The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi

British Feminist, Indian Nationalist, Buddhist Nun

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Vicki Mackenzie
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala Publications, Inc.
    , March
     2017.
     208 pages.
     $16.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781611804256.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The title of this book The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi: British Feminist, Indian Nationalist, Buddhist Nun  encapsulates the highlights of an extraordinary life and there is far more to tell. Vicki Mackenzie sets out to show that Freda Bedi, better known to many as Bhiksuni Khechok Palmo or “Mummy,” may have been an embodiment of Tara, the enlightened figure in female form who is revered in Tibetan Buddhism as the rescuer of suffering beings. Indeed, Bedi cut an impressive figure throughout the many stages of her life and was responsible for rescuing some of the twentieth 20th century’s most famous Buddhist teachers as they fled Tibet to exile in India. Mackenzie takes readers on a journey through a fascinating life.

Born in Derby, England, in 1911,  Bedi suffered the death of her father in World War I when she was just seven years old and survived a serious bout of diphtheria at the age of eleven. Later, she reflected upon how these events may have propelled her understanding of the Buddha’s teachings on suffering, its causes, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. She won a scholarship to study French at Oxford University, where she became a fervent socialist and then switched to politics, philosophy, and economics. Bedi fell in love with a fellow Oxford student, Baba Phyare Lal Bedi, a Sikh from Punjab, who was an Indian hammer-throwing champion. Their interracial marriage in 1933 created considerable commotion, “a tsunami of outrage” (21) in British society that rippled all the way to Parliament. Bedi followed her husband to Berlin, where he intended to pursue a doctoral studies in political science, but when Hitler  came to power in 1934, they fled to India with their newborn baby. When their ship docked in Mumbai after a harrowing journey, the young couple was greeted with body searches due to their seditious support for Indian independence.

Bedi quickly adapted to life in India, wearing a sari and learning Hindi—“her biggest coup de grâce,” (27), according to her son Kabir, who later became an international actor and Bollywood star. On principle, the couple refused government positions and Bedi supported the family’s minimalist lifestyle by writing newspaper articles, children’s books, and teaching, subtly infusing her work with political points. She dedicated her life to working for social justice and was jailed as a political activist and freedom fighter in support of India’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule. Her passionate rhetoric inspired huge crowds, and she became the first British woman among Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagrahi, “upholders of truth” (45). She memorialized her jail time in the book, Behind Mud Walls, revealing that the “hard labor” of her “rigorous imprisonment” consisted primarily of tending the prison garden. Released after serving half of a six-month sentence, she found herself “virtually beatified” as a “national heroine” (55).

After India gained its independence in 1947, Bedi spearheaded relief efforts in Kashmir for refugees and survivors of the bloodbath that followed the partition of British India, even joining the Women’s Self-Defence Corps. A skilled organizer, she utilized her excellent personal and political connections to work for education reform, gender justice, and social transformation. Through her activist writings on behalf of the poor and downtrodden at both the grassroots village level and at the highest political level, she became a leading voice for social change at a critical juncture in India’s history.

Simultaneously, Bedi revitalized her spiritual quest, diligently studying and practicing the world’s major religions, one by one. When Jawaharlal Nehru sent her to Burma as India’s representative to UNESCO, she resonated profoundly with Buddhist culture and discovered her true spiritual home. Nehru then put her in charge of Tibetan refugee affairs for the Central Indian Government. She worked tirelessly in the miserable camps that had been hastily erected to house the thousands of refugees who had fled the communist onslaught in Tibet. In doing so, she saved many young reincarnate lamas from obscurity and neglect. She founded the Young Lamas’ School in Delhi (later shifted to Dalhousie) to provide these young lamas with an education. She also created the first monastery for Tibetan refugee nuns in India.

A crucial turning point for Bedi was a meeting with the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, abbot of Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, who became her teacher and the preceptor of her ordination as a Buddhist nun. In 1966 in Hong Kong, she became the first nun in the Tibetan tradition to receive full ordination as a bhiksuni, initiating a movement toward gender equality in Tibetan monasticism. The 16th Gyalwa Karmapa also authorized her to give initiations, an extremely rare role for a woman, which she performed at the Buddhist centers she founded in South Africa and California.

Mackenzie narrates the story of Bedi’s life and her death in 1977 with aplomb, and includes not only her many accomplishments, challenges, and triumphs, but also her foibles. Although it takes time to get used to the author’s writing style and perspective, the strength of the book is the remarkable narrative history it relates, based on firsthand reports from Bedi herself and those who knew her well. As the details of her life and the pivotal roles she played at critical turning points in Indian and Tibetan history come to light, it is unsurprising to learn that so many of her close associates, including the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa himself, regarded her as an emanation of Tara, rescuer of beings. She is believed to have taken rebirth in 1979 in the form of a Tibetan girl named Jamyang Dolma Lama. In the Tibetan Buddhist conceptual framework, this feat not only verifies the effectiveness of her spiritual practice but also, like Tara, expands her capacity so as to continue her meritorious deeds to rescue sentient beings throughout innumerable lifetimes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Karma Lekshe Tsomo is professor of theology & religious studies at the University of San Diego.

Date of Review: 
August 12, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vicki Mackenzie is a professional journalist and author who has written for the national and international press for over 40 years. Her articles have appeared in The Sunday TimesThe ObserverThe Daily and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and many national magazines. She has written extensively on Buddhist topics and was the first person to publish an interview with the Dalai Lama for The Sunday Times. She has been studying and practicing Buddhism since 1976.

Keywords: 

Comments

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.