© Copyright 1991, 2017 by Timothy Conway, PhD
Our discussion of women in the world’s sacred traditions begins with the most ancient of the extant religions—Hinduism. The word “Hinduism” simply means the “ism” of the people of India, and this is no clearly defined, single religion with an historic founder and a unitary set of scriptures, beliefs and rituals. Rather, Hinduism is a rich, even bewildering collection of diverse scriptures, ideas and practices, varying immensely depending on whether we are looking at Vedic-, Vedānta-, Purāṇa- or Tantra-influenced India, high-, middle- or low-caste people, or people with predominantly mystical-intuitive, emotional-devotional, or psychologically-experimental temperaments. (Of course, this last distinction concerning different temperaments can actually be found worldwide, and causes major divergences in belief and practice among the different schools within Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, and within other faiths.)
As we shall shortly learn, the chief traditions promoting real sanctity in India are the wisdom (jñāna) school and the devotional (bhakti) school of the Vedānta approach (which first arose circa 9th to 8th centuries BCE—many Vedānta bhakti schools would also arise after the 7th century of the Common Era), the tradition of aṣṭāṅga yoga codified by Patañjali (200 BCE onward) and the various schools of tantra (sometimes called kuṇḍalinī yoga; arising from 600 CE onward).
At the outset of our study of women in the Hindu tradition, we note that traditional scholarship has been vindicated in recent decades concerning the history of ancient India and the Hindu religion. Namely, genetic evidence indicates that mainly blue-eyed, blond-haired, nomadic, cattle-breeding Indo-Āryans or Indo-Europeans with their war-chariots, iron weapons, and patriarchal, priest-dominated, ritual-suffused, this-world-oriented religion with rituals centered around sacred phrases (mantras) and offerings into a fire-pit, arrived in northern India around 1500 BCE via the Khyber Pass from southern Russia or Anatolia (Turkey). These “Āryan invaders” assimilated into and in some cases conquered the peace-loving, darker skinned, native Dravidian population and supplanted the remnants of a now-fragmented Indus valley Harappan civilization with their Vedic culture (i.e., based on the four scriptures known as the Veda, beginning with the primary “oral text,” the Ṛg Veda, dating from around 1500 to 1200 BCE).
(A revisionist idea from the 1980s onward tried to argue new evidence on linguistic, archaeological, and calendrical fronts that there were no invading “Āryans,” and that an Indus people native to India — or at least resident for many millennia— themselves were the creators of both Indus and Vedic culture. The revisionists argued that most of the material of the Vedas dated way back to at least 2,500 BCE, and perhaps much further back in time.)
The pre-Indo-Āryan peoples, the Indus peoples, were centered around the ancient Ghaggar/Sarasvatī river, in large settlements like Ganweriwala and Rakhigarhi, with other large cities such as the more famous Mohenjo Daro and Harappa serving as gateway cities on the outskirts. There may have been yogis and yoginīs living up in the Himalaya mountains as well. The Sarasvatī river, thought to be the manifestation of a goddess of the same name, eventually dried up around 1900 BCE and effectively put an end to the Indus or Harappan civilization. After this catastrophe, the main site of Indian civilization moved east to the wetter regions in the plains around the rivers Ganges/Gaṅgā and Yamunā.
Germane to our topic is the fact that though many circles of the ancient Indian religion were patriarchal, numerous female figurines are to be found from the Indus valley Harappan culture in the third millennium BCE, suggesting widespread worship or exaltation of goddesses. David Kinsley reports:
“Primarily on the basis of three scenes depicted on seals, we can surmise that a goddess [generally benign] was known who was associated with vegetation and most likely with the fertility of the crops. Also on the basis of the three seals ... we can conclude that a female being was also known who had some connection with [wild] animals, perhaps the fertility of animals.” 
Kinsley’s analysis of these figures, however, yields the conclusion that they are significantly different from the so-called Venus figurines found in Paleolithic and Neolithic Europe and the Near East, perhaps simply due to stylistic differences. We know that these regions traded goods with each other, and so may have in fact been worshipping the same Divine Feminine.
Many goddesses appear in the “post-Indus” Vedic Hinduism yet Kinsley has shown  that these goddesses (like their “sisters” in the patriarchal religions of the West) are not central to Vedic religion. Even the most popular of these goddesses, Uṣas (associated and/or identified with the dawn), is considered to be only on a par with male deities of the second rank (below the main three male deities, Agni, Soma and Indra). Goddesses of even lesser stature include Sarasvatī (identified with that major river in North India), Pṛthivī (identified with the earth), Aditi (the “Limitless” androgynous mother/father of all), Vāc (“speech”), Rātrī (“night”), Nirṛti (a rather fierce goddess), and others even less clearly defined or very infrequently mentioned (e.g., Sūrya, Indrānī, et al). Sarasvatī and Pṛthivī survive in the later Hindu tradition, Sarasvatī becoming quite popular as the goddess of art and learning—perhaps she is a reminder of how in most ancient times, women were the creators of much of our culture. But, says Kinsley, “such important [later] goddesses as Pārvatī, Durgā, Kālī, Rādhā, and Sītā [see below] are unknown in early Vedic literature.” 
On a more positive note, probably reflecting the ancient matristic/gylanic way of doing things found in the Near East, the Saṃhitās, the most ancient strata of Vedic literature, emphasizing prosperity and well-being in this earthly life, greatly value the woman as wife and as mother. The balanced relationship of male and female, husband and wife, is considered essential for a society to incur the favor of the gods. Moreover, because the most ancient Vedic religion was centered in the home, the wife was present at and participated in the rituals, offering hymns of praise —though this would soon change: the fire ceremony would take place outside the home and be presided over strictly by males (compare this with the similar state of women in Judaism and Islām—see below—who were likewise forbidden to participate with the men at religious events in the temple and mosque).
However, a number of brahmavādinīs (women who discourse on sacred texts) and ṛṣikās (seers) are also said to have existed in those ancient times. There is a list of 27 brahmavādinīs in the Ṛg-Veda. Some of these are divine or semi-divine beings of a mythological character; others are personifications of abstract ideas. This leaves nine or ten who can be regarded as real human beings responsible for the verses assigned to them: Viswavāra Apālā, Ghosā, Godhā, the wife of Vasukra, the sister of Agastya, Lopāmudrā, Saswatī, and Romasā. These women, like most of their male colleagues, are not considered to have been eminent saints or sages, they simply took an active role in praising various deities. 
Later strata of Veda literature—the Āraṇyakas and the Upaniṣads—began to exalt an ascetic world-transcending attitude, a psychology of intuitive realization of the Ātman/Brahman (Absolute Self/Reality) through meditation and complete disidentification from the bodymind, leading to mokṣa, utter liberation. Around this time, it was becoming the practice to send boys of the brahman (priest) caste off to learn the Vedas under a (male) teacher, and women were prepared chiefly for a life of raising many children (the more boys, the better). Women thereby came to be discriminated against in acquiring that valuable commodity in those times: learning of the Vedic rites and mantras and commentaries. The reason that Hindu religion came to be dominated by male priests of the brahman class thus may have less to do with misogyny and more to do with the biological fact that a woman expected to be “fruitful” with children could not afford the time of long apprenticeship and study under a teacher versed in the elaborate rituals and numerous hymns of Brahmanical religion.  In any case, since the criteria for spiritual teachers (ācāryas) included the stipulation that they must possess scriptural learning in addition to a number of sagely virtues, the vast majority of women were excluded from becoming ācāryas.
It is significant, however, that, in one of the oldest Upaniṣads, namely, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (of the Yajurveda) (c.9th century BCE, perhaps much older with the new revised history of ancient India), there is mention of Maitreyī, one of the wives of sage Yājñavalkya, and of Gārgī, daughter of Vachaknu. Both these women show an interest in the true spiritual teaching and are given instruction in real wisdom by Yājñavalkya. Gārgī, moreover, appears to have been fairly learned. Evidently, then, there is no sense in the ancient wisdom literature of India that women are ineligible for hearing and applying the highest spiritual teaching concerning realization of the Divine Self, simply that circumstances mitigated against their becoming teachers of the profound spiritual path. 
In the post-Vedic period, only a few references to women teachers, ascetics, and wanderers survive. For instance, there is mention in the commentaries on the classical Sanskrit grammar text of feminine noun forms for teachers (ācāryā and upādhyāya, distinguishable from the noun-forms for wives of teachers); and there are passing references to a female wanderer named Śaṅkarā and a female, ascetic paṇḍitā (learned one) named Kauśikī.  But opportunities for women as teachers or wandering ascetics grew less favorable. Katherine Young states:
“The overt prohibitions against asceticism for women increased as evidence for women’s education decreased. By the time of the Dharma-sūtras (ca. 400-100 B.C.E.), women were classified into two types. There were the brahmavādinīs who underwent upanayana, or initiation into Vedic learning, which involved keeping fire and Vedic study and begging, all to be done at home under the parental roof. Far more common were the sadyovadhūs for whom the upanayana was nominally performed and who straightaway married. ...By the first century B.C.E. upanayana for women was equated with marriage and serving the husband was equated with residing with a guru.” 
It was at this period of time (400 BCE on) that women, who had previously been free to travel, visit temples, attend festivals unchaperoned, and associate with men, began to have their freedom curtailed. Hindu society’s “four stages of life” (the āśramas—student [brahmacarya], householder [gṛhasta], hermit [vānaprastha, “forest abode”], and renunciate wanderer [saṃnyāsa]) were, with the exception of the householder stage, posited exclusively for the males. Women were married off at younger and younger ages, depriving them of a life of their own. To make matters even worse for women, the increasing emphasis for males on yogic meditation and spiritual liberation produced two tendencies: 1) in the quest for enlightenment and world-transcendence, explicitly sought after by males in the hermit and renunciation stages of life, family ties and desire, especially sexual desire, were eschewed; thus, as was the case in other traditions (Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islām), woman became the personification of ignorant worldly and sexual urges; and 2) men sometimes left the family situation to become renunciates (saṃnyāsins), not in their older age, as was customary, but in their middle age or youth, rendering their wives veritable “widows” (a saṃnyāsin undergoes an elaborate ritual wherein he “dies” to his old personality). Since a woman’s prime dharma (way of righteousness) consisted in honoring her husband, she was in a terrible double-bind when a husband asked for her token permission in his decision to become a renunciate: to let him go, she would be losing her opportunity to fulfill her religious devotion to her husband, but in keeping him at home she would be interfering with his process of spiritual liberation.
In short, by the time of our Common Era, in the main philosophical traditions (darśanas) of Hinduism emphasizing spiritual liberation (the schools of Vedānta, Aṣṭāṅga Yoga, and Sāṃkhya), women were not only considered ineligible for realizing the higher stages of the spiritual path, they were considered a “snare” for those males who were aspiring to realize the supreme Truth of life. The only hope for woman was rebirth in a heaven realm or in a subsequent earthly life as a male.
We should pause to mention that the situation for a young Hindu wife (especially of the strict brahman caste, normative for the rest of society) was and is not an easy one, given the social-psychological dynamics of the Hindu home. Coming to reside in the husband’s home with his family, the new wife must learn to adapt to the explicit and implicit rules of the house, and she often encounters severe tensions with the mother-in-law, who may not only be a hard taskmistress, but still be trying to maintain the close emotional bond with her son, thus preventing or interfering with any developing bond of affection between husband and wife. Many wives learn to bestow most of their affections upon their children, especially their son(s), and so the pattern continues (moreover, the affection must be demonstrated privately, not in front of the extended family). Furthermore, the young wife must also adapt to the complex hierarchical situation involving the husband’s sisters-in-law, unmarried sisters and grandmother(s) present in the home.
On the positive side, these other women (and the occasional benevolent mother-in-law) can also be a great source of support to her. Until she has borne a son for her husband (and for his parents and grandparents), she is of low status. If she does bear sons, though, her status increases, and, after menopause, her “asexuality,” akin to the ascetic yogin, gives her a “purity” and thereby an alleged spiritual power which keep her in high esteem in the eyes of the family and society.
Now, in past centuries, if a brahman-caste man in the householder stage died before his wife (which was quite common, given that brahman men were often a decade or more older than their wives at marriage), the woman could not remarry, but was faced with one of two choices: 1) satī, self-immolation, considered an heroic, religious act which “re-united” her with her husband in the after-life, or 2) the penitential, ascetic life of widowhood (vaidhavya). The widow’s austerities were performed so as to make up for her “failure” to properly promote, via ritual and prayer, her husband’s longevity. Looking at the situation in economical terms, there is a logic at work here: self-immolation and, to a slightly lesser extent, asceticism, relieved the husband’s family of the financial burden of having to fund her existence. The widow practiced austerities (tapas)—especially fasting and meditation—for the remainder of her life, often becoming quite equanimious, serene, and radiant. Yet such holiness, because of her diminished status in the eyes of society, was usually not explicitly appreciated. Young concludes:
“There remained an obvious difference between woman as yoginī and man as yogī. A man had total freedom of choice whether to become a yogī or not. A woman, on the contrary, could only choose between being a satī or a widow... Moreover, her yogic-like spirituality was rarely recognized.” 
Out of the varying theologies of the chief Hindu Vedānta scriptures, the Upaniṣads (9th to 2nd century BCE), the Brahma Sūtras (6th century BCE), and the more devotionally-oriented Bhagavad Gītā (c.4th century BCE) and Purāṇa literature (4th century CE to 13th century CE), as well as the “epic” Sanskrit literature, the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa (5th century BCE to 2nd century CE) there emerges the idea that there is but one God, the Absolute Reality known as Brahman. This is the Supreme God-Self (Paramātman) of all, beyond personality, beyond gender, and fundamentally characterized as absolute Being-Awareness-Bliss (Saccidānanda), identical to our own essential, changeless, Supra-personal Self (Ātman). Brahman is both transcendent and immanent (thus, this theological formulation is quite panentheistic).
As transcendent, Brahman is completely without qualities (nirguna); as immanent, or “with qualities” (saguna), Brahman has three aspects: a creative aspect (dreaming up a cosmos no different in essence from Itself), a preserving aspect, and a transforming (“destructive”) aspect—and these three aspects are personified as the male deities Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva, respectively. This is the basic Hindu trimūrti—“three forms/deities”—accepted by the majority of Hindus, though later developments in Hinduism have tended to elevate one of these deities, or some other deity, into the status of “Supreme Lord” in the eyes of different Hindus.
Two noteworthy aspects of this development emerge: 1) In the Bhagavad Gītā and the Purāṇas the ideal of theistic devotion (bhakti) to the Lord, especially as Śiva or Viṣṇu (or one of Viṣṇu’s manifestations, e.g., Rāma or Kṛṣṇa), comes into great prominence as a spiritual path, a path just as efficacious or even more efficacious than the via negativa of the Upaniṣads and Brahma Sūtras; and 2) Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva, while considered on the level of myth to be male principles, each have their “power” personified in female form: Brahmā has Gāyatrī/Sāvitrī (“the Mother of the Vedas”) as his consort; Viṣṇu has Śrī Lakṣmī, the goddess of prosperity, also associated with sovereignty, as his consort; and Śiva has Śakti/Pārvatī as his Power.
Of course we must note that these “female” consorts-as-divine-creative-power are, in this schema, ontologically considered dependent on the “male” (who represents the transcendental, unqualifiable, non-creative aspect of Divinity), so a certain amount of male chauvinism prevails in this theology/mythology. But all of these female consorts and their emanations would come to be accorded significant honor by devotionally-oriented Hindus over the centuries. Some Divine Female aspects would even come to be more highly regarded and widely worshipped than their male consorts. Each is highly interesting for the many aspects of the feminine which they portray—ranging from the conventional and domestic to the wild and untamed, from the submissive to the all-powerful (surpassing even male power).
David Kinsley has provided carefully detailed portraits of these various Hindu goddess figures,  and we take several pages here to discuss these important and often very complex feminine archetypes. The Brahmā aspect of divinity tends to be forgotten in Hindu devotional traditions, since the job of manifesting the cosmos has already been achieved—most devotional Hindus prefer instead to worship Śiva, Viṣṇu (especially as Rāma or Kṛṣṇa) or else some form of Divine Mother (Mahādevī, Durgā, Kālī, et al—see below). Yet Brahmā’s female consort Gāyatrī (or Sāvitrī) is still greatly esteemed as “the mother of the Four Vedas” as well as considered “mother” of those upper caste (“twice born”) Hindus, and her mantra (sacred phrase) is repeated thrice daily.
Kinsley discusses  the importance of Śrī/Lakṣmī, who has been known in the Hindu tradition since before the 5th century BCE, and has been connected particularly with Viṣṇu as his consort since the late epic period (c.400 CE). Associated with prosperity, fertility, well-being, royal power, and illustriousness (thus hearkening back to the non-ascetic values of ancient Vedic times), as well as representing world-transcending purity and spiritual power, “she is widely worshipped by Hindus of all castes throughout India to this day.”  In the Pāñcarātra tantra school of medieval India, Lakṣmī takes on the role of supreme Goddess, usurping the creator-sustainer-transformer functions of Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva. In the medieval school of Śrī Vaiṣṇava, she defers to Viṣṇu, but plays the all-important role of mediator between Viṣṇu and his devotees , much like Mother Mary in medieval Europe (see below).
In Viṣṇu’s incarnations (avatāras) as Rāma and Kṛṣṇa, said to have occurred in times long-ago, certain females are prominent, though always dependent on their male Lord. For instance, in the epic tale, the Rāmāyaṇa (one of popular Hinduism’s favorite texts the earliest version of which was written in Sanskrit by Valmiki somewhere between 200 BC and 200 CE) which tells the story of Viṣṇu’s 7th avatāra as Lord Rāma, Sītā is revered as a beautiful being of auspicious birth who becomes the saintly wife of the heroic Rāma.  Her sanctity consists in her perfect devotion to Rāma, even to the point that she commits suicide when her actually spotless past (specifically, her time in captivity with the lustful demon, Rāvana) is considered a liability to Rāma’s honor (several later versions of the story see Sītā emerging from the flames unharmed). Sītā has been held up for Hindu women as the ideal pativratā, the wife devoted entirely to her husband. Feminists today, of course, are appalled by this “ideal,” but for most Hindu women Sītā embodies, like Rāma, a life of tremendous virtue and strength.
It is notable that the Rāmāyaṇa actually mentions two kinds of “noble women”: 1) there are the women of society at Ayodhyā and Lankā who perfectly fulfill their duties as wives and mothers (chief of these being Sītā); but one also hears in this epic of another kind of noble woman, 2) the saintly renunciates, the ascetics and yoginīs living in the forest and mountains, such as Sramanī, Anasūyā, Sabarī, Svayamprabhā, and Ahalyā (though this last woman is said to have succumbed to the temptation of “curiosity”). 
Thus we find in this great epic a significant appreciation for women of the independent contemplative/“yogic” type—though their historicity, like many individuals of ancient Hinduism—is impossible to establish. In the other great epic work, the Mahābhārata, we read of Sulabhā, a wandering nun and accomplished yoginī and miracle worker; a great holy woman named Śivā, who was learned in the Vedas and attained spiritual perfection; the daughter of Sāndilya, who also attained spiritual perfection; and the wife of Prabhāsa, who embraced the vocation of wandering nun and yoginī. 
The Purāṇa literature arose in the first millennium of the Common Era as a kind of Hindu equivalent to Buddhist literature about the lives of the Buddha and his followers. However in contrast to Buddhist works, wherein women are seen to enjoy much greater freedom of spiritual pursuit, the Hindu Purāṇas presume that great women must either be devout wives or mothers, in accordance with the ancient Vedic ideals of strīdharma, the ideal behavior of a Hindu woman. Therefore in the Purāṇas we hear of some goddesses, such as Satī and Pārvatī (see below) and Madālasā (daughter of the king of the celestial musicians or gandharvas), and we also learn about Devahūti, the wise mother of the eminent sage, Kapīla, but no really eminent holy women stand out, except for the impassioned gopis of Vriṇḍāvana, the devotees of Kṛṣṇa, chief of whom is Rādhā….
The Bhagavatam Purāṇa (c.5th to 10th century CE) is perhaps the most popular work in the Purāṇa literature and recounts the tales of Viṣṇu’s 8th avatāra (divine incarnation) as Lord Kṛṣṇa. In this work, the ideal of bhakti—one-pointed, passionate devotion to God—is given great emphasis in the example of the gopis, the pure-hearted maidens who tend the cows and who, despite their apparent emotional imbalance, are actually considered to be fully enlightened beings, so unswerving and one-pointed is their love (prema) for the beautiful, child or adolescent cowherd, Kṛṣṇa (who has been raised by cow-herd foster parents, Yaśodā and Nanda on behalf of his own mother and father, Devakī and Vāsudeva who fear he may be killed by the evil Kamsa). The gopi Rādhā, who becomes the leading gopi and a central figure of medieval Bengali Vaiṣṇavism, is quite intriguing because she is of parakīyā status (belonging to or married to someone else; she may have been widowed), and therefore her relationship with Kṛṣṇa is an “illicit” one. But her love for the young Kṛṣṇa is pure and amazingly one-pointed, thus Rādhā serves as the perfect role model for the path of devotion to Kṛṣṇa.  (By way of contrast, note that a “pure,” one-pointed love was also being expressed in medieval Europe’s age of chivalry, though in an opposite direction: a man’s idealistic, passionate, unconsummated love for a woman who was not his wife.) Legends have it that Kṛṣṇa later married Rukminī and Satyabhāmā, yet nothing is really known about them.
As for the intriguing figure of Lord Śiva, his consort is not always the same. In different texts and cults, times and places, she appears variously as Satī, Pārvatī, Durgā, Kālī, and Śakti, either as a rather “mainstream” kind of deity (e.g., Parvatī), inviting the ascetic, world-transcending Śiva into more conventional domestic life, or, on the other hand, she is, like Śiva himself, on the fringes of society, a “liminal” figure behaving in wild, unconventional, “untamed” fashion (e.g., Durgā and Kālī).
Pārvatī, in her present life and in her previous life as Satī, is the earliest wife of Śiva to be clearly mentioned. (Evidence for her existence goes back to the time of the epic period [4th century BCE to 2nd century CE]. The tales of Pārvatī and Satī are first distinctively told in the Purāṇas [4th century CE onward].) Satī commits suicide over an insult directed at her husband, and subsequently returns again as Pārvatī, awakening Śiva’s erotic interests and drawing him away from the remote (“transcendental”) regions into the life of a divine householder. (All of this can be seen as a tension between and ultimate resolution of a conflict between a non-Vedic deity like Śiva being slowly integrated into Vedic, orthodox Hinduism, wherein Pārvatī represents the orderly way of the householder.) Like Lakṣmī and Sītā, Parvatī is held up as the ideal wife and mother; she has two sons, Ganeśa and Kārttikeya (the latter is sprung from Śiva; she adopts him). Pārvatī often plays the role of student to Śiva, the wise guru; on occasions, she performs intense tapas (austerity) to accomplish various ends (once she rendered her color golden, thus becoming known by the name “Gaurī”—note that Pārvatī is also sometimes called “Umā”). In certain later texts and sects, Pārvatī is identified as the personification of the grace of Śiva, or is theologically seen as his divine creative Power (Śakti), thus becoming his complementary, completing aspect (the most extreme case of this complementarity occurs when she occupies the left side of his body in the Ardhanārīśvara figure, the Lord as half woman, half man). In some later texts, Pārvatī even becomes the Supreme Person of the universe, surpassing Śiva in status. 
Durgā is a complex and rather awesome goddess of non-Vedic origin who is first seen in sculpture around the 4th century CE as the embodied strength of Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva and as the Divine slayer egotism in the form of the archdemon, buffalo-like Mahiśasura.  Durgā is very well known and popular in many Hindu circles after the 6th century, taking on various characteristics depending on the culture and temperament of her devotees. She is often seen, especially in South India, as fiercely independent and indomitable. In some settings she is tamed only by Śiva, whereupon she becomes his wife, thus coming to be identified with Pārvatī. In North India, where she is sometimes seen in this way as the young, domestically-oriented wife of Śiva, she is honored in the Durgā-pūjā celebration in the same way that parents cherish and pamper their young married daughter who returns to visit them from time to time. But in most cases her role(s) goes far beyond this traditional Indian wife role. In the classic text (c.6th century CE) which extols her virtues and deeds, the Devī-Māhātmya (also known as the Chandī or Durgā Saptaśati, a portion of the large text, Mārkaṇḍeya-Purāṇa), Durgā becomes the transcendent and immanent Divinity, the cosmic Queen, the source and very being of the universe, who both deludes and enlightens. 
Moreover, like a female Viṣṇu, Durgā takes on different forms (in the manner of Viṣṇu’s avatāras) to accomplish certain heroic functions (indeed, in these circles, Kṛṣṇa is considered to be an incarnation of Durgā). She is also a loving savioress, rescuing devotees in times of distress. Beautiful, yet also lethal to the ungodly, and associated in some texts with left-handed (kaula) tantra practices like eating meat and drinking wine, Durgā comes to blend together in one nature both ...
“world-supportive qualities and liminal characteristics that associate her with the periphery of civilized order. In many respects Durgā violates the model of the Hindu woman. She is not submissive, she is not subordinated to a male deity, she does not fulfill household duties, and she excels at what is traditionally a male function, fighting in battle. ... Unlike the normal female, Durgā does not lend her power or Śakti to a male consort but rather takes power from the male gods in order to perform her own heroic exploits. ... [Durgā thus] represents a vision of the feminine that challenges the stereotyped view of women found in traditional Hindu law books. Such a characterization perhaps suggests the extraordinary power that is repressed in women who are forced into submissive and socially demeaning roles. In her role reversal Durgā exists outside normal structures and provides a version of reality that potentially at least, may be refreshing and socially invigorating.” 
Goddess Kālī is an extremely fierce, “liminal” character, in some texts considered to be an emanation of Durgā, personifying her wrath and fury toward the demons. She also sometimes embodies the fierce aspect of the usually benign Pārvatī.  Given these associations, Kālī predictably is often affiliated with Śiva, but not as the “dutiful wife”! Whereas Pārvatī calms and domesticates Śiva, Kālī is his “other wife,” sharing, if not exceeding, his unconventional, wild behavior. “Although she is sometimes tamed or softened by him, at times she incites Śiva himself to dangerous, destructive behavior.”  Like Śiva, Kālī is a deity who threatens stability and order, radically transforming situations and opening up new possibilities. Kinsley points out how, despite her intimidating appearance, Kālī has achieved central importance in the tantra tradition (especially “left hand,” antinomian tantra), where she is extolled as the quintessential manifestation of the primordial Śakti, or divine creative power—sometimes herself even coming to be regarded as the essential divinity, the primordial Absolute  (this is a not unusual Hindu development: the manifest, “secondary” deity winds up being seen as the essential, absolute Divine Source!). Whereas the approach to Kālī in the tantra schools is heroic and manly, and one endeavors to cultivate in oneself the same incredible vitality and indifference that she possesses, in Bengali Sākta devotional cults, “Mother Kālī,” though still terrifying and “unmotherly” in appearance, is nevertheless cherished and accorded the sweetest veneration by her child-like devotees (see, for instance, the poems/songs of Rāmprasād Sen and Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa). Kinsley offers a wise, fascinating, and highly plausible explanation for how this unlikely situation came to occur:
“The attitude and approach of the devotee who insists upon approaching Kālī as his mother may reveal a logic similar to that of the Tantric hero’s. The truths about reality that Kālī conveys—namely, that life feeds on death, that death is inevitable for all beings, that time wears all things down, and so on—are just as apparent to the devotee as they are to the Tantric hero. The fearfulness of these truths, however, is mitigated, indeed is transformed into liberating wisdom, if these truths can be accepted. ... The devotee ... appropriates the truths Kālī reveals by adopting the attitude of a child, whose essential nature toward its mother is that of acceptance, no matter how awful, how indifferent, how fearsome she is. ... In appropriating these truths the devotee, like the Tantric adept, is liberated from the fear these truths impose on people who deny or ignore them. Through devotion to Kālī the devotee becomes reconciled to death and achieves an acceptance of the way things are, an equilibrium that remains unperturbed in Kālī’s presence. Kālī puts the order of dharma [righteousness, moral order] in perspective, perhaps puts it in its place, by reminding Hindus that certain aspects of reality are untamable, unpurifiable, unpredictable, and always a threat to society’s feeble attempts to order what is essentially disorderly: life itself. ... To meditate on the dark goddess, or to devote oneself to her [by being child-like or corpse-like, both approaches not fitting in with conventional “adult” behavior], is to step out of the everyday world of predictable dharmic order and enter a world of reversals, opposites, and contrasts, and in so doing to wake up to new possibilities and new frames of reference. ...
