Vimala Thakar: Liberation Beyond Gender
Why don’t we know more about Vimala Thakar? I’ve just written a memoriam for our next issue about Vimala, a fiercely independent enlightened sage who pioneered a truly integrated form of inner and outer transformation, and the more I think about who she was and what she stands for, the more strange it becomes that she is so little known. There was almost no mention in the Western press that Vimala had passed away at her home in Rajasthan in March. In fact, even in her native India, the details of her passing were scarce. How could the world have missed the fact that perhaps the most spiritually enlightened woman on the planet had passed away? You would think, given the popularity of women’s spirituality, that she would be a well-known and widely revered figure, particularly among women. But she isn’t, which I think speaks volumes about us, as postmodern women, and how our preoccupation with ideas of the feminine and masculine can blind us to the truly revolutionary. Because Vimala Thakar courageously took an evolutionary leap beyond identification with being a woman and opened a whole new path for us all beyond gender as we know it. The question that comes to me is: why aren’t we following in her footsteps?
First, some background. Born in 1923 to a middle-class Brahmin family, Vimala had a powerful pull toward God or the Divine from a very early age. At the age of five, she ran away into the forest, calling and calling for God to come to her, because she had heard that God was in nature. (A friend of her father’s found her and dragged her back home, kicking and screaming.) Her father was an unusual man—a member of the Indian Rationalist Society who rejected Hinduism and the caste system—noted his daughter’s spiritual desire and encouraged her by giving her teachings from all of the religious traditions. Admonished by her father to find the Truth for herself, Vimala passionately pursued ultimate freedom, spending time in a cave in the Himalayas for months at the age of nineteen until she finally had a breakthrough in which “consciousness where there is no ‘I-ness,’ no sense of ‘me-ness’” began to pierce through her. Yet, shortly afterwards, she turned from her one-pointed pursuit of spiritual liberation. She had gone to America and saw how modernity with its technical innovation and scientific reasoning could lift the quality of life for so many. Wanting to have an impact on the lives of many rather than seek liberation for herself, Vimala returned to India and joined the Bhoodan Movement that worked to have the wealthy voluntarily give land to the poor. In 1956, she attended a lecture by the spiritual giant J. Krishnamurti and was taken by his rational, scientific approach to enlightenment. Through their relationship, Vimala finally achieved what she had been seeking in her youth—final liberation. And at Krishnamurti’s insistence, she began to teach, responding to requests to teach and lead meditation camps from all over the globe. In 1979, she turned back to social activism, uniting her spiritual call for inner mutation with her activist cry for social revolution. After thirty years of traveling, from 1961 to 1991, Vimala retired to Mt. Abu, in Rajasthan, where she received seekers, leaders, and activists from all over the world.
Now, for those of you familiar with Indian spiritual lore, Vimala’s story may sound like just another remarkable tale of transcendence in the land of the miraculous. But what is striking about her story is how contemporary it is—Vimala was very aware of going beyond the expectations for women in her culture, was passionate about scientific inquiry, and was committed to social action to transform society rather than service to assuage the pain of the poor. She had no tolerance for religious dogma, ritual, or superstition. Her enlightenment was realized in a modern context and values the rational—she did not become an expression of the mythic Divine Mother or Divine Feminine because those are expressions of enlightenment within a pre-modern or traditional culture—the context in which the great religions arose. As she said in a 1996 interview with this magazine:
…In India, Hinduism says woman can never be liberated in a woman’s body. If she behaves, if she follows bhakti yoga, then she may be born again in a male body and then she will be liberated. Buddhists and Jains also never accept that a woman in a woman’s body can be emancipated. Nor do the Catholics accept it. So at best a woman becomes a mother figure, such as Anandamayi Ma, or this figure or that figure. And she teaches as the Mother, not as an emancipated person.
But through her own liberation, Vimala freed herself from the traditional female roles that have even been associated with enlightened women. And in so doing, she pointed the way for us postmodern women—those of us born into or after the social revolutions of the 1960s—to step forward to become emancipated persons.
Ironically, because we in the West have been so preoccupied with gender difference in our search for liberation and equality, we women have paid far more attention to enlightened women who express and embrace more typically feminine characteristics. In our desire to validate the feminine experience and to find role models (you know, after millennia of what is perceived to be masculine or male domination), too often we have gone back to examples that are not really relevant to our time, context, and level of sophistication as evolved human beings.
Enlightened=liberated, for sure, but it doesn’t eradicate the cultural frameworks and structures within which one becomes liberated. Our reaching into the past for examples ignores the fact that how one’s spiritual experience or liberation is expressed will be culturally mediated. And we need to find, and to be, expressions of liberation for our time.
Vimala was by no means “unfeminine,” yet she was free of any self-preoccupation with gender or identification with it. I had the remarkable good fortune to meet her twice, both after her retirement from public life, and was stunned to encounter her extraordinary intelligence, inquisitiveness, and penetrating clarity. Yes, “penetrating!” Liberated from all self-reflection, the entire force of consciousness was free to engage and seek truth through her. Looking into Vimala’s eyes was like falling deeper and deeper into oneself—you met no boundaries, no walls, no separation. Yet she brooked no fuzziness in thinking, responding only to the highest clarity in oneself. As a friend and colleague said, she expressed qualities such as directness, solidity, rationality, dignity, penetrating inquiry that we usually associate with masculinity but there was simultaneously nothing masculine about her. It shows that these are qualities of consciousness itself, not something gendered. We women do an enormous disservice to ourselves and our evolution (and the potentials that can be realized between us and with men) by rejecting these higher capacities of human being because of their historical association with men.
I’d like to encourage everyone to take to heart the life, work, and remarkable spiritual achievement of Vimala Thakar. Over the past fifteen years, EnlightenNext (under our old incarnation as What Is Enlightenment?) had published three articles about Vimala—one an interview, another a biography, and the third an excerpt from her revolutionary book about inner and outer revolution. She alone among women has forged a pathway in consciousness toward a liberation beyond gender that pushes the edge of the possible. As she now has passed beyond this world, who among us will step forward and continue to walk the path that her courageous soul has lit for us all?