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Rethinking Femininity and Transgression in Andal’s Bhakti


The Bhakti ‘movement’ of medieval India was theorized by the 19th century colonial missionaries and historians as akin to the Protestant movement in Europe, as shown by
Michael Blake (1992).[1] Through the protestant framework, bhakti was viewed as ethical, egalitarian, and monotheistic, among other things.

Though this framework has been critiqued as orientalist, it continues to be used in so far as scholars view bhakti as at least egalitarian. Why? How? What then should be the position of a non-orientalist appraisal of medieval bhakti?

To probe these questions, let us look at Andal, the only woman among the Alvar saints hailing from the 9th century South Indian region of current Tamil Nadu. Specifically, we examine Andal’s femininity and what is perceived as her transgressiveness.

As a baby, Andal or Godadevi was found in a garden by Vishnuchitta (also known as Periyalvar), a temple priest in Srivilliputtur. Vishnuchitta brings her up as his own daughter. As a young girl, Andal 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. But soon thereafter, 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, a form of Vishnu at Srirangam, when she grows up. Upon marriage, she merges completely with her beloved deity, leaving no traces behind. Andal means ruler, a reference to her self-mastery.

Andal composed two works – Tiruppavai and Tirumozhi. She is hailed as a goddess and is one of the twelve Tamil Vaishnavite Alvar saints of medieval India.

The Tiruppavai is sung in the month of Margazhi in temples and homes. The story of Andal is deeply moving. Andal’s innocence, sincerity, and perseverance as well as her strength are remarkable.

The Egalitarian Theory of Bhakti

The egalitarian theory of bhakti, a corollary of the protestant theory of bhakti claims that women and ‘lower’ castes were given greater space to express themselves, that women saints were proto-feminists, that the bhakti saints were critical of ritualistic practices, rejected institutionalized forms of religion, rejected the Vedas, Sanskrit, and brahminism, challenged power and hierarchy, questioned the sexual and gender norms or streedharma of their time, allowed for direct access to God, were social reformist and rebellious.

This theory has been challenged in my previous work, which focused on the Virashaivabhakti of 12th century Karnataka, a project that began in 2003. [2] Here, we extend the analyses to Andal.

In Kannan (2014), I argued that there were too many anomalies in the egalitarian theory of bhakti and that contradictory evidence in the vachanas had been overlooked, while selective readings had been used to construct and justify it.

Does Andal’s life offer no potential to be interpreted through the egalitarian theory of bhakti? Indeed, it does—For instance, her rejection of marriage to a man. However, there are other facts of her life that go unexplained if we accept the egalitarian theory. For example, her upholding of streedharma, her reverence for brahmins, the Vedas and so on.

Commitment to the egalitarian theory of bhakti is essentially distortive. It forces historians to interpret the original works of the bhaktas and the later hagiographies along the polarized axes of where the bhaktas were egalitarian and where they were not, while suggesting the latter as exceptions.

Hence, scholars express anguish, surprise, and disappointment at the positions taken by the bhaktas, which from their lens appears paradoxical and conflicting.

For some scholars, Bhakti had great potential, but did not fulfill its promise of a complete social revolution. For others, it represents an “inadequate questioning of tradition” and tradition’s foundational concepts, including patriarchy (Neera Desai, 1994, 15).

For yet others, women saints “challenged the institution of family,” as suggested by Sumitrabai in her analysis of Akka Mahadevi’s devotion (1997, 71) and Bhakti was largely positive for women and other marginalized people.

In a number of readings, what goes unnoticed is that ‘expectations’ out of medieval Bhakti have been derived from anachronistic readings of the period rather than available textual evidence. This is especially true of feminist reclamations of the bhakti saints who recover women from the past in order to cater to the strategical and political needs of enabling and inspiring the women of today.

Feminist scholars often work backwards from the premise that all religions and cultures were fearful of female sexuality and necessarily subjugated women. Madhu Kishwar characterizes the problem with such scholarly readings well: “Their (feminists at a certain seminar) argument was that these women (bhaktas) did not talk of women’s independence and equality as they ought to have, that they merely chose to substitute the slavery to a husband with slavery to a god” (1990, 4). [3]

That is, egalitarian readings of Bhakti, whether glorifying the so-called social reform, or, rejecting and apologizing for an incomplete social reform are reductive and instrumentalist uses of history rather than objective studies.

The egalitarian theory of bhakti produces circularities. It allows for a construction of the historical world of the bhaktas as patriarchal to suit the theory. The logic is that it must have been patriarchal, since the bhaktas rebelled against it.

