Why Women Poet Saints of the Bhakti Movement Were True Champions of Feminism

Editor’s Note: The book, For The Love of God: Women Poet Saints of the Bhakti Movement written by Sandhya Mulchandani sheds light on how women in India, between 3rd Century BC and AD, boycotted the patriarchal norms and customs of the society to embrace the Bhakti Movement. Regardless of what social backgrounds they came from — prostitutes, Rajputs, Brahmins, and Sudras — many women came forth to claim their place in this religious movement, which did not discriminate on the basis of gender. They freed themselves from the draconian laws of Manu and expressed themselves in beautiful verses of poetry and songs, which although were looked down upon for being too simplistic, and not in the language of Gods — Sanskrit, are a treasure trove of Indian ethos, and still serves as a reminder of how hard women fought for religious and spiritual freedom.

Here is an excerpt from the book:

If they see breasts and long hair coming

They call it woman

If beard and whiskers

they call it man:

But, look, the Self that hovers

In between is

neither man nor woman.

Women in Hinduism make their first appearance in the Vedas. Of the 407 sages associated with the verses, twenty-seven are women. The best-known among them — Ghosha, Maitreyi, Gargi, and Lopamudra — were accorded equal status as men, intellectually and spiritually complementing them. Besides this, the invocatory mantra of the Atharva Veda addresses divinity as ‘devi’, the entire fourteenth book of this Veda deals with women, marriage, and other domestic issues, and portions of nineteen other books are also attributed to women sages.

The earlier Vedic rituals and sacrifices too were insistent that wives participate in these ceremonies as they were considered to be the ardhangini, the essential other half of the man. despite this, society, and everything associated with religion, remained firmly patriarchal. As Manu notoriously says in his Manusmriti: ‘day and night women must be kept in dependence by the males . . . and if they attach themselves to sensual enjoyment, they must be kept under control. Her father protects her in childhood, her husband protects her in her youth, and her sons in old age, a woman is never fit for independence.’

In a country so deeply steeped in spirituality, religious equality for men and women should have been a given. Yet, women did not have the right to worship; while they were expected to participate in functions, domestic and communal, they were not permitted to follow a religious path independent of their husbands. Considered to be impure and sinful and having no natural inclination towards anything dharmic, women, even high-born ones, were usually clubbed together with shudras (outcastes), relegated to the lowest rung of social hierarchy.

Living the contradiction of being both revered and reviled, the only divinity offered to women, as exemplified by the draconian laws of Manu, was her husband — pati (husband) as parameshwar (god) — and the only religion imposed on her was familial duties. Men expected and demanded outward decorum and rigorous display of devotion to them and their families. ‘A Hindu woman was preordained to be ruled by the man and was subjected to all kinds of atrocities for these were the standards of being an ideal Hindu wife.’

In this environment, the idea of a female ascetic was an absolute anomaly. Women were fundamentally meant to raise families and were there for sexual pleasure; the very idea of a woman renouncing these was a contradiction. Women becoming ascetics was thus neither viable nor desirable. The Bhakti movement turned many of these rigid hierarchical social orders on its head and pushed boundaries not just to those marginalized by caste and money but more importantly to women for whom it opened doors to religious freedom and self-expression. The movement provided a novel space for them, laying the groundwork for an egalitarian attitude towards worship. Gone was the distant, esoteric and attribute-less (nirguna) god of the Upanishads, and in his stead emerged an easy-to-please, approachable god to whom these women turned to as their saka (close confidant), companion, guide, and, more often than not, as their idealized lover or husband.

Inevitably, Bhakti meant different things to women and men. One significant difference was that male bhaktas (devotees) could follow their chosen path without renouncing their families. For example, the seventeenth century saint of the Bhakti movement from Maharashtra, Sant Tukaram, could deal with a non-cooperative, irate wife by simply ignoring her, for she could merely object to his way of life, not obstruct it. Whereas women like the famous fifteenth-century poet-saint Meera Bai and the Maharastrian saint Bahina had to overcome innumerable impediments created by their husbands, in-laws, and clans.