“Kālī permits individuals to see their overall roles in the cosmic drama. She invites a wider, more mature, more realistic reflection on where one has come from and where one is going. She allows the individual to see himself or herself [on the finite personality level] as merely one being in an endless series of permutations arising from the ever-recurring cycles of life and death that constitute the inner rhythyms of the divine mother. As cycling and recycled energy, as both the creation and the food of the goddess, the individual is permitted to glimpse social roles and identities in perspective, to see them as often confining and as obscuring a clear perception of how things really are and who he or she really is. ... While this truth may appear grim, its realization may be just what is needed to push one over the threshold into the liberating quest for release from bondage to samsāra [the endless cycle of egocentric existence].” 
There is, however, another possible interpretation for the Hindu goddess who combines benign and destructive qualities—namely, a psychoanalytic view, such as given by Gananath Obeyesekere:
“[The destructive aspect of the goddess] represents the cruel, unpredictable, smothering, or castrating aspect of the [human] mother, based primarily on the unpredictable (hysterical) nature of maternal rage as perceived by the infant.” 
Katherine Young discusses further aspects of Obeyesekere’s thought:
“Because the attachment of mother and child was extremely intense and the mother was often repressed in the family, she took out her frustration in the family on her child. The child expected love and rage from the human mother and projected this emotional extremism onto goddesses who were unpredictable and a cultural channel to alleviate the tensions of such a family structure.” 
The interpretations expressed here by Kinsley, on the one hand, and Young and Obeyesekere on the other, are, of course, widely disparate. It may simply be that certain Hindus, perhaps a minority, including those persons instrumental in the development of the Kālī’s scriptures and cult, are able to relate to the dual-aspect goddess (benign-fiercesome) with the kind of intuitive wisdom that Kinsley is suggesting, whereas other Indians, perhaps the majority, are projecting the dual-aspect goddess out of their unresolved anxiety toward the emotionally-unpredictable biological-mother, as suggested by the psychoanalytic view.
In our discussion of important Hindu goddesses (and there are actually a multitude of goddesses who are less widely known, including, for instance, the many local village goddesses, the grāmadevatā’s ), we come to, last but not least, the Mahādevī, who is said in some texts to actually subsume all the other goddesses—and, often, the male gods as well! Kinsley writes:
“There is a tendency in many [medieval Hindu] texts, myths, and rituals concerning goddesses to subsume them all under one great female being. This goddess has many names, but her most common designation is simply Devī (goddess) or Mahādevī (great goddess). The early Hindu tradition tended to speak of discrete goddesses—Śrī, Pārvatī, Sītā, and so on. Sometime in the medieval period, however, the tendency to think of all goddesses as related beings began to dominate certain texts. Perhaps the earliest example of this trend is the Devī-mahātmya, which is usually dated around the sixth century. [This trend is also expressed in subsequent works, such as the Lalitā-sahasranāma, the Devī- bhāgavata-Purāṇa, the Saundaryalaharī, et al.]
“Affirmation of a unity underlying all goddesses is usually expressed in one of two ways. First, a particular goddess, such as Pārvatī or Lakṣmī will be affirmed as the highest deity, or perhaps the consort or Śakti of the highest deity, and all other goddesses will be understood as portions or manifestations of her. This approach is also seen in the case of male deities [e.g., Śiva, Kṛṣṇa] and often involves a sectarian desire to demonstrate the superiority of one deity over others. The second way in which the unity of all goddesses is asserted is by assuming the existence of one transcendent great goddess who possesses most classical characteristics of ultimate reality as understood in the Hindu tradition and then subsuming all particular goddesses under her as partial manifestations of her. ... Both approaches, however, tend to assert a definite theological position, namely, that underlying all female deities there is a unified power or essence.” 
This Mahādevī is either identified with that creative, dynamic aspect of ultimate reality, known as the manifesting power, Śakti/Prakṛti/Māyā (in which case the silent, transcendental aspect of the ultimate reality is conceived of as the male principle, Śiva, or the more neuter Brahman), or she is identified with the ultimate reality altogether, in both its formless, quiescent aspect and its creative, dynamic aspect. In any case, Mahādevī is viewed as the source of the phenomenal universe, even as the universe herself, giving the universe a positive connotation (it is not regarded as “mere illusion,” and/or a byproduct of “ignorance”). 
The Mahādevī is creator and queen of the cosmos, source and substance of all. She assumes different goddess forms (as well as being the source of the male god forms) to accomplish various functions or missions. She grants wisdom, learning, and liberation; she is beautiful and incites desire and passion; she nourishes and nurtures, guards and protects. She is life, but she is also death, and, as such, she assumes both benign and terrible forms. She provides food to nourish all beings, but she also requires that beings be offered back unto her to replenish her energy. As Kinsley notes, “The world in Mahādevī theology is perceived as a steady-state system” —in other words, there is a principle akin to the law of conservation of energy at work in this conception of the Mahādevī embodied as the world. 
From this discussion of the varying goddesses and the Great Goddess in India it is apparent that many different facets of the divine feminine, from the domestic to the liminal, from the omnipotent to the “dutiful,” are being exalted in this complex tradition.  The Indian woman, therefore, has a wide range of divine feminine role models on which to draw, though adopting some of these personae (such as Mother Kālī or Rādhā) would require a terribly unconventional, nondomestic, uninhibited expression. Yet movements have arisen in India wherein some women have felt inspired to do just this.
Young observes  how women were normally constrained by the strīdharma ideal which requires that they must be chaste and devoted to their husband as “god” (pati) (women, too, were apotheosized, but their divine status was not equally honored by males in the social structure); yet women were also afforded an opportunity by the emerging bhakti (devotional) cults and tantra movement to operate in a more or less independent, uninhibited manner—some women, anyway, as we shall shortly learn.
Not much is really known about woman’s role in the Hindu Tantra movement(s), which originated, probably in the lower castes of society, in medieval times (7th century CE on). In the “left-handed,” Śakti-worshipping path of Tantra,  which employs the actual use of the sensually-stimulating substances—the eating of meat, fish, parched grains, and wine, and participation in a ritual, desire-free coitus (this path is known as vāmāchāra- or kaula-tantra, compared to the misra [mixed] tantra and daksināchāra or samaya [right hand] tantra), many women were the nameless “consorts” of males (often higher caste males) who practiced equanimity and an “unruffled mind” during the coitus. These women often included the courtesans (veśyās) and temple dancers/musicians (devadāsīs) of the times, who also enjoyed a certain kind of independence from traditional brahmanical Hindu notions about “proper” behavior for women.
We pause to reflect on that unique Hindu institution the devadāsīs,the “servants of God,” who have suffered a tragic fate over recent centuries. They are described in ancient Śaiva Āgama texts, wherein precise details were given concerning their rigorous training, their spiritual practices, and their temple functions. They were ceremoniously “wed” to a Deity, and spent their lives dancing before the Divine Image(s) and sharing some of the same duties of the male temple priests, such as passing the ārati flame before the Deity’s shrine during the worship service (pūjā). In the words of an article in the newspaper Hinduism Today:
“The devadasis never married and were allowed a ‘religious-minded patron’ to beget their lineage. Sons of devadasis became musicians. Historically their caste has been part of the living backbone of India’s dance and music culture. Muslim invaders later procured devadasis for their court culture. As foreign rule further undermined Hindu temple culture many devadasis were left unemployed. Prostitution claimed many. Also in the early 20th century as industrialization drew a large male work force to the cities brothels recruited devadasis wholesale from the rural areas. Finally the Devadasi was legally banned from the temple and socially condemned by an Anglicized Indian social elite. ...With a budget of five million dollars over five years, Maharashtra and Karnataka have sworn they will rid or reeducate their states’ 200,000 devadasis.” 
A number of tantrikā women, especially in Assam, Bengal, Orissa, and the Himalayan regions of the north, and Kerala in the south, were evidently much esteemed for their deep spirituality and revered as teachers in the esoteric, Śakti-worshipping Tantra cults. Young observes:“In certain areas the broad popular base of Tantra provided a religious option for women in the society who were either outside Brahmanical circles or who desired to escape the Brahmanical norms for whatever reason. Consequently, we find considerable female initiatve and leadership in some areas under Tantric influence.” 
We shall learn about several of the illustrious women tantrikās of the modern era. The fact remains that the Hindu Tantra cults with their actual or symbolically-enacted taboo behaviors, tended to be an esoteric, under-ground movement, thus there is not much in print about their exceptional leaders, even less about female leaders and teachers. (Similarly, we shall see that in the Buddhist Indo-Tibetan and Japanese tantra movements, only a small number of women are featured.)
However, because the Tantra movement appreciated woman as the embodiment of the omnipotent Goddess, and perhaps because the male energy-flow (idā-nādī) and female energy-flow (piṅgalā-nādī) in each human being are ultimately to be balanced, woman’s situation was targeted for improvement by certain persons and texts (e.g., the 11th century Mahānirvāṇa Tantra). The result was that a householder man was not to take up the life of a saṃnyāsin if he still had a “devoted and chaste wife,” a wife was to be cherished and never punished or displeased by him, daughters were to be cherished, a widow was not to immolate herself, expiation was to be given women subjected to rude behavior, rape was punishable by death, and daughters were not to be given in marriage for money. These incipient reforms would be taken much further in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the result that the practices of satī, child-marriage, temple prostitution, lack of inheritance, inability to divorce and remarry, and exclusion of girls/women from education were greatly reduced. Nevertheless, a 1991 census of India has revealed that whereas 60% of men are literate, only 40% of women are, and, because boys are preferred to girls, female fetuses have a much higher abortion rate (the sex of the fetus can be ascertained via ultrasound amniocentesis). Moreover, most tragically, the demand for excessive dowries from the bride’s family by the increasingly materialistic, greedy “bribegrooms” and their family has led to many “bride-burnings” and murders in the cities and villages of India (over 15,000 young women killed in the last three years!). Sri Jayendra Saraswati (1935- ) of Kanchipuram, South India, one of the successor Śaṅkarācāryas (a post similar to that of a Christian archbishop), along with many other religious leaders, has been quite outspoken on banning the dowry: “grooms should disregard parental pressures and refuse to accept [the] dowry. ... The onus is on the male.” 
Despite its more favorable view of the feminine, the school of tantra has not really been concerned with male-female egalitarianism. The texts are in most cases addressing male aspirants. The late Agehananda Bharati also reports that, within the main rite of tantra, the cakrācarcana (circle of initiates), whereas tantric texts may say differently, in actual practice (except for a single case he observed in Orissa) only the males participate. Each male’s “śakti” (female consort) is waiting in another room, not allowed to perform the tarpaṇa (oblation) in the ritual circle. After the ritual, he goes to meet her in the secluded room and practice a dispassionate coitus. 
One of the legacies of the Tantra movement, at least in modern times in the views of many of the leading spiritual masters (formally within or outside the Tantric tradition), is the panentheistic or nondualist notion that “Śiva and Śakti are one.” Theologically this is significant. Śiva, the formless Absolute, is said to have originally given rise to Śakti—His “creative Power”—who, as the principle of dynamism, expressive ability, and universal consciousness, dances into being the various phenomena comprising this universe on manifold planes of being (levels of vibration—usually conceived of as threefold: the gross/physical plane, the subtle plane and the causal plane). Whereas at the initial level of theological understanding it would seem that Śiva (the formless) is ontologically superior or “prior” to Śakti (the play of forms), the final mystic realization of the adept is that Śiva and Śakti cannot be separated or even distinguished. They are nondual (advaita). (Modern physics also indicates that “things” are really no-thing-like energy, and the “void” of space is alive energy.) In sum, then, the Tantric notion of Śakti, ultimately and primordially not separate from Śiva, allows, finally, for an egalitarian Divine nature, a nature both “male” and “female.” The equivalency of these “male” and “female” aspects of the Divinity is readily apparent in the writings of many saints of the modern period, even some who have been minimally influenced by the Tantra tradition.
The highly popular, widespread, and diverse cults of bhakti (devotion) toward a loving God emerged in Tamil-speaking southern India, probably around the 7th century CE, coming into great prominence from the 13th century on (under the leadership of such figures as Jñāneśvar in the West, then Rāmānanda in the North, and Caitanya in the East). These devotional cults were based on the Bhagavad Gītā and various Purāṇas especially those featuring Śiva and Kṛṣṇa. The bhakti cults constituted “a Hindu middle path between the extremes of world renunciation [as found in Buddhism and the ancient male and female renunciates of the forest] and Tantric incorporation including reversal of all taboos.”  The bhakti cults, like many of the tantra cults, were open to men and women of all castes, and allowed women the role of tending the home shrine, making the offerings of flowers, fruit, grain, and so forth, singing devotional songs (bhajans), engaging in spontaneous prayer, and thereby carrying on a fervent devotion to the “Lord”—who may not always have been her “godly” husband, but some attractive figure (e.g., Kṛṣṇa or Rāma, Viṣṇu or Śiva) extolled in the epics or Purāṇas. Thus, according to Young, the female bhaktin may have been living a kind of polyandry—married to two “divine males”! For the most ardent bhaktins, maintaining this polyandry was or would be difficult, and so they courageously chose to avoid or abandon the mandatory norm of marriage and became exclusively devoted to God, that is, to a single “divine male.”  Denise Lardner Carmody reports that not only were women finally considered eligible for salvation in the bhakti cults, in some devotional sects women were given the sacred thread (the sign of rebirth and higher caste status), they were allowed to make pilgrimages, and were encouraged to become educated (though, on the whole, many of the bhakti leaders eschewed the intellectualism of the brahman pundits). 
It is probably as a result of the bhakti and tantra movements that we find, in two sublime Hindu sacred works, charming stories of wives becoming enlightened, and then serving as gurus to enlighten their husbands! In that Sanskrit masterpiece of Indian advaita (nondual) spirituality, the Yoga Vāsiṣṭha (written sometime between the 6th to 12th century CE probably in Kashmir), is the highly entertaining and ultimately deeply moving story of Queen Cūdālā‚ becoming fully enlightened and then proceeding to enlighten her husband King Sikhidhvaja, through some miraculously-performed, highly unusual teaching situations. And in Tripurā Rahasya, an influential, “right-hand” tantra work (also probably written in Kashmir and espousing the nondual/advaita view), a work which honors the goddess Tripurā, one finds the story of Hemalekhā (foster-daughter of the sage Vyaghrapāda) who enlightens her husband, prince Hemachuda, as well as most of his kingdom. 
These two stories, whether or not they are based on historical individuals, are indeed significant in that they present women becoming enlightened first, and then teaching their husbands—a novelty in such a traditionally patriarchal society. We should also note that both Queen Cūdālā and Hemalekha are portrayed as very powerful, charismatic, wise, and humorous spiritual masters. Moreover, they model for us two quite different lifestyles: Hemalekhā is discovered by Hemachuda living as an ascetic in the remote forests, and she is still completely unattached to sexuality after their marriage, sometimes remaining in a deeply God-absorbed trance state [Sanskrit: samādhi] while her husband makes love to her!—whereas Queen Cūdālā lives in the palace (she even rules the kingdom for a while during her husband’s endeavors in living as a yogi), passionately expressing herself sexually with her husband without any obstruction to her spiritual state of realization. (Yoga Vāsiṣṭha does not regard a role in society or the spontaneous selfless enjoyment of pleasure—even sexual pleasure—as being inappropriate for the realized being, who is completely identified with Brahman, entirely free of all egocentrism.)
At this point, let us examine the cases of roughly 100 women of different regions of India who (along with a great number of men) are esteemed for their holiness in the last two millennia. Included here will be a formidable number of astonishingly holy women of the present century. The profiles of many of the women here, especially those of ancient times, will necessarily be quite brief, due to lack of biographical details.
But a number of the women of the modern period will have a fair amount of material devoted to their life-stories, given their prominence or stature as spiritual figures. Throughout this book, whether we are encountering a short passing reference or a longer entry on one of these esteemed holy women, we do well to utilize our power of active imagination and try to picture something of the radiant love, goodness, peace, joy and blessing-force which endeared these women to their companions and/or communities.
India has, of course, been noted for its strong reverence of saintly men and women—certain Westerners and many secular-humanist Indians regard the situation as a case of childish “hero-worship.” Yet this receptivity and appreciation among the people for their saints may in itself be one reason that “so many mahātmas (great souls) take birth here,” as many Hindus are fond of saying about their country. And the fact remains that India has hosted an extraordinary number of individuals of awesome sanctity, and some of the most amazing of these spiritual masters live in our present day—with female spiritual leaders equaling in number or perhaps even out-numbering males.
In Northern India, from ancient times onwards there were a number of queens, scholars and poetesses, many of whom, given the religious ambience of ancient India, were probably quite holy (like their sisters of lower status). But there is only “scanty data at our disposal” concerning these Hindu women, perhaps because of an increasing brahman-caste bias against women in those times along with an ascendancy of Buddhism over Hinduism until about the 7th century of the Common Era.  By contrast, in Tamil literature of Southern (Dravidian) India, there are a number of women of ancient times esteemed for their sanctity, about whom a little more seems to have been written...
Vasuki (c.1st century CE), wife of the eminent poet-saint Tiruvalluvar, was so loving and kind that Tiruvalluvar came to praise the married state as a much more edifying way of life than renunciation. A female contemporary of Tiruvalluvar was Āvvaiyār (legend has it that she was his sister; another version maintains that she lived in the 7th-8th century). Āvvaiyār is said to have been orphaned as a child and raised by a poet who was astounded by Āvvaiyār’s intelligence; later, she refused to marry (and was saved from the social/family pressures to do so by the intervention of her chosen form of God [iṣṭa-devatā], who rendered her visage into that of an old woman, or so says the legend). Āvvaiyār became a wandering ethical teacher, going about even at night in her travels up and down southern India, greatly loved and respected by the populace, ranging from outcastes to kings (who vied for her presence in their countries). Evidently she was quite fond of educating children, and composed 13 books mainly featuring ethical precepts. (To this day, the first thing every Tamil child reads is her Attichudi, or aphorisms alphabetically arranged.) Āvvai supposedly lived to the age of 240 years (—see essay under endnote 77 on how this fantastic longevity might not be impossible). (In later centuries, similar wandering holy women would also be called “Āvvai,” a generic name used for any elderly wise woman.)
Punitavati Ammaiyār of Kāraikkāl (Tamilnādu; c.5th-9th century CE) astonished her husband by miraculously obtaining several mangoes out of thin air, a gift from God. Terrified by this, and thinking her to be more of a celestial being (deva) than human being, he fled the area and remarried, naming his daughter in honor of his first wife. Punitavati eventually found her husband and his family, and he broke custom by falling at her feet and publicly revering her as a divine being. Legend has it that she thereupon gave up the body, becoming a discarnate spirit whose sole interest was worshipping Śiva, first at Mt. Kailāsa, then at Tiruvālangādu, humbly regarding Śiva as her Divine Father. Punitavati is one of the three women saints listed among the 63 canonized Śaiva saints of Tamilnādu, and 143 songs are attributed to her in the Śaiva hymn books (collectively known as the Tirumurai).
About Tadagai of Tiruppanandal (6th century) it is said that she was so pure and holy that the temple-image of Śiva bowed toward her. The young Tamil widow Tilakavati (7th century) was noted for converting her brother Appar away from Jainism back to the Śaiva faith through her ardent devotion and holiness. Princess Mangaiyarkkarasi (7th century), of the Chola family, was married to the king of the Pandyas, and went to live in his region (at Madurai, Tamilnādu), where everyone had adopted the “godlessness” of the Jains. Through her persistent devotion, and the help of the young Śaiva saint and wonderworker, Sambandha, the land was converted back to Śaivism. (Some Hindu-versus-Jain polemics may be at work in these last two stories.)
Āṇḍāl (c.7th-9th century) mysteriously appeared as an infant in the garden of saint Periāzhwār (Periyālvār), the priest of a temple near Madurai, and was raised by this man with great love for Lord Kṛṣṇa. Later, he received a miraculous revelation that his adopted daughter was highly pleasing to God for her great devotion to Him. Refusing marriage, interested only in God, Āṇḍāl was finally taken to the shrine of Śrī Ranganātha (an aspect of Kṛṣṇa) at Srirangam (Tamilnādu) where she walked up to the image of the Deity and “vanished from mortal sight.” Āṇḍāl was allegedly a mere 16 years old at her passing. (Her “disappearance” in such a sudden, miraculous manner may not be mere legend; similar accounts are to be found concerning a number of saints in Hinduism and various other traditions.) Āṇḍāl’s life-story and passionate poetic verses in praise of Kṛṣṇa (as found in her Tiruppavvai and the collection known as the Nachiyar Tirumozhi) have led her to become the most popular woman among the ancient Vaiṣṇava (Viṣṇu- or Kṛṣṇa-revering) Ālvār saints of southern India who were some of the world’s first spokes-persons for that impassioned form of devotion known as “bridal mysticism.” Being the sole woman amongst the twelve celebrated ālvār saints, Āṇḍāl was optimally suited to write songs of passionate—and in many passages, erotically imaged—love for Kṛṣṇa. Āṇḍāl’s influence is still strongly felt: her Tiruppavai is sung and even broadcast daily in Vaiṣṇava homes in Tamilnādu during the month of Margazhi and in many temples and paintings she is depicted as the young, beautiful consort of Lord Viṣṇu, standing at his right side, thus fulfilling the meaning of the name given to her by her adopted father (“Āṇḍāl” literally denotes “she who rules”).
Vandi (9th century) cared for orphans and legend has it that she was lifted up to heaven by angels at her time of passing, an event said to have been witnessed by the king. Queen Sembiyan-Mā-Devī (c.920-1001) was a young widow who, inspired by her saintly husband’s example, influenced the Chola rulers to build temples and worship God. An old woman of Tanjavur, named Ālagai (11th century) served her fellow men as God, and her holiness was made known by God in a dream to the local king, who thereupon honored her publicly—a notable event for women of her day, reflecting the gradually increasing status of women in the bhakti movement. 
In the Kannada region of southern India there lived Akka Mahādevī (mid 12th century), disciple of the great religious leader and social reformer Basaveśvara, founder of the Vīraśaiva movement among the Śiva worshippers. This movement was staunchly monotheistic, caste-free, iconoclastic, and quite egalitarian, regarding women as equals—there being no distinction between male and female in the domain of spirit. Among the 300 writers of vachanas (spiritual sayings) in the Vīraśaiva sect, 30 of them were women, Akka (“Older Sister”) being by far the most notable, not only in terms of quantity but more importantly in terms of the depth of feeling and lofty degree of insight. Evidently before meeting Basaveśvara, this beautiful young woman had been constrained to marry a local prince who was smitten with love for her. Upon threat to her parents she married him, but later she was allowed to go off and live the ascetic, devotional life. She is said to have abandoned her clothes as well, having transcended all body-consciousness and social constraints. Akka was subjected by the worldly people to all sorts of scorn, criticism, ridicule, and harassment, and also solicitations by lustful men, but appears to have endured all these things calmly, with perfect yogic equanimity. At one point she traveled to Kalyana, the central locus for the Vīraśaiva movement, where she mightily impressed the male leaders of the movement with her sanctity. Later Akka Mahādevī traveled to Śrīsaila, where she made her “transition” out of the body. Though she was only in her early 20s, many of her roughly 350 vachanas (“sayings”) speak of the highest stage of spiritual realization, as well as a devotion to Lord Śiva (viewed as both formless and with form) characterized by great intensity of feeling. 
Bilvamangal (c.1300), a famous poet, in his early life was a Śaiva who was actually more devoted to his courtesan, Cintāmaṇi. She once chided him by pointing to an image of Kṛṣṇa on her wall and declaring, “If the devotion you confer on me was given to Him, easily would you cross the ocean of rebirths and forever dwell in the realm of Eternal Beatitude.” Bilvamangal was deeply touched by her words, and immediately renounced the worldly life, proceeding straight to Vriṇḍāvana (site of Kṛṣṇa’s divine play as a youth). Cintāmaṇi, whom he regarded as his guru, soon joined him, and they spent the rest of their days living together chastely, Bilvamangal writing splended Sanskrit devotional poetry extolling the glories of Lord Kṛṣṇa, and the saintly Cintāmaṇi frequently engaged in ecstatic raptures and dancing (she may have been a temple dancer, that is, a devadāsī). 
A somewhat similar story of male-female partnership in realizing God occurs a century later in the tale of the great Bengali Vaiṣṇava poet-saint, Candidās (c.1417-77), whose initial vision of the exquisite Rāmī, daughter of a washerman, inspired him with the love of God as an overwhelming principle of Beauty. Rāmī’s influence converted him from the Sākta cult to worship of Kṛṣṇa, and it is said that she spiritually guided him (he, in turn, sometimes guided her). 
In the Mahārāshtra region of western India, many women saints flourished in the middle ages, the earliest known being Mahādambā (Mahadāisā; early 13th century), a famed Mārathī poetess and disciple of Cakradhāra (founder of the Mahānubhāva faith, which strictly worshipped Kṛṣṇa alone).