The rejection of worldly life by the bhaktas is seen as a direct result of patriarchy and a selection of bhakti writings indicating such rejection are cited as evidence. However, Bhakti’s rejection of the world is characteristic of the ascetic tradition within Hinduism.

This larger context is missed too often. Consider, for instance, the fact that the 13th century hagiographies of Mahadevi by Harihara and Chennabasavanka describe her as being born after her parents earnestly prayed for a girl-child (cited in Sumitrabai, 1997, 17).

This fact (where the girl-child was prayed for) problematizes some of the current criteria for identifying patriarchy in a society such as Bhasin (1995), who sees son-preference as one criterion for identifying patriarchy.

This criterion is neither met with, in the case of Mahadevi nor in the case of Andal. In the case of Andal, we see Vishnuchitta, Andal’s father, expressing much grief at the loss of Andal: “I only had a daughter and goddess-like. I brought her up: the fair eyed god has taken her” (cited in Meenakshi C, 1989, 35).

Also, medieval bhakti saw many women ‘convert’ their husbands into their understanding of bhakti, as queens as well as ordinary women. And, in the gleaner couple Aydakki Maramma and Marayya, we witness a reflective living that we see between Rama and Sita in the Ramayana, where Sita reminds Rama of his duties and the good conduct expected of him.

In the life of Andal, we see her convince her father to a marriage with Vishnu. No mean task since her marriage procession begins at Srivilliputtur and concludes at Srirangam.

Histories that ignore such hagiographical and historical evidence also argue that “[m]any women who were otherwise marginalized as social rejects found acceptance and solace through religious involvement” (Usha V T, 2007, 58).

But such arguments must be rejected as inadequate explanations. As Arvind Sharma concludes his study on why women joined the Sangha, there is a need to recognize the “autonomous quality of religious behaviour.” (1977, 250), That is, in the egalitarian theory of Bhakti and its allied understandings, patriarchy is what drives women to seek religion or God so that they can then strive for egalitarianism, but a more complete understanding suggests that the bhaktas were practicing a form of asceticism wherein they rejected worldly attachments and adopted a sense of filial attachment with the Gods, deriving their vocabulary from the householder tradition.

The egalitarian theory of Bhakti also unnecessarily complicates the autonomous nature of the bhaktas’ self and agency and in its readings, the same set of actions are read as agentic and subversive or as non-agentic and submissive, with no criteria to discerningly rule out the opposite reading.

Gender vs. Femininity

Gender is an important category for historical analysis. There is nothing problematic in using it, but gender theory’s problematization of femininity and masculinity has been such that in cases of inadequate contextualization, primary sources are read simplistically.

A common result of gender theory is the view that any positive value attached to femininity is masking women’s subjugation. In other words, gendered histories typically disallow understanding Andal in all her complexity and discourage understanding femininity as a positive force, looking instead at Bhakti as a “space provided to women to expand both their own selfhood and conventional gender and social relations” (Chakravarti, 1989, 18).

In sharp contrast to such readings of Bhakti, the domain of spirituality within Hinduism is purposefully ungendered and this is not graspable through gender theoretical approaches. Neither is the fact that feminine modes of medieval Bhakti were adopted by men.

A sexual difference—feminism instead of gender feminism is more empowered for such a task, yet its usefulness depends on how it is used. Feminism today, is more inclusive of femininity than it was a few decades ago, but such approaches are yet to be brought to Andal, to the best of my knowledge.

Gendered histories read Andal not as functioning within the framework of femininity but as opposing it, based on the premises of the egalitarian theory of bhakti. Andal is viewed as transgressing social norms, especially those of marriage.

Although Usha V T asks for gender theory as well as a feminine understanding of Andal, the recognition of the feminine in Usha’s work is restricted to the textual or the aesthetic. [4]

Andal’s femininity is generally recognized when she is viewed as the Nayika or the heroine of a kavya-like text from the perspective of traditional Indian aesthetics. However, this aestheticization of femininity or bhakti is inadequate. Aestheticization results in viewing the Tiruppavai and Tirumoli as examples of love poetry, but bhakti is more than just this.

To understand bhakti from the perspective of human love is to impose upon it, categories that are unintelligible from within the framework of bhakti. Hence, I suggest that we read Archana Venkatesan’s demonstration that “…we can no longer speak successfully of a generic talaivi (heroine or female protagonist) of Alvar poetry” not just as the calibration of female voices in Andal’s or the Alvars’ works, but as a point about Bhakti utterances in general.