From the standpoint of society, for women to love another man, even if he was God, was an illegitimate relationship because it broke the tenets of dharma and the predicated norms that were expected from them. God being the illicit lover was seen as an interloper, someone who trespassed into the husbands’ territory, usurped the love of their wives, and broke up marriages and families. Given the difficulties they knew they would encounter, some of these women choose to altogether abjure the responsibilities of home and hearth. Others achieved their goal by defying their parents or remaining unmarried. Others like Andal threw themselves into single-minded love or participated in extreme forms of worship and sacrifice. ‘Rekavve, a Vira Saivite who used a piece of her own flesh to complete the Lord’s garland because she could not find a red flower. Tilakavve even turned herself into a man to escape the bondage of femininity. Then there was Goggavve, who was so obstinate that she refused to marry the disguised Siva even when he threatened to kill her.’

But most women married and stayed within the patriarchal ideology as dutiful wives, merely transferring their devotion onto their divine lovers. Thus, everything they did—household chores, cooking and cleaning, looking after children and family—all took on the guise of duty as devotion to God. Even here, they had to prove themselves over and again, they were constantly questioned, their devotion tested by male peers.

The path that women chose was anything but easy. no matter how venerated these women became or how democratic and egalitarian these movements purported to be, the rightful place for a woman was still considered to be at home, in the role of a wife and mother or, at best, as a muse. Reconciling devotion and domesticity was a serious challenge, a conflict that appears over and again in the lives of many of these women. They grappled with what were their prescribed duties and the dictates of their hearts, the struggle between dharma and the passion of Bhakti. So, these women are, especially from today’s point of view, usually portrayed as fierce rebels against patriarchy, as many of them flouted convention, discarded bad marriages, and walked out of oppressive relationships.

Shedding prescribed formats of respectable feminine behaviour, they sang and danced in public, wore ghungroos (anklets) which were usually associated with nautch girls. One woman even shed her garments and walked around all over the state of Karnataka naked. Ironically, what most women sought was the freedom to worship because religion provided them solace, freedom and gave them the courage to speak against their oppression. It was only through their tenacity, unquestionable devotion, outstanding poetry, and stubborn insistence of spiritual equality that these women have now been reluctantly acknowledged. Just who were these women? Where did they come from? For one, they were not the imaginary, mythical, deified goddesses of early Vedic literature or the epics.

These were real women who spoke in a clear, loud voice about real issues. But what prompted them—rich, poor, married or otherwise, Brahmins, Rajputs, Shudras and prostitutes—to take the path they did? It’s hard to say what came first, spiritual enlightenment or the quest for religious expression. But undeterred, they forged their path, breeching male bastions.

Naive in their belief and uneducated though they seemed, the language that they wrote in was the ‘language of the common man’, people just like themselves who knew no Sanskrit. They wrote in the vernacular, in an idiom and turn of phrase that everyone could relate to immediately; the simplicity of the colloquial dialects endeared them to women who found resonance with the trials and tribulations these women sang about. Freedom of expression meant that poetry left the hallowed grounds of the courts and temples and flowed into homes and paddy fields where women lived, loved, and worked. Unlike men, women brought God into their private spaces, into their kitchens, bedrooms, and hearts. In their outpourings, they sang about life’s hardships, oppressive mothers-in-law, unfaithful husbands, vicious sisters-in-law, all the time evoking their god to come and deliver them from their mundane existence.

Everywhere, Bhakti was an earnest return to the language of daily speech. Its musical compositions were not only about spiritual realization but also focussed on a social documentary of their experiences, spiritual and temporal, in verses that bear the imprint of their personal journeys. These were the works of passionate women with rather personal expressions of desires. Although they sublimated their love, lust and longings to God, their expressions are human, always intimate, and, often, very erotic.