A remarkable bhakti movement, the Varkaris (“pilgrims”) arose in the latter half of the 13th century at Alandī and Pandharpur in Mahārāshtra state. The Varkaris, who drew on both Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava elements, eradicated distinctions of brahman-outcaste and male-female, eschewed Vedic ritualism and formal Sanskrit learning, and preached an ardent, non-sectarian spirituality based simply on love of God. The Divine Being was regarded as a supremely loving, compassionate, intimate parent figure, Viṭṭhalā, whose main image and shrine was at Pandharpur. Viṭṭhalā—dear to Vaiṣṇavas, Śaiva-s, and even to Buddhists and Jains—was often addressed by the female term, Viṭṭhāī, such was the profoundly sweet, gentle, maternal quality “he” exuded (Viṭṭhalā was also sometimes known by the Varkaris as Viṭhobā or Pānduranga). The Varkari movement cherished devotional singing, service to the needy, pilgrimage to Pandharpur, non-violence, vegetarianism, and a poignant love for God, who was not considered to be separate from the devotee (incidentally, this love was completely free of the dualistic, erotic “bridal mysticism” found in some other sects). The Varkaris were led by an amazing group of siblings: spiritual child-prodigy, poet-philosopher, yoga-adept, Jñāneśvar (1275-96), his older brother Nivṛtti (who originally initiated him, having been taught by Gahinināth, a leading guru of the Śaiva Nātha sect), his younger brother Sopān, and his sister Muktābāī. These children had been orphaned as a result of a ritual suicide forced upon their parents by the legalistic brahmans of the area (the father had prematurely become a sannyāsin at Vāranāsī without his wife’s consent). Muktābāī (1279-1297) became a very learned, saintly, beautiful young woman, steeped in the nondual philosophy of Vedānta, and evidently adept in the Śaiva Nātha yoga practice which Nivṛtti had learned from Gahinināth. (She and Nivṛtti also evidently met Gahinināth’s guru, the eminent Gorakhanāth.) She combined this background with an ardent devotional love toward Viṭṭhalā. Never marrying, Muktābāī lived with her brothers (all older than she) and helped them organize the Varkari bhakti movement. She wrote over 100 verses (abhangas) in Marāthī, many of them in the form of dialogues with other saints in the movement (including her brothers), whom she treated as equals. Changadev, an old Tantric yoga adept, revered her as his guru, and for him she wrote a lullaby, assuming the role of a mother, addressing the elderly saint as her infant. Like her brothers, Muktābāī made her “transition” out of the body while still very young, in her 18th year, most likely executing a conscious yogic departure from the mortal form, as her brother Jñāneśvar had so famously carried out the year before. Had she lived longer on the physical plane, the world would undoubtedly have a much richer collection of her songs and teachings.
Another noted woman of the Varkari-sect was Janābāī (13th-14th century), a child of outcaste parents who grew up in the role of servant in the house of poet-saint Nāmadeva at Pandharpur (he was a co-leader of the Varkaris with Jñāneśvar, et al). Janābāī became his disciple and eventually a great saint herself, fully immersed in God while performing her daily routine of household chores, thus becoming the strongest role model among the sants for the vast majority of women of Mahārāshtra and elsewhere. Janābāī is said to have been miraculously saved from death at the hands of outraged brahman priests, and this divine act of rescue brought her considerable attention from the other Varkaris. Though unlearned, she wrote many verses in praise of God (helping Nāmadev to complete his collection of “one billion praises of Viṭhobā”) and through her influence many miracles were wrought. She often called on God (Viṭhobā) in the form of mother or as female friend (i.e., as Viṭhabāī), as well as in the form of child and master; sometimes she even invoked Jñāneśvar’s presence in feminine terms. Janābāī never married, but maintained the undefined (and perhaps socially difficult) role of a single woman in the company of Varkari saints.
Passing reference can here be made concerning Rājāī, the wife of saint Nāmadev, and Gonāī, his mother, both of whom were also singled out as saints in the Varkari movement, as were Soyarābāī and Nirmalā, the outcaste wife and sister of the Varkari saint, Chokhamela (d. 1295), also of the “untouchable” caste.
Mahārāshtra would treasure a number of other holy women in later centuries: the beautiful Kānhopātrā fled the lustful entreaties of the Mughal emperor, joining with the Varkaris and coming to Pandharpur, where she realized a spiritual union with Lord Viṭṭhalā. Pursued by the emperor’s men, the hagiographic literature states that the pure-hearted young lady went to the Divine image in the temple and died at His feet, her spirit merging in God.
Kanta was the wife of Santaji Pawar, a Varkari saint; when he renounced the world, she joined him, and the two spent their days in devotional activities. He was “envious” of her for a while because it was she who was receiving visions and miracles of the Lord. Girijabāī was the saintly wife of Eknāth (16th century) one of the greatest Varkari saints of the late middle ages. She was picked for him by his guru, and Eknāth felt that she was like a goddess bestowed upon him, her devotional influence being a tremendous asset in his life.
The birth of poetess-saint Bahinābāī (1628-1700) was foretold to her brahman father thrice in a dream. Married to a 30-year-old brahman of Kohlapur when only 3 or 4 years old, she spent her youth in religious devotions, also coming to have an extremely close bond with a certain calf and its mother, said to be a yoga-bhrashta (one fallen from yoga in another life); when the calf died, Bahinā underwent a trance-state for three days, experiencing a vision of Viṭhobā. For some time after this, she felt that she was being initiated and instructed on the subtle plane by the great Mārathī Varkari saint, Tukārām (1598-1649). She accepted Tukārām as her guru without having ever met him physically, and began to spend her days and nights meditating on him and singing his verses. A local saint gave her his blessings, and people began to flock to her, which caused her temperamental husband—who had been known to beat his young wife on many occasions—to become quite angry with her. She decided to honor the ancient tradition and not run away from him, though this meant continuing the fairly oppressed, disempowered role of wife. Eventually he became a sincere aspirant, and with Bahinābāī and her family, went to see Tukārām at Dehū, Mahārāshtra. At first physical sight of her guru, Bahinā experienced a profound deepening. At one point during her stay at Dehū (while her husband was away on business), she went into a deep state of contemplative trance (samādhi) for three days and nights. Her brahman family was severely persecuted by the local priest for taking an outcaste (Tukārām) as their guru. Eventually they were forced to leave the area, and settled at Shiur. Already an inspired poetess of great wisdom, and having been assured in a dream by Tukā that she had worked out all her karma, she at this point took a vow of silence for some time. After Tukā’s passing in 1649, Bahinā spent some years in satsang (holy fellowship) with saint Rāmadās, who passed away in 1681. Bahinā does not recount anything of her last years in her autobiography—a unique document for those times, but we know that she foretold the exact time of her death to her son, and reassured him that she was no longer bound to the cycle of rebirths, since she was completely free of all desires. (She also narrated to him the interesting story of her previous 12 lives). Her burial site at Dehū is a shrine, and her songs are still popular in various parts of Mahārāshtra.
Venābāī (1627-78), a child widow of the brahman caste at Kohlapur,incurred her own family’s and in-laws’ wrath by becoming the staunch disciple of saint Rāmadās (1608-81). He admitted her to his order, let her lead kirtāns (devotional songs), and sent her to Mirāj to lay the foundations of a monastery there for the spread of his cult. At his urging, she taught the learned male brahmans about the Purāṇas and Rāmadās’ writings, such as the Dāsabodha. Venābāī composed a number of poems and “left the body” after singing one for Rāmadās’ guests. Akkābāī (d. 1721), another child-widow, became a most trusted disciple of Rāmadās. She once spent three days neck-deep in a river reciting mantra (a sacred phrase) as part of his “testing” of her spiritual caliber. She went on to become head of his monasteries at Chāphal and Parlī for 30 years, and this was during a dangerous period of great social unrest and threat to his movement. Baiyābāī, another female saint and disciple of Rāmadās, lived to the age of 84, having written a large amount of Urdu poetry in praise of God. 
Down in Kerala (southwest India) Chankrottu Amma (c.8th century) attained fame as a pious old devotee of Viṣṇu; legend has it that one day the Lord appeared to her, and “blessed her with mukti [release],” merging her spirit into His. A Vaiṣṇava temple was built in commemoration of her devotion. Vadakkedatu Nanga Pennu (n.d.), a holy young maiden, on the day of her wedding did not wish to leave the local temple to Viṣṇu for her bridegroom’s distant land. She therefore entreated the Lord to “merge her being into His,” and so it happened—much to the chagrin of the groom! Kurur Amma (latter half of 16th century) was an outstanding parābhakta—that is to say, one who, while realizing the utter nonduality of Divinity, not separate from the human spirit, nevertheless still worships God in a strongly devotional manner. She was reputed to enjoy many visions of the divine child Kṛṣṇa, and was highly esteemed by certain saints for her spiritual prowess. 
The circles around certain illustrious male saints of North India featured many holy women, the names of a few of them coming down to us: at the ancient city of Vārāṇasī (Kāśī/Banāres), around the bhakta-saint, Rāmānanda (1340-1430, one of the chief revivers of Hinduism in the wake of Muslim influence), Sītā (along with her husband Pīpā) was a model of devotion to Lord Viṣṇu manifest as the avatāra Rāma. Rāmānanda’s famous male proégé, the poet-saint Kabīr (15th century)—whose poetry has become so widely known to 20th century Westerners—regarded his daughter Kamālī and a woman named Gaṅgābāī as two of his leading disciples. And the circle of Charan Dās (18th century) featured two holy kinswomen, Sahajobāī (1683-1765) and Dayābāī, who each authored two spiritual books on the path of humility, yoga, devotion to God and the guru, and insight into the formless Reality. 
With mention of Kabīr, we can mention two important sects arising in later times, which looked to him as one of their chief inspirations: these are Guru Nānak’s Sikh religion and Soāmiji Mahārāj’s Rādhāsoāmi movement, both originating in northern India (Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, respectively). These two quasi-Hindu movements comprise a spiritual path generally known as Sant Mat (“path of Saints”) because of the emphasis on being open to the efficacy of the Guru’s blessing power. Unlike the great bhakti movements, though, these two sects, especially Sikhism, have allowed for very little leadership by women, though there are surely a great number of holy women who have been participating in both these religions. On the other hand, like the bhakti movement’s attitude, a core Sant belief is that the teachings and enlightenment are open to anyone, male or female, brahman or untouchable. W. Owen Cole has pointed out that in the hymns of Guru Nānak (1469-1538), God’s sex matters little, and the deity is regarded as both male and female, and that, on the human level, an egalitarian marriage between husband and wife is the ideal. Of Nānak’s new Sikh movement, which tried to bring together both Hinduism and Islam (though it was decidedly more Hindu than Muslim in doctrine and practice), Cole writes:
“Sikhism did permit women to be missionaries and teachers during the period of the ten Gurus, but to go further and encourage the belief that a woman might be a guru would be to court smarta [official Hindu] hostility to an extent that Nanak probably felt to be unnecessary and injudicious. ... The mission of proclaiming God’s world to his age was more important than improving the status of women to such a radical degree. As it was, he had gone as far as any other teacher in fostering respect for womanhood.”
Guru Amar Das (d. 1574), third of the ten gurus in line from Guru Nānak, appointed a number of women to work as missionaries (peehris) for the Sikh movement. Cole writes:
“Concern for the lot of women seems to have been a marked feature of Amar Das’ guruship; besides opposing sati he accepted as a natural and necessary corollary the right of widows to remarry. [Child marriage for girls had also been prohibited within the Sikh tradition.] [Yet] it may be that these aspects of his policy, as well as the appointment of women missionaries was in response to the gradual cultural Islamization of the Punjab. Both Hindu and Sikh society has had its attitude to women affected by the presence of Islam.”
Whereas Guru Arjan (d. 1606), fifth guru in the Sikh lineage, struck out a poem of Mirābāī’s from the Sikh scriptural work known as the Ādi Granth, thus removing the sole contribution by a woman, Guru Gobind Singh (d. 1708), last in line of the “ten Sikh gurus,” looked more favorably upon the female sex. He founded the Khalsa, the Order of “Pure Ones,” to preserve the spirit of Sikhism down through the ages, and, significantly, women were admitted to the Khalsa and given the name “Kaur,” or “Princess.” Also striking is the fact that, during the memorable initiation ceremony marking this grand occasion, Gobind Singh allowed his wife to place the sugar crystals in the water—according to the Hindu attitudes of the times, she would be “defiling” and nullifying the ceremony by doing so. 
Soāmiji Mahārāj (Shiv Dayal Singh; 1818-78), the illustrious founder of the Rādhasoāmi “science of light and sound” (surat śabda yoga) in the latter 19th century, married Narayaṇī Devī, who would later become better known as “Rādhāji.” After their marriage, she learned to read, studied sacred writings, and “was eventually regarded as a knowledgeable spiritual leader in her own right,” especially after her husband passed on in 1878. The matter of a successor to Soāmiji was unclear; now Rādhāji became a mentor to many of the followers, especially the women, who had been admonished by Soāmiji to revere and obey her as if she were no different from him. This is a significant statement, in that the guru-figure in the Rādhāsoāmi path, through the “grace-ful” power of initiation and the intense gaze, is crucial as being the means for the disciple to reconnect with the inner Divine light and sound currents and ascend thereby to the higher planes. Thus Rādhāji flourished in this role until her death in 1894. Maheśwarī Devī (“Buaji Saheb”) in 1907, upon the death of her brother (Brahm Sankar Misra, “Mahārāj Sahib,” the third leader of the Rādhasoāmi movement at Soamibagh, Agra), led the faithful until her own passing in 1913 while visiting Benares. Her leadership was disputed by some at the schismatic group of Rādhāsoāmis across the way at Dayalbagh, but supported by the leaders at Soamibagh. After all, she had helped her brother organize and lead both the Allāhabad and Benares centers, especially during the years of his last illness. But she remained in purdah and was thus concealed from any contact with men; much of the work of administering the community fell to her brother’s chief disciple (Madhav Prasad Singh). Bibi Ranī, daughter of J.N. Hazra, succeeded him at his death in 1966 as leader of a small Soamibagh offshoot group in the Agra region. Two trios of women who attended Soāmiji Mahārāj and Sawan Singh (d. 1948), the “Great Master” of the Beas Rādhāsoāmi lineage, are remembered today as “model devotees” of perfect service and humility, key elements on the Sant Math path. Sawan Singh’s successor, Kirpal Singh, had several women as leading disciples: Bibi Hardevī‚ or “Taiji” (“respected aunt”) was actually considered by many to be the one who would be made guru of the Beas line after her Master’s passing in 1974, but she was denied this role, evidently because of her sex. Kirpal Singh himself once allegedly stated that a woman could never become a sant satguru, echoing the ideas of a prominent Rādhāsoāmi teacher (Anand Swarūp) who claimed, “a female cannot attain the status of a saint.” Judith Lamblion, however, is one of the four disciples of Kirpal claiming to be a successor qualified to teach the surat śabda yoga, and has been doing so in Salt Lake City, Utah, from the mid-1970s to the present. (Kirpal Singh’s son, Darśan Singh [d. 1989], was generally regarded as the true successor to his father, not just because of bloodline, but because of genuine sanctity.) Yoginī Mātaji‚ is one of two persons who was explicitly appointed a successor by the eminent Rādhāsoāmi saint Bābā Faqīr Chand (1886-1981) of Hoshiarpur (in the Punjab) prior to his passing at age 95. On an organizational level, we find Sheila Bharatram, a housewife, appointed as president of the Beas Rādhāsoāmi Satsang Society in 1979. It is said that women in the Rādhasoāmi movement—like their Sikh sisters—on the whole fare better than in traditional, brahman Indian society because of a progression beyond many of the stricter aspects of the ancient brahman codes. As is true in so many religions, women are often the majority at Rādhāsoāmi events. And in at least one major Rādhāsoāmi group, the branch centered at Dayalbagh, Agra, a women’s group (the Mahila Cooperative Association) provides much of the income for putting on the major events. 
Resuming our examination of women saints from the medieval Hindu tradition in northern India, let us look to one of India’s greatest spiritual lights of all time—Lāl Ded‚ also known as Lalleśwarī, Lalla Yogīśwarī, or Lalla ‘Arifa (c.1317/20-1372). Lāl Ded was and still is the most illustrious mystic of Kashmir, “undoubtedly among the greatest spiritual geniuses of the world.” Considered “the maker of modern Kashmiri, language as well as literature,” she expressed the lofty truth of advaita (non-dualism) along with a fervent devotion to Śiva in her poems. Her life is shrouded in legends and miracles—such was the impact she made on those of her time and later. The legends maintain that Lāl Ded was fully conscious of many of her past lives, that she was given a certain amount of education and that she also learned advanced spiritual practices under a Śaiva guru while she was still a child (she would later surpass him in spiritual attainment). Married probably in her teen years (a marriage she never consummated), and forced to endure a cruel mother-in-law (who persecuted Lāl for spending her extra time in solitary meditation), Lāl became known as a miracle-working saint, attracting crowds of people. Soon after this, while still relatively young, she renounced the family life, and spent the rest of her years in a God-absorbed condition, wandering about “half-naked,” abandoning all customary religious practices. All this, of course, is highly unconventional behavior for an Indian woman, indicating Lāl’s complete inner freedom from body-consciousness and social censure. In her enraptured state, she would effuse profound verses of Divine Truth, verses which became the subject for daily meditation by Śaiva and Sūfī (mystical Muslim) mystics down to this day. 
Mīrābāī (16th century) “is universally admitted to have been among the greatest saints of India”—unfortunately, scholars are not at all clear about the biographical details of her life. The usual account given is that Mīrā was born to a noble family in the Mertā District of Rājasthan (Western India), and was given in marriage to Prince Bhoj Rāj of Chittor (in 1516?), after which she went to live “the good life” with his family. However, as she preferred to spend most of her time in devotional prayer with Lord Kṛṣṇa and in conversation with saints and sādhus (wandering aspirants), her ignorant, unsympathetic in-laws, especially her father-in-law and male kin who succeeded him, derided and persecuted her. Prince Bhoj Rāj had died after a few years of their marriage, and Mīrā, having consecrated herself to God, refused to immolate herself as many widows of the day were pressured to do. Because of persecution from the rulers (the rānās), Mīrā at one point left the palace and began to worship at the public temple, where she danced and sang in devotional ecstasy before the image of the Lord, often going into a deep state of samādhi (non-dual absorption or rapture). The locals began to view her as a God-Realized being, and scholars and saints came to visit and pay homage to her. But Rānā Vikramāditya is said to have confined her to a small room, made her sleep on a bed of nails, tried to poison her, kill her by means of a snake, and so forth—yet none of this could disturb Mīrā’s communion with Lord Kṛṣṇa. (Scholars are not so sure these persecutions really happened). After some time of enduring this treatment, Mīrā was able to return to Mertā, perhaps thence undertaking a pilgrimage to Vriṇḍāvana, Mathurā, and other Vaiṣṇava holy sites for an indeterminate period of time. She evidently settled in Dwārakā in Saurāshtra (Gujarāt state, western India, another site where Kṛṣṇa is said to have resided) for the last years or decades of her life. Her several hundred exquisite poems, still frequently sung throughout India today, express a wide range of mystical utterance, from classic themes of “bridal mysticism” (and intense longing for the “absent” Beloved) to oneness with God. 
Bhakti arose in the Gujarāt area with Mīrā and her male contemporary, Narsinh, and since then a number of poetess-saints (mainly of the brahman caste) have flourished, including Kṛṣṇābāī (n.d.), Purībāī (n.d.), Gauribāī (d. c.1809), Ratanbāī (a Muslim woman), Divālibāī (flourished 18th-19th century), Rādhābāī (disciple of Avadhūtanātha), and Janībāī (d. 1812; disciple of Mithu Mahārāj, a Sākta guru). The story of Gaurībāī (c.1759-1809) is the most interesting one: married at age six, and widowed within a week or so, she returned to live with her own parents. Because of her remarkable intelligence, she rapidly learned to read and write and grew up worshipping the household deities, reciting devotional songs, and reading sacred literature, as was “thought fit for a young widow.” Around age 21, her piety came to the attention of the local king who visited her and then built a temple in her honor. Gaurībāī began to reside there, along with two nieces and an old kinswoman. The temple became famous, and numerous sages, saints, and pilgrims increasingly visited it. One of these sages taught her the supreme philosophy of nondualism (advaita), which, combined with her ardent devotion, detachment, poetic expressiveness, and beauty, rendered Gaurībāī a most attractive, saintly figure in the eyes of the public. Renowned as a great mystic and siddhā (one accomplished in yoga and its powers), Gaurībāī sometimes spent entire days in deep states of meditative absorption (samādhi), completely oblivious to the world and bodily needs. In 1804, she traveled through Jaipur to Mathurā, Gokula and Vriṇḍāvana, several kings unsuccessfully trying to persuade her to stay in their region. Gaurībāī lived out most of the rest of her life at Vārāṇasī in great simplicity and austerity, composing devotional poetry, and spending much time with the Mahārāja Sundersimha, who submitted to her as his guru. Foreseeing the date of her own death, she let her devotees take her to the banks of the sacred Jamunā river, where, unshakably abiding as the changeless, infinite, timeless Awareness, she “dropped the body.” 
In the remote, feudal “folk regions” of Saurāshtra (Kathiawar peninsula) and Kutch, now comprising the western and northwestern parts of Gujarāt state, several low-caste women of late medieval times have been celebrated for their sanctity and their rather sophisticated expressions of nirguna bhakti (formless devotion). They belonged to a loosely organized Hindu movement now named Mahāpanth, which has emphasized the illusoriness of the world, and the need for holy company, devotion to the guru, and formless Self-Realization (this Mahāpanth movement stems from the Śaiva Nātha yoga cult, the way of intuitive wisdom [jñāna], and the tradition of Kabīr). The female sages of this tradition are called “satis” (the male sages, “jatis”). Gaṅgāsati is one of these: she lived some 300 years ago, a devout Rājput woman married to a man named Kahlubha who also became known as a saint, his sanctity having been spurred on by his holy wife. He made a conscious exit from the body while still fairly young so as to avoid becoming a celebrity after his working of a miracle. Gaṅgāsati wanted to do the same, but Kahlubha told her to stay around for a while in order to pass on her secret of realization to her daughter-in-law, which she did in a number of bhajan-songs. This is one of the very few instances from the past wherein a woman esteemed for her wisdom passed it on to another woman in a formal way.
The story of Sati Toral‚ has an unusual element of adventure: she was a Saurāshtran married to a man named Sansatia and he, too, like Kahlubha in the previous tale, was strongly edified by his wife. One night while Toral and Sansatia were hosting a satsang (holy gathering), Jesal, a robber from Kutch, came to steal her away, having heard of her beauty. Sansatia willingly gave Toral and a mare to Jesal, either because it was during a satsang (in which the host is traditionally required to bestow any of his “possessions” to any guest who may ask for something) or because Toral was known to be born with a mission of changing the lives of “three fallen men.” In any case, the legend states that while their boat returning to Kutch was being tossed about in a storm, the frightened Jesal was inspired by the serene, sagely Toral to confess his sins so as to insure the safety of their passage. He became a changed man, and the two lived together for several years in a state of mutual love. Anecdotes tell of how Toral tested Jesal in various ways to determine whether he had transcended his egocentricity, and he passed all her tests. At one point, to pay off a debt, she offered her body to a man who had coveted her—and converted him to the spiritual way. Jesal and Toral had vowed to die together—yet he died while she was away. Legend has it that she resurrected him after several days, whereupon they underwent a formal marriage and then entered mahāsamādhi (the “great repose”) together.
Sati Loyal was born to a blacksmith family in the latter half of the 18th century. Extraordinarily lovely, she became the consort of Lakha, another robber who, because he was from the cowherd caste, was not allowed to marry Loyal. While he was away trying to amass wealth so as to please the families, Loyal became the disciple of one Guru Selansi (overcoming the scorn of the local people, who considered her a sinful woman). When Lakha returned, he found her committed to the chaste religious life, meditating, composing and singing bhajans, and serving her guru. He tried to take her, but is said to have immediately contracted leprosy, which she later helped to heal by a lengthy, intense regimen of bhajan-singing. Her songs, more than any of the other Satis, speak in detail of the beauty of mystic realization.
We can briefly mention here Sati Amarbāī as notable for having joined Sant Devidās in a lifetime of serving the lepers and Satis Rūpa and Deval‚ who were known as being teachers of their husbands and communities. 
Tarigonda Venkamāmba (mid-19th century) from Chittor Andhra Pradesh (southern India), incarnated into a brahman family, was widowed while still a young lady, and then she challenged the prevailing customs by refusing to cut off her hair. When the authorities forced her to do so, it is said that Lord Kṛṣṇa immediately, miraculously restored her luxuriant hair. Initiated into a deeper stage of spirituality by one Rūpāvatāram Subrahmany Sastri, Venkamāmba proceeded to live the contemplative life at a local temple, then at the famed shrine at Tirupati for some time, and then at a lonely valley, Tumulurukona, for six years. Here she authored a number of lofty spiritual works, including versions of the Bhāgavata-Purāṇa and the Vāsiṣṭha-Rāmāyāna. 
In Bengal eastern India, the fervent bhakti movement known as Gaudiya Vaiṣṇava, founded by that passionate mystic, Mahāprabhu Caitanya (1485-1533) focused on worship of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā, and, because of the high esteem for Rādhā (who was usually considered to be a widow) widows in this movement were valued, not neglected. This attitude allowed several remarkable women to come to prominence: Jāhnavā, the widowed second wife of Nityānanda (one of Caitanya’s closest disciples), and Sītā, widowed second wife of Adwaita (Caitanya’s other successor). These women co-led the highly popular “Hare Kṛṣṇa” movement after Caitanya’s passing. Jāhnavā was very learned in the Purāṇas and other scriptures, and helped get the movement united under the direction of Sanātana, Rūpa, and Jīva, the male goswāmins (Vaiṣṇava gurus) over at hallowed Vriṇḍāvana in Uttar Pradesh. Her status, however, was no less than theirs. Sītā had been like a second mother to Caitanya; she took charge of the groups of Vaiṣṇavas around the elderly Adwaita long before his death, and had a large following of her own. Nandinī and Jangalī, her servants, supposedly were gifted with siddhis (supernormal powers). Sītā was of great spiritual eminence—several biographies were written about her, one in her own lifetime, indicating just how esteemed she was in the eyes of her followers. Other great female goswāmins included Ichchhā Devī and Hemalatā (early 17th century), the latter being the spiritual successor to her father, Śrīnivāsa Achārya. She also was involved in the tantrika form of Vaiṣṇava. 
Passing mention can also be made of several other great Bengali women: Hatī Vidyālaṅkāra (18th century), a Bengali poetess, later taught students at Vārāṇasī, before retiring to a life of meditation at Vriṇḍāvana. Rānī Bhavānī (latter 18th century) was a wealthy Bengali landowner who spent her days in prayer, charity, donating land and building temples and ghats in Bengal and at Vārāṇasī. Rānī Rāsmini (1793-1861), a very pious, wealthy widow, became well-known in Bengal for her extensive charity and service work. She built the Kālī temple in Dakshineshwar, 4 miles north of Calcutta on the Gaṅgā River, which became famous through its association with that eminent God-realized master, Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa, who was its young priest. 
In the life and lineage of Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa (1836-86), the major figure inspiring the modern Hindu renaissance, there have figured a number of holy women. To start with, it was an advanced female adept, Yogeśwarī Bhairavī Brāhmanī, an unmarried, wandering mystic with great powers, who discovered Rāmakṛṣṇa in 1861 when he was about 25 (she was about 45 at the time). She was able to determine that his allegedly “crazy” behavior was in fact a sign of a high state of devotion to God. She instructed him in the “dangerous path of tantra,” evidently of the “left hand” variety, for Rāmakṛṣṇa later said of these practices, “some of them were so dangerous that they very often caused the aspirant [not referring to himself] to lose his foothold and slip into moral turpitude.” The Brāhmanī’s inner visions confirmed that Rāmakṛṣṇa was a Divine Incarnation (avatāra) and it was she who first brought him to the attention of local sages. After experiencing a minor flare-up of some ego-tendencies toward the end of her stay with Rāmakṛṣṇa, she “spent most of her last days exclusively in meditation and other spiritual disciplines. While Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa was at Vārāṇasī on pilgrimage, he met her there and advised her to spend the rest of her life at Vriṇḍāvana. She accordingly accompanied him to that place of pilgrimage, where she passed away shortly thereafter.”
