Across the nine nights of Navratri, NHSF (UK) celebrates Shakti through telling the stories of nine female intellectuals from Hindu history.
What can we, as Hindu students today, learn from the stalwart philosophers of the past? And how many of us, as young Hindus, know that some of our most influential thinkers were women?
Click on the tabs below to find out more!
Gargi, also known as Gargi Vachaknavi, was one of the most renowned philosophers and scholars from ancient Vedic times. Born to Rishi Vachaknu, estimated to have lived around ~700BCE, the young Gargi was extremely astute and curious, having a deep knowledge of the Vedas and Upanishads from a young age.
In an episode documented in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Book 3), Gargi, amongst many other scholars, was invited by King Janaka to his Rajasuya Yagna. Janaka, being impressed by the massive gathering of minds, decided to propose a challenge – the most learned of scholars, who would prove themselves by being undefeated in debate, would then win themselves a substantial prize. Among these scholars was the mighty Rishi Yajnavalkya. Seeing himself as the most knowledgeable, Yajnavalkya engaged in discussion with scholar after scholar, until finally, Gargi herself approached.
Their debate was on deeply metaphysical topics, as Gargi pressed Yajnavalkya on the foundations of reality. She asked him about the nature of the sun, moon, nature, and the Devatas, with her sequence of questions delving into answering the interconnectedness of existence.
Still not satisfied, Gargi then asked:
“O Yājñavalkya, That which is above heaven and below the earth, which is this heaven and earth as well as between them, and that which people call the past and the present and the future – by what is this all pervaded?”
Yajnavalkya answered: Akasha, or ‘space’.
Considered the fifth element in Dharmic philosophies, it is the space in which all other elements come as one, and thus regarded as the basis and essence of all things in the material world.
Her following question, showcasing her sheer brilliance, is wondering that if Akasha is the base of all that is visible, then:
kasminnu khalvākāśa otaśca protaśceti?
“By what is this Akasha pervaded?”
Yajnavalkya responded “Akshara,” the immutable and imperishable Reality, also known as Brahman.
“This Immutable, O Gārgī, is never seen but is the Witness; It is never heard, but is the Hearer; It is never thought, but is the Thinker; It is never known, but is the Knower. There is no other witness but This, no other hearer but This, no other thinker but This, no other knower but This. By this Immutable, O Gārgī, is the Akasha pervaded.”
As she proclaimed that Yajnavalkya, her opponent, was indeed the highest of the learned in the court, it dawned upon everyone that Gargi had no ego in this exchange – Gargi’s aim was to not obtain the prize, but to further her knowledge.
As such, Rishika Gargi is widely renowned as one of the biggest representatives of Hindu philosophy within her time, and is venerated with the title “Brahmavadini” – a woman who knows Brahman, striving for the highest Truth. It is her unconventional thinking, her thirst for knowledge, and her search for true pure thought, that makes her one of the most revered Rishikas, as well as the exemplar of a brilliant mind, even to this day.
Sulabha is an emblematic figure in Hindu history. An intellectual renunciant. Though born to a royal family, she chose to wander over the Earth alone as an ascetic. Her mention is recurrent in several texts widely separated by time. These include the Mahabharata, the Kaushitaki Brahmana and even the Saulabha Shakha of the Rigveda Samhita is attributed to Sulabha.
Despite the Rishika’s significance, most modern discussions of the epic Mahabharata do not mention the debate between Sulabha and King Janaka or give it the importance it deserves! This raises the question why less attention has been paid to women’s participation in intellectual and philosophical conversation.
Sulabha hears from many ascetics of King Janaka’s claim to having achieved liberation whilst also being a king. Intrigued, she decides to meet him. While she is welcomed and treated as an honoured guest in the court, Janaka is in awe of her extraordinary beauty. But then he poses three questions at Sulabha: Who are you? Whose are you? Where have you come from?
“As lac and wood, as grains of dust and drops of water, exist commingled when brought together, even so are the existences of all creatures.”
This is a statement of the philosophical position that the primal elements are the same in all bodies and beings, and the same consciousness pervades all existents, therefore if Janaka were truly knowledgeable, he would not ask her who she is, as he would know that she and he are essentially the same. To regard his own self as different from the self of other beings is to lack wisdom.
