Saints Who Walked the Razor’s Edge
The spiritual path is like walking barefoot on the razor’s edge. —Katha Upanishad
Among the lofty scriptures of ancient Bharat, the land of India, is the Sri Durga Saptasati also called The Devi Mahatmyam. This epic of the Creator as Mother is an allegorical battle between light and darkness, graphically portraying Divine Mother in Her aspects of compassion and granting of liberation. As the story begins, a king and a businessman have come to a forest sage in search of answers after each one has suffered a devastating loss. The sage gradually reveals to them that it is by the illusory power of maya that we are all deluded:
The universe is born from Her, the perceivable world with all that moves and moves not, and it is She who, after satisfaction, bestows upon men the blessing of liberation. It is She who is the ultimate knowledge, the cause of the liberation of Consciousness, the Eternal Existence; and She is the cause of the bondage of Consciousness to objects and their relationships, the full and complete Supreme over all sovereigns.
The sage tells Her story:
Vast legions of Thoughts, led by the Great Ego, are arrayed on the battlefield against the single warrior-goddess, Durga, “She Who Tears Apart Thought.” The devas, who represent the divine qualities within each of us, battle with the asuras, our negative qualities or ignorance, but the Supreme, in the form of the Goddess, ultimately bestows liberation, moksha. Within the seven hundred verses of this epic, after ignorance is vanquished and peace and bliss reign in heaven and earth, the celestials sing a hymn of praise to the Goddess:
You are the Energy of The Consciousness Which Pervades All, of infinite valor, the Seed of the Universe, that which is beyond limitation. By you, Oh Goddess, all is deluded by attachment, and if you are gracious, you are the cause of liberation in this world.
Oh Goddess, all that is knowable are your various distinctions, and all women in the world reflect your capacity entirely. By you, Oh Mother, this world is filled. For you who are beyond praise, how can we sing of your glory?
As a woman sadhika (seeker), the line, “all women in the world reflect your capacity entirely,” has always touched me deeply. It has inspired my search of the Goddess within, as well as her many manifestations in this world in various places and times. Especially it has inspired my study of the saints and holy women who embody Her divine qualities. In essence, every woman saint demonstrates a holy fearlessness as she transcends personal trials and perseveres despite all obstacles until her Goal is attained. Though the saints’ lives may be radically different from our own, each one has a message for us if we are open to receive it.Whether their battles were internal or external or both, whether they chose Perfection or Perfection chose them, saints who have walked the razor’s edge are the true heroineswho inspire our path to Enlightenment.
Renunciation and Transformation
During the life of the Buddha (560-480 b.c.), Patacara was the beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant. When her parents arranged for her marriage, she eloped with a servant in the household and lived as a farmer’s wife. She had two sons but within a day of the second child’s birth, during a terrible storm, she lost her husband to a poisonous snakebite, her newborn was snatched from her arms by an eagle while she was crossing a river, and her older child was swept into the current. Half mad with grief, she proceeded to her parents’ home but heard on the way that their house had collapsed in the storm and they had been killed. Patacara became completely insane, tore off her clothes and wandered howling while others pelted her with stones.
Finally she came into the vicinity where the Buddha was staying. The Buddha knew that she had aspired in a previous life to be a nun well versed in the spiritual disciplines. He instructed the disciples not to obstruct her and when she came and knelt at His feet, she regained her right mind. She became aware of her nakedness and a lay-disciple threw a cloak over her. When she told the Buddha of her tragedy, He spoke compassionately of her many births where she had wept oceans of tears over the loss of dear ones, telling her that this was “only tiny drops in the ocean of impermanence in which all beings drown if they are attached to that which rises and ceases.” His words so penetrated her mind, which through shock had become entirely detached, that she completely grasped the impermanence of all conditioned things. According to tradition, she attained Enlightenment the very next night. The Buddha called Patacara the foremost “Keeper of the Vinaya” (spiritual disciplines) among the nuns. Her embrace of the rules of conduct and need for purification, based upon her personal experiences, was a great inspiration to the nuns whom she guided for the rest of her life.
Purity and Compassion
Miao-shan was born in the 7th century b.c. in China, the youngest of three daughters of King Miao-chuang-yen and Queen Pao-ying. Many auspicious signs accompanied her arrival, which people interpreted as the birth of a holy person, but her parents did not believe. Miao-shan was gentle and kind and in the palace was known as “the maiden with the heart of a Buddha.” The king was greedy, however, and having no sons, planned his future prosperity on his three daughters’ marriages. When Miao-shan told them she would not marry, she preferred a life of prayer and celibacy, her father grew angry. He made her work in the garden and allowed her very little food, feeling that she would relent. She created a beautiful garden from barren land but this only made her father more furious.
The king finally ordered Miao-shan to be executed and his soldiers took her deep into the forest. At the moment they raised their swords to kill her, a white tiger appeared, grasped her in its mouth and bounded away to a mountain cave. The cave then dissolved and Miao-shan found herself in the realm of Yen-Lo-Wang, ruler of the dead. There she was surrounded by the suffering cries of innumerable beings held with no possibility of escape. Miao-shan challenged Yen-Lo-Wang in a loud voice, her whole being radiant with light. Through her compassionate prayers the suffering souls were freed one by one and the realm became filled with light and heavenly music.