Much has been written about Sāradā Devī (1853-1920), the saintly wife of Rāmakṛṣṇa, and it is with her that we usher in a modern era of many stupendously glorious women saints, a veritable tidal wave of holiness showing up in the female form. Interestingly, from the time of Sāradā Devī onward, most of India’s holy women tend to be reverently thought of as “Mother”—“Mā,” “Mātā,” “Amma”—whereas in previous times they would more often be affectionately known as “Bāī,” or “Sister”—suggesting a rise in the status of India’s women saints.
When Rāmakṛṣṇa’s family was pressuring him to marry, he clairvoyantly elected the five year old Sāradā as his wife. When she later came to live with him in May, 1873, rather than consummate the marriage, he invoked in her the presence of the Divine Mother of the Universe and worshipped her! Her intrinsically virtuous nature was a match for his, and their life together enacted the archetypal Hindu model of exemplary purity (including complete celibacy), renunciation, and spiritual service to all who visited. After Rāmakṛṣṇa’s “dropping the body” in 1886, Sāradā Devī went on pilgrimage, staying at Vriṇḍāvana for a year, where she was empowered by Rāmakṛṣṇa in visions and locutions to continue his work. After her stay in Vriṇḍāvana, Sāradā Devī stayed at Kamarpukur (Bengal) for a year, leading the widow’s life of extreme simplicity, sometimes characterized by severe poverty, tapas (austerity), and solitude. (Curiously, Rāmakṛṣṇa appeared in visions to her and demanded that she not go along with certain strictures imposed on widows, for, as he told her from the other side, “I have not gone away. I have only passed from one room to another.”) Brought to Calcutta in 1888 by the apostles of Rāmakṛṣṇa, Sāradā Devī’s spiritual ministry began in full, a task she would perform until her passing in 1920, though it was often interrupted by her travelling to Jayrambati where she would care for her mother and younger brothers and, later, some of their children—a frequently very difficult situation which she freely chose to bear, without complaint. Her succession to Rāmakṛṣṇa as one of the chief leaders of the movement is often overshadowed by the more visible, spectacular missionary and teaching activities of Swāmi Vivekānanda and the formidable presence of Swāmi Brahmānanda. But throngs flocked to her for healing, inspiration, instruction, and initiation, and it was to Sāradā Devī that Swāmis Vivekānanda, Brahmānanda, and Premānanda sent many of their young male students for initiation, a rite in which psychic impurities are “taken on” and divine empowerment bestowed. Premānanda once observed that he and his confreres were sending to the Holy Mother the “poison” that they themselves could not swallow and digest—she willingly would experience the “terrible burning sensations” and subsequent illnesses that this sometimes involved. Moreover, it was to Sāradā Devī that many disciples of Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa looked when needing postmortem blessings or guidance from their master concerning especially important decisions to be made. She unfailingly delivered such blessings and guidance, for she had the easy ability to contact him within. In addition to her myriad “motherly” qualities, Sāradā Devī was also a profound mystic, apparently able to transcend all consciousness of the world and go into deep samādhi states of meditation “at will.” Numerous miracles are said to have happened by her intercession. 
Other women stand out in Rāmakṛṣṇa’s circle for their sanctity. Aghormani Devī (1822-1906), a child-widow, spent her life meditating on God in the delightful form of baby Kṛṣṇa. Meeting Rāmakṛṣṇa in 1884, she shortly thereafter attained to a remarkable devotional state of an almost perpetual vision of the divine child, Gopala Kṛṣṇa, with Rāmakṛṣṇa himself at times bodily playing the role! He would usually call her “Gopala’s mother.” Lakshmīmani Devī (Lakshmī Didi) (1864-1926) neice of Rāmakṛṣṇa, became a widow in her youth (Rāmakṛṣṇa had precognitively known this), but went on to help the Holy Mother Sāradā Devī in her service to the disciples and visitors around Rāmakṛṣṇa. Later in life she was sought out as a spiritual instructor and director. Yogīndra Mohinī Biswās (Yogīn Mā) (1851-1924) left her profligate husband after bearing him a child and, still very young, went to stay with her widowed mother. Meeting Rāmakṛṣṇa, she felt the call to adopt a more deeply meditative, austere life, eventually taking initiation into the life of a Tantric sannyāsinī under Swami Sāradānanda (a disciple of Rāmakṛṣṇa). At one point her meditative life was interrupted when she took on the care of her deceased daughter’s three boys. The depth of Yogīn Mā’s spiritual life is obvious from the fact that once she was in samādhi (meditative absorption) for three days, completely oblivious to her body. Golāp Sundarī Devī (Golāp Mā) (1864-1924) experienced, within a short period of time, the death of her husband, then her little son, then her young daughter. Consoled by her meetings with Rāmakṛṣṇa, she soon became a close companion of Sāradā Devī, serving the latter for 36 years while also leading a life devoted to recitation of God’s name and spending her money on the poor. Gaurīmani Devī (Gaurī Mā) (1857-1938) in her youth rebelled against her Christian education and then later refused to marry interested only in a life of devotion to Lord Kṛṣṇa. At age 18 she fled her family and became a sadhu (spiritually-minded wanderer), finally returning to Calcutta. Soon after her return, she met Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa at Dakshineshwar, and became his devoted disciple and a companion of Sāradā Devī. Under his tutelage, Gaurī Mā performed intense austerities at Vriṇḍāvan, and, at his passing, she resolved to end her life through the same, “but was dissuaded from this extreme step by a vision of Sri Ramakrishna.” She stayed in the vicinity of Vriṇḍāvan for ten years before returning to Calcutta, where she started, in fulfillment of Rāmakṛṣṇa’s wishes, the Sāradeshwarī Ashrama for the education of women and girls. In her role as guru (preceptor), Gaurī Māaccepted the responsibility for initiating and guiding hundreds of aspirants. Basumatī Mā (n.d.) and her husband, Upendranāth Mukherjee, were saintly householder devotees of Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa. Mā was the last living direct disciple of Rāmakṛṣṇa. Over the course of her life she was blessed with many visions of the Master and Sāradā Devī, and spent her life sharing tales of them with thousands of people. Especially interesting are her reminiscences from her youth of being Rāmakṛṣṇa’s niece, able to relate to him in childlike, intimate ways, and experience profound blessings from him. 
Irish-born Sister Nivedītā (Margaret Noble) (1867-1911) a schoolteacher in early life, became the staunch disciple of Swāmi Vivekānanda and an ardent worker for the cause of Indian women. Vivekānanda had always hoped that a women’s order would arise in addition to the Rāmakrishna Math for monks. It was Sister Nivedita, a talented speaker and incredibly prolific writer, along with some young Indian women who, to fulfill this vision, unofficially started the Sāradā Math (pronounced “Mutt”), formally constituted as a separate order in 1954, and now headquartered in Dakshineshwar. Swāmi Sankarānanda was ordaining the nuns until 1959, but since then the novices have taken vows under one of the leading sisters. “President Mother” Rev. Mokṣaprāṇa Mātāji is the current head of this order for nuns, which has become the first self-governing religious women’s order in India. They run hospitals, schools, and publications, and have branches throughout India and in Australia, with several hundred women involved. Rev. Pravrajika Ajayaprāṇa Mātāji (1926- ) may be mentioned here as another one of the leaders in the Sāradā Math association, having founded a branch in Trivandrum, Kerala state, and then, in 1982, coming to preside over the Ramakrishna Sarada Vedanta Society in Sydney, Australia. Another organization for women in the line of Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa is the Rāmakrishna Order, operative in the U.S. with three branches (San Francisco, Hollywood, and Santa Barbara, California). One of the nuns of this order has confided to me that there have been and still are today many genuine saints in the Rāmakrishna lineage, both women and men, but, in keeping with the spirit of humility and simplicity, they are not featured in any special way, veneration instead being focused only on the Master, the Holy Mother, and their direct disciples of the early days.
Śrīmātā Gāyatrī Devī (1906- ), widowed at age 20, flouted customs soon thereafter by leaving her husband’s family and departing to America with her uncle, Swāmi Paramānanda, who had been furthering Vivekānanda’s work in America. This work was very much concerned with the empowerment of women as teachers. Paramānanda had commissioned two Western women, Sister Devamātā‚ (Laura Glenn, his first disciple) and Sister Dayā (Georgina Walton Jones) to teach the Vedānta philosophy at his Ananda Ashrama-s in the West, and Gāyatrī Devī became the third to do so, the first Indian woman to teach this sublime philosophy here. Though she was the youngest among the sisters here, at Paramānanda’s passing in 1940 she became his successor according to his wish (he did not want a male Swāmi to come from India and replace him; in 1941 the parent group, the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, deigned that Gāyatrī Devī’s group have autonomy as a separate group not associated with the Mission). For fifty years Śrīmāta Gāyatrī Devī, a gifted teacher, has presided over the three āshram-centers he started, in Cohasset, Mass., in Boston (this and the Cohasset āshram were consolidated in 1952) and in La Crescenta, California (just north of Los Angeles). Mātāji also has travelled throughout Europe and Asia in her work. Sister Sudhānanda Puri, Mātāji’s appointed successor, will take over responsibility for the movement in the years ahead. 
Charuśila Devī (1886-1979), another young widow, and the niece of Swāmi Paramānanda, was, after some difficult years caring for her mother and her sickly son (who eventually died), in 1928 brought to America by the Swami to teach Vedānta. In 1930, after being in charge of the Boston Vedānta Center, Sister Charuśila Devī returned to India, where, without any significant resources, she bravely started at Dacca, East Bengal, in 1931 a branch of the Ananda Ashrama for women of all backgrounds, especially the destitute, designed to empower women spiritually, intellectually, and vocationally. Frequently compelled to beg for funds, and working so hard that she incurred chronic bad health, Charuśila Devī nevertheless saw her reliance on God flourish in the form of several large and highly respected schools in the Calcutta region. She was finally immobilized by a stroke at age 91, and passed away several years later. (Since then, Śrīmātā Gāyatrī Devī has presided over this Indian branch of Ananda Ashrama.) 
Outside the Rāmakrishna lineage are to be found dozens of other prominent holy women of India in the modern era. We shall start with those who dwelt in Rāmakrishna’s state of Bengal, and proceed more or less arbitrarily, by region, featuring some women at greater length than others. Paṇḍitā Ramābāī (1858-1922) lost her parents, brother, sister, and husband all by the time she was 24, yet went on to become a great social reformer and founder of charitable institutions. A prayerful mystic, she came under Christian influence and was baptized a Christian in England in 1883; she came to America in 1886, formed the Ramābāī Assoc. in Boston (1887), then returned to India, where she started the Sāradā Sadān, a boarding school for widows and a school for day-scholars, as well as the Mukti Sadān, a large orphanage 30 miles from Puna. Her only child, Manorama, died in 1921, but Paṇḍitā remained unaffected by this final loss of all family, totally resigned to Christ.
Swarnakumārī Devī (1855-1932), one of the daughters of Devendranāth Tagore (organizer and long-time leader of the Hindu renaissance movement, Brāhmo Samāj), was a great writer and founder of charitable institutions. Another illustrious Bengali lady was Kāminī Roy (1864-1933) the “greatest woman poet in Bengali,” a very learned Hindu woman, also inspired by the ideals of Christian charity. 
Śrī Brahmajñā Mā (1880-1934) stands out as one of the most staunchly nondual “hardhitting” female sages to ever appear in any of the sacred traditions—indeed, by comparison there are few male sages whose wisdom teachings possess such dynamite-like force. To read the pithy utterances and songs of Brahmajñā Mā is to have one’s ego-mind blown to smithereens! Born in a small village in Tipperah Dt., East Bengal (now Bangladesh), to a brahman family of moderate means, little Kadamvini Devī (Brahmajñā Mā) was married off at age 8 but was already a widow by age 10. She spent most of the next two decades living alone in a small hut on the property belonging to her late husband’s family, enjoying much time in meditation and deep samādhi states, and preferring to focus on the “darker,” more mysterious aspects of nature than manmade things and pleasant social circles. At one point in her development, Kadamvini’s “imagination solidified,” and her mind would do such things as re-create the traumatic incident of a snake biting her, complete with snakebite marks and bleeding wounds, though others could not see any snakes near her. She also showed precognitive abilities, and local villagers, like others around her in later years, reported miraculous events happening due to her presence, though she always disclaimed any “doership” of such affairs and denigrated their importance, saying that this entire phenomenal life is nothing more than a “dream” in the matrix of pure awareness. Despite the fact that everyone around her was of a devotional nature, from her early childhood Brahmajñā Mā never had any devotional tendencies at all, but showed a precociously deep and lofty philosophical attitude, and she spontaneously took on the intellectually austere and highly intuitive outlook of jñāna and vicāra (wisdom and inquiry), one of the very few such female cases in India’s recorded history (very few males spontaneously adopt this sublime view at such an early age, either). Later in life Mā stated that her spiritual path had been a straightforward one: without books or gurus she simply enquired from an early age, “Where does a human being go and in what state does he remain after death, and whence does he come?” “What is truly lasting peace?” “Who am I?”—and this process of inquiry blossomed into a Self-Realization which was complete by the year 1912 when she was 32. Henceforth, Brahmajñā Mā was taken to various cities by her devotees and family where she was sought out by the educated and religious public, but after some years of this she preferred to keep a very low profile, associating only with a small number of highly dedicated students, almost all male, most of whom became renunciates. She alternated her residence among the cities of Puri (Orissa), Baidyanāth, Deoghar, Ranchi (Bihar) and Calcutta. Brahmajñā Mā was a strict teacher with uncompromising standards, yet she also firmly promoted spiritual autonomy in her disciples. She was by nature reserved and much more of a listener than a talker, yet she also possessed a strong sense of humor and a knack for ad hoc story-telling. Mā also was gifted with the ability to spontaneously, frequently come up with poems or songs of instructions. In 1934, at the age of 54, this remarkable sage passed away at Deoghar, and there an āśram, Nirvān Math, was built in her memory, where some of her close disciples have continued to live. 
Paramahansa Yogānanda has written of a saintly little woman, Giri Balā (1868-?) who, from the age of twelve years, four months, never again consumed any food or liquids. Earlier that same year she had gone to live with her husband’s family at Nawabganj (Rajshahi Dt., now in western Bangladesh), with a voracious appetite which incurred the wrath of her mother-in-law. Vowing never to eat again after one particularly severe scolding, she ventured down to the banks of the Gaṅgā River in a prayerful, semi-trance state to find a guru who might help her fulfill her resolve. One materialized, and he taught her a special mantra and breathing technique designed to empower the energy center at the throat area (this is termed the visuddhi cakra, the fifth cakra). Thereafter Giri Balā had no appetite whatsoever, but simply lived on the primordial life-force energy (prāṇa-śakti). At an early point in her marriage, her husband passed away, and, not having borne any children, she moved back to her parents’ home in the jungle village of Biur (in the Bankura Dt., West Bengal), also spending time with relatives at Puruliya (to the west). She spent the rest of her life performing household chores during the day, sleeping very little and meditating most of the night (“sleep and waking are the same to me”), often enjoying visions of her guru and other mahātmas (great souls), her life-long fasting a testimony to the fact that “man is Spirit.” (Giri Balā’s later life and date of passing is unknown. Yogānanda met her in 1936, when she was 68; she was in good health, and had never experienced any illnesses since beginning her life-long fast. Thus she may have lived for at least another decade.) 
Swāmi Rāma relates his experience decades ago of meeting a 96 year old tantric yoga master—simply known as “Mātāji”—who had been living at the Kamakhya-Devī temple in Assam (northeast India) since she was 12 years old, engaged in esoteric practices and austerities. A “very powerful and yet gentle old woman,” with powers of clairvoyance, precognition, and so forth, she passed away some five years after their meeting. 
Śrī Śrī Ānandamayi Mā (1896-1982), the great “Spiritual Mother” of northern India, ranks as one of the most widely beloved Indian saints of all time, a spiritual giant and “Guru of gurus.” The gathering around Mā in the latter half of her life was like a court surrounding an empress—with saints, sages, scholars, celebrities and the highest-ranking Indian politicians, as well as hundreds or thousands of her several million devotees, including many Westerners. I have told Mā’s story in greater detail in another work (Women of Power and Grace: Nine Astonishing, Inspiring Luminaries of Our Time, along with the tales of three other especially important female Indian spiritual leaders profiled in this chapter—Anasūyā Devī, Shyāma Mātāji, and Amma Mātā Amritānandamayi). Here I will give a somewhat condensed version of her life and mission...
As little Nirmalā Sundarī in the village of Kheorā in East Bengal, Mā showed evidence of being clearly aware practically from her birth, and was known from her early childhood as “Mother of Smiles” (Hasi Mā) or “Happy Mother” (Khusir Mā). Her orthodox brahman mother had enjoyed a number of auspicious dreams of gods and goddesses before her birth—a sign usually indicating the presence of an imminent mahātma, or Great Soul. On a number of occasions little Mā was observed to go into trance-like states—probably periods of thought-free absorption in God (samādhi)—and she was also seen talking affectionately to plants and invisible beings. Given less than two years of primary school, she nevertheless showed great intelligence and astute memory, and labored adeptly, joyfully, and humbly at various household chores—her occasional samādhi states during this time interpreted as badly-needed periods of sleep. In 1914, Mā came to live with her husband Bholānāth (Ramani Mohan Cakravartī, d. 1938), at Astagrāma in East Bengal. The marriage would never be consummated. When Bholānāth once made a move to initiate sexual relations, he felt a violent electric shock surge through his body and took it as a sign that the time was not yet ripe for such things. Already Mā was being revered by a few people as a sanctified soul. In 1916 she became seriously ill and went to live with her parents, joining Bholānāth again in 1918 at Bajītpur in the Mymensingh district of East Bengal. Here began the “play of sādhanā” [spiritual practice]—a spontaneous expression by Mā of various yogic behaviors, completely guided by her inner Divine Power, or Śakti. Sitting in their room at night, after impeccably carrying out the household chores during the day, there would come to her by inner revelation various Sanskrit verses and sacred phrases (mantras) which she had never heard, and visual forms of different aspects of God. Moreover, Mā’s body would effortlessly go into highly advanced hatha yoga āsanas (postures) normally inaccessible except to those who have done years of training. Shortly thereafter it was revealed to Mā, “You are everything”; Mā herself later reflected on this moment: “I realized that the Universe was all my own manifestation.” During this period Mā would cure people from all sorts of ailments by merely touching them. At a certain point, not just the awed Bholānāth, but also outsiders began to witness her spontanous yogic states. Suspecting her to be possessed by malevolent spirits, they called in exorcists, but these declared Mā to be “God-intoxicated.” Sometime after this, Mā was guided by her inherent śakti to engage in a formal self-initiation rite, wherein she herself played the roles of both guru and disciple, and then in December 1922 she initiated her husband. Both of these activities violated strict Hindu customs. More amazing was that she knew all the ritual details prescribed in the scriptures, though she had never studied them. During this time, Mā was fairly oblivious to her body, hardly touching food or sleeping. After she initiated Bholānāth, she underwent a 3-year period of complete silence, speaking only a few times when she needed to console someone in distress or convey an urgent message. Toward the end of this period, Bholānāth and Mā moved to the Shāh-bagh Gardens at Dacca. Word about Mā’s holiness spread, and her first real devotees, men and women of high station, came to see this virtually illiterate 28 year-old woman for the incomparable spiritual elevation, peace, and depth afforded by her darśana (the “sight” or presence of a holy one).
Mā was often observed to be in deep samādhi trance-states while at Shāh-bagh, sometimes lasting 10 to 12 hours, with every pore of her body glowing with an unearthly radiance. (In 1930, at Ramna, Mā went into a nirvikalpa samādhi state, that is, a complete mergence in the formless Reality, for four or five days, wherein it appeared to all around her that she was dead.) Relatives were brought in to live with Mā so as to look after her and help “stabilize” her in this world. In October 1925, Mā ended her period of silence and, again acting contrary to the Hindu custom mandating “demureness” for wives, began to talk to her increasing number of visitors, male and female, Hindu and Muslim. The attending crowds were spellbound by her physical beauty along with her perennial half-smile, mystical gaze, and the nonphysical, spiritual force emanating around her which was so mesmerizing. Numerous healings were granted to those around her, though Mā also made it clear that some persons were not meant to be healed of their conditions, and that they should instead seek God-realization.
“To rid people of the ills of life, she made wounds in her own body or took upon herself the sufferings of the patient. Such cases are without number. Instances are also frequent in which it was found that appeals from strangers, when brought to her notice through a third party, produced a picture of their sufferings in her mind and they were relieved of their distress. ... Many persons saw her in their dreams and felt her blessings in their bereavements or illnesses.”
These words were spoken by Jyotish Chandra Ray, later known as “Bhāijī” (“dear brother”) who named her “Ānandamayi Mā”—”the Bliss Permeated Mother.” Bhāijī became Mā’s main guardian next to Bholānāth, and he wrote of the various supernormal transformations of Mā’s body (shrinking, lengthening, transfiguration, etc.) which began to publicly occur at the nightly kīrtana devotional singing sessions from January 1926 onward, along with various other miraculous powers—clairvoyance, telepathy, helping people at a distance, bi-location, multiplication of food, and so forth. Sometime in 1924 Mā had lost the ability to feed herself—her fingers simply would not hold onto any food. Henceforth, she would be handfed by a devotee, often only taking ridiculously small amounts. And she frequently fasted from all food and liquid for lengthy periods. Though she ate almost nothing for herself, one of her favorite activities was feeding others.
Mā’s “sādhanā phase” with all its unusual behaviors was largely left off by the end of 1926 (though amazing, miraculous things would still happen from time to time), after which Mā began her mission of teaching with great wit and brilliance the sublime, nondual advaita vedānta philosophy. A truly catholic teacher who respected whatever religion her visitors espoused, Mā promoted the various paths suitable for different spiritual temperaments—wisdom (jñāna), devotion (bhakti), or selfless service (seva/karma yoga)—maintaining that all ways lead to the final realization of God as the One Who Alone IS. Moveover, despite her lack of higher education, she displayed an expert command of language, metaphor, puns, and story-telling, and could with great sophistication discuss an issue from many points of view. In 1926 Mā began her pattern of almost incessant traveling over northern India—Deoghar, Hrishikesh, Hardwar, Vindhyācal, Vārāṇasī, Dehradun, Ayodhya, and so on. Crowds swarmed for her darśan (“sight”/presence of a holy one). As with people everywhere, they immediately had the feeling that she was their spiritual mother. In August 1930, Mā made her first of five visits to southern India, where she was received with great reverence. Mā herself stated that her real Self never moved: “I do not go anywhere; I am always at the same place.” “Why do you say I am leaving you? Why do you want to push me away? I am always with you.” She further declared that the unpredictable, frequent travelings of “this body” were guided by the mysterious kheyāla (“God’s will”), which might sometimes lead her to suddenly get up and leave a site where a large gathering was expecting her so that she could go minister to perhaps only one person elsewhere. Why she would visit one person and not another person was attributable only to this inscrutable kheyāla.
In 1928, at an abandoned Kālī Mā temple at Siddheśvarī, a sacred site near Dacca where Mā had often stayed the night for some years, an āśram was built for Mā, and a larger one at Ramna the following year to accommodate the large crowds coming to see her. These were the first of several dozens which would be built by her followers throughout India. Mā’s kheyāla took her, Bholānāth, and Bhāijī into spiritual retreat in June, 1932, at the rest-house of a small Śiva-temple in Raipur (4 miles from Dehradun in the Himalayas). Mā spent most of the time on the floor of their little room in a deep state of samādhi. Mā then moved to the annex of another temple in the Dehradun area, which became “a second Shāh-bagh Gardens,” affording continuous satsang (fellowship of the holy) from early morning until late at night for a large number of people from all over north India, who “came, saw and were conquered,” despite the language barrier. (Mā later in life mastered Hindi).
All were drawn by Mā’s joyful, peaceful presence and the air of spiritual festivity which was so strongly felt wherever she and her devotees gathered. A major āśram at Kishenpur, on the outskirts of Dehradun, was founded in the mid-1930s, and, in 1944, after ten years of being based here at Dehradun, Mā established her headquarters-āśram at Vārāṇasī, on the banks of the Gaṅgā River. In 1938 at Vārāṇasī she had founded the Shree Shree Mā Ānandamayee Kanyāpeeth, a residential school for young girls who lead the āśram life of brahmacārinīs (celibate aspirants) (Mā started a similar institution for boys.) New Delhi, Vriṇḍāvan, and Kankhal (all in Uttar Pradesh state), and Calcutta (in W. Bengal) became other major centers during her mission over the years, a mission which took the form of “an unending procession of religious festivals, kīrtanas and satsangas,” as she traveled about under the guidance of the divine kheyāla, sparing no inconvenience to visit her many “children.”
Two women stand out as Mā’s helpers: Didi, later known as Gurupriyā Devī, was the saintly woman who penned many volumes of an ongoing biography featuring Mā’s līlās (divine sports) from 1926 on. Didi also established the Shree Shree Ānandamayee Saṅgha organization in 1950 which runs most of Mā’s āśrams and her two educational institutes, publishes materials on Mā, and which organized the large celebrations and annual week-long spiritual camp (the Samyama Saptaha Mahāvrata), attended by thousands. In 1939, Mā’s mother, Didimā, became a formal renunciate under Mā by the name Swāmi Muktānanda Giri, and she served at her daughter’s side until her own death at age 93 in 1970, often doing the traditional mantra-initiations for her daughter’s followers. (Mā did not consider herself a formal guru, neither did she consider herself to have any “disciples” separate from her all-pervasive presence.) Mā’s countless devotees came to include Kamala Nehru, her husband Jawaharlal Nehru, daughter Indira Gandhi, and many other leading politicians and rājas. People experienced Mā variously as the magnificent, mysterious divinity in human form, as an attentive, consoling mother, as a strict disciplinarian (whose advice “always turned out to be the best course”), as a strong, confident, joyous woman, or as a playful, gleeful, sometimes mischievous girl, a child of the Divine Father who is manifesting as all beings and situations in this universal “Divine Comedy.” In passing, I would note that it was not only humans who flocked to see Mā: dogs, goats, snakes, et al, would be attracted to her presence, a phenomenon noted in the lives of many other saints. Mā’s love extended to plants as well—she was completely sensitive to their needs, even at a distance. Countless sentient beings experienced Mā’s formidable śaktipāta (bestowal of the divine power of awakening; also known as krpā, grace) communicated via her penetrating gaze or in dreams (this author had a number of such dreams—though he had never seen her in person). After manifesting such a rich life, Mā laid down her physical body at Dehradun, August 28, 1982, in the wake of an extended, unfathomable bodily ailment. The chief shrine commemorating her earthly remains is at Kanikal, near Dehradun. Clearly Mā still abides as the formless Divinity, in line with her spiritually-authoritative declaration: “I have always been the same.” 
In a somewhat earlier era, down in the Tamil Hindu area of Sri Lanka, we hear briefly of Chellachi-Amma (d. 1929) about whom not much is yet known to the English-speaking world. When her husband died and her children were raised, Chellachi-Amma immersed herself in spiritual practice, distinctly guided by an inner voice. She became known for her immersion in samādhi trance-states, her strong śaktipātā (blessing force), and her inspiring teachings and devotional songs. To her came thousands in hopes of receiving the divine grace which flows through a true master. 
