THE WOMEN BHAKTAS IN INDIAN HISTORY: SUBVERTING GENDER ROLES?
Author bio: Aqsa Agha (Ph.D, JNU) teaches history at Delhi University and is consulting with Partners in Change, New Delhi. She has worked extensively on issues of human trafficking (TISS, Mumbai) and on human rights violation with different organisations. She has previously worked with Centre for Equity Studies where she was engaged in training grassroot communities.
How wrongly protests, as expression of rage and associated only with men, becomes evident when one looks at the lives of women in Indian history. Can protest be non- ‘masculine’ in an otherwise patriarchal world? The answer is, yes. Indian history is replete with such examples. More recently, the anti-CAA peaceful protests led by the women of Shaheen Bagh, demanding their rights as citizens of this country, challenged many stereotypes and brought out this essence of protest as non- ‘masculine’ and a marker of historical continuity of resistance displayed by women. Delving deep into history brings us to a period that saw the phenomenon of protest by women strongest.
The emergence of Bhakti movement in early medieval South India, by Alvaras-the devotees of Lord Vishnu and Nayanars-devotees of Shiva, which gradually spread across the country between sixth to the seventeenth century, signified a revolution, characterised by the rise of anti-caste leaders, sudra and women saints. It aimed to cultivate religious reforms by pursuing devotion to achieve salvation. The very emergence of women in religious spaces heavily controlled by men is a show of protest because they were defying the roles ascribed for women. This acquires specific importance in the face of Brahmanical structure of the state and society that hitherto limited salvation only for the men belonging to the ‘pure’ upper caste. Most of these devotional venerations that emerged during the early medieval were unorthodox and represented an inner social tumult that challenged and discarded the prevalent Brahmanical ritual purity, monopoly and hierarchy. The trespassing trend continued to emerge and with every passing century it spread from South to the North of India. Starting with Tamils in the 6th century, it was propounded in Karnataka by the Virashaivas (12th century), then, Varharis and Manibharis in Maharashtra (12th to 17th). Later, in the 14th, 15th and 16th century the trend moved to Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Bengal and Kashmir (Paniker, 1997).
Not only the emergence but also the way the women Bhaktas emerged deserves due recognition because that process was possible only when they transgressed the social rules especially related to sexuality. The emergence of women saints took place in the context of the bhakti or devotional movements that characterized the medieval age in India. Given a patriarchal social set-up which denied freedom to women, spirituality provided the only means of self-expression. By composing poetry in the religious languages to address the people in languages they could understand, thus breaking the clutches of Sanskrit, the life of women saints was a challenge to Brahmanism and patriarchy. The 6th century Tamil women poet-saint, Ammaiyar, initiated the women Bhakti tradition, creating a space for women to open up. This led to the establishment of a long line of women poets. (Ramaswamy, 2002).
How revolutionary was their self-assertion as saints is evident from the fact that the prevalent Brahmanical culture placed women mainly as mothers of sons- the birth of a son was important because performance of last rituals only by the son brought salvation to the parents in their afterlife. To quote Manu, “The production of children, the nurture of those born, and the daily life of men, of these matters the wife is visibly the cause. Offspring, faithful service and heavenly bliss for the ancestors and for oneself depend on the wife alone.” From the earliest historical times, Dharmashastras and the Smritis, especially Manusmriti, commanded ‘purity’ and submission from women to the men, be it father or husband. In this context, the contestation by women for their individual salvation, through devotion, was no small a feat.
Another important aspect of this display of spirituality by women was the way they articulated and practiced it. The very moment of transitioning into a woman bhakta was an act of radical dissent by these women saints. But why was it radical? Any understanding of what the women saints stood against is incomplete without the knowledge of the evolution and nature of prevalent brahmanical patriarchal structure. The process of establishing control over women’s sexuality in a highly stratified and closed Brahmanical structure could be useful in analysing this.
