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Pratima - Female Spiritual Teacher

by Marjolein Wolf(more info)

listed in interviews, originally published in issue 35 - December 1998


A turning point in history

For a long time spiritual teachers and gurus were mostly men. A remarkable development is, however, occurring at the moment. More and more women are standing up, saying that they see the Light and starting to spread their spiritual message all over the world. Who are they? Where do they come from? Do their teachings differ in content or style from the teachings of their male colleagues? Journalist Marjolein Wolf tries to answer these questions in a series of interviews with female spiritual teachers. This is the first one: the story of Pratima.

Early Days

Pratima was born as Michele Mumford in Liverpool in 1952 to two University Professors. She was brought up in England and received her B.A. Hons. in Philosophy and Comparative Religion at Nottingham University. She then started to travel all over the world, meeting many spiritual teachers and gurus. She visited India and the Middle East, Asia and Africa, South America, the United States and Canada.

From the American Indians she learnt how to make beadwork. Sixteen years ago she settled in Bali, where the beadwork slowly developed into a thriving business. Her female labour force has extended to several Balinese villages.

Pratima (Photograph by Albertine van Peursen)

Pratima (Photograph by Albertine van Peursen)

Pratima was searching in the spiritual field until she met the Indian Vedanta teacher Sri H.W.L. Poonjaji in Lucknow, North India. He was teaching in the tradition of the holy sage Sri Ramana Maharishi. From Poonjaji – called 'Papaji' by his devotees – she received the name Pratima, meaning 'in the image of God'. In 1993, four years before Poonjaji passed away, he told her to go and give Satsang (meeting in Truth). Since then she has been doing this, mostly in Bali, Australia and Europe.

'As far as freedom is concerned there is no male or female.'

When did you first come in contact with spirituality?

I was 11 when I first remember tasting a deep inner stillness. I knew existence was totally taking care of me. When I was 15 my parents took me to yoga classes and evening talks. The teacher was a 65 year old English gentleman, who had travelled the world. He was old and wise and very beautiful. It was a good start to have him as my first teacher. At the same time LSD was being introduced into Liverpool. It was the heyday of the Beatles. It was with LSD that my first recognition of the possibility of freedom occurred. I experienced a state in which there was the realisation that nothing was separate from myself. There were no judgements: this is good, this is bad. No beliefs, no concepts, no ideas. There was not an individual separate from the whole to have an opinion. From that moment on all I wanted was to rediscover that quality of life again, by myself, without anything artificial. I knew that 'being here and now' was possible, temporarily; I had experienced it.

What did you do to find that state of consciousness again?

I started really sincerely meditating, doing yoga, visiting spiritual teachers, doing everything I could. When I was 21 I made my first trip to India, hitchhiking overland on my own. I told my parents that I had to go to India because I had never known suffering. I remember one of my first experiences of real suffering was in Puri in Orissa State. I came out of the temple and there were a few beggars so I bought puffed rice to give to them. Suddenly there were beggars coming from all directions, pulling on my clothes, screaming: 'mama, mama, baksheesh.'... The more puffed rice I bought, the more beggars came. There were forty, fifty around me. I realised that no matter how much rice I bought these beggars, and no matter how many hours or days I stood there, I could never remove their suffering. It was impossible to cure the suffering of humanity. I gave up, ran down to a silent corner of the beach and cried and cried.

What happened afterwards?

I travelled all over the world, looking for truth. In Thailand I stayed in a Buddhist monastery, in Laos I received personal tutoring from a wonderful monk for six months. Back in Wales I lived in a community of 60 spiritually minded people in Native American Indian 'tipis'. In the States, I stayed with the Indians, took part in their sweatlodges and pow wows and tasted the depths of their spiritual tradition. In India I stayed in numerous ashrams, spent time with the Naga Babas and sat in the Himalayas with the sadhus. I still felt that I had to try harder and immersed myself in Vipassana Meditation. It was all rather dry for me and so eventually I went to the ashram of Osho and took sannyas. I did groups there, worked on the psychological level. It all seemed a good preparation for what happened to me when I finally met Papaji. Although Papa always said that nothing you have done in the past necessarily brings you to the moment of Awakening.

