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Women and God?s realm

india Updated: Jun 26, 2006 11:50 IST

The proposed ban on women praying at Ajmer Sharif brought to mind a recent conversation I had with a woman Sufi practitioner.

In response to my perception of gender inequality at Sufi dargahs (women can't enter Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya's tomb, for instance), she recounted an incident when a renowned woman Sufi stood outside the entrance of the tomb one morning. “She stood silently, looking in with great devotion. Such was her presence that men would touch her feet and then enter the tomb.”

What she and other women seekers point to is the essentially genderless quality of inner realisation. Ani Tenzin Palmo, an Englishwoman who has lived as a Tibetan Buddhist nun since the 1970s, says, “We all have Buddha nature. It is neither male nor female. ‘Spiritual practice’ is to become conscious of our thoughts and inner world and seeing beyond to our unborn awareness, which again, is not male or female.”

Though the spiritual space is genderless, women in India have undertaken their spiritual journeys in the face of heavy odds. Despite robust traditions venerating the Divine Feminine, women have often been denied access to religious scriptures and the options of asceticism, discipleship and solitary practice.

Nevertheless, women have managed to lead spiritually rich lives. Their spirituality has much to do with motherhood and healing, intuition and emotionality, faith and devotion. For instance, women gurus are often called 'Ma': to the guru as Mother, we can bring our broken selves and hope to be made whole again.

Tenzin Palmo was told by Theravada master, U Pandita Sayadaw, "Women are better at meditation than men, for they feel at ease within the intuitive." Women's heightened emotionality also lets them develop 'heart qualities' like compassion. When I ask Tenzin Palmo if the Bodhisattva, with his vow to defer personal nirvana until all beings have been helped out of samsara, isn't a 'super-mother figure', she says, "Yes, but without the attachment. To learn to love as a mother loves her only child, but without the clinging, that is what the Buddha said."