Subversive Hindu Thought

“In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent….If a wife obeys her husband, she will for that (reason alone) be exalted in heaven.” –Manu Smriti[1] ***

“I have nothing to do with the husbands of this world”- Akka Mahadevi

Akka Mahadevi. Image source.

Akka Mahadevi in samadhi, nude but draped in her flowing hair.  Image source.

I’ll try to reserve most of my comments for the end of this post. The following is a collection of verses by female, often low caste Bhakti (devotional) poets which I’ve collected from various books and journal articles. They challenge the way we normally think about women in Hinduism. Caste rules to gender norms, and even the Vedas and Brahmins all are opened up for fiery criticism. This is a part of the Hindu tradition, which often doesn’t get much press. You normally read about how caste is inherent to Hinduism, and how if one Brahminical texts says it, then it is the official, textually certified Hindu position on the matter. Not so. Hinduism is a much more anarchic tradition than that.

The Role of Women:

By Akka Mahadevi (12th century AD):

“The preceptor became the giver;

The Lord Linga became the bridegroom;

And I became the bride.

All this the world knows

The innumerable devotees are my parents

Hence Chenna Mallikarjuna is my husband,O Prabhu,

I have nothing to do with the husbands of this world” [2]

 This is an inversion of Manu’s claim that a woman should treat the husband as God. She treats God as her husband.

“On a frame of water, raising a roof of fire,

Spreading the hailstones for the bridal floor-bed,

A husband without a head, married a wife without legs,

My parents gave me to an inseparable life,

They married me to Lord Chenna Mallikarjuna” [3]

Verses such as these can be read as conservative, but remember that this poet, like many others Bhakti sants, did refuse to get married to any man. This wasn’t just talk. Given the stigma attached to unmarried women in Indian society, this was a radical statement. In Akka Mahadevi’s case, she rejected a Jain king named Kausika rendering it an even more powerful act of defiance.

A_female_sadhu_in_Jamalpur,_Gujarat

A modern female Sadhu in Gujarat. Image source.

By Bahinabai (1628–1700 AD):

“You cannot approach God if you do not love you husband

[but]

A true wife is she who is aware of her own self

Being married she has to fulfill her family duties:

But she must have the craving for spiritual salvation too.

It is possible that the husband,

children and others may not approve.

But she must not give up her true path.” [4]

“She whose mind constantly contemplates God

Is recognized in the three worlds as the dutiful wife”[5]

In later sections we’ll see Bahinabai get more fiery than this. Bahinabai was part of the Varkari tradition produced a number of radical female sants. The males in the tradition didn’t try and resist the trend either, and seem to have disproportionately favored women’s freedom and the abolition of caste privilege. The following is one of only two poems I’ll include by a males in this selection. I include it because he writes from the viewpoint of a women and what he has to say is pretty striking:

“Amba Satvar Pav Ge Mala” by Eknath (male) (16th century AD):

“Save me now Mother –

I’ll offer you bread. Bhawani

Father-in-law is out of town –

Let him die there

I’ll offer you bread. Mother Bhawani

Mother-in-law torments me –

Kill her off

I’ll offer you bread. Mother Bhawani

Sister-in-law nags and nags

Make her a widow

I’ll offer you bread. Bhawani

Her brat cries and cries

Give him the itch

I’ll offer you bread, Bhawani

I’ll give my husband as a sacrifice

Free me mother!

I’ll offer you bread. Bhawani

Eka Janardan says

Let them all die

Let me live, alone!”[6]

So even for males, the idea of a female yearning for liberation from familial bondage was an appealing metaphor for the yearning one feels for spiritual liberation.

"Brooding" By Rabindranath Tagore

“Brooding” By Rabindranath Tagore. Image Source.

The goblin or the demon women in the following verses refer to the author herself. Think about this in the context of social expectations about about feminine beauty and feminine propriety.

By Karaikkal Ammaiya (6th or 7th century AD):

“With bulging eyes and sunken pit like mouths

Two protruding front teeth and long, lean ankles

A female goblin has established

Itself in the cremation ground of Tiruvalangadu

Here dances Siva with serenity”[7]

Tamil. Image source.

Relief image of Karaikkal Ammaiya on a Tamil temple wall. Image source.

 

“She has shriveled breasts

and bulging vein,

in place of white teeth

empty cavities gape

with ruddy hair on her belly

a pair of fangs, knobby ankles, and long shins

the demon woman wails at the desolate creamation ground.

Where our Lord,

Whose hanging matted hair

Blows in all eight directions,

Dances among the flames

And refreshes his lumbs.

