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Sadhvis: the Holy Women of India

In contrast with the many young male sadhus, a beautiful young woman is but rarely seen in the brotherhood. About ten percent of sadhus are women, called sadhvis, but most of them are old, having become sadhvi after they were widowed.

This reflects the generally subordinate position of women in Indian society -- the popular belief is that women have to be born again as men before they can be spiritually liberated -- and the even more marginal position of widows.
Choosing the sadhu life was -- and still is -- about the only respectable way to escape from the 'living death' of widowhood.
1975
Sobhna Giri belongs to the Juna Akhara.
She entered sadhu life when still a child and thus committed herself to life-long celibacy and other ascetic practices.
Nevertheless, since time immemorial there have been female sadhus. And quite a few have, like their male counterparts, chosen the sadhu life in their teens, convinced as they were of their spiritual predestination.

Quite a few sects do not allow women because the celibates fear their 'corrupting influences'; some sects are mixed, but then female sadhus usually have their separate quarters; some minor subsects are all-female.

Sadhvis of the Juna Akhara
Though generally speaking their position in the spiritual hierarchy is inferior to men, there have always been great woman-saints and female sadhus are treated with much respect -- being for instance addressed as 'Mataji,' that is 'Revered Mother'.
Long ago, sadhvis also walked around nČked.
One famous woman-saint – and poetess – who lived in the 12th century, wandered about just covered in her long tresses of hair. Mahadevi (‘great goddess’) as she was called, or Akka (‘elder sister’), fell in love with Shiva.
At the age of ten, she was initiated into the worship of Shiva, whom she called ‘the Lord White as Jasmine’. And she roamed the land, a wild-woman, god-intoxicated, searching for her divine lover.
Mahadevi Akka Yakka.

Because of all her hair it's impossible to see whether she is n‰ked. The same artistic trick (caused by prudery) can be seen in the depiction of Mary of Egypt.

(In front are, incidentally, are the two deer first seen on the seal of the Horned God, 2500 BC!)

Santosh Giri Nagaji, a sadhvi belonging to the renowned sect of Naga-sadhus, smokes the chilam filled with tobacco and hashish.
Ritual nudity must already have been rare in Mahadevi’s days though, for it provoked unwelcome attentions from men, occasionally even attempts to molest her.
But the practice didn’t die out completely, yet. A hundred years ago, John Oman met an almost nČked sadhvi.
A poem by Mahadevi Akka Yakka.

Riding the blue sapphire mountains
wearing moonstone for slippers
blowing long horns
O Shiva
when shall I
crush you on my pitcher breasts

O Lord White as Jasmine
when do I join you
stripped of body’s shame
and heart’s modesty?
Gayatri Muni Bapu, an Udasin sadhvi.


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