Category Archives: Notable Women in Hinduism

Mata Amritanandamayi Devi

Mata Amritanandamayi Devi


Mata Amritanandamayi Devi is affectionately referred to by her followers as “the hugging saint”, or simply Amma, which is the Sanskrit word for mother.  She is a modern-day “avatar-guru”. This means her followers consider her to be an incarnation of a Hindu deity- in this case Devi, or Sakti (Copley 255). The goddess, Devi, represents the female aspect of the divine, and is the core form of every Hindu goddess.

In contrast to this divine reputation she holds today, Mata comes from very humble beginnings indeed. She was born in 1953 into a low-caste fishing family in the South Indian state of Kerala (Warrier 3). Her path to divinity started very young as she would spend excessive amounts of time immersed in meditation and prayer (Warrier 3). At the tender age of twenty-one Mata self-identified with the goddess Devi, and proclaimed that she was in fact the human manifestation of the Great Divine Mother (Warrier 3). It is due in part to Mata’s more well known moniker, “The Hugging Saint”, that she has gained this motherly image. Mata’s devotees will queue for hours on end after hearing her speak, just to receive a hug from her. An embrace from Mata is believed by her followers to be a divine experience, often equated with a spiritual awakening (Copley 259).

Mata dons the traditional garb of the goddess Devi whenever she appears in public, in order to present her divine nature to her followers. These public appearances are referred to as darshans, or “viewings” (Warrier 3). Mata herself has a slightly more involved perception of darshan. She is quoted as saying: “Darshan is a divine embrace. When I hold someone, it allows him to experience true, unconditional love; it can help to awaken his spiritual energy” (Luc, 41). Mata’s followers strive for spiritual enlightenment through worship of Mata herself, and by extension, the goddess whom she represents. This branch of the Hindu faith is called bhakti (Copley 255). However, worship and devotion to Mata is not the only thing expected of her followers. The main practice that all of Mata’s faithful followers must adhere to is that of seva. Seva, at its most basic definition, is the act of selfless service (Copley 264). Universal love, as well as selflessness, lie at the core of Mata’s philosophy. Mata works to spread this message, and related activism, throughout the world via her charitable organization The Mata Amritanandamayi Mission (henceforth referred to as The Mission).

The Mission is an eclectic organization involved in everything from supporting orphanages and colleges, to establishing hospitals with the highest standard for medical care (Copley 259-260). The unique thing about these organizations founded and/or managed by The Mission is the fact that they are almost entirely funded by donations from Mata devotees from around the world (Warrier 7). This is where seva plays its most pivotal role. The most revered form of seva is selfless service to the Mission itself. So by devoting time, effort, and donations to any one of the many humanitarian projects championed by Mata and her mission, the devotee is improving his or her own personal karma, while at the same time helping to further the impact of The Mission (Copley 265). It is this somewhat circular process which is largely responsible for the dramatic, worldwide spread of The Mission. Mata is revered as the ideal example of seva. As her followers attempt to emulate her tireless dedication to selflessly serving the entire world, they are at the same time vastly increasing the global scope of The Mission itself (Copley 265).

Another important factor at play here is that the majority of Mata’s devotees, in India and abroad, are middle-class, white-collar professionals (Copley 260). This demographic could be considered Mata’s greatest resource for spreading her message of universal love. It has been said that Mata possesses an unparalleled ability to recognize the most valuable attributes in a person, as well as the most effective way to utilize those attributes in an effort to further her cause (Copley 272). Mata’s devotees offer their various forms of expertise to The Mission as an expression of seva (Copley 272). Many of these individuals are seeking a way to contextualize their Hindu lifestyle in an increasingly modern world, which may not fit with traditional values or practices. A large part of Mata’s appeal as a guru lies in her flexible approach to Hindu worship. Her followers are permitted, and in fact encouraged, to pursue their faith in whichever way suits their lifestyle (Copley 263).

Mata lives a life governed by the same ideals as Hindu renouncers even though she does not truly belong to any such group (Warrier 6). Her social status could be described as above and beyond any traditional caste system. When she is not travelling the world, or visiting the various ashrams set up by her devotees, she spends most of her time at the ashram in her home-state of Kerala (Warrier 6). Ashram simply means “spiritual hermitage” (Copley 259). It is here that she works with individuals striving for brahmacharya, life as an ascetic, by closely monitoring their behaviour and guiding them in their spiritual quest. Once Mata believes they are finally qualified for brahmacharya she carries out an initiation rite (called the brahmacharya diksha), which officially recognizes the individual as a renouncer (Warrier 6).


