Women’s voices in Bhakti Literature

In this paper, we take an example of a religious movement from the 12th to 17th century to examine how women wrote bhakti literature to bring out their views and ideas and created a  space for themselves. It’s no secret that women have navigated numerous layers and levels of life over the centuries under patriarchal domination. They’ve come up with a variety of tactics of resistance through A woman-friendly medium was Bhakti. Even if the women were outspoken and wanted a place to live life on their own terms, the men’s perception of women remained the same. The movement, on the other hand, tends to strengthen and reaffirm pre-existing ideas of women.

As in the case of the male bhaktas, if we are to search for the historical figures of the women bhaktas we will hit a wall. There is very little information on them. This was mostly an oral tradition. Most of the traditional sources available for writing about the past are very elitist and male-biased and women’s voices are totally absent from these. None of these women have been patronized by any court biographers, nor is any religious hagiography available about them from the time they were deemed to have inhabited. Much of their history has been reconstructed much later by writers and biographers arising from the emergent middle class and over the period of time, there have been many interpolations also.  Yet many of these women bhaktas go much beyond the shadowy realms of the past and are very much alive today in popular culture and the day-to-day life of an average Hindu household.  We have to hence turn to the collective memories and remembrances which are based on their bhajans and poems. It is from these that we can get few glimpses of the lives of these women in medieval times. Most of these women lived during the period from the 12th century to the 17th century. In spite of all the interpolations that may have come over a period of time, a glance at the writings of these women shows us that they fought for what they believed in and actively resisted when their positions were challenged. Likewise, women were producers of important ideas that give us entirely new insights into female religiosity and its distinctiveness in the medieval world. It is the large-scale participation of women that gave this movement the character of a mass movement. Religion was the only space available to women in medieval times and through this legitimate space, women could define their actions and aspirations and participate in public gatherings, visit pilgrimage places, compost their own songs and through bhakti directly reach God.  ( Pande, Rekha, 2010,   67-68)

India witnessed significant socio-economic changes during the thirteenth Century giving rise to new social groups which could not fit into the traditional hierarchy. To redefine their place and prestige within the conventional hierarchy, the newly emerging social groupings launched a movement to articulate their demands for altering the current system. These saints introduced religion to the poor and oppressed parts of society by proclaiming that God resides in each individual and that one might approach God through faith. When it comes to this movement it’s known as the Bhakti

The word bhakti means devotion, participation, reverence, or adoration. For the common person, the term is understood in terms of religious devotion only. The historical works on Hinduism written prior to the nineteenth century by western scholars did not mention this term.  From the second half of the nineteenth century, different theories were propounded on the movement and its origins.  The word was first used by H.H. Wilson to denote Krishna bhakti of the Vaisnavas of Bengal( Wilson,1846, pp78-79).  Monier Williams did not limit the word to Krishna Cult but extended it to the whole of Vaisnavism ( Monier Williams,1891,  p.83). It was George Grierson who developed the idea that bhakti is a religion, a cult, and a doctrine( Grierson,1909,  p.85). The medieval period saw both Nigun ( worship of a formless God) as well as Sagun( worship of a form) worship.

Earlier the bhakti movement was treated as a literary or at best an ideological phenomenon that has religion at the basis of its inspiration. This has mainly happened due to the lack of emphasis on social history and hence the socio-economic factors that have been responsible for bringing in a change have been ignored( Pande, Rekha, 2000). This lacuna has been removed by some recent studies on the movement. Tarachand felt that the movement was deeply influenced by Islam ( Tarachand,1936,   p.120 ). Yusuf Husain also felt it was influenced by Islam (Yusuf Husain, 1976, 5 ). To some, it was an attempt at bringing about an egalitarian society (Kambly, 1985, p.83 ), and others view it as a protest against Brahmanical monopoly(Malik, 1977, p.17). Some have looked at the movement as a product of the feudal society( Sharma, 1974  ) and some have seen it as a result of the expansion of artisan classes. Habib speaks of ties of caste and religious communities in the peasant uprisings and speaks of Kabir, Dadu, Haridas, and Nanak as leaders of a movement that led to the formation of new religious communities in the medieval period.  (Habib, 1963, p.332  ). Others see this due to the increase in commodity production as a result of trade expansion( Gohin, 1987, p. 1972).

The Bhakti movement was a product of a transitional society where a number of changes were taking place on the political, economic, and social front. On the political front, the thirteenth to sixteenth century saw the decline of an all-powerful state and the rise of a number of provincial and regional states (Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, 1980, pp.155-286). By the beginning of the 16th century, India saw the rise of a number of feudal states like Bengal, Khandesh, Jaunpur, Malwa, Bihar, Kashmir, and Sindh in the North and Golconda, Bijapur, Bidar, Gulbarga, Ahmadnagar, Berar in the south. On the economic front, the Delhi Sultanate witnessed a number of changes. This period saw an economic organization that was considered superior to the earlier one. In its earlier phase, it had released forces that led to the expansion of towns and alternations in agrarian conditions. As a result by the 14th century, there was a considerable growth of these towns and expansion in craft production and commerce. All this had occurred due to a number of changes in the various crafts as a result of improvements in technology. This can be seen in Sericulture, carpet weaving on the vertical loom, the introduction of the spinning wheel(charkha) in the cotton textile sector, the Persian wheel in irrigation, the introduction of paper, the appearance of the magnetic compass as an aid to navigation and the invention of accurate timekeeping devices for the regulation of economic activity ( Habib, 1969, p. ) The increase in commerce can be seen in the increase of coinages a result of the transfer of stored silver and gold into minted money. (Habib, 1978, pp. 289-91). There is also seen an increase in the slave market, to provide artisans conversant with the new technique and cheap labor for the various crafts( Habib, 1978, p.291) Though a large surplus was being generated it was appropriated by the ruling classes through taxation.