Around this same time, in Western India, Sarojinī Nāidu (1879-1933) was an esteemed religious poet involving herself in the Indian women’s liberation movement finally becoming an active participant in and lecturer to large crowds in Gandhi’s independence movement. Speaking of Gandhi, the Brahmā Vidyā Mandīr was founded at Pavnar (Wardha Dt.) in 1959 in the state of Mahārāshtra by Mahātma Gandhi’s chief disciple, Śrī Vinoba Bhave. Here a number of female celibate religious are engaged in meditation, prayer, reading of scriptures, Sanskrit study, cotton-spinning and/or fieldwork in promoting Gandhiji’s ideals of simplicity, self-sufficiency, and devotion to God and social justice. Two Indian women prominent today have been very influenced by Gandhi’s ideals: Vimala Thakar (1921- ) was meditating spontaneously from the age of 5 and went on to do tapas (austerity) alone in a Himalayan cave for several months before joining the Land Gift Movement of Vinoba Bhave (based on Gandhian ideas). She walked through almost every district in India helping empower the poor with land-gifts from the wealthy. A serious illness she contracted in 1959 was healed by Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), whose radical views concerning the need for “choiceless awareness” became contagious for her. This led Vimala to adopt a life similar to his—that of an itinerant, unaffiliated sage. A humble, simple woman who has influenced many individuals with her clear thinking, Vimala has traveled in forty countries the last 27 years, teaching her students the way of silence, yoga, right diet and breathing, and the insight that all one’s activity must proceed from a clear, selfless state of attentive observation if it is to manifest real integrity. Rādhā Bhatt has worked for 32 years with her own organization “Lakshmi Ashram,” to effect radical social change for the oppressed and for women in particular. In the spirit of Gandhi, she emphasizes nonviolence (ahimsā) and fearlessness, and has also worked for reforestation and prohibition of alcohol in the villages of Kumaon District. 
Westerner Mrs. Annie Wood Besant (1847-1933) deserves mention here. She first came to India from England in 1893 as a member of the Theosophy Society (founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Col. Olcott in America in 1875, its headquarters moved to India in 1882). Mrs. Besant had parted from her family and Anglican church some years earlier, embarking on a career as writer, orator, and human rights activist. In 1898 she established the Central Hindu College, Vārāṇasī, and in 1907 she became the second President of the Theosophy Society, based at Adyar, Madras (she also opened several Masonic lodges in India). Mrs. Besant had considerable influence on India, both on the socio-political level (she was a staunch supporter of Indian independence as well as education) and on the spiritual level. With regard to the latter, Mrs. Besant defended the Hindus’ values and traditions and helped enlighten many of the critical foreigners about the true import of the ancient Hindu wisdom-teachings. In addition to her many writings, her worldwide lectures, and her psychic abilities (these abilities she let wane in her later years), Mrs. Besant is also important for having been the surrogate mother and sponsor for Jiddu Krishnamurti. 
Another important Western woman for India was Mīra Alfassa Richard, the “Mother of Pondicherry” (1878-1973). Born of Turkish-Egyptian parentage, she began meditating as a 4 year old girl in France (where she was raised), coming to enjoy in her teens various psychic abilities. Visiting Pondicherry, on the southeast coast of India, in 1914, she recognized at first sight the great Indian sage, Śrī Aurobindo, as the man she had been being in visions. When her marriage dissolved, she returned to stay with him in 1920. Experiencing her powers of clairvoyance, healing, etc., Aurobindo declared Mīra to be an incarnation of the Divine Mother. In 1926 they started the Aurobindo Ashram, mostly through her energies, for at this time Aurobindo went into contemplative seclusion in an upper room, where he remained until his passing in 1950, engaged all the while in the grand endeavor of “bringing down the Oversoul” and working for planetary welfare on the “subtle” planes of existence. All these years, and until her own passing in 1973, Mother Mīra presided over the āśram and, later, over Auroville as well, an āśram-city nearby which she founded and inaugurated in 1968. 
In the late 1970s a younger Mother Meera (née Kamala Reddy b. 1960) appeared on India’s spiritual scene, obviously deeply connected on a psychic level with the Aurobindo lineage. This saintly young Indian woman was raised in Andhra Pradesh near Hyderabad by her not-especially-religious family, but from age two or three she would have inner experiences of “visiting different Lights” when in need of comfort. At age six, little Kamala experienced a full, day-long samādhi which completely detached her from her family members. From age eight she began to live in the home belonging to her uncle, Mr. B.V. Reddy, a disciple of Aurobindo and the Mother and two other high-level female adepts (see below). When Mr. Reddy returned from Pondicherry to dwell at this home in 1972, he noticed the exceptional qualities of this 12 year old child, and shortly thereafter he enjoyed some profound experiences communicated to him by her, clearly indicating her spiritual giftedness. In 1974 he took her to the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, where she had a number of visionary experiences of Śrī Aurobindo and the recently-departed Mother of Pondicherry. From 1974 until 1978, Kamala would frequently go into deep states of samādhi, sometimes for a dozen hours or so without a break, either in a thought-free or a visionary state. During this period of her life, she slept and ate very little. A few people would visit with her from time to time and pay their respects to this mystically enraptured girl. By age 18, Mother Meera (as she has come to be known), had “stabilized” in the natural, continual state of God-absorption, sahaja samādhi. Assisted by Mr. Reddy, and her attendant and disciple, Adilakshmī (some 12 years her senior), Mother Meera began in June, 1978, to receive larger groups of disciples for formal darśan (sight and presence of a holy person), at Mr. Reddy’s abode in Pondicherry. And with her first visit to the West—Montreal and Switzerland in 1979—her mission has expanded (she has returned to Canada, the eastern U.S., and Germany several times since). Mother Meera seems to be the genuine, if unofficial, successor in carrying on the work of Aurobindo and the Mother of Pondicherry. This work chiefly consists in invoking spiritual grace for all sentient beings, and blessing and healing her devotees (mainly in Europe and America) through her silent, charged presence, taking each visitor’s face in her gentle hands, and gazing deeply into their eyes, very occasionally answering questions with some brief words of insight or inspiration. When she is not in the role of spiritual teacher Mother Meera lives a simple life of gardening, cooking, sewing, and constructing some dwellings for a spiritual center in Thalheim, a village near Frankfurt, Germany. Four nights each week 50-100 people visit her there for a two-hour session of experiencing one-on-one healing and an “opening the knots (granthis)” of their being through the efficacy of the Divine grace coming through Mother Meera. An extremely dramatic, eloquent testimonial to Mother Meera has recently been published by one of her early disciples, esteemed poet Andrew Harvey, which will undoubtedly bring to her a much larger following in the years to come. 
The late Mr. Reddy told of two holy female renunciates whom he met in the early 1950s before he encountered Meera Mā: Mannikyamma, of the Hyderabad region in Andhra Pradesh, who left home at age eight, refused marriage, and lived in a cave in the forest on a nearby hill. She stayed there the rest of her life and was renowned for her abstaining from food and water. And Chinnamma, with whom Mr. Reddy lived and meditated for four years, was one of those avadhutas, or “divinely free souls,” who lived ascetically and completely naked, relying solely on the grace of God and the good wishes of her devotees for her bodily sustenance. Whether these two women are still associated with a body or have “returned to the formless state,” I do not know.
The late Adi Parā Śakti Māyāmma (d. 1992) was a very very old spiritual master (“well over a hundred years, perhaps two or three hundred years”—or so I have been told by some of her devotees; others estimated her age to be around a 100 years at her passing). Māyāmma kept complete silence, and was known for her many miracles and the tremendous power of her blessing. No one knew her place of origin or birthdate. One of her closest followers, Prof. V. Rangarajan, claims that she revealed to him in a telepathic transmission that she hailed from Kamakhya, the famous Devī temple up in remote Assam, and was well over four hundred years old. In any case, Māyāmma was observed to dwell on the sea-shore at Kanyākumārī, Tamil Nadu, since the early years of this century—and she was considered to be an old woman in those days! “She has not learnt the three R’s, but she knows everything. ...For all practical purposes she appeared to be a mad, old, beggar woman. No one ever knew her power. The fishermenfolk ... gave her all sorts of work like breaking the firewood, pounding the rice and drying the fish. All this work she used to do with a smiling face and they would give her some rice and fish which she used to take sitting at the sea-shore. She used to sleep in the mantapa [open air “porch”] of the temple or on a roadside platform or in front of a hotel or restaurant. ... None knew her greatness. About two decades back [circa the mid-1960s], one day a van with some tourists came to Kanyakumari. It so happened that it ran over a stray dog. The dog’s intestines came out and it died on the spot. When people were watching that ghastly sight, this mad beggar woman with her bundle of rags appeared on the scene from somewhere... She pushed the intestines into the stomach of the dog, bandaged it with some straw and patted it on its back. To he utter surprise of everyone, the dog got up and started running. That day, the people there realised who she was. Since then, many people in Kanyakumari adore her as the Divine Mother.”
Not only people. There were many dogs—some 40 or 50 of them—who were always around Māyāmma as her faithful guards and dear companions. She caressed and cared for them, and fed them and then with the same hand distributed prasād (blessed food offering) to the human devotees, thus casually breaking one of the major taboos in Indian society. Rangarajan reported on his time with Māyāmma that “the dogs always remain calm and cool, sharing the prasād that she gives with devotees coming there.” Moreover, Māyāmma had “no body consciousness” and thought nothing of dispensing with all her clothes when she strolled out to take her regular bath in the ocean. She had for some years performed a daily homa (worship service involving fire) at a local rubbish-heap, offering handfuls of sea-weed, shells, and so forth, in lieu of the normal items (grains, etc.)—a most unconventional performance.
In her last years some devotees made for Māyāmma a small hut by the sea-shore, in which she spent some of her time. She also resided for periods at nearby Suchīndram in proximity to the Sthanumālayan temple, where legend maintains that the saintly Anasūyā of ancient times transformed and invoked the Trimūrti—Brahma, Viṣṇu and Śiva—into the divine incarnation known as Dattatreya. Māyāmma also visited devotees in other parts of Tamil Nadu, such as at Tapovanam and Tiruvannamalai. In her last two years of life, Māyāmma re-located to the town of Salem in Tamil Nadu, where she was available for those lucky visitors who came and received her potent force of divine blessing (śaktipāta) through her ardent gaze. Dr. Lakshmīkumārī was a very close devotee of Māyāmma and also serves as president of Vivekananda Kendra, a nation-wide organization with its headquarters at Kanyakumari. 
The late German scholar and tantric yogi, Agehānanda Bharati, has told of another acclaimed female ascetic: Siddhimātā (n.d.) “known all over Northern India as one of the most learned and spiritually advanced women saints of the day. ... [Siddhimātā] showed deep mystical inclinations by the age of 7. ... It is rumored that she participated in scholastic disputes among the pandits of her father’s court when a girl of 12 and that she was thought to be a jātismara—a person who can elucidate subtle philosophical and mystical doctrines without ever having studied them...” She disappeared on her wedding morning at age 13, and evidently was not seen again until she emerged about 12 years later in the Almora region (Uttar Pradesh, northern India) as a beautiful nun, living austerely in the forests amongst the wild animals, maintaining a vow of silence. At one of the Kumbha melas (huge religious festivals) at Hardwar, Siddhimātā “returned to the world” and began to interact with monks and sadhus (pilgrims), impressing people with her scholastic learning and wisdom, her beauty, and her “spiritual powers.” 
Major General Dr. Amarnath N. Sharma and the saintly Papa Rāmdās (d. 1963) have both discussed meeting a radiant girl of 11 years of age, Śrī Dharm Devī, of Lahore (now part of Pakistan), who described herself: “This girl has had to do nothing; she was born perfect.” Born around 1927, from age 3 she was observed to be totally immersed in love of Kṛṣṇa, and was prone to going into long periods of samādhi. At least as early as age 11 (when Rāmdās and Sharma met her) she was manifesting tremendous spiritual wisdom, clairvoyance, healing, and other miraculous powers. Most importantly, she was exuding God’s love in ways which astounded her relatives and visitors. She functioned as a guru for grown men, such as Sharma, to whom she said: “Henceforth you have to do nothing. I shall do everything.” Evidently Dharm Devī was taking on various negative conditions in her devotees, for it was discovered that she was suffering from about 35 different diseases, which greatly weakened her body (though later Dr. Sharma helped restore her to health). She would often go into ecstasy states and utter poetic expressions of rapturous love for Kṛṣṇa. To Dr. Sharma she dictated a book on Rādhā’s love of Kṛṣṇa. Large numbers of people would gather around her to hear her give spiritual instruction and relate tales of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā. Sometimes she would enact the līlās (sportings) of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā in the form of marvellous dramatic plays. Many people believed her to be an incarnation of Rādhā, a notion which was strengthened in 1939 when she was taken to visit Vriṇḍāvana for the first time and demonstrated familiarity with all the major routes, byways, sacred places, etc. I have not been able to ascertain the details of the remainder of Dharm Devī’s spiritual career; she evidently spent most of her life alternating between Lahore and Vriṇḍāvana. Dharm Devī had as her attendant a pious young woman, Kumārī Vimal (b. c.1935), “a nightingale of Vriṇḍāvana,” who passed away around 1968. Dr. Sharma, who describes her, also discusses a number of other saintly women of Vriṇḍāvana, most of whom were introduced to him by Dharm Devī: Śrī Santoshji, Śrī Sarlaji, Ushāji, Śrī Mātā Krishnaji (and her male companion the famous Indian hagiographer, Bankey Behari), and Kumārī Ushā Bhatnagar. These women have spent most of their time in silence, deep inward meditation and prayer, interspersed with inspired devotional singing to Lord Kṛṣṇa and telling of the glories of Kṛṣṇa. 
The story of Shyāma (Śyama) Mātāji (1916-99) another frequent dweller at Vriṇḍāvana, is a simple yet astonishing tale revealing how an intently one-pointed, loving devotion to God can produce a quantum leap in human functioning. Born in nearby Mathurā (a city also sacred to Lord Kṛṣṇa), little Shyāma loved to chant and meditate on Kṛṣṇa and enact the līlās (playful antics) of his life, and she developed a considerable talent for music, which would later in life mark her public mission. At age 11, Shyāma was married to a local boy of a prosperous family, and went on to become the “model wife,” also bearing several children, but only one, a girl, survived. Shyāma’s mother-in-law, yearning for a son to carry on the family line, brought Shyāma in her 25th year to the family guru, an old miracle worker and sage fancifully named “108 Śrī Bābā Rādha Swāmiji Mahārāj,” so that Shyāma might receive from him a spiritual practice which would yield a boon in the form of conceiving and bearing a long-lived son. The Swāmi gave her a formidable task: recite with great devotion and diligence the famous mahāmantra (Hare Rāma Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare / Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare) 10,0000 times each day, without eating any solid food but taking only a quarter pint of milk each day for six months. An unbelievable penance... But even more unbelievable is that Shyāma did just this, waking up every morning at 3 a.m., chanting throughout the day until 2 a.m., sleeping for an hour, then waking up to repeat the same sādhanā (practice), day after day, encouraged by her in-laws and by the guru. When he found out months later that Shyāma was actually carrying out the practice, he was amazed—no one else had ever really followed such regimens he posited. After the six months were up Shyāma was brought to him and, stunned by her persistence in this ascetic path, he said he would grant as a boon anything she might request. Rather than ask for a son, however, Shyāma begged that she might fully realize the Divine Being of Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa, and she vowed to continue doing the penance all her life. The guru was greatly pleased at this attitude. But the mother-in-law was furious. Back at home, Shyāma continued her austere practice, yet was now forced to carry out all her old household chores as well. The mother-in-law (whose word was evidently much more powerful than that of Shyāma’s kind, but quiet-mannered husband) would harrass Shyāma and often refuse her any milk and so Shyāma would drink just water; sometimes during these punishments her neighborhood friends would sneak in some milk to keep her from fainting away. Shyāma performed this extremely rigorous sādhanā for three full years!—regularly visited by a snake (snakes are viewed in India, as elsewhere, as very powerful, good omens). Toward the end of her arduous discipline, Kṛṣṇa himself appeared to her physical eyes for three straight days, and on the fourth day manifested with his divine consort Rādhā and gifted Shyāma with all sorts of classic mystic experiences of union with God.
One night soon after this, Shyāma, tired of her mother-in-law’s harrassment, climbed down from her balcony and fled the few miles to Vriṇḍāvana, concealing herself in an old hut for four days and nights without food, drink, or sleep. Shyāma’s husband and his family came searching for her but could not find her. Now 28 years old, she assumed the garb of a sannyāsinī (renunciate nun) and caught a ride on a train east to the holy city of Prayag (Allāhabad). Here she lived freely on the banks of the Gaṅgā, meditating on Kṛṣṇa, chanting His Name, taking only milk as her food, and water alone when milk was unavailable. She visited temples, pilgrimage spots, saints, and hermits in Prayag, Ayodhya, and the Chitrakut forest. At Dwārkā, Rājkot, and Cambay (all now in Gujarāt), Shyāma’s beautiful, uplifting kīrtana (devotional singing) drew to her throngs of people who became her disciples. Yet, being completely detached from the fame or security accruing from leadership of a movement, Shyāma would leave them after a time to roam about in the animal-infested jungles and forests, sleeping on tree branches, singing and going into God-intoxicated raptures. Once Shyāma was moved to travel all alone to the outskirts of Calcutta, where she settled on a riverbank and began to fast and pray for three days to atone for the sins of the people there. She soon became known to some of the urban populace, who, noticing the various “synchronous” (wondrous) events transpiring around her, desired to get teachings from her. Shyāma replied: “The essence of the teaching is the chanting of the holy name of God. Take his name, He will provide everything that you want.” Thereafter, Shyāma Mātāji led large 24-hour kīrtana parties in Calcutta, a main feature of her mission ever since (sometimes these devotional singing parties will stretch on for days). She initiated thousands of women as devotees, later including men as well. An āśram was started at Navadwīp (north of Calcutta), where constant chanting goes on. Surat (in Gujarāt) and Madras (in south India) were the next scenes of huge missions engendered by her palpable sanctity. People were beginning to view Shyāma as an incarnation of Rādhā, such was her contagious, powerful devotion to her Beloved Lord Kṛṣṇa, whom she views not only as the charming figure of old, but also as the the archetypal Divine Person, the Trans-Cosmic Reality, and all of creation as well.
Stupendous miracles had been happening around Shyāma Mātāji and would happen around her for much of her life, miracles well-documented by reliable eye-witnesses, miracles apparently attesting to the fact that all of this phenomenal world-play is but God’s magical dream. These wonders included bi-locations of her bodily form, materializations or teleportations of objects (especially certain special images of Kṛṣṇa), transformations of matter, multiplication of food, knowing everyone’s mind, clairvoyance, stopping or starting rain, stopping floods, preventing accidents, protection of her devotees at a distance, flying through the air, and dramatic healings of every kind of illness (Shyāma would often take on the effects of these in her own body). Later in life Shyāma somehow got many of these spontaneously arising wonders to stop because they were causing too much cultic attachment to her. The only “miracle” she desired was that people become fully transformed through love of God—and thousands of devotees have attained this. At Dwārkā (where she now has a large āśram) and Surat, Shyāma held large missions and multiplied the foodstuffs to feed the huge crowds present. In 1964 she came to visit the many Indians living in poor conditions in Africa, establishing in āśrams and kīrtana centers in Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. She visited Leicester, England, in 1967, and London in 1970, establishing temples and āśrams there as well for the many Indians who had re-located to England. Visits to the eastern United States and Canada have also been made by Mātāji off and on since 1970. Presently, Mother Shyāma spends most of her time either at her London “Shyāma Bhakti” / “Rādhā Rāni Rādhā Kṛṣṇa” āśram (her headquarters in the West) or at her āśram-complex in Vriṇḍāvana. She attends to various jobs around the āśrams, even the most “lowly,” and herself does the pūjā (worship) services in the temples, never tiring of being an instrument of work for her Beloved Lord Kṛṣṇa, always chanting His name in the midst of activities. When she is not bodily involved in work, she spends her time meditating, doing penance, and chanting or singing the Name of Kṛṣṇa. Shyāma Mātāji has a number of illustrious female disciples, including her esteemed successor, Rādhā Rāni Sharma, who heads Mātāji’s āśram in London, as well as women like Rukminībāī of Calcutta who performed great austerities and devotional sādhanā under Mātāji’s guidance. These and other great souls are helping in the mission of spreading love for the Lord. 
Siddhi Mā (or Siddhi Devī) is another contemporary woman of northern India manifesting great joy serenity, sensitivity, and holiness. Each year she spends much of her time at Vriṇḍāvana, then after Holi festival in the Spring going on to Vārāṇasī, followed by a stay in Kainchi for a time. Wife and mother of two children, Siddhi Mā was one of the close disciples of the amazing siddha-guru, Neem Karoli Bābā Mahārājjī (d. 1973). She is reputed by many to be the main figure carrying on the true spirit of his work, which is strongly oriented to the path of love and service, patterned after the legendary example of Hanuman and his love for Lord Rāma, the Divine Being seated in the hearts of all beings. Though she always humbly defers to the spiritual authority of her guru, Mahārājjī, colleagues of mine who have spent time with Siddhi Mā report her to be in fact one of India’s greatest contemporary saints. 
Catherine Clementin Ojha has reported on four contemporary women gurus of the ancient, hallowed abode of Vārāṇasī : Shobha Mā, Sharadvallabha Betiji, Mātāji Rām Dulāri Dāsi, and Mātāji Om Bhārati. Shobha Mā (b. 1921), the most popular female guru of Vārāṇasī after the late Ānandamayi Mā, hails from the Tripura Dt. of East Bengal, where, in 1935, at age 14, she became the disciple of the celebrated Swāmi Santdās (Kathiya Bābā). After his death at the end of that year, she began to have all sorts of visions of Kṛṣṇa and Kālī, and to receive the Swāmi’s postmortem guidance. After some months of sādhanā (spiritual practice), this uneducated village girl began to be acclaimed as a guru by the locals (respected pandit Gopināth Kavirāj also affirmed her lofty state of consciousness). Following the partition of India in 1947, Shobha Mā and her relatives moved to Calcutta, where she received official initiation (dīkṣā) into the renunciate, ascetic lineage of the Nimbārka sampradāya (“sect”), a devotional Vedānta school of which Swāmi Santdās had been an eminent leader. This taking of monastic vows was an unusual privilege accorded to a woman in this tradition stemming from sage Nimbārka (c.14th century). Soon after this step, Shobha Mā moved to Vārāṇasī, where she has become the leader of some 1,000 disciples, and head of a well-organized feminine ascetic community, the Sant Ashram, in the Laxa section of Vārāṇasī. Twice each year Shobha Mā, a charismatic yet modest woman, is worshipped as an incarnation of the Goddess Kālī by her many followers and well-wishers.
Sharadvallabha Betiji (b. c.1940) and her older sister were the only two children of a man who was the head of the Gopal Mandīr (Kṛṣṇa Temple) in the Vedānta sect following the teachings of sage Vallabha (d. 1531). Both these daughters were married off at early ages but refused to live with their husbands opting instead for the religious life. Encouraged by their mother, these lasses endured the disapproving attitude of their father and, with private tutoring from pandits of their sect, became very wise and erudite. The older sister, a very saintly young woman (whose name is unfortunately not given by Mrs. Ojha) started a reform campaign on behalf of the movement, and highly respectful devotees, disenchanted with the male leaders whose lifestyle had not been of the highest standards, built her a new temple opposite the Gopal Mandir in the old section of Vārāṇasī. An institution was also founded to teach women members of the sect. The elder sister died soon after this, however, and Sharadvallabha Betiji inherited the work. Having been initiated by her father and entitled to initiate others into the sect, she serves as guru, pūjārinī (temple priestess), moral reformer, and philosophy professor, chairing well-attended, enlightening seminars featuring great religious authorities from various sects (the only religious institution in Vārāṇasī which sponsors such intellectual debates). Sharadvallabha Betiji also has mobilized all sorts of social work (a school, library, and medical dispensary) and has organized a Mahilā Maṇḍal (Women’s Circle) of some 800 members who study the Vaiṣṇava scriptures and works of Vallabha. Through her and her sister’s leadership, the Vallabha sampradāya, which emphasizes ardent devotion to Kṛṣṇa and a cherishing of this world as his great līlā (play), has been given much new life and momentum in this region of India.
Mātāji Om Bhārati is a Bengali devotee of Kālī who left home in her teens in a spirit of fierce independence to wander about as a spiritual seeker; soon after this, she took monastic vows under a male guru of the Daśanāmī Sampradāya (the Advaita Vedānta tradition dating back to sage Śaṅkara) and served him for many years on a kind of floating āśram on the Gaṅgā River. Sometime around the late 1970s, she settled down in the Bengali section of Vārāṇasī, where she lives with one or two Bengali widows and wisely counsels to her disciples and visitors, almost all of whom are laity. She is an interesting blend of fiery, fearful, authoritarian, and highly orthodox tendencies.
Mātāji Rām Dulāri Dāsi (b. early 1920s) on the other hand, is a simple, jovial, constantly cheerful woman who lives across the Gaṅgā in the Rām Nagar section of Vārāṇasī, an ardent devotee of Lord Rām, an artful story teller (chiefly recounting the exploits of Rāma, Sītā, Hanuman, et al), and a great tapasvinī, or master of austerities. For instance, she eats only milk and fruit, and has performed for a 12 year cycle the classic ascetic feats of standing in the cold water in the coldest hours at the coldest time of year, and sitting under the blazing sun in a circle of fires during the hot months of the year. Mātāji married at age 9, became widowed a year later, and began to wander about with the elderly widows of her family. Eventually she took up with various female ascetics and some time later met her guru, of the Rāmānandi Sampradāya, a Vaiṣṇava group which is devoted to Lord Rāma, and which descends from sant Rāmānanda (1340-1430?), who was the first to revive the bhakti movement—open to women and men equally—in North India after the Muslim conquests. After her guru’s death, she began to be regarded by many as a spiritual preceptor and devotees later came to buy her a small house in Rām Nagar, where she tends the shrine images of Rāma and Sītā, teaches a few (male) disciples, and serves visiting ascetics.
Anasūyā Devī (1923-1985) is clearly one of those astonishing “Goddess Incarnations” India has produced in modern times yet she is not so well known in India or abroad, undoubtedly because she spent virtually all her adult life in the little village of Jillellamudi on the southeast coast. Nevertheless, local crowds sometimes swelled to as much as 100,000 or more on festival days to see this “Mother of all.” What were they coming to experience in this little lady? Let us take some pages to explore the fascinating details of her life, so as to better glimpse another genuine case of Divinity in human form... Her birth in the little village of Mannaya (near Bapatla, Guntur Dt., Andhra Pradesh state) came in the wake of numerous auspicious visions and spiritual experiences which graced her well-to-do brahman parents before and during the pregnancy. Especially favored was Anasūyā’s mother, Rangamma, who had lost five previous children in pregnancy or infancy, and she might naturally be expected to be rather apprehensive over another pregnancy. But the birth went smoothly—the only unusual elements being that the baby did not cry at birth, and everyone in the room began having visions of the Divine Mother at her advent! This was clearly a special child; to call her a “spiritual prodigy” is an understatement: the little one would not cry for milk, and seemed interested in suckling only when the breast was offered. She would go into suspended-breath samādhi trance-states in her early infancy, and was apparently fully conscious of her surroundings from birth—for later in life she reported clear memories of various details from this time. Strange but auspicious was the fact that a dog and a cat came to expire at the infant’s feet, and no less than eleven persons from her mother’s and father’s families died during her first four weeks of life—interpreted as a sign that Anasūyā was embodying a great light which drew people’s spirit straight-away back into the Godhead. When, later in her life, people would ask Anasūyā Devī when she had attained perfection, she would tell them, with consummate spiritual authority that she was “always the same,” always established as the One Consciousness. Evidently there was no “karma” for her to work out in this present life. Various holy men who saw the little girl in the unshakable samādhi states declared her to be a special manifestation of God. Yet Anasūyā endured numerous scoldings from her parents for giving away food to the destitute and stray animals, feeding them with her own hand—a major taboo for brahmans! Anasūyā never showed any distinctions based on caste whatsoever, once claiming, “my caste is that of the sperm and the ovum”!
