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The Bhakti movement, which sprouted first in the 6th century in Southern India, was marked by the rise of heterodox devotional cults, rejection of Brahmanical institutions, the use of vernacular language in place of Sanskrit, and large-scale participation of peasantry, artisans, skilled craftspersons and other oppressed classes and castes.
But a truly remarkable feature of the Bhakti movement was the rise of women as devotees (bhaktins) with some even achieving sainthood. They put forward eloquent and powerful expressions of their spiritual and temporal experiences as bhaktins. There was great diversity amongst the women saints in terms of their life experiences, the spiritual paths they took and their interaction with the traditional society. While some of them spoke of the ideals of chastity and devotion, others produced sharp critiques of caste, chose to renounce clothes and left their homes.
Their emergence is especially significant in the background of the restrictions and abuses heaped upon women in the traditional, patriarchal society.
From the earliest times, the Dharmashastras and the Smritis confined women to the qualities of obedience, chastity, modesty and surrender to father, husband, or son. Patriarchal notions took the form of practices like the the veiling of women which was particularly pervasive amongst the ruling Rajput groups of northern India; and Sati in which a woman mounted her husband’s funeral pyre as the ultimate act of wifely devotion.
Women, especially those from dominant classes, were not to step out of their homes. The condition of widows was especially abhorrent. In short, a woman without a husband or household was practically nothing. The idea of an independent woman was almost non-existent.
Ironic as it might sound, but it is no surprise that gender discrimination easily seeped into the Bhakti movement as well. Women’s relationship with salvation had been a theological hot potato since early times, and even when the Bhakti movement emerged, the female claim to salvation and asceticism remained sharply complex and contested.
Indian historian and film maker Uma Chakravarti’s work shows the enduring double standard of the patriarchal society. In the case of women, the female body and domesticity were seen as obstacles in the path of salvation. But for men, no contradictions were perceived between the life of a householder and devotion towards God. Ruth Vanita and Madhu Kishwar point out how when the Rajput princess Meera/Mira left her role of a “pativrata” to pursue her spiritual calling, the fallout was bitter ostracism.
The path of spirituality did help women break away from societal dictates. The resulting feminine spirituality came to be deeply shaped by experiences of discrimination and exploitation. Indeed, saints ranging from Meerabai from north India to Akka Mahadevi in the south expressed a rejection of patriarchal society through their compositions and actions.
Many women saints followed the ideal of an obedient and chaste housewife. For example, the wives of the Virashavaite saints like Nilamma and Nagalochane who were married to the great saint Basavva. Similarly, Vasuki, the wife of the famous Tamil saint Tiruvalluvar, advocated the ideal stereotype of a chaste and compliant wife. Another example is Tilakavatiyar who took the ideal of chastity to an extreme when she began living as a widow upon the death of her fiance on the battlefield.
Between these two extremes were women who gave up convention only because circumstances left them with no other choice. There were many women who chose the radical path by renouncing their roles as wives, seeking the happiness and fulfilment that the world could not give them, in God.
Saints like Lal Ded and Rupa Bhawani of Kashmir walked out of their homes and, in their case, their main cause was ill-treatment by their husband and families. Particularly famous is the tale of the Rathore princess Mira who left the comforts of her palace at Chittor to join the bhaktas, defied the will of her husband and her in-laws, survived various attempts on her life, to become a wandering singer. A southern archetype is the Nayanmar saint Karaikkal Ammaiyar, earlier known as Padmavati, who was deserted by her husband who felt threatened by his wife’s great spiritual powers.
These women saints also challenged the rigid notions of sexuality and gender. Unlike their male counterparts, notions of male or female, modesty and shame did not bother many female saints. Like Akka Mahadevi, the Kashmiri saint Lalla is again said to have discarded her clothes and danced naked. This shedding of all inhibitions constituted the ultimate act of defiance of societal expectations.
In thinking about these women as rule-breakers or conformers, we need to ask whether their compositions advocated social change or not. Compared to male bhaktas, rejection of caste and social protest is more subtle, indirect and less conscious amongst the women bhaktins. Concrete examples of an explicit rejection of the existing social structure and behavioural modes are very few.
As such, for instance, Lal Ded and Mira did not function as social reformers and their compositions deal with their personal trepidations in the familial space and do not give a socially conscious call for reform. Reformist voices come from the Marathi saint Janabai, herself a member of an oppressed caste, who attacked the restrictions of inter caste dining through her abhang in which God came to dine with Chokhamela (a famous male saint, Mahar by caste) upon seeing his great devotion. In the South, the saint Auvaiyar’s verses stand singularly alone in their virulent anti-caste statements:
The smells of neem and sandalwood are distinct when they burn, but indistinguishable is the smell of the burning Brahmin. Does fire smell different if an unkempt Pulaya burns? Does the burning stuff and flame differ, ye elders of Paichalür?
Parita Mukta notes how Meera’s devotion forever antagonised her to the Rajput community of Mewar, a visceral tension that remains alive even today. Her radical feats – when she openly declared Raidas, a tanner by caste to be her guru, and her subversion of the traditions of Rajput honour, made her an icon amongst the oppressed caste communities of Rajasthan. It is they who have preserved Mira’s message for centuries before it was popularised during the nationalist movement.
The very presence of these women posed a challenge to the predominantly patriarchal society of those times. Moreover, perceptions of these women are varying. Thus, the instinct to squarely categorise them as “conformist” or “rebel” is a misleading approach under the duress of subjectivity. What we see instead, are women of various shades and complex personalities, reacting in different ways to their lives and the zeitgeist of Bhakti.
Although the bhakti movement increased the social acceptance for female spiritual attainment, it also went hand in hand with a tense ambivalence towards the position of women saints. Slowly over time, the spaces that had once opened to women also began to close up. While some bhaktins like Andal and Karaikkal Ammaiyar attained sainthood, the other women mentioned in the sources exist in marginal roles: as devout mothers, sisters and wives who assist the bhaktas.
Also read: Women’s Participation In Buddhism
The Periyapuranam is filled with references to the bhaktas abusing their wives to further their own devotion. For example, the saint Kaliyar Nayanar attempted to sell his wife in the market to buy oil for the temple lamps! Indeed, instances such as these help us bring out the dichotomy of the Bhakti phenomena, letting us appreciate and even get inspired by the ways in which women have always been negotiating their relationships with the patriarchal juggernaut.
Many succumbed, many conceded but many also subverted, questioned, contemplated and challenged societal norms that bind them, in a quest for spiritual fulfilment and self-expression.
“From Devotion and Dissent to Dominance: The Bhakti of the Tamil Alvars and Nayanars.” Tradition, Dissent and Ideology, edited by R. Champakalakshmi and S. Gopal, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, pp. 135-63Kishwar, Madhu, and Ruth Vanita.
“Poison to Nectar: The Life of Mirabai.” India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 4, 1992, pp. 65-75.
“Mirabai in Rajasthan.” Mukta, Parita. Manushi vol. 50, no. 51, 1989, pp. 94-99.
“Bhakti Movement in South India.” Narayanan, M.G.S. and K. Veluthat.
“The Feudal Order: State, Society and Ideology in Early Medieval India“, edited by D.N. Jha, 2000, pp. 385-410.
“Rebels—Conformists? Women Saints in Medieval South India.” Ramaswamy, Vijaya. Anthropos, 1992, pp. 133-146.
“A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From The Stone Age to The 12th Century.” Singh, Upinder. Pearson Education India, 2009.
Samarth Singh Chandel is pursuing History from Hansraj College. Keen on writing and doing art, he likes to uncover the intersections of gender, sexuality, religion, art and culture. He may be found on Instagram
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