Though a large number of artisans were coming from the rank of people outside the profession, they were not accepted as equal among the Indian artisans organized along with hereditary custom-bound castes. On the other hand, even though the merchants and tradesmen had attained a lot of wealth they had no place in the social hierarchy.  The situation was similar to what had happened during the 6th century. When the rise of Buddhism and Jainism had taken place and the city had produced its own stratification where the artisans or merchants were more powerful, yet the Brahmanical literature did not include the trader and artisan among the superior groups. (Thapar, 1981, pp. 43-45). The social front was characterized by Brahmanical oppression of the worst kind.  In order to maintain their status quo, complex rites and rituals were practiced and those that did not fit into the traditional four castes were termed outcastes or chandalas( Sachau, 1983, Chapter1). The outcastes were denied any social prestige and all the privileges of a brahmin such as recitation of the Vedas, offering of sacrifices to the fire. If a Sudra or a Vaisya was proved to have recited the Vedas and he was accused by the Brahmin before the ruler, the latter would order his tongue to be cut off( Sachau, 1983, p.136). This was a period when Jainism and Buddhism had practically disappeared and it was the orthodox Brahmins that had reigned supreme.  They alone understood Sanskrit in which the ancient religious texts were produced and this made the performance of various rites and rituals their monopoly.  As they had acquired a lot of power due to the land grants which they had received and these saw their transformation into a landed elite( Sharma, 1969).

Even among the Muslims when it came to prayers and worship, the caste and class differences were ignored and the poor and the rich worshipped side by side but caste was recognized in social relations.  The Muslims were clearly divided into Sharif Zats or high castes and Ajlaf Zats or low castes. The conversion to Islam had certainly not made an individual change his old environment which was deeply influenced by caste distinctions and a general social exclusiveness.  The different classes of Muslim communities also began to live aloof from one another, even in separate quarters in the same city (Ashraf, 1959,p.78).

Throughout recorded history, Indian culture has been dominated by a patriarchal system, which has resulted If women’s rights were far better in the Vedic period than they are now, with examples like Gargi and Maitreyi who participated in Sabha and Samitis, it cannot be denied that ancient societies were patriarchal since their dominant structure and values were patriarchal in the first instance. Due to the lack of evidence of a strong structural disjunction that stopped patriarchy, we may assume this tendency persisted until medieval times Modern-day Indian social reformers and independence warriors take up this problem as one of the unfinished business of Indian social reform because of its continuation.

In a patriarchal society, it is the son who gets highly valued and no such premium is paid on the girl. The Atharvaveda has a prayer, Oh, God grant us a son and a daughter elsewhere. The birth of a daughter was less welcome. In the Atharvaveda and Samveda Mantra Brahmana, we get prayers for a male child. The husband prays along with the wife, “ Unto thy womb let a foe come, a male one as an arrow to a quiver, let a hero be born unto thee………give birth to a male, a son, after he let a male be born, mayst thou is the mother of sons, of those born and who shall bear, etc. ( Atharvaveda, Gulati, 1985, 16) A son saves his father from hell, Put and hence he is called Putra( Protector from Put). A father throws his debt on a son, through a son he conquerors the worlds, through a grandson he obtains immortality, and through the son’s grandson, he gains the world of the sun( Visnu Smriti, Charya,1964, 44-46). According to the Hindu system of philosophy, the purpose of marriage was religious and it is through this institution that a Grihista could discharge his three debts- To Gods, to sages, and to ancestors and then he could retire into Vanaprasthaasram ( Manu, Max Muller, 1985). Hence the son was very central to the Hindu way of life. If a woman could not give birth to a son or was barren, the very religious purpose of the family could not be carried out and hence a wife could be superseded if she was barren and gave birth to daughters only( Lakshmidhara, Gulati, 23).

Women have been given a subordinate status in the Brahmanical religion.  She is regarded as untouchable and extremely impure during her menstrual period and during the period of childbirth. She is also regarded as polluted during widowhood.  She has to purify herself before participating in any religious ceremony.  By the time we come to Manu, the Upanayana ceremony became unnecessary for girls and she was debarred from performing religious sacrifices. The Brahmanical law books enjoined that each individual had to live according to Dharma but for women, her dharma was only Stridharma.  By embodying a very critical attitude towards women, their sexuality, their relationship with their bodies and senses, tantrism heralded the process of acculturation of the subordinate and brought women to the focus of things.

According to ancient and later Brahmanical law books, it is dharma that governs the religious and social life of an individual.  According to these, each person has to follow a set of social and religious duties appropriate to that person’s individuality ( Seva- Bhav) for each person is a member of a particular community( Jati). Along with Srutis, Smritis, Sadachar, or accepted good usages constituted an important source of dharma. If each and everyone followed their dharma then the results accrued would be beneficial. For a woman, her dharma was Stree Dharma. Women can function in a socially sanctioned dharmic way by strictly adhering to their preordained nature and duties.  A woman thus becomes the mistress of the house and is the custodian of the family dharma and passing it from one generation to another through her children. Due to their fickle nature and the inherent pollution in the female body women are seen as being subordinate to the voice of authority in the family and have to engage in frequent acts of ritual purifications. They had to visit temples with great regularity, perform sacred rites with higher faith and submit to religious fasts. The number of vratas increased and with the passage of time they were spread evenly over the whole year and invested with a moral fervor by associating a number of ethical and moral stories with them. These vratas were meant to purify the body, mind, and spirit that was a ritual marker of transition from a state of unclean to cleanliness. A woman is seen by nature( Svabhav) as not only a pollutant but also potentially dangerous because of her sexuality.  Therefore in the family, her sexuality should always be controlled and she should be subservient to the male authority.  Her sexuality is seen as a source of prosperity when it is active but it has to be controlled by her husband in any other situation and she must totally repress it.

