Learning From Andal, Learning From The Devadasi

Posted: January 18, 2018

Modern women can learn much from Andal’s life and appreciate its beauty, without having to be sentimental about it or evaluating her in a 21st century context.

Recently, the Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu called Andal a devadasi and sparked off some protests, especially by the Tamil Brahmin community (often referred to as tam-brams). Honestly, the protests by this community are a new and far more interesting phenomenon, the historical scholarship, on the other hand, is old, hackneyed, ideological and in urgent need of revision.

In the face of the protests, Vairamuthu apologized and pointed out that he was not calling Andal a devadasi anyway but another scholar from a 70s book that can’t be located easily was (in Indian Movement: Some Aspects of Dissent, Protest and Reform by Subhash Chandra Malik). As usual, the issue spiraled into pointing out the distorted histories of the left and corrective attempts from the right on some fora.

Tradition has it that women are excluded from issues concerning them, so we must ask: what should our take be on this issue? As feminists, we revel in Andal and her exemplary life as much as we do in the devadasis’ contribution to our society, temples and art forms. Yet, the feminist take on the Andal-devadasi controversy cannot be simplistic or shy away from the problems of history-writing. To show why, I draw from my own research into medieval bhakti a bit and present some thoughts you could consider in making your mind up.

Who was Andal? Why does her story still move us?

For those of you yet to google Andal up, here is her story in brief. Andal as a baby is found in a garden by Vishnuchitta, a temple priest who then brings her up as his daughter. She tries out garlands meant for the temple deity, thinking they must first look beautiful on her if they are to look beautiful on the deity. One day, Vishnuchitta catches her doing this and admonishes her, for unworn and pure flowers must be offered to Hindu deities. Soon after, the deity appears in Vishnuchitta’s dream and insists that he wants only those garlands tried out by Andal.

Andal’s devotion is so deep that she asks to be married to Ranganatha at Srirangam when she grows up, another form of the same deity. Upon marriage, she merges with her beloved deity with no traces left behind. She is hailed as a Goddess and is one of the twelve much-revered Tamil Vaishnavite saints of medieval India. Andal composed two works, Tiruppavai and TirumozhiAndal means ruler. The story of Andal is deeply moving. Andal’s innocence, sincerity and perseverance as well as her strength and delicateness are remarkable, even when her story is told in unsentimental ways.

When I first heard the story as a child, I was moved to tears and didn’t need to know the history of medieval India to understand it. I say this because there is nothing complete or irrefutable about the history that is doing the rounds aka one that Vairamuthu is drawing his understanding from. Why? The mainstream history that we have today is indeed leftist. It works on the standard format of looking for the feudal lord and the underdog in everything it touches. Even simple inferences about the extraordinariness of Andal makes it paint the rest of the women as super-ordinary. It is such an attempt that makes historians say speculative things like, women took to spirituality because of the oppression of patriarchy in those times or that women never ventured out of the house.

My research reveals many credible historical sources* wherein women ‘converted’ their husbands’ sect from one to another and even demanded to be married to a person with a certain kind of devotion. They are known to have rejected or rebuked husbands for their lack of devotion as well. The birth of daughters was prayed for and celebrated in many parts of medieval India and their loss upon marriage, mourned. Women ruled as queens during this time. In leftist histories, the regressiveness of medieval society and tradition is premised on an assumption of egalitarianism that is attributed to the Bhakti period in comparison with the Protestant movement of Europe. Contrary to the assumptions made, not all Bhakti poetry sought to eradicate caste or gender inequality, it only reiterated what was held to be true in the Vedas: that for spiritual sadhana, class, caste, gender and such worldly categories do not matter.

Further, viewing medieval society by premising ourselves in modernity shows our uncritical affiliation with modernity so as to declare tradition as its polar opposite, rife with superstition and backwardness.

Andal’s choice is what makes her fascinating

We must simply disagree with and condemn Vairamuthu’s position that Andal was a devadasi because it is historically inaccurate with no evidence to back the claim. Devadasis have a rich and varied history—not all women who were devadasis were treated as prostitutes; some were performers of various art forms, others led pious lives within the bounds of temples. Andal lived in the immediate surroundings of a temple because she grew up as Vishnuchitta’s daughter and temple priests traditionally lived within a stone’s throw from the temple. This doesn’t make her a devadasi. Andal lived most of the years of her short life being in love with Krishna, her favourite deity and her compositions express her love in erotic terms. But this too does not make her a devadasi necessarily, she could just be a devotee. She married her beloved deity, but this was no ordinary marriage or devadasi marriage. She was dedicated to the temple deity beyond and above requirements of her, of her own will and inclination. She was not bound by tradition to do so.

Her choice is what we should find fascinating. Andal surrendered herself to Krishna, but also chided him when she wanted to, accusing him of anything she wanted to. For her, Krishna was real; she was not deluded. Her life was a miracle in itself and though hagiographies may exaggerate, she is not the first or last in the long line of saints who leave their physical bodies in an unusual way – whatever we may or may not understand or believe of this today. We don’t have to uncritically accept these claims but they are stories alright. It is better we let questions persist rather than propose answers that are baseless.

