Was Mother Kalawati a Feminist? (Part 2) by Vibha Shetiya


VibahContinued from Part 1.

After leaving her home and her children in order to take refuge with her guru, in no time, Rukmabai won over hearts. Her guru, Siddharood Swami “with his divine sight” discerned that Rukmabai was no ordinary being. In fact, just before his death, upon realizing that his principle disciple had attained moksha (liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth), he left to her his mission of guiding others to salvation, directing his followers to now address her as Mother Kalawati.

And so it came to be that at the tender age of twenty-one, Rukmabai had a large following herself, and as an intense devotee of Krishna, she almost became synonymous with the god. As many like to point out, she had already internalized the attitude of non-attachment, whether towards individuals, possessions or food or drink; she was already enlightened.

Her disciples were both male and female, although she dedicated herself to the well-being of women. But while directing minds towards god, Kalawati Aai – a high class and high caste woman – also dedicated herself to uplifting the poor and backward Bohari community of Belgaum, Karnataka. It is said that the men used to wile away their time drinking and gambling leaving the womenfolk to run the household. Because of Kalawati Aai’s intervention, some order was brought to their lives; the men stopped drinking, which in turn put an end to the physical abuse they had heaped upon their wives, as well as the neglect their children had faced, who earlier had no choice but to turn to vagrancy. Stability in the homes through prayer and piety – in other words channeling their minds away from vice and towards god – in turn saw not just an economic change but also a change in the lives of these women and children, for the better.

But – and this is interesting – her message to women was not one of directing energy towards god in search of inner peace or salvation, but towards the family, of being a virtuous wife and mother. In fact, she urged women to put aside “just one hour a day of your life to the service of god”; the rest of the time should be aimed towards serving the family. And her advice to women unhappy on account of their domestic life would always be to look deep within themselves to remedy the situation, rather than to blame their husbands. Moreover, at no point should a woman ever neglect her duties towards family on account of her own well-being for that would be tantamount to selfishness. I find this most interesting because she herself broke norms in order to serve a personal calling.

My question is – can she be viewed as a feminist, since she had managed to detangle herself from the expectations of being a woman in a highly patriarchal environment? Is this even a valid argument – that defying social norms to dedicate oneself solely to the service of god amounts to feminism? There are of course many reasons why women may turn to god in so radical a manner – some may be genuinely interested in soteriological issues, some may find it an escape from constrictive gender roles, and in rare cases some are manipulative enough to use “god” to justify their destructive tendencies that have arisen out of a deep dissatisfaction in their personal lives. In other words, does it amount to feminism when women seek refuge in socially sanctioned behavior such as religion?

Kalawati Aai temple in Pune, India

Kalawati Aai temple in Pune, India

My other question is, assuming that it is feminism when a woman successfully defies social and cultural norms to follow her personal calling regardless of what that may be, what do you call it when she seeks to maintain the patriarchal status quo in her powerful new role as spiritual leader? Most men – who are otherwise heads of the household in both the economic and gendered sense – will not question the fact that it is a woman they are bowing before when they visit a Kalawati mandir or temple.

There are a number of Kalawati temples in Pune (where my family is from) as well as in a number of other Indian cities; there are many makeshift Kalawati “temples” or places of worship in the United States too. Granted, upon her insistence, they are not elaborate, nor do they have priests (always males) who often symbolize authority and power in a hierarchical social system based on caste and gender. What does all this paradoxical dynamic mean? Indian society is patriarchal, no doubt, but how many instances are there in the West of men readily submitting themselves before women leaders, even if only in a ritual or religious setting?

Kalawati Aai is by no means an exception in India. There have been many female spiritual leaders such as Anandamayi, Mataji Nirmala Devi, and Amma who continue to have a large male and female following, but I am not too familiar with their teachings. As far as Kalawati Aai is concerned, however, I do not know of a single person who has used her example to address, let alone confront, the issue of sexual discrimination in India. If anything, she is a symbol of domesticity, more so for “young girls desiring a happy, married life.”

So the question remains, was Kalawati Aai a feminist? “Feminism” is of course a complex term in that it cannot be imposed upon a culture, race or class; there are different feminisms just as there are different societies. For that matter, I cannot apply my own privileged experiences across the board, to reflect the experiences of all Indian women regardless of caste and class. But despite this, would I be wrong in saying Kalawati Aai was not a feminist? I say this because of her message to woman – to be in the service of their husbands – and not because of what she may or may not have practiced.

I would love to hear your thoughts!

 

Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. Vibha moved to Albuquerque last year from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She will be teaching a class on eastern religion at University of New Mexico this coming fall.

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Categories: Divine Feminine, Feminism and Religion, Foremothers, Hinduism

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16 replies

  1. Mother Kalawati’s interest in helping women improve their lives makes her a “woman-identified-woman” across class boundaries, and that makes her a feminist in my book. She may not be a radical feminist, insofar as she did not get “to the root” of women’s problems which would require criticizing patriarchy. Nor is she a feminist theologian, insofar as she did not criticize Hinduism from a feminist perspective.

    Amma has gone farther. She is training women to become independent within or outside of patriarchal marriage, and she has also begun ordaining women priests. She has (re)defined Hinduism to suit her own views, without necessarily criticizing it–criticism is not her thing.

    I will add that Amma has the support of feminist devotees and a worldwide feminist movement, as well as the demands of both Indian and Western women to become priests, to build upon.