He defines a woman by her ties to men, and if he cannot do so, he becomes very uncomfortable. Hence his anxiety to know “whose” Sulabha is.
As the conversation turns into a debate, Janaka arrogantly tries to prove that she is not a genuine renunciant. He appeals to conventional notions of gender roles, whether a woman can be autonomous, a man’s intellectual equal or superior and can attain emancipation independently.
In response to being challenged rather crudely by Janaka in the presence of eminent scholars, she uses Samkhya (reason/logic) to successfully establish that there is no essential difference between a man and a woman, and that the Atman is genderless. She also demonstrates (as in her own case) that a woman can achieve liberation by the same means as a man in every right.
“Indeed, as thou thyself seest thy own body in thy body and as thou thyself seest thy soul in thy own soul, why is it that thou dost not see thy own body and thy own soul in the bodies and souls of others? If it is true that thou seest an identity with thyself and others, why then didst thou ask me who I am and whose? If it is true that hast, O king been freed from the knowledge of duality that (erroneously) says–this is mine and this other is not mine,–then what use is there with such questions as Who art thou, whose art thou and whence dost thou come?”
From Sulabha’s dignified response and knowledge of the Atman, Janaka is silenced by truth. This is unlike Rishika Gargi who in her debate with King Yajnavalkya is silenced.
Interestingly the academic study and observation of woman’s agency and resistance in epics has focused mostly on the premise of protest. Ironically the goddess of the intellect, Saraswati, although prominent in Indian popular culture is scarcely given much attention in modern discussions of female agency.
The representation of a female figure winning a debate, which is a battle of words, arguably works as a more imitable model than the representation of a female winning a battle with weapons. Sulabha’s triumph teaches us that for a woman to exercise her agency, she did not have to pick up her sword. She can use her pen, debate and ultimately her intellect.
Born as Punitavati to a wealthy merchant family, Karaikkal Ammaiyar is one of the eminent figures of early Tamil literature. She lived during the 6th century and was a devotee of Bhagavan Shiva since childhood, a strong Bhakti that continued even after her marriage. She became one of the three women of the 63 Nayanmars, a group of realised saints devoted to Shiva, whose works and hymns were compiled in the 12-volume Thirumurai, a foundational Shastra of Shaiva traditions.
According to her biography by the saint Sekkizhar, Karaikkal Ammaiyar utters her first poem once her husband had accepted her as a Devi upon witnessing the miracle of obtaining mangoes after just a prayer to Bhagavan. It is said that she wished to shed her beauty and wither her flesh away to attain the skeletal body of the Ganas, the ghouls who reside with Shiva. She embarks on a pilgrimage to Mount Kailasha, Bhagavan Shiva’s abode, and the biography tells us that people remarked on her strange form with both admiration and fear. After witnessing the genuine Bhakti, it was Shiva Himself who gave her the name “Ammaiyar,” meaning mother.
“She who comes, is like the mother in taking care of Me. She worshipped and got this form of fame.”
She is believed to be the first to write devotional poetry to Shiva Ji in the Tamil language. Her beautiful poetry presents the path of love and service that brings liberation. Her works reflect a strong filial love for the Lord and form an important part of the literary canon of the Tamil Bhakti (devotion) movement that helped in the early growth of the Shaiva philosophy of Hindu Dharma. Interestingly, she refers to herself as ‘Pey’ (ghost), who yearns for freedom from the bondage of existence (samsara), and watches with happiness, the ecstasy that her Shiva displays as He dances among the dead on the cremation ground.
“A female ghoul with withered breasts, bulging veins,
hollow eyes, white teeth, shrivelled stomach,
red hair, two fangs,
bony ankles, elongated shins,
stays in this cemetery, howling angrily.
This place where my Lord dances in the fire with a cool body,
His streaming hair flying in all eight directions,
Thiruvalangadu, where she later lived, is home to one of the five holiest Mandirs dedicated to Nataraja.
What is fascinating is that she absolutely defies all patriarchal norms of beauty, taking a fearful and reverential image. She rejects a body that is socially validated, ‘a form recognisable to men’, a form that is associated with mediation and commodification. She places no value in beauty or appearance if Ishwara can recognize her, and her entire journey of life is an act of surrender to the love of Shiva.
