Author Topic: Suffering as a Spiritual Catalyst - Vijaya Ramaswami - M.P. April - June 2010.  (Read 2077 times)

Subramanian.R

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It is truism that it is a human tendency to seek happiness and pleasure, and to run away from pain and suffering. Yet in
the spiritual domain, men and women have sought pain and suffering voluntarily.  Here suffering should be perceived as a
spiritual catalyst.  This study presents the argument that suffering, especially physical suffering, whether it is the practice of
austerities or in the infliction of pain for purificatory purposes,  can be a spiritual catalyst.  This is a notion that runs across
many cultures, communities and religions, some in greater measure, where a whole theology of suffering is provided as in
Christianity or in a moderate measure, as with Hinduism, Islam or Buddhism. 

While accepting as a basic premise that the practice of using suffering for spiritual catharsis is not gender specific, this article
focuses primarily on the trope of 'suffering' undergone by woman either as highly evolved spiritual practitioners or as aspirants
on the path.  However, suffering per se need not be cleansing or spiritually inspiring unless the sufferer is able to tune into
the divine and draw sustenance from her suffering. 

Self Infliction of Suffering as Cathartic:

Many women on a spiritual path have used suffering as a mode of spiritual expression.  Within the Christian tradition the
manifestation of Christ's stigmata in one's own body resulted in a cathartic cleansing of the human body and spirit.  Many
mystics like Catherine of Siennna, Therese Neumann and St. Catherine de Ricci manifested in their bodies especially their
hands, feet and brows, the marks of Christ's crucifixion and lived through the last moments of the Passion of Christ.*

*  General information on visible and invisible stigmata is available on the website http//www.newadvent.org/cathen/14294b.htm.
Although the first manifestation of the stigmata was in the thirteenth century saint Francis of Assisi, this phenomenon was
perceived more in women saints than in spiritual men.           
                     

A similar phenomena is found in India among certain orders of sadhus like the Bairagis, who pierce their cheeks with sharp wires.
In the Tamizh culture many lay spiritual seekers, both men and women also resort to the piercing of their cheeks or ears with
spears or other sharp steel instruments.  This is usually done while in a state of possession. 

contd.,

Arunachala Siva.     

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Self Infliction of Suffering as Cathartic :

continues....

In terms of their conception and execution, practices such as cheek-piercing and fire walking can be seen as cathartic
processes in the lives of the religious practitioners.  Fire walking is widely practiced among Tamizhs in rituals connected
with Murugan or Devi (the goddess), especially Marimamman.  Walking on fire is believed to be done by a devotee who is
in a state of physical and mental purity.   (It must however be pointed out that not all such exercises productive of physical
pain were aimed at spiritual purification.  They were in many cases, the fulfillment of vows taken in order to fulfill material
desires such as the desire of a progeny.)

The connection between physical suffering and heroic courage in the act of fire walking and the issue of women's social
and spiritual place is reflected in an article by Alleyn Diesel.  (Alleyn Diesel, 'The Tale of Women's Sufferings; Draupadi Amman
and other goddesses as Role models for women, The Journal of Contemporary Religion, Volume 17, 2002).

He says:  The mythologies of many Amman Goddesses, including those of Draupadi and Mariamman, recount the details of
hosts of women, ... often virtuous and faithful, who were abandoned, deceived, betrayed insulted, raped and killed by men.
Such "texts of horror" record how these unjustly treated...women drew strength from their purity... and thus brought healing
to their communities. Many tales record how these human women were transformed into Goddesses, thus demonstrating the
ultimate victory of women's strength.  (ibid. p.9)

Marital Ill-Treatment as Spiritual Catalyst:

Suffering has been a major ingredient in the lives of women saints and the sublimation of anguish is the central thrust of my
argument.  Here again, there is a whole range of suffering from marital ill treatment which is the visible face of this pain to
emotional violence.  The high point of this suffering is Viraha Bhakti, the exquisite pain that lies in unrequited love for the Divine
Lover, a love that finds its culmination only in death or in union with the Divine. 

contd.,

Arunachala Siva.                                     

