REVIEW: THE REVOLUTIONARY LIFE OF FREDA BEDI
BY VICKI MACKENZIE
SHAMBHALA PUBLICATIONS, INC.
AMBER LOVE 13-MAR-2017 Content like reviews are supported by donors at my tip jar on Patreon.com/amberunmasked. You can also buy my books and share the links.
Review excerpt: “Mackenzie included first hand quotations from Bedi’s personal correspondence to her friends and family. She directly interviewed all the Bedi children and some of Freda’s closest friends. There is no doubt that the way people describe Bedi’s life is accurate and honorable. They were honest, even describing the personality flaws of this iconic woman. Mackenzie’s biography is a great piece of work, presented neatly with first and secondhand accounts to explore Freda’s amazing life.” 5 stars
Vicki Mackenzie’s biography, “The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi” is set to be released on March 28, 2017 from Shambhala Publications, Inc. It’s a thorough work detailing the extraordinary life of activist/journalist turned Buddhist Nun, Freda Bedi.
I had never heard of Bedi before requesting this book from NetGalley. I have met Buddhist nuns, lamas, and a Rinpoche monk once in my life at a yoga studio for a ritual. I didn’t know until then that women could be Buddhist nuns. Freda Bedi, a white British woman, scaled her way to the highest honor breaking barriers. Many believe she was the White Tara, the female Buddha of Compassion with a round face. And though sometimes called the White Tara, the divine being is described as having green skin.
Mackenzie included first hand quotations from Bedi’s personal correspondence to her friends and family. She directly interviewed all the Bedi children and some of Freda’s closest friends. There is no doubt that the way people describe Bedi’s life is accurate and honorable. They were honest, even describing the personality flaws of this iconic woman.
Freda came from a poor family. Her father died when she was quite young. Her mother Nellie is described as having powerful psychic intuition which Freda inherited. This power is mentioned multiple times with the proof of her accuracy.
“Nellie was also rather psychic, like myself and Freda. It runs in the female line. Nellie got ‘feelings’ and sensed presences. She once bought a house but never moved in because she felt unhappy ghosts there.” Pauline Watson, a niece of Freda Bedi.
As a child, Freda’s family was strictly religious Methodists and lived above her father’s watchmaker shop. She was born there and named Freda Marie Houlston. They weren’t allowed alcohol and dedicated their time to helping others. Even as little girl, Freda always had her nose in books studying everything she possibly could. This side of her nature is how such a poor girl got a scholarship to Oxford’s St. Hugh’s College for women.
College was the beginning of Freda’s celebrity magnetism. It seemed to be that the people who came in and out of her life were often future notable icons like herself. She and other students were terrified of fascism and took a liking to Marxism.
“Of course the young Oxford idealists did not know then of the gulags, the terrible persecutions, the appalling death toll, the insane economic policies that killed millions, and the sheer tyranny that Communist rule evoked. Nor did they comprehend the utter lack of freedom of thought, speech, and belief — the very things that Freda and BPL held most dear — that ensue.” Narrative by the author.
During her time at Oxford, Mahatma Gandhi had given two lectures in 1931. His talks hit Freda deeply.
Though Freda wasn’t interested in rebellion the way her Oxford friends did – like leaving campus to go dancing and looking for boys – Freda’s first and only romantic love in itself was a rebellion. She fell in love with a Sikh from the Punjab. Baba Phyare Lal Bedi (called BPL) was the sixteenth direct descendant of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion. As a couple deeply in love with each other despite their relationship’s non-traditional rules, they were a fierce partnership with the ultimate goal of freeing India from British rule. Because of their mixed races, they were targeted by fellow students and Freda lost many friendships, but the closest ones were loyal to her.
She was so goal-oriented that once she set her sights on a mission, she neglected her family. It seems people in Mackenzie’s interviews were forthright with this information about Freda’s personality, but none were resentful; they were still proud of her endless string of achievements.
This time in university was the moment of Freda’s first nervous breakdown; she would be plagued with them throughout her life as she worked herself to exhaustion under grueling conditions. Their wedding was covered by the press because it was historic. It was the last time Freda wore Western clothes. She considered herself Indian through and through.
“From my wedding day onward I thought myself as Indian.” Freda Bedi
Their marriage involved plenty of globe trotting for jobs and income, but also to keep to their mission of India’s independence. Their time in Germany was the only time when they laid low with politics.
