But photos of a woman spiritual leader, Radhe Maa, posing provocatively in a thigh-high red miniskirt and red boots recently went viral online, sparking an ongoing debate over whether Maa is being held to a double standard because she’s a woman.
“As guru apparel goes, Radhe Maa really couldn’t have gone any edgier,” filmmaker Tanuja Chandra wrote in an opinion piece in the Times of India Sunday. “She should have known better; purity and piety don’t mix well with a really sexy dress.”
Maa, who is 50, was born in the northern Indian state of Punjab to modest circumstances, earning work early on as a seamstress.
Over the years, she’s built a following of millions from her base in the western state of Maharashtra, appearing to devotees dressed in a glittering red gown at small religious gatherings where prayer songs are sung and offerings distributed. She has even been known to throw diamond and emerald rings at some of her more deep-pocketed supplicants, Chandra noted.
She is said to be inspired by the Hindu goddess Durga, the demon slayer, and carries as small trident during her appearances.
Along with the miniskirt photos, a rather harmless video of her dancing – twirling in a garden in a sparkly red dress – also have been posted online in recent days. More disturbingly, she is being questioned by the Mumbai police after the wife of a family of her followers filed a police report alleging that Maa pressed them to ask for excessive dowry.
She was looking otherworldy when a reporter from a Times Now television station caught up with her recently at the airport, sporting enormous sunglasses, red lipstick and carrying the trident in one hand and a rose in the other.
“In the eyes of God I am right,” she said. “Those who love me and those who are my true devotees know I am right," she said. "That’s why I have no tension. … I’m not vulgar. I am mother.”
Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar, an anthropologist and scholar of comparative religion in Goa who has studied Indian gurus, said that there are far more godmen than female spiritual leaders in India. Two, Anandamayi Ma, who died in 1982, and Mata Amritanadamayi, also known as “Amma” (mother) and known for hugging her devotees, have legitimately inspired millions, she said.
Poggendorf-Kakar said Maa was likely being judged with more severity because she is a woman, for reasons more cultural than spiritual.
“Because of the cultural idiom of the ideal woman standing for moral integrity, purity and representing the price and the clan of the nation, women are often made responsible and judged differently and harsher than men,” she said.