His home is Alankatu.[8]

The Erotic:

By Janabai (1298-1350 AD):

“I will let my saree slip

From my head to the shoulders

Hold my head high and walk

Into the market-place

Taking cymbals in hand and veena on

shoulder I will go

Let me see who forbids me

I have opened a shop in Pandharpur

put oil on my wrist now

Jani declares herself a prostitute

Leaving you O God. this “home”[9]

I came across a very different translation of this one from a different source. I have no way of telling which is more accurate:

By Janabai (1298-1350 AD):

“Cast off all shame,

and sell yourself

in the marketplace

then alone

can you hope

to reach the Lord.

Cymbals in hand

a veena upon my shoulder,

I go about;

who dares to stop me?

The pallav of my sari

falls away (A scandal!);

yet will I enter

the crowded marketplace

without a thought.

Jani says, my Lord,

I have become a slut

to reach Your home.” [10]

By Akka Mahadevi (12th century AD):

“To the shameless girl

Wearing Mallikarjuna’s light, you fool,

Where is the need for cover and jewel?” [11]

She was apparently criticized for this sentment, so her guru (himself a gender equality and anti-caste reformist) wrote a song in her defense:

Basavanna (a male) (12th century AD):

“Does the one who has loved

That one without form

Have need of body?

Does the one who has loved

That one without mind

Have need of shame?
Does the one who has loved

The sky-clad one

Have need of a girdle-cloth?

A devotee like Mahadevi akka

Needs no encumbrances at all.”[12]

Giant_Basava_statue

Giant Basavanna statue, the guru of Akka Mahadevi. Mostly interesting to me because of what appears to be a helicopter dumping a huge amount of flowers on his head in mid flight. Image source.

Though it doesn’t seem like Akka Mahadevi is likely to have cared anyway:

By Akka Mahadevi (12th century AD):

“Having made one’s home in the market place, how

Can one afford to shrink from its noise?

Having been born in this world, one should not lose one’s temper at praise or blame…”[13]

Keep in mind for the next one that our next author is a Devadasi and a prostitute. The irony is that she talks about Shiva as though he is a polluted outcaste, whom society would condemn her for being with.

Devadasis11

Two Devadasis, presumably around the 1920s. Devadasis especially in medieval and early modern times frequently engaged in prostitution, though they were not similar to other sex workers in terms of social stature or the range of life choices available to them. Their main role was to serve as highly trained dancers and musicians in the temples.  Image source.

By Sule Sankavva (12th Century):

“In my harlot’s trade

Having taken one man’s money

I daren’t accept a second man’s sir.

And if I do,

They’ll stand me naked and

kill me sir.

And if I cohabit

with the polluted,

My hands nose ears

they’ll cut off

with a red-hot knife, sir,

Ah, never, no

Knowing you I will not.

My word on it,

Libertine Shiva”[14]

Orthodoxy and Caste:

By Janabai (1298-1350 AD):

“I am known to the world

as merely Nama’s maid servant

I am not learned

I have not listened to discourses

nor have I contemplated

I do not understand proprieties or

improprieties of this world.”[15]

 

“Do you desire self realization?

Then do not blindly follow others.

Search for the truth in your own self

There lies wisdom”[16]

 

These poets were protesting against the social aspect of caste called Jati, but also the Brahminical justification for it by appealing to the doctrine of Varna which derives from the Rig Vedic creation myth in which

These poets were protesting against the social aspect of caste called Jati (kin group, clan group, guild group), but also the Brahminical backwards rationalization for it by appealing to the doctrine of Varna. Varna ultimately derives from the Rig Vedic creation myth in which the Earth’s population is comprised of the different parts of the cosmic man.

We don’t know the author’s actual name for the next one but she writes as: The Maiden [nangai] of Uttiranallur.

By Uttiranallur Nagai (15th century AD):

“I have seen the tuft on cock, the tattoo on hen

So have I seen the fire on water

Citing your satkula, speak not to me of four Vedas

Use your discretion to see truth, ye elders of Paichalur.

Village Brahmins gather, build a high wall [the sacrificial vedi]

Dip in the river and pour clarified butter on fire

Like frogs in the rains, they croak the Vedas

Have they gained salvation, ye elders of Paichalur?”[17]

Though she was a Paria (untouchable) she learned the Vedas from a Brahmin boy and married him. She was virulently anti caste:

By Uttiranallur Nagai (15th century AD):

“All your talk is of caste and creed

Is it even as natural as the spider and its web?

The four blessed Vedas, were they created by Brahma?