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    • I had never thought of it that way – as a “woman-identified-woman” feminist. That certainly adds even more layers to the word “feminism.” Thank you, Carol! I must admit though, witnessing the women who follow her, I find it difficult to see her as a “feminist.” This perhaps is complicated because while she may have been one in some sense of the term, the women who adhere to her teachings don’t seem to be so, by any stretch of the imagination.An interesting case!

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    • I’m a little confused about the “woman-identified-woman” definition. Would Anita Bryant be one?

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      • a woman identified woman means a woman who identifies with the experiences and struggles of other women — as opposed to identifying with men. so in this case I was referring to what vibha said about MK trying to improve the lives of women who were suffering because the men were drinking and abusing them etc.

        being woman identified means caring about the lives of women, of course there are many ways of doing this, so this definition is not all encompassing.

        the woman who is not woman identified would be male identified, which is what women are supposed to be in patriarchy. this is what i meant.

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    • I agree with your analysis here, Carol. But the term “woman-identified woman” has a history that doesn’t jibe with the way you’re using the term. In 1970 a group of lesbians disrupted the Second Congress to Unite Women with a manifesto that brought their disgruntlement with the women’s movement to the fore. For them a “woman-identified woman” by definition was a lesbian, because she was not relating sexually (or necessarily in any other way) to men. For many years during the second wave of the women’s movement, this was how we used this term. Maybe we need a different designator here.

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      • You are right about the origins of the term Nancy-I just looked it up. I was using the term in a broader sense. My memory is that there was also a broader use of the term–but I could be wrong. I am happy to amend my statement to say that MK identified with other women, but not sexually, of course.

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  2. I don’t think women can be happy in married life, or with any partner, if we don’t seek at the same time to fulfill our own potential. That Amma is training women to become independent not only within, but outside of patriarchal marriage, seems to me very definitely the work of a feminist.

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  3. Hmmmm-mmm, the word “feminist” almost always needs defining when it appears in text or conversation. I do like Rosemary Radford Ruether’s definition of feminism. It is: “Feminism basically means the affirmation of the full humanity of women. This means that all the ways women have been defined as inferior, secondary and dependent on men since the rise of Patriarchy roughly six-to ten thousand years ago are rejected. It means that women are affirmed as fully human, not partly human or complementary to the male, but with all human attributes and capacities, in relationships of both autonomy and mutually with other humans, male and female, as well as the ecosystem.”

    We all are “in service” to something. If women are “in service” to their husbands, does this mean they need “liberation?” Maybe so, given that patriarchy infests every nook and cranny of the planet. However, is it possible that some situations exist that allow women to have their full humanity affirmed while being in service to their husbands/family? Does being “in service” to a husband preclude being able to “fulfill our own potential” as meg notes? Can a woman still be autonomous in such a situation without being seen as inferior, secondary, and dependent on a man?

    I have more questions than answers. Think I would need to know more about particular women’s lives. People’s lives are always nuanced.

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  4. It is the “Do as I say, not do as I do” mentality that makes it so difficult. She has clearly set herself above all others by abandoning her children in favor of her own “salvation”. That has been a big beef of mine against Buddha — not only did he leave his child and family, but he told thousands of others to do the same. So what makes it “right” for a woman to do so? Is Mother Kalawati a good person because she didn’t encourage other women to leave their children like she did? (I am omitting the “husband” issue here because it is a different kind of responsibility entirely.) Personally, I find those women who remain with their children are far more blessed than those who run away. If that makes the ones who remain with their children “non-feminists”, then so be it. But I would propose that there is a whole lot more strength, more feminism, in meeting one’s responsibilities with one’s children than in seeking your own selfish salvation.

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    • I definitely see your point, herbixnow – I too am conflicted about those who leave (and thus hurt) their families to be in the service of a “higher cause,” one that can involve being in the service of others. I do agree with Esther, however, that context matters.

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    • “That has been a big beef of mine against Buddha — not only did he leave his child and family, but he told thousands of others to do the same.” herbiznow

      This has always been my critique of Buddhism too. In She Who Changes I argued that all religions of renunciation of this life are based in MATRICIDE: rejecting birth through the body of a human mother in favor of a so-called “higher spiritual rebirth.”

      This is my FEMINIST THEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE of Buddha’s choice and Mother Kalawati’s too.

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  5. In my life’s experience, it would seem to me that there are many expressions of feminism and many paths to spiritual enlightenment. A woman who seeks to be a homemaker, may, in fact, be on a path to enlightenment in her compassionate care of her children and yes, her spouse. Perhaps for her the path to her self-actualization is through her care for others.

    The other path of course is more a path of renunciation in which a woman’s primary relationship is with the God(s)/Goddess(es) of her understanding.These women seek enlightenment by devoting themselves to a more celibate path of nonattachment and of service to others. Many of them like Amma and Kalawati become spiritual leaders or social prophets.

    And then there are all sorts of paths that blend the above 2 paths.

    For me feminism is the simple belief that women are created for the glory of our Creator/Creatrix not men. There are many different ways that women live out that belief. And there are many choices and actions both great and small that can make that belief incarnate. Isn’t diversity wonderful?

    Robin Riebsomer

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  6. In some ways, Mother Kalawati’s life reminds me of Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard chose the renunciate path, and on this path, she reaffirmed the significance of celibacy for herself and other nuns. Mary as the Virgin was one of her main reference points in this regard. But, of course, this leaves out all women who were mothers and wives. Within her small community, she was a role model, but not for the larger society. Was she a feminist? I don’t think so. But she showed us how important women’s autonomous spheres were within patriarchy, where women were responsible for all of their own lives.

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