I believe that the equality of men and women in the Sri Chinmoy Centre worldwide community will someday be remembered as a most significant moment in the timeline of women's spiritual evolution, and therefore of all humanity. Whether past or present, I know of no other Eastern spiritual path or master that has offered women such a central and equal place alongside men.
Looking back through history, many Eastern spiritual masters did not accept women students. Realistically, it must have been an almost impossible task to entertain focusing with one-pointed concentration on the goal of complete union with God inside oneself at the same time as serving and nurturing a husband and children.
The reason I say this will be remembered as an historic juncture is that the constellation of circumstances making possible a new form of spiritual evolution for women is itself unprecedented. The first ingredient is the evolution of technology which greatly reduced the highly labor-intensive nature of running a household, labor done mostly by women.
Secondly, only in the last thirty to forty years in Western society has the notion of women not existing solely as helpmate to man and mother to children even existed - granted not including that there has always been a small minority of women who chose spiritual practise (perhaps as a nun), career or intellectual development, most likely with the privilege of wealth making it feasible.
The feminist movement, while replete with flaws as many socio- political movements inevitably are, has made this second reality possible. The role of wife and mother is a now a choice a woman can consider rather than being the only viable role to play in society. I was born in 1960. My mother's generation never even questioned the notion that marriage and children was the only choice (see the film "Mona Lisa Smile" for a depiction of this). Then in a single generation as her daughter, I was raised to believe that this was not the only choice. And that context helped lead me to where I am today. Financially self-supporting, unmarried, childless and consciously striving towards the eventual and lofty goal of God-realization.
Thus, I find myself one of many female students of Sri Chinmoy who are flourishing and pioneering something rather special and new. And flourish is indeed the operative word. I find that the Sri Chinmoy Centre is an extraordinary opportunity for women to pursue the highest spiritual goals without actually living a completely cloistered lifestyle. Within the group, the atmosphere of purity allows one to progress without the distraction of feeling that men in the group are seeing you primarily as a potential romantic interest. And I have never ever felt that Sri Chinmoy views anybody as a gendered being first and foremost. He teaches that the soul is beyond male and female and down to the minutest details that perspective informs all aspects of our lifestyle.
Many women are in positions of authority as centre leaders in the worldwide chapters of our group. Women often choose to participate in sporting events that defy the mind's imagination such as the feat of ultra-marathon running and multi-day running events. Women are playing key roles as business owners, managers and dedicated volunteers in our various humanitarian efforts. The idea of stereotype or restricted roles simply does not exist. Here we find an atmosphere that helps women come forward who might ordinarily be overshadowed by men who have been socialized to more easily assert themselves in public.
Sri Chinmoy has written countless poems and songs to the feminine aspect of the Divine. And all of this respect for women as far as I can tell is never at the expense of men. I think it is impossible for Sri Chinmoy to view either men or women as anything less than the branches of the tree, of which the trunk is the Absolute Supreme.
If you haven't guessed already, I was a staunch feminist before I became Sri Chinmoy's student. In my opinion, the oppression of women is the most complex of all injustices because of their exceedingly intimate relationship with their oppressor. Following this spiritual path paves a road that envisions a world where that complex and painful dynamic need not exist. If those viewing our path from outside imagine that women are unsafe, restricted or repressed in this environment, I ask history itself to speak for me and know in the depths of my heart that someday all women will remember this juncture in their evolution as staggering in its significance.
In conclusion, the song "Bread and Roses" wafts through my head as I write this because of the line, "the rising of the women, means the rising of us all." If you are not familiar with it, here are the lyrics below:
BREAD AND ROSES
- by Caroline Kohsleet and James Oppenheim
As we go marching, marching in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand millofts gray
Are touched by all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses
For the people hear us singing, bread and roses, bread and roses!
As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men
For they are women's brothers and we'll march with them again
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses
As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing our ancient cry for bread
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirit knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.
As we go marching, marching, we stand together tall
The rising of the women, means the rising of us all
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil while one reposes
But a sharing of life's glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.