Is caste and creed worthwhile, ye elders of Paichalur?

One palm tree, from it hangs nongu [fruit] and toddy

For the knower of truth no one is different from the other

Will one then be superior and the other inferior

Why then blame the paraya, ye elders of Paichalur?

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 Paichalur?” [18]

Patriarchy:

The following are fragmentary verses from Bahinabai, all from the same compilation. They more or less go together:

By Bahinabai (1628–1700 AD):

“Whenever it pleases him [her husband], he beats me a lot, binds me like a bundle of sticks.”

“My husband earned a living through practicing Veda.

Where is God in this?”

“The husband says we are Brahmans

We will always recite Veda

Who is this Shudra Tuka

My wife is spoiled by him.”

“But my mind has taken a vow

I will not leave singing for devotion

Even if I die.”[19]

“One who recognizes her own self

She is the true pativrata

One who treats worldliness and other worldliness on par

She is the one who holds the sky.”[20]

By Auvaiyar (12th Century AD):

“There are no castes but two if you want to tell me

The good men who help the poor in distress

The other, that will not so help

These are the low born”[21]

Akka Mahadevi (12th century AD):

“O brothers, why do you talk to me

who has given up her caste and sex

having united with Chenna Mallikarjuna”[22]

Avagha Rang Ek Zala By Soyarabai (14th century AD):

“All the colours together united,

Became one colour.

Thus my Lord became

One with my song!

I merged in Him and

He with me,

And all were leveled one

And I saw thee!

No discrimination between

The high and the low

And thus ran away farther now

The passions and anger together.

My body became bodiless

And became one with thy form

My soul has gained the ecstasy

In thy name O’Lord!

Now the outward sight is

Not for me,

I have gained the inward

Eye, to see Thee before me.

Says thus the poet Soyara

Who calls herself Chokhya’s

Mahari” [23]

Labor:

Recall that Janabai was a bonded Shudra domestic servant.

By Janabai (1298-1350 AD):

“A kite roams in the sky

And still thinks of its young ones

Or as a mother is trapped in the household work

And yet longs for a child

Or as a monkey climbs from tree to tree

And yet clasps its young ones

So is mother Vithoba to us. Says Jani.[24]

Photographed by Param Tomanec

Though Vithoba is a form of Krishna, in parts of South India he is worshipped as either male or female. Image source.

By Janabai (1298-1350 AD)

“Jani sweeps the floor

The Lord collects the dirt,

Carries it upon His head,

And casts it away.

Won over by devotion,

The Lord does lowly chores!

Says Jani to Vithoba

How shall I pay your debt?”[25]

And to close it out, here is a modern, anonymous poem inspired by Janabai. And the only one which I have in the original language (which is so superior that it makes me wonder what I’m missing in the other translations):

By Anamika (2010 AD):

Hey Madhav, dekho na –

Kitne’ to kaam dhare’ hain sir par

Itna aata goondhana hai abhi

Itne kapade’ kootne’ hain –

Ao bhi hath barta do thora

Ya phir tum her do juen hi jara –

Kuch to karo, kuch karo

Hey Madhav, so much to do, so much

So much flour to knead

So much to wash and clean

Do help me out, do share a bit

At least comb my hair and pick the lice

They hurt me, they do

Something must fall in your share too

Something even you must do”[26]

This table listing a huge sample of known female sants from the 6th to 16th centuries appears in the article “Rebels — Conformists? Women Saints in Medieval South India” by Vijaya Ramaswamy. I’ve modified it slightly to be easier to read and highlighted in blue those who appear in the above selection:

female saints rebels conformists 3

White circle = Brahmin. Red circle = Kshatriya. Yellow circle = Vaishya. Black circle = Sudra or Untouchable. Based on British census categories. [27]

Admittedly, this is a slightly misleading system of categorization because it abides by British census categories which placed these jatis into Hindu varna categories. In reality varna didn’t map on very cleanly onto jati groups, particularly in South India. Hence, we have two incidents of Vellalas (a class of landowning gentry) ranked as Sudras. Devadasis too are ranked as Sudras because they engaged in prostitution, though they had a level of power and respect in no way analogous to other prostitutes.

Keeping these subtleties in mind, of the 17 identified, the social background is known for 50. Of those, 44% were Brahmins, 42% were Sudras and Untouchables, 10% were Kshatriyas, and 4% were Vaishyas. The explanation, which Ramaswamy puts forth for this, is that these two women groups of women (Sudras and Brahmins) had the highest levels of “awareness,” which I take to mean social and cultural awareness.[28] Brahmin women were in the elite, and therefore had the greatest access to education and social power. Sudra women were not subject to the Manu Smriti-esque norms and rules, which restricted upper caste women, and therefore they also had a fair degree of independence and economic power. It was the women in the middle castes who had neither wealth and privilege, nor any semblance of independence or freedom.

