given the short shrift in spirituality since millennia. I believe this has been consistent across every religion. I was curious about the case Sanatana Dharma – but I do not know of any woman Rishi of the Vedas except Gargi and Lopamudra. So, until evidence emerges for the contrary, I will continue to believe Hinduism too gave women the short shrift. Though their treatment in Hinduism has been better relative to some other religions, one doesn’t see total acceptance of a woman as a human with good, bad and ugly parts; instead they are either idealized as Devis with behavioral standards impossible to replicate, or marginalized for their biology which they had no hand in designing.
I wanted to compile details about a set of Yoginis and their work, in the recent past as well as contemporary times to provide some women role models for the women in Yoga to look up to. It is heartening to see a good number of women emerge from the shadows and re-claim their right to spiritual knowledge. After all, the heart of Indian spirituality is the understanding that one is not merely the mortal body – one is the Immortal Divine Spirit, and if we identify with it, we can be free (mukt) of suffering from transitory situations in life. Any human in any body – male or female or other, should have access to realize this through any Yogic path.
In my experience, it would help someone on the path to know other people of similar background whom they can identify with who have walked the path. Without further ado, here are a few women I have come across in the Yogic path:
1. Sadhvi Bhagavati Saraswati : She is an integral part of the famous “Paramarth Niketan” whose headquarters is in Rishikesh – known for its work in the spiritual field as well as humanitarian aid. I recently read her biography “Hollywood to the Himalayas”. She was born and raised in the United States, and when she was about to finish her PhD in psychology from Stanford, she came on a trip to India where she was divinely inspired to stay in India near the Ganges. She has been in India ever since – involved in spiritual Sadhana as well as social work of the ashram. Her biography covers all her moments of triumph, temptations and struggles that any human faces on the path, as well as some of unique situations only women or westerners endure. She has written a few other books on spirituality, and also has a Youtube channel. Parmarth Niketan also publishes books on spirituality at very nominal cost that have thoughts from the head Swami of the ashram relating to everyday issues we face in life and how to handle them.
2. Radha Sivananda : She was an European immigrant in Canada who was divinely inspired by Swami Sivananda of the Divine Life Society to visit India. She went to visit him, stayed at his ashram for a few years, learnt Yoga (not just the asanas, but the entire gamut, including Kundalini Yoga) from the ashram, and set up a Yoga community in Canada- Yasodhara Ashram. The unique feature in this ashram is that it is always headed by a woman, and the transmission of the power of the lineage is from one woman swami to another. In addition, she has written a biography as well as several books on Yoga in a manner accessible to the modern reader in the East or West, which is relevant even today.
3. Dena Merriam: She is an American disciple of Paramahamsa Yogananda. Her works are a unique genre unto itself – she writes on her experiences in previous lives. I was having questions on what happens after the death of a jeeva on planet Earth and questions on previous lives when I came across (or was guided by the universe to?) her books. She has written a book on Ramayana retold from the eyes of Sita, and a couple of other books on her previous lives in India, China and in the astral realms. One can get a peak of the culture during the Vedic era, China during middle ages, and life after death in astral realms from her book.
4. Zen Buddhist temple at Ann Arbor: I happened to be here a few times when I felt I wanted to meditate as part of a spiritual community. This is a Buddhist monastery of Korean Zen tradition that had a very welcoming, down-to-earth and positive vibe in their temple. The head of the center since its inception has been Haji Sunim – a Canadian-American woman who took the path of Dharma. Their core practice involves meditation on the breath and following ethical teachings of Buddha – I think these can be classified as Yoga. There are a good number of women Buddhist practitioners and monks of all age groups in this center.
5. Om Swami’s disciples: There are some women disciples of Om Swami who are receiving monastic training. These include Sadhvi Vrunda Om, and Swamiji’s own mother amongst others. Sadhvi Vrunda Om has written books about her life with Swamiji, and her own journey on the path – from a tumultuous life to a tranquil one. These books also have practical guidance for the seeker who wish to put some principles to use for making positive changes in one’s life.