Excitement swept through the audience at the Yoga Syzygy Conference 2000 held June 11 in Flushing, New York, as correspondent Lavina Melwani read out the message from Hinduism Today publisher Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami. Then, all realized the the Hindu Renaissance Award as Hindu of the Year 2000 was being presented to their beloved Ma Yoga Shakti. The audience broke into loud and sustained applause. In his message, Subramuniyaswami extolled Ma’s legacy. “As one of the first global yoga teachers in the past century, she is a venerable pioneer in bringing this ancient teaching of the rishis of India to the world. She has brought the gift of truly authentic practice to souls thirsting for spiritual evolution and never compromised on the classic inviolable principles of brahmacharya (chastity), personal daily tapas and sadhana, dedication to the path of renunciation of material concerns and sacrifice of the personal will.”

Starting in 1990, Hinduism Today has honored one saint each year who has most impacted the faith and spread its values, compassion and profundity across the globe. Past renaissance winners are: Swami Paramananda Bharati (’90), Swami Chidananda Saraswati, “Muniji” of Parmath Niketan (’91), Swami Chinmayananda (’92), Mata Amritanandamayi Ma (’93), Swami Satchidananda (’94), Pramukhswami Maharaj (’95), Sri Satya Sai Baba (’96), Sri Chinmoy (’97), Swami Bua (’98) and Swami Chidananda Saraswati of Divine Life Society (’99).

Ma Yoga Shakti was born in Banaras, India, on April 6, 1927, to an aristocratic family. “As a little girl, I was initiated in Siva puja by my grandfather and performed it regularly,” she told Hinduism Today. In a time when women often stood outside the educational system, she received an M.A. in political science and was founding principal in 1955 of a women’s college at Bahir. Her early spiritual associations were through the Theosophical Society, and she was founding president of the Annie Besant Lodge in Chapra. She became a political reformer for women’s rights and ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1957. Her father, Jagadish Prasad, took sannyasa for the last twenty years of his life.

In 1965 she renounced the world to become a paramadesa sannyasin, one who puts on the orange robes of a monastic without being initiated by another sannyasin. She then commenced, she said, “a life of freedom.” She does not acknowledge one particular guru. “For me,” she confides, “all are my teachers. I learn from each and every one.” She shortly won recognition, rare for a woman, from India’s traditional monastic orders, being designated as “Shakti Sant Shiromani” at the Ujjain Kumbha Mela in 1969, and later as “Maha Mandaleshwar” at the 1974 Kumbha Mela at Haridwar by the Niranjani Akhara, one of India’s largest and most venerable orders. She is one of just 22 Niranjani Maha Mandaleshwars.

Hinduism Today’s file on Mataji begins in 1969, and we’ve followed her mission all these years as this gentle lady, a woman of vision, quietly traveled around the world, teaching yoga, singing bhajana, advising and uplifting all who came. She’s always remained easily available to her devotees and students, and maintains centers in India, New York and UK. “In the physical world, the body grows by taking,” Mataji states. “But in the spiritual world, the spirit grows by giving. If you humble yourself, you will rise high. Humility is the greatest quality in spiritual life, the sweetness of the soul”.
Ma Yoga Shakti International Mission, 114-43 Lefferts Boulevard, South Ozone Park, New York 11420 USA. email: yogashakti@aol.com web: www.mayogashakti.com.