Most of these women are known through their hagiographies composed after their deaths. These biographies, while embodying their influence and preserving their works, often got exaggerated in their retelling and became mythical. So, the narratives of most of these women have innumerable incidents of miracles that were performed by God, their guru, or themselves, and were presented through the lens of folklore. For example, Lad ded, also known as Lalla Aarifa, is known through documents composed some 200 years after her death, ‘her legacy maintained first in Persian compendiums produced by Islamic scholars’.

Going through the sizeable stock of legends, stories and their own material, the lives of these women are extraordinarily similar. They were all young women who, from a very young age, recognized their love for God and went about their quest with single-minded determination. On closer examination, these stories often seem quixotic, filled with fantasy and eccentricities of how they viewed themselves, the world, and especially God. For the young girl intent on marrying her lord, devotion is often very erotic, while for the intellectual mystic everything, including clothes, is a deterrent.

Their stories are subjective narratives covering the gamut of what it means to be a woman: they were all daughters, wives, widows and prostitutes, young and old, beautiful and ugly, all united by their love for God. The bulk of Bhakti literature consists of poetry, or specifically songs, that were meant to be performed. Compositions like bhajans, kirtans, abhangs, ovis and padams were meant to be sung aloud. Recitals, satsangs, incantations and sankirtans, where these songs are performed, continue to remain an indispensable aspect of the path of Bhakti that prizes bhava (a personal feeling) and anubhava (direct experience).

Ironically, the same hagiographies that preserved the life and times of these women also sanitized their works, cleansing them of their suffering and frustrations, in an attempt to portray the patriarchal model of Bhakti. Many of their bhajans and abhangs were not sung in public, undervaluing the literary genius and talent of these women.

Across the country, starting with the Tamil Andal, the Chola princess Mangayarkkarasiyar, Isaignaaniyar and Karaikal Ammaiyar in the south, to Lalleshwari—a mystic poetess of the Kashmiri Saivite sect, to Gangasati in Gujarat, Sakhubai, Muktabai and Bahina, who wrote Marathi abhangs, Akka Mahadevi in Karnataka, and the celebrated Meera Bai in Rajasthan, the individual outpourings and the unfettered voices of these women refused to be drowned, gathering momentum until Bhakti became a pan-India phenomenon.

India at heart is a religious nation. While the works of most of these women may have been suppressed due to patriarchy once they did come to the fore, these women were not derided as charlatans or exhibitionists or even delusional. Rather they became revered for their devotion and literary excellence even as their lives were celebrated. Loving God is more difficult than loving a man. However compassionate and approachable He is, attaining Him is far tougher. What did it mean to love God this way?

How was it possible to love an abstraction and believe that the feeling would be reciprocated and realized? What made these women set their sights on God as a husband, lover, and friend? Where did this unwavering faith come from? What sets these women apart from the male Bhakti saints is that while the men actively sought out God through a combination of gyana (knowledge) and bhakti, these women appear to have been hand-picked by God Himself.

Gender obviously did not matter neither did caste; nor the fact that many of these women were married. Some were beautiful, others crone-like, some were Brahmins, others came from the lowest of castes. Sule Sankavva and Kanhopatra were prostitutes. But all of them seem to have been graced with a deep devotion from childhood that made it possible for them to attain such heights. The lives of some of these women, especially Meera Bai, are part of the Indian psyche. Meera Bai’s life story and songs of devotion continue to be narrated and sung all over the country. Others like Andal, Akka Mahadevi and Lal ded are extremely popular within their states; Andal’s Thiruppavai still resonates in many a Vaishnava household in Tamil Nadu. The stories of many Maharashtrian women saints have been made into movies and television serials. despite this, there must be hundreds of unsung voices that still exist—those not drowned in the din of patriarchy and modernity—all begging to be discovered. All it requires is some devotion.

The excerpt has been published with permission from Penguin Publishers, India. For The Love of God: Women Poet Saints of the Bhakti Movement, written by Sandhya Mulchandani costs Rs 399 (hardcover).

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