Warrier, Maya (2003) Guru Choice and Spiritual Seeking in Contemporary India. International Journal  of Hindu Studies, 7: 31-54.

Viginie, Luc (2008) In God’s Name: Wisdom From the World’s Great Spiritual Leaders. New York:  Melcher Media.

Copely, Antony (2003) Hinduism in Public and Private: Reform, Hindutva, Gender, and Sampraday. New Delhi; New York: Oxford India Paperbacks.

Warrier, Maya (2005) Hindu Selves in a Modern World: Guru Faith in the Mata Amritanandamayi    Mission. Oxfordshire: RoutledgeCurzon.

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Sanatana dharma




Article written by Dylan Williamson (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.



Mahadevyakka was a twelfth century female mystic/saint within the Virasaivism movement.  Mahadevyakka renounced her life and devoted herself to the worship of Siva.  From her experiences she composed poetry in which she conveyed her stories and her love for Siva, whom she believed to be her husband (Blake-Michael 363).  Mahadevyakka is also known for her rebellions against social norms of the time.

Mahadevyakka was born in Udutadi, a village in Sivamogga (Ramanujan 111).  Mahadevyakka’s religious devotion began as a young girl.  At a young age she became a Siva-worshipper and continued to grow up as a devout worshipper of the Lord.  The form of Siva that she worshipped in his ascetic form as Cennamallikarjuna, translated as “the Lord White as Jasmine” (Ramanujan 111).  It is said that Mahadevyakka’s beauty caught the attention of King Kausika who wanted to marry her.  It is debated by scholars as to whether she did marry him or if she rejected his proposals.  One story claims that she married the King against her will.  Mahadevyakka was very upset about the marriage because the King was a follower of Jainism (Blake-Michael 362).  She asked him to convert but he refused.  One evening, after rejecting his sexual advances, Mahadevyakka left the palace naked, covered only by her braids (Ramanujan 111).  This began her spiritual journey in pursuit of spiritual union with Siva.  She would wander to different towns and areas in search of union.  Mahadevyakka believed that she was already the wife of Siva and would not marry any other man.  In her journey Mahadevyakka found herself in Kalyana, which was a central city for Virasaivism at the time.  She was, at this point, accepted into the group of saints after being questioned by the other saints (Blake-Michael 363).  The dialogue between Mahadevyakka and Allama, a guru of the school, has become a famous legend.  In this legend Mahadevyakka won over Allama and joined the group as a result of her powerful and convincing words.  She was able to prove to Allama that she has complete devotion to Siva as a good wife to her husband (Blake-Michael 363).  After many years in Kalyana, Mahadevyakka decided to continue on her spiritual journey and left Kalyana.  Her journey ended in her late twenties when she reached Sri Saila, a holy mountain.  It is recounted that it was here that she found union with Siva (Ramanujan 113).  A union of this variety cannot be expressed and only experienced, although Mahadevyakka used her poetry as an attempt to express her love for Siva and her pains of separation from his union.  Her poetry and her opposition to social norms made her a revered saint of her time.

Mahadevyakka was a member of a Saiva sectarian movement called Virasaivism, which was founded in the twelfth century in South India by a man named Basava (Basavanna).  Virasaivism translates as “heroic Saivas.”  They still flourish today and are known as Lingayats, “wearers of the Linga” (Olson 409).  This group, which has been referred toas a protest movement, rejects many of the social constructs of the time period.  This group rejects the caste system and the marriage of children.  They also allow widows to remarry and the dead are buried rather than cremated.  Finally, they declare the sexes equal and that temple worship, sacrifices and pilgrimages are unnecessary.  Virasaivis devotees believe in the equal access of salvation for everyone (Blake-Michael 361).  With these protests to the social constructs of society of her time, Mahadevyakka became known as a rebellious woman but at the same timean important figure in the anti-Brahminical and anti-caste movement.  Unlike the other female saints within Virasaivism, Mahadevyakka was viewed as even more rebellious than other devotees.  This was because she chose to wander naked and was unmarried.  One half of the other female saints within Virasaivism at the time were married (Ramaswamy 43).  The marriage status of these women was important in the explanation of their spirituality.  Mahadevyakka remained independent from male domination.  Her spiritual quest was different than that of the married housewives of Virasaivism because she did not rely on guidance from any male figures; she only trusted in her devotion to Siva.  According to traditional Virasaivism, one was to work and be self reliant, and Mahadevyakka represented a paragon of self reliance (Ramaswamy 52).  Typically, both presently and in the past, Virasaivism female saints who were married, were thought to collaborate with their husbands in their spiritual quests (Ramaswamy 22).  Studies indicate that Mahadevyakka was criticized by other female saints for not wearing clothing.  Her nakedness was seen as an ultimate defiance and thus Mahadevyakka is not paid homage to in any of the other female saints’ writings (Ramaswamy 43).  As a result of the anti-Brahminical and anti-caste beliefs of Virasaivism, Mahadevyakka became symbolic of rebel and female saint.