As the youth of today, we can take inspiration from Ammaiyar’s journey of life that exhibits qualities of courage and determination to stand for your beliefs despite the many challenges one may face. In today’s world, one that is filled with many distractions and “set standards” of beauty, we lose our self-belief in an attempt to meet these societal expectations. If we were to follow the lessons of Karaikkal Ammaiyar and believe that if our morals and consciousness are clear and devoted to Bhagavan, it does not matter what society labels you and as Ammaiyar mentions “If Shiva recognises me, why would I need a form recognisable to men in all directions who remain mired in ignorance?”
Birth in this body
enabled me to express
my overflowing love
and I reached your sacred henna-red feet.
And now I ask,
oh, lord of the gods
whose neck shimmers black,
when will the afflictions
that birth in this world also enables ever end?
(Verse One of her Arputat Tiruvantāti, “Sacred Linked Verses of Wonder”)
Ubhaya Bharati was a highly renowned scholar of the 8th Century and the wife of Mandana Mishra, a leading philosopher and proponent of Purva Mimamsa.
Purva Mimamsa is one of the six Astika schools of Hindu philosophy, and propounds a doctrine arguing that only Karma is tangible and therefore the ritualistic portion, the Karma Kanda of the Vedas (the Samhitas and Brahmanas), should be given the limelight.
The competing school of thought at the time was Uttara Mimamsa, a subsect of which is popularly known as Advaita Vedanta, expounded by the stalwart philosopher Adi Shankaracharya.
When Adi Shankara visited Mandana Mishra’s house, a debate ensued between them. Before the start of the debate, both parties set a wager that the one who accepts defeat will have to switch to become the winner’s disciple.
Adi Shankara was tasked with choosing the moderator for this debate, who will be able to understand the complexity of the arguments, have knowledge of the Vedas and Shastras – but above all, will judge the debate based on logic and strength of the arguments, rather than be swayed by emotions or a personal agenda.
For this grandiose task, Shankara chose Ubhaya Bharati. This was a very interesting choice as a spouse will naturally take the side of the partner.
All the scholars present had trust in Ubhaya Bharati’s strength of character and her wisdom – that she, better than any other person, would be able to speak the truth. Moreover, the added caveat of the wager between Adi Shankara and Mandana Mishra meant that in the case that Shankara won the debate, she would have to permanently lose her husband and become an ascetic (Sannyasini) under Shankara’s order of monks.
Despite this, Ubhaya Bharati gracefully accepted the position as the intermediary and placed a flower garland.
The debate lasted several days as both sharp-minded individuals cogently supported their line of reasoning with their extensive knowledge of the Shastras. As the days passed, Mandana Mishra’s garland started to wither while Shankara’s stayed fresh as Shankara had experienced the essence of the Vedas and was in a cool, blissful state whereas Mandana Mishra started to get agitated. Ubhaya Bharati keenly listened to the debaters’ eloquent arguments and finally concluded Shankara to be the one with a deeper understanding of the purport of the Vedas.
Having done so, she claimed that Shankara had not yet won!
“You cannot claim complete success over my husband until I, his better half, have been defeated by you. Though you are an embodiment of divinity, I have a desire to debate with you.”
Madhaviya Shankara Digvijay
Knowing that Shankara had always been a celibate, she attacked her opponent’s weakest point by questioning him about Kama Shastra and the code of conduct in marital relations. Shankara was unable to answer her questions and inadvertently lost the debate with her.
Even though she had the presence of mind to defeat her opponent, her commitment was to the welfare of the world and the distribution of true knowledge. Being a broadminded woman, she paused the debate for six months and asked Shankara to learn what he did not know. Shankara temporarily left his body and returned after those six months having learned all about conjugal relations.
Ubhaya Bharati’s broadminded compassion allowed her to declare Shankara as the victor and, giving away her husband from the householder lifestyle, to be initiated under Shankaracharya so that they may spread the profound wisdom of Advaita Vedanta. Mandana Mishra later became one of Shankara’s four primary disciples, namely Sureshvaracharya, who was entrusted with the first of the monasteries: Shringeri Sharada Peeth.
“I know you are Saraswati […] you are of the nature of pure consciousness. I shall in future be instituting temples of worship for you in Rishyasringagiri (Sringeri) and other places. I beseech you, to manifest yourself in all those temples, receiving the adoration of devotees and bestowing boons on them.”