Bhakti compositions are verbal expressions of intensely personal experiences that are unlike human love and follow markedly different protocol, with room for miraculous self-transformation on the part of Bhakta.

Instead of understanding Bhakti in all its complexities—as consisting of many diverse elements that demand better theorization—gender historians feel compelled to see it mainly as
anti-patriarchal and pro-women.

If indeed, women bhaktas were rebelling against patriarchy, why do they not advice the women of their times to leave home or reject their husbands or families? Instead, many women bhaktas prescribe filial piety, even as they critique the excesses of both the householder and ascetic paths. [5]

Being a woman herself, Mahadevi talks of women as “obstacles to knowledge.” In rejecting the world, she talks of “woman, gold, and land” as obstacles that “even if won over mean nothing until the mind awakens,” ruling out the possibility that she was rejecting patriarchy because women were powerless or criticizing the ills of the institution of the family. [6]

In talking of “women” as obstacles, Mahadevi is accessing and borrowing from a long-drawn tradition of spiritual vocabulary that lists obstacles on the ascetic path. As she re-uses the stock vocabulary of asceticism to critique excessive attachment to the world or the householder’s path, we see that she herself is gender-less.

For Andal, marriage is not necessarily problematic and she is not critiquing the institution of the family. It is only when marriage is not with Krishna that it is unbearable. Her metaphors and dreams in her compositions assert that marriage with Krishna was the only way in which she would fully unite with him.

This is so real for Andal that she chooses one of the many forms of Vishnu, dresses up as a bride and travels to Srirangam where she unites with the deity. Thus, the relational matrix in which the bhaktas were placed in medieval times needs to be discovered.

Bhaktas, whether male or female, could conceive of a spousal relationship with a deity; the bhakta’s body and its gender were immaterial and transitory. What deities supposedly perceived intensely was the attitude with which they were approached.

Hindu discourse on the topic suggests that there is really no use for the body while approaching the deity—thus spousal love is just a feeling—a bhava and no more.

Given all this, viewing bhakti through the framework of femininity is useful, because through it, we can understand why women bhaktas upheld streedharma. We can render their voices coherent instead of speculating upon why although egalitarian, they upheld streedharma. In other words, there is a relationship between femininity and streedharma; streedharma taps into femininity.

Femininity and Streedharma

The interpretive framework of femininity allows us to view streedharma as not necessarily negative. Through it, we can begin to understand streedharma as the positive force of duty assigned to women, just as other castes were assigned other duties, each of which cumulated into the spiritual effort required to attain moksha.

Equally, sexual difference feminism provides an effective framework to understand streedharma. In this kind of feminism, the genders can have different natures and therefore take better to different duties. And this is not necessarily a reflection of their capabilities but of their interests or preferences.

In a number of Hindu discourses, streedharma as a duty and service is said to be the easiest way to attain moksha (for instance, the Bhagavata Purana). The idea that streedharma is a path to moksha equal to ascetic paths, is also present in the Vyadhagita of Mahabharata, a text designed to facilitate stri-shudras’ attainment of moksha.

Thus too, streedharma has positive connotations. In current scholarship, however, scholars who do see women bhaktas as feminine, view streedharma or pativratya as problematic.

For instance, Kishwar and Ruth Vanita say that the “…ideology of pativrata, whereby a woman’s salvation lies in unquestioning devotion to her husband, comes into active conflict with the ideology of bhakti when the bhakta is a woman”. (Kishwar and Ruth Vanita, 1992, 72).

The portrayal of conflict here is unconvincing for two reasons. One, because the women bhaktas actually uphold streedharma and two, because streedharma was not merely devotion to the husband, but also the performance of duty, intended for a deity.

First, let us see how women upheld streedharma. The Tamil bhakta Avvaiyar says that “moderation in food is an ornament to women”, that a “home is truly blessed in all, where the wife obeys her duty-call,” that “womanhood by chastity becomes admirable,” that “good wives, who are loyal to their husbands have great powers because they cause the rains to fall.”

But Uma Chakravarti’s gender theoretical approach disallows a positive understanding of Avvaiyar’s endorsement of femininity or streedharma. While Chakravarti presents Avvaiyyar’s bhakti as strength, she cannot accept Avvaiyar in entirety and reads her endorsement of streedharma as a minor “aberration” in an otherwise courageous Avvaiyar.“Her attitude to women, however was conventional,” writes Chakravarti (1989, 20).