Mahadevyakka chose to reject the traditionally prescribed roles of a Hindu woman.  Traditionally, it was believed that only high caste men were able to become renouncers.  Hindu society identified women with family and sexual pleasures, and thus were not seen to possess the ability to become ascetics.  Mahadevyakka disagreed with the power of the Brahmins.  As a rejection of the traditional roles of men and women, Mahadevyakka strove to transcend her gender through her spiritual practices.  As she described in her poetry, she is female in form, but is the male principle (Ramaswamy 14).  Through this sentiment Mahadevyakka was able to dissolve the notions of women as untrustworthy and temptresses.  Sexual transcendence was seen as a higher stage of spirituality. The gender boundaries were erased and the saint becomes asexual.  As Mahadevyakka expresses:

Transcending the company of both,

I have attained to peace.

After forgetting this cluster of words,

What if one lives

An integral life?

Once I am joined

To Lord Cennamallikarjuna,

I do not recognize myself

As anything. (Olson 498)

It is at this point that the saint becomes naked.  For male saints this does not represent any social disturbance, yet for female saints this was seen as even more freeing due to the prohibitions placed on females within society (Ramaswamy 40).  Mahadevyakka renounced her family and her clothing and freed herself from any social conventions.  She had but her braids to cover her private body parts to decrease the temptation of others (Ramaswamy 41).  For Mahadevyakka and many other saints, she viewed her body as an aide to her self realization and spirituality.

A further act of rebellion by Mahadevyakka was that she remained unmarried physically to a man.  This resulted in society viewing her as ‘deviant’ (Ramaswamy 27).  Within Hindu society, unmarried women are largely viewed as temptations to men yet Mahadevyakka believed that she was married to Siva and that he was her groom (pati) (Ramaswamy 34).  She also journeyed with no male escort.  In conventional society, this would be viewed as a very dangerous act for a woman.  Mahadevyakka believed she had transcended gender and caste and thereby believed that she could take part in living as any of the other male ascetics and saints.  Through Mahadevyakka’s poetry it is clear that her spiritual quest is for union with Siva.  Her poetry exemplifies her beliefs and quest for union with Siva, while she opposed society’s views and presented the independent strength of the female saint.

The poetry of Virasaivism was passed on orally for centuries prior to being collected into what is called Sunyasampadane.  The type of poetry that Mahadevyakka composed was medieval bhakti (devotion) poetry called vacanas or sayings of their saints.  Mahadevyakka’s poetry consists of what can be interpreted as the three forms of love: love forbidden, love during separation, and love in union (Ramanujan 113).  Her poetry expresses her quest to find love and union with Siva, while wandering:

O swarm of bees

O mango tree

O moonlight

O koilbird

I beg of you all



If you should see my lord anywhere

my lord white as jasmine

call out

and show him to me. (Ramanujan 122)

In her poetry Mahadevyakka refers to Siva as “…my lord white as jasmine,” or, as in the previous poem, “Lord Cennamallikarjuna”.  Through her poetry, Mahadevyakka also expresses her emotions of being torn between being female and at the same time as being human.  Her yearning is expressed by her desire to transcend the boundaries placed on her as female and human to achieve true union with Siva.  As she states with reference to gender limitations:

As long as woman is woman, then

A man defiles her;

As long as man is man,

A woman defiles him.

When the mind’s taint is gone, is there room for the body’s taint?…

(Ramaswamy 15)

Further study of Mahadevyakka’s poetry reveals her life story.  One can follow Mahadevyakka’s life through her poetry with respect to her marriage to Siva.  Her poetry begins with King Kausika, her rejection of the world and ends with her final union with Siva through whom she escapes the human world.  Her final union with Siva is described in her vacana:

Hear me, O Father Linga:

This feeling has become my life…

Mark you, Cennamallikarjuna:

Worshipping Thee with all my heart,

My wheel of births has ceased! (Olson 495)

Mahadevyakka’s metaphors of human love are expressions of her mystic journey. She is revered as the most poetic saint among the Virasaiva saints (Ramanujan 113).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Blake Michael, R. (1983) “Woman of the Śūnyasampādane: Housewives and Saints in Virasaivism.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 103, No. 2.

