To those weary of Big Religion, with its endlessly talkative sadhus endlessly assaulting social media, there must remain some hope that somewhere there must remain quieter, more introspective Hinduisms. Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women Who Wear Only Themselves: Conversations with Four Travellers on Sacred Journeys is a likely balm for such wearied souls.

In the book, as the sub-title explains, Subramaniam talks at some length to four spiritual practitioners– Sri Annapurani Amma, Balarishi Vishwashirasini, Lata Mani, and Maa Karpoori. One almost hopes that none of the names rings a bell beyond their small circles. By choosing practitioners who are still living, Subramaniam is already narrowing the circle.

Historical spiritual figures are a different proposition – there is a certain undeniability that they are now reduced to text or video. Though the textual can still be endlessly mined, there is a different leap of faith to meet and inquire from the living. Perhaps there is a keener thrust to believing that a living religion still stalks and haunts at least some of us.

Diversity of behaviours

As Subramaniam notes, it is precisely the “self-containment” of these women that is impressive. There is always the temptation in spiritual matters to disguise possible narcissisms as social upliftments or justice. But for some, it is the anonymous, yielding fragrance that is the truer seeking. These numerous anonymities – in aggregate – are perhaps what keeps religion going, rather than centralized institutionalisations: “these are the unsung reasons why a faith endures”.

One is also struck by the diversity of behaviours – the monk is no monotone. Thus, Sri Annapurani Amma is a “great raging river…feral”. In her ashram, there are no special hours set aside for meditation, no dietary restriction – one is only asked to “keep doing whatever you have to do with the guru on your mind. That is the real dhyana”.

She adds, “I have not come here with any mission to transform anyone. I have come here to work on myself... When I talk about my guru, there is no fatigue. Only if I speak of other matters, I grow tired”. The guru must be approached with both intimacy and entitlement.

Balarishi Vishwashirasini is a much younger woman on whom guru-dom was thrust. Others heard something of depth in her chanting, and soon a minor ashram grew around her – to make it more complicated, the family needed the money. These situations are not uncommon in India, where children or young adults are believed to have some special potency= – the challenge is then to individuate the spiritual growth at such a young age vis a vis the community of devotees.

If at all ages, the demands of the community around a spiritual personage (unfortunately not entirely different from the fans any sport or film star may have) is the greatest challenge to a person’s growth, then the problem is amplified if one is very young. Vishwashirasini has spoken of the “great anger” at being made to thus perform, and indeed her journey has been the odd one of trying to slow the growth of her fame such that there is the best accord between herself and the small community of devotees.

She has had to give up her anger, and be kinder to herself. It is this self-care that guides her evolving practice – “If at the end of the day you feel heavy, you have not performed karma yoga. When it is done right, you feel can actually feel your inner conflicts subside.”

Lata Mani is well known in academic circles. Her life was upended when she had a car accident. This transmuted her work into another realm. Though still carrying happy residues of her cerebral past, Mani was opened into a deeper sense of her (injured/healing) body as it attempted to slide back into the world of the social and of the psyche. The body led the way, and made its own calls – it touched veins of the “warm presence of mercy” that it may not have otherwise garnered.

For those led by their minds, it is necessary that they re-connect with the simple breathing body – “for several years my life seemingly consisted of little other than breathing in and out”. The body and senses must endlessly “re-make” the mind, “dissolving over and over the attachment to biography and social convention”.

The last figure discussed is Maa Karpoori, a monk in someone else’s ashram – the anonymous monk often keeps alive the spirit of the ashram even if the “management” has lost itself in the realpolitik of survival or growth. Yet, the administrative routines of the ashram do bring to mind the politics and unfreedoms of the household – Subramaniam links this to verse and metre: “In a good poem, free verse isn’t self-indulgence, and metre isn’t a straitjacket…The monk as metrician, and the committed seeker as free verse practitioner.”

A bracing freedom

Sometimes, as Subramaniam finds out, the body does profit from repression – ash-gourd juice diets, early morning baths in temple tanks, the odd snake ritual. Karpoori profited from a three-year vow of silence. Such practices mark a transition – and the before of that time – a secular time that still had many joys (long, silky hair, successes in one’s education or career, pranks in college). That earlier time is looked on fondly, just as fondly as the decision to embark on another type of journey.

For all these sadhakas, spirituality is an action, a plunge. Many admit that the secular was more exhausting – in the spiritual life, there is a greater energy for the simpler joys. To clean the robe daily – soaking red mud in water, sieving through muslin, ensuring consistency of water and soil, removing clots – all these function as daily visceral metaphor. The psyche abdicates, only muscle and breath are real – in such vacancy, one opens to, and invites within, a “bracing…hacking” freedom, an invading “witnessing silence”, a “sweet loneliness”.

Such types of experience cannot and must not be consolidated, but it is the core of a universal religious experience that helps ease a collective karmic sludge – at the very least, this book helps refine both our agnosticism and our faith. Subramaniam’s finely attuned listening makes this quartet speak – quietly, and yet with such overflowing warmth and vigour.

Women Who Wear Only Themselves: Conversations with Four Travellers on Sacred Journeys

Women Who Wear Only Themselves: Conversations with Four Travellers on Sacred Journeys, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Speaking Tiger.