Similar endorsements of streedharma are found in other medieval women bhaktas such as Bahinabai, who lived in the region of today’s state of Maharashtra. In her Abhangs, she says, “my duty is to serve my husband, for he is the supreme Brahma, the water in which my husband’s feet are washed is the most holy of sacred waters… (cited in Ramaswamy, 1997, 217).

Bahinabai has not even replaced the worldly husband with God,  [7] but Vijaya Ramaswamy sees Bahinabai as defying the patriarchal norms of the 17th century because she accepted Tukaram, a shudra saint as her guru, while she herself was a brahmin and, instead of providing a synthetic explanation of the abhang as well as the acceptance of shudra male guru, Ramaswamy says of the abhang, “[t]here is … a clearly perceived tension between the deviance evident in Bahinabai’s spiritual actions and the conformism that manifested in her writings” (1997, 217).

Similarly, Usha V T asserts that “Andal’s conservative brahminical social attitude would perhaps have called for greater determination to break away from accepted conventions of her time and a much more acute sense of rebellion in the protagonist as recorded in the internal evidence of her poems.” (2007, 68) — that is, Andal’s own compositions and her life are at odds, for scholars.

Instead of explaining the feminine or streedharma endorsed by the bhaktas, scholars pitch understandings of the bhaktas’ hagiographies or modern histories of the period against the bhaktas’ own compositions, viewing bhakti as offering incomplete revolution. The women bhaktas left their homes and husbands, but never recommended the same to all women.

Second, streedharma is more than unquestioning obedience to a husband. Streedharma is part of web of concepts wherein duties uphold balance in the natural world because all beings are interconnected. That is why, good wives cause rain to fall and crops to grow. Caring for the husband and the household was the wife’s duty, while each of the four castes had their own duties.

Each caste’s duty upheld not just society but also the natural world and its delicate balance; humans were essentially a part of nature. Within Hinduism, Tantra (5th century BCE onwards) and Bhakti do offer more space to women, but not out of concern for women’s social status. The concern is for the deeper and non-temporal, moksha because, for Hinduism, women were always equal candidates for moksha; their progress towards it had to be hastened, not thwarted.

Tantra and Bhakti do this by abolishing specific restrictions. Bhakti abolished sutakas such as menstruation, as done by Basava or simplified rituals as done by Ramanuja. Greater access to moksha for everyone continued from Tantra onwards, which is also why bhakti too was driven by Hinduism’s own impulse to offer quick access to moksha to everyone and was not entirely a response to Islam.

By viewing femininity in Andal as akin to the idiom of filial or spousal love, as found in the householder path, we can see that Andal was adopting the path of streedharma to reach moksha. What follows from this is that Andal may not be as ‘transgressive’ of patriarchal restrictions as she has often been portrayed as, although she was remarkably agentic.

The understanding of streedharma as a path to moksha allows us to comprehend the gender role reversal practiced by the male Alvars, who too addressed the deity Vishnu in the filial terms of friend, lover, or spouse. Streedharma also helps us understand that the vocabulary of sexuality had to play a role in this path, because it is an essential aspect of spousal love.

Hence, it is unsurprising that Andal addresses Kamadeva thus, “Coax Tiruvikrama (a name for Vishnu), who long ago measured the worlds, to caress this delicate waist and these broad breasts, and great will be your glory in this world (NachiyarTirumoli 1.7). [8]

Through the framework of femininity, Andal, Mahadevi and Meera can be viewed as streedharmic and pativratas, not as the rebels they are usually portrayed as. [9] That Andal’s Tiruppavai is used as a ritual by young women to procure good husbands and ensure happy marriages is no coincidence, given the fact that women bhaktas upheld streedharma and never rejected it. [10] By accepting the positive potential of streedharma, we differ from scholars who say that Andal was opposed to the dharmashastric ideals:

“Through her words and actions, Andal presents an alternative lifestyle to what many dharmashastras perceive to be the role of women; she showed contempt at the idea of marrying a man and instead, gathered her friends and observed rites (vratas) to obtain Vishnu” (Narayanan, 2006, 33).

“Women see in her a person who attained salvation, not by worshiping her husband as God (as Manu would have it), but by approaching God directly and wanting a union with him” (Narayanan, 2006, 38).