Olson, Carl (2007) Hindu Primary Sources.  New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Oxtoby, Willard G. (2002) World Religions: Eastern Traditions.  Oxford: Oxford

University Press.

Ramanujan, A.K. (1973) Speaking of Śiva.  Hollingsworth : Penguin Publishing.

Ramaswamy, Vijaya ( 1996) Divinity and Deviance: Women in Virasaivism.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Female mystic






Basava (Basavanna)

Female Pollution



Saiva Devotionalism

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Virginia Williams (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its contents.

Swami Sivananda Radha

Swami Sivananda Radha was the first western woman who became a sannyasin, a spiritual leader who placed great emphasis in the belief of one’s self and one’s surroundings to enhance one’s life. She had become a great yogi who taught for more than 25 years (Swami Sivananda, xxiii). Radha had been quoted as saying, “The main thing I try to do is have my students bring quality into their lives,]…[ to me, people are not spiritual if this quality is not there in their lives-even if they meditate six hours a day. By quality I mean that which comes from deep inside and shows up in their actions, their treatment of others and the way they do their jobs”(Himalayan Academy, 1988).

Swami Radha’s original name was Ursula Sylvia Hellman. Once she became a sannyasin her guru, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, gave her the name Swami Sivananda Radha. She would not be called this until later in life. She was born on March 20, 1911 in Berlin, Germany ( Biography). She came from a well to do family and was very interested in the arts. In her early life she became a creative writer, photographer and a professional solo concert dancer (Biography). She made history by being the first woman admitted into the Berlin School of Advertising in 1939 but unfortunately her career was ended as World War II started (Radha, 1990: xxiii). Radha was married twice, first to Wolfgang who was killed in the Second World War by the Nazis in the Gestapo for helping Jewish people escape Germany. Her second marriage only lasted one year; she was married to Albert Hellman who was a violinist and a composer. Albert composed many pieces of music that Radha danced to. He unfortunately died suddenly in Radha’s arms (Biography). When the Second World War ended Radha immigrated to Canada and lived in Montreal (Radha, 1990: xxiii).

Radha was not brought up in a religious house and questioned the meaning of life even from an early age. According to Radha’s own account, she took up the practise of meditation and while meditating she had a vision of a sage. Taking this as an important sign Radha sought out to find where this sage was and began writing letters to him; where in a letter he eventually “told her to “come home” to his ashram in Rishihesh, in the Himalayan Foothills” (Radha,1990: xxiii). She traveled to India in search for her sage and her life’s calling. She found what she was looking for in the guru Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh. Swami Sivananda took Radha under his wing and taught her the teachings of eastern living and religious practices. “He challenged her to remember who she was and to think deeply about the purpose of life. His message was that truth can be found in a balanced life and to use discipline to avoid extremes” (Biography).  The Hindu religion believes that Karma yoga and selfless actions can assist towards making one divine; this became the most important teachings of Swami Radha’s work. She lived in a spiritual community where she was constantly surrounded by many spiritual students both beginners and advanced who collectively were masters of “various spiritual disciplines” (Radha,1990: xxiii). In the beginning of Radha’s schooling she was at first apprehensive as to how she would cope with the conditions and a new way of life. She had another student from another sannyasin tell her quite a few times that her sannyasin (Swami Sivananda) was not what she should be looking for in a spiritual leader. The first few months were the hardest for Radha but she persisted and learned a great deal from Sivananda. Swami Sivananda also taught her the Prayer Dance which she fully embraced with her dancing background. She taught her students this dance “as a means of safely directing emotional; and physical; energies into devotion” (Himalayan Academy, 1988).

After completing her spiritual education in less than a year Swami Sivananda told her to go back to Canada to spread the teachings she had learned to the Western people. She was extremely hesitant and nervous at first because she was worried as to where to begin when she arrived back in Canada. Who would accept her, and how would she come about finding the funds to establish an Ashram (Radha, 1990: xxiv)? According to one of Radha’s devotees, Barbra Huston, “Swami Radha came back to Montreal, with almost no money, and with the instruction not to take employment or speech lessons to moderate her German accent.  She was to “live on faith” and “speak from the heart”.  Though they were difficult years she was always provided for.  Bags of groceries would unexpectedly be delivered, [and] clothing would be offered”.

