Take Sai Maa Laxmi Devi, who was the first woman from outside India to be given the title “Jagat Guru” of the Vaishnavite Nirmohi akhara in the 2007 Ardh-Kumbh. A disciple of Sathya Sai Baba, who got her deeksha in the Sri Satua Baba lineage of Varanasi, Sai Maa says, “In 2007, we just had a small space in far-off Arail. This time, we have been allotted a bigger space and have better infrastructure to serve the people.” One of her devotees said that while last time she would visit the camps of many sadhus to take their blessings, now it was almost the reverse.
“As a woman, I have had to work harder that what is required of a male sadhu. This time, though, I had to prove myself less because there is more recognition,” says Sai Maa, who was born in Mauritius and is a French citizen. She also dabbled in politics for seven years.
Overall, the number of female mahamandaleshwars (scholarly sadhvis, who are consulted on various spiritual issues among akharas) has also increased this time, estimated to be over 30. “In Juna akhara, there are around 15 female mahamandaleshwars. The sadhvis have been traditionally less in numbers. But in terms of proportion, the number of female mahamandaleshwars is going up fast,” says Shri Mahant Vidyanand Saraswati, secretary of Juna akhara, the biggest of the 13 akharas.
The Juna akhara has also, for the first time in Kumbh, accorded a separate enclosure for sadhvis and allowed them to use the name “Sanyasini Akhara”. Earlier, these enclosures, often without adequate facilities, were referred to as “Mai Bara (enclosures for mothers)”. “But bara is generally used to describe a place where the occupants live in herds, like animals. It had a connotation of disrespect. They protested and now have got rid of that name,” says Vidyanand.
Sahaj Yogini Sri Sheileja Devi, who teaches Sahaj Sidha Yoga, and has come to Kumbh for the first time, says: “The issue of a female versus male sadhu is something we have to face every day. But I see it as a stepping stone, because I am only following the order of my Guru.”