Voices of dissent

Published : Sep 30, 2015 12:30 IST

Mirabai, a painting by Raja Ravi Varma.

Mirabai, a painting by Raja Ravi Varma.

Kabir's oppositional thinking has been traced by scholars like Hazari Prasad Dwivedi to Ramanand, the hathayogi s and some sahajyanisiddha s. Foreign scholars like Charlotte Vaudeville, Linda Hess, David Lorenzen, W.G. Orr and W.H. McLeod have also emphasised Kabir’s fierce independence of character, vigour, iconoclasm and fearlessness expressed often in paradoxes and obscure metaphors. He also learnt from the Vaishnavites and the Sufis. Kabir had a way of engaging his readers, addressing them directly: readers are not eavesdroppers here as in the case of most other Bhakti poets, with a few exceptions like Tukaram. His persuasive rhetoric employed all kinds of tones from those of separation, supplication and despair, to anger, sarcasm and ecstasy. The recurring image in his poetry, of the bird striving to fly and yet tied down by the rope of hope, reflects not only his spiritual state of incomplete realisation but also his material state as a weaver, caught in the evil of poverty and tied down to earth by caste and class despite his art and his wisdom. His reach exceeds his grasp; he finds Ram’s pace too slow, as if his feet were too heavy, and wonders who is to blame for his state, Ram or himself.

Kabir mixed many languages in his bani s: his language, often referred to now as Sadhukkari (the language of monks), had in it elements from Hindi, Urdu, Persian and many dialects of Bhojpuri, Marwari, Punjabi and Purbi. He used words from different languages and kept changing his style to suit his subject matter, refusing to adhere to any rigid rules regarding form. He addressed Pandits and Qazis with nonchalance, often using language like a weapon meant to hurt. (“Pandit, you’ve got it wrong”; “Son of a slut, where did untouchability come from?”; “Qazi, what book are you lecturing on? Yak, yak, yak, day and night. You never had an original thought”; “Hindu, Muslim: where did they come from? Who started this road?”; “Pandit, a Shudra has touched this food, how can you eat it?”) As Linda Hess says: “His abrupt and ragged style is a way to jolt and shock people, to push them over the edge into an understanding they fear and yet profoundly long for.” He is intimate and hence disturbing; readers are forced to identify with him and share his laughter and his utter scorn for the hypocritical and the greedy. He resisted all attempts to absorb him into other systems, including, of course, the brahminical one.

Fighting patriarchy The women saint-poets perhaps require separate treatment since gender and domesticity often get foregrounded in their poetry. The dimension of sexuality in their poetry has been examined in different contexts by David Kinsley, Leela Mullati, Ruth Vanita, Parita Mukta, Madhu Kishwar, Vijaya Ramaswamy and others. The women saint-poets reflect the conflict between dharma—the expected social duty—and bhakti—total dedication to God—in their protest against their imposed domestic roles and their desire to transcend gender. Many of them had to leave their husbands as they could not serve two masters at the same time, and many chose not to marry. God here becomes an alternative lover and devotion an alternative marriage: a better and more liberating alternative. This tendency is visible even in the therigatha s of Buddhist nuns of the 6th century BCE, like Mutta, Ubbiri, Sumangalamata and Mettika.

The focus in each therigatha is, in the words of Susie Taru, “an epiphanic experience in which the painful constructions of secular life fall away and the torment of feeling subsides as peace and freedom of nirvana are attained”. As they exult in their new life transformed by Buddhism, they also contrast it to the painful worlds they have left behind. For example, Mutta, who out of poverty had to marry a hunchback Brahmin, sings after leaving him:

“So free am I, so gloriously free,

Free from three petty things

From mortar, from pestle and

from my twisted lord,

Freed from rebirth and death I


And all that has held me down!”

Sumangalamata, a worker-woman, also exclaims: “How free I am,/ How wonderfully free, from kitchen drudgery./ Free from the harsh grip of hunger/ And from empty cooking pots/ Free too of that unscrupulous man,/ The weaver of sunshades.”

Even while leaning on a staff in old age, Mettika is happy, as on the hilltop, the breath of liberty flows over her spirit.

God becomes a way of resolving an otherwise impossible situation for the women bhaktas. Their worldly marriages—actual or potential —represent both the lure and the bondage of the world, while their relationship to God represents a renunciation of the world and their traditional roles. Some of them, like Lal Ded (also known as Lallesvari and Lalla Arifa) of Kashmir (like Akka Mahadevi in Karnataka), even walked naked in order to show they were above gender. Kadire Remmavve, a married woman who left her husband and took to spinning for her livelihood and joined Veerashaivism, uses vituperative language to deride her husband:

“All husbands (men) are

destroyers of enemy forces

My husband crushes

the petals of my mind.