So that brings us to Papaji. After meeting so many spiritual teachers and gurus, why did you choose this particular one?

How can I say I chose him? They say that when the apple is ready to drop the Master chooses you! I became curious about Papaji when I heard that he was saying one could win freedom right now. I had never heard that before. People had always told me previously that it was a very long search. When I heard about Papa – it was in '91 – I had already been searching for twenty four years. I decided that I had to meet this man. In January '92 I finally met Papaji. On the first day I realised there was no doubt at all that he was an awakened Master. Gradually it became clear that I had met the love of my life. I had found a man who absolutely loved me exactly as I was. From that moment on I wanted nothing other than to be in his presence, at all costs.

How did your contact with him develop?

I had so many questions in the beginning. Every time a question arose I asked him. Not only during Satsang, I also used to wait outside the gate of his house – sometimes the whole day - just to be in his presence. I was very determined that the only thing I wanted was to be with him. Finally he let me in and the interactions became more frequent. The contact became more intimate. He would sit me next to him and put morsels of food into my mouth and as his eyes met mine I would feel my ego melting into oblivion. Going on holiday with him was the greatest treat, massaging him overlooking the river Ganges – heaven, total peace! When he looked into my eyes, I could see that he knew everything about me. He knew me better than I knew myself and still he just accepted me exactly the way I was. Total unconditional love, constantly confirming me in freedom itself. I could no longer doubt myself. By his grace I finally recognised the truth of my being and came home to that place I had never really left.

Was that a way of achieving Enlightenment?

Enlightenment cannot be achieved. It is not something that one can work towards and attain. It is not about changing anything or about getting anything new, it is simply that concepts and doubts are removed. Finally you can allow yourself to be just exactly who you are! In this acceptance of everything as it is, the realisation occurs that there is actually no separate individual here to achieve anything.

Papaji chipped away at my ego as if it were a block of marble. Sometimes he boosted it up and sometimes he slashed it down. You never knew moment to moment what would be next. There wasn't a particular moment when I can say I awakened to my true nature. It was more like desires and aversions, fixed ideas and beliefs gradually slipped unnoticed out of the back door. It was more of a noticing of their absence rather than a noticing of something new being present. One day I asked Papa: 'You say that Awakening can happen in an instant, but could it also be a gradual flowering?' He answered: 'Whatever you want.'

Can you give an example of how your life changed in that period?

Well, for example in the field of relationships. Up until Papaji men were the main focus in my life. Either the current boyfriend or the search for the next boyfriend. All those relationships were repeats of the same stories, the same old issues. Then with Papa I found the love of my life. From that moment on something changed. It was not that I gave up men consciously, it was that the need for a relationship dropped away by itself. I was simply not interested anymore. I didn't even want to be with a man, because I felt I would have to compromise my time with Papa and with my burning desire for freedom. Even if I wasn't in Lucknow with Papa, but in Bali, still I was listening to his tapes, watching videos and reading his books. How many boyfriends are happy sitting silently, listening to Papaji's tapes all the time? Most men aren't interested and I wasn't compromising.

So you completely avoid men since then?

No no, I'm very happily married now. When I finally dropped the neediness and I was not looking for the next boyfriend anymore, only then could a really suitable man come into my life. He doesn't fit into any of my old patterns. He is a very quiet soul and we don't need to talk a lot together. To be with a quiet man is so precious to me these days. He has also been deeply touched by Papaji and has recognised his true nature. In this there is a profound sharing between us and no matter what circumstances may appear, neither of us become too identified anymore. We both know that this is not our personal story and that actually there is no one here to be affected by any passing occurrence anyway. Papaji married us in an elaborate Indian ceremony in which we walked around a small fire surrounded in flowers. There's a certain wisdom in this relationship that I never had before in relating. There has also been quite a change in the way I experience sexuality. Making love was an active thing for me in the past; there was something to attain. Now the attention is more in our hearts and on our breath merging, there is nothing that needs doing anymore and the whole thing has become much more of a heartfelt, spiritual experience.