While Narayanan would say that “Andal, then, functions as a role model for all human beings who seek moksha, not just as a model of stridharma” (2006, 38), we are arguing that streedharma too is a model for reaching moksha and that Andal upholds both streedharma and moksha or the householder and the ascetic paths. She uses the idiom of the householders’ filiality and streedharma to achieve the highest ascetic goal, moksha.

Our position would also differ from scholars claiming that women needed to reject family life in order to walk the spiritual path (A K Ramanujan, 1999). Instead, we would suggest that the women bhaktas were adapting streedharma directly for the spiritual realm, disregarding somewhat the roundabout route of serving the spouse to reach god.

This understanding is strengthened by the Virashaivabhakti philosophy of sharana sati, lingapati. Under this, married devotees, both male and female, believed that the linga (a form of Shiva) was their husband and that they themselves were satis or wives. That there is an appropriation of Andal into a streedhramic framework by women’s group-music mandalis or hagiographies/legends also strengthens the fact that streedharma is upheld by Andal.

In Venkatesan’s analysis, Karaikkal Ammaiyar’s husband releasing her from marriage is a “move away from the normative social order…marked by a radical transformation…”; Meera too is seen as rejecting “wifely and royal duties” (2010, 7-9), but the Manusmriti, a dharmashastra text upholding streedharma asks women to remarry if the husband deserts them and provides them equity.

That is, streedharma is not as conservative as it is often made out to be and, remarriage was important to continue working towards moksha through the performance of wifely duties. If streedharma placed restrictions, then it also afforded moksha, and such restrictions on duty were placed on all castes, not merely on women. So, the radicality or transgressiveness of Bhakti is more a product of the premises of the egalitarian theory of bhakti than anything else.

Is Sexual Desire Transgressive?

Compared to other women bhaktas, who walked out on their families or rejected their worldly husbands, Andal’s transgression is almost solely identified in her sexual frankness in the Tirumoli.[11] But the framework of streedharma proposed herein problematizes understanding her as transgressive, for speaking of sexualized love for Krishna.

Andal’s feminine sexual desire is well within the structures of streedharma and householdership, as also recognized by Chakravarti (1989). Perhaps there would have been a transgression of sorts if the desire expressed was only about the body or only about sexual desire. However, we see a desperate love in Andal for Krishna, not mere desire.

There is a method to it too and Andal is aware that streedharma is a path towards moksha. C G Diehl recognizes this when he defines matal as a “desperate way of expressing one’s feelings of frustration and disappointment in love” and cites Krishnaveniammaiyar, a traditional scholar, to argue that there is knowledge that the “Lord is said to be impressed by such signs of desperate love…” and that in the end “Andal’s matal was successful” (1979, 220-223).

Also, the signs of desperate love displayed by Andal through self-deprivation and denial are no different from ascetic practices. In other words, instead of participating in the centuries-old debate of the superiority or inferiority of the two paths to moksha, asceticism, and householdership (of which streedharma is a part), Andal fuses them both—she infuses her asceticism with streedharma and her streedharma with asceticism.

Andal’s self-deprivation is not a one-off thing. It takes the form of fasting, loss of interest in adornment, shame, acute distress, and actual suffering: “My body is filthy, my hair unkempt, my lips are pale and I eat but once a day…” (Nachiyar Tirumoli 1.8). And then:

“My bones melt and my eyes
long as spears
resist even blinking.
For days now, I am plunged into a sea of distress
and I ache to attain
that great boat, Vaikuṇṭha
but I cannot see it.”(NachiyarTirumoli, 5.4)

Thus, she says, “I am ashen, my heart is despondent, I have lost all shame. My lips are pale, I cannot eat, my mind is weak, I have grown frail (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 12.7). And,“quickly bring me the dust from his footsteps, smear it on me and prevent my life from fleeing (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 13.6).”

Her amalgamation of ascetic urgency and suffering and desire of the householder path are clear when she says: “the fire of desire has invaded my body, I suffer” (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 8.2).

In some scholarly analyses, Andal’s references to sexual love are over-emphasized. We see this especially in the interpretation of neeratal (bathing in the water) by Vidya Dehejia and Dennis Hudson who read it as symbolic of sexual union.

However, Andal’s verse,“my friend and I each will raise a hand, and bow to you, please return our clothes to us” (NachiyarTirumoli, 3.1), could be read as referencing the mythology of Krishna, who took away the clothes of the bathing gopis, insisting that they surrender to him completely by raising both hands, as evidence of the destruction of their attachment towards their bodies.

