Book review: In Women Who Wear Only Themselves, an life through the sacred journeys of four travellers – Firstpost

Posted: August 25, 2021 at 1:48 am

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The women you will encounter in this book are not four different iterations of the same template. They seek a dissolution of ego, not an extinction of personality.

My first encounter with Arundhathi Subramaniams writing was as a college student in the first decade of this century. Her poetry gave me an opportunity to engage with the inner lives of pilgrimage and postcolonialism in an idiom suited to my curious, restless mind. Her prose showed me a way to inhabit the present moment without apology, while being open to the guidance that might come from those who have asked the same questions before me.

Her new book Women Who Wear Only Themselves is a reminder of her enduring interest in exploring spiritual life when it is a subject that many of her contemporaries only scoff at. Perhaps it is comforting to inhabit the familiar language of cynicism that flows easily from the tongues of those like myself who have been taught to think critically. It takes courage to see things as they are, and not merely to spot what is problematic and how it can be fixed.

Published by Speaking Tiger, this book offers four essays bound together by the authors enquiry into the sacred journeys of four fellow travellers all of whom are women. In the Preface, she writes, These women made no effort to impress. They were gracious enough to share their life journeys, without trying to flaunt their attainments, win recruits, or garner publicity. I am a seasoned listener, and instantly alert to subtle attempts to broker deals.

The first essay, titled Clothed in Emptiness, is about Sri Annapurani Amma who resides in an ashram in the village of Chinnalambadi in Tamil Nadu. She wears no clothes, except during public satsangs and television interviews. Her guru is an 18th century saint named Sadashiva Brahmendra, whose compositions still suffuse the repertoire of Carnatic musicians. He may not be around in a physical human form but he continues to be a living presence for Amma.

Her devotion to him may come across as a disappointment if you equate surrender with subjugation. However, an open heart can help you perceive that their relationship is not bound by codes of obedience and punishment. She refers to her guru as thatha, the Tamil word for grandfather. There is a profound sense of security in knowing that you are being led and looked after by someone who craves no validation and desires only your well-being.

The second essay, titled The Reluctant Guru, is about Balarishi Vishwashirasini whose hermitage lies deep in the palm-fringed road from Coimbatore to Palakkad. Thrown into gurudom because of her stunning gifts as a child prodigy, she is now maturing as a teacher of nada yoga. The author explains, The idea of offering sound to the divine appealed to me. I like the idea of the spoken word as libation a sensual and aromatic gift to the gods.

The experience of being one with Shiva is what gives meaning to this teachers existence. The awareness that she has miles to go before she sleeps has taught her to wear the guru role with joy and lightness. She tells the author, When confronted by questions I cannot answer, I learnt to say, I dont know, and simply offer the person a cup of coffee or tea It is not my role to satisfy people. I now realize that. I can only give them what I am capable of offering.

Arundhathi Subramaniam

The third essay, titled What It Takes to be a Redwood Tree, is about writer-filmmaker Lata Mani whose former life as a Marxist and feminist intellectual was turned upside down by a brain injury from a road accident. She is based in California. I was not looking for the divine, she came looking for me, she says while describing her relationship with the path of Tantra that has transformed her understanding of trauma, pain, illness, disability and death.

She believes that understanding the social basis of gender counts as essential work towards spiritual liberation because men, women, boys, girls, intersex and trans persons, each carry particular burdens. In her view, struggles and spiritual journeys are shaped by class, caste, culture, race, etc. She says, The trick is in learning how to simultaneously understand, honour and take distance from that which we have assumed has made us who we are.

The fourth essay, titled The Leap into Monkhood is about Maa Karpoori whose transition from marriage to monastic life was catalysed by a yoga class that she had no intention of joining but was cajoled into by her former husband. It was there that she met her guru, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. Eventually, she picked sangha over samsara, and walked into a life of voluntary simplicity in an ashram near Coimbatore. The shift was rewarding but not easy.

Arundhathi Subramaniam, who is also the author of the book Sadhguru: More Than a Life, writes, Her guru, once a close friend and guide, was turning into a larger-than-life figure. Access to him was growing more difficult. A small band of fellow disciples was growing into a large bustling ashram. A spiritual path was getting systematized. It was unnerving. She found ease in silence and sanyas, dropping the need to have a personal relationship with her guru.

Each essay has a different flavour because each quest is moulded by a unique set of causes and conditions. The women you will encounter in this book are not four different iterations of the same template. They seek a dissolution of ego, not an extinction of personality. Being able to tell the difference can be an impossible task if you keep trying to forcibly sift reality through preconceived categories of analysis. You cannot be free while being caught up.

If you need a concrete takeaway from this book rather than the chance to sit and contemplate at leisure, read the Afterword. Tying up all the connecting threads, she writes, On one level, they are part of a quietly growing chorus one that recognizes the importance of honouring a woman-nourished, woman-vitalised, woman-inclusive spirituality on this planet. On another, they are just fingers pointing, as so many have before, to the moon.


Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer who tweets @chintan_connect

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Book review: In Women Who Wear Only Themselves, an life through the sacred journeys of four travellers - Firstpost

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August 25th, 2021 at 1:48 am

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