In this emphatic way, Ubhaya Bharati was seen as the manifestation of Sharada Devi, the primary deity of the Sringeri Math, the foremost of the traditional Advaita Vedanta monasteries.
Though under no obligation to adopt a monastic lifestyle, she too became a Sannyasini, establishing her own Ashrama, imparting the highest Truth to her female disciples.
Ubhaya Bharati is still relevant today as a role model for us Hindu students. Firstly, she embodied the virtue of humility and piety as shown by her enthusiastic engagement in Karma that she jointly performed with her husband. This is not something that she did out of ignorance or compulsion as she was a very erudite scholar herself. Similarly, it is important for us not to think ourselves exempt from our duties or falsely think ourselves as having evolved above the need for rituals because of perceived intelligence.
In addition, from Ubhaya Bharati we can learn that our actions should be in alignment with our life’s purpose and our core values rather than our desires or short-term goals. Ubhaya Bharati’s mission was the pursuit of the true purport of the Vedas for which she was able to maintain a steady and impartial mind.
Finally, we can take inspiration from her charming, compassionate nature that impelled her to devotedly defend her husband but also show leniency towards the young Shankara.
Akka Mahadevi is a prominent and inspirational figure in the history of Karnataka and Kannada literature to this day. She lived in the 12th century, being born into the Lingayat sect, who were ardent worshippers of Bhagavan Shiva. From a young age, Akka displayed her devotion and passion to Shiva Ji, who she referred to as “Channamallikarjuna” or “One as white as Jasmine flower”.
Due to her incomparable beauty, she caught the attention of the king Kaushika, who asked for her hand in marriage. Akka Mahadevi rejected his proposal and went on to leave all her worldly possessions behind, including her clothes, in search of the path to enlightenment.
During her travels, she was met with animosity and lust, for being a woman who strayed from the gender roles of that period. She travelled to the city of Kalyana, covered only by her long hair, in her pursuit of enlightenment. This city was a hub for the Veerashaivites of 12th century Karnataka – a community that radically rejected societal ideas prevalent at the time, such as segregation based on caste and worship through priests, and united in the worship of Shiva.
Despite initial resistance, she was eventually accepted into the community, which was led by poet-saints like Basavanna and Allamaprabhu. Akka joined these revolutionaries in creating poetry and fighting against discriminatory practices of the era. Her poems spoke of various issues, such as the struggles which women ascetics face in the patriarchal society, and casteism.
Akka Mahadevi is an inspirational figure, known for rebelling against the cultural restrictions forced upon women within society at that time. Her unwavering devotion to Chennamallikarjuna gave her the strength and courage to face the many challenges she endured as a female ascetic.
Through her poetry and her life, we can learn to put our whole energy into doing the things we enjoy, despite the resistance we may inevitably face along the way. Akka also teaches us to seek out the Divine without any inhibition, and to focus and nurture your inner Self rather than do performative tasks in the name of religion – to put it simply, do things wholeheartedly, with honesty and integrity at the forefront.
How can you be modest
male and female,
blush when a cloth covering their shame
When the lord of lives
lives drowned without a face
In the world, how can you be modest?
When all the world is the eye of the Lord,
onlooking everywhere, what can you
cover and conceal?
Born in the 14th century, Lal Ded was a Kashmiri mystic of the Kashmiri Shaivism school of Hindu philosophy. Otherwise known as Lalleshwari or Lalla, she grew up in Pandrethan (ancient Puranadhisthana) some four and a half miles to the southeast of Srinagar in a Kashmiri Hindu family during the rule of Sultan Ala-ud-din. As it was customary at the time, she was married off at the age of 12. Hagiographic accounts attest that this was a very unhappy marriage leading to Lal Ded leaving home in her early twenties.
She left to take Sannyasa (renunciation) and became a disciple of a Shaiva guru called Siddha Srikantha (Sed Bayu), whom she ultimately excelled in spiritual attainments under.
Such was the intensity of concentration with which Lalla pursued her goal of self-realisation, that soon, this physical universe, which appears material to us, became just consciousness to her Sat-Chit-Anand and she became eternal bliss. Her vast body of consciousness (Chinmay Sharir) could not be covered by any cloth, so she renounced all clothing and became the highest among ascetics, an Avadhut.