The interpretation of neeratal as sexual union can only be understood as an anachronistic understanding of sexuality, given notions of Victorian morality predominant in our times. That is, neeratal could mean sexual union only if it derived from practices of the self and sexuality that have significantly changed since Andal’s time.

This anachronistic bias is so deeply entrenched that scholars often express astonishment at Andal’s knowledge of the sexual act. Whereas it is unsurprising in a pre-Victorian context. Scholars are also so overcome with a feeling of shock at the open discussion of sexual love that they attribute to Bhakti the same features they do to a sexual revolution in the west, which was accompanied by social liberation and freedom for women.

The eroticism in bhakti is not worldly love at all. It is, hence, not an assertion of freedom or rejection of societal restrictions. Bhakti eroticism need not be interpreted as allegorical at all; it is other-worldly to begin with.

That is, Andal’s writing about sexual love is non-controversial because it is directed towards the divine. The pervasive nature of filiality in Hinduism contextualizes this the best. Think, for instance, of the ‘vasudaivakutumbakam’ verse in the Maha Upanishad, where an ascetic urges the householder to be large-hearted, accepting the entire world as family.

Other Transgressions

Andal’s use of Tamil language is often seen as transgressive of conventional literary norms.The usage of vernacular is viewed as an opposition to Sanskrit, but this is hardly true. Bhakti literature consists of quotations of Sanskrit verses, invoking Vedic authority.

The usage of the vernacular was more for including everybody and making moksha quickly accessible to all—projects dear to the gods themselves since the time of Tantra and later, Bhakti. Hence, the deities themselves asked for compositions in the vernaculars.

The gods after all, are said to be able to look beyond the outer, the deceptive, the bodily and into the inner, the genuine, and the manas.

Given the tradition of poetry writing by women in the Sangam era (2 BCE–2 CE), such as Avvaiyar and others, the fact of Andal’s writing does not seem to break ground, in so far as a woman is writing. Andal simply states that she is using the Sangam Tamil, nonchalantly, in the manner of traditionally stating the parameters of a composition, such as the metre (or chhandass).

Reading rebellion into it, through historical understandings of the Sangam period as a casteless or secular society invariably leads to flawed readings. Understanding Andal’s compositions as a sign of “speaking out in a culture that silenced and marginalized the woman’s voice” is inadequate, because male Alvars too composed bridal mystical works before Andal and she only continued the tradition (Usha V T, 2007, 67).

Andal’s act of presenting the worn garland to the temple deity is often erroneously understood as ritual transgression. However, traditionally, it is perceived as an act of child-like innocence. There is no rejection of rituals in Andal as suggested by the egalitarian theory of Bhakti.

If anything, Andal upholds the performance of rituals and vows through Tiruppavai. The final phala shruti verse in Tiruppavai and the many phala shruti verses in Tirumoli evidence this.[12] Andal’s very act of garlanding too is an act steeped in the routine ritual offering made to Gods since Vedic times.

There is also a verse in the Tirumoli that seeks forgiveness akin to the prayaschitta shlokas recited for ritual mistakes or impurities in the performance of rituals. Known as the aparadhakshamapanastotra, such apologetic verses are recited at the end of poojas and homams, in homes as well as in temples. [13] For Andal, other rituals such as fasting and mantra chanting are important as well.

In Andal’s works, streedharma also becomes a path of ritualized action towards moksha. In the Tiruppavai, young girls perform rituals “every day during the month of Margazhi (December-January) by fasting, which is supposed to bring abundant rains to the land and good husbands to the girls” (Meenakshi C et al, 1989, 36). Andal’s verse on this is especially relevant since like, Avvaiyar, she too views all beings and nature as interconnected:

Rain will fall thrice a month
Throughout the land,
And no evil befall.
Paddy saplings shoot up apace,
Fish merrily play,
Shining bees sleep on
Blooming flowers,
And healthy cows, when approached
Fearlessly,
Each udder, when held steadily and
Pressed,
Will fill the pitchers with never
Diminishing wealth,
O girls, O my friends! (Meenakshi C et al., 1989, 36).

These examples show that Andal was a full participant in a well-established tradition of bhakti and its allied paths and was not criticizing rituals as proposed by the egalitarian theory of bhakti. [14]

Medieval Bhakti is predominantly theorized as anti-Vedic. For instance, Rekha Pande argues, “Throughout history there have been various independent reform movements which questioned the authority of the Vedas and created an alternative religious space through different modes and means and we find a great representative in the Bhakti movement” (2010, x).