Miao-shan found herself back in the cave on earth where she continued to pray until the Buddha appeared to her. He gave her a peach to eat and told her it would prevent her from becoming hungry or thirsty until she attained her supreme goal. He guided her to proceed to PutuoShan, a small island in the East China Sea, where she remained in deep meditation for many years. As Miao-shan ultimately reached the threshold of Nirvana, she heard the cries of beings caught in samsara, the cycle of karmic existence. She prayed: “If in times to come I am to obtain power to benefit all beings, may I now be endowed with a thousand hands and a thousand eyes,” and instantly her prayer was granted. Miao-shan is considered to be the human embodiment of Kuan Yin, the female bodhisattva of Avalokiteshwara, the thousand-armed and thousand-eyed Buddha of Infinite Compassion. Stories of Kuan Yin’s miracles are well known throughout China and Asia and the island of PutuoShan, where monasteries and thousands of temples to Kuan Yin have been built and rebuilt over the centuries, remains her most revered pilgrimage.
Rabi'a Al-'Adawiyya (717-801 a.d.) was born in Basra, Iraq, the youngest of four sisters. Her parents were poor and they died in a famine soon after she was born. Eventually Rabia became separated from the rest of her family, was kidnapped and then sold into slavery. In some accounts, because of her astonishing beauty she was sold to a famous brothel. She wrote, “What a place for trials and transformation did my Lover put me, but never once did He look upon me as if I were impure. Dear sisters, all we do in this world, whatever happens, is bringing us closer to God.”
When Rabia was about fifty years of age she was freed, perhaps by a rich patron. She left Basra and moved into a simple hut in the countryside. She lived alone and in poverty the rest of her life. Marriage offers came, even from the Amir of Basra, but she had no interest in anything or anyone but her Beloved. Love of God was her entire existence. Five hundred years before Rumi, she lived and taught that we should love God for His own sake, not out of fear; she was the first Sufi to speak of God as the Lover and unquestionably influenced the Sufi movement from that time onward. Rabia viewed fear and other negative emotions as impediments to the true vision of God. “O Allah!” she prayed, “If I worship You for fear of hell, burn me in hell, and if I worship You in hope of paradise, exclude me from paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”
As her fame grew Rabia had many disciples and took part in discussions with renowned religious people of her time. At one such gathering a Sufi said, “He is not sincere in his claim who is not patient under chastisement of his Lord.” Rabia commented, “I smell egotism in his words.” Another Sufi said, “He is not sincere who is not thankful for the chastisement of his Lord.” A third said, “He is not sincere who does not delight in the chastisement of his Lord,” but Rabia was not satisfied with any of these. Finally they asked her and she said, “He is not sincere who even perceives chastisement of his Lord.”
Rabia lived and taught until her eighties when her highest aspiration was sublimely consummated. The poetry she left behind is a treasure of wisdom and devotion. In renderings by Daniel Ladinsky we experience a glimpse of her God-intoxication:
I know how it will be when I die,
my beauty will be so extraordinary that God will
He will not worship me from a distance, for our
minds will have wed,
our souls will have flowed into each other.
How to say this: God and I
will forever cherish
Commanded by God
“When I was thirteen, I had a voice from God to help me to govern myself. The first time, I was terrified. The voice came to me about noon: it was summer, and I was in my father’s garden…” Joan of Arc (circa 1412-1431 a.d.) was born to humble parents in the village of Domremy, now a part of France. It was the seventy-fifth year of the Hundred Years’ War between the English and the French. Jehanette, as she was known locally, was a simple-hearted, healthy peasant girl. Of her first experience of the voice she recalled, “There was a great light all about… I saw it many times before I knew that it was Saint Michael.”
Michael instructed her how to be a good child, telling her that she should go often to church and that God would help her. “He told me that Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret would come to me, and that I must follow their counsel; that they were appointed to guide and counsel me in what I had to do, and that I must believe what they would tell me, for it was at our Lord’s command.”
The voices told her about the victory she would lead in Orléans. She feared the Burgundians but even more that her father would prevent her from going to France. “But since God had commanded me to go, I must do it. And since God had commanded it, had I had a hundred fathers and a hundred mothers, and had I been a king’s daughter, I would have gone. It pleased God thus to act through a simple maid in order to turn back the King’s enemies.”
When Joan finally reached the court, she recognized Charles, the Dauphin, easily in spite of the jester’s clothing he had worn to fool her. She told him in private, “I bring you news from God, that our Lord will give you back your kingdom, bringing you to be crowned at Reims, and driving out your enemies. In this I am God’s messenger. Do you set me bravely to work, and I will raise the siege of Orléans.”