When did you decide to start to give Satsang?

It wasn't my decision. It was during his birthday celebration in October '93 that Papa called me over. He said: 'You will be very good'. I asked: 'What do you mean, Papa?' Then he said: 'Tomorrow you give Satsang.' I was really amazed. The first Satsang was the next day, lots of people came and it all worked out very well. Then Papa had to go away and I continued doing Satsang in Lucknow for awhile. Shortly after that I went back to Bali and continued giving Satsang there and wherever I went.

Do you think the fact that Papaji asked you to give Satsang had anything to do with the fact that you are a woman?

One will never know Papa's reasons, but I don't think it had anything to do with being female at all. It just happened that he felt that this being was suitable. He asked several men to go out and share his message but only two women, Gangaji and myself. It is his gift to me and it is such a blessing. My gratitude to him is inexpressible.

Is there a difference in the way male and female teachers transmit their teachings?

Basically there is no difference, clarity is clarity. Individual personality differences will always be there but in terms of the truth it's genderless. The delivery of the teachings is always in the relative world because we have to use words to attempt to talk about the inexpressible. We have a mind and body and therefore a personality structure that has been created in us and we can only speak from that framework. So I would say there are more individual differences than sexual differences. As far as freedom is concerned there is no male or female.

Then why were there not so many female teachers in the past?

Well, look at the situation. This understanding is coming from India, where women are still very much considered as inferior. They were commodities owned by men. They didn't receive an education. Unfortunately in many places it is still like this. Even in our own culture... I was brought up in a relatively liberated family. My father did more of the housekeeping than my mother. She was a total feminist; she has spent her whole life fighting for equality and still is, even today. My grandmother had to leave her job as the headmistress of a school because she got married; she was struggling for equality too. So for women, having these opportunities is a very recent development. I was lucky to be brought up in a very equal minded family. Already as a young lady I used to protest if a man would open the door for me. I'd say: 'You open your door and I'll open mine, thanks!'

There are spiritual traditions saying that women are not able to achieve Enlightenment and that they had better wait for a next life to be born as a man...

I absolutely disagree! I believe that women have completely equal potential for Awakening as men. We will start to see that now, as this is the first emancipated generation. Actually we are already seeing it. There are more and more female teachers: Gangaji, Shantimayi, Catherine Ingram, Mira, and Neelam... In India they have hardly had a chance to teach so far, but since that is also changing we are seeing women coming out of India too, like Ammaji, and Vimala Thakar. Their message is spread through their hearts and their love. This is nothing new. The great female mystics Mirabai and Anandamayi Ma were incredible examples of Awakened women. In the ancient Celtic civilisation women were the providers of spiritual wisdom. They held the knowledge and the power of magic and healing. Even today in the Amazon Basin there are matriarchal based societies. I believe it is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the human race that men have held the upper hand, and now the balance is finally being corrected.

So many women in the past have been hiding their spiritual wisdom.

It cannot be hidden, it shines forth naturally in everyday life. They just didn't have the opportunity to share it with many people. It's not that long ago since women were burnt at the stake for their wisdom. These days, I know many women who are totally resting in the understanding of their true nature, but they choose not to be so verbal about it. Some of them are deeply quiet and content within themselves. They have no desire to take their understanding out into the market place. After all the message of Ramana and Papaji is essentially: be quiet.

Is it a general tendency of women to keep quiet, stay in the background?

I don't think it's a natural tendency of women to do either but it may have been more common in the past. We are beginning to see a revolution in women's consciousness. Personally I believe we will rapidly start to see more female spiritual teachers than men! After all, women are more connected to their hearts and to spirituality than men, it's easier for us than for men, it's more our basic nature. As Barry Long says: 'Women are 100% love and men are 90% love and 10% something to do!'

Are there any differences between you and your male colleagues?

Essentially, no. Freedom recognises no differences. There are superficial differences in style and form. For example, I like to sit in a circle during Satsang so that we can all see each other equally well. It adds an intimacy and a warmth to our gatherings and there is less danger of people feeling you are different from them in some way. I feel the gift that I bring is that I am obviously just like everybody else. I am just like you. My gift is that, if I can recognise that I have always been free, so can you. Yes, maybe this particular style is a feminine quality but there may be men who like to do it this way too. It is dangerous to generalise. There are no rules to freedom.