Control over women’s sexuality became more pronounced with the shift to an agricultural economy and the second urbanisation (800BC- 600BC) was marked by the emergence of caste and class divisions. The emergence of a fairly stratified society and the collapse of tribal economy and polity in the post-Vedic period, especially with the establishment of private control over land, held and transmitted within a patrilineal system, accompanied by the beginning also of patrilineal succession to kingship, and the preservation of caste purity meant that the sexual behaviour of certain categories of women needed to be closely guarded. (Chakravarti, 1993). The impression that women’s essential nature lies in their sexuality was most blatantly emphasised by Manu, the most prominent ideologue of the brahmanical system. By carefully guarding the wife (the most important category of women as far as the brahman ideologues were concerned) a man preserves the parity of his offspring, his family, himself, and his means of acquiring merit. (Chakravarti, 1993). The control over women was systematised and made deeply entrenched by the ideology of the stridharam, that was revived in the nineteenth century as the pativrata dharama and through internalisation made women complicit in their own subordination.
A structure that ensures treatment of women as property of castes, communities and clans, to be regulated, controlled and even punished in case of flouting the norms was the larger common sense and the sine qua non of the society. The power of the male kinsmen was defined by the distinct right to coerce wives into submission, if they violated the norms established for them. Immolation or sati had prescriptive metaphor of wifely devotion to husband, family and the kul (Hardgrove 1999).
The context in the medieval period was no different; in the sense that patriarchy continued and strengthened with newer forms of control. Along with this structural constraint, two medieval customs reinforced and strengthened the subjugation of women. One was purdah or the veiling of women which was common among the upper-class Hindus and Rajputs, in particular in the north, while in the south respectable women rarely stepped outside the bounds of their home. (Ramasamy, 2002) The other being the practice of mounting the funeral pyre of one’s husband, glorified by the name of sati. (So deeply internalised is the idea of sacrifice for a woman, that in the nineteenth century Pativrata Dharam embodied sacrifice or self-destructive feminity, was preferred by a society, in its pursuit for rationalising abolition of sati).
The gravity of the context that reflects the continued history of patriarchy, each of these individuals and their efforts are commendable. The spiritual path helped women to break out of all stereotypes. As a saint, she made the unimaginable and condemned, a lived reality. They sought God whether as a naked saint (Akka Mahadevi) or as a skeletal being or demoness (Karaikkal Ammaiyar). Mirabai, a childless woman (widowed or separated) who is identified in the popular imagination as having rebelled against husband and in-laws, is seen as a saint, as a mystic, as a fervent devotee of Krishna, as an anguished virahini, as one who gave up the world for god, and also as a rebel (Vanita, 1992). Mira was one of the only saints in north India who rebelled against injustice within the family and kinship group, emphasising that the injustice was done to her because she was a woman. Many of Mira’s compositions reflect the ill-treatment by the Rana of Mewar, her mother-in-law, and her sister-in-law.
That these women lived on their terms, which are different from socially given terms- and yet being written in the history- shows the importance of their existence as a site of protest. That it happened and that it could not be forgotten and that it was not forgiven! Their story exists ‘for their own significance’ and children are not taught to become like them; but children learn from their lives that if one is unfairly treated, the women can rebel!
In a society with its moral compass too obsessed with a woman’s sexuality, viewed women either as a chaste wife or a prostitute, Mira, was a rebel, like many other bhaktas, who postulated her god as a husband and also as a lover, even an adulterous lover. Akka Mahãdêvi went naked with her body covered only by her long lustrous hair, an act too radical for the times she was living. Some were condemned as diwani by their contemporaries for challenging the status quo. There has been the criticism that the women saints imagined their relationship with God in a marital framework, which essentially reinforces patriarchy and a power equation that disadvantages women. The holders of this view forget the context and the question of agency exercised by the women saints. That in this moralistic framework they carved out a space for dissent is an important contribution of these women.But for them, the society would be without hope. The very act of living by women saints on their own terms, which was non-conformative, was an act of unimaginable courage and resistance.
From Mosques to Mandirs.
This article is based on a visit to the Badi Masjid in Sonepat, Haryana in 2019.
