Even as the controversy over the entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala temple is raging, it may be worth recalling that some 35 years ago a woman became an adheenam – the head of a Saivite mutt – in Tamil Nadu. No eyebrows were raised and no questions were asked. In 1983, Sayimatha Siva Brinda Devi (1927–1998) was appointed the head of the monastic order Pudukkottai Thilakavadhiyaar Thiruvarul Adheenam.
Siva Brinda Devi belonged to a family that had a long tradition in music, while she herself was an accomplished veena player. She was also a close relative of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, the first qualified woman physician of Tamil Nadu.
Chiefs of many other Adheenams attended her inauguration function as the mutt head, whereas the chief of Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt Swami Jayendra Saraswathi sent his greetings. “So far, our country has seen adheenams headed only by male ascetics, and now it has got the opportunity to witness an adheenam headed by a woman ascetic,” decalred Ooran Adigal, the founder of Vadalur Sanmarga Sangam, in his congratulatory message.
An article in Kalki magazine had the headline: “Is it right for a woman to become a mutt head? Or is it contradictory?” Sahitya Karta Chidambaram V V Swarna Venkatesa commented – “This is Shakthi’s rule, and that too a compassionate one, and this should only be right! Something cannot be wrong, just because it hasn’t happened till now. All that has been happening till now are not automatically right either.”
Women are not allowed to take part in temple consecration ceremonies even today, but many may not believe that it was Sayimatha Siva Brinda Devi who performed the Pudukkottai Jeeva Nagar Vinayakar temple consecration amidst the chanting of Vedic hymns by pundits in 1975. She had gone on a pilgrimage to the Ayyappa temple around the year 1977, after she entered the ascetic order.
Brinda Devi was born in 1927 as the last child to Sivarama Nattuvanaar, who was the asthana vidwan of the princely state of Pudukkottai, and to Nallammaal, in Tirukokarnam, Pudukkottai. Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy was the daughter of Nallammaal’s close relative Chandrammaal, and Brinda Devi used to call Muthulakshmi Reddy ‘Periyamma’ (mother’s elder sister).
Siva Brinda Devi stayed in the house of professor of music Chittoor Subrahmanya Pillai, studied philosophy in Annamalai University and obtained a degree. Thanks to the efforts of Sachchidanandam Pillai, the then registrar of Annamalai University, Brinda Devi got admission for the training course in Saiva Siddhantha Shastram run by Dharmapura adheenam for thambirans. She was the only woman to have undergone that training, at that time. She used to stay in Mahavidwan Dhandapani Desikar’s house and attend her training.
“She was quite interested in social service, and remained a spinster. On the request of Kamarajar, she joined and was a member of the Congress party for some time. She also remained a member of the Pudukkottai municipality and the district social welfare group. She started the Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy Women’s Home for destitute women in 1957. Many leaders and celebrities like Kamarajar visited this place and her service came under praise from people like Periyar, who came here in 1972. She used to give talks on spirituality not only in India but also in countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. She toured the US in 1978 and gave talks on religion. After Swami Vivekananda, she is the one who spoke in American Universities on religion. Siva Brinda Devi became an ascetic in 1971,” says Dayananda Chandrasekara Swamigal, her adopted son and the head of the Thilagavathiyar Thiruvarul Adheenam.
“She took charge as the first woman head (adheenam) of Thilagavathiyar Thiruvarul Adheenam on 30th June 1983. She then conducted the first world conference of Hindu women in Coimbatore, and inaugurated the world religious conference held in New Jersey, US, in 1985. She addressed the conference for world peace held in Bad Nauheim city, in the then West Germany in 1986. Establishing a World Hindu Women’s University in Pudukkottai was her dream, for which she took up many initiatives. But that didn’t materialize in her lifetime,” he adds.
“She was particular that only a woman should succeed her and head this adheenam after her, and with this view, she selected and trained some women from places like Cuddalore, Palani, and Ponnamaravathi. But somehow, it didn’t work out. But I am determined to ensure that after my time, it will be a woman who will take charge and run this adheenam,” asserts Dayananda Chandrasekara Swamigal.