The bhaktas were a product of this society and though many of the Bhakti saints were clamoring for change and questioned the existing hierarchies and injustices, women were not a part of this change. They could not rise above the age-old prejudice regarding women as a barrier to the path of salvation.

The bhaktas were a product of this society and though many of the Bhakti saints were clamoring for change and questioned the existing hierarchies and injustices, women were not a part of this change. They could not rise above the age-old prejudice regarding women as a barrier to the path of salvation (Pande, 2005,252). Large-scale changes in any society would lead to problems of adjustment and therefore reactions are bound to arise and in India, the massive changes in north India during the 6th century BC were taken as a benchmark that led to the rise of the new religious movements. Similarly, the changes mentioned above also engendered conditions for the rise of new processes and new languages of domination and consequently resistance of which one was the emotional bhakti.

The dominant discourse of the Bhakti movement was articulated by men and what emerges is that this protest against the prevalent social injustices did not address itself to women. It is interesting to note that, while the majority of the Bhakti saints especially, Nirgun are very critical of all institutions and revolted against idolatry, the tyranny of castes and creeds along with temples and rituals, in .the change which they sought, women were not included.  Though clamoring for a change and protesting vocally against the prevalent injustices in society, they conveniently left out the women, relegating her to the domestic sphere, and only that women became an ideal who was an obedient wife, a Pativrata or a Sati-Savitri. She had no place in the change that was being sought. It was a change that was being defined by male parameters. Since the change was being sought within a given structure it did not attempt at changing the power structure of society vis a vis man and women. The Bhakti saints were but depicting the reality of their times. The saints were living in a patriarchal society and holding patriarchal values, which consider a man superior and a woman subordinate (Pande, Rekha, 1996).  This would echo Marx’s famous statement that the dominant ideas in society are the ideas of the dominant classes. They could not rise from the traditional view of looking upon women as Maya and an impediment to the path of Bhakti. A women’s status was defined in terms of her role in the family vis a vis her husband and she had no worth outside the institution of marriage through which she must serve her husband( Pande, Rekha, 1993). Though this attitude is by and large prevalent among both the Sagun and the Nirgun saints, it is more predominant among the Nirgun saints, who were related to the upcoming non-agrarian sectors and being associated with tanning, weaving, trading, and tailoring where women were slowly being marginalized and the old prejudice against them still continued. Women had no place in the change that was being sought. We may thus say that the attitude of the male bhaktas towards the women can be best explained by the fact that though the bhakti movement did not articulate any demands for property rights to women and thus the production relations were sought to be altered in favor of men and women were given an illusory representation of advancement while the same system continued. There are certain clear-cut rules as to how women must behave and act here, and this is what distinguishes a respectable decent woman from the other women. Hence women are a constituency that is affected by patriarchy in uniquely gendered ways. When women become articulate about who they are sexually and cast off old patriarchal myths about what a woman can be and what she is not allowed to become, women become powerful to acquire the ability to say no, demand to dictate life in accordance to their own wishes. They are thus able to transcend a given culture by negotiating it and move into a new one and this is exactly what happened in the bhakti movement.

Religion is one of the areas where there is an avenue open for protest but paradoxically, religion is also the one area that is the last to change though the overall socio-economic context has long changed. Thus change occurs in society at different levels in different contexts. In this context whatever change occurs tradition cannot be destroyed. Therefore old ideas emerge once again from different angles.  In the case of Indian women, the domesticity has been reinforced through insistence on following the family tradition, to maintain the household, and therefore the movement always negated the achievements of women outside the household. Here we may point out a major disagreement based on two assumptions, one being that the Indian family structure did not change, which is an orientalist reading of Indian history and has been refuted since many communities like Jats, Nayars, Ahirs had different familial setups and did not conform to the ideal textual definition of the family as expounded in the sacred texts. The second assumption is that tradition does not play a positive role. The historical experience of Indian women and in particular the saints shows that tradition can play many positive functions to bring about change, particularly when mediated through religion. This assumption is so deeply entrenched in modern-day thinking that tradition is often viewed as an obstacle for development whereas tradition in fact can be considered as a labyrinth of development( Dawa Norbu, 1996). The fact that many radical changes occurred in society because of bhakti saints’ reinterpretation of tradition shows that tradition when reinterpreted can bring about changes that are in consonance with the socio-economic aspirations. In this tradition, they found space for articulating many hitherto ‘restricted’ features that were seen by the orthodoxy as vestiges or intrusions or by the later scholars as a substratum of Hinduism. These are found in full play in the Puranas, where in the first sentence there is an idealization of the Vedas but what follows later is the coming forth of many local forms of worship like dances, worship of trees, tying of amulets, singing, and spirit possession. These were certain forms that captured the emotional content and to see the full import of their meaning an etymological understanding of some words would do justice, for eg the veri atal or dancing as possessed is a form mentioned in early Tamil literature that makes a strong comeback in the bhakti tradition as demonstrated by Friedhelm Hardy(Hardy 2001)