She was a creator of the mystic poetry called vatsun or Vakhs, literally “speech” (Voice). Known as Lal Vakhs, her verses are the earliest compositions in the Kashmiri language and are an integral part of the history of Kashmiri literature. Lalleshwari’s emotional Vakhs has gone on to be well celebrated amongst Kashmiri Shaivites, placing her as one of the most prominent saints in Hindu Bhakti traditions.
The naked nun reciting her Vakhs established a legacy of harmony and pluralism which shines through the core of our Dharma. Lalleshwari symbolises the true confluence of Shaiva and Sufi mysticism, giving a message of non-duality that transcends our human traditions and customs, that the essence of all existence is the beauty of Shiva.
Tsala tsitta vwandas bayi mo bar
Chon tsinnth karaan paana Anaad,
Tsey kawa zananiya khyod hari kar
Kival tasunnday taaruk naad.
Have no fear, O restless mind,
The Eternal One takes thought for you.
He knows how to fulfil your wants.
Then cry to Him alone for help,
His Name will lead you safe across.
Gangasati was a medieval saint poetess (circa 12th-14th century) of the Bhakti Movement. She was born to a Sarvaiya Rajput (Kshatriya) family in the Rajapara village of the present-day Bhavnagar district, Saurashtra, Gujarat, and composed a variety of devotional poems (Bhajans) in the Gujarati language. Her poetry is steeped in the philosophy of Advaita Vedānta (non-dualism). Her devotional songs and hagiographical accounts have been passed down through oral traditions, which were only written down a long time after she had lived. The authenticity of these accounts can be doubted, but her works reflect the depth of her philosophy.
She was married to Girasadar Kahalsang Gohil (also known as Kalubha) of Samdhiala village, near her hometown. Kalubha was an ardent follower of the Nijiya tradition, which complemented Gangasati’s deeply spiritual nature, which had been present since her childhood. Their home became a centre of meditation and spiritual discourses, attended by many villagers to gain inspiration. Their residence was too small to accommodate the many Sadhus (monks), and so they moved to a farm and built a hut, to serve and feed many ascetics. In her married life, Gangasati and her husband worked as an ideal couple (Dampati) by serving ascetics through hospitality and the villagers by imparting spiritual knowledge, without the need of external renunciation by becoming a monk. They have set an example of spiritualising one’s own activities through selfless service (Karma-Yoga).
According to traditional accounts, Kalubha once resurrected a cow of a farmer that was killed by a snake bite using his spiritual powers (Siddhis), due to his compassion towards the sentient beings. His fame for performing this miracle spread across the village. Later, he regretted the fame he had accrued due to this incident, which could interfere with his devotional practices. As a result, he decided to take Samadhi (meditative absorption in the inner Self) and wanted his life, as atonement. Gangasati requested him to allow her to follow the same path, however, he persuaded her to wait until she had instructed her daughter-in-law, Panbai, in spiritual practices and philosophy. As a method of teaching Panbai, she composed Bhajans, one per day for 52 days, until she took Samadhi.
Many other female devotional saints have abandoned their families and resorted to a Guru, however, Gangasati became the flagbearer of establishing the spiritual quest as an integral part of family traditions. Her wisdom was only accessible to the masses of Gujarat, as she deferred her personal goal of Samadhi, for the liberation of her daughter-in-law, who later spread her poetry for the welfare of others.
She composed these Bhajans, each of which had a theme such as the importance of submission to a Guru, qualities needed for self-enquiry, characteristics of a true devotee, transcending the ego, having one-pointed devotion towards the Supreme Self. She guided Pānabāi through different stages of her spiritual life, and emphasised the need of character building, arduous disciplines, and self-surrender to achieve liberation. These Bhajans are addressed to Pānabāi and are popularly sung in Saurāshtra by devotional singers.
It is interesting that whenever Gangasati speaks of the Divine, she does not refer to any form of a deity but refers to Nirguna Brahman (Formless and Attribute-less Ultimate Reality). This has made her work free from sectarianism, and relevant to spiritual seekers of all backgrounds.
Despite being illiterate, due to being born in a village, her poetry contains profound spiritual truths. Her poetry contained the intricacies and complexity of the science of Yoga and Pranayama, explained in simple terms which can be understood by the public, without any jargon or focus on rituals.
વીજળીને ચમકારે મોતીડાં પરોવો રે પાનબાઈ!
