Continued 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?
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.