In contrast to this many of the women, saints sought to escape patriarchy and the demands of domesticity by creating an autonomous space and also not being termed wayward loose by going on a long pilgrimage to different holy places. This demonstrates the creative use of tradition as both an element of protest and also to carve out some personal space for themselves. David Kinsley finds that in many devotional movements, the theoretical harmony between doing one’s duty, (dharma) and loving the Lord, (bhakti) is called into question. There seems to be tension between the two. The tension is particularly clear in the lives of several women saints who found it difficult and ultimately impossible to reconcile their traditional marriages with their inherent urge to love the Lord. He gives examples of Mahadevi Akka from Karnataka, Lalleswari from Kashmir, Mirabai from Rajasthan, and the whole of Krishna mythology with Radha as its central mode of devotion to show how in the lives of these women, devotion to God becomes an alternative to marriage. Crushed and confined to difficult domestic situations these women found an alternative possibility in their devotion. Renouncing marriage and life in the world generally, they directed their passions to heavenly consorts( Kinsley, 1980 ). The Lila of Krishna was one such way of engaging with the heavenly consorts where the Lila would mean the creation of the universe and was thus extended to all forms of human activity which were seen as a manifestation of divine play as authored in a book by the same name. ( Kinsley, 1980).

For the women, Bhakti became an outlet. A study of the writings of these women Bhaktas shows that they negotiated patriarchy through Bhakti which provided a space for them. Most of these women were encultured into a certain culture which was mostly a closed, patriarchal culture, but through this movement, a certain space was created for their freedom and mobility.

Akka Mahadevi was a contemporary of Basavanna, the founder of the Virsaiva movement. She was the daughter of a rich merchant in the village of Udutal. She was a great devotee of Siva and was initiated into worship at a very early age by an unknown Guru. She grew up into a beautiful young woman and the chieftain of the land named Kausika fell in love with her. Kaushiki was an unbeliever and  Mahadevi Akka was forced to marry him much against her wishes. Most probably he used coercion and a show of authority to subjugate Akka Mahadevi. The legend goes that she told him that she would leave him if he touched her thrice against her wishes and when he does so she leaves him (Ramanujan, 1985,112). When she leaves him she breaks all the marital relations as well as all the taboos and walks about naked and finally finds solace in the company of saints. It was these saints who ultimately helped her consummate her love for Siva by arranging a real marriage to him. This was a marriage of her choice. She died in her early twenties becoming one with Siva at Srisaila. (Ramanujan, 1985,114). Akka is one of the best-known poets of Karnataka. The number of her vachanas which can be culled from various sources is approximately 350. Besides these vachanas some songs and two works titled, The vachanas of creation” and Yogangatri are in her name ( Dabbe, Manushi, 1989, 42).

Lal Ded lived during the fourteenth century in Kashmir. She was born in a Brahmin family and was educated at home in her father’s house. She was married at the age of twelve into another Brahmin family surnamed Nica Bhatt at Pimpore. According to the Kashmiri custom she was renamed Padmavati.  We have a number of legends that talk about the cruelty meted out to Lal Ded. She endured this torture for twelve years and finally left home. Again it was  Bhakti that provided her a space to renounce her domestic hell. Padmavati is supposed to have danced naked singing in frenzy. She now came to be known as Lal Ded, Lal in Kashmiri referring to the lower part of her belly, which increased in size and hung loosely over her pubic region.

Mira bai lived in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, according to historical records In Rajasthan, she was a member of the Rajput nobility A daughter of Ratan Singh and Vir Kunwari of the Rathor clan, she was raised by her parents, Ratan Singh and Vir His great-grandfather founded Jodhpur, and Mira’s paternal grandpa was the founder Medata city and the surrounding 360 villages were ruled by her paternal grandfather Dudaji. Kudki was one of the 12 towns he handed Miras father Ratansing as a gift It was at this fort that Mira was born She received Vaishnavism from her father line because her paternal ancestors were Vaishnavas

As a little girl, Mira pestered her mother to tell her who her husband was when she witnessed a wedding procession, according to tradition. So that Mira’s mother wouldn’t have to keep asking questions, she pointed to a statue of Krishna and informed her that this Because of this, Mira regarded herself as married to Growing up, she married into the royal line of Mewar’s Rajput Sisodia Rajputs and became Her husband’s identity is unknown. Some believe he’s Maharaj Kumbh, while others believe he’s Bhojraj, the son of Rana Sang They were likely married as part of an alliance between Jodhpur’s rulers and Mewar’s ruling family. Kul and Bhaiyad (brotherhood) were intimately related to the political power and sovereignty system of Rajasthan. Everyone who had a similar ancestor through male bloodline was considered a member of the kul. These kings’ sons and brothers were called Bhaiyad. According to Muktesh (Mukta, 1994 According to legend, Mira refused to worship the goddess Shakti when she arrived at her in-laws’ house and was urged to do so for the sake of her husband and his family. It’s only natural that her spouse and in-laws Mira declined to get married because she was already married to Krishna. As a result of this act of blatant disobedience, her in-laws were Her life was often threatened, and she eventually fled the palace to live freely in a temple inside the palace grounds, but she was still unable to find peace due to the disapproval of her Bhakti (faith). As a result, she began traveling about in the company of other saints, visiting numerous temples and places connected to Krishna To start, she traveled to Dakur. Then she went to Vrindavan and It’s been said that Akbar and Tansen went to visit her in Dwarka, and Tansen sang one of her bhajans.