This said, the protests from the Tam-brahm community are not unproblematic. They tend to emerge from a moral position of superiority that looks down upon devadasis and sex-workers with enormous insensitivity. Though the protestors have put forward a simple demand for apology, the contours of their position are not entirely unknown. Their moralistic position all too often refuses to acknowledge the complexities of caste, class and gender and looks the other way when complicity in forms of oppression are mentioned.

If only they developed a more sophisticated stance towards their understanding of society and history, could we take them more seriously each time they cried ‘hurt religious sentiments.’ I say this despite the fact that the Tam-brahm community rarely comes forward publicly in this manner, remaining quiet and ultra-cautious. The Tam-brahminization of classical art forms that were wrenched from the hands of the devadasis during the nationalist period is a well-known history that we need to remember on this occasion. The point again is not to critique individual left historians or be anti-brahminical and attack them but to be aware of the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in their approaches even if on a case by case basis.

As many ways of being a woman as there are women

Whether women are religious or not, their cause does not benefit with affiliation to either of these positions. One extols the devadasis and condemns Andal somewhat, the other extols Andal and could condemn the devadasis. If women would like to be respected, not for their sexual choices, which is an intensely personal matter, but for being women, as humans equal to men, then where do these two polarized options leave us? Feminist positions unassociated with the left are hard to find. Yet, in this era of postmodernism where ideology is quite passe, why shouldn’t we hope to embrace multiple, vague and arbitrary positions regarding Andal instead of insisting on one or another history?

The bare minimum of Andal’s story, whether fact or fiction, is inspiring enough for women. We would have a problem with Andal if our understanding of feminism was simplistic enough to admonish femininity, devotion, marriage, family, love, sexual desire because they are patriarchal. The truth is, women embrace all of these or reject them or tweak them, or like Andal interpret each in our own ways. Women of today tend to marry and redefine it, fall in love and opt out of it, have families they care enough to fight with, call out on their children, celebrate and contain their desires and practice any number of variations of all these.

Being feminine does not mean being weak. Strength and femininity can co-exist and has co-existed, as in Andal. It is patriarchy that would like to have us believe otherwise. In addition, it is our general assumption that medieval India did not speak out about sexual desire, which is why we tend to think of Andal as extraordinary or rebellious. Medieval women too negotiated sexual desire anyway.

Even if streedharma was followed during these times, it was considered a path to the highest cultural goal, moksha. Women by tending to their husbands and his family would secure a coveted position for themselves, their labour was of value. Miraculous powers were often a byproduct of their filial devotion, while filial devotion in general had rewards as well. Andal’s love for Krishna followed the marriage model and streedharma which reaped her very rich rewards. She vanished without a trace into the sanctum sanctorum of the temple at Srirangam, uniting with a deity who rules the earth and the Gods!

Within the logic and narrative of the story, there is enough to convey the effectiveness of Andal’s devotion, the perfect achievement of her worthy aims. The characteristics Andal displays in her story are of great value too. Persistence being one. Purity being another. How much control over one’s actions should one have to be single-minded and unwavering like her! It’s not trivial; anyone of us working outside the home or inside it knows that our everyday tasks too demand great focus from us. Cultivating a character is not to be underestimated and inculcating values considered noble are not necessarily futile though there is much cynicism about them today.

If our feminism is not just a bunch of stereotypes and one where we don’t look at our past or tradition as inferior and silly but are ready to learn some lessons from, we may find much that appeals to our critical minds in there. If our feminism is one where we know that traditional women make choices too—within tradition, whatever the repertoire maybe and however it may appear different to those who have opted out of tradition, then Andal and the devadasi would be equally great. We will help ourselves much if we viewed medieval India as we view our own society today with versions of tradition and modernity competing for our attention; the spectrum beautifully diverse, fickle and irreducible.

Let us hope that the young women of today are already asking important questions of their mothers, chipping away at the black-white world of morality into a grey. In her own life, Andal convinced her father to a marriage with the deity Ranganatha in Srirangam, a town far from Srivilliputtur where she resided. Vishnuchitta assembled his family and others and traveled the whole distance as the bride’s party. No ordinary feat. Any of us who has stood their ground on career or marriage with our families would know.

Andal does not have to lend herself to our 21st century life directly, women have the imagination to understand her life and her achievements as per her own context, spiritual as it maybe. Neither does the devadasi have to narrate her woes to us in detail before we feel a burning rage against those who exploited her. Andal, the woman, sans her modern and so-called traditional interpreters, is all we women really need.

*The scope of this article does not allow me to give a detailed account of sources which are often not found online, but I am happy to take more questions from readers in the comments below.

Header image By Siva301in (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons and Facebook

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Sushumna Kannan is Adjunct Faculty at the San Diego State University, San Diego. She has a PhD in Cultural Studies from Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore. Her dissertation explored issues in feminist epistemology and the Indian Intellectual traditions. She is a freelance writer on culture, feminism, literature, art, music, movies and books. To view more of her writing, visit: http://sushumnakannan.weebly.com/

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