By Neha Kirpal
Award-winning author of 12 books of poetry and prose, Arundhathi Subramaniam recently released her new book Women Who Wear Only Themselves: Conversations with Four Travellers on Sacred Journeys (Speaking Tiger Books, Rs 499).
The fascinating collection of essays, interspersed with several quotes and poems, is the result of the author’s chance encounters with four contemporary women in southern India, who have unapologetically chosen to transcend social barriers and walk the spiritual path alone, much against society’s rules and expectations of them. These relatively unknown women are no “spiritual celebrities”, but rather prefer to live a life of seclusion.
Arundhathi first grew interested in women mystics in 2003 during a hermetic writers’ residency in Scotland where she read about various Christian mystics. Later, she rediscovered the legacy of bhakti poets, and women seekers began to emerge more vividly in her poems.
“Mythology is laden with male questor myths, but the female questors are more elusive. They often feature as piecemeal cameos, as the object of the search rather than its subject,” she writes in the book’s Preface.
Arundhathi compares Sri Annapurani Amma to a river and a wildflower. In 2017, when the author was visiting the temples of Kanchipuram along with three fellow pilgrims, she came across the female saint who has a small local following and is clad in “nothing but herself”.
She visited her ashram in the village of Chinnalambadi located around 80 kilometres from Chennai. After the hour-long meeting, Arundhathi visited her again the following year to understand her extraordinary life.
When she was five, Annapurani Amma had visions of the Goddess, a connection that kept rapidly deepening. By the age of 23, she had renounced all family ties and fully immersed herself in the spiritual life. In 2002, when her guru Sadashiva Brahmendra appeared to her, she finally found her path. After a formal renunciation, she gradually began living as a naked sadhu. She went on to build a memorial for her guru as well as an ashram.
Arundhathi first met 33-year-old Balarishi Vishwashirasini at a conclave of Indian spiritual teachers in Delhi. Two years later, the author spent a few hours with her when she visited her ashram located on the outskirts of Coimbatore. Balarishi Vishwashirasini told her about the unexpected guidance she received through sound and fire. A year later, Arundhathi witnessed her chanting in the ashram – “the shimmer and dissolve of radiant sound.”
In 2018, she visited her yet again and learnt more about her life and faith. Balarishi Vishwashirasini awoke to her spiritual life at the age of 10 when she started receiving ancient mantras and thereafter began predicting futures. She is now a gifted teacher of nada yoga.
Maa Karpoori is a 60-year-old sanyasin, a bhakta and karma yogi with whom Arundhathi shares a guru. Before turning to monkhood, Maa Karpoori Subramaniam was married and worked as an administrative head in a computer firm. After joining a local yoga class, she found her calling.
A respected academician in the US, 65-year-old Lata Mani met with a devastating accident in 1993. Left with a brain injury, Lata, who happens to be Arundhathi’s second cousin, plunged into the path of tantra and became a devotee of Devi, the Divine Feminine.
In 2004, Lata moved to India to work on The Tantra Chronicles, which compiles 43 spiritual teachings received from Devi, Shiva, Jesus, Mary and Moon. Lata, who has recently moved back to California, continues to write on issues related to spirituality, politics, feminism and tantra as well as collaborates on films and multimedia projects.
Through the book, Arundhathi also cites examples of south India’s other celebrated women avadhutas, such as the 12th-century naked ascetic Akka Mahadevi, who is widely known for some of the finest works of Kannada poetry and the 20th-century mystic Mayamma, “the wild woman of Kanyakumari” who clad in rags, was known for her miraculous healing powers.
The path, as Arundhathi discovers, however, is a difficult one. Living in isolation and trying to protect their dignity, these women sometimes regret not having had a childhood. They suffer various hardships and are often called madwomen and prostitutes.
According to Annapurani Amma, there is no security for spiritual women in this world, and they are branded no matter what they do. With no worldly possessions or relationships, what these women do have though is formidable courage – and that’s all they wear.