During her sojourn at the Ranchhorji temple in Dwarka, her natal and marital families sent priests as missionaries to convince her to return to her birthplace. In response to her refusal, the Brahmin priests began a death-defying fast outdoors “I don’t want to have Brahmin blood on my hands,” Mira said. This was followed by the composition of the mantra “Harikrishna Tum Haro Jan Ke Pir” as she entered the shrine and is supposed to have become Numerous academics have taken this to mean that he emerged via the temple’s west entrance, which faces the sea, and ( Kishwar, Manuhsi, 1989, 85). Miras Bhakti becomes a way out of the Rajput marriage system’s hate and dominance. When it came out, it was a testament to the strength of love in a world that was plagued by wars, vendettas, and the growing might

A loving Rajput woman, Gangasati married Kahlubha, who shared her love of bhajans and satsang. A dead cow was given to Kahlubha as a test of faith by his fellow Rajputs. It was at this point that he began shouting and singing imploring God to perform Because of his belief that practicing Bhakti for its own purpose would not be permitted, he chose to do Maha Samadhi and give up his life, believing that he would become a miracle man instead. They both wanted to join him, but he stopped them since she hadn’t passed on her wisdom and knowledge to their daughter-in-law Panbai. There has never been another known instance in history of a woman who is revered for her knowledge handing it on in a formal fashion.

Sant Toral is the better half of the famous Jesal Toral pair that was known as the legendary lover as well as the saint pair. Toral was a Kanthi woman married to Sansatia, who were were considered a lower caste than Rajputs but were also martial. Jesal was a Rajput dacoit from Kutch who was dared to acquire Toral. According to legend, he was dared to acquire Tati, Toli, and Toral, Tati was the famous sword, toil the famous mare, and Toral the woman known for her beauty and piety. Jesal reached Sansatia’s house and hid in the stable. When Toral distributed Prasad one extra helping was left and the search revealed Jesal who told Sansatia why he was there. Sansatia willingly gave his wife and mare. According to legend Toral agreed to go because she was born with the mission of changing the lives of three fallen men. But a wife was considered a chattle by the patriarchal system and she could easily be given away.

On their way to Kutch by boat, a heavy storm arose and began to rock the boat. While Jesal was terrified of death Toral remained calm and she addresses him in bhajans which teach that the attachment to the material world is pointless and one must find Bhakti. Jesal confesses to his sins which include robbing the wedding processions, killing bridegrooms, stealing and dragging away grazing cows, hunting deers, killing peacocks, and letting down his sisters and their children. As he confesses the storm subsides and the boat stops rocking. Anecdotes relate to how Jesal is transformed and gives up arms and violence.

Loyal was born in a community of blacksmiths in the latter half of the eighteenth century and is said to have been very beautiful. Her lover Lakha was an Ahir a cowherd of Saurashtra and they could not marry due to the difference in their castes. It is believed that Lakha planned to overcome this hurdle by pleasing his family and community by giving many gifts through his robberies. Loyal became a devotee under the influence of guru Selansi who belonged to the revered sect of Pir Ramdeo. Lakha could not stand the change in loyal and he tried to attack her and grab her but he was struck with leprosy. Loyal is supposed to have sung 144 bhajans to Lakha, talking about the emptiness of life, the greatness of the guru, and the fruits of Bhakti. Her bhajans usually begin with ” Ji re Lakha….” ( Shukla, 1989, 71)

Mukta Bai of Maharashtra lived during the thirteenth century and was the sister of Nivritti, Jnandev, and Sopan who are considered the founders of the Varkari tradition. Their father was a Brahmin and a disciple of Ramanand but he was ostracised by the Brahmin community because after having taken Sanyasa he reverted back to a householder’s life. He then committed suicide. Though Mukata Bai according to tradition was a beautiful and intelligent girl she did not marry but lived with her brothers. She is said to have composed over 100 Abhangs. She died at the young age of eighteen.

Janabai was a contemporary of Muktabai and was a maidservant in the house of Janadev. Not much is known about her except her life as depicted in the Abhangs. She talks about her day-to-day work and how she is helped in this by her God.

The next important saint from Maharashtra was Bahina Bai. She lived during the seventh century and is the only woman saint who has written an autobiography. She was born in a poor Brahmin family of Deigoan. When she was three years old she was married to Ratnakar Pathak who was thirty years old and was a priest and an astrologer. For him, this was a second marriage. At the age of seven, Bahina Bai came to Kolhapur to live with her husband and his parents. Here too she had to suffer a lot due to her Bhakti and she is the only woman saint who remains married throughout her life. Her life eases only when her husband gets converted to her way of thinking. She also wrote her Abhangas in the popular Marathi Ovi meter, which is used in songs when women go about their daily work like doing the household chores, grinding the corn, or husking the grain.

A common theme that runs throughout the lives of these women is the restricted spaces in their married homes. Suddenly after marriage, they do not have any freedom and come into conflict with their in-law’s family when they want to lead a life according to their wishes. There are attempts at trying to imprison them, lock them and even poison them.  Mahadevi Akka says,

I have Maya for mother in law

 The World for father in law

Three brothers in law, like tigers.

And the husband’s thoughts

Are full of laughing women.

No God this man.

And I cannot cross this sister in law

But I will

Give this wench the slip

And go cuckold my husband with hard my lord

My mind is my maid.

By her kindness, I join my lord

My utterly beautiful lord

From the mountain peaks

My lord, .white as Jasmine

And / will make him my good husband ( Ramanujan, 1985, 141).