When Anasūyā was about 3 or 4 years old, her mother passed away, not before enjoying a powerful vision of her daughter’s spiritual glory as the Divine Mother. Little Anasūyā not only did not show any grief over her mother’s passing, she profoundly challenged her relatives to see death in a new light, as a return of the birthless, deathless spirit to God. Moreover, she demonstrated a total clairvoyance about the details of what was happening at the cremation ground some distance away. After her mother’s departure, Anasūyā was raised by her grandparents and other relatives, yet given considerable freedom to come and go, allowing her to interact with people from all castes, ages, and walks of life; many folks were deeply impressed and uplifted by her extraordinary peace and goodness and called her by the respectful term “Amma.” Since her earliest childhood, Anasūyā had been extremely precocious in the way she spoke to people, and penetrating words of wisdom or blunt confessions of her fully awakened spiritual state were the norm rather than the exception. In a number of quite interesting encounters with elders, she granted them visions of their chosen form of God. Once when she was six, Anasūyā was taken to a local guru for initiation; however, Anasūyā reversed the roles and soon, through her incredible display of wisdom and purity, she had the old man in tears of joy and gratitude for the privilege of meeting her. As so often happens in the lives of great adepts, few of her relatives recognized her spiritual grandeur; they thought her to be “odd” or “impertinent.” In her mid-teens, Anasūyā was regarded by them as insane or possessed, for her unconventional behavior began to include bizarre-looking “fits” of falling, weeping, talking without any sense, not recognizing family members, and so forth, behaviors which have been seen in the lives of a number of “God-intoxicated” souls in the history of religion. Exorcists were brought in, to no avail, and finally she was admitted to a Christian missionary hospital at Chirala. Here she stayed for a year, actually venerated by patients and staff alike for her charity and goodness; some of them experienced divine visions through her, and many of the Christian staff members regarded Anasūyā as a manifestation of Mother Mary.
In 1936, before her year of hospitalization began, Anasūyā had insisted on marrying her cousin, Nageśwara Rao, or Nannagaru, in fulfillment of a perception she had when she was a month-old infant (he had been present at the naming ceremony). Upon returning from the hospital, she settled down with Nannagaru and eagerly loved, served and obeyed him in perfect fulfillment of the ancient strīdharma ideal for Hindu wives, an ideal which she did not consider to be at all demeaning. She always maintained that marriage need not be an obstruction to spiritual life. In 1941, Anasūyā, Nannagaru, and their new infant son moved to the backward, impoverished, faction-ridden little village of Jillellamudi, seven miles (and a difficult journey) away from Bapatla, where Nannagaru had been appointed as the mayor. Here Anasūyā seems to have “hidden” her spiritual grandeur for a while, instead diligently looking after the needs of her family (which would come to include another son and a daughter), performing various mundane chores, and extending the traditionally generous Indian hospitality to any villagers who might wish to visit their home. (Many cats, dogs, and snakes came and benefitted from her loving-kindness.) Anasūyā also organized a grain bank to help the destitute and ministered to the needy. Furthermore, she purchased some land and started the building of a temple (the Anasūyeśwaralāyam) for the local people—who had previously been considered too low-caste by the orthodox brahmans to merit any temple in their village.
On the evening of July 23, 1949, Anasūyā, age 26, was taken to an old female guru, Desirāju Rājammā, for a formal mantra-initiation. What happened over the course of that extraordinary night was another one of those remarkable switching-of-roles characteristic of Anasūyā ‘s early life. By dawn the old woman was tearfully, joyfully regarding Anasūyā as the Divine Mother incarnate, and demanding that Anasūyā hereafter become a guru and initiate the masses. Anasūyā, who knew that her public mission was soon to begin, nevertheless for a few years continued to maintain a low profile, serving her family and engaged in charity toward the locals. She never hankered after any leadership role or desired to have “followers.” Yet by 1956, especially after she performed several healings and an exorcism, a number of people had begun to discover her, including former miscreants who had persecuted her and even tried to poison her (undoubtedly jealous of her brahman-caste status). Soon many other visitors from near and far were coming to see Anasūyāmma and get their spiritual questions answered, rest their heads in her lap, and receive her potent blessing-force. In 1958, early in the morning of a full-moon day, Amma gave mantras individually to some 600 people who had gathered, thereby fulfilling old Rājammā’s desire that Amma become a guru—though Amma would not initiate anyone thereafter, saying that she was neither Guru nor Guide nor Teacher, but simply “Mother” to all. Husband Nannagaru had to let go of his concerns about “proper” behavior on his wife’s part. Eventually he would completely drop his attachment to her as “my wife,” instead seeing her as a divine being. In turn, Anasūyā always obeyed him and asked his permission for everything the devotees wanted to do, such as their honoring her ritually from time to time as a manifestation of the Devī (Goddess).
Amma often fell into deep trances during this early phase of her public mission... Once Nannagaru found her in samādhi in the kitchen, her unharmed hand fully immersed in a pot of boiling water. Another time Amma summoned a doctor and forewarned him to look after things, because she was going on a “spiritual journey.” She then dropped the body for eleven days, all her vital signs becoming completely extinguished, yet she returned to perfect functioning after this strange suspension of life on the physical plane. On one occasion in 1956, Amma’s ājñā cakra (psychic “third eye” between the eyebrows) burst open with blood; she put her hand to the spot and a small amount of vibhuti (sacred ash) quickly filled up the area, which she gave out as prasād (blessed offering) to those present. Curiously, from her early childhood food had gone right through Amma undigested without any ill effects; in later life, Anasūyāmma would frequently go very long periods without eating, sometimes even abandoning all liquids. For the most part, her daily fare was a little coffee and perhaps some vegetable broth—yet her body was plump and full of energy. She seemed to live off “God’s light.” Though Amma ate almost nothing herself, from childhood onward she was conspicuous for always wanting to feed others—sumptuous amounts. And wondrous elements were usually involved—such as her knowing in advance just the right amount of food to prepare for the hundreds of people coming, or, failing this, miraculously multiplying the food so as to feed all those present. After a while, Amma herself could no longer do all the food preparations herself, so a friend-devotee was called in to help. On August 15, 1958 Anasūyāmma had a large, simple shed built, the “Annapūrnalayam” (“Abode of plentiful food”) or “Eternal kitchen,” which served free vegetarian fare to the masses of people coming to see her. Two years later, the “House of All” (“Andarillu”) was also opened to provide lodging for any people who came. (All funds for these projects came through the spontaneous donations from a few wealthy people inspired to support such noble endeavors. Like all genuine spiritual masters, she charged no fees.) Both of these projects were a fulfillment of a desire she had had since childhood to establish institutions for social welfare. In later years, under Amma’s sponsorship, a residential, English-medium public school was opened (1980) and a medical center for the poor, (1981). In February 1982 the Anasūyeśwaralayam temple, after years in preparation by Amma and friends, was also opened to the public. This emerging āśram-complex at Jillellamudi (also called “Arkapuri”) has always been a genuinely open and truly egalitarian home for Amma’s extended “universal family.” All are welcome as spiritual brothers and sisters. There has never any pressure for anyone to work, yet people who stay for a while soon feel the urge to join in the work of feeding, cleaning, and so on; they spontaneously align with the spirit of selfless service that permeates this place, where Amma’s aura of maternal, self-sacrificing kindness and industriousness has been contagious. Like many great masters, Anasūyāmma prepared as perhaps her most important legacy a community of people whose example of goodness might help catalyze the transformation of society. Though Amma always humbly maintained that she was not at all different from anyone else, quite extraordinary things happened around her: numerous tales are told of visions of God or the Goddess in her presence, and of her clairvoyance, remote vision, telepathy, bi-locations of her physical form, rendering help at a distance, controlling the elements (rains, floods), granting children to hundreds of childless mothers, healing various afflictions, and making her presence known at a distance through miraculous fragrances. Amma, for her part, would try to take the focus off herself and pretend that she was not at all involved, but that the faith of the devotees had worked these wonders. To anyone hankering after paranormal happenings, she would declare, “The creation itself is the most awe-inspiring miracle. What other miracle do you need? ... There is no greater miracle than love and goodwill for one and all.” Despite her attempts to seem perfectly “ordinary,” Amma was viewed by thousands of people as an incarnation (avatāra) of the Goddess, and, on special days, they would dress her up like a statue of the Goddess and honor her as such. Yet when someone exclaimed, “You are Goddess Rāja Rājeśwarī Herself!” Mother assured him, “You are also That! You do not differ from me! I am not anything which you are not!” Amma appeared variously to people in different roles—not only as awesome Goddess, but also as wizened sage, dearest friend, and playful (even mischievous) child. She could look very young or very old, delicate or strong, concerned or detached. Short in physical stature (about 5 feet tall), she had a soft, round face with a glowing, fair complexion and sparkling nose-rings, and she wore an unusually large, red mark of kumkum powder on the ājñā cakra area between the brows. Ordinarily a small dot worn by Hindu wives, in Amma’s case this tilakam gives the impression of a huge “third eye” looking through oneself into infinity.
Anasūyā Devī gave no discourses, but responded to people’s questions regarding divine truth with short, pithy utterances, sometimes highly paradoxical or enigmatic, in the same manner she had spontaneously taught her elders when she was a mere child. She had not had any schooling and did not read any scriptures. Yet her replies stunned and silenced highly respected philosophers and spiritual teachers. Amma’s teaching featured an unrelenting emphasis on 1) the immanence of God as this entire play of forms, 2) a perfect contentment/equanimity over whatever happens in the world, and 3) a nondual devotion (abheda bhakti or parābhakti) toward God as the Cosmic Principle, with the realization that “All is HE, All is HIS doing.” For a few ripe souls on the wisdom path (jñāna-mārga), Amma would tell them to take God’s viewpoint: “YOU are all, all is YOUR doing.” In any case, she was out to obviate the subject-object split, the root of all alienation and misery. Her theology was utterly nondualistic, refusing to accept the notion of a separate ego agent with “free will” and, not defining God as the “creator, sustainer, transformer” of the universe, but as the universe itself. Her transcendent, formless Divine principle was so transcendent and formless that it simply could not be found “elsewhere” beyond or separate from the immanent aspect of this Divinity! In short, everything Amma spoke actually confessed the ancient nondual (advaita) Vedānta truth that “All this is Brahman” (sarvam Brahman), the truth that, when perceived clearly, the world (THIS) is nothing but God (THAT) and should not be denigrated as something which is “not God.” Hers was no “inward and upward” strategy of other-worldliness or life-denying asceticism. True renunciation, she would assert, is “love for all.”
In keeping with her philosophy that “God is all,” Amma rarely gave anyone any “advice” on “what to do” in order to become spiritually realized. At most, she would simply recommend that one equanimiously and joyously experience whatever happens, painful or pleasurable, regarding all as God or Śakti (Divine Power). If one is meant to undertake a specific spiritual practice, the Divine Śakti will do it. Amma saw only the good in people and had no concept of “sin.” Since the Divine Reality alone IS, the Divine is doing all and thus there is no reason to blame anyone. Amma was therefore not interested in “changing” or “improving” anyone, but regularly undermined people’s sense that something was spiritually wrong with themselves, and brought them to a place of contentment and peace with WHAT IS, the Will of God as manifested in whatever is happening in the world appearance (including one’s own mind). This teaching had a profound effect on many of her students, leading to spontaneous virtue and God-Realization. Anasūyāmma claimed to have no “disciples” (śiṣyas), only “children” (śiśus). She treated all alike, even her own biological children, with the same ardent love, and she transmuted these numerous “children” into noble souls, not only through her pithy teachings, but also via a deep silence, bliss, and all-forgiving tenderness which strongly made itself felt in her presence—one of the classic hallmarks of a Divinely-realized being. In many cases, people’s long-standing psychological problems, physical diseases, financial difficulties, bad habits/addictions or attitudes (pride, envy, pettiness, etc.) would be cleared up once and for all by a simple look or utterance on her part.
Her health permitting (Amma had diabetes and heart disease for the last several decades of her life), she would grant darśan (“sight/presence of a holy one”) in the mid-morning and in the afternoon and/or evening in a hall or the small hut next to her residence atop the House of All. The ambience surrounding her was informal, just as would be expected with children around their mother. She would spend much of the time engaging those present in joyful, animated, eloquent conversation and joking in her native Telugu tongue, yet she was never frivolous, always rooted in a tremendous poise, a majestic dignity and radiant calmness due to her divinely “natural state” (sahaja samādhi), the state of being one with all, completely free and utterly established in “the peace which passes all understanding.” The scene around Amma could also be quite poignant due to the wonderful gushing of sweet tears which happened often amongst certain visitors who felt the deepest knot (granthi) of the Heart open in her presence.
Notable events in the last decades of Amma’s life included the death from smallpox of her humble, saintly daughter, Hyma (1944-68). (Amma had once predicted that Hyma would be merged in the Absolute and be worshipped by devotees “as the Reality itself” all of which came to pass; Amma spiritually energized Hyma’s lifeless body as a sacred form through the prāṇa pratiṣṭha rite and a shrine was built.) Other events include the celebration of Amma’s 50th birthday, April 12, 1973, attended by 150,000 devotees followed by extensive tours of schools, hospitals, welfare institutions, prisons and private homes in other districts of Andhra Pradesh; and the passing of beloved Nannagaru in 1981. Amma herself “dropped the body” on June 14, 1985, her physical health having finally broken down altogether. Since then the Divine Presence of the Goddess is still invoked through Amma’s name at pūjās (worship services) held at “Matruśrī” (“Beloved Mother”) centers throughout Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere. 
Mahāyoginī Rājalakshmī, the daughter of a prince in the famous pilgrimage town of Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, often meditated as a child, and was sometimes seen by her parents to spontaneously levitate high in her room. This began to happen regularly after she began to read and be inspired by The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. As the word got out, crowds came, and were allowed to see her twice a week while she was absorbed in meditation, usually levitating (photos show her levitating several feet off the ground or balancing upside down on her head). A guru from another town with whom she had a special affinity eventually came to visit and “brought her consciousness down” to the earth plane so that she could be of more use to people. Rājalakshmī went on to become a pragmatic “practical” woman not levitating publicly anymore. Young, beautiful, and exuberant, with a devoted following that includes fellow scholars, doctors, civic officials, et al (including the Tirupati police chief who has given her a bright red convertible for driving about town), she is a professor of biochemistry at Sri Padmavathi, a leading university for women at Tirupati, and she runs at her home a free polio clinic as well as an institution for instruction in the jñāna-mārga, the way of wisdom. Rājalakshmī is known as a healer, and helps cure various ailments through the power of śaktipāt (bestowal of divine energy) and through getting her subjects to undergo a regimen involving proper breathing, simple diet, self-discipline and yoga. 
Papa Rāmdās (1884-1963), mentioned earlier as one of India’s illustrious male saints in modern times, founded his second, permanent Ānanda Āshram east of Kanhangad, Kerala, with the help of his close disciple, Mātāji Kṛṣṇabāī (1903-89). Mātāji, widowed at age 20, and mother of two children, had had two different spiritual teachers, but when she met Papa in 1928, she realized he was her true guru. Within a short three years, she became fully Self-Realized: “I came to know that I am at once the universal consciousness and the transcendent Truth.” As she told this author, and as she has reported in her remarkable autobiography (written at Papa’s behest), this final break-through in her 28th year transpired only when she was able to let go of her attachment to everything, including his form: “Ultimately you made me renounce myself, your form and the entire cosmos and I became one with the eternal Truth beyond name, form, and movement.” The two of them presided over the āśram for many years, instructing thousands of disciples (including a number of Westerners whom they met on a world tour in 1959) in the way of parābhakti, the supreme devotion to God which is nevertheless permeated by a perfect sense of nonduality: God is clearly realized to be both worshipper and worshipped. Mātāji spent much of her time serving the needy and also equanimiously undergoing a number of noxious disciplines and a severe injury to her neck inflicted by some thugs who pushed her down a flight of steps (she easily forgave them and never would mention the incident, though it caused her life-long pain and forced her to wear a neck-brace much of the time). Mātāji survived Papa by 21 years, looking over all the activities of the āśram (which features many hours daily of beautiful chanting of the Divine Names). It was her habit to grant darśans twice daily in her little bedroom; here devotees would crowd together to hear spiritual readings by one of the disciples and get the chance to receive the sublime śaktipāt energy from Mātāji’s intense gaze (a remarkable luminosity characterized her eyes at such times). Throughout her last years, Mātāji was widely beloved as one of India’s holiest women of modern times—a rare blend of wisdom, devotion, simplicity and humility. 
Another, much younger woman of Kerala has come to prominent attention in India, Japan, and the West since the late 1980s: Mātā Amritānandamayi (b. 1953) known simply as Amma, “Holy Mother.” Indeed, she has rapidly emerged as a spiritual master with one of the most amazing missions for a woman ever to be witnessed on this planet, a veritable āvatāra (Divine Incarnation) of love and power and grace, the latest embodiment of the “Divine Mother” role enacted so beautifully by Ānandamayi Mā, Amma Anasūyā Devī, and a few others (indeed, those two women spiritual leaders were recommending in their last years that a number of their disciples go meet Amma). Amma’s highly moving biography  is a “Cindarella” tale of the highest order, a tale of an unloved, misunderstood, and abused girl who has become an unending font of love and compassion for countless beings worldwide. She was born September 27 1953 into a humble family in the tiny fishing village of Parayakadavu on a small island off the coast of southern Kerala state (opposite Vallickavu, 35 kms. north of Quilon). Young Sudhāmaṇī (“pure jewel”) was a child prodigy in many ways: smiling at birth, she was walking and speaking the rudiments of her native Malayalam language at the age of 6 months, singing to Lord Kṛṣṇa from age 2 years, and at 7 years composing her own devotional songs (to date, thirty years later, Amma has composed thousands of these bhajans, in both Malayalam and also in the traditional Hindi-Sanskrit, most of which are beautifully poetic and of quite sophisticated musicianship). Sudhāmaṇī was popular at school for her intelligence, and loved by the villagers who heard her moving songs to Kṛṣṇa and witnessed her deep immersions in samādhi. At age 9, her mother’s health broke down, and the young girl dropped out of school altogether to do the family chores, working extremely long, arduous hours. Because of her darker coloring, often considered a sign of inferior status in India, Sudhāmaṇī had been made the servant girl of her family—she even lived in a cowshed next to the house, and was looked after by a destitute woman. Yet she was deeply rapt in devotion to Kṛṣṇa, hardly sleeping at night after her long work-days, instead preferring to pray and call out to Kṛṣṇa with great fervor. Her mother, Damayantī, a basically well-intentioned, though very strict and rather ignorant woman (and probably deeply anguished due to the infant deaths of 7 of her 15 children), often beat Sudhāmaṇī whenever her work was not up to par—which sometimes happened when overwhelming states of spiritual ecstasy would render her oblivious to worldly matters. She was also beaten for frequently giving some of the family’s food or money to the destitute. From age 13 to 16, Sudhāmaṇī was shipped out for lengthy periods to serve members of her extended family, during which time she continued to work long hours as well as minister to the poor and sick. Many people were impressed by her piety and her deep states of mystical rapture and trance.
At age 16, she returned to serve her immediate family, where again she was often beaten and humiliated for her “excessive” charity and devotional raptures, not at all understood by her parents or her older brother. Sudhāmaṇī abjectly refused to enter several marriages they tried to arrange; indeed, she had to be prevented from running away or drowning herself on these occasions. An astrologer finally declared her to be a true mahātma (“great soul”), not destined for worldly living, but for a magnificent mission to the world. Through her late teens, Sudhāmaṇī experienced even more intensification in her devotion to Lord Kṛṣṇa and then a complete stabilization in her identification with Him. Like Shyāma Mā and other mystics, she experienced her Lord as personal, Supra-personal (the Absolute), and also spread out as all natural phenomena. Finally, in March 1975, Sudhāmaṇī, only 21 years old, was recognized as being one with Kṛṣṇa at a nearby festival in his honor, and a month later spontaneously changed water into nectar in response to the hundreds of miracle-mongers who had come to see this remarkable young woman (at the time, she declared that her mission was to end all desire in people to hanker after such unusual things, but God worked the miracle through her anyway). By this point in her life, Sudhāmaṇī was virtually omniscient, in the sense that she knew everything concerning anyone whom she encountered, could see into the past, perceived events at a distance, and so forth. Under a certain banyan tree near the Arabian Sea she would manifest Kṛṣṇa bhāva (the mood of Kṛṣṇa) several nights each week, letting devotees dress her up as Kṛṣṇa so as to increase their devotion to God, and effortlessly expressing to them various divine qualities, such as miracles of physical and psychological healing, clearing up their financial difficulties, opening up their psycho-spiritual energy centers (cakras) through her potent blessing-force (granted through thought, gaze, or touch), and frequently going into those states of deep mystical rapture states of samādhi. A group of jealous, cynical intellectuals and politicians formed a movement to harass Sudhāmani and her devotees. We need not go into all the atrocious details here; suffice it to say that attempted arrests, poisonings, captures, sorcery-attacks and assassinations all failed. Many of the police and assassins actually became her devotees upon seeing in person the amazing love and compassion exuding from this young woman—for then, as now, Amma spends many, many hours each day receiving people one by one, taking them into her lap as a mother does her beloved child. It would be quite easy for assassins to get close to her and kill her, yet she never has had any bodyguards—once she declared that powerful, invisible beings of light are protecting her. In any event, Sudhāmaṇī put up with all the insults and abuse of those days, regarding her tormentors as her own ignorant, mischievous children! Though fully God-realized at this point, Sudhāmaṇī was spontaneously moved to embark upon six months of unbelievably austere and one-pointed devotion to the Divine Mother, who had appeared luminously to her in a vision. She abandoned sleep and subsisted for most of this time solely on tulasi leaves and water, though for several months she drank no water, either. Her rapturous samādhi-states would come upon her at any moment, rendering her, not only completely senseless, but also, in the eyes of her family and some others, totally crazy. Due to this rejection from her misunderstanding family members, Sudhāmaṇī would only live outdoors, where she was cared for, not only by some of the sympathetic local women, but also by a number of animals, such as the two cows who would directly nourish her with their milk. Various phenomena associated with the deepest stages of God-realization dawned on her.
And at the end of the six months, in a glorious awakening to an even more sublime aspect of divinity, Sudhāmaṇī, who would hereafter be known as “Amma” (“holy Mother”), became completely identified with the Divine Mother. Amma has stated that, “From that day onwards, I could see nothing as different from my own Formless Self wherein the entire universe exists as a tiny bubble.” After this momentous event, Amma found she could easily identify with and express any Divine aspect so as to bring to a suffering humanity whatever form of grace might be needed to alleviate their woes. The advent of the Devī bhāva (mood of the Divine Mother) began sometime in early 1976, and has, over the years, come to replace the Kṛṣṇa bhāva (for some years, Amma would go into the mood of Kṛṣṇa for several hours, then change into the mood of the Mother). During the Devī bhāva, devotees dress her up as they would a statue of the Goddess, and Amma spends the hours from 7 p.m. until about 3 a.m. or even 6 a.m. in the morning in a mystic night of Divine giving: sans interruption she welcomes people one by one into her arms, placing each one’s head into her lap, violating all Hindu taboos against touching; she hugs and soothes her “children,” she heals them, counsels them, empowers them, and liberates them, her body vibrating much of the time with the tremendous power (śakti) of Divine Love. At the end of her Devī bhāva programs, Amma worships those present as the manifest Divine Being, showering them with flower petals. All present are transformed by her purified gaze, her radiant compassion. It is clear, at such moments, that God Alone IS, and that God is LOVE... Amma’s parents, Damayantī and Sugunānandan, concerned about “losing face” over their daughter’s strange behaviors, continued to give their daughter trouble, and her older brother even tried to kill her. (This brother has since died and evidently been reborn as the beloved son of one of Amma’s sisters!). Amma, knowing only love, served her parents during their illnesses, and over the years they have gradually become her staunch devotees, especially when they realized that all her prophecies about her world mission were coming true. Amma’s first real disciples came to live with her in the late 1970s and early 1980s, primarily a group of earnest young men and an Australian woman, Gayatrī, who would become Amma’s devoted attendant. A thatched hut was erected on Sugunānandan’s land, which, along with a small temple structure, became the nucleus for a future āśram (in the late 1980s this was augmented by the building of a large temple complex). In the early days when these genuine disciples were gathered around Amma, the living conditions could be quite austere, with little food or water—especially when miscreants would cut the water lines (something they were still doing into the mid-1980s). Amma herself would go out and beg food for these students. Amma has “honed” her disciples into exemplary models of spiritual depth and good conduct by having them meditate long hours each day (while “watching their minds”). She has also tested them in all sorts of interesting ways which reveal that their hearts and minds are always an open book to her. These tests can be quite strict—for Amma obviously wishes that these young men and women around her become great saints—not mediocre in any way. Significantly, on a number of occasions wherein the disciples have been caught “misbehaving” in some manner, Amma has not punished them; rather, she punished herself!—such as by fasting for extended periods of time or “taking on the karma” and becoming ill from their wrongdoing.
Because of government regulations, on May 6, 1981 an āśram was instituted to accomodate the foreign disciples. At this time an official teacher’s name was given to Amma—”Mātā Amritānandamayi” (“Mother of Immortal Bliss”)—by one of her spiritual sons. The number of male and female celibate aspirants (brahmacarins/brahmacarinīs) who live more or less permanently with Amma swelled to about 150 [by the mid-1990s, thousands], most of them under fifty years of age. A local orphanage of 500 children has also been adopted, preschools, schools, vocational training institutes and free medical clinics have arisen in her name, and many more charitable activities are in the works, not only in the vicinity of her āśram but throughout India and abroad, where her devotees now flourish. (A hospital and medical college are in the planning stage for her home district, as well as a hospice for terminal cancer patients in Bombay.) All funds for such projects, incidentally, come entirely through donations. Amma, like all genuine spiritual leaders, charges no money whatsoever for her programs. (The funds needed to support her work come by spontaneous donations—and God keeps inspiring people to make the requisite gifts). Part of Amma’s mission is the revival of India’s ancient sanātana dharma, “eternal religion”: her students and any others interested are learning Sanskrit, the classic Hindu Vedānta scriptures, and devotional practices such as japa (recitation of mantras and/or the Names of God), bhajans (devotional singing), pūjas (worship services) to the Divine Mother, and so forth. Many times in recent years Amma has been invited by various towns and cities of Kerala and other states to come and inaugurate new temples or “recharge the battery” of older ones, which she does in impeccable fashion (her knowledge of how to observe all the rites down to the last detail seems to have come straight from the Divine Mind). Throughout India, Amma is now greatly in demand—and recent years have seen her and some of her disciples traveling (usually by a bus recently given to them) to Bombay, Madras, New Delhi, Hardwar, Rishikesh, Calcutta, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kanyakumari, and elsewhere, where she and her multi-talented troupe sing exquisite bhajans and she offers darśan to one and all. Almost two dozen centers and āśrams have been established in Amma’s name in the various major cities of India that host her, and on Reunion Island (a French colony east of Madagascar) a large āśram/temple complex has been operative since the mid 1980s due to the missionary work of one of her male disciples. Here and at nearby Mauritius island many Hindus, Muslims and Christians have hosted Amma with great devotion since her first visit in December, 1987. Earlier that same year, Amma began her yearly May-through-August visits to America and Europe, enduring the many discomforts so as to visit her countless “children.” She stops at some 20 to 30 cities on each tour, and will go wherever a significant number of “her children” wish to see her (of course, the vast majority of these people have never met her on the physical plane before, yet most of them, immediately upon meeting her for the first time, regard her as their “long-lost Mother”). In May 1989 Amma consecrated a new āśram in a lovely valley 5 miles east of Castro Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area, not far from the site of her first visit to the West; this now serves as her western headquarters.