Other husbands are hunters of


My husband is the hunter of my


Using raw sexual imagery, she says:

“All wives wash and give to their


I do not give my husband, he does

not need

All husbands have seeds

My husband has no seeds

All husbands are up above

My husband below, I’m above


(193: 91)

Kadire Remmavve, however, accepts the Siva Sharanas and describes her casual body as Prabhu Deva and subtle body as Chennaa Basava. Along with Akka Mahadevi, introduced earlier, Ayadakki Lakkamma, a married saint, provides some explicit examples of the “Sati-pati” relationship:

When the seed is falling

on the face of the blossom,

can there be a back and front

to the blossoming face?

lf you forget it and

if I realise it, can

there be different bodies?

When the root vanishes

the blossom remains.

For this union can there be

any other name but sati-pati?

(V: 89: 44)

Satyaakka, an unmarried saint, visualises Siva as her groom and tries to enlist the help of her (imaginary) relatives in drawing him towards her. She calls Siva “Gandaru Ganda” (the Man among men) and says he is the only man for her:

Siva is within me

There’s no space within

my heart for speech or thought

It is filled with Him.

I am in love with

the only man without blemishes

Despite me, he has taken possession of me.

(V: 148: 71)

In a couple of verses she reveals to her mother that she is being wasted away by the arrows of Manmatha (the god of love) and her youth is being wasted without Siva (V: 150: 73). In the next verse, she requests her uncle (Bhava) to intercede with her bridegroom, Siva, on her behalf. She accuses Siva of being proud and headstrong because he has conquered many demons and ruined the Daksha Yajna by cutting off Daksha’s head and replacing it with that of a sheep. (The reference is to a myth concerning Siva’s consort Sati and her father, Daksha, who had insulted his son-in-law and was duly punished.) Satyaakka concludes:

Having given myself to Him,

I cannot give myself to anyone


Bring that heartless Siva to me

I wish to embrace Shambu


(V: 151: 73)

Akka Mahadevi declares (Vachana 93: 125) that other men are like the thorn under the smooth leaf, so that she cannot touch or go near them or share confidences with them. So she can take only Chenna Mallikarjuna in her arms. She justifies going naked: “To the shameless girl wearing Mallikarjuna’s light, You fool, where is the need for cover and jewel?” She wanted to overcome her sexuality by rejecting her body: “Fie on this body/ Why do you damn yourself/ In love of it, this pot of excrement/ The vessel of urine, the frame of bones/ This stench of purulence!” (Vachana: 33). Goggawe asserts that knowledge has no gender.

Lal Ded’s struggles Lal Ded lived sometime during 14th century C.E. and is one of the most popular poet-saints of Kashmir. She was a devotee of Siva and spent the latter part of her life seeking union with him whom she identified as her inmost essence. Like Akka Mahadevi, Lal Ded’s life illustrates the tension between dharma, the acceptance of one’s customary social roles, and devotion to God. Lal Ded was born in a village near Srinagar to an educated family and was married at the age of 14. Her domestic life after marriage apparently was extremely difficult.

Many legends tell of the harsh treatment she received from her mother-in-law and husband and extol her patience and forbearance. According to legend, her mother-in-law persecuted her unmercifully, while her husband was indifferent to her and refused to comfort her in her sufferings. Some of Lal Ded’s songs seem to refer to these domestic difficulties.

“One has to bear lightning flashes

and thunderbolts.

One has to put up with pitch

darkness at midday.

Forbearance is tantamount to

getting ground to powder

between the millstones,

(If one can stand all this),

contentment and peace attend

on you.”

“He hurled a thousand abuses at


But I did not take it to heart.

If I am a true devotee of Shankar

How can the mirror of my mind

get defiled with ashes and dust?”

“Only the wearer knows where

the shoe pinches!

1 went from door to door, in my

robes of sorrow.

Nothing did I receive but stones;

I did not find any one supporting


At a certain point, about 12 years after her marriage, Lal Ded suddenly left home and became a wandering religious singer. Precisely what incident prompted her to leave home is not clear. Her difficult domestic life, however, must be understood as the background against which she rebelled when she set off naked to sing songs of her beloved Siva. She seldom uses analogies of sexual love for her devotion, yet there are suggestions of an alternative relationship or an alternative reality in her Vakh s:

“Passionate, with longing in my


Searching wide, and seeking

nights and days,

Lo! I beheld the Truthful One,

the Wise,

Here in mine own house to fill my


Waking when the moon was

about to set,

I made my mad heart sing,

How I bore the pangs of my

Lord’s love!

Crying ‘lali, lali’ [I am a seeker! I

am a seeker!]

I awoke the Ruby in my Self:

Meditating on Him, my body was


Like Akka Mahadevi, she contrasts the ideals of her spiritual life with those of life in the world. Ultimately, service to her husband and in-laws is incompatible with her quest for union with Siva. In the following poem, she contrasts her nudity with customs concerning clothing which have no inherent sanctity. From the perspective of divine insight, life in the world ruled by custom simply is not redemptive:

“Dance then, Lalla, clothed but

by the air!

Sing then, Lalla, clad but in the


Air and sky—what garment is

more fair?