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Meera danced with abandon 'with anklets on her feet' in her passion for her God, Giridhar Gopal, with the result that she
was poisoned by her sister in law, probably in connivance with her husband.  The fourteenth saint Lal Ded of Kashmir
writes in her 'vak' (spiritual sayings) that her mother in law never forgot to mix pebbles into her food.  One day, Lal Ded
gave up her marital home and walked out.  She is also said to have shed all feminine modesty and danced naked.  Her
contemporary in Maharashtra, Bahina Bai writes in her abhang (devotional songs sung by the Maharashtrian Warkari saints)
how her husband routinely beat her for keeping company with saints.  Chakkubai, another saint from Maharashtra, was tied
up with ropes by her in-laws to prevent her from joining  the Warkari pilgrimage to Pandaripur.  (Warkari: literally "wari kari"
meaning one who goes on a pilgrimage annually for one's entire lifetime.)         

Such examples are legion -- and in every case, marital ill-treatment acted as a catalyst for the spiritual flowering of these
women, though it was usually assumed to be hysteria or madness.

Did divine intoxication on the part of these women lead to their marginalization within society and their ill treatment in their
married homes?  This question could also be posed very differently.  Did intense suffering in many forms, particularly marital
ill treatment, result in these women turning to a spiritual path as an alternate life path?

Marital ill treatment, and the physical and mental torment arising out of it, proved decidedly cathartic in the lives of many
spiritual women, leading them to live saintly lives. Lalla or Lal ded who lived in Kashmir around the twelfth century, Akka
Mahadevi who belonged to twelfth century Karnataka, and Meera Bai, who belonged to the princely family of Mewar in
the early sixteenth century Rajasthan, were all reluctant brides. 

contd.,

Arunachala Siva.         

 

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Lalla, at the age of twelve, was married to a middle aged brahmin, while the eighteen year old Meera was married to Raja
Bhoj of Mewar.  Both encountered a hostile atmosphere in their marital homes.  It is said of Lalla that her mother used to mix
stones into her food, covering them with a thin top layer of rice, thus virtually starving her.  On the festive occasions of
gruha shanti (peace at home), Lalla's friends teased her about the 'excellent food' she would get to eat, to which she replied
with the now famous verse:

They may kill a big sheep or a tender lamb,
Lalla will have her lump of stone all right

(Lal Ded, Jayalal Kaul, Sahitya Academy, Delhi, 1973.)

Meera refers in her verses to marital ill treatment by husband who was the Raja of Mewar, her mother and sister in law
Udhabhai:

The mother in law fights
The sister in law teases,
The Rana is angry.
They guard me,
They spy on me,
Imprison me with heavy locks.

(Meerabhai ki Padavali, Parashuram Chaturvedi, Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, 1955.)

In other known verses, 'Meera dances with anklets on her feet' she writes that the Rana had sent her a poisoned
goblet of drink which she had accepted. Elsewhere, she writes that she had been presented with a poisonous snake
hidden in the basket by the Rana under the persuasion of Uddhabai.  Meera had worn the snake like a garland around
her neck:

'They sent me a snake in the basket, saying it was a garland of pearls, (Meera) wore the snake on her neck, lighting up
the palace with its lustre. 

(Meera Prem Diwani, Virendra Sethi, Radhaswami Satsangh Vyas, Amritsar.)

                 
contd.,

Arunachala Siva.


 

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Akka Mahadevi uses marital ill treatment as an allegory, although the subject of her marriage is itself a matter of dispute. 
However, the medieval commentator Harihara does claim she was married to King Kaushika and describes her ultimate
renunciation by walking out.  In one of her vachanas (blank verses), she writes:

I have Maya for mother in law
The world for father in law
Three brothers in law like tigers
and the husband's thoughts
are full of pretty women.
O God, this man!
and I cannot cross my sister in law.

(A.K. Ramanujan, ed. and translated, Speaking of Siva,  Penguin, London)

Most sources suggest that her renunciation came when she walked out naked from Kaushika's palace, with her long
tresses as her only covering.