નહિતર અચાનક અંધારા થાશે જી;
જોત રે જોતાંમાં દિવસો વહી જશે પાનબાઈ!
એકવીસ હજાર છસોને કાળ ખાશે જી!
Vījaḷīnē camakāre motīḍāṁ parōvō re pānabā’ī!
Nahitara acānaka andhārā thāśē jī;
jota re jotāmmāṁ divaso vahī jaśe pānabā’ī!
Ekavīsa hajāra chasone kāḷa khāśe jī!
‘O Panbai! You only have the amount of time it takes for lighting to strike, to string beads in a necklace. If there is any delay, darkness will come. Days will pass by, as we keep watching the time. Time will devour our 21,600 breaths.’
As her most quoted verse, the emphasis is placed to seize the day and to not wait for the ‘right moment’, as time will be wasted, and one will not be able to achieve what they desire. Despite not having the opportunity for higher studies, her numerical literacy is seen in this verse. On average, the human respiratory rate is about 15 breaths per minute. This is approximately equivalent to 21,600 breaths per day.
મેરુ તો ડગે જેના મન નવ ડગે, પાનબાઈ
મરને ભાંગી પડે બ્રહ્માંડ જી;
વિપત્તિ પડે તોય વણસે નહીં,
સોઈ હરિજનનાં પ્રમાણજી
Mēru tō ḍagē jēnā mana nava ḍagē, pānabā’ī,
maranē bhāṅgī paḍē brahmāṇḍa jī;
vipatti paḍē tōya vaṇasē nahīṁ,
sō’ī harijananāṁ pramāṇajī
‘O Pānabāi! The Meru (highest mountain peak in Hindu epics) Mountain may be swayed, but the mind can never be swayed. Let the whole universe shatter into pieces, but the mind will never be afflicted by the worst of calamities – this is the true hallmark of a Harijan (a devotee of the Lord)’
To achieve a high goal in life, one must be unmoved by the heaviest of sorrows and setbacks. The mind should always be focused and dedicated to the goal. Contrary to popular conceptions of a devotee being naïve, fatalistic, and miserable, Gangāsati lays down the true qualifications of devotion. She suggests that if one has the highest goal of human life – liberation – one must make the mind unshakable.
જાતિપણું છોડીને થવું ને અજાતી, કાઢવો વર્ણ વિકાર રે ।
જાતિ ને ભ્રાન્તિ નહિ હરિ કેરા દેશ માં,
એવી રીતે રહેવું નિર્માન રે…
ભક્તિ રે કરવી એણે રાંક થઈને રહેવું પાનબાઈ મેલવું અંતર નું અભિમાન રે
Jātipaṇuṁ chhōḍīnē thavuṁ nē ajātī, kāḍhavō varṇa vikāra rē
Jāti nē bhrānti nahi hari kērā dēśha māṁ,
ēvī rītē rahēvuṁ nirmāna rē…
Bhakti rē karavī ēṇē rāṅka tha’īnē rahēvuṁ pānabā’ī mēlavuṁ antara nuṁ abhimāna rē
‘Leave behind all ideas of birth-based division of caste (Jāti) and become ‘Ājāti’ (Unborn). Cleanse yourself of the taint of caste. Birth based identity and delusion (Bhrānti) do not exist in the land of Hari (Divinity). Living in this way, become free from pride. This type of devotion (Bhakti) must be done whilst living with humility. O Pānabāi! Cast aside your inner ego’
This philosophy of ‘Ajātivāda’ (Non-Origination) was preached by the greatest non-dualist teacher, Gaudapāda in the 7th century. Gangāsati takes this philosophy out of the traditional monasteries and caves, and as a practical philosopher-saint, she applies Ajātivāda to her contemporary social issues of caste discrimination to uplift the masses. Her revolutionary ideas are clearly seen in her life and are reflected in her works.
Kanhopatra was a Marathi Saint-Poet who lived during the 15th century. She is venerated in the Varkari sect, the predominant form of Vaishnavism present within Maharashtra and Marathi-speaking communities, focusing around Bhakti towards Lord Vitthal, who is known by many names, such as Vithoba and Pandhuranga.
