In Spring 2008 in the Sonepat district of Haryana, an attractive 42-year-old, female spiritual teacher and TV personality known as Anandmurti Gurumaa (also known simply as Gurumaa) sat regally upon an elaborate stage created for the dual celebratory events of her birthday (8April) and her sannyas diwas (11April), the anniversary day of her renunciation, signified here by a name most commonly associated with ‘Hindu’ ascetism.1 Gurumaa’s senior-most disciple created the stage for her, which had a different incarnation for each of the two evening events. The architectural structure remained the same. On the night of Gurumaa’s birthday, when various classical Indian musicians performed for her and 3,000 or so guests sitting in the audience, the spaces on the stage’s backdrop were fitted with Hindu symbols; Lord Krishna dominated centre stage playing his flute, flanked by arches on either side with the large Sanskrit syllable, AUM. On the night of Gurumaa’s sannyas diwas, when quawali singers performed for an even larger crowd at what one might presume would be a ‘Hindu’ celebration, the Krishna and AUM decorations were replaced with screens created to look like Mughal geometric latticework. As the stage was being disassembled the following day, I noted to one of Gurumaa’s senior-most disciples that the naked base structure strangely resembled a mosque, mandir and gurdwara. She replied, ‘Yes, and it also looks like none of them!’ At this time, I had been residing for over two months as a scholar in Gurumaa
Ashram, and I had been observing Gurumaa both in the field and through her media long enough to know that the ‘spirituality’ she teaches draws from multiple religious traditions.2 Well before I entered the research field in India, I knew that Gurumaa had been born a Sikh, educated in a Catholic convent school, found her enlightenment in Vrindavan, the famous site of Lord Krishna’s amorous play among the gopis, and that she sometimes referred to herself as a Buddha and sometimes as a Sufi.3 But up until the very end of my first fieldwork stint in her ashram, I had been caught in the scholarly game of classification, trying to pinpoint this woman. Finally, I addressed a formal query to Gurumaa, which caused her to laugh at
me publicly. I should have known better. In fact, I had already given up identifying her strongly with one or another religious tradition; she told me face to face very early during my tenure in her ashram that she refused any such identification
with an ‘ism’. Regardless, my analytical training prevailed and I still wanted to know how she saw herself, or perhaps more importantly, how her followers – who themselves, I presumed, may have more difficulty transcending particular religious identities – would identify their master if they absolutely had to check one box. Would she be identified with any one religion or creed? Would she be considered, rather, a New Age guru? A meditation guru? A feminist guru? A TV Guru? Her boisterous laugh turned gentle as she responded to my ridiculous question, ‘You are not going to be able to put me in any box; I’ll keep you guessing!’ Anandmurti Gurumaa is a multi-talented, multi-lingual teacher of meditation and
‘spirituality’ situated at the intersection of Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi and Sikh mystical traditions. This youngAmritsar-born female guru’s discourses and musical compositions aired to satellite television and Internet audiences address the global fusion of linguistic, cultural and religious sensibilities encountered by her (mostly) urban disciples. Like the amorphous stage elaborately decorated to look like a temple one night and a mosque on another, Gurumaa too (having since dropped her ochre sannyas attire) adorns the physical body in different ways at different times, modelling idiosyncratic sartorial styles of religiosity and beauty that may look somewhat akin to Hindu or Muslim or Sikh styles and yet also like none of them. This chapter examines the style of pluralism modelled by Gurumaa to her ever-
expanding audience, exploring the notion that she draws from many classifiable ‘isms’, and yet remains difficult to place in any one of them. She is a little bit of everything rolled into one, or as one Indian American disciple explained, she’s an ‘all-in-one guru’. In both India and abroad, Gurumaa appeals to an educated class of urbanites who think of traditional ‘religion’ as a limiting boundary in a globalizing world of ‘spiritual’ possibilities. Regardless, Gurumaa’s appeal to these followers lies precisely in her ability to acknowledge tradition in an intelligent way – especially the heritage of Indian spiritual expertise – while at the same time to make innovations (as she put it to me) pertinent to ‘a new audience in a new time’. Thus, while Gurumaa models pluralism, it is naturally pluralism limited to some degree by the particularities of her physically manifest form and the audience attracted to the form. This essay suggests that we look at pluralism as it is mapped onto the body of a particular yet ‘global’ person as a somewhat parallel process to that pluralism mapped onto a particular and local yet ‘global’ city. As we do so, we might ask, ‘Do we find similar limitations to that pluralism?’ What I refer to in this essay as the ‘pluralism’ embodied by Gurumaa loosely
ties together disparate yet related notions that scholars have labelled variously: hybrid religious identity, religious plurality, religious syncretism or religious liminality (Das 1999; Madan 2003; Mayaram 2004; Oberoi 1994). This pluralism is held in contrast to the more politicized conceptions of pluralism as a virtue of civil society. Even as the boundaries of civil society expand from local to global proportions, pluralism as a political reality remains rooted in particular settings. This essay offers the idea that the more ephemeral pluralism embodied by individuals such as Gurumaa who seemingly move freely between cities, cultures and nation states – even religious identities – is likewise rooted in particularities, even while it evokes universality.