However, this view is changing since scholars are beginning to notice the problems and inconsistencies arising from such theories since a number of bhaktas are not anti-Vedic at all. Many bhaktas directly quote from the Vedas.

The theory that Bhakti is anti-Vedic needs to be understood as a result of the premises of the egalitarian theory of Bhakti.

A. K. Ramanujan, arguing that Bhakti is anti-Vedic, admits that the many images in the vachanas are taken from the Upanishads, that is, Bhakti falls back upon the asceticism of the Upanishads, the latter part of the Vedas, but this does not then mean that Bhakti is opposed to the earlier parts of Vedas, which emphasize upon the householder’s duties.

The false dichotomy proposed between Vedas and Upanishads by early Indological scholars are likely at the root of theories that view Bhakti as rejecting the Vedas.

Andal speaks positively of the Vedas in numerous verses, specifically, she praises the city where the four Vedas are sung (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 5.11). She also describes Vishnu as the embodiment and essence of the four Vedas (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 11.6, 10.2, 4.1).

Andal is also Vedic for seeing streedharma as upholding nature’s balance, which is characteristic of the Vedic understanding of maintaining the world through sacrifice. The word, bhakti itself derives from the Vedic sacrificial notion of ‘leftover’ or bhajya, which means sharing or participating with gods.

It is thus that the Naliyara Divya Prabandham, that consolidates the works of the Alvars, is called the Tamil Veda, deriving its own validity from the ancient Sanskrit Vedas.

Bhakti critiques the misinterpretation of Vedas or the inadequate practice of Vedic precepts. It devises simpler paths to moksha than that of the Vedic sacrifice, but that does not mean it rejects the Vedas. For that matter, Bhakti critically draws from several other preceding traditions such as Tantra too, while also critiquing its excesses.

Bhakti has been read as anti-brahminical, a corollary of the egalitarian theory of bhakti, but Andal does not refer to brahmins in negative light:

…If there is even talk of offering my body
To mortal men, then I cannot live.
It is equal in violence to a forest jackal
Stealthily entering and sniffing at the sacrificial food
The learned Brahmins, the holders of the Vedas,
Offer the gods in heaven. (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 1.5)

And then,

Virtuous Brahmins sang the Vedas and chanted sacred verses
They kindled the sacrificial fire with perfect dry twigs and encircled it
With grass
My lord of great prowess, that mighty elephant
Clasped my hand and circled the fire.
Such a vision I dreamed, my friend (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 6.7).

In Virashaivabhakti too, brahmins are critiqued, not brahminhood. Basava only takes offense that the brahmins of his time are not brahmin enough or truly brahmin, i.e., knowing brahman. Bhakti was not anti-brahminical, not just because many brahmins were bhaktas, but because brahminhood was regarded highly.

Thus, the theory that bhakti transgresses the bounds of the Vedas is inaccurate. Andal’s pro-Vedic reflections demand a more synthetic theory of medieval bhakti that does not read data selectively.

Conclusion

The femininity-streedharma framework helps in resolving contradictions that emerge from the egalitarian theory of Bhakti. Streedharma offers a space for not just women but also men during medieval Bhakti, to reach moksha easily. The framework of femininity-streedharma also helps us connect the Bhakti yoga of the Bhagavad Gita with medieval Bhakti.

In the Gita, Krishna elaborates on the notion of service and his availability to women and shudras (those performing service) equally if they take shelter in him. He is debunking the myth that he is available only to those who purify themselves with sacrifices or ascetic practices,that is, the framework of streedharma provides greater intelligibility to medieval Bhakti and connects it with preceding texts and traditions.

Streedharma since its early formations as the sacrificer’s wife in the Vedas and the guru’s wife in the Upanishadic times, and the powers of the faithful wife in dharmashastras and epics, finds a deepened culmination in Bhakti as a method to moksha.

That is, the application of streedharma in the times of Yajnyavalkya’s two wives, Maitreyi and Katyayani (each following a different model of womanhood) can be seen as taking a different turn within Bhakti. Streedharma is now available as a model leading towards moksha for men too.

It should be understood that Streedharma by itself does not fully explain bhakti. Bhakti combines the paths of the householder and asceticism to create a new path. Thus, filial and sexual images are used to endear a divine being and a rejection of the world is envisaged even as emphasis on the performance of one’s duties (Kayaka in Virashaivabhakti) is continued.

The bhaktas did not leave society and become renouncers; they performed duties with detachment, remaining within it. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Bhakti made streedharma mainstream, wherein one served one’s god as husband, instead of serving husband as god.