Women who endure intense mental stress and physical / emotional suffering are, in a sense, at a cross roads.  On the
one hand, their suffering can take the path of insanity or suicide.  On the others, the more fortunate among them can use
their suffering to cut asunder the bondage of samsara and familial obligations as well as their fear of social calumny.
Such women break many social barriers to achieve spiritual transcendence. 

Divine Madness or Psychological disorder?

Trances, visions, speaking in tongues and irrational social behavior, including the discarding of clothes, have been widely
interpreted by psychoanalysts as a psycho-pathological condition.  There seems to have often been a strong link between
suffering and what is perceived as irrational social behavior.  The cathartic effect of suffering seems to have resulted in the
rejection of all social norms, causing these spiritual figures, whether men or women, to be dubbed 'mad'. 

contd.,

Arunachala Siva.
         

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It is significant that many of these women saints have been labelled 'mad'.  --  Meera divani (mad), Lalla mast (mad) etc.,
although their condition is better understood as a state of inspiredness rather than madness.  In Hindu philosophy the
term used for spiritual madness is 'unmaththa'.  However, there is not necessarily a link between the phenomenon of
personal suffering and the state of unmaththa.  Someone who is quite free from worldly afflictions can still be an unmaththa.
Anandamayi Ma, one the greatest women saints of all times, was a matronly, dignified Bengali woman who spent two years
doing cartwheels in her front yard, unaware that her sari had slipped from her waist.  Even in her old age, Ma, when in a
state of bhava, could be seen turning cartwheels in a blissful mood, in complete oblivion of social norms !  It was however
well recognized that hers was a state of 'god intoxication' rather than insanity and her acts of divine madness only increased
the reverence of society towards her.  (This point is discussed in an interesting essay, 'When Insanity is a Blessing': The Message
of Shamanism by H. Kalweit in Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof (edited).  Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation
Becomes a Crisis, Los Angeles, Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989).

In the present context however, I am not concerned with the phenomenon of 'divine madness' per se.  Here I have specifically
explore the 'madness' arising out of intense physical and emotional suffering, brought about either by the woman herself or
marital ill-treatment.

Throughout women's spiritual history, saints like Bahina Bai and Meera had to face humiliation and hostility for their failure to
conform to patriarchal norms.  Women could respond to their spiritual calling only by risking their reputations and being termed
deviant or mentally ill.  Meera loudly proclaimed that dancing with anklets on her feet and keeping company with holy men, she
had given up shame. (Pag gunguru bandh Meera nachi re.)

In our own times, Andavan Pichchai Amma told me that her husband had locked up in her room since her spiritual behavior
seemed like a classic case of hysteria. (Interview with Andavan Pichchai Amma at the Sivananda Ashram, at Rishikesh in
May 1986).

Maragatham Ammal was called 'Andavan Pichchi' ("pichchi" in Tamizh means mad).  A spiritual female was almost by definition
'deviant' , 'hysterical', and a rebel.  This has set her apart from the spiritual male who functioned to a large extent within the
established, patriarchal religious and cultural modes.

contd.,

Arunachala Siva.   
 
               
 

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In medieval Europe the distinction between trance and witchcraft was not recognized, with tragic consequences.  Christian
mystics and visionaries like Joan of Arc were often burnt alive at the stake as 'witches' because Christianity failed to distinguish
between witchcraft and divine trance.  Joan of Arc was tried in 1430 for practicing witchcraft even though all she claimed was
that she was obeying the commands of visionary offices.  Juliana of Norwich and Theresa of Avila among Christian saints,
Rabia in Sufi Islam, Lalleswari (Lal Ded) of Kashmir and Karaikkal Ammaiyar among the Bhagavatas and Ananda Mayi Ma in
our own times, constantly went into ecstatic trance, beheld visions and heard unseen voices.  These manifestations have
been equally common among male saints like Chaitanya and Sri Ramakrishna.  But we should remember that many mystics
look upon clairvoyance, clairaudience and spiritual healings as early stages of spiritual evolution which are best ignored if an
aspirant wants to achieve salvation or transcendence.