According to Hindu tradition, a husband is supposed to be God, and irrespective of all his shortcomings a woman is expected to worship him. The sources for the reconstruction of medieval India maybe be grouped into different genres and literature and epigraphy are among the many sources. While epigraphy is primarily concerned with land and the sale and gift of lands, we have different genres of literature like heroic, court, etc. All of them have one dominant strand and object of inquiry that can be comprehended through direct readings as they are for legalistic purposes where the contractual nature of the objects like land, war, court procedures, etc make them clear and represent facts. Here this genre of bhakti literature makes elaborate use of established myths and represents them in a counterfactual way so as to subvert the existing meanings which also reflect the yearning for a new order. The above-mentioned poem of Akka Mahadevi and the later poems following them also has a similar theme and reflect this structure.

Even Lal Ded had a very difficult married life. Many legends talk about the cruel treatment meted out to her by her mother-in-law. Here she was scolded on the slighted pretext. She was not allowed to spin yarn on the spinning wheel, though legend has it that she spun yarn as fine as the lotus stalk. – She was often ridiculed for not doing anything right and often taunted as to what she had learned at her father’s house. We have among her sayings,

 They may kill a big sheep or a tender lamb,

 Lalla will have her lump of stone all right ( Parimoo, 1978, 10)

She was harassed at her in-law’s place, and most probably this was due to her not following the wishes of her in-law’s family blindly. Another- saying attributed to her states,

I did not give birth to a child nor lay in confinement ( Kaul, 1973, 11).

Since she did not behave in an expected manner, she was tortured. She was served           ­

stones in her food and also accused of infidelity to her husband. She however accepts

this because,

One has to bear lightning, flashes, and thunderbolts

One has to put up with pitch darkness at midday( Kaul,1973,13)

Mira’s life is better known when compared to the other women Bhaktas. When she got married and came to her in-law’s family she was accused of not behaving properly like that of a royal woman.

I have lost the honor of the royal fami/y

People say I have gone astray with the sadhus

I  constantly rise up.

go to Gods temple and dance

Snapping my fingers

I don’t follow the norms

As the oldest daughter in law

J have thrown away the veil( Chaturvedi, 1983, 244)

Her family tries to restrict her movements and they even lock her in.

O, friend! cannot live ‘without the delight giver

Mother in law fights, my sister in law teases

The Rana remains angry

They have a watchman sitting at the door

 And a /ock fastened on it

Why should I give up my first love’

My only love

Mira’s  God is the lifter of mountains

O nothing else pleases me. ( Chaturvedi, 1983, 42)

When things get out of hand there is an attempt at her life, because she has brought nothing but disgrace to the Rajput family in which she is wed.

Friends I am completely dyed in this Krishna color

I drank the cup of immortal bliss

My inebriation never goes away

However many millions of ways I try

Rana sent  me a basket with a snake in it

And Meera  put  it around her neck

Smiling, Mira hugged it, as  if it were a

The string of new pearls.

Rana took a cup of poison, “Find Mira(he said)

Give it to her

She drank it like Charnamrita

Singing the praise of Govinda

I drank the cup of his name nothing else pleases me now.( Chaturvedi, 1983, 40)

Further, she states,

Meera danced with ankle bells on her feet

People said Meera was mad

My mother in law said I had ruined

 the family reputation

Rana sent me a cup of poison and

Mira drank it laughing.  (Chaturvedi, 1983, 36).

Muktabai lived during the thirteenth century and was the sister of Nivritti, Jnandev, and Sopan who are considered the founders of the Varkari tradition. Their father was a Brahmin and a disciple of Ramanand but he was ostracised by the Brahmin community because after having taken Sanyasa he reverted back to a householder’s life. He then committed suicide. Though Mukata Bai according to tradition was a beautiful and intelligent girl she did not marry but lived with her brothers. She is said to have composed over 100 Abhangs.

Unlike many other women bhaktas, Muktabai does not emphasize her womanhood or talk about the conditions of her life as a woman. Her many songs are cast in the form of dialogues with other saints and she discourses with them as an equal. In Nivritti Mukti Samvad,  she and Nivritti instruct one another. In Tatiche Abhang ( Song of the Door) she tries to persuade Jnaneshwar, who has got annoyed by people’s comments and locked himself in his hut, to open the door. She adapts the tone, not of a younger sister pleading with the younger brother but a saint addressing another.

She died at the young age of eighteen.   In a verse, Chokhamela says that if he has a son the son should be a saint and if a daughter she should be like Mirabai or Muktabai, otherwise he would rather not have children at all. She is one of the most revered saints of Maharashtra.

Janabai was a contemporary of Muktabai and was a maidservant in the house of Janadev. Janabai was the daughter of a sudra bhakta and was taken into the house of Namdev’s father Damshetti when she was very young and she grew up there as a maidservant. Not much is known about her except her life as depicted in the Abhangs. Namdev had taken a vow to compose one crore verses in praise of Vithoba and he divided the task amongst his household members. Janabai also composed a number of Abhangs and these appear in Namdev Gatha. She is very much aware of her position as a maidservant but she is happy that she is in the house of a saint.

Bahina bai writes in her autobiography,

I was now eleven years of age but 1 had not had one moment of joy ( Abbot, 1929,)

Again she states,

I had no independence and my wishes had no effect. 1 was very depressed in spirits. My daily life was full of troubles. (Abbot, 1929)

She recognizes her limitations as a woman.