An affectionate relationship between the gods and humans is nothing new; it is as old as the Vedas, wherein verses request deities to look upon humans as sons or friends. The same sentiment is expressed in the Mahabharata and also through the other relationships of the Krishna avatar. Bhakti extends this.

Thus, Bhakti was no social reform, it was not transgressive, not even as an unintended consequence or byproduct. Whatever social changes came into being, were not garnered to effect social equality. Instead, Bhakti used filiality to express asceticism and vice versa.

It used the householder discourse to critique asceticism and asceticism to critique householders, combining the two paths. Bhakti only responded to the age-old argument between the superiority of karma yoga and karma sanyasa-yoga, forging in the process, a third path that hemmed streedharma into its folds.

This essay was first published in Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring 2014, pp 147-166 and subsequently in India Facts. This version of the essay has been substantially edited.

References

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  8. Hiltebeitel, Alf. (2011) When the Goddess was a woman: Mahabharata Ethnographies. Edited by Adluri and Bagchee. Leiden, Boston: Brill.
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  13. Kishwar, Madhu.(1990) “Why I do not call myself a Feminist.”Manushi No. 61, Nov-Dec.
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Notes

  1. Blake Michael argues that there is a difference between Protestantism and the bhakti tradition of Virashaivism:
    “… Virashaiva religious patterns fell short not only of the actual protestant forms, but also of the idealized protestant norm that have been prominently noted.” (1992, 14). He also argues against the comparison of Virashaivas with Weber’s notion of the Protestant ethic of hard work, frugality, and capital investment (1992, 44).
  2. PhD Dissertation “Akka Mahadevi, a Rebel, Saint and Poet?: A Study in ‘Tradition’ and its Feminist Understandings.” 2014. Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, India.
  3. Madhu Kishwar’s own general appraisal of bhakti writing is balanced: “…(bhakti poetry) is not protest literature as the term is understood today…(and does not) carry an easily decipherable social message for other women. Most of it is a celebration of an individual choice…(and does not) contain a call for an overall gender equality. To say this is not to view it as somehow inadequate. The idea of gender equality as a desirable and obtainable social ideal is a relatively new idea in human history, although in some societies it was occasionally envisaged much earlier in utopian writings. To look for its expression in contemporary terms by these women would be to do both the past and the present an injustice” (Kishwar, 1990).
  4. According to Usha, Andal “dwells upon woman-to-woman relationships and feminine considerations, creating a unique and more intense female space in the poems” (2013, 5).
  5. All the vachanakaras prescribe filial piety. For more on this, see Veeranna Rajuru (2001).
  6. “Is he a virakta, who has given up women, gold and land and lives in the forest? No!…” (My translation). In another vachana she states that those so-called devotees who use all their senses to experience woman, gold and land are performing bhakti of a despicable kind.
  7. A relationship that Geeta Kapur sees as hierarchical (1991, 51).
  8. All translations of Andal’s works are from Venkateshan (2010), unless otherwise mentioned.
  9. Note the term vrata in pativrata. This is significant in the context of how ‘vratabrashtha’ was used as a term in Bhakti. Ascetics typically undertook vratas, failure in these undertakings was considered inauspicious and negatively impacted upon spiritual efforts towards moksha.
  10. Verses of Nachiyar Tirumoli are sung at Vaishnava weddings with Sri Vaishnava brides dressed as Andal.
  11. Tirumoli “is transgressive, sensual, and bold” (Venkatesan, 2010, 10).
  12. “Those who sing this soft song of plea
    Will remain forever at the feet
    Of the supreme king of the gods. (Nachiyar Tirumoli 1.10)
    So sang Kōtai of Viṣṇucittaṉ,
    Master of Villiputuvai,
    City resounding with learned men chanting the Vedas,
    Those who master these verses of Tamiḻ,
    Will certainly attain Vaikuṇṭha!” (NachiyarTirumoli, 2.10)
  13. “If through our innocent love, We have nicked your name, taken liberties, Don’t be angry with us, Lord, Nor withhold your gracious drum” (Tiruppavai, 28, Cited in Usha V T, 2013).
  14. Blake Michael argues that Virashaiva saints like Basavanna were only criticizing ritual impropriety: “Even Basava’s rather poignant complaint against the vacuity of ritualism was not a rejection of ritual worship per se, but an attempt to rid that worship of its mechanical hypocrisy and to imbue it with a pervasive inner spiritual intensity…” (Michael, 1992, 130).

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