Pyramid_of_Caste_system_in_India

This is the way caste is taught in the vast majority of schools an universities, and it gives the incorrect impression of uniformity over time and region, and certainty about the relative positions of each caste. This is the way the British envisioned it, so the characterization stuck. Assuming the pyramid represents social stature and privilege, there should be islands of each caste further up or further down away from its main cluster. For instance, the Devadasis are classes as Shudras, but have more social stature and privilege than some unfortunate Vaishya Jatis. There should also be question mark zones representing people of contested Varna status.

As should be obvious by now, this trend is not “incidental” or exceptional to Hinduism. Themes of eroticism and anti-clericalism show up much earlier in Sanskrit poetry, as I’ve documented. In terms of social effect, this type of (dare I say) countercultural Bhakti worship played a large role in turning back the tide of Jainism, and inspiring a popular resurgence of Saivism in south India.[29] Protest songs like these also helped to lay the philosophical groundwork for later colonial era reformers such as Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule, and Tarabai Shinde, who brought the fight against caste oppression and patriarchal culture into the arena of politics and civil institutions, largely by starting schools for oppressed demographics.

The Hindu tradition clearly has within it the capacity for rebellion, skepticism, egalitarianism. The religious literature is quite literally filled with protest songs. But they aren’t just cries of the oppressed, they are simultaneously, fully religious works. In their more passionate moments, these poems find the divine in freedom from oppression, longing for the seemingly impossible, sexual liberation, and egalitarian monism. In their more tame moments they identify the sacred in the sphere of personal relationships, family, and labor. It would be nice if middle and upper class Hindus, and those in the diaspora took notice of these trends, instead of leaving it to the academics, and letting Manu Smriti be their public face.

PS: I wrote a piece utilizing many of these poems, but more explicitly comparing them with disharmonious Manu Smriti verses over on the Mitrailleuse.

 

[1] Manu Smriti, Chapter 5, Verses 148 and 155

[2] Ramaswamy, Vijaya. “Rebels — Conformists? Women Saints in Medieval South India.” Anthropos, Bd. 87, H. 1./3. (1992), p. 140.

[3] ibid

[4] Bhagwat, Vidyut. “Marathi Literature as a Source for Contemporary Feminism,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 30, No. 17 (Apr. 29, 1995), pp. 26

[5] ibid

[6] ibid, 25.

[7] Ramaswamy, 141

[8] ibid,141.

[9] Bhagwat 26

[10] Sarang, Vilas. Janabai (ca. 1298-1350). Indian Literature, Vol. 36, No. 5 (157), Accent of Women’s Writing. p. 73-74

[11] Ramaswamy ,142.

[12] ibid

[13] ibid

[14] Sarang, p. 73-74

[15] Bhagwat, 26.

[16] ibid

[17] Ramaswamy, 143.

[18] Ramaswamy, 144.

[19]  Ganesh, Kamala and Usha Thakkar. (editors) Culture and the Making of Identity in Contemporary India, Sage Publications Inc, Thousand Oaks (2005). p. 179

[20] ibid

[21] Ramaswamy, 144.

[22] ibid

[23] Prabhune, Sharmilla B. They Said It: Translations of the Poems of the Saint Poets. Bloomington IN, (2012) p. 66

[24] Bhagwat, 26.

[25] Sarang, 73-74

[26] Anamika, “A Billion Thoughts Away” Indian Literature, Vol. 54, No. 6 (260) (November/December 2010), pp. 164

[27] Ramaswamy, Vijaya. 135-137.

[28] ibid 138.

[29] ibid, 144.

Sources:

Anamika, “A Billion Thoughts Away” Indian Literature, Vol. 54, No. 6 (260) (November/December 2010),

Bhagwat, Vidyut. “Marathi Literature as a Source for Contemporary Feminism,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 30, No. 17 (Apr. 29, 1995),

Ganesh, Kamala and Usha Thakkar.(editors) Culture and the Making of Identity in Contemporary India, Sage Publications Inc, Thousand Oaks (2005).

Manu Smriti, Chapter 5

Prabhune, Sharmilla B. They Said It: Translations of the Poems of the Saint Poets. Bloomington IN, (2012)

Ramaswamy, Vijaya. “Rebels — Conformists? Women Saints in Medieval South India.” Anthropos, Bd. 87, H. 1./3. (1992)

Sarang, Vilas. Janabai (ca. 1298-1350). Indian Literature, Vol. 36, No. 5 (157), Accent of Women’s Writing.

