Women Bhaktas in North India and the Bhakti Movement

The Bhakti Movement, which moved in waves from one region to another, i.e., regionwise, originating from South India in the 6th century, is known for playing a vital role in shaping the social, cultural and religious life.

Basically, the Bhakti Movement began in the 6th century in South India and spreaded through out the country, which lasted till the 16th-17th centuries. Major Bhakti saints includes of – Kabir, Surdas, Raidas, Dadu Dayal, Eknath, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Tulsidas, Rahim etc.

The Bhakti Movement in India was marked by few major practices, such as –

  1. The rejection of the existing ritual hierarchy and Brahmanical superiority.
  2. The use of the vernacular in preference to Sanskrit, the language of the elite.
  3. The emergence of the lower caste and non-literate individuals as great spiritual leaders.
  4. Emergence of the women Bhaktas.

As mentioned above, it’s also not a very denying fact that the women too played a pivotal role in contributing for Bhakti Movement. The Bhakti traditions provided a space for women in the world of religion as well as everyday social relations. It was the patriarchal society and male dominated houses that paved the way for the emergence of the women saints. The Brahmanical rituals imposed a hierarchical social differences between men and women. Later, these were reversed by the rebelling women and thus, one can trace the emergence of the women saints from this point of time, thus.

The life and work of the women saints lie somewhere hidden unlike the male saints. This is partly because none of them established any guru-shishya parampara and none of the disciples are said to have has preserved the compositions of the women Bhaktas. Even lesser number of women were known for their spiritual greatness during their lifetime.

Some predominant women Bhaktas were-

  1. Meerabai in Rajasthan
  2. Lalleshwari or Lalded in Kahsmir
  3. Akkamahadevi in Karnataka
  4. Sahajobai in Maharashtra

There were few exceptions like Meerabai, who constituted followers, but they were lesser in number. Unlike in the North India, women saints like Andal and Akkamahadevi were greatly recognized and admired in South India. As a matter of truth, Akkamahadevi was the leading member of a council of saints. In the context, the instance of Meerabai must be given. She was one of the major women Bhaktas of the 16th century. Although she didn’t attract a mass following but is recognized as a source of inspiration for centuries. According to some traditions, her preceptor was Raidas, a leather worker. This shows a complete defeat of the prevailing caste system and highly caste stratified society.

Now let us take a look on other major women Bhaktas of that period.

Lalleshwari or Lalded – she walked out of an oppositive marriage and opted for an ascetic oath. Also she composed several poems in praise of Lord Shiva.

One of the compositions of Lalleshwari or Lalded of Kashmir.

Bahinabai- she was again one of the best examples of women Bhaktas who defied all the caste and gender hierarchy, and came under the spiritual guidance of the Shudra saint Tukaram. She was herself a Brahman woman.

Akkamahadevi- she was one of the most famed women saints of Virashaiva tradition, who could walk naked on the streets, defying the patriarchal order and depicting a huge sense of courage. She was the one who considered Mallikarjuna or the Shiba as her husband.

Vinabai-she was the chief disciple of the saint Ramdas, who headed the mutt at Mirajal. The Ramdasi panth occupies a significant place in the history of the women Bhaktas, as this was the first time when a monastic institution was governed by a woman. This satirically shows a defeat of patriarchal and caste based society.

On the other side of the coin, although the women Bhaktas came up as individual spiritual leaders, but they were always under guidance or have remained disciples of male saints only, showing the prevalence of patriarchy in some sense. Hence, it is more logical to say that the women Bhaktas split between social confrontism and deviant rebelliousness, thus.

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