Bold and Brazen: Verses are Mightier than Villains
About India’s first spiritual revolution aka Bhakti movement and the foremothers who used poetry to redefine faith
Berkana is a place where you will find obscure and forgotten stories from different corners of the world. I truly believe that the bare-bones storytelling style has a magical power to catalyze change. Now, you too are a part of this community. What change do you want to bring? Let me know in the comment section.
Before we dive into today’s topic, here is the list of three posts from previous weeks that you might have missed
Let’s jump in!
Peeping through the curtains of past
I was only five when I first met Shanti Rani Devi. She was a kind and pious woman clad in a white cotton saree (traditional women's attire) that caressed the soft folds of her wrinkled body. She would sit by the edge of her rickety colonial-style four-poster bed, and despite our (her many grandchildren’s) routine shenanigans, remained quietly absorbed in her meditative state. Counting the Japamala (prayer beads) and reciting verses of her Guru (spiritual teacher), she sat still in her asana (meditative posture). The sight of her graceful form blended beautifully with the fragrance of the incense stick burned during evenings. Everything about her speaks of purity and tolerance. Even while scolding one of us, she spoke firmly yet softly. Her anger seldom shadowed her forbearance. She was the definition of the mother archetype. Her control over her emotions (especially anger), always astounded me. Her tumultuous life could not rupture her saint-like demeanor. How did she manage to master her emotions? Was it her devotion to her Guru that kept her anchored? Is patience an outcome of devotion, or is the opposite true? No one knows.
Quietly she came into existence, quietly she stayed at it, and quietly she left it behind.
Shanti Devi was the only daughter born to an ordinary school headmaster in Mymensingh, Bangladesh. At the early age of 17, with her husband and two children, she fled the violent 1971 war and took refuge in India. Those were some gruesome days for India and its neighbors. I don’t doubt that she must have seen some nightmarish communal clashes and economic turmoil. But even so, nothing changed her. She belonged to the upper caste Hindu Brahmin (hierarchical religious caste system) community. Back then, Brahmins were privileged and well-integrated within the economy. However, if you are a female, the caste doesn’t matter. Your existence is inconsequential regardless. The Brahmins were a sectarian and patriarchal lot. In Brahmin tradition, the right to ritualistic devotion (performing rituals in the temple), was reserved for the Brahmin men. Women were considered to be inferior. Amma (my grandmother) was not spared from this derision either. With all her sorrows tucked between her folded palms, she remained fixated in her prayers to God. Who else would she have turned to? Who else would have been the companion of a woman inside the patriarchy? In her tortured domestic life, the only consolation she found was in devotion to her God. She was not a scholar of religious scriptures, but she was close to God - like a friend, a confidant. Isn’t that the whole point of devotion? To be able to access the divine?
Amma had a peaceful aura. If you could quietly sit next to her and listen, then you would acquire much knowledge about life, love, and loss. Wisdom was etched deep within her. It made her kind and resilient. She took everything life threw at her and weaved them like a garland of flowers to adorn her God. She was empty like a brass vessel sitting at one corner of a room. It helped her absorb life’s joy and sorrow in maximum capacity. Deep within, nothing touched or moved her - the titanic weight of sorrows didn’t crush her, progress didn’t elate her. She was calm, stable, and focused like Buddha. One can say she had bodhicitta (awakened mind), which she attained through the constant practice of Bhakti (devotion). At 96, she passed away peacefully. She slipped into the abyss without anyone’s notice. Morning she was here, and by afternoon she was gone. Cradled into the lap of her Paramātmā (supreme self/God), she glided away to a place where the pain or bliss of human existence will never touch her again. What a beautiful way to part with a life that was full of violence, turmoil, and abandonment, I thought. What a reward for living a life submerged in Bhakti. Quietly she came into existence, quietly she stayed at it, and quietly she left it behind.
God was a misogynist. God was unfair. God decided that women cannot be redeemed. So women started a rebellion out of which they created their nuanced God.
Astitva अस्तित्व (Existence)
Medieval India was not inclusive of women. Much like the rest of the world, the women were confined to the roles and responsibilities of the hearth. They were raised in the shadow of the patriarchs, taught to be docile, obedient, and dutiful. Their minds tethered to the homely realms. Their service was limited to their husbands, in-laws, and children. Cruel traditions like child marriage and Sati (girls were burnt alive on the pyre of their dead husband) were rampant. Being born a woman was considered penance for past life karma (actions) - a fate sealed with afflictions. Womanhood was synonymous with suffering. Women’s bodies were said to elicit sexual thoughts and hence labeled sinful. They were considered to be impure to pursue sainthood. Girls were raised to be ashamed of their bodies. They were told that God would not possibly want to be touched or worshipped by them. The subtle underpinnings suggested- “You are dirty, so stay inside the home as an object of our pleasure and conduit for our progeny. Don’t touch our gods and cover yourself when you visit our temples”. God was a misogynist. God was unfair. God decided that women cannot be redeemed. So women started a rebellion out of which they created their nuanced God. When temples banned them, they made temples within their bodies and declared themselves sacred. This religious reform movement was named The Bhakti movement, where devotion was the way to achieve salvation.