*** Here I have excerpted the entire section of Chapter 5 of Manu Smriti which deals with the treatment of women, as a point of comparison from how different the views of the sants represented here were from the views of the Brahminical orthodoxy which posited Manu as the highest legal authority. Keep in mind that it was the latter who had the ear of the British colonial regime in the construction of Anglo-Hindu law, which is probably why this discourse is the privileged one by such an incredibly large margin:

5.146. Thus the rules of personal purification for men of all castes, and those for cleaning (inanimate) things, have been fully declared to you: hear now the duties of women.

5.147. By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house.

5.148. In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent.

5.149. She must not seek to separate herself from her father, husband, or sons; by leaving them she would make both (her own and her husband’s) families contemptible.

5.150. She must always be cheerful, clever in (the management of her) household affairs, careful in cleaning her utensils, and economical in expenditure.

5.151. Him to whom her father may give her, or her brother with the father’s permission, she shall obey as long as he lives, and when he is dead, she must not insult (his memory).

5.152. For the sake of procuring good fortune to (brides), the recitation of benedictory texts (svastyayana), and the sacrifice to the Lord of creatures (Pragapati) are used at weddings; (but) the betrothal (by the father or guardian) is the cause of (the husband’s) dominion (over his wife).

5.153. The husband who wedded her with sacred texts, always gives happiness to his wife, both in season and out of season, in this world and in the next.

5.154. Though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure (elsewhere), or devoid of good qualities, (yet) a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife.

5.155. No sacrifice, no vow, no fast must be performed by women apart (from their husbands); if a wife obeys her husband, she will for that (reason alone) be exalted in heaven.

5.156. A faithful wife, who desires to dwell (after death) with her husband, must never do anything that might displease him who took her hand, whether he be alive or dead.

5.157. At her pleasure let her emaciate her body by (living on) pure flowers, roots, and fruit; but she must never even mention the name of another man after her husband has died.

5.158. Until death let her be patient (of hardships), self-controlled, and chaste, and strive (to fulfil) that most excellent duty which (is prescribed) for wives who have one husband only.

5.159. Many thousands of Brahmanas who were chaste from their youth, have gone to heaven without continuing their race.

5.160. A virtuous wife who after the death of her husband constantly remains chaste, reaches heaven, though she have no son, just like those chaste men.

5.161. But a woman who from a desire to have offspring violates her duty towards her (deceased) husband, brings on herself disgrace in this world, and loses her place with her husband (in heaven).

5.162. Offspring begotten by another man is here not (considered lawful), nor (does offspring begotten) on another man’s wife (belong to the begetter), nor is a second husband anywhere prescribed for virtuous women.

5.163. She who cohabits with a man of higher caste, forsaking her own husband who belongs to a lower one, will become contemptible in this world, and is called a remarried woman (parapurva).

5.164. By violating her duty towards her husband, a wife is disgraced in this world, (after death) she enters the womb of a jackal, and is tormented by diseases (the punishment of) her sin.

5.165. She who, controlling her thoughts, words, and deeds, never slights her lord, resides (after death) with her husband (in heaven), and is called a virtuous (wife).

5.166. In reward of such conduct, a female who controls her thoughts, speech, and actions, gains in this (life) highest renown, and in the next (world) a place near her husband.

5.167. A twice-born man, versed in the sacred law, shall burn a wife of equal caste who conducts herself thus and dies before him, with (the sacred fires used for) the Agnihotra, and with the sacrificial implements.

5.168. Having thus, at the funeral, given the sacred fires to his wife who dies before him, he may marry again, and again kindle (the fires).

5.169. (Living) according to the (preceding) rules, he must never neglect the five (great) sacrifices, and, having taken a wife, he must dwell in (his own) house during the second period of his life.

6 comments on “Subversive Hindu Thought

  1. […] Update: I’ve made a new post about Indian poetry from a very different era, but it touches on some si… […]

  2. lauraborders says:

    Thank you so much for this.

  3. […] If you are interested in these poets, I have some more of their verses and some more discussion of them on my website. […]

  4. Nitin says:

    I’ve been coming back again and again, reading your blog, each post a fantastic work, and has so much food for thought!

    • Really glad you are enjoying the content! I try not to write “fluff” articles. I love to engage with people who read this stuff, so feel free to comment with your feedback and suggestions, or contact me privately whenever it strikes your fancy.

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