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What were the struggles and motivations of female saints of India? A brief history of women saints from Kashmir to Karnataka, Gujarat to Bengal.
Lalla or Lal Ded as she was known, was a rebel female saint of India in fourteenth-century Kashmir. A mystic of the Kashmiri Shaivite sect who inspired and interacted with many Sufis, she created mystic poetry, verses that are among the earliest compositions in the Kashmiri language called Vaks (literal meaning: speech or voice).
Born in Pandrethan (ancient Puranadhisthana) near Srinagar into a Kashmiri Pandit family, she was trained in Trika, a mystic tradition of Shaivism in Kashmir. Married at the age of twelve, she was regularly mistreated by her mother-in-law and husband. She left her marital home for good at twenty-four and renouncing material life, is said to have wandered naked (with her hanging belly covering her private parts) reciting Vaks. Legends abound and several miracles are attributed to her.
In her poems, she rebelled against prevailing social norms, rejecting rituals in favour of meditative devotion, questioning the secondary status of women and advocating equality for all. She vehemently opposed the ritualistic aspects of Trika, revolting against the powerful clergy of the times who had transformed these rituals into a means of exploitation. The ritual-free Trika of Lal-Ded emerged, giving a new lease of life to Kashmiri Shaivite spiritual tradition.
Lal Ded demystified Shaivism by composing in the language of the common people, making its tenets accessible to all. Her Vaks stem from personal experience, conveying the realisation that the divine resides within, expressing her yearning and irritation with the divine in turn. The supreme is omnipresent, she sang, there is no distinction between Hindu and Muslim. The Hindus called her Lalleshwari and the Muslims Lalla Arifa, but both endearingly called her Lal Ded (grandmother).
Her poetry has been translated widely, the most recent English translation being I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded by Ranjit Hoskote, published by Penguin.
Meerabai was a sixteenth-century mystic poet and devotee of Krishna who has been claimed by the North Indian Hindu tradition of Bhakti saints.
Born into a royal family in what is now Rajasthan, she was the only child of her parents. After her mother died when she was five, she was sent to her grandparents, who were devout worshippers of Vishnu. She was educated in music, religion, politics and government.
Most legends about Meera mention her disregard for social and family conventions, her devotion to god Krishna, her treating Krishna as her husband and her being persecuted for her religious devotion.
Her husband died sometime before her father passed away when she was around 30. The hostility increased as Meera refused to commit sati. She became more detached, frequenting the temple, discoursing with sadhus, and dancing before the deity as she wrote in one of her poems.
Meerabai’s poems, composed in passionate praise of Krishna, are known as bhajans and are popular across India.
Gangasati, a medieval saint-poet of the bhakti tradition, composed devotional songs in Gujarati that have been handed down through the oral tradition.
She was born in a Vaghela Rajput family in the Saurashtra region of present-day Gujarat. She was married to Kahlubha, who shared her love of bhajan and satsang. Providing hospitality to sages and pilgrims was an important part of their lives. They had a son, Ajobha, who was married to Paanbai.
The story goes that to prove his spiritual powers, Kalubha once resurrected a cow but later regretted it and decided to end his life. Gangasati urged him to let her take samadhi too but he asked her to wait until she had passed on what she knew to Paanbai, their daughter-in-law. She agreed and composed a song a day for fifty-one days – each around a specific theme like nature or the guru-shishya relationship – as instruction to Paanbai, after which she took samadhi.
Her bhajans do not mention any specific deity but refer to god as nirguna, without form or attributes, and are still popular in Gujarat.
Janabai, known as Sant Janabai, was a Marāthi religious poet born in the thirteenth century to a family that came at the bottom of the caste ladder.
When she was still a child, her mother died, and her father (shortly before his own death) took her to Pandharpur where she worked as a maid in the household of Damasheti and Gonai, parents of Namdev who went on to be a prominent Marathi religious poet. Janabai was probably a little older than the young Namdev, and attended to him throughout her life.
The religious environment of Pandharpur and specifically at the home of Janabai’s employers, coupled with her own devotion to Lord Vitthala (Vishnu) and talent as a poet made Janabai blossom. Though she never had any formal schooling, she composed a large number of verses of the abhang form, which survived as a result of being included in collections of Namdev’s own works.
Sant Sakhubai was a saint of the Bhakti movement era from the same region. She too was a great devotee of Panduranga Vitthala.