Antrang अंतरंग (Intimate)
In an attempt to bring an egalitarian approach to religion and oppose the monopoly of the Brahmins, several saints and poets created an alternate method of worship. The spiritual path of Bhakti was established using three principles that differ from the old Hindu dogma:
1. A focus on a personal relationship with God, declaring God’s love as an all-encompassing and mystical force. This rendered God more abstract and formless than objective.
2. Rejection of institutional religious practices like rituals and idol worship
3. Use of regional languages to compose verses and poems to praise God, opposed to the reading of scriptures in the language used by the brahmins (Sanskrit)
These principles were adopted ubiquitously by the Bhakti saints and poets across the country, which eventually became the foundation of spiritual freedom. The present-day ideologies that spirituality is independent of the constraints of religions were built upon this foundation. The Bhakti saints were the first to sow the seeds of spirituality that took its root and later inspired colonial India’s social reform movements.
By stripping down, they declared war against patriarchy. Their naked form cried, ‘This body is mine and now I reclaim it’.
Parakram पराक्रम (Display of courage)
Women, in general, benefited from the Bhakti principles. They took matters into their hands and started advocating the path of salvation through devotion, rather vehemently. Oppression and misogyny which once shadowed their lives were defied boldly. They immersed themselves in the experience of spiritual bliss and often denied their domestic duties. Although the challenges they faced were enormous, they still pushed against all odds to achieve their status of sainthood. For the first time, they could use their vernacular to express what they longed for. They wrote poems and verses about inherently feminist issues like meaningless household chores, restrictions of married life, disconnection with spouses, etc. They left their homes for the first time and wandered into the world in the spirit of hermitage. They gave up their roles as wives and the obligation of motherhood when it was not acceptable to do so. The subversions were not subtle and not usual. Many of these women rebelled against the status quo by abandoning their clothes. They refused to feel ashamed of their bodies. This was a powerful and symbolic act of subversion to dismantle age-old constructs of shame. By stripping down, they declared war against patriarchy. Their naked form cried, ‘This body is mine and now I reclaim it’.
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Dharma धर्म (A righteous way to live)
Several similarities exist between different Bhaktins (female mystics) who walked on this unpaved path of spirituality. Most of them were married off as children, settled into unhappy marriages, and have gone through years of domestic violence. Their traumas were existential by nature. They were victims of social prejudices and inequality. Many of these women went through decades of identity dysphoria and must have suffered severe depression that comes with it. The path of Bhakti allowed them to write about the traumas, thus allowing them to confront and make peace with some of those unattended issues. It also helped them to seek solidarity, even though the path of Bhakti was often considered a solitary one. Bhakti offered a promise of inner freedom which was the major catalyst for these poets and saints to follow this path of spiritual rebellion.
How women used poetry to shatter the foundation of religious dogma?
This era did not only create social and spiritual revolution but was also rich in literature. Some of the poems left behind by the Bhakti saints are the oldest surviving texts in regional languages. These texts were dated back to the 7th century. We will now delve deeper into the stories of three of the most renowned female mystics of the Bhakti movement. Let’s discover the beauty of the oral poetry tradition and folklores, and revel in the transcending pearls of verses woven together in the state of ecstatic devotion.
1.) Akka Mahadevi - 12th Century Shimoga (Karnataka)
Hair like wild embers, bright commanding eyes, and the demeanor of a rebel. It is hard to imagine Mahadevi as an obedient housewife. And she wasn’t one. Legend has it that she renounced her married life because her husband King Kaushika disrespected her wish of not touching her without her consent. In response to the humiliation, she stripped all her clothes. This was a signified rejection of the superficial modesty that women were expected to practice. Her action screamed, “What is the point of being clothed if the layers can’t protect my body from intrusion?” With nothing but long and thick tresses of hair covering her naked body, she roamed throughout the country. After wandering for some years, she reached the epicenter of the spiritual revolution. There, many learned elites were participating in important discussions. Initially, Mahadevi’s nakedness was criticized as an act of deliberate rejection of modesty. But eventually, her vachanas (discourses), and poetry surpassed her physical form, and she became an esteemed mystic.
In one poem defending her state of nakedness she ponders:
What if the body is dark and withered, O Lord
What if the body is glowing and glittering, my Lord
After the inside is pure,
O Lord Chennamallikarjuna
What matters if
How the body you love is?
-Translated by Chandrashekhar 2005:16
Mahadevi or Akka (big sister), as people later called her, was a force to be reckoned with. She was a resolute woman with undeterred faith in her Lord Shiva (one of the primordial gods in the Hindu pantheon). In her poems, she referred to Shiva as her consort. She insisted on pondering upon the role of women in society and the struggles faced by them in domestic life. Her poems were bold and sensual, speaking of her angst and longing for union with the divine. Even after facing coercive opposition, molestation, and indignity for her choices, she persisted on her path. She was successful in modeling a different kind of womanhood where one can find a sense of deep belonging to oneself, freedom from the institutions of marriage and religion, and complete ownership of their body. Saint Mahadevi belonged to the brand of those formidable women who gave birth to some crucial feminist ideologies of modern times.