We also need to discriminate between the external manifestations of both schizophrenia and spiritual mysticism which can bear
resemblances to each other.  In both, the individual experiences herself and the world about her in a manner distinctly different
from other members of the civil society. Her behavior is often socially inappropriate and strange and both incomprehensible as
well as unacceptable to 'others'.

contd.,

Arunachala Siva.             
           

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The Naked Saint:

One of the manifestations of socially unacceptable behavior was the practice among some mystics to discard their clothes
and roam naked.  While Jainism codified this practice in the sect of the Digambar saints, Saiva ascetic orders like the Naga
cults, emphasized the importance of 'being naked' with neither possessions nor socially conditioned behavior like shame or
self consciousness.  While male monastic orders like Digambar monks and the Saivite Nagas excluded women because they
deemed that women were incapable of shedding their body awareness, it was precisely in the context of nakedness that
spiritual women made their most powerful statement.  The fourteenth century Kashmiri Saint Lal Ded who was addressed as
'Lalla Mast' meaning 'The Mad Lalla' danced naked.  When admonished by her father in law that men were staring at her,
Lalla is said to have remarked:  'Where are the men, I see only sheep around me.'  (Jayalal Kaul, Lal Ded.).  She sings in her
Vak:

Lalla, think not of things which are without,
Fix upon thy inner self thy thought.
So shall thou be freed from doubt
Dance, then Lalla, clad but in the sky,
Air and sky, what garment is more fair?
Cloth, says custom (but)
Does that satisfy?

(Baaz, Prem Nath, 1959). 

Lalla's flagrant violation of social norms led her to being both venerated and abused by different sections of Kashimiri society.
When she was walking or dancing naked in the street in a semi conscious state, a local cloth dealer tried to drive away her
abusers in the street in a semi conscious state, a local cloth dealer tried to drive away her abusers and offer her a piece of
cloth.  Lalla cut it into equal lengths, placing a length on each shoulder and went to the bazaar.  When someone prostrated
before her or abused her, she tied a knot in the respective length.  In the evening Lalla went back to the cloth dealer and asked
him to weigh both the lengths of cloth and to his amazement they weighed exactly the same. Lal Ded is said to have smilingly
explained to him that the praise and blame were equal to her.  (ibid.)

contd.,

Arunachala Siva.                   
       

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This combination of social transgression and spiritual transcendence is embodied in the twelfth century Veera Saiva saint Akka
Mahadevi, whose only covering for her body was her long tresses.  (The naked female saint and the social backlash she met have
been dealt with by me in two books - Divinity and Deviance:  Women in Veera Saivism. (OUP, 1996).  in which I have discussed this
in relation to Akka Mahadevi in the chapter Gendered Spirituality and Naked Saints. and in a more general manner in my book,
Walking Naked Women, Society, Spirituality in South India.)

Does Possession Lead to Spiritual Catharis?

There has been in many cultures a close connection between the suffering undergone by women, in their marital situation
and the phenomenon of possession, whether afflictive or ecstatic. A report on shamanism and possession among the Muslim
Hausa of West Africa states:  'Wives manipulate bori (possession) episodes in such a way to reduce their husbands to social
and economic straits.  Hence bori is not only symbolic but also a real way of defying their male dominance which pervades Hausa
society.  In bori women find an escape from a world dominated  by men;  and through bori the world of women temporarily subdues
and humiliated the world of men.'         

It is not reasonable to seek a single, universal result for such 'possession' of women.   But a striking feature of afflictive possession
is that it cannot spiritually liberate or empower women, it is only a temporary manifestation of power by virtue of being
possessed by a spirit or deity, either benevolent or malevolent.

Ecstatic possession is of a different order altogether.  While afflictive possession is generally involuntary and violent, divine
possession leading to trance is both peaceful and beatific.  While the former state results in material benefits for the possessed,
a person in the latter state confers both material and spiritual benefits on others.