‘Cloth’, saith Custom-Doth that


Mirabai’s rebellion Mirabai, the 16th century Rajasthani princess, had to marry Prince Bhoraj as part of a political alliance. She had opposed the marriage and circumambulated Krishna’s image instead of her bridegroom during the wedding. However, her husband died soon, probably in 1521, and her father in 1527, both in battle. Her mother had died while she was still a child. She was thus left to the mercy of her in-laws, particularly a “Rana” she refers to constantly in her verses. She was criticised for not having committed suttee and was abused by her in-laws. The “Rana” seems to have tried even to murder her.

“Rana has given me poison, I


(I am) like gold (which) when it

burns in fire, becomes pure.

I threw away my reputation and

family honour

as one lets water flow away.

Put a curtain up in your house,

I am a weak woman, and


The arrow from his quiver has

struck my heart,

and I have fallen into madness.

I have dedicated my body and

soul to the saints:

cling to their lotus feet.

The Lord has saved Mira; he

knows she is his servant.”

Throughout all this, however, Mirabai remained the steadfast devotee of her true husband, Krishna, and eventually left the royal precincts of her in-laws to become a wandering devotee. She travelled to holy places in north India, particularly those sacred to Krishna, and died in 1546 in Dwaraka, where according to legend, she merged with an image of Krishna in a temple.

Mirabai’s inability to reconcile her love for Krishna with the love for her husband and accommodation to the ways of the world is the theme of many of her poems. In the following poem, she rejects the world by refusing to adorn herself as expected, and precisely in not adorning herself, she prepares herself to meet her true husband, Krishna.

She makes herself attractive to her god precisely by renouncing the adornments of worldly life.

“I don’t like your strange world,


A world where there are no holy

men, and all the people are trash.

I have given up ornaments, given

up braiding my hair.

I have given up putting on kajal

(collyrium) and putting my hair


Mira’s Lord is Girdhar Nagar;

I have found a perfect


In the next poem, she refuses to give in to the pressures from her in-laws and asserts that her only love is for Krishna:

“Friend, I cannot live without


My mother-in-law insults me,

her daughter humiliates me,

when Rana seethes in rage

I am imprisoned.

Kept under house arrest.

How shall I surrender our primal


love that was born in an earlier


Mira’s lord is Girdhar Nagar.

No one else can ever reach her


As with Akka Mahadevi and Lal Ded, and as an example of medieval devotion, Mirabai did not seek to accommodate her devotion to her Lord with social duty. Her passion for Krishna was so all-consuming that she found it impossible to love a human husband in addition to her God, and she steadfastly resisted attempts to turn her away from her devotional pursuits. The quality of her devotion as an overwhelming emotion of love is clear in this poem:

“Do not go away,

Do not go away, my lord.

I, as your slave, beseech you.

Love and devotion share a unique


lead me there, my lord.

With incense and sandalwood

I shall build my pyre

Let your hands

Set it afire.

when I am finally consumed,

smear your body with my ashes,

merge my flame with your fire.”

In the Bhagavad Gita, bhakti seems to undergird social duty by legitimating caste roles and occupations. By performing one’s allotted social task, the logic of the Gita goes, one upholds the world: by performing all one’s actions as sacrifices to Lord Vishnu, one makes of one’s social life a religious ritual. For Mirabai, devotion had nothing to do with performing her social duty or sanctifying her wifely roles. Devotion was a passionate love for God which made normal life in the world impossible. For Mirabai, bhakti did not rationalise her existence by providing a context in which the everyday life might be understood as a religious ritual. Rather, it drove her mad in the eyes of the world, incapacitated her, as it were, from leading a normal, socially acceptable, life.

“Mira danced with ankle-bells on

her feet.

People said Mira was mad;

my mother-in-law said I ruined

the family reputation.

Rana sent me a cup of poison and

Mira drank it laughing.

I dedicated my body and soul at

the feet of Hari.

I am thirsty for the nectar of the

sight of him.

Mira’s lord is Girdhar Nagar; l

will come for refuge to him.”

Janabai, the Marathi Warkari poet, tells herself: “Let me not be sad because I am born a woman/ In this world; many saints suffer in this way.” She throws away her decorum and finds in Vithoba a friend and supporter. These women poets thus created an alternative family, resisted the oppressive social role imposed upon them by a patriarchal society and simultaneously created a parallel language of experience and emotion.

What made the Bhakti movement revolutionary was that it created a universal, non-hierarchical religion, a human, simple lifestyle, and egalitarian counter-communities along with a subaltern poetry and poetics of spiritual dissent. The Bhakti poets belong not merely to our past; they are our present as their agony and revolt continue to inspire the poetic movements of our own time. It is also politically significant to retrieve their memory at a time when every form of dissent and argument is stared upon and a crude attempt is on to construct a standardised, sanitised and ritualistic version of Hinduism where diversity and disagreement—the very essence of our cultural inheritance —have no place.

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