In March, 1429, Joan of Arc told Charles, “I shall last a year, and but little longer: we must think to do good work in that year.” Within a year she had led the French army to victories at Orléans, Patay and Troyes. Many other towns were also liberated from English control and it allowed a triumphal entry into Reims for the coronation of King Charles VII on 17 July, 1429. A year later she was captured by the Burgundian forces and sold to the English. Without any intervention by the French King, she was put on trial for witchcraft by the English and their clergy. Enduring a yearlong imprisonment and torment by her captors, deceived with false promises and sick in body and mind, she eventually confessed to the crimes brought against her. A week later, when she understood the wrong she had committed, she recanted her statement and was condemned to be executed. She was nineteen years old. It is said that 10,000 people witnessed her burning at the stake. In her last conscious moments she asked for a cross to be brought and it was held before her at eye level until she expired with her last words, “Jesus, Jesus.”
In Search of the Eternal Lover
In the 12th century a.d., Akka Mahadevi was born in Karnataka, India, to a pious couple who were worshipers of Shiva, the Transformation aspect of God in the Hindu Trinity. Akka grew to be extremely beautiful and one day Kausika, the local prince, saw her while riding in a procession. He sent his ministers to her family repeatedly with a marriage proposal but each time Akka refused. The prince was desperate to have her at all costs and so his royal ministers finally threatened her parents with death if Akka did not agree to the marriage. Following a religious dictum to protect Shiva’s devotees, she agreed to marry the prince but gave several conditions; if Kausika violated these three times, she would be free to leave the marriage. The ministers happily recorded her conditions in a document and the marriage took place.
Each day Akka would spend in worship of Chenna Mallikarjuna, her “Lord White as Jasmine,” a form of Shiva. She would feed the devotees and spend time with them singing to her Beloved, and then night would come and she would have to spend it with her husband. Over time the prince violated her conditions three times and Akka was free to leave the palace. She roamed the countryside singing to Shiva and made her way to Srisaila, the holy mountain abode of her Beloved. She lived contentedly in the caves and spent her days worshiping to her heart’s content. Then Kausika came dressed as a devotee of Shiva, fell at her feet and tried to win her back, but she was beyond any earthly temptation. She told him she had nothing more to do with him. Akka wrote hundreds of exquisite vachanas, spiritual compositions, in the Kannada language. She defied the social norms by remaining “sky clad” (without clothes) as she was entirely detached from the material world, her entire being surrendered to her Lord. She rose higher and higher until she achieved mystical union with her Beloved, of Whom she wrote:
I have seen Him in His divine form,
Him with the matted locks,
Him with the jeweled crown,
Him with the gleaming teeth,
Him with the smiling face,
Him who illumines the fourteen worlds with
the light of His eyes.
I have seen Him and the thirst of my eyes is quenched.
And saved am I.
Passages from the Sri Durga Saptasati are from Chandi Path, translated by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, 1997, reprinted with permission of Devi Mandir Publications, Napa CA, www.shreemaa.org.
Buddhist Women at the Time of The Buddha by Hellmuth Hecker, translated from the German by Sister Khema, Wat Buddha Dhamma, Wisemans Ferry, N.S.W.2255 Australia.
Kuan Yin: Accessing the Power of the Divine Feminine by Daniela Schenker, Sounds True 2007.
Saints and Sages by Swami Shivananda, Divine Life Society, Durban, South Africa.
Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West by Daniel Ladinsky, Penguin Compass 2002.
Quotations by Joan of Arc from Joan of Arc In Her Own Words, compiled and translated by Willard Trask, used with permission of Books & Co., A Turtle Point Imprint, NY 1996.
Poem of Akka Mahadevi from Women Saints of East and West, used with permission of Ramakrishna Vedanta Centre, Holland Park, London, 1955 and 1972.
© 2008 by Truth Consciousness. Sita Stuhlmiller is the editor of Light of Consciousness and resides at Sacred Mountain Ashram in Boulder, Colorado.
Reprinted with the kind permission of Sita Stuhlmiller & the Light of Consciousness magazine
Photo Credits: All photos & title type pictures compliments of Light of Consciousness for which we thank you with great love & esteem!
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Sita Stuhlmiller is a disciple of Swami Amar Jyoti and has resided at Sacred Mountain Ashram in Boulder, Colorado for the past 35 years. Truth Consciousness, publisher of Light of Consciousness, is a non-profit organization founded in the 1970s by Swami Amar Jyoti. Sita is the editor of Light of Consciousness, which is known for the purity of its presentation of spirituality, its bold interfaith approach to the unity underlying all faiths and religions, and the merging interface between science and spirituality. Sita also leads kirtan and devotional chanting at the ashrams founded by her Guru.
The spiritual awakening on earth that Swami Amar Jyoti reveals is the glorious destiny of mankind, once freed from our limited identity of self. Lovingly and ceaselessly, He continues to uplift and purify each of us for this awakening, for His way is the ancient relationship of the Guru to the disciple, the candle lit directly from the burning flame of Truth. He constantly reminds us that we are at a breakthrough into a new age, where religions will be transformed into direct awakening and communion with our Highest Source. Like a mother whose love knows no bounds for her child, the Guru guides and nurtures the disciple on his or her own path to perfection, revealing in Himself the attainable Reality of God Consciousness.