- Topics & Settings
When one walks into a satsang on Sunday morning they may notice the clear division of sexes. The men will be the first to greet you while in the kitchen preparing food and drinking tea, and the women will be in devotion, practicing rituals in the devotional hall. This division is in some ways unique to the Milan Mandir.
For Satya and other women, this empowerment takes form in divine power. When I asked Satya if this sort of temple is different in a gender respect, she said,
It's not only this temple, it’s in all Hindu temples. If you go, the female gender dominates the attendees there. It could be [that] it’s a Shakti (power that is personified by female goddesses) world anyway. It is the universal mother who creates everything and we are just little mothers we’re creating for the universal mother. I wouldn’t be surprised…even [if] Guru Maharaj is worshiped as Shakti in the headquarters.
The role of women takes on features specific to Bharat Sevashram Sangha and Guru Maharaj. In this example, Satya is drawing on Guru Maharaj’s historic embodiment of Shakti.
One of the Guru’s earliest and most influential religious moments came when the Goddess Durga revealed herself to him. At the age of seven or eight, the guru, according to his biography, was “disturbed by the thought that maybe idol worship was wrong.” He entered the temple after closing, bowed to the idol of durga, and “after a few minutes, the sight of the idol gave place to a vision of the goddess…in her dazzling radiance.” 1 Satya described this experience as an embodiment of the goddess: “The entire [mandir] lit up and his body [was] infused with mother Durga’s Shakti."
Satya said that the Guru is often seen as male, but sometimes “he will take on that face, that feature, especially during Navratri” (a holiday dedicated to Goddess Durga). She continued, “we worship him as female too both because god is genderless, colorless, everything-less…we don’t know if he’s a boy or a girl so we worship him as both. In Satya’s speech to a large audience of the well-attended “Mother’s Day Concert” at the Hindu Milan Mandir, she said, “we should worship [the] guru] as male and female, since no one knows the gender of god.”
Ninian Smart, Prophet of a New Hindu Age: The Life and Times of Archarya Pranavananda (1986), 9. ↩
This conversation occured during a lunch after satsang. I asked Satya if she could facilitate a conversation on gender. The participants are Satya, Tara, another woman from the community, and Bharat. The conversation moves from affirming that the female is dominant to language on gender equality when Bharat arrives towards the end.
The conversation is an example of views on gender and religion at the temple. In some ways, the members see the temple as a unique example of a female led Hindu temple, and in other examples this female power is essential to what it means to be Hindu.