When One Million People Believe Your Husband Is a God
The first ever interview with Gadiwala, the woman behind the man behind India's fastest growing religion.
Gadiwala's favorite moments are the ordinary ones. Quiet, off-duty time when her husband is not traveling around the world visiting his devotees or building temples, and her daughter and son can be distracted from their homework. "What's important is we're together," she says.
She is not permitted to speak to men who aren't family members, or to be seen by the male members of her religion, and so spends much of her day in seclusion in her family home in the large city of Ahmedabad, in western India. It's here we meet her, led through to a small private lounge by Gadiwala's personal maid. She's sitting on a raised wooden couch across the room in the lotus position—wearing a pink paisley sari that passes loosely over her head, and a large silver and gold watch.
Around 40 years old, Gadiwala is beautiful, with swooping sickle-moon eyebrows. She laughs easily and often, clasping her hand to her mouth. The wife of God—or rather, the wife of a man who many believe is just one cosmic rung away from full-blown divinity—can't be photographed or disclose her real name. Instead, she goes simply by "Gadiwala," which means "wife of the Acharya." In Hindi, Acharya means spiritual leader or teacher. Gadiwala's husband, 45-year-old Koshalendraprasad Pande, is that Acharya.
Swaminarayan Hinduism is the fastest growing branch of Hinduism in the world. But within it, there are multiple splinter groups. Pande, Gadiwala's husband, heads a major diocese thanks to his status as the seventh director successor of Swaminarayan, a religious figure alive in the 18th century who's believed by his followers to be a manifestation of God.
Pande, his wife, and his first born son have a near-divine status among members of their faith. "That link to Swaminarayan constantly gives me strength and confidence," Gadiwala tells me. But she says it comes with risk too. "If it leads to pride and arrogance, everything becomes godless."
According to Professor Raymond Williams, an international authority on Swaminarayan Hinduism, it's hard to know precisely how many followers Pande has. "They don't keep membership rolls, so there's no accurate count," he explains. Some estimates suggest there may be as many as a million—either way, the number is growing. Williams has referred to the Swaminarayan tradition as the "New Face of Hinduism."
Gadiwala explains that because of her religion she can't walk freely on the streets, so she carries an umbrella that reaches down to the ground.
She also can't fly without wearing a burqa, and this causes problems. The name on her passport confirms her Hindu identity, but the outfit she wears is seen as traditionally Muslim, and the TSA don't respond well to her assistants' explanation: Gadiwala is divine. "They don't believe," she says, sadly. "They think that we are lying."
It wasn't always like this. Gadiwala grew up in a normal, high caste Brahmin family in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state. They spoke Hindi at home and she hoped, one day, to become a doctor. Family life was religious, and strict enough to impose an 8 pm curfew on her and her sister. But this was nothing compared to the changes she encountered when, at 20 years old, she married Pande—a match arranged by her parents. Even 22 years later though, Gadiwala remembers she liked him immediately.
But marriage thrust her into a new role she wasn't prepared for—Gadiwala became the guru for all of Pande's female devotees, responsible for ministering spiritual and practical advice. She was also expected to speak Gujarati, the language of her husband and his followers. "I used to cry like hell," she says, laughing a little. The new life came as a shock for Gadiwala, she was confused and struggled to come to terms with her new duties. And she was largely left to her own devices. Her mother-in-law—who'd previously occupied the Gadiwala's divine role—spent most of her time touring India and so wasn't around to help ease the transition into life as the wife of a god.
Professor Williams sees Gadiwala's role as challenging. Although he knows her husband well, he's never met Gadiwala due to restrictions around her speaking to men. "She lives a very hard life, being secluded and very restricted in her movements," Williams says, "who can see her, and who she can see, and who she can relate to."
For her part, Gadiwala says this is the first time she has ever been interviewed.