Sonepat; Architecture is the cornerstone of civilization, a culmination of infrastructure and society. There are stories written in the stylistic construction of buildings, history running through the walls and arches of monuments that we see today. That is precisely the charm of monuments; there’s a beauty in what old ruins of a building reveal, something so alluring about the story they might tell. Often sites of such cultural importance aren’t just icons of distant historic past but also of raw memories that are still actively shaping our present. The mosques, mandirs, tombs and dargahs are “icons of the alive and raw memories of the subcontinent’s partition in 1947 along with Hindu and Muslim identities” (Patel). A few examples of such locations are the 16th century mosque in Ayodhya called Babri Masjid or the 12th century Qutbi complex. One such lesser known building in Sonepat is the Durga Mandir, famously known as the Badi Masjid, which was converted into a temple right after Independence.
The Partition of 1947 was a result of a heightened communal politics based on religious assertions by different communities. Religion was the tool that marked and defined territories of Muslim Pakistan and Hindu-dominated India. During partition, there was a major change in the demography of the state of Punjab, later divided into Haryana and Punjab. There was an influx of Hindu families into present-day Haryana, and an outflow of the Muslim population. The area where the erstwhile Badi Masjid is located in was predominantly Muslim. After Partition, the caretaker of the Masjid recounts barely 7 Muslim families chose to stay back, changing the dynamics of the area completely.
Just opposite to the Badi Masjid is a modern looking, sleek office building that had large glass windows. The name of the building, written in bold metallic figures on the top of the building, was Dharam Tower. The irony was that the ‘D’ of the metallic name board had fallen off, leaving behind the word Haram. In Hinduism, dharam refers to acts a person must do as their religious and moral duty whereas haram is an Islamic jurisprudence used to refer to any act that is forbidden. This was an interesting point of view to look at the oddity that is the temple/mosque. Could one man’s religious duty be oppression of the others’?
The caretaker of the present day Durga Mandir says when they arrived here from Lahore, they needed a place to pray. This was an abandoned mosque and hence they took it and used it as their sacred space for worship. In his retelling of the chain of events that caused the conversion of this structure, he used the term kabza indicating a forceful sequestration of the monument. The use of the word kabza revealed that this may not have been what truly happened at the mosque in 1947. Details about the construction and establishment of the building were very revealing in the motivations of new inhabitants of the mosque. The fact that the upper levels of the temple were air-conditioned modern rooms used to rent out to various wedding parties for monetary purposes which is not a traditional practice in most Hindu temples. These facts indicate that maybe the motivations behind the annexation of this building cannot only be attributed to religious sentiment.
The old caretaker spoke about the renovations they had done with pride and a sense of achievement. He thought this to be the true factor that consolidated their presence in the area, that removed their refugee status and gave them a sense of belonging. Additionally, there were many instances of violence, in and around the mosque that further indicate a possible violent confiscation of the building. Some of these conflicts were also included in the narrative of the caretaker of the history of the building.
He spoke about how two young men were employed to live in the Mandir to care of it, and how one faithful night they had to flee for their life as a mob of angry Muslim protestors arrived to retake the ownership of the structure. Further, the extensive and long case fought over the ownership of the structure also shows that there were perhaps instances of conflict and possible violence during the confiscation of Badi Masjid.
Sonepat, initially, was a bustling hub of diversity, a real melting pot of people with different faiths and religions. The demography was drastically changed after the Partition. Census data from 1901 (according to theThe Delhi District Gazetteer, The State of Punjab, 1901 accessed from the National Archive, New Delhi) show that Sonepat had a rich and diverse population including Christians, Hindus of various castes and a significant Muslim population.
Gazetteers from post-independence show that these areas are dominantly Hindu now, severely lacking any kind of diversity. During partition, large numbers of Muslims relocated to the newly formed nation-state of Pakistan. On the other hand, there was also an influx of Hindu and Sikh communities that migrated from Pakistan to India.
On asking the old caretaker about migrating to Sonepat and the experience of the partition, he explained that he was originally a resident of Lahore. During the migration, he witnessed haunting experiences at the hands of the enraged Muslim mob as did they at the hands of the Hindu mobs. Murder, rape and theft were the experