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Women in Ochre Robes

Gendering Hindu Renunciation

Meena Khandelwal, SUNY 2004, p/bk, ISBN 0-7914-5922-5


Women in Ochre Robes is an engaging and intimate ethnographic portrait of contemporary sannyasinis in India; women who have renounced the orthodox values of family life and domestic obligations in order to pursue the path of spiritual liberation. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that, as Khandelwal points out, the Sannyasa tradition was created for and by men, and so Sannyasinis not only may face opposition from family & friends in pursuing renunciate status, but also may face opposition from male ascetics.

This book is no disengaged account of these women's histories - Khandelwal places herself within the text, so as much as this book is an examination of the complexities of sannyasini lives, it is also an engaging account of the author's pursuit of her research, and her own encounters and responses to life within communities of ascetics. This approach provides a rich background context to the author's research, and also acknowledges that ethnology is itself, "a form of human relationship."

Women in Ochre Robes brings out a central problem in the study of renouncer traditions in India - the notion that householder and renouncer stand as dichotomous opposites. Khandelwal prefers to speak of 'tensions' rather than oppositions, and notes for example, that whilst renouncers relationship with their families changes once they become sannyasa, they may still maintain connections with their families - that whilst renouncers are no longer thought of as being of society - they are still enmeshed within a complex network of social relationships. Khandelwal also astutely points out that the phenomena of female renunciation itself provides a critique of anthropology's tendency to represent the lives of people in other cultures as overdetermined.

Khandelwal focuses in detail on her relationships with two sannyasinis - Anand Mata and Baiji, exploring how both these women reconcile the tensions and contradictions of renunciate detachment and social engagement. She notes, for example, that sannyasinis tend to discourage other women from following their example, not out of a blind belief in 'orthodoxy' but that it is contrary to the ideals of sannyasi to recruit followers. She provides a thoughtful and pithy examination of how the thorny issue of authenticity is resolved amongst sannyasas and their disciples. Khandelwal says that whilst there are no 'objective criteria' for making such evaluations, there are, nonetheless, 'discernable patterns' by which real saints are distinguished from the merely fraudulent and that the distinction between the holy man and the freeloader are often subtle. The fraudulent ascetic is a common figure in Indian literature, both ancient and modern. Khandelwal notes that:

"It was generally assumed by most people I met that, while the vast majority of sadhus are frauds, genuine saints do exist, and discrimination is required to distinguish between them. Using one's faculty of discrimination means not only comparing one sadhu with another or "shopping around" but also testing them."
(p162)

Khandelwal also provides an intriguing perspective on the 'mutuality' of gurus and disciples, and in particular, how disciples interpret the behaviour of their gurus. Whilst there is great potential for abuse within this kind of relationship, there is also the possibility of the guru becoming 'trapped' by the disciples expectations - a point also examined by Agehananda Bharati in his book, Light at the Centre.

Khandelwal poses the question "How are the gender identities and roles of women affected when they enter the world of renunciation?" She argues that Sannyasinis reject the notion that 'women must become men' (either metaphorically or through rebirth) and says that whilst they distance themselves from female householders, they do not reject femininity itself. Whilst there is a common refrain that to be a renouncer is to be indifferent to matters of gender, Khandelwal notes that despite otherworldly indifference (the ideal) women who renounce "remain attentive to the ambiguities and ambivalences of gender issues within the renunciate sphere. She discusses how the very real problem of sannyasinis being treated as objects of male sexual attention can mean that sannyasinis, rather than being able to wander at will, often have to be circumspect in their behaviour. Khandelwal says that during the course of her research, she received warnings not to visit ashrams alone or speak to unfamiliar sadhus. "It is clear", she says, "that ochre robes do not provide an escape from the perils of being a woman in North India."

Khandelwal argues that whilst the renunciate ideal imagines gender as ephermeral, as one looks deeper, the categories of Brahmanic ideology are reproduced and even elaborated - so that women may be denigrated and masculinity privileged at the same time that maternal qualities such as compassion & nurturing are held up as renunciant ideals.

Women in Ochre Robes is a deeply fascinating book, all too welcome given the current lack of accessible material on contemporary Indian women's religious experience. Khandelwal presents a highly nuanced and complex picture of the lives of sannyasinis and the world they inhabit - a world that encompasses the philosophical, personal, social and emotional aspects of experience. Highly recommended. - Phil Hine