Radha had developed many unique and creative innovative approaches for psychological spiritual development. She created the Life Seal which is a very powerful form of self exploration through the development of one’s own mandala, using drawn symbols that represent different levels of personality (Radha, 1990: xxiv). Radha also created something called the Straight Walk which was adapted from an ancient Buddhist practice designed to purify and clarify thinking and perception of one’s thoughts (Radha,1990: xxiv). Her Ideals Workshop is said to be very still very sought after by her students; this is a type of training in dream understanding.

In 1962 Radha founded (Himalayan Academy, 1988) Yasodhara Ashram which is located in Kootenay Bay, British Columbia, Canada. This Ashram is her legacy.  This site is considered by her followers as the best of the east and west because it incorporates real eastern teachings with a slight modified twist so that western people will be able to understand the teachings and apply them to one’s own everyday life (Swami Sivananda, xxiv). Yasodhara Ashram is still in the Kootenay Bay area and it is still taking new students who are interested in learning the art of eastern practices. Radha passed away on November 30, 1995(Biography) and the Ashram has been taken over by Radha’s student Swami Radhananda who has been the Ashram’s head spiritual director since 1995. Radha also created a printing company called Timeless Books (located at her Yasodhara Ashram) and through this printing company she has written quite a number of books, a lot of them deal with different teachings and spiritual practises she has learned like “Kundalini Yoga for the West,” “Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language,” “The Divine Light Invocation,” and “Mantras: Words of Power.” She has written books about her personal experiences such as “Radha: Diary of a Woman’s Search,” and “In the Company of the Wise” these are just a few of the book she has written. “These books are popular and distinctive because they clarify the sometimes enigmatic Eastern teachings in a way that can be understood and applied in western daily life” (Biography). She also had contributed a few articles to new age medical journals and gave many speeches around Canada and the US about what she did and believed in.



Biography; Swami Sivananda Radha. Retrieved February 17, 2010, from Swami Sivananda Radha

Biography website:

Himalayan Academy. Swami Radha; Canadian-Based Teacher/Author Brings Sivananda’s Mission to Western Shores. (1988,

January). Retrieved February 17, 2010, from Hinduism Today website:

Swami Sivananda Radha (1990) Radha Diary of a Woman’s Search. Palo Alto, CA: Timeless Books

Swami Sivananda Radha (1991) In the Company of the Wise: Remembering My Teachers, Reflecting The Light. Palo Alto, CA: Timeless Books

Interviewed Barbra Huston, a student from the Yasodhara Ashram

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Ideals Workshop

Karma Yoga

Life Seal



Straight walk

Swami Radhananda

Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh

Yasodhara Ashram



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Justine Morgan (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.




During the time of the medieval period (500CE to 1500CE), many bhakti or devotional groups in Hinduism develop. Several of these bhakti movements focus on the worship of Visnu, Siva and Devi. The notion of bhakti can be described as a “loving devotion to God” (Stutley 163). The concept can also be defined as something that “signifies the self surrender of human beings to a personal god of love, who is also to be worshipped with love and adoration” (Chaudhuri 256). One of its common features is having a strong sense of emotionalism. In addition, many of the practices that are associated with bhakti are “choral singing [as] a form of worship” along with “processing with drums and cymbals” (256).

Devotion to Krsna emerges as one of the most popular devotional cults in Hinduism. According to the mystical cults that focus their worship on Krsna, Krsna is a being that represents both God and man. This belief comes from the notion of Krsna being the reincarnated human form of the god, Visnu. Devotional followers are drawn to Krsna because of “his beauty, kindness and personal magnetism, as well as his overwhelming affection for all living creatures” (Stutley 91). These are the main attributes that “encourage lesser beings to strive for perfection and liberation.” (91) In addition, “devotees can share in the blissful experience of Radha and Krishna in sexual union by playing the role of friends of the divine couple.” (Olson 232)

