Female Bhakti Saints

  • Many of the bhakti poet-saints rejected asceticism as the crucial means toward liberation; some bhaktas were instead householders. As well, themes of universalism, a general rejection of institutionalized religion, and a central focus on inner devotion laid the groundwork for more egalitarian attitudes toward women and lower-caste devotees.
  • Women and shudras, both at the bottom of the traditional hierarchy ordering society, became the examples of true humility and devotion.
  • Many of these women saints had to struggle for acceptance within the largely male dominated movement. Their struggle attests to the strength of patriarchal values within both society and within religious and social movements attempting to pave the way for more egalitarian access to the Divine.
  • Women bhaktas wrote of the obstacles of home, family tensions, the absent husband, meaningless household chores, and restrictions of married life, including their status as married women. In many cases, they rejected traditional women’s roles and societal norms by leaving husbands and homes altogether, choosing to become wandering bhaktas; in some instances, they formed communities with other poet-saints.
  • Caste status and even masculinity were understood as barriers to liberation, in essence a rejection of the hierarchy laid out by the Law Books of the Classical Period. Women bhaktas faced overwhelming challenges through their rejection of societal norms and values, without having the ability to revert to their normative roles as wives, mothers and in some cases, the privileges of their original high-caste status.
  • Bhakti movement’s northward advancement (15th through 17th centuries), its radical edge as it pertained to women’s inclusion was tempered. The poetry of women bhaktas from this latter time is generally not indicative of a rejection of societal norms in terms of leaving family and homes in pursuit of divine love. Instead, some of the later poet-saints stayed within the confines of the household while expounding on their souls’ journeys, their eternal love for the Divine, as well as their never-ending search for truth.

Prominent Female Bhakti Saints

  • Akkamahadevi: A 12th-century bhakti saint from Karnataka. “Akka” means elder sister. This title was given from great philosophers of her time – Basava, Prabhu Deva, Madivalayya and Chenna Basavanna. She was an ardent devotee of Shiva. She was the first women to write Vachanas in Kannada language.
  • Lal Ded: Kashmir Shaivism. Composed Vakhs.
  • Janabai: A 13th century women belonging to shudra caste. She was a household worker of saint Namdeva, one of the most respected Bhakti saints. Though she had no formal education, she composed over 300 poems, mostly pertaining to her life – domestic chores or about the restrictions she faced being a low caste woman.
  • Mira bai or Mira: Mira belonged to a high-class ruling Rajput family and was married to the son of Rana Sanga of Mewar at an early age but she left her husband and family and went on a pilgrimage to various places. Her poetry portrays a unique relationship with Lord Krishna as she is not only being portrayed as the devotee bride of Krishna, but Krishna is also portrayed as in pursuit of Mira. Her bhajans were compiled in Rajasthani language.
  • Bahinabai or Bahina: A 17th-century poet-saint of Maharashtra, who wrote different abhangas, women’s folk songs that portray the working life of women especially in the fields.
  • Andal: 
    • Only female Alwar saint. (Early Vaishnavite saints from south India)
    • Andal saw herself as the beloved of Vishnu; her verses express her devotional love for the deity.
  • Karaikkal Ammaiyar
    • One of the 3 women Nayanars amongst the 63 Nayanars (Shaivites).
    • This devotee of Shiva adopted the path of asceticism to attain her goal.
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