Possessing a woman’s body and myself being subject to others, 1 was not able to carry out my desire to discard all worldly things. (Abbot, 1929)

For Bahina’s husband, this was his second marriage. At the age of seven, Bahina Bai left her birthplace and came to Kolhapur along with her husband and parents.

When Bahina was ten years old her parents received a cow and calf as alms and she became very attached to the calf.

If the calf was not at sight, 1 was troubled. 1 felt like a fish out of water. Whether I was grinding or pounding grain, or carrying water, I was unhappy, Though with others, without the calf. I was the only one to feed it with grass and without me, it was unhappy ( Abbot, 1929, 16)

When Bahina bai and her parents went to attend a Kirtan of a well-known saint, Jiyaram Swami, she took her calf along with her and when people objected to the calf being in the crowded room, it was driven out. The calf stood outside and cried and Bihna sobbed inside the room. Jiyaram Swami, then had the calf brought inside and blessed both of them. Ratnakar Pathak was very angry when he got to hear about this incident. “ He seized her by her hair and beat her to his heart’s content. ( Abbot, 1929, 13). Her feet and hand were tied.  The calf refused to eat food and died twelve days later. This shocked Bihna and she became unconscious for three days and wished, I would also accompany the life of my calf( Abbot, 1929, 8).

In this unconscious state in her dreams, she saw Vithoba and accepted Tukaram as her Guru. Naturally, her husband did not like this, because Tukaram came from the lower caste and they were Brahmins, and custom and scriptures forbade any contact with the lower castes.

My husband began to say vile are Brahmins. We should spend our time in the study of the Vedas. What is all this? The shudra Tuka, seeing him in dreams. My wife is v ruined by all this. (Her husband also gave her bodily suffering on account of this ( Abbot, 1929, 3)

Ratnakar Pathak now started contemplating leaving his wife,

Who cares for the feeling of bhakti. I will abandon her and go into the forest, for people are going to bow down to her, while she regards me worthless as a straw.

Who will show respect to me in her presence? ( Abbot, 1929, 3,4, 5).

In some of her Abhangas, she comes across as a rebellious and bold person and her refusal to abandon her Bhakti and her search for truth.

The Vedas cry aloud, the Puranas shout

No good comes to a woman

I was born with a woman’s body

How am I to attain the truth?

They are foolish, seductive, deceptive-

Any connections with a woman are disastrous

Bahina says,” If a woman’s body is so harmful,

How in this world will I reach the truth?

Hence the common thread that runs through the lives of all these women is the treatment meted out to them in their inlaw’s house at the hands of husbands, in-laws, or sisters-in-law. Now it is Bhakti that provides the space and to move out of this house and in the process, they get their independence. For all these women bhaktas the rejection of the power of the male figure whom they were tied to insubordinate relationship became the terrain for struggle, self-assertion, and alternative seeking( Manushi, 1989) The above can also be read as the mainstream religions having an emotional vacuum since these challenge the way that the emancipator nature of religion is absent in ritual, text, and practice, therefore the emotional content is to be a compensation in the ecstatic raptures. Therefore these poems address a  new sensorial or the senses

 But now Bhakt offers a choice and  Mahadevi has the courage to state that this husband of hers is no God and she would make her Lord God as a good husband. She also talks about the constant conflict between her duties at home and her Bhakti.

Husband inside

Lover outside

I can’t manage them both

This world and the other

I can’t manage them both.

O lord white as Jasmine

I cannot hold in one hand

Both the round nut

And the longbow ( Ramanujan, 1985,127).

The first and the foremost thing which many of these women do is to cast off all notions of decency and modesty which are the lynchpin of the patriarchal society, which neatly divides the respectable family women from the other women, who is not respectable. Akka Mahadevi sheds her clothes and walks naked.

Brother, you have come

drawn  by the beauty

of these billowing breasts, this brimming youth

I am no woman brother no whore ( Susan Daniel, 1991, 80).

Janabai states,

Let me not be sad because I am born a woman

In this world, many saints suffer in this way She further states,

Cast off all shame

And sell yourself

In the marketplace

Then alone

You can hope to reach the Lord ( Vilas Sarang, 1991,83)

Mira also states,

O my companion there is nothing to be ashamed of now

Since I have been seen dancing openly

In the day I have no hunger

At night I am restless and cannot sleep

Leaving these troubles behind I go to the other side( Keay, 1991, 93)

Akka has a total disdain for the earthly husband, much in contrast to what she has been taught by scriptures and told by tradition because the earthly husband decays and dies.

I love this handsome one

He has no death

Decay or form

No place or side

No end nor birthmark

I love him O mother listen

So the lord white as jasmine is my husband

Take these husbands who die

And decay and feed them

To your kitchen fires( Ramanujan, 1985,134)

Mira comes out in open defiance.

If Sisodiya is angry, what will he do to me?

I will sing the virtues of Govind my friend

If Rana is angry, he will stay in his own country

If Hari is angry I will wither friend.

I don’t care for worldly positions ( Chaturvedi, 1983,35).

Mira has no faith in worldly marriage and prefers being wed to her Hari.

Friends marriage of this world are false

They are wiped out of existence

Wed my indestructible one

The serpent’s death cannot devour( Chaturvedi, 1983,194).

Soon Meera became free of her worldly burdens when her husband died. Now she openly started associating with like-minded people who were involved with bhakti. Her family did not like this, because Meera was breaking tradition and moving out of purdah, and by talking and associating with other males, she was bringing shame to the family.