Lit overhead by a lime green chandelier, Gadiwala clutches a mobile phone in her hand. She speaks English fluently and comfortably. At first, she says, the transition from normal life seemed insurmountable. But it grew easier—she had two children, learned to speak Gujarati, and got better at answering her followers' questions. Sometimes these questions are issues of religious practice, or how to keep a calm home.
More often, they relate to menstruation—Swaminarayan women aren't supposed to do anything during three days of their time of the month, which can be a challenge for those without help at home. No lifting, cleaning, washing, cooking. Her solution? "Well, her husband needs to do it," she shrugs. As Dr Williams explains, Gadiwala and her mother-in-law have a crucial role as pastoral counsellors in their community. "They're very aware of the problems these women face," he says.
At some point, Gadiwala had to decide how she wanted to live divinely. The default was to do as her mother-in-law had done before her—sit in the temple in heavy, ornamental saris, as a living deity to be consulted and prayed to. But Gadiwala wanted her role to be more philanthropic, helping orphaned children and the poor. "Personally, I believe that divinity is humanity," she says, adding that spirituality without humanity is godless. She attends temple daily, but says "for me to just go to temple and meet ladies there… it's worthless." This approach is a radical for someone with such an important spiritual position—her husband might well have balked. But he encouraged her to do what she thought was right.
Because Gadiwala can't freely go into the community, she has corralled local women to help. At first, she had five women helping her—eight years on, that number is more like 700. She hopes soon they'll be able to open their own orphanage. That work, she says, is far more meaningful than any religious ceremony or practice.
"When you make a smile on a single poor child's face—with candy, chocolate, ice-cream—that's more important than 100 malas in a temple."
Dr Williams says Gujarat is changing, and with it the expectations Gadiwala's followers have of her. "Her emphasis on humanitarian work may be evidence of the way in which she is responding to those changes," he says. People, especially women, are rapidly becoming better educated. "The whole society is changing, therefore the role of religious leaders—both the Acharya and the Acharya's wife—is changing."
Every day, Gadiwala rises well before 5 am to perform a small solitary puja—a prayer ritual involving a small flame, before heading to temple. She's often expected to travel around India, and the world, to minister to devotees. Far more important to her than either her philanthropic work or her religious practice; however, are her teenage children. Her 16-year-old daughter is still at school, while her 19-year-old son, Vrajendraprasad, studies psychology at the local university.
"They are at the age where they need their parents most, and I don't compromise," she says. "I'm not ashamed to say it; my kids need me more than [my followers]." Gadiwala won't travel when her children have exams and does her best not to leave them alone at night—even if it means waking up at 2 am to travel across the country.
When we speak, Gadiwala's son is traveling overseas for the first time, accompanying his father on a trip to Chicago. One day, he will inherit his father's position, which includes a considerable amount of international travel. Koshalendraprasad Pande has built almost 190 temples and shrines around the world in the last 10 years—the number of followers is mushrooming. Young Vrajendra will have his work cut out for him.
And at some point, he will marry. Tradition dictates that, like Gadiwala, Vrajendra's bride will be from the same class (Brahmin) and the same region (Uttar Pradesh). While she and Pande will work together with the young woman's parents to arrange the marriage, Gadiwala is most concerned that her son should like his new bride. "If he doesn't like her, I'm not going to force him," she says. And when the woman joins their family, living with them in their home in Ahmedabad, she'll have as much to learn as Gadiwala did. Though this time, Gadiwala promises, the young woman will have help every step of the way.
After marrying, her son will take over his father's role, while his wife will adopt Gadiwala's. Gadiwala's responsibilities could then ease off, as her parents'-in-law have done before her. They favour holidays on cruise ships, where—provided she doesn't risk being seen by a male follower—her mother-in-law can walk freely. But Gadiwala wants to carry on with what she has begun. The life she has isn't what she might have imagined as a teenager: She isn't a doctor and she lives far from home, with hundreds of thousands of devotees in her charge. "But I have no regrets," she says. "I am very happy that I came to know the real purpose of my life."
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