Picture a guru. Does a stereotypical image of an older Indian man in robes or a loincloth with a long beard come to mind?
Let’s balance the scales.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we want to shine a spotlight on the powerful female gurus who have influenced spiritual life in India and beyond. These women have inspired tens of thousands of people on their spiritual journeys. Some of these teachers are considered saints who uplift and heal others through the Hindu concept of darshan. Derived from the Sanskrit word darsana, meaning “sight,” darshan is the blessing you receive from merely gazing at a saint. A viewer can receive this blessing by looking at a picture, meditating on the saint in their mind’s eye, or by physically meeting the saint in person.
Amma, The Hugging Saint (1953 - )
As a sensitive child growing up in India, Mata Amritanandamayi, affectionately known as Amma, was troubled by the immense poverty surrounding her. Hinduism taught that people suffered due to karma from a past life, but Amma asked herself the question, “If it is one man’s karma to suffer, isn’t it our dharma (path) to help ease his suffering and pain?”
Unlike many other gurus, Amma is completely self-made—she was never initiated by another guru or spiritual teacher. Perhaps, that’s why her darshan is so unique: hugging. Amma began her mission to “spread selfless love and compassion to every being” as a young woman in her late twenties, by hugging men, women, children, and even society’s most forsaken, such as prisoners and lepers. She embraces her devotees for a full 8 to 10 seconds and will even provide a personal mantra if requested.
To this date, she’s hugged over 37 million people worldwide, and her non-profit organization, Embracing the World, raises about 20 million a year. In fact, it was the biggest donor to the 2004 tsunami that decimated Southern India, and she donated $1 million to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Her organization has supported charities in over 40 countries worldwide.
Sri Daya Mata (1914 – 2010)
Born Rachel Terry Wright in Salt Lake City in 1914, Sri Daya Mata was a member of one of the city’s most prominent Mormon families. Her grandfather was even an architect of the Mormon Tabernacle. After reading the Bhagavad Gita at 15, she attended a lecture by the influential Indian guru Parahamahansa Yogananda, also the author of the international bestseller Autobiography of a Yogi. Shortly thereafter, Sri Daya Mata took her vows as a nun of the Self-Realization Order founded by Yogananda in Los Angeles and served as his secretary until his death in 1955. After Yogananda’s successor Rajarsi Janakanada died three years later, Sri Daya Mata became president and ran the organization until the end of her life, in 2010. She was one of the first women to lead a worldwide religious organization. Today, the Self-Realization Fellowship operates almost 600 temples and meditation centers in more than 60 countries across the globe.
Sri Sarada Devi (1853 – 1920)
Known as “Holy Mother,” Sri Sarada Devi was the wife of mystic Ramakrishna, one of the most influential gurus of the nineteenth century. Betrothed at just five years old to a man 18 years her senior, Sri Sarada Devi came to live with Ramakrishna in her late teens, despite the fact that he had already adopted the celibate life of a monk, according to lore. Sri Sarada Devi became his first disciple, and later, a leader in her own right. Over their fourteen-year partnership, Ramakrishna taught her the sacred mantras and how to initiate people and guide them in their spiritual practice, including meditation.
After Ramakrishna died, she became the “mother” of his disciples. Ramakrishna had asked that his followers make no distinction between him and his wife. Devotees included famed guru and father of Vedanta, Swami Vivekananda, who sought out Sri Sarada Devi’s permission to attend the World Congress of Religions in Chicago in 1893—essentially resulting in the West’s introduction to Hinduism, yoga, and meditation.
Although she allegedly remained a virgin and never had children, Sri Sarada Devi considered herself to be a mother to all, “I’m the mother of the wicked, and I am the mother of the virtuous. Never fear. Whenever you are in distress, just say to yourself, ‘I have a mother.’”
Today, Sri Sarada Devi is one of the most recognized saints in modern India, widely featured in a variety of prayers and mantras.
Shri Mataji Devi (1923 – 2011)
Shri Mataji Devi, born in central India to a Hindu father and a Christian mother, came to her spiritual path later in life, at age 47. After experiencing a kundalini rising, which she later described as “self-realization,” Shri Mataji Devi was inspired to share this transformative experience with others. She founded a practice called Sahaja Yoga to teach people to feel “spontaneous union with oneself.” Sahaja Yoga doesn’t feature postures, kriyas, chanting, or breathwork, instead Shri Maji Devi described it as subtle awareness of prana in the body. Her devotees believed that her darshan alone could awaken self-realization. She never charged for the training saying that “one cannot pay for the experience of divine love.” Today, Sahaja Yoga is still taught free-of-charge in more than 95 countries.
Mother Meera (1960 - )
Mother Meera, born Kamala Reddy in Telengana, India, had her first spiritual experience at six years old. Her uncle, convinced that she was an “avatar,” or the embodiment of the divine mother, brought her to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and she began giving darshan at age 14. Her darshan—done in total silence—consists of touching a person’s head and then gazing into their eyes, so that she can “untie knots” and other obstacles in their lives. Considered to be a saint by her devotees, Mother Meera isn’t affiliated with any religion or specific spiritual practice, instead she describes the purpose of her work as “the calling down of the Supreme Light (Paramatman Light) and helping people."