One of the most well known devotees of Krsna is Mirabai. From what historical sources and legends have told us, she was a female poet from the medieval period. She was born around 1498 and died around 1573CE. This time period places her around the time when bhakti cults began to arise. For instance in Carl Olson’s, Hindu Primary Sources, it

mentions that “the sixteenth-century poet Mirabai was a female poet with wide popularity, a Rajput princess who rejected her earthly husband for her genuine spouse, Krishna.”(231) She is not just known as being a famous poetess, but is also regarded as a princess, mystic and saint. It is important to note that the story of her life is known more through legend rather than through historical fact. From what legends can tell us, she received a doll or idol of Krsna as a young child. Receiving this idol may have inspired her to begin bhakti practice towards Krsna. As she began her new found devotion to Krsna, her family worshipped Visnu as their primary deity. From an early moment in life, Mirabai regarded Krisna as her true spiritual husband. In addition, “Mirabai did not execute her social duties, but rather spent her time associating with wandering holy people, who were devoted to her own secret husband Krishna.” (231) Nevertheless, she did fulfill her most important rite of passage in Hinduism, vivaha or marriage. From what we are told, she married a Rajput prince at a young age. Before the age of twenty four, she lost her husband as well as her father, father-in-law and grandfather. It was these losses that “made her turn to religion in the specific form of Vaishnavism” (Chaudhuri 291). From this point onwards, Mirabai’s life changed as she began to ignore or ‘give up’ her traditional roles as a woman. For instance, following the death of her husband, she was expected to commit the act of sati. Her husband’s family were shocked that she did not burn herself alive upon her husband’s funeral pyre. These ‘disobediences’ of Mirabai gave her husband’s family the excuse to make Mirabai’s life a world of torment. In the end, “she left home and became a wandering ascetic; at the end of her life, she is said to have merged with the icon of Krishna in a temple.” (Olson 232)

From the time of Mirabai’s husband’s death, Mirabai began full devotional worship of Krsna. What is also important to mention is that she considered herself to be the spouse of Krsna. She felt more close to her spiritual husband than her actual husband. Mirabai, as well as “a great many women, who have never found love of any kind in life, have thought of both husband and God in this way” (Chaudhuri 292). From this point she began to compose many poems and songs of worship in which “she became famous for [her songs] which [were] sung all over northern India by those who worship Krsna in a truly religious spirit” (Chaudhuri 291). Olson also points out that “her poems are often defiant in tone, and they exhibit the illicit love between the blue god and his gopis, who abandon their husbands and family due to their love of the deity.” (Olson 232) In addition she not only became famous for her enthusiastic devotion but also became famous from the amount of poems that she wrote as well as the amount of poems that have been attributed to her. For instance about 200 to 400 poems are accepted by scholars as being written by Mirabai, while 800-1000 poems have been attributed to her. In addition, her poems initiated a mode of singing.

Many women have looked at Mirabai’s love for Krsna through her poems and have developed a sense of devotion in order to feel a stronger sense of control over their own lives instead of letting their families control their lives. It is these cases “in which human love and divine love come so close to each other that they are not distinguishable, for both partake of divinity as well as humanity” (293). In addition, Mirabai’s life shows that “this kind of love in which a woman can feel either for God or husband rises to the spiritual without taking off its feet from the physical base” (291-292).

Another important element that is seen in the bhakti movements is the notion of ignoring gender, class, caste and religious boundaries. These were the expectations that Mirabai chose to ignore in order for her to pursue her devotion to Krsna. Instead of fulfilling the expected norms of a widow she began her spiritual practice by becoming a sort of samnyasin or renouncer. From what is known, she left her husband’s family as well as her own and spent the last years of her life in Vrindivan which is a holy area in India that is a center of worship of Krsna.

Works Cited

Chaudhuri, Nirad C (1979) Hinduism: A Religion to Live By. New York: Oxford University Press.

Olson, Carl, ed. (2007) Hindu Primary Sources: A Sectarian Reader. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Stutley, Margaret (1985) Hinduism: The Eternal Law. Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press.

This article was written by Cynthia Lambert, who takes full responsibility for the content.

Anandamayi Ma

To her devotees, Anandamayi Ma, was not just considered a highly spiritual woman but a true incarnation of a deity or God. Anandamayi Ma was born on April 30, 1896, to a devoted Vaishnava Brahman family, in Kheora, Bengal (present day Bangladesh). At birth she was named Nirmala Sundari, and would not be called Anandamayi Ma until much later (Hallstrom 23). According to accounts of her devotees, everything about Ma, in her early years was spiritually auspicious. One instance of her future greatness was when she was nine or ten months old, a holy man visited Ma’s family. He was seated close to little Ma and she crawled up like she was intimately familiar with him. He then picked up Ma and, “placed her feet reverently on his shoulder, head and other parts of his body in an extraordinary show of devotion and veneration and then sat her on his lap.” After seating her in front of him, “he began to perform puja or worship to her, bowing down before her.” He then said to her mother,

“This whom you are seeing before you, this is Ma [the Divine Mother]

and is so not [only of] men and women but also as permeating and

transcending the universe. You will certainly not be able to keep her

bound to family ties. She will definitely not remain here.” (Hallstrom 25)

Despite receiving religious instruction only from her parents, “she displayed an uncanny knowledge of religious matters,” (Hallstrom 25) and often was witnessed in bhava, a state of ecstasy or trancelike states, which were described as supernatural in nature. One particular form of worship, kirtan, devotional songs, would put her into a state of pure spiritual ecstasy. She was known to often wander off, singing devotional songs. Her states could last a short time but as she became older, these instances lengthened. Some relatives felt that when they were around Ma during these instances, they experienced a loss of body consciousness (Hallstrom 28).