Kanhopatra composed many Abhanga, devotional songs dedicated to Lord Vitthala sung by pilgrims in Pandharpur, and Ovi, a poetic metre used in Marathi narrative poetry, originated from Sant Dyaneshwar, a Marathi poet saint who lived in the 13th century and was a great source of inspiration for Kanhopatra.
Kanhopatra was born in the town of Mangalvedha, near Pandharpur, which has historically been the heartland of the Varkari sect and is regarded as the abode of Lord Vitthala itself. She was trained in music and song in order to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who worked as a prostitute and soon Kanhopatra was forced into becoming a courtesan. Due to her mother’s and her own profession, her status was deemed to be incredibly low and was often shunned by other members of society.
In her poetry, Kanhopatra predominantly uses alternative names to invoke Vitthala. She often refers to him as Narayana, Krishna and Manmatha, originally a name of Kamadeva, the Deva of love, though is used by certains Vaishnavas to refer to Bhagavan Vishnu. Kanhopatra also often addresses Viththal in feminine form, referring to him as “Vithabai”, “Krishnai” and “Kanhai” deriving from “aai”, the Marathi word for mother. Kanhopatra’s poems are presented as if she is a daughter longing for her own mother.
Kanhopatra despised her profession and many of her poems centre around her begging to Vitthala to free from such a lifestyle. She desired Vitthala alone and shunned worldly pleasures.
Most accounts note that Kanhopatra died at the feet of the murti of Vitthala and according to a popular tradition, she merged with the murti as if it were an act of marriage, what Kanhopatra longed for more than anything else; union with her most beloved. Her Samadhi is in the temple of Vitthala in Pandharpur and is the only person who has their samadhi in the precincts of this landmark temple.
Kanhopatra is unique in the sense that she is the only Varkari saint to have been elevated to the status of sainthood solely based on the merit of her own devotion. She did not have the support of any Guru nor was part of a Parampara (lineage).
About thirty of her Abhangas have survived, and continue to be sung today. Kanhopatra’s Abhangas are still sung in concerts and on radio, and by Varkaris on their annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur.
जिवीचे जिवलगे माझे कृष्णाई कान्हाई
सांवळे डोळसे करुणा येऊ दे काही
दीनोद्धार ऐसे वेदशास्त्रे गर्जती पाही
शरण कान्होपात्रा तुजला वेळोवेळा पाही
सांवळे डोळसे करुणा येऊ दे काही
Jiviche Jivalage Mazhe Krishnai Kanhai
Sanvale Dolase Karuna Yeu De Kahi
Deenoddhaar Aise Vedashastre Garzati Pahi
Sharana Kanhopatra Tuzala Velovela Pahi
Sanvale Dolase Karuna Yeu De Kahi
“O Mother Krishna, the beloved Kanha, heart of my heart,
O dark one, with beautiful eyes, have mercy on me,
The Vedas proclaim you champion of the low,
Saviour of the downtrodden, like me.
Kanhopatra surrenders unto you, again and again,
O dark one, with beautiful eyes, have mercy on me.”
Chandrabati was the first known female poet of Bengal. She was born around 1550 CE in the present-day Dhaka Division of Bangladesh. Chandrabati is noted for penning a version of the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective. Though unfinished, this work was influential in the development of Bengali literature and emphasised the suffering that women experienced due to the failings of male egotism, in a largely patriarchal society.
The earliest account of her life comes from a biography written by Nayanchand Ghosh, which was written a hundred years after her death. According to this biography, a young Chandrabati deeply fell in love with a man named Jayananda. Their families had fixed a date for their marriage. During their marriage preparations, Jayananda fell in love with a Muslim girl, and converted to Islam, and married her. As the news was revealed to Chandrabati on the day of her marriage, she was shocked and wept in solitude.
Despite being urged by her father to marry another suitor, she pleaded to remain unmarried. Her father built a Shiva temple for her, in which he advised her to spend her time worshipping Lord Shiva, and to write a version of the Ramayana, to quieten her mind. Over the course of three years, Chandrabati abandoned all worldly cares, and wrote her masterpiece. Jayananda realised his mistake and tried to ask for forgiveness. However, she ignored him. Due to her one-pointed dedication to the epic, she erased the pain of betrayal. Many of us undergo heartbreaks in our lives – from a friend, family member or a lover – which can leave us to feel empty without the person. Chandrabati shows us that if one is exclusively committed to a high goal, the grief of losing someone becomes trivial. She maintained her devotional lifestyle in the temple, until she passed away.