Sakhubai was born into a very poor family in Pandharpur, but married into a rich one. Her in-laws, though, ill-treated her. She suffered physical abuse and mental agony at the hands of her husband and in-laws. Tales of miracles are part of common lore about her.
Muktabai or Muktai was a saint in the Varkari tradition who wrote forty-one abhangs. She was born in a Deshastha Brahmin family, the last of the four children of Vitthal Govind Kulkarni and Rukmini, a pious couple from a village near Paithan on the banks of the Godavari. Vitthal lied about his marriage to be initiated into sanyas. When found out, the couple was excommunicated from the caste. Later Vitthal and Rukmini ended their lives, hoping their children would be accepted into society after their death. The orphaned children had to resort to begging, but all four went on to contribute abhangs and commentaries on the Gita.
Muktai’s elder brother, Dnyaneshwar, is considered the first Varkari saint, known for the Prakrit retelling of the Bhagwad Gita, revered as the Dnyaneshwari.
Akka Mahadevi was a twelfth-century saint-poet, prominent in the Veerashaiva Bhakti movement. She is highly regarded across economic and social strata, and a household name even today in the region. Her role in female emancipation and her contribution to the history and literature of the region is valued by scholars.
Born in Udutadi (now in Shimoga, Karnataka), she was initiated into mysticism at a young age. It is said that King Kaushika saw Mahadevi when his procession was passing by and wanted to marry her, but Mahadevi refused. Finally, she agreed to a conditional marriage. But when the king went back on his word, Mahadevi left the palace.
A non-conformist, she considered the Lord Chenna Mallikarjuna (Shiva) as her husband and went about as a wandering poet-saint with nothing but her hair over her body. The title Akka (elder sister) was given to her by the other great Veerashaiva saints in acknowledgement of her contribution to the discussions at the Anubhava Mantapa, a spiritual academy in Kalyana, Bidar, where people across caste, class and gender participated.
In simple language, her verses, called vachanas, explore complex ideas such as the various paths to enlightenment (moksha, which she termed arivu), killing the ‘I’, conquering the senses and desire.
Andal was a Bhakti saint who composed hymns in eighth-century Tamil. She was the only woman among the twelve Alwars – medieval Vaishnavite poets who took the scriptures to the masses, composing hymns in Tamil that are considered the equivalent of the Sanskrit Vedas.
She was found as an infant under a tulsi plant by her father, Periyalwar (also one of the twelve Alwars). Andal loved Krishna as a child; as a teenager she refused to be betrothed to any mortal man.
The Thiruppavai attributed to the young Andal and the Nachiyar Thirumozhi said to have been composed in her teens are sung even today in Tamilnadu where she is revered.
Sarada Devi was a notable woman saint and mystic of the nineteenth century. She was the wife and spiritual counterpart of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, a nineteenth-century mystic of Bengal, who played an important role in the growth of the Ramakrishna movement.
She was born to a poor Brahmin couple in a village in Bengal. She started meditating from childhood and there are accounts of visions and mystic experiences. At the age of five, she was married to Ramakrishna.
Sarada Devi paved the way for the future generation of women to take up monasticity. Sri Sarada Math and Ramakrishna Sarada Mission situated at Dakshineshwar are based on her ideals and life. Sarada Devi did not receive formal education and did not write any books, but her spiritual insights are highly regarded by scholars. Her utterances have been recorded by disciples.
Why did these women on the path of devotion have to reject family life (unless they happened to be wedded to like-minded men) and ‘marry god’? It is tempting to pin it on gender, until one thinks of the male bhakti saints – they weren’t spared either. Kabir too was persecuted. Society has never been kind to the questioners, the seekers, the outliers. Status quo is comfortable.
What prompted these women, some rich and some poor; some in unhappy marriages and some not; brahmin, Rajput or sudra to take the path they did? We cannot say with certainty. Which came first – spiritual enlightenment or the quest for social equality? Or is that question invalid – aren’t the two intertwined? Isn’t realisation of the supreme intertwined with the knowledge that all are one? And that everyone is equal regardless of religion, caste or gender?
An immersion in their works, or in the divine, might reveal answers.
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Image source: By Onef9day (clicked at Delhi Haat) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Arundhati Venkatesh is a children's books author. Her books have won several awards, including the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award 2015 for India, Middle East and Asia for read more...
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