How would you compare yourself with the well-known spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen?

I do not compare myself with anyone. We all have our role to play in this movie we call life. It does seem to me however, that Andrew missed the point of the Vedantic teachings. He does not seem to recognise that freedom is choiceless. He seems to believe that it is not sufficient to realise one's true nature but that you must cultivate immaculate behaviour too. But whose idea of immaculate? A Chinese man's or an African's or an English woman's idea of perfect behaviour are all very different. Not only that, but who can say what is correct behaviour in each moment? Sometimes the most ruthless actions are the most compassionate. Papaji was totally ruthless in the methods he used to wake people up, including Andrew. If Papa had not been so uncompromising with me, I don't think I ever would have recognised the truth; I had a very stubborn mind. He had to trick me out of it, in ways that were often extremely baffling. Ways that did not seem like immaculate behaviour at all at the time. You know for yourself, sometimes an occurrence initially appears very disruptive, but proves later to be a blessing in disguise. You simply never know, especially around a Master. Nevertheless, I must say I am extremely grateful to Andrew, because he revealed the danger in the role of a teacher, of becoming identified with a particular way of being, with a delineated set of rules. In truth how can there be any methodology, any code of behaviour? Each individual's awakening is completely unique. It is the allowing of who you already are, to be exactly as it is without judgement or condition. Still, if you are a student of Andrew and believe it will help you recognise your freedom by shaving your head or taking a vow of celibacy then go ahead. It's just - why waste time? You are already totally perfect as you are. You can recognise that now or when you finally believe you have done everything you should do, towards your spiritual growth. Tell me honestly, will you ever truly be able to say you have done enough?

What are your expectations for the future?

For me personally I have no idea. I know that it is choiceless and that everything will reveal itself and become obvious in its own time. I am content to wait and see what the future reveals. One thing that seems clear is that the message of Ramana and Papaji is reaching an extraordinary number of people. My colleagues and I are ambassadors, spreading this incredible message around the world. I would like to encourage everyone, especially women, to share in this gift, to stand up and declare from the rooftops: 'I am free and there is no doubt about it!'

In general, I do see a rapid expansion of consciousness. The mundane, material issues are dealt with more easily than before. There are now so many people with so much material wealth, that it is clear that personal wealth cannot bring us happiness. Due to the sexual revolution we have the freedom to have as many relationships as we want. We see too, that this does not bring us satisfaction.

Then we have the opportunity to try several jobs... So we can try many different kinds of things and we see: no, this does not fulfil me either. For example, the reason why buying a Rolls Royce gives us happiness is that when the desire is fulfilled and we are no longer running after it, we fall back to our quiet centre. It is resting in this centre that is the cause of our happiness and not the attainment of what we wanted. What is fulfilling is not dependent on the ever-changing circumstances of life. Place your attention on that which never changes: go within, beyond your mind and emotions to the very source of your being. You are already free. It takes less than a second to realise it. You can do it now.

Further Information

Pratima gave Satsang in London on four occasions in June 1999, organised by the Ramana Maharishi Foundation U.K. These took place on Thursday 1st, Friday 2nd, Thursday 8th and Friday 9th June 1999.

For further information please contact: Friends of Pratima, c/o Alan Jacobs and Jane Adams on tel. 020-7328-6610 or fax. 020-7328-0910.


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About Marjolein Wolf

Marjolein Wolf is a 35-year-old journalist, writing freelance for Dutch magazines about spirituality. A Raja Yoga practitioner for many years, she is particularly interested in ancient Hindu philosophy. She has travelled to India five times, visiting several ashrams, gurus and spiritual teachers. She has published various articles about these trips. Previous interviews by Marjolein in Positive Health have been: in Issue 21 – Indian Yoga Teacher Sukumar Shetty; and in Issue 31 – Yoga and Vedanta Teacher Shastri.


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