“In August 1934, Hitler was made führer. The morning the news broke, BPL put down his paper and announced, ‘Tomorrow we get on the train and go to Geneva. It’s not safe here anymore.’”
When they eventually got to India, their reputations preceded them. They were subjected to body searches which even included a search of their baby’s diaper. Living with them or near BPL’s family, life was good and rather luxurious. But one day when their servants turned away people looking for help, Freda and BPL were ashamed. They left their bungalow, gave away their possessions, and donated thousands of their books to the Lahore Library. They usually had little to no money from that point forward; Freda’s writing career was usually the only way they had any stable income at all.
Freda also took up teaching which gave her plenty of practice for speaking to crowds. Her small class of twenty-six girls grew to six hundred. As she said, “There was an insatiable thirst for education among the girls.”
Mackenzie takes readers through all these ups and downs of the Bedi’s lives. They suffered the death of a child before having two more. Nothing would stop them though. Freda traveled by foot going from village to village to speak to people about their revolution. Her popularity grew and she could be found speaking to gatherings of hundreds of thousands of people.
Both Freda and BPL did time in jail. She did so voluntarily as one of Gandhi’s satyagrahis, an authorized individual who proved to be committed to his path. She was the first British woman to be granted his permission to be involved in protests that way. She was sentenced to six months, only serving half of it, in Lahore Women’s Jail (her feminism even convinced the people in power to rename it as such instead of “Lahore Female Jail”). She learned a lot from her fellow prisoners particularly that women were often jailed because of men.
When Freda was released, the family entered a new stage of existence: celebrity. People came by the thousands to their door for Freda to bless them. These plights brought Kashmir to her radar. India’s maharaja was after a powerful revolutionary friend of theirs, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the president of All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference. Because of the price on his head, he couldn’t enter Kashmir and found sanctuary with Freda and BPL.
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By this point in Freda’s story, the author will have any reader fully immersed in the constant feeling of danger, the poverty, and the strength of this power couple who helped people of all religions cross borders to safety. They were like superheroes.
The only time Freda betrayed her vow of peaceful protest was when police were beating someone; she chased them by boat then carriage to a tea shop where she took off a shoe and began to hit them. Freda reluctantly learned to shoot firearms with a band of other women, just in case, but she never had to use her skill. She took up government jobs to assess areas for relief and report on the situations.
India was eventually freed, but Freda’s path didn’t stop there. She evolved by studying every religion until she found the one that spoke to her, Buddhism. One year she practiced Islam; then Judaism; then Hindu. The Bedi family often lived in huts or camping. They spent some time in government housing which wasn’t much better than camping since they often took in stragglers to their cramped quarters. They had running water, but it was merely a faucet coming out of the wall.
At first, it was disappointing in how long Mackenzie took to get to Freda’s Buddhist life; it’s nearly halfway through the book. But once getting there, I had grown fond of this woman’s ambition to serve the world, seek freedom for disenfranchised cultures, and to continue to better herself. I had never read this kind of detailed account about perseverance by a woman in history before. Even the likes of Harriet Tubman were shafted due to racism and sexism so the records aren’t there. Freda’s white status was surely the reason people have written about her. She was an outlier in India. That drew people’s attention to safely write about a white woman the way no one could about women of color.
The second half of the book features details of the many years of Freda mastering meditation and having enlightened episodes that left her in a euphoria for days. After her time in Burma studying this way of life, Freda and BPL knew their marriage as it had been, was over. They stayed in love, but he went on to Italy and didn’t remarry until after Freda died.
“His relationship with Freda had always been based on tolerance and respect for each other’s strong but different personalities. And the right to personal freedom was a tenet they held dear, both on a personal and on a political level.” Narrative by the author.
Freda’s parenting comes severely into question when the part of story about dropping off her daughter at boarding school is presented.She could have lived a stable life with children going to school but instead she would take them to the mountains or trek through entire countries with little money. She did this by choice; though from the sound of it, Freda probably didn’t consider her missions to be choices at all.
Freda made multiple trips to Burma, but eventually focused on Tibet. Chinese troops invaded Tibet driving out the Fourteenth Dalai Lama from his homeland. Thousands of Tibetans were guided to India; only a few survived the devastating trip and those that did were treated by Freda. She set up the relief camp for the refugees and was officially appointed an adviser in the Ministry of External Affairs.
