Manushi Anniversary Issue, Nos 50-52, 1989, Published by Manushi, C/202 Lajpat Nagar 1, New Delhi 110 024.
"The special' issue of Manushi on Women Bhakata poets brings together in one place brief sketches of about 12 women bhakta poets from different regions of our country covering different periods. This 120 page compilation, put together by ten different authors and with an introduction by Madhu Kishwar, considers the following poets:
Awaiyar (5th century), Karaikkalammaiyar (7th century) and Andal (9th century) from the Tamil region; Akkamahadevi (12th century) from the Karnataka region; Muktabai (13th century), Janabai (13th century) and Bahinabai (17th century) from the Maharashtra region; Satitoral (16th century), Gangasati (17th century) and Sati Loyal (18th century) from the Gujarat region; Mira (15th century) from Rajasthan; and Lai Ded (14th century) from the Kashmir region. In each case, the legend about the life of the poet is recounted, and a sample of her poems, rendered into English, is presented.
It should be stated at the very outset that the entire treatment of women bhakta poets is given without locating and discussing them in the larger context of the Bhakti movement perse of which surely they were an integral and inseparable component. It should have been worth bringing out that this movement probably achieved in our country what would have taken countless bloody revolutions in Europe to achieve. At a time when there is serious concern as to how to involve women in the process of social change, it would have been worth recalling how these women had played major roles in this remarkable social movement of gigantic dimensions and import. This failure to place the women bhakta poets in the larger context of the Bhakti movement should be considered a major weakness of this effort, caused probably by the eagerness of the authors to emphasis the women aspect. In many places it also appears that these poets and their work are attempted to be commented upon from the standpoint of the contemporary notions of women and their role in society. Let us then first of all look at some of the problems or limitations of the study under review:
1. The treatment emphasises almost exclusively the women aspect of these sants scholars poets. It is even lamented (p. 9) that women's movements have not made use of these bhakta poets as symbols of women's emancipation and rebellion. To highlight only the women aspect of these bhakta poets might indeed be belittling their true stature that they have not been 'appropriated' by any one section only shows that they represented certain concerns and seekings that go far beyond those of some section or another. While there is much that women's cause can gain by analysing and highlighting the achievements of these women bhakta poets, it would nevertheless be only right that they are not forced to fit exclusively into contemporary perceptions of women's role in society
2. It is lamented (p.6 and p.92) that the lives of these women bhakta poets were not of a type that could be easily emulated by ordinary women. This again betrays a certain lack of appreciation of the true stature of these sants For, these women whose lives and thought continue to shape and mould our society over tens of centuries, surely represented the highest points of achievements of the human spirit, and it is hardly in the nature of things that such roles are meant to be emulated by ordinary persons-men or women.
3. A fundamental incompatibility is seen between these women bhakta poets and the traditional stereotype of a Hindu woman" (p.14) in fact, the former is said to "invert, even subvert, the traditional ideals of woman hood embodied in epic figures like Sita and Savithri" (p. 14). It is indeed revealing that modern1 Indian scholarship has no clue at all as to how to comprehend and interpret the elementary observation that for over a mU-lenium our people have seen no incompatibility/inversion/subversion between the images of an Awaiyar and a Sita, for example. It is quite significant that our society finds no serious difficulty in accepting such 'incompatible' roles of women even today. It is equally evident that such phenomena will continue to ‘baffle' us as long as we continue to look at themjin terms of categories and idioms derived from some other context.
4. Concern is expressed as to how "bhakti movements, radical in fneir beginnings) get routinised", and "get co-opted, taking the sting out of it" (p.14). * This again points to a serious failure in comprehending the nature of the basic dynamics of our society, particularly as to the role of 'dissent' in it and the manners in which society organises and manages changes in it. Implied 'in such positions is the Western conception that opposing things must necessarily be attempting to destroy each other, and if this does not happen, accompanied by high drama, then the society is stagnant and decaying, etc.
Having dealt with a few instances that point to the limitations of the larger framework underlying much of the studies in this volume, one must hasten to highlight the significant achievements of this remarkable effort. In the context of the prevalent (largely negative) notions of the position and role of women in our traditional social order, much of what comes out of the studies in this issue of Manushi is novel and thought-provoking, and has significance to the current concerns and thinking on this question. Let us look at some of them very briefly:
1. While these women often had to face resistance and rejection from the society initially, they were never prosecuted as heretics and lunatics as was targely the case in Europe. Most of them were reverred and accepted as sants and gurus in their own life time, and their being women implied no special disadvantage at this stage.
2. These women and their lives did not represent any dissent movement out-J side of the main stream; their poetry is no protest literature. Their contribution, to philosophy and to poetry, is an inseparable component of the mainstream of our society.
3. The women bhakta poets are rarely seen addressing themselves exclusively to other women their audience is the entire society. It shows that they at least did not see their role as being in any way limited or constrained due to the condition of their being women. The enduring quality and power of their thought and action must largely be due to this fact that they demonstrated their willingness and capacity to grapple with the issues of concern to the entire society just as their male counterparts did. Equally significant is the observation that comes through that the awareness of one's being a woman, and of the special problems associated with it, begin to appear only towards the latter part of the period covered (Bahinabai, for example).
4. It is seen that the major hurdles that women bhakta poets had to overcome in their path of bhakti are essentially external to them and come from the society the much higher qualities of inner strength and conviction that they had (as compared to men) seem to have made it easier for them to overcome those hurdles internal to one's self. And much latter when Gandhiji came up with his battle plans that relied primarily on this inner strength and conviction, he naturally turned to women to join in the battle and lead it.
5. The women bhakta poets do not seem to have perceived their primary concerns as one of man versus woman. (Hence their refusal to address themselves exclusively or even primarily to women). That their gods are all male did not seem to mean anything to them. Quite significantly, Mira whose lord is Krishna, refuses to worship the deity of her in-laws even though the latter is female! The issues surely were beyond such concerns.
6. It also comes out from the analysis presented that women bhaktas did not necessarily confine themselves to the path of Saguna Bhakti where the lord is worshipped in a highly personalised form. It is pointed out that in Gujarat many women bhaktas also pursued the path of Nirguna bhakti of an abstract type.
Stressing the above is not to imply that perfect 'equality' prevailed between men and women in the pursuit of bhakti, or to deny that the condition of being women did not entail additional hardships and hurdles to be overcome. As brought out powerfully in most of the studies given, societal opposition was far more severe for women bhaktas as compared to men bhaktas. The caution is only against jumping to the conclusion from this that women's oppression as currently prevalent has been eternal and endemic to our society.
To conclude, whatever limitations are exhibited by this remarkable attempt, they are due to the limitations of the framework in which the gender issue as it existed in our civilizatiorial context is posed and perceived. In this regards, the situation is no different fromjthose of our current perceptions of other institutions of our society such as the caste where it is becoming increasingly clear that the prevalent sociological frameworks, categories and tools are quite inadequate and unhelpful in coming to grips with the matters. None of it however detracts the present work from its merits, importance and great relevance. It is to be hoped that this effort of Manushi would initiate a major relook at the question of man-woman relationships as it has evolved and obtained in our society, over the ages.