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Biographies of Magnified Agency: From Housewives to the Founders of Guru-Bhakti Communities


· Michal Riva Erlich Tel-Aviv University (Tel-Aviv, Israel)


07/28 | 16:30-16:50 UTC+2/CEST


The paper explores the life journeys of two female gurus – Śrī Rājmātā (1934-1999) and Śrī Rājeśvarī Devā (born in 1960). Each one founded a small and local guru-bhakti community in one of Delhi’s peripheries leading several hundred devotees who belong to the city’s geographical, economical and sociocultural margins. Such communities are pervasive yet under-researched in the academic literature that tends to focus on famous, pan-Indian, wealthy gurus and their followers of the middle-upper classes. Often, the peripheral communities are led by female gurus.

In this paper, I inquire how Śrī Rājmātā and Śrī Rājeśvarī Devā, two common housewives, who were not born either nurtured to be religious leaders gained authority and became founders of devotional communities. In order to answer this question, I analyze the life-stories of the two gurus which I gathered during two years of in-depth ethnographic fieldwork within their communities.

I argue that these life-stories are narratives of magnification of agency. They tell about the journey of self-made female gurus who transformed themselves from passive women with almost no influence on their own lives to powerful religious leaders who have a deep impact on others. The paper traces the emergence of their magnified agency. It further argues that this kind of agency is the result of these women’s ability to locate themselves as the focal axis of network of exceptional earthly and divine associations that transcend their defined traditional boundaries without demolishing them.