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Negotiating Societal and Spiritual Terrain


Vijaya Ramaswamy

WOMEN'S RENUNCIATION IN SOUTH ASIA: NUNS, YOGINIS, SAINTS AND SINGERS
Edited by Meena Khandelwal, Sondra L. Hausner and Ann Grodzins Gold
Zubaan, an imprint of Kali for Women, New Delhi, 2007, pp. xii 375, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 10 October 2007

The first thing that strikes one about this collection is that the essays represented in it were not written sitting in libraries. It is quite clearly not a historical or sociological perspective on women ‘breaking away’ from conventional paths. The methodological approach is clearly from the stream of ethnography and is based almost entirely on participant observation. The reviewer’s intention is not to compare and contrast the two methodological approaches in order to privilege any one, but merely to draw attention to the striking difference between the two ways of encountering the extremely complex theme of women’s renunciation.   Having appreciated this difference it is important to point out that very few of the ‘Nuns, Yoginis, Saints and Singers’ were renunciates, one of the striking exemptions being Anne Vallely’s Jain nuns. The others seem to have negotiated the very difficult terrain between ‘giving up’ and ‘holding on’. These experiential essays constitute an exploration into the various ways in which women negotiated between their socially perceived roles and the demands of the religio-spiritual domain.   The claim that is made on the front flap of this book, namely that these were extraordinary women ‘who have abandoned worldly life for spiritual pursuits . . . the lives of women who have renounced involvements such as sex, financial security, kin and the pursuit of beauty in favour of higher religious and spiritual ideals’ does injustice to their everyday struggle between material needs and spiritual aspirations. While the Baul women contended with notions of sexuality and patriarchal demands (Kristian Hanssen) the nuns of Zangskar attempted to negotiate, quite often unsuccessfully, between their renunciate status and their kin affinities. For Chomo Khandru, forced into spinsterhood and chomohood within the Bon tradition, her so-called renunciation of patriarchal roles meant taking over the family business in salt, wool and grain and become the ‘earning male’ of the family. In all these tension-fraught negotiations between physical/material needs and metaphysical goals, spirituality is the greatest casualty. One of the co-editors Ann Grodzins Gold is herself keenly aware of the lack of the aura of the renunciate in many of these women (Gold: 341). To quote: . . . I have occasionally wondered whether we had lost track of what all these variants of renunciation signify in the religious universes that inspire them. Liberation, enlightenment, transcendence, self-realization, supreme truth are terms and phrases we encounter, but only rarely, in this book. Our contributors have not ...


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