Amma keeps up an amazing schedule, often going without sleep for days at a time, and eating very little—though she is always solicitous of whether her visitors or students have eaten (sometimes she will feed them herself by hand, just as a mother feeds her children). Once when Gayatrī urged her to take rest, Amma replied, “Mother is not here for enjoying rest and comfort.” (On another occasion she said, “If Mother had wanted rest, she would not have incarnated!”) In addition to enacting her Devī bhāva (mood of the Divine Mother) Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday in India (less often abroad), and leading several-hour bhajan singing sessions the other four nights, and making herself available during the day for ministering to her students and many visitors, she also does a lot of the menial work around the āśram. No task is too lowly. Amma herself has usually been the first one up in the morning to assist in many of the work projects—such as cleaning out the septic tank, carrying the bricks and sand for building projects, repairing the thatched roofs on the older structures, cutting the vegetables, cooking the food, milking the cows, and so on. The program abroad is rather similar to her daily schedule in India, typically starting with a daily darśan from about 9:30 a.m to 3 p.m., and an evening bhajan followed by another darśan. At the darśans, dressed simply in her usual white sari, Amma bows down to everyone (seeing them as a manifestation of God), then she sits in a plain chair and, as at the Devī bhāva sessions, begins to welcome each person present, one by one. She will not leave until everyone has had a chance to experience for several minutes her loving embrace, wherein she opens the floodgates of the stupendous love which pours through her to the hundreds of people who have come for her blessings. Amma compassionately takes onto her lap her countless “children,” of all ages, religions, races, and walks of life, hugging them and caressing them in her motherly, tender manner. She wipes away their tears or laughingly shares in their joys; she breathes new life into them; she gazes deep into their eyes, “the windows of the soul,” looking through them into the Infinity that they truly are; she blesses, annoints, and heals them with the Divine Power (Śakti) so that this inner Truth may be consciously actualized in them once and for all. In short, Amma opens up their hearts to the vast, unfathomable love and peace of God. The atmosphere is charged with a highly numinous quality—indeed, the whole scenario is like something out of a timeless, archetypal, heavenly dream of the Divine Mother caring for her Divine Children.
Word of mouth is now rapidly spreading about this Christ-like woman who is here in our midst to help us release old wounds and karmic bonds and awaken us to our all-pervasive spiritual reality as the Divine Spirit (Atman). The deeply moving stories about Amma are piling up faster than her biographer, the young Swāmi Amritaswarūpānanda (b. 1957) can reproduce them in print: dramatic stories of almost incredible selflessness and humbleness, equanimity and bliss in all situations; stories of veritable omniscience, miraculous bi-location of her physical presence or supernal fragrance, the creating of children for the childless (some of these children are showing clear signs at an early age of being spiritual prodigies themselves), reviving the dead, “taking on karma” and healing many physical diseases and psychological disorders. Amma often suffers tremendously from headaches, heartburn, and the like, in her temporary “redemptive suffering” of the negative effects of her children’s karma. Still, she refuses to let her devotees, who fear that their negativity will burden her, stay out of her lap. An oft-seen aspect of Amma’s work is opening up the the cakras (energy centers) and the deepest “knots of the heart” (granthis). This Divine “opening activity” floods people with waves of emotion, bringing poignant tears or blissful laughter or a magnificent spiritual calm. Psychotherapists are amazed at this effortless “uncovery” technique. Returning from seeing her is like emerging from a magical, healing bath of light and love. Also notable is how Amma is able to mobilize countless “synchronous” circumstances which right the wrongs in people’s lives and relationships, and let her children clearly know that the Divine Mother is always with us, never apart.
Amma teaches for the majority of people the time-proven path of service to the needy (seva/karma yoga) and devotion (bhakti) to one’s chosen form of God (one’s ista-devata)—with the caveat that God is not separate from the devotee, but truly one’s real Self. She reserves for her more mature disciples the ultimate philosophical truth of nonduality (advaita), realized through the way of wisdom (jñāna). With her amazing humility, Amma also frequently interrupts her teaching activity by saying that she is just a “crazy girl” who “doesn’t know anything,” and is just “babbling something.” She makes lavish and brilliant use of metaphors and anecdotes to drive home her points, for, like other great master-teachers of this planet, she has a genius ability to spontaneously come up with helpful illustrations on the spot. Her words are tailored to suit each individual, sometimes emphasizing more of the transcendence (formlessness) of God, sometimes more of the immanence (“formfulness”) of God, depending on which “medicine” a listener needs. Sometimes Amma chides, sometimes she consoles, sometimes she is stern and challenging, sometimes she is tolerant and reassuring, sometimes ruthlessly to the point, sometimes gentle, in line with her saying that one must be “soft as a flower, and hard as a diamond.” In any case, when encountering the message of Amma, it is clear that she is liberating people not merely with words, but with the ineffable, transforming Power behind these words. Undoubtedly we shall be hearing much more about Amma Mātā Amritānandamayi in the years ahead.
Bhagavān Śrī Ramana Mahārshi (1879-1950) of Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, one of the most esteemed sages of all time, had several holy women in his orbit. Śrī Ānandammal became his disciple in the early years of his life when he resided on the sacred mountain Arunāchala (in Tiruvannamalai), and, after her husband passed away, she left her son with her brother and took up a very disciplined, austere life, spending all of her time either with her master or in meditation or in answering questions or explaining abstruse sections of scripture to her visitors. Jatini Sundarambal was a yoginī from childhood. After her marriage she continued her meditative life in the midst of carrying out her duties. Later her husband gave her permission to carry out her sādhanā as she wished. She came to Arunāchala, undergoing austerities; Bhagavān Ramana fully enlightened her with the story of Queen Cūdālā from the Yoga Vāsiṣṭha, and Jatini returned to live the rest of her life with her family. Echammal, the griefstricken widow who came to serve Bhagavān and his devotees for the rest of her days, Śaṅkarāmmal, who worked in the āśram kitchen, and Akhilāndamma Desuramma (1870-1961), who helped serve the many visitors coming to Śrī Ramana, were other saintly devotees. Bhagavān Ramana’s mother Alagammal joined her son permanently on Arunāchala in 1916 (20 years after he had left home), and started cooking meals for all the visitors. Mahārshi quite clearly declared that, at her passing, she became “successfully” absorbed in the Supreme Self (through his 12-hour process of guiding her at death); she was revered thereafter as a liberated being whose undying presence is still available to uplift aspirants. The late Lucia Osborne, wife of Mahārshi’s biographer Arthur Osborne, and a longtime resident of Tiruvannamalai, was much-loved by many for her wit and wisdom. 
Mathru Śrī Sāradamma (1959- ) as a sickly yet pious, charitable girl of Andhra Pradesh, at age 15 came with her parents to the āśram of Śrī Lakṣmana Swāmy (1925- ), a deeply enlightened disciple of Śrī Ramana Mahārshi. Sāradā began to have dreams of Lakṣmana Swāmy and after several months of her first visit to him, realized that she wanted to live a life of meditation at his āśram, but both her parents and the Swāmy’s mother forbade any more visits. When she vowed to commit suicide at this turn of events, the Swāmy prevailed upon her parents, and later his mother, to let her visit him, and then to stay with him (along with her brother) at his āśram just south of Gudur (80 miles north of Madras). July 12, 1975, the Swāmy formally adopted Sāradā as his daughter so as to put a cease to the chronic complaints from his mother. Over the next few years Sāradā’s intense spiritual practice (mainly a devotional focusing on the name and form of Swāmy) bore fruit in the form of a number of auspicious visions and dreams, and many periods of thought-free samādhi. Toward the end of 1978 she began to become more fully merged in this nirvikalpa samādhi, and, on Dec. 12, 1978 Sāradā became completely Self-Realized in the Swāmy’s presence, the “I”-thought having completely died once and for all. For 12 months after this, the Swāmy underwent a most difficult time trying to “keep her consciousness in contact with the world” and prevent her from dying. Eventually she stabilized in the “natural” state of sahaja samādhi, the panentheistic culmination of nondual spiritual realization. Since then Sāradāmma has taken on the responsibility of running the āśram and teaching newcomers, the Swāmy remaining most of the time in silence and seclusion. Sāradāmma is somewhat shy by nature, but is a forthright, “no-nonsense” teacher of the traditional nondual Vedānta wisdom. Like many spiritual masters she can sometimes appear very “ordinary” (for instance, one often sees her wrapt in delightful, “mundane” conversation with a small circle of local women), and yet one frequently, suddenly has the experience of receiving from her a quite tangible (though exquisitely subtle) spiritual power facilitating the great awakening from the “dream” of separate selfhood. Recently Sāradāmma and Swāmy have started a second āśram opposite Ramana Mahārshi’s āśram in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, at the foot of the sacred mountain, Arunāchala. Here they spend half of each year teaching visitors the way of devotion, self-enquiry and meditation. 
Swāmi Śrī Jñānānanda Saraswatī had already been functioning as a guru for a number of people (including her family) when she was allowed to take the full vows of sannyās in 1975 by the hallowed Sankarācārya of Kanchipuram, (Śrī Chandraśekarendra Saraswatī Swāmigal). She is one of the very few women to be given permission to do so. Mā, also known as “Satguru” to her devotees, lives in Madras and teaches the paths of advaita vedānta and devotion to God in the spirit of niskāma karma (desireless action). From a young age she was deeply spiritual and easily absorbed in samādhi; she grew up in a luxurious home environment and was educated at Catholic convents, becoming adept at music, photography, gardening, and so forth, eventually marrying and raising five children (some of whom now work closely with her in her work—note that it is a rarity for one who has taken sannyās to still remain close with family members, in that the ceremony involves a complete death to the old personality and the family). During her householder period, Mā maintained her deep spirituality, frequently fasting or going into deep states of absorption, and often experiencing visions (such as one of Christ empowering her with his radiance). Most of her time these days is spent either counseling or consoling her disciples and visitors, or being absorbed in samādhi. 
Dr. Sāīmāthā Śiva Brindhādevī is another contemporary woman who was initiated into sannyās by the venerable Sankarācārya of Kanchipuram. She has not only taught the advaita vedānta of Śaṅkara and the devotional path of Śaiva Siddhanta, but, perhaps more importantly, has established at Pudukkottai, Tamil Nadu an ādhīnam (monastery) for training women sannyāsinīs. Dr. Brindhādevī has also founded the World Hindu Women’s Organization (WHWO), which has been holding yearly conferences in Asia and the West. Andavānanda Mātāji (née Maragathavalli; 1899-1990) was the daughter of Śaṅkaranārāyana Sastri a famous poet living in Madras. One night in her tenth yer, Valli experienced a vision of Lord Muruga (divine son of Śiva, and a very popular deity of south India), who annointed her tongue with the symbol of the primordial vibration, AUM. At this moment she lost her lisp and began to compose and sing beautiful, lofty songs of devotion to various forms of God. Throughout her life, even in the midst of married life and raising her children, she was prone to going into trances and channeling these canticles, in Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit. Sometime in her 20s, undoubtedly due to pressure from her mother-in-law over her mystic ways, she suffered a heart attack and went into coma. She emerged from this, yet with a most unusual condition: the soul of an ardent worshipper of Devī, formerly a man by name of Rāmakṛṣṇa (not the famous Bengali saint) was now co-habitating her physical form with her, a phenomenon confirmed by several great masters, such as Swāmi Śivānanda of Rishikesh and the Kanchipuram Śaṅkarācarya. Valli, by this point known as Andavan Pichai (“one crazy for God”) became a disciple of Sivānanda at his Divine Life Society in 1953, and did rigorous tapasya (austerity) in a nearby cave, performing 10 million mantras, equanimiously enduring the frequently harsh elements. Eventually she was given diksa (initiation) and became a sannyāsinī. Her husband and children objected to this, and she was given permission by the Kanchi Śaṅkarācārya to stay with her husband in Madras until his death (remember that in India one can take sannyās only with one’s spouse’s acquiescence). After his death, she spent most of her time in Rishikesh, returning to Madras the last two years of her life. Her songs were published in 1961 in Madras, in a volume entitled Kirtanamala; some of India’s greatest singers, including the world-renowned M.S. Subbalakshmi, honored Andavānanda Mātāji by singing them in her presence. 
A huge, worldwide spiritual movement (20-30 million people) has grown up around the controversial Indian “God-man,” Satya Sāī Bābā (née Sathya Nārāyaṇa Rāju, b. 1926), to be distinguished from the original Sāī Bābā of Shirdi in western India (d.1918). In the movement around this Sāī Bābā, which is based on Bābā’s teachings of Self-Realization (Ātma-Bodha) and nondual devotion to the God-Self in all beings, are to be found many saintly men and women. Yet one finds only a few renunciate monks or nuns, since Bābā emphasizes the householder path and a life of active service for his followers. A good percentage of women serve in the temporary, elected function as presidents of the thousands of local chapters of the Sai movement worldwide, and many centers, especially in India, have a mahila vibhag or women’s association, which engages its members in social service to the needy and in education of children. Impressive are the female and male students in Bābā’s extensive educational system, who are being raised with impeccable academic training (they consistently rank in the highest circles of the national standardized tests) as well as a deep spirituality emphasizing nondual realization of the Ātman/Brahman and selfless service to the needy and to one’s community. Sāī Bābā’s university system includes three campuses for women—Anantapur (Andhra Pradesh), Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh) and Jaipur (Rajasthan)—where young women can receive education up to the M.A. and Ph.D levels. More importantly, these women are being spiritually empowered to raise a new generation of enlightened children who will carry out the ideals of love, service, God-realization, and societal transformation—undoubtedly we will see many female and male householder saints in this movement, despite the notoriety of their guru (about whom many allegations have surfaced of inappropriate sexual activity with male youth aged 15-25). A number of women in the Sathya Sai movement, starting with Indra Devī and Hilda Charlton, have been prominent in America and worldwide, spreading the message of universal love through such endeavors as lecturing, publishing, children’s education, service projects, and devotional music. Speaking of Sathya Sāī Bābā, who has a following during his own lifetime far larger than any spiritual master in the history of religion, it is curious to note his generally androgynous nature and perhaps hermaphrodite genital-organ status (as alleged by a number of male youth he has molested)—and he is frequently referred to in devotional songs as the “Mother,” “Sāī Mātā.” 
Having mentioned at several junctures the existence of women’s groups connected with different spiritual leaders, we might pause to explore this matter further. It is important to realize that, unlike the Buddhist, Jaina, and Christian traditions, where orders of nuns and/or female religious have persisted since ancient times, never in Hinduism’s past was there instituted any order of nuns or female religious in Hinduism, undoubtedly because of the strīdharma ideal for Hindu women which holds that a woman’s proper role is that of wife and mother. This, of course, has for thousands of years made it much more difficult for Hindu women to take up the spiritual life outside the context of the home—and we can only be filled with great admiration toward those courageous women who have intrepidly done so over the centuries. The bhakti movements with their āśrams and pilgrimage centers have, since medieval times, certainly helped provide a locus for women who wished to practice their spirituality with others—not just off in some remote, eremetical (hermit) situation. In aśrams these women could become brahmacarinīs (“celibate students of the Brahman”), also sometimes known as “kumāris” (“chaste ones”). Or they could come with or sometimes without their husbands and spend substantial days, weeks, months, or years, depending on their family situation, on a spiritual break from worldly life.
Given patriarchal India’s past, it is remarkable that in the 20th century a number of organizations have emerged in the Hindu world wherein woman can practice an ardent spiritual lifestyle free of the demands of home, husband, and children. And, as we have learned, an increasing number of women in the 20th century have not only become brahmacarinīs, but have also found an open-minded male leader in a lineage of renunciates, such as one of the Śaṅkarācaryas, to grant them full monastic vows—involving a formal death to their old personality and family—so that they can live as sannyāsinīs (renunciate nuns), wandering about begging alms or living in āśrams, temple complexes, or remote places. The aforementioned Sāradā Math, of the Rāmākrishna Order, was the earliest known group of such women renunciates.
Another one of the earliest and probably the most important Hindu women’s spiritual organization to come into existence is the work of a famous adept known as Śrī Upāsanī Bābā Mahārāj (1870-1941), a former doctor who underwent extraordinary austerities in his early manhood, and then again for a 4-year period under the celebrated avatāra of modern India, Sāī Bābā of Shirdi (d. 1918). In 1917 Upāsanī Bābā re-located to Sakori, three miles south of Shirdi (in Ahmednagar Dt., Mahārāshtra). Eventually thousands of people flocked to the āśram and the temple built around him, attracted by his magnetic personality and deep teachings on Hindu spiritual practice and philosophy. In 1932 he established a singular institution for women in India, known as the Kanyā Kumārī Sthan, or “Religious Institute for Young Virgins.” The Kanyā Kumārī Sthan originated when a number of young male students of Upāsanī Bābā were Divinely inspired one by one to consecrate their wives in service to Bābā and his work. These “donated wives” and other women underwent an initiation ceremony in which they were “married to God.” They soon comprised a female priesthood empowered by Upāsanī Bābā to perform ancient Vedic rites (yajñās), devotional worship services (pūjas), and recitation of classic Sanskrit scriptures/commentaries and mantras (they also lead beautiful devotional songs and promote the classic Vedānta teachings of their Guru). Predictably, the male brahman caste was, for a while anyway, outraged by this move. But the Kanyā Kumārīs, who today number over fifty, have proven themselves to be exceptionally talented at their work and are noted for their saintly purity and 24-hour chanting vigils. The Kanyās must undergo 7-10 years of rigorous spiritual training before final initiation and must also attain to a high degree of proficiency in Sanskrit and memorization of scriptures. For almost fifty years the Kanyās were led by Godāvarī Mātāji (1914-90) herself a widely admired saint. Along with Syāma Mātāji of Vriṇḍāvana, Sharadvallabha Betiji of Vārāṇasī, and Mātā Amritānandamayi of Kerala, she has been one of the foremost proponents of the bhakti-mārga (devotional path) in contemporary India. An unusual story relates that a certain male saint, Śrī Gajānan Mahārāj (d. 1910) of Shegaon, informed Mātāji’s paternal grandfather, a devotee of Gajānan Mahārāj (and forlorn over the loss of several children): “do not worry; you still have one son and through him I shall give you the rarest of gifts. I shall take birth in your family again and lead hundreds of pure souls like you to the portals of liberation.” Godāvarī, born four years after the sage’s passing, was apparently this mahātma come again. The eldest of three girls and something of a child prodigy, she showed a keen interest in spirituality and an amazingly retentive memory, though she never attended school. When, at age ten, she first visited Upāsanī Bābā, he declared, “You will soon assume the responsibility of looking after everything here. All this belongs to you.” For some strange reason, soon after her arrival in Sakori she was given in marriage to a young man who never even spent a day with her, instead going off to complete his studies. Several years later he dedicated his young wife to Upāsanī, who first consecrated her as a bride to Lord Śiva. (Later, this young man remarried, and a daughter of his became a Kanyā Kumārī, as did both of Godāvarī’s sisters and their mother.) Godāvarī spent many years in service to her Guru. She was informally initiated by him in 1928 with the gift of a special rosary which belonged to Sāī Bābā. After this, she voluntarily underwent such austerities as a 4-year period of complete silence, lengthy fasts, begging her food, and spending many hours in a small wooden cage in the āśram hall (Upāsanī himself had lived in it nonstop for 15 months beginning in December 1922 and for occasional lengthy periods thereafter, so as to “take on the sins of his devotees”). Godāvarī was the target for much gossip, scandal-mongering and abuse by jealous women and ignorant outsiders, but she remained humble, calm, and loving toward all. A shy, retiring woman of few words and deep states of samādhi, Mātāji outwardly spent most of her time working with her Kanyās and engaging in highly refined ritual worship. Mātāji was also alleged to work very formidably on inner spiritual levels for the sake of humanity. As a number of us can attest, Mātāji was also characterized by a keen sense of humor on occasion, and a refreshingly modern outlook which promoted joy, moderation, and appreciation of the beauty of the world-appearance. Like most of the women featured in these pages, she would not support anyone in becoming obsessed with sorrow or self-punishing deprivation. 
The Brahmā Kumārī World Spiritual University, which has 1500 centers (the Vishwa-Vidyalaya) in 50 countries, and strong affiliations with the United Nations, is an increasingly important Indian organization, strongly featuring women spiritual leaders. Headquartered at the Madhuban āśram on Lake Nakki at holy Mt. Abu (in the Sirohi Dt. of southern Rājasthan state), the BKWSU was founded back in 1937 by Dada Lehkrāj Kirpalani (Prajāpitā Brahmā Bābā, d. 1969), a diamond merchant who became a trance medium for apocalyptic “divine revelations” urging the establishment of an organization to promote world peace, an organization which would also empower women as its leaders. Dada’s Brahmā Kumārī movement entails a humble, meditative, celibate lifestyle, devoid of ritual and mantras, emphasizing rāja-yoga and the worship of God (Śiva) as Mother/Father/Friend/Teacher; it also sponsors peace conferences around the world. About 3,000 of the 150,000 members live as unmarried “surrendered teachers” in the āśrams worldwide. While half of the organization’s overall membership is male, 80% of the teachers are women, and it has been observed that the male teachers in this movement show “a passive or submissive attitude before the sisters, in a striking reversal of roles.” Dadi Prakāshmānī (b. c.1922) has been the sole head of the BKWSU since the passing of her Co-Administrator Sister Manmohinī‚ in 1983. Though the movement does not try to elevate any of the sisters above the others into the position of “supreme guru,” Dadiji has come into great prominence, especially since her 1984 European and American tour, during which time she met with various dignitaries and transmitted spiritual energy to large groups of people. 
Another recent empowerment of Hindu women consists in some of them being enabled to function in the capacity of priests carrying out the ancient Vedic rites and ceremonies. Shubhangī Bhalerao‚ spent four years training under Shankarrao Thatte and now leads the Shankar Seva Samiti founded (c.1980) by Shankarrao to train women priests (predictably, like Upāsanī Bābā decades before, he incurred opposition and threats from male brahmans in doing this). The seventy or more women, known as rushikas, master the Sanskrit sounds, perform various standard religious rites (pūjās and yajñās), house-blessings, marriages, and so on.
A similar institution is to be found in South Africa’s Arya Pratinidhi Sabha organization (the equivalent of India’s Arya Samāj), where, over the last several years some fifteen South African Hindu women have been ordained as priestesses, called puṇḍitās or purohitās. This was occasioned by the lack of full-time male priests to serve the many Hindus of Indian ancestry living there. These women perform beneficial ritual actions (saṃskāras), visit and pray for the sick, preach, provide family counseling (several are even authorized to officiate at marriages), lead spiritual meetings, and so forth. Like their sisters of the Shankar Seva Samiti in India, they are evidently being quite well received in the Hindu communities they serve.  (This breakthrough may serve as a model for Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Orthodox Jews, who still refuse to ordain women as priests or rabbis.)
A number of Hindu women spiritual teachers, like the earlier-mentioned Gāyatrī Devī, Mother Meera, and Amma Mātā Amritānandamayi, have had roles to play here in the West. Asha Mā‚ was for many years closely guided by her guru, the long-lived Dhyānyogi Madhusudandas of Gujarāt (1878-1994), renowned for his power of śaktipāt (bestowal of divine grace). When Asha Mā was still in her teens, he had recognized her as his disciple and successor, for she would with great ease enter profound states of samādhi (superconscious trance), often for days at a time. Dhyānyogi would sometimes be compelled to “enter into her consciousness” so as to bring her back to awareness of her body and the world around her. On certain festival days, he would worship her as Goddess Durgā, during which time she would be in samādhi. The two traveled to the West in the 1970’s and, in 1980, he formally designated Asha Mā his spiritual heir. Now in her late 30’s, Asha Mā travels to different parts of America, Europe, and India, bestowing śaktipāt, singing God’s names, lecturing on kuṇḍalinī yoga, and teaching meditation, accompanied by husband Dīpak Pathak, a longtime disciple of Dhyānyogi (their guru urged them both to marry, so as to provide people with an exemplary model of a spiritual marriage). Like so many of these other women already mentioned, Asha Mā appears as a demure, softspoken, and “sattvic” (balanced, harmonious) personality, blending a deep inner quietude and contentment with an outer gentleness, graciousness, simple beauty, and unmistakable spiritual force. 
Gurumayi Chidvilasānanda (b. 1954) and her younger brother, Nityānanda, in May, 1982 underwent the formal rites of sannyās (renunciation) and were designated the successors to another famous śaktipāt guru—Bābā Muktānanda of Ganeshpuri (1908-82, disciple of the awesome spiritual master, Bhagavān Nityānanda, d. 1961). Gurumayi, a glamorous, bright, witty woman, yet also accused of a range of unethical behaviors by disgruntled ex-followers, presides at the large, ultra-modern āśram at Ganeshpuri and travels over the world, lecturing to large SYDA yoga groups on Kashmir Śaivism, and leading long chanting sessions with her resonant, deep voice. Gurumayi also conducts kuṇḍalinī-śaktipāt intensives in the footsteps of her guru, whom she served for many years as a translator. (Note: the young Nityānanda has taught outside the SYDA organization since he left it in 1985.) 
Mā Yoga Śakti (b. 1923) owes her inspiration to Master Morya, one of the ascended masters of the Theosophy tradition, which she studied for some years along with political science. Mā adopted sannyās some 30 years ago, and since then has traveled between East and West, teaching various forms of spirituality, such as hatha yoga, worship of the Divine Mother (Durgā), and aspects of the Vedānta. Mā Yoga Śakti lectures at Hindu conferences and ecumenical gatherings, and has founded āśrams in New York, Florida, and Melbourne, as well as in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, and New Delhi. Mātā Nirmala Devī (1923- ) is a charismatic and rather dramatic kuṇḍalinī-yoga guru and healer who rather pompously regards herself as the Kalki Avatāra, the “Divine Incarnation” for the present age. Born to a Christian family, Mātāji married a prominent United Nations official before taking up her role as a śaktipāta guru and teacher of Sahaja Yoga in 1970. She now has three dozen āśrams around the world (the main one is in Bombay), all promulgating a strict path of celibate tantra yoga. In late 1989 she made headlines in the U.S.S.R. by attracting some 4,000 visitors at a public yoga-initiation in St. Petersburg.
Young Sunitā Rāmaswāmy, a former microbiologist, has for several years been living the life of a Brahmavādinī, a celibate teacher of the nondual Vedānta philosophy. A student of Swāmi Dayānanda, she lives in a cabin in the forests of the Pocono Mountains near his Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, and occasionally travels to teach seminars on Vedānta and how to perform pūjas (Divine worship rituals). She is also compiling a large, three-volume Vedic instructional curriculum for Hindu children age 6-16. 
