Shakti's New Voice

Guru Devotion in a Woman-Led Spirituality Movement

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Angela Rudert
  • New York, NY: 
    Lexington Books
    , October
     2017.
     256 pages.
     $100.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781498547543.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As the public presence of transnational female Indian gurus reaches new and unprecedented levels in the global network of “New Age” guru spirituality movements in the 21st century, the cross-cultural interface between “East” and “West” and, as importantly, the ways and extent to which such intercultural conversations transform the phenomenon of guru devotion (bhakti) in Indic and diasporic contexts have been relatively unexamined subjects in the academic study of religion. While the scholarship has cast much light on the Western side of global guru movements, less attention has been paid to the Indic side of this conversation.

In Shakti’s New Voice, Angela Rudert, a scholar working at the intersection of anthropology and the history of religions, fills a lacuna in the field with her in-depth and empathetic exploration of the transcultural guru movement centered on Anandmurti Gurumaa. Based on more than ten years of research with Gurumaa and her middle-class Indian (and a few non-Indian) devotees in India and the United States, Shakti’s New Voice offers a critical ethno-historical examination of global guru devotion (bhakti) as it is “performed” on stage and through song, gender activism, and new media. This book will appeal to academics and non-academics interested in South Asia, religion, globalization, religious pluralism, and gender and women’s religious leadership. Expertly written, its dialogical style makes the book highly accessible to undergraduates, and its delicate balancing of culturally specific and generalizable insights will be of much interest to scholars and graduate students working in these and related fields.

One of the most profound insights of the book involves Rudert’s realization that she is a “seeker” (sadhaka) in search of greater meaning in her life, but not to the detriment of her rigorous academic training. In the introduction, Rudert makes clear that she is not Gurumaa’s devotee (Rudert discloses that she encountered her “guru” within the unexpected confines of academia!), and that she is not writing “about” or “for” Gurumaa (16). What is more, despite academic suspicions about the intentions behind Rudert’s research project (Rudert describes a “skeptic” scholar’s review of a grant proposal she wrote in which the reviewer worried that Rudert was “searching for enlightenment” for herself) (5), Rudert interprets the pluralistic world of the global guru bhakti focused around Gurumaa’s personality by applying a “hermeneutics of trust” (15) rather than the one of suspicion. That approach humanizes Rudert’s collaborators, even as it exposes the vulnerability of the scholar committed to working with a “responsive research subject,” which, as Rudert warns, “may be hazardous to the scholarly ego” (16).

The first four chapters of Shakti’s New Voice set the interpretive stage for Rudert’s rich ethnography. In the introduction, Rudert outlines the book’s key claims and motifs and describes the socio-cultural and economic demographics of Gurumaa’s transnational community of devotees, who like their guru, refuse to be put in any “ism” or “box.” Chapter 1 illuminates Rudert’s application of the methods of embodied ethnography in Gurumaa ashram located in Haryana state and the tensions Rudert experienced in her interactions with a “living guru.” Chapter 2 contends that gurus are rooted in a global age in which the fluidity of boundaries constitutes the norm and cultural hybridity provides a means to evoke within receptive audiences potent spiritual experiences without having claim the authority of any single religion or religious identity. Chapters 3 and 4 bring into focus Gurumaa’s unique style of guru bhakti. Rudert suggests that devotees want more than anything else to be in the guru’s presence and be acknowledged by her. The cultural idioms foregrounded concern those of attraction, mystery, and destiny as lenses through which devotees make sense of their relationship with Gurumaa.

Chapters 5 through 7 offer the most original and provocative insights to the scholarship on gurus. In chapter 5, Rudert invokes the “stage” as a metaphor for Gurumaa’s body and the ways that Gurumaa’s adorning of the body, which she refers to in the third person, and its fluid movements across space fashions her style of “composite pluralism.” Chapter 6 left the deepest impression on this reviewer. Through discussion of her activism with Gurumaa’s organization, which she founded and appropriately named Shakti NGO, and analysis of her songs and discourses, the chapter portrays Gurumaa’s social and feminist commitments to material justice by which she uplifts the status of women, improves girl’s access to education (Shakti NGO offers scholarships to underprivileged girls), and vehemently challenges misogynist religious interpretations of women’s otherness, inferiority, and incapacity to experience spiritual liberation with aplomb. Rudert illuminates that Gurumaa’s work is making a tangible impact on the lives of women devotees across the life-cycle continuum as they create within their households “rooms of their own” dedicated to religious practice. For young unmarried women devotees, many are choosing to postpone marriage indefinitely and focus on their studies and spiritual development.

 Apart from her magnetic charisma, Gurumaa’s appeal to a global constituency of devotees is derived in part from her ability to navigate the world of multilingual multimedia. In chapter 6 Rudert shows that Gurumaa considers new media a transformative vehicle for the transmission of the “same old magic.” In her view, interactive technologies represent the “siddhis” (paranormal powers) of modern times and can and should be harnessed for spiritual purposes. From audiocassettes to CDs, video DVDs, glossy magazines devoted to “self-help,” Internet, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube videos, to Live Chat, Gurumaa has experimented with the gamut of media technologies. With the help of her tech team, on which Rudert also participated in her role as “New Age scribe,” typing as fast as she could on a computer screen the guru’s spoken words in English and Hindi, Gurumaa’s media methods grant devotees unparalled accessibility in the 21st century. Her creative appropriation of the latest media encourages listeners to engage in religious pluralism, even as her sensitive intercultural reframings transform received categories of authority to script new narratives of gender, guruhood, and spirituality.

In sum, Rudert’s book pushes against the old school dichotomies of “insider” and “outsider” in religious studies and other Humanistic disciplines. The book charts out a new modality for representing the (female) scholar’s voice and those of the people with whom she works and creates relationships, while casting a sobering glance on the ethics and politics of appropriating others’ worlds in the production and commodification of scholarship. Rudert wrestles with the personal and professional implications of the academic work she has produced via Shakti’s New Voice, suggesting that the book is, perhaps, best understood as a “theological ethnography” (16). To this reviewer, Rudert’s ethnography reads as too self-conscious in its demonstration of scholarly rigor—a task in which it undoubtedly succeeds. The territory she bravely treads feels as if Rudert is walking an analytical tightrope. The clunky terminology of “empathetic ethnography,” “reflexive ethnography,” or “feminist ethnography” falls short of capturing Rudert’s book. This reviewer thinks of Rudert’s use of “theological ethnography” to categorize a thoroughly readable and teachable “text” as a call for/to academics who may (or not) splay the proverbial “insider” and “outsider” divide to be open and honest about the work they do in the many “fields” in which they live and work. How scholars will respond to Rudert’s call carries fruitful potential to shift the discourse and generate new conversations and insights.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Antoinette E. DeNapoli is Associate Professor of South Asian Religions at Texas Christian University.

Date of Review: 
February 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Angela Rudert is lecturer in the department of philosophy and religion at Ithaca College.

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