Freda had found her heart guru, the Karmapa and became his first Western female disciple when she was forty-nine. She convinced him that Buddhism, virtually unknown except to some of the hippie subculture, had to be brought to the West. That meant teaching the monks and nuns English. She set up a convent for the nuns — despite this being a religion of enlightenment, the women were second class — and a school for the tulkus. The tulkus and nuns had no understanding of the Western world and Freda vowed to introduce them to society.
“During the brutal Chinese invasion and destruction of their country’s unique spiritual heritage, the nuns, young and old, armed with nothing but courage, repeatedly marched on their oppressors.” Narrative by the author.
Another profoundly interesting point about the women of Tibet is that there was a group who weren’t nuns that were considered the highest masters of meditation. They had long wild hair unlike the nuns’ shaved heads. These yoginis were considered among the mightiest of practitioners.
“We can’t say for sure if she is Tara, but she is very special, because she knew Buddha in her heart.” Ani Wangchuk, one of the original Dalhousie nuns who escaped Tibet.
Because of Freda, the woman everybody referred to as Mummy or Mummy-la, Buddhism entered these new worlds in Europe, Canada, Australia, and the United States. The sad part is that the lamas seemed to be losing their identities as they westernized.
Freda wasn’t infallible. There were times when she had setbacks. She simply moved on to another task. Her mind was never without ideas for bettering the world.
“The Karmapa told me to look after her. He told me directly, ‘She is an emanation of White Tara.’ He also said that he and Mummy-la were of the same essence.” Pema Zangmo, Freda’s secretary.
When it came time for Freda’s ordination in 1966, her family was perplexed. They thought they’d be cut off from her completely, but that was not the case. She stayed in their lives. The Karmapa gave her the new name Karma Tsultrim Kechog Palmo, called Sister Palmo. She was the only woman to live in the Rumtek Monastery, an extraordinary privilege. He broke with the patriarchal tradition and sent her to Hong Kong for the higher bikshuni ordination which made Freda equal to a monk in 1971. As it turned out, she was one of four women there among the twenty priests to be ordained. Television crews were there to capture her becoming the first woman in 1,100 years to receive this level of ordination.
Her work in the West conjoined with sciences like quantum physics, neuroscience, and psychotherapy. Western Buddhism had its own makeup the same way Japanese, Chinese, Sri Lankan, Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Tibetan Buddhism did. They all honored Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, but each had distinct imprints.
The author Vicki Mackenzie was allowed to include photos of Freda Bedi/Sister Palmo, at these different stages of her life from the Bedi family archives and followers who met her on this unbelievable journey.
Could Freda Bedi’s life and efforts to westernize Buddhism be considered one of the most egregious cases of cultural appropriation? I’m not the one to answer that. In 1976, her old friend, Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, recognized Freda with an award given to foreign women who had distinguished themselves through outstanding service to India. Publicly, Freda was grateful; according to her son Kabir, she was outraged for being considered foreign since she felt herself to be fully assimilated as an Indian woman.
Is Freda Bedi the late 20th Century version of Rachel Dolezal? Is there such a thing as becoming another ethnicity because one feels it in their soul? It seems today that most people would argue and deny the person their claim.
In fact, Mackenzie’s epilogue points out Freda’s questionable behavior specifically that as a parent who maybe did not make the best choices for her children. Yet, she says Freda is undeniably a heroine. After reading all the feats she accomplished, I wholeheartedly agree that Freda Bedi was a flawed heroine worthy of note and study in the history books. She sacrificed everything to care for other people and became Mummy to a broader base than the children she bore. As Mackenzie said, “Few dare speak the unmentionable — that not all women are fulfilled by motherhood.” This woman who was naive, stubborn, ambitious, and determined should be remembered for the mark she left on the world. Mackenzie’s biography is a great piece of work, presented neatly with first and secondhand accounts to explore Freda’s amazing life.
FROM THE PUBLISHER:
Vicki Mackenzie is a professional journalist and author who has written for the national and international press for over 40 years. Her articles have appeared in The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and many national magazines. She has written extensively on Buddhist topics and was the first person to publish an interview with the Dalai Lama for The Sunday Times. She has been studying and practicing Buddhism since 1976.