Śrī Mā‚ is a deeply mystical woman now gracing the U.S. with her presence. A masterful teacher of the ancient Hindu art of performing pūjā, she was born in Assam (c.1945-55), in the Himalayan regions of northeast India. During her preschool years she was already enjoying visions of Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa and of Jesus. Regarded as fully God-realized by age 4, her mother and grandmother began to refer to this remarkable little girl simply as “Śrī Mā.” It is unclear if or when she actually had a moment of God-realization. When this author asked Śrī Mā about the occurrence of such a moment, she declared: “I have always been the same”—a confession of perfect, timeless abiding as the Absolute Self (the same kind of declaration as made by Śrī Ānandamayi Mā and Anasūyā Devī). In any case, sometime in her youth, visions of Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa directed this girl to travel around northeast India, Nepal, and Bangla Desh, presiding over yajñās (worship services) attended by large crowds, often numbering in the thousands. She would instruct people in Hindu right-hand tantra devotional practices honoring the Divine Mother and Śiva, also teaching the timeless Hindu wisdom of nonduality (advaita), giving psychic guidance, and initiating a few ripe disciples. Swāmi Satya Nanda Saraswatī, an American renunciate who had lived in India for many years, came to meet her through miraculous circumstances, and eventually brought her to the U.S. in 1985. Since then, Śrī Mā has established a number of temples and centers in California and elsewhere, fashioning and installing large, elaborate statues of the Hindu deities, carrying out lengthy pūjās and yajñās, singing devotional songs of her own composition, welcoming visitors, and guiding a small number of diligent students. Of indeterminate age (“the body” is probably somewhere between 35-45 years old), with alternately maternal, childlike, and impersonal aspects, Śrī Mā has resided for the last several years at her Devī Mandīr in Martinez, California (northeast of Berkeley). 
Undoubtedly there are many saintly women of 20th-century India whose existence is unknown to me, women known only to a local following, perhaps leading lives as isolated hermits, wandering renunciates, or inconspicuous householders, their hearts completely united with the Divine, without a trace of selfishness left in them. Not destined to have conspicuous teaching or healing work on the outer planes, they are known only to a relative few acquaintances who might revere these women for their tangible love, peace, equanimity, bliss, purity, and other enlightenment factors. Like their hidden male colleagues, such women are promoting world peace through the very real blessing-power of their own inner peace, goodness and purity. We can be very grateful to them for such virtuous and holy lives.
Before closing this section on Hinduism, we must take some pages to mention the Western women in this century who are either famous or increasingly known in the West for teaching elements of Hinduism such as Vedānta and Patañjali’s aṣṭāṅga yoga (the 8-fold way of union with God), especially the components of āsanas (postures), prāṇāyāma (breathing techniques and control of subtle energy), and meditation. These Western women include 93-year-old, Russian-born Mātāji Indra Devī (1899- ) the “first lady of yoga in the West,” who began studying yoga in India in 1927, completing her yoga studies with Śrī Krishnamācārya (1891-1989) in 1947. She has taught yoga and founded centers in China (in 1938), Russia, the U.S., Mexico (founding the Yoga Teachers Training Center in Tecate, in 1961), and Argentina (her Indra Devi Foundation is at Buenos Aires). Mātāji has been a close disciple of the alleged God-man Satya Sāī Bābā and also Swāmi Premānanda (residing in southern India) and, under their influence, has taught the Yoga-Vedānta philosophy worldwide as well.  Renée Taylor‚ is one of Mātāji’s best-known protégés having taught with Mātāji since 1953; she now teaches 600 students weekly out of her yoga center at Redondo Beach, California.
German-born Swāmi Śivānanda Rādhā (née Sylvia Hellman, 1911- 95) was a concert dancer living in Montreal when she felt psychically pulled to go to India in 1955 and become the disciple of Swāmi Śivānanda of Rishikesh (1887-1963; founder of Divine Life Society). Initiated by him into sannyās, she returned to the West in 1957, opening her Yasodhara Ashram near Vancouver, Canada (since 1963 it has been relocated to Kootenay Bay, Canada), which became home-base for her mission of teaching Yoga-Vedānta in Europe and North America. Sylvia Heck (1936- ) and Sītā Frenkel (1939- ) were also early women students of Sivānanda, and directed the Śivananda Yoga Vedanta Society out of Montreal, Canada. (Frenkel and husband Hans have since then operated centers in N.Y. and Washington, D.C.) Lilias Folan (b. c.1943) had a nationally syndicated television yoga program from 1970-9 (it is back again on PBS). Lilias studied under Swāmi Vishnudevānanda (b. 1927; of Śivānanda’s Divine Life Society) and Iyengar; living in Cincinnati, in recent years she is emphasizing the teachings of love, service, and self-transcendence, after having studied the higher aspects of Vedānta spirituality with Swāmi Chidānanda (President, Divine Life Society) and the European sage, Jean Klein. Alice Christensen had an inner visionary experience of Śivānanda in 1952 in Ohio, and later went to India to study yoga with him, with Swāmi Rāma of Hardwar (1900-72), and with Swāmi Lakṣmanjoo of Kashmir. Founder of the American Yoga Association, she has taught mysticism and her “Easy-Does-It Yoga” system for older people since the late 1960s. 
Śrī Dayā Mātā (née Faye Wright), born (c.1914) in Salt Lake City, Utah, met the first yogi to live in the west, Paramahansa Yogānanda (d. 1952), when she was 17. She served him for 22 years as one of his closest disciples, was appointed head of his western headquarters in Los Angeles, and in 1955, when Rājarsi Janakānanda (James Lynn), Yogānanda’s foremost disciple, passed on, Dayā Mātā became president of Yogānanda’s international Self-Realization Fellowship (S.R.F.) as well as his Yogoda Satsang Society of India—which have dispensed the method of kriya yoga to many, many thousands of students around the world. The much beloved Dayā Mātā has not only demonstrated remarkable organizational leadership, she has also served as a kind of Hindu bishop, ordaining many nuns and monks. Western-born women such as Mukti Mātā, Mrinalinī Mātā and Sisters Amrita, Bhavānī, and Shivānī are prominent S.R.F. women gurus teaching training, and ordaining under Dayā Mātā’s presidency. Less well-known to the outside world is the late Sister Gyānamātā, whom Yogānanda claimed was his most advanced woman disciple. Śrī Kriyānanda (J. Donald Walters) has written warmly of her and the many deeply spiritual women who were to be found in Yogānanda’s circle. (A lengthy biography of Sister Gyānmātā is also now available, featuring her correspondences with her Guru.) 
Swāmi Hariharānanda is a male teacher of Kriya Yoga from the same lineage as Yogānanda—a line that goes back through Śrī Yukteśwar to Lahiri Mahāsāya to the almost legendary Mahāvatār Hariakhan Bābāji. In Swāmi Hariharānanda’s circle of advanced disciples are at least two women who have attained to the “6th stage” of initiation (and are thus enabled to teach Kriya Yoga techniques): Yogāchārya Lyzanne Mā‚ (based in Washington D.C.), and an Indian woman, Yogāchārya Māyā Mā‚ of Calcutta. Swāmi Prakashānanda’s International Society of Divine Love (ISDL) headquartered in Vriṇḍāvana, India, and emphasizing ardent devotion to Kṛṣṇa, features three Western women renunciates, Meera Devī, Priya Dāsi, and Hari Dāsi, as the first full-time teachers authorized by the Swāmi to promote his Rāganuga Bhakti for Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa. Sushrī Siddhesvarī Devī Ji (b. c.1960) based in Toronto, is a missionary for Jagadguru Śrī Kripalu Mahāprabhu’s Universal Society of Spiritual Love, another Kṛṣṇa-bhakti organization. 
The controversial and charismatic H.W.L. Poonja of Lucknow, a disciple of Ramana Maharshi, has in recent years come to the attention of thousands of spiritual aspirants treading the “pathless path” of jñāna-mārga (wisdom path). Poonjaji has authorized several persons to teach advaita vedānta in the West, most prominent of whom are young Andrew Cohen (who has strongly criticized Poonjaji for less than impeccable behavior) and Gaṅgāji (née Toni Varner), an American woman in her late 40s who now has a devoted following; she holds satsangas in Maui, Hawaii, where she lives with her husband (Eli Jackson-Bear, himself a spiritual teacher). The late Lane Langston‚ (d. 1986) was a young sage of the nondual advaita tradition who taught at the Avadhūt gatherings in San Francisco and Santa Cruz along with her teacher I.M. Nome, and his other assistant teacher, Russ, until her passing in winter, 1987 (from cancer). She was highly esteemed by the hundreds of people in this group for her deep wisdom, gentle yet penetrating love, and sublime wit. 
For a few years an important women’s Vedānta organization in the West was the Śrī Rājarājeśwarī Pītham, which came into existence in 1968 to carry on in America (at Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania) the work of India’s ancient Advaita Vedānta Daśanāmī order founded by Ādi Śaṅkara in the 8th century. This American Pītham was approved and blessed by the venerable Sankarācārya of the authoritative Sringeri Pītham (Jagadguru Śrī Abhinava Vidyātirtha Mahāswāmi, d. 1989), and was staffed by women sannyāsinīs (renunciates), a novelty for this ancient order. The Śrī Rājarājeśwarī Pītham was headed first by Swāmi Lakṣmī Devyāshram (who adopted the rather lofty title of “Mahāmandaleshwarī”). When she passed on in 1981 a young American, Swāmi Saraswatī Devyāshram took over but a private affair led to her stepping down from a leadership role, and now, with the departure of many of its residents, the Pītham has been closed down altogether. (It seems that in the last decade the group adopted non-traditional elements, rendering it quite “un-orthodox” in the minds of many Vedāntins.) 
Vijali Hamilton was admitted to the convent of the Los Angeles Vedanta Society of the Rāmakṛṣṇa lineage when only 14 years old the youngest person to become a Vedanta nun in North America. At age 25, however, she left to become an accomplished artist in the Montreal area, then returning to California, undergoing a marriage, a divorce, and a powerful meeting with Ānandamayi Mā. One night Vijali a powerful kuṇḍalinī activation process began which would turn her life upside down. She became noted for her healing abilities, but eventually gave this up, gave away all her prized artworks, and went into almost complete seclusion in the Santa Monica mountains for many years, frequently experiencing deep samādhi states. In the last several years, Vijali, now around 50 years old, has emerged from her retreat and has been creating a series of “World Wheel” earth sculptures across the globe along the 30th latitude, engaging people of different nations in a quest for real spiritual depth and connectedness.
Gurudevī Swāmi Sāvitrīpriya (1930- ), a former psychotherapist with a family, underwent a remarkable, spontaneous awakening to her formless, Divine nature in 1968 which brought her into the charismatic role of a siddhā-guru. She was formally ordained as a renunciate nun (sannyāsinī) by Swāmi Chidbhāvānanda of the Smarta lineage (which follows the way of Ādi Śaṅkara) in 1975 after two years of seclusion in India. Since her return to the U.S., Gurudevī has lived much of the time in solitude, guiding a small number of disciples, translating some 17 Hindu scriptures into English, writing a number of original works, composing devotional songs, and founding the Śiva-Śakti Ashram in Groveland, California, which trained and ordained monks, nuns, and laypersons in the path of Kashmir Śaivism. After a recent period of time during which Gurudevī was once again in seclusion, writing and guiding close disciples, she is again available to the public with her Śiva-Śakti Institute for New Life in Sunnyvale, California, which presents Hindu practices in an American context. 
Swāmi Nischalānanda, a student of Swāmi Satchidānanda (a missionary disciple of Swāmi Sivānanda, and founder of the Integral Yoga Institute), and organizer of the International Teacher’s Council for Integral Yoga, along with Swāmi Divyānanda, Swāmi Dharmavātī, et al, are several of the ordained Hindu sannyāsinīs who have been teaching Yoga-Vedānta philosophy in various places in the U.S. and around the world.
Alice Coltrane (1937- ), widow of the famous jazz musician, John Coltrane, is now known as Swāmi Turīyasangītānanda. She was a student of Swāmi Satchidānanda and founded the Vedantic Center and Shanti Ashram in Agoura (northwest of Los Angeles) in 1973, one of the few primarily black Hindu groups in the western world. Mātāji Śrī Marashama Devī‚ is an American-born black woman alleged by her followers to be a divine incarnation. She is said to have been enlightened for her first 12 years, regressing slightly for the next 12 years so as to experience separation from God, then at age 24, evidently after spending time with the kuṇḍalinī-śaktipāta guru, Dhyānyogi Madhusudandas, she regained her original enlightened state, after which she began to teach. Bābā Prem Ānanda (1949- ) helped her organize in Los Angeles in 1979 the Center of Being, featuring weekly darshans and thrice-annual intensives (a very radiant woman, her work is characterized by bestowal of śaktipāta [divine energy], and many kriyas, expressive behaviors, on the part of her disciples as the energy comes through her to them; I understand that sometime in the 1980s she moved her community, perhaps to Utah.)  The brilliant but extremely problematic American adept, now known as Heart-Master Da Kalki Love-Ananda (formerly Bubba Free John, née Franklin Jones), who claims great Indian masters such as Shirdi Sāī Bābā, Ramana Mahārshi, Nityānanda of Ganeshpuri, Ranga Avadhūt, Bābā Muktānanda, and Swāmi Rudrānanda as his subtle- and physical-plane mentors, has in recent years recognized several women in his Free Daist Communion spiritual movement as having attained (through his power of grace) to very high levels of spiritual awakening. On Feb. 2, 1988, two of these longtime female disciples— known by their ordained names in Da’s church as Kanyā Tripurā Rahāsya‚ (she is Da’s chief communicator) and Kanyā Kaivalya Navaneetha—after a lengthy, careful “spiritual interrogation” by Da (pertaining to various extremely subtle details of their state of consciousness and their degree of self-transcendence) were recognized as being “6th-stage adepts” in his sophisticated 7-stage schema of spiritual awakening through love and wisdom (the “Way of the Heart”) which culminates in a perfect panentheistic realization. Kanyā Samarpana Remembrance and Kanyā Samātva Suprithi are two other women devotees who have undergone the same questioning process and been recognized (on Aug. 24, 1989) as 6th-stage adepts. (3rd-stage adepthood is said by Da to be equivalent to what many Westerners have traditionally considered “sainthood” status—a perfection of the devotional orientation.) Da formally instituted the Da Kalki Kanyadana Kumari Mandala order, of which these women are the first members. No male disciples in this movement have as yet attained to this level— Da, of course, being the sole exception (he claims to be a “self-confessed 7th-stage adept”). Whether the future work of these women will involve any formal contact with people outside the Free Daist Communion remains to be seen; for the time being these Kanyas are having an edifying effect on their community, serving as “a source of inspiration and guidance for others, now and after His [Da’s] human lifetime... unique vessels of Sat-Guru Da Love-Ananda’s Heart Transmission and Awakening Grace.” They are wise, holy exemplars who show by their lives that Da has been promoting genuine spiritual awakening in his movement, not just controversy. Presently these women are designated by Da as his “Instruments” (capable of “magnifying” his transmission power of grace), perhaps ultimately to become his Agents (capable of “directly transmitting” his blessing force). We add here that three of Da’s own daughters and a young friend comprise the Da Kalki Gurukula Brahmacharini Order—Brahmacharinis Io Free Jones (b. c.1975), Shawnee Free Jones (b. c.1975), Tamarind Free Jones (b. c.1976) and Naamleela Free Jones (b. c.1980). These young girls who have been members of the Free Daist Communion since their birth, have already become quite advanced in their devotional spiritual practice, and have enjoyed remarkable yogic kinds of experiences as “gifts” of Master Da’s powerful blessing-force. Thus eight females, and no males, are the ones considered to be the most advanced practitioners and the most likely candidates for “Agency” by Da in his Free Daist Communion church. 
London-born Hilda Charlton (1910-88) grew up in the U.S. where she became an accomplished dancer; she went to India in 1947 to study dance there, but wound up becoming a student of the great Hindu God-men, Bhagavān Nityānanda of Ganeshpuri and then Śrī Sathya Sāī Bābā. Returning to the U.S. in 1965, she began to privately teach spiritual principles to a few people, and in time this following mushroomed to such a size that her group moved to occupy the huge sanctuary of St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City. Acclaimed as a female guru, healer, and psychic, Hilda wrote a regular column for the new-age magazine, The New Sun, which has been compiled after her passing into two books.
Interesting news emerged in early 1990 that Penny Torres, a widely known “new age” channel for the discarnate being, “Mafu,” went to India in December, 1989, with 80 of her western followers, under the guidance of Swami Nityānanda (of the elder Ntyānanda-Muktānanda lineage), where she underwent the formal rite of sannyās under the esteemed Swāmi Mahāmandaleśwar of Rishikesh; she is now to be known as Swāmi Paramānanda. This is another case of a western woman—a highly popular figure of the “New Age” at that—joining the powerful stream of ancient Hinduism. She will probably influence some of the “New Age” circle with the Hindu teachings she learns.
Speaking of channels, I must mention that a man by the name of Bangaru Adigal three times a week serves as an oracle for an entity said to be the Divine Mother Śakti; the Ādi Parā Śakti Siddhar Peetham, a large ashram-complex with 1500 branch centers in India, has sprung up around him at Melamaruvathur, 23 miles south of Madras/Chennai; this very large movement is fascinated with the revelations and alleged miracles emanating from him through the grace of Mother Śakti. The religion of the Divine Feminine has thus found one more proponent. And we must not leave the subject of channels without mentioning that in the Garhwal area of Kashmir, northern India, there has been a tradition for perhaps many hundreds of years of bakias, shamanesses and shamans, going into trance states, and becoming channels for the village deities, who bring spiritual guidance and practical counsel to those needy souls who come to the bakias for their quite efficacious help; the bakias, who are mainly lower-caste, illiterate folk, charge no money, and are quite gifted with clairvoyance, precognition, especially while they are in trance. (They spend much of the rest of their time working as farmhands.) Dr. Alok Saklani of Garhwal University has studied and interviewed at least twenty bakias, most of whom are women, such as Dhāneshwarī Devī, Joshoda Devī, et al. 
As stated a few moments ago, a great number of western women do much work amongst the public to teach and organize the practice of Patañjali’s ancient (2nd century BCE to 2nd century CE) aṣṭāṅga (eight-limbed) Yoga, especially the postures (āsanas), breath-regulation (prāṇāyāma), and lower forms of meditation (i.e., dhārana), which, along with the virtues and restraints, comprise the preliminary form of Yoga, known as hatha yoga. Whereas the “virtues and restraints” aspect are not so often emphasized, due, perhaps, to many Westerners’ greater or lesser aversion to the kind of morality stressed in their Judaic or Christian upbringing, the hatha yoga practices which energize the physical and subtle body are highly popular with Westerners—undoubtedly due to the strong body-orientation so prevalent in the West. Thus, the lower forms of Yoga, if not so much its higher aspects, are quite popular now throughout the western world. A good sign is that the higher, spiritual aspects of practice are increasingly making inroads in the psyches of many western Yoga practitioners, and that the “body-sense” of westerners is expanding to include the wider environment and eco-system.
Wealthy Marcia Moore at an early age met Alice Bailey and became a member of her neo-theosophical Arcane School, then later lived in India from 1955-7, where she became deeply indentified with the country and its people, and determined to help correct a number of its social problems; failing this, she began to study yoga under Roman Datta of Calcutta and then Swāmi Vishnudevānanda of the Divine Life Society (living in Montreal when Marcia trained with him). Marcia founded in the early 1960s a popular yoga āshram in Concord, Mass. (where, 100 years earlier, the Transcendalists, Emerson and Thoreau, had first talked about the Hinduism of the Bhagavad Gīta for Westerners). After a few years, this Radcliffe alumna, gifted astrologer, and twice-married mother of three children moved to Maine, then started her Ananta Ashram and “hypersentience” project in Ojai, California, along with authoring a number of books.
Madam Blanche DeVries (n.d.), wife of Western yoga teacher Pierre Bernard (probably the first Westerner to start a Hindu spiritual group), and mother of the prematurely deceased yogi, Theos Bernard, herself taught yoga for some fifty years in the West, and founded an āshram at Nyack on the Hudson River in New York (in addition to having a career as a belly dancer!). Patricia Hansen is another “old-timer” who has taught the full aṣṭāṅga yoga program for 25 years out of Denver, Colorado. Rāma Jyoti Vernon, Judith Lasater, and Angela Farmer are senior instructors in the hatha yoga style of B.K.S. Iyengar (1918- ) a prominent disciple of Madras-based Yoga-master, Śrī Krishnamācārya. (Iyengar’s daughter, Geeta, and his son, also teach hatha yoga with their father in Pune, India.) On this trio of women, we observe that Rāma Jyoti Vernon (formerly living in S.F., now in Seattle), along with Judith Lasater (S.F.) and Nancy Ford-Kohne (another long-time Iyengar-trained yoga teacher, teaching in the Washington, D.C. area) have founded many Yoga institutions in the West. Vernon directs the Center for Soviet-American Dialogue, and has been very active in furthering an international networking of yoga teachers and groups; with Nancy Ford-Kohne she has also helped to bring together yoga teachers from different lineages in the important “Unity in Yoga” conferences, and recently (Oct. 3-5, 1990) organized a large Yoga Conference in Moscow. Angela Farmer has already produced a whole generation of fine yoga instructors inspired by her version of the Iyengar tradition.
Other senior or longtime students of Iyengar teaching in the U.S. include Jean Couch (Los Altos Hills, Calif.), Carol Cavanaugh (now in Bethesda, Maryland), Patricia Layton (S.F.), Mary Palmer, Lorrie Collins (Indianapolis), Priscilla Neel, Felicity Green (Seattle), Susan Salaniuk, Mary Dunn (Rye N.Y.), Karin Stephan (Massachusetts), Patricia Walden (Somerville Mass.), Marilyn Englund (Waxahachie Texas), Julie Lawrence (Portland), Bobbi Goldin (Miami), Carol Burns (N.Y.), Donna Farhi Schuster (S.F.), Gloria Goldberg (Camarillo, Calif), Maggie Hughes (S.F.), Joan White and Marian Garfinkel (both of Philadelphia). Dona Holleman, of Dutch ancestry, raised mainly in Indonesia, and teaching out of Florence, deserves mention as one of the leading advanced-Iyengar-style adepts in Europe. And speaking a few moments ago of the Soviet Union, we can mention Evelina Jdanov‚ as a very famous healer of the Moscow area who has more or less surreptitiously been teaching yoga in the U.S.S.R. since 1975.
Kali Ray (née Rae Perkins) read her neighbors’ fortunes in her Kentucky hometown as a girl; later she studied yoga with Himalyan adept, Bābā Hari Dāss, and, one night in 1980, while living in Boston, this young meditation teacher and rock singer began to enjoy, while in a receptive state, the spontaneous, powerful movement of the inner kuṇḍalinī-Śakti energy which effortlessly moved her through a number of advanced, difficult hatha yoga āsanas totally unfamiliar to her. Since that process started, she has developed her “Tri-Yoga” style of aṣṭāṅga yoga, emphasizing flowing movements from one posture to another according to the inner workings of one’s own life-force (prāṇa or kuṇḍalinī-Śakti). (The term “Tri Yoga” refers to the harmony of body [i.e., via āsanas], breath [prāṇayāma] and mind [meditation], as well as the alignment of higher energies, such as symbolized by Brahma, Viṣṇu, and Śiva.) In 1986 she organized her Kali Ray Yoga Academy in Santa Cruz, California (near to where Hari Dāss lives), and now she and the colleagues whom she has trained conduct over 400 classes a month in the Santa Cruz area alone. In 1991, Kali Ray was voted “International Yoga Teacher of the Year” by the Samata International group. In the last few years, she has become the western representative and “conduit” for the siddha-guru Śrī Ganapathi Sachchidānanda of Mysore, whom she considers originally responsible for awakening her kuṇḍalinī at a distance; he has evidently declared that Kali Ray will one day be a successor to him. More and more, Kali Ray is retiring from teaching hatha yoga and instead engaging in devotional practices to her guru (especially involving “sattva rock music”) along with her husband (with whom she lives celibately), and serving a small number of disciples as a teacher of the higher, more meditative aspects of yoga.
Other notable Western women teaching hatha yoga (and, in some cases, aspects of Vedānta) include Patricia Miller (of Potomac, Maryland, who has studied under Śrī Krishnamācārya and his son T.K.V. Desikachar); Sonia Nelson, Mary Louise Skelton (Syracuse), and Margaret (and husband Martin) Pierce (all studied under Desikachar); Beryl Bender (N.Y. and husband Tom Birch), Jane MacMullen (S.F.) and Linda Ramsay (and husband Brad, Hawaii; students of Pattabhi Jois, another disciple of Krishnamācārya); Tracey Rich and Ganga White (teach an Iyengar- and Pattabhi Jois-influenced yoga program at their White Lotus Foundation above Santa Barbara, Calif.); Dorothy Hale (Minnetonka, Minn.; studied under Swāmi Rāma at his Himalayan International Institute); Shirley Walter (Chicago; Swāmi Rāma-trained); Suzie Schreiber (YOGAFUN, Cincinnati); Deborah Anne Medow (Esalen Institute, Big Sur, Calif.); Diane Wilson (Portland, Oregon); Gayna Uransky (Heartwood Institute, Garberville, Calif.); Sarasvatī Buhrman (Boulder, Colorado; studied under Bābā Hari Dāss and R.P. Trivedi); Lorrie Collins (Iyengar style and Zen); Valerie O’Hara (Yogānanda style); Eleanor Criswell, Neta Kaye Stokely, Laureen MacLeod, Donna Martin, Leslie Kaminoff (N.Y.), Alice Stevens (Atlanta), Ethel Mercer, Robbie Cox, Mme. Genevive Dulac-Arnold ([Yoga] Centre International, Massachusetss), Ina Marx, Nicole Mode, and Mimmie Louis (Kahului, Maui).
Through the efforts of all the aforementioned Western women (and their other sisters and male mentors and colleagues) yoga has come into the Western mainstream—at least in the guise of a health practice, stretching exercise, or anti-stress therapy—and thus helped to transform the lives of millions of people. It is significant for the purposes of this book that a recent listing of the more than 600 yoga centers identified in the U.S. showed that roughly 3/4 or more of the teachers are women. 
We may at this point also mention several among the many women scholars who have done much to advance the study of and appreciation for Hinduism in the West. Those who particularly stand out are Wendy Doniger (formerly Wendy O’Flaherty) of the University of Chicago, Diana Eck of Harvard and Stella Kramrisch (retired from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969), presently the curator of Indian Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In closing this section, I must say how refreshing it is that so many Indian and Western women have finally, in this century, been empowered to teach some facet of Hinduism (i.e., Yoga, Vedānta, or Tantra). Especially remarkable are two phenomena: 1) that so many male Hindu masters have deliberately passed on the teaching lineage to female disciples; and 2) that a number of women have undergone on their own a profound realization of God which has brought them to the fore of the Hindu world as highly respected teachers.  (See endnote for a listing of the names of the several dozen women who exemplify these two noteworthy phenomena.)
Given present trends, the near future will most likely see many, many more women coming to prominence as powerful teachers of the ancient Hindu way of spiritual liberation—the sanātana dharma (Eternal Truth), which frees one from all selfish illusions and promotes awakening unto the Supreme God-Self, the Reality of absolute Being-Awareness-Bliss, Saccidānanda.