Here are some more of her poetry to solidify her position as a bold and defiant woman soaring above suppression using words as her weapon.
give this wench the slip
and go cuckold my husband with
Hara, my Lord.
Take these husbands who die,
decay, and feed them
to your kitchen fires!
- both translations by A. K. Ramanujan
Feisty, wasn’t she?
2.) Lal Ded or Lalleswari - 12th century Kashmir
Lal Ded is almost a myth because very little evidence of her work survived. Most of what is known about her is known through folklore. Scholars argue that her mystical verses were amongst the earliest verses recorded in the Kashmiri language. People still recollect some profound miracles that revolved around her existence. She was by no standard an ordinary woman.
Lalla was only 12 when she was married off into a Kashmiri Pandit(upper-caste Hindu) family. To temporarily escape her abusive husband and in-laws, she regularly sneaked out to a Shiva temple located at a lake near her home. Lalla soon realized that her real commitment belonged with lord Shiva. Suspecting her long absence as a sign of infidelity, her husband decided to punish her. One day when she returned from the lake carrying a pot of water over her head (a regular chore for Indian housewives from that period), he struck the pot. It is said that the earthenware shattered immediately, leaving the mass of water frozen and hovering over Lalla’s head. It remained so unless she poured the water into the household container. This miraculous incident spread within the local communities like wildfire and propelled Lalla into the life of a traveling mystic. She too, like Mahadevi, stripped bare of her clothes and worldly attachments before starting on the path.
The poem below speaks of the ridiculous absurdity of the world.
I have seen an educated man starve,
a leaf blown off by bitter wind.
Once I saw a thoughtless fool beat his cook.
Lalla has been waiting for the allure of the world to fall away.
I might scatter the southern clouds,
drain the sea, or cure someone hopelessly ill.
But to change the mind of a fool is beyond me.
Another one argues against the masochistic practices of asceticism and declares service as true virtue
Don’t torture this body with thirst and hunger,
Give hand when it stumbles and falls.
To hell with your vows and prayers:
Just help others through life, there’s no truer worship.
-both translations borrowed from ‘Love And The Turning Seasons: India’s Poetry of Spiritual and Erotic Longing’, edited by Andrew Schelling
Her wisdom and cognizance of the inherent conditions of human life inspired many Sufi mystics and poets. Her work is still relevant, even after thousands of years of evolution in poetry and philosophy. A rare achievement indeed! However, for Lalla who resided beyond the realm of gratification and criticism, it was yet another way to express her rebellious spirit.
3.) Mirabai - 16th century Jodhpur (Rajasthan)
Amongst all the other female mystics, Mirabai is the most popular one because a massive corpus of her work was well-documented. Born into a royal family and married into another, Mira was torn by the responsibilities of being a princess. Another reason for Mira’s popularity is the age at which she initiated her spiritual journey. At the age of 8, Mira fell in love with an idol of Krishna (an avatar of the primordial God Vishnu). The idol was gifted to her by her ailing mother, who used to playfully tease Mira saying that the doll was her husband. After her mother’s demise, Mira clung to her mother’s words quite literally and declared Krishna as her husband.
At an early age, she was forcefully married to the prince of Jodhpur. She refused to accept him as her husband or lord and pledged her loyalty only to Krishna. It is said that Mira’s mother-in-law was bitter towards her. She tried to kill Mira but every time Mira was miraculously saved. Neither poison nor snakes could reign over Mira’s faith and devotion towards Lord Krishna.
Death could not frighten the selfless saintly princess who denounced every status quo to revel in the simplicity and abundance of her spiritual life. As she recites in one of her poems:
Go to that impenetrable realm
That death himself trembles to look upon.
There plays the fountain of love
With swans sporting on its waters.
- Borrowed from The Rebellious Rajput Rani by Bill Garlington
What inspired these women to chose the path of devotion?
The most reductionist answer to that would be - there was no other way. Ideally, it is true to some extent. But the broader and more complex set of reasons has something to do with the collective psychology of that period. Medieval India was obsessed with religion because it helped the masses to live a meaningful life. The Bhakti poets in general were non-conformists and rebels who needed to walk a path of self-expression. Therefore they deviated from the norm while using the most immediate instrument to reframe the social constructs - Religion. The women poets/saints used Bhakti as an alternate space to defy the norms of patriarchy that limited their identity. Hence, they used piety and devotion as maps to navigate through their radical choices without attracting the aggression of society.
Poetry as defiance
We cannot be sure how true the miracle stories are but we can be certain that these women were exceptional. They deviated radically from their expected gender roles. During this period, many women could afford to be courageous and outspoken without being burned or buried alive. They created serenades for god and subtly slipped subversion into it. They sang the verses to deter the oppressors and abusers. Their poetry indirectly commanded: “Do not cross the line, for I belong to God”.
To learn about more such women poets read Sandhya Mulchandani’s ‘For the Love of God’, published by Penguin.
Special shout out to FII for covering nuanced topics like Women during Bhakti Movement.
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