She places a greater emphasis of her narrative on Sita, detailing her story from birth to death. She allows Sita to express her tragedies, thereby shifting the plot from the heroism of Rama. Despite fully accepting the divinity of Rama, she draws the distinction between the Rama as Brahman, and Rama as the son of Dasharatha, portraying the latter to be fallible in his vices, such as pride and envy. To a modern culture of perfectionism, Chandrabati’s portrayal of the hardships of Rama and Sita remind us, that even the incarnations of the Supreme Being, cannot escape the human impulses and misery.
Central to her retelling is the inevitability of suffering, focused on the lives of women. Her Ramayana is composed in the Baromasi style, a genre of lamentation poetry sung by women in the Bengal region, displaying Sita as the universal figure of suffering in women.
Through her storytelling, the victims of a patriarchal structure: Mandodari (the wife of Ravana) and Sita, are shown to be subjected to the male ego, which shatters her contemporary societal delusion, of marriage being a women’s refuge. This narrative can teach us about the uncertainty of security in relationships, compelling us to become self-reliant, with or without the presence of another to ‘complete us’.
At a time when poetesses were in Indian literature, Chandrabati cuts through her nominal position as a woman and gives a voice to female grief. Mandodari weeps after her husband Ravana’s illicit conduct with abducted women, drinking the blood of tortured sages she mistook for poison. Mandodari conceives an egg, which she discards in the ocean, later to be presented to King Janaka. Out of the egg is born Sita, whose coming marks the downfall of Ravana. To Chandrabati, it is the women who bear the world’s suffering and dispense justice. She attributes Sita’s banishment to Rama as a plot of Kukuya, Rama’s stepsister from his stepmother Kaikeyi.
Drawing from her own experience of loss and betrayal, Chandrabati presents her work, as a tale of a woman’s betrayal, through the life of Sita, such as the unlawful banishment of Sita by Rama from the kingdom, due to the suspicions of the citizens on her chastity. She does not focus on the extravagant battles of the former Ramayanas, but on the inner battles of the victims, in the terrible tribulations of their private lives. Chandrabati writes her epic with such intimacy and empathy, as if she is the sister or daughter of Sita.
She takes a bold departure from other versions, in which she constantly criticises Rama for his actions towards Sita, such as, for agreeing to the public to conduct an Agnipariksha (fire trial) on her. She lays the blame, of this mistreatment, on Rama’s lack of judgement. Interestingly, she denotes the same lack of judgement to be the cause of Ravana’s ruin, in which not only does Mandodari suffer, but the prosperity of a kingdom falls into disarray, and unrighteousness prevails. For generations to come, she warns us of the consequences of denying justice to a virtuous woman:
পুডিবো অযোধ্যা পুরী গো কিছুদিন পরে লক্ষ্মীছাডা হৈবো রাইজ্য গো জাইবো ছারে খারে
পরের কথা কানে লৈলে গো নিজের সর্বনাশ চন্দ্রাবতী কহে, রাম গো তোমার হৈলো বুদ্ধিনাশ
puḍibo ayodhyā purī go kichudin pare lakṣmīchāḍā haibo rāijya go jāibo chāre khāre
parer kathā kāne laile go nijer sarvanāś candrāvatī kahe, rām go tomār hailo buddhināś
If Sītā is cast into the flames, within days the city of Ayodhyā will burn in that fire. Having lost her Lakṣmī this kingdom will be reduced to ashes, For, lending one’s ears to others’ tales invites one’s own ruin. Says Candrāvatī, O Rāma, you have lost your sense.
(Verses 461–462, Chandrabati’s Ramayana)
The tale of the Agnipariksha has been debated for centuries between scholars, and many writers of the Ramayana have taken different spins and interpretations on the issue. It is key to point out that the conversations and reactions of Rama and Sita preceding the incident, as per the Valmiki Ramayana, are out of character for both. As Rama says, Sita is the bright lamp that the diseased eyes can not see (6.103.17). We are affirmed of this Leela to convince the “diseased eyes” of the public later on (6.106.13-15), though a variety of perspectives have been offered over millennia. The work of Chandrabati highlights the sheer diversity of Hindu thought, that many writers could praise and critique the figures of our past, and still be respected and remembered.