I have found a guru in Raidas

He has given me the pill of knowledge

A woman is seen by nature( Sva Bhav) as not only a pollutant but also potentially dangerous because of her sexuality.  Therefore in the family, her sexuality should always be controlled and she should be subservient to the male authority.  Her sexuality is seen as a source of prosperity when it is active but it has to be controlled by her husband in any other situation and she must totally repress it.

Akka Mahadevi rose above the body and has no need for any jewels and clothes, which in her earlier life were a very important parameter of her status Vis-a-vis her husband.

 You can confiscate

Money in hand

Can you confiscate it?

The body’s glory

To this shameless girl

Where is the need for cover and jewels? ( Ramanujan, 1985, 129)

She now has no other ambition except to join her lord.

0 Shiva

When shall!

Crush you on my pitcher’s breasts

0 lord white as jasmine

When do I join you

Stripped of body’s shame

And my heart’s modesty.

She looks upon all men except her lover Shiva as her brothers and dissuades them from coming near proclaiming that she is neither a woman nor a whore.

You have come seeing the beauty

Of rounded breasts and the

The fullness of youth brother

Brother, I am not a woman

Brother, I am not a whore

Brothers seeing me again and again

For whom have you come?

Look brother any man

Other than the Lord who is white as Jasmine

Is a face I cannot stand( Zydenbos, 1989).

She shows a lot of firmness and courage in her wanderings all alone by herself. There

is a hint of being harassed but she remains pure for her lover.

Do not worry

That I am completely alone

Whatever they do I will not be aji-aid

I will eat dried leaves

I will sleep on a sword

0 lord white as jasmine

If you want to examine me

I will offer my body and soul to you

And be pure. ( Zydenbos, 198, 42)

It is not that the path of Bhakti is easy. There are lots of dilemmas and struggles. Akka Mahadevi states,

The stream behind the river inji-ont

Tell me which way to go

The pond behind the net in front

Tell me wheresafety is (Zydenbos, 198, 42)

However, these moments of dilemma and confusion are very few in comparison to her pain and sufferings

My restless mind has been turned upside down

The whirling wind has become


The moonlight has become the heat

For Meera too the pains of home become easy

Finally, she leaves her home and goes out in search of her real home. There is nothing that can now make her turn back.

Rana to me your slander is sweet

Some praise me, some blame me, 1 go the other way

 On the narrow path, l found God’s people

What should I turn back for? ( Chaturvedi, 240)

In her wanderings, Meera had to face harassment and disapproval. She has a number of songs that talk about people of the world laughing at her, thinking her mac blaming her, even regarding her a destroyer of families. Meera however just ignore these and she is said to have traveled to Dakaur, Vrindavan, and Dwarka all place associated with Krishna. Her lover Krishna now becomes the center of existence.

I go to Giridhar’s house

Giridhar is my real lover

I see his beauty and am allured

When nightfall’s, I go and when day breaks I come back

Night and day I play with him and

Please him in every way ( Tirpathi, 1979, 83).

There is a restlessness in her for her beloved.

Friend the dark ones glance is like love’s dagger

It struck me and

 I  grew restless

 I  lost all sense of my body

Pain spreads through my body

My mind is intoxicated

I have found few friends

All of them are mad……

The Chakor loves the moon, the moth by the lamp is burnt

The fish dies without ‘water- dear indeed is such love

How can I live without seeing him?  My heart is not at rest.  ( Manushi, 1989, 89)

Bahina’s husband also started thinking of leaving her due to her involvement in Bhakti. But then it is discovered that Bihna was three months pregnant and so her husband could not abandon her. Meanwhile, Bahina also decided that it was her duty to serve her husband first rather than Vithal or Tukaram because if her husband left her she would be ruined completely. However, soon her husband became seriously ill and Bihna nursed him very devotedly. He regarded his illness as a punishment for having insulted Vithal and Tukaram. So after he recovered he realized his mistake and came around to Bihnabai’s path and they moved to Dehu where Tukaram lived and accepted him as their guru. It was only after her husband came around to her path of bhakti did Bahina’s life become easy.

Hence, to conclude, even a cursory reading of the Bhakti literature shows us that, it is Bhakti that gives these women the moral courage to stand against patriarchal political authority and create an alternate space for themselves( Pande, 1991). They defy patriarchal norms of marriage and walk out(  except in the case of Bahina bai) which survives even to this day in folk memory but is delegitimized in mainstream history highlighting the fundamental disconnect between history writing and the type of sources used to essay history. In Hinduism devotion of the wife to her husband and her complete merger in him is the highest aim, even if the husband was a fiend. The women in Bhakti found the courage to defy this and either walked out of their houses and the restricted spaces of patriarchal control or changed their husbands to their way of thinking. It is interesting to note that, while the majority of the Bhakti saints especially, Nirgun are very critical of all institutions and revolted against idolatry, the tyranny of castes and creeds along with temples and rituals, in .the change which they sought, women were not included. At this time many of the women saints were leading non-traditional, non-conformist lives and talking of individual freedom. Many of the Bhakti saints, though clamoring for a change and protesting vocally against the prevalent injustice in society, conveniently left but the women, relegating her to the background. She had no place in the change that was being sought. It was a change that was being defined by male parameters. Since the change was being sought within a given structure, it did not attempt at changing the power structure vis-a-vis the family.  The Bhakti saints did not attempt to the reorganization of social relationships within the family. There was every attempt at marginalizing the women and pushing them back into the domestic sphere and only that women became an ideal who was an obedient wife, a Pativrata or a Sati-Savitri. At this time the women writing bhakti literature negotiated patriarchy and created an alternative space for themselves.


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