Book Review: Daughters of the Goddess: The Women Saints of India. Linda Johnsen. Yes International, St. Paul, MN, 1994, 128 pages.
The myths of India are rife with female goddesses both terrifying and placid. From the blood-filled mouth of Durga to the generous benefi
cence of Lakshmi, the varieties of religious experience are conveyed through graphic images. In Linda Johnsen's naïve treatise on women "saints" in India, we get a true believer's take on a few individuals who have become well known in today's spiritual marketplace. Goddess worship is embraced by many "New Age" Westerners as the cutting edge of millennial spirituality; yet, it often ignores the ancient traditions of the East. Those Westerners, both male and female, who idealize their teacher's status as divine risk getting caught up in a culture they neither understand nor have fully explored. It is often the exotic or eccentric that gets mistaken for the Divine.
Much of what is laid out in the early part of the book are anecdotes and stories handed down by teachers to convey the difficulties that women have had to confront in a culture where roles were, and to a great extent still are, defined by men. Where those individuals triumphed over the disapproval of the society around them, it is a testament to their courage and determination to realize their spiritual goals at all cost. Unfortu
nately, Johnsen gives credence to some individuals who represent a "tradition" with a controversial history. A case in point is the group led by Gurumayi Chidvilasanada, Sidha Yoga, founded by Swami Muktananda, who reportedly took advantage of young female disciples while acting as guru and spiritual teacher. Muktananda is revered to this day by Gurumayi and her many followers.
In contrast, it was refreshing to read of Anandi Ma's exhortation to test the teacher "a thousand times"; yet, "Once you have accepted no questions to be asked. Then you follow." In the environment around the teacher, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to express one's concern without being ostracized. This leads many to "jump into" a group they hope has all the answers without looking critically at the history and qualifications of the teacher.
Among others whom Johnsen has confidently proclaimed saints is Ammachi, a simple woman who speaks no English, yet has thousands of Western devotees. Her elementary charm and emotional singing at first glimpse seem innocent enough. Yet, controversy has swirled around her in India, where questions about the management of an orphanage she founded raise concern about the integrity of her mission. Also described is Maya Amma, an avadhut, or unconventional sage, whose age is estimated at 80 years, and who "does not bother about any of the material concerns of the rest of us, including clothing." She roams Southern India with a pack of half-wild dogs. To the faithful, this is a sign of her commitment to a life of nonattachment. Unfortunately, such behavior on the part of gurus along with the devotional and unquestioning attitudes of some followers leaves me concerned for those individuals impressed by the "exciting atmosphere" created around these individuals.
Johnsen is a good storyteller who engages the reader in her fascination with the people and culture of India. What I found lacking is a healthy dose of skepticism and balance. Giving oneself over to any "saint"--male or female--carries with it certain risks, and each group should be thoroughly researched. Johnsen's work can be only a part of that research.
Thought Reform Consultant
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1997