At the age of twelve, her marriage was arranged to a man named Ramani Mohan Chakaravart from a distinguished Brahman Bharadwaj family. An auspicious day, February 7, 1909, was picked and they married. Ma remained with her family until she was fourteen, and then she went to live with Ramani Mohan’s family, entering the household stage of her life. Ramani Mohan’s parents had died, so Ma was placed in the instruction of Ramani Mohan’s eldest brother’s wife, Dadamahashaya. Ma excelled at housework and became a pleasant, hardworking wife in her brother-in-law’s house, where she was very well liked. Ma often fell in states of Samadhi, but they believed the states were just bouts of extreme exhaustion or absentmindedness (Hallstrom 32). She stayed with her husband’s family until she joined her husband in Ashtagrama, in East Bengal, in 1914. This was the first instance that Ma and Ramani Mohan were around each other for a substantial period of time since their marriage. Devotees point out that Ramani Mohan was unaware of Ma’s extraordinary state. He assumed he had married an ordinary illiterate village woman, but he quickly became aware of her spiritual power. The first time her tried to approach her sexually, “he supposedly received such a violent electric shock that he put for the time being all thought of a physical relationship out of his mind” (Lipski 6). He thought that it was because Ma was so young and that she would become “normal” in time, but their marriage was never consummated; sexual desire never arose again in their marriage (Lipski 6). Despite the lack of sexual relationship, Ramani Mohan cared for Ma, loved her very dearly, and accepted their unconventional marriage.

Anandamayi Ma murti (image) in Varanasi
Anandamayi Ma murti (image) in Varanasi

It was also in Ashtagrama, where Ma was first recognized as a “spiritually exalted woman” and received the name Ma given to her by a man named Harkumar. He became the one to bring attention to the “ecstatic states or bhavavastha of Anandamayi Man”(Hallstrom 34). He arranged a kirtan, where Ma was first publicly observed in a state of bhava. For those around her, her state of bhava was a frightening experience, as she either fell to the floor in convulsions or sat motionless, “her face and eyes bathed in a radiant glow” (Hallstrom 34). At subsequent kirtans, Ma experienced similar state of bhava.

Close-up of Central Face of Anandamayi Ma image (Varanasi)

Between 1918 and 1924, Ma began experiencing her most spiritual activities. It was also at this time that Ma became more centered on her spiritual life and moved away from her household duties. In 1922, Ramani Mohan was advised to get Ma initiated by the family guru as soon as possible. On August 3, 1922, Ma experienced self-initiation, a feat not experienced before, especially as a woman. At this time, Ma began so display siddhis, or spiritual powers (Hallstrom 38-40). Five months later, on January 3, 1923, Ma initiated her husband and she changed his name to Bholanath, a name for Shiva. Later that month, Ma entered into a three-year silence or mauna. (Hallstrom 41) Their initiations marked the transition of their marriage into a complex relationship. Ma remained an obedient wife, always asking Bholanath’s permission before any undertaking, but she was not bound by his decisions, and always found ways to persuade him for approval. On the other hand, Bholanath was spiritually inferior to Ma, who also became his guru (Lipski 7).

By 1924, Ma began to gather devotees while living at Shasbagh Gardens. Many people were invited by Bholanath to see the extraordinary spiritual powers of his wife. She warned him not to invite so many people, stating, “You must think twice before opening the doors to the world in this manner. Remember that you will not be able to stem the tide when it becomes overwhelming” (Hallstrom 43). Many devotees believed Ma, was an incarnation of Kali and called her Manusha Kali, or “Kali in human form,” others believed she was “a self-realized being of extraordinary spiritual power” (Hallstrom 43). In 1926, devotees witnessed Ma’s inability to feed her self, as her hands would no longer work as they used to, leaving the task to Bholanath and her closest devotees, who fed her until her death (Hallstrom 46). On her thirty-first birthday, a special kirtan and puja was performed in her honor and again on her thirty-second. 1928 also marked the year Ma began her years of travels and transition to the Renouncer stage.

Throughout the next ten years, Ma traveled extensively throughout Bengal and India. Bholanath followed her transition and entered into a period of silence and pilgrimage under Ma’s instruction. Many time he asked her not to travel without him, but she warned that she would leave her body if he refused her. In the years after 1933, Ma, Bholanath, and many of her devotees made many spontaneous pilgrimages, full of religious festivals, kirtans and satsangas. On April 23, 1938, Ma predicted that Bholanath would become seriously ill. True to her word, Bholanath died fifteen days later on Mar 7, 1938 of smallpox (Hallstrom 51).

After the death of her husband, Ma’s life experienced little change. She continued her constant traveling, until the number of devotees swelled to huge numbers, which reduced her spontaneous travel. Ashrams were built throughout the country and a central administrative organization was created, the Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha, in February 1950. The Sangha was able to establish two Sanskrit schools, a hospital and a periodical called Ananda Varta (Hallstrom 52). By 1973, there were twenty seven ashrams around India. Ma had no involvement in the Sangha or subsequent administrative organizations; however she founded the annual Samyam Varta, a week-long retreat, held in a different place every year. During the week, Ma and her close devotees would instruct devotees in spiritual practices (Hallstrom 52).

On July 11, 1982, Ma gave her last public darshan. Her health had begun to deteriorate seriously; she asked to be moved to her Kishenpur ashram where Bholanath had died in 1938. It was on August 27, 1982, Ma died, in the room directly above where her husband had died. According to her wishes, Anandamayi Ma was buried and a shrine was erected, which has become a place of worship and pilgrimage, known for its spiritual power (Hallstrom 52).

Anandamayi Ma’s greatest influence on Hinduism was the creation of a way women could become important figures of worship. According to female devotees, they believed Ma was incarnated in the form of a woman to give them spiritual equality to men. They were able to experience an intimate closeness with Ma which her male devotees could not experience. According to her male devotees, they longed for an intimate relationship, but cultural norms prevented this. Ma, being a woman, benefited and inspired all women. This gave Ma’s female devotees the chance to be close to God, which they had little chance, because of the male domination of the Hindu religion. Ma also provided a motherly loving relationship to women which they might not have had after their marriage, living with their husband’s family. The feeling of loss of a biological mother was lessened for Ma’s devotees, because she became their spiritual mother (Hallstrom 204). Ma’s female devotees ranged from her closes followers who willingly devoted their whole lives to Ma, to women and men in their householder stage. Ma’s most devout follower, other then Bholanath was, Gurupriya Devi, or Didi, as she was affectionately called. Didi was one of Ma’s brahmacharini devotees who chose to live a celibate life and was able to have a lifelong relationship with both her biological and spiritual mothers. Devotees claimed Ma provided a safe and prideful life for unmarried daughters, who would have been an embarrassment to her family (Hallstrom 204). Ma’s followers, who were in the householder stage, could also have a close relationship with her. Despite Ma’s unorthodox position in her marriage to Bholanath, she held many orthodox views on how women should like their lives as wives (Hallstrom 210). She believed women should fulfill their duties, but could still participate in spiritual activities, such as kirtans. Ma often held these for her women devotees in Decca, a radical idea at the time, but made sure the kirtans were held at night, as not to disrupt their daily duties (Hallstrom 211).

Ma was said to have been very beautiful women that had a radiating presence that attracted people to her. She was always kind, with a contagious laugh and emanation of God’s divine power. The intimate relationship she had with her female devotees allowed greater access to Ma, therefore, greater access to God (Hallstrom 203). She will always be remembered as a true women guru and saint.


Hallstrom, Lisa Lassell (1999) Mother of Bliss: Anandamayi Ma 1896-1982. New York:

Oxford University Press.

Lipski, Alexander (1988) Life and Teaching of Sri Anandamayi Ma. Delhi: Morilal


Murkerji, Bithika (1980) From the Life of Sri Anandamayi Ma, Volume One. Calcutta:

Shree Shree Anandamayee Charitable Society.

Murkerji, Bithika (1981) From the Life of Sri Anandamayi Ma, Volume Two. Calcutta:

Shree Shree Anandamayee Charitable Society.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Ananda Varta


Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha




Anandamayi Ma as a saint

Anandamayi Ma incarnation as a woman

Anandamayi Ma’s rejection of castes

Anandamayi Ma’s renouncer life

Gurupriya Devi




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Stephanie Ralph (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.