The possesion of Andavan Pichchai Amma was however, unique.*  In her fiftieth year, her dying body was penetrated by the spirit
of Pinnavasal Swamigal, a male disciple of the mystic Sadasiva Brahmendra.  It gave her an in depth knowledge of Vedanta and
the Upanishads with which Amma, as an illiterate wife, had no acquaintance.  In her instance, Andavan Pichchai's possession
was of a transcendental quality and in fact distanced her from all social bonds.                     

(*  Read Een Pichchi Aanen (how I became mad) the autobiorgraphy of Andavan Pichchai, Madras, Published by the devotees
of Andavan Pichchai, 1980.  See also The Gift of God, a biography of Andavan  Pichchai's miracle filled with life. Her abnormal
behavior led to people to call her 'Pichchi' meaning mad.  However, the revered Kanchi Paramacharya corrected them by sayibng,
'She is not pichchi (mad) but pichchai (literally the gift of God to us.)   

contd.,

Arunachala Siva.

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Transgression and Transcendence:

Finally, the language used in the spiritual ecstasy is a language that could well belong to the realm of schizophrenia or insanity.
Julia Christeva, the well known feminist psycho-analyst uses the interesting phrase 'Holiness, Madness, Poetry' in her analysis
of subjectivity in religious poetics.  (Julia Kristeva, The Revolution in Poetic Language, Columbia University Press, 1984.).  The
language of madness and mysticism transcends both gender and symbolic language.  The mystical experience (in both men
and women) is beyond the experiential field of physical existence and becomes a transcendental / metaphysical moment which
no language structure.  So their communication of their mystical experiences sounds mad, unintelligible.  Certain metaphors,
bridal mysticism, for instance, cut across race, religion, and gender distinctions.  The state of union with the divine is also
expressed by both men and women saints in erotic mysticism.  A verse from the vachana of Akka Mahadevi illustrates this
point:

On a frame of water, raising a roof of fire,
Spreading the hailstones for the bridal floor bed, 
A husband without a head,
Married a wife without legs,
My parents gave me to an inseparable life,
They married me to Lord Chenna Mallikarjuna.

                         (Tipperudraswami, 1982: 222-223)

Along with Akka Mahadevi, Ayadakki  Lakkamma, a married Shiva Sharane in the Virasaivite movement, uses the metaphor
of the sati-pati (wife-husband) relationship:

When the seed is falling
on the face of the blossom
can there be a back and front
to the blossoming face?
If you forget it and
if I realize it, can
there be different bodies?
When the root vanishes
The blossom remains
For this union can there be
Any other name but sati-pati?

 (Prof. Hiremath, 1968, Verse 89)

contd.,

Arunachala Siva.               

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Many of the ecstatic songs of female mystics go beyond the language of bridal union into realm that is wholly unintelligible.
The best examples of this are are the abhangs of Muktabai, one of the saints of the Maharashtrian Warkari Panth and the
sister of Jnaneswar.  She sings:

The ant flew in the sky
and devoured the orb of the sun;
Here is a great miracle.
A barren woman gave birth to a son.
A scorpion went to the nether world
and the seshanaga ( sacred serpent) saluted
the feet of the scorpion.
A fly delivered and the child is a dhar (a bird)
Seeing this, Muktabai laughed.

(Sakala Sant Gatha No.  42)

In a world structured by patriarchal language, the language of these male mystics is necessarily equated  with the
'gibberish of the mad, the retarded and the schizophrenic.'

This article has explored the myriad ways in which women on the spiritual path have responded to personal, martial and
social pressures.  These responses ranged from social withdrawal to manifestations of hysteria and madness and went
hand in hand with the language of mysticism.  Suffering in the material world, led to a state where the women communicated
only with God in language incomprehensible to all, except saints.  The next part will deal with the widows of Sri Ramanasramam,
who came to Sri Bhagavan Ramana in search of refuge and spiritual solace.

*

I would like to dedicate this article to my cousin Captain Narayanan who after a service of twenty years at Sri Ramanasramam,
attained Sri Bhagavan's feet on the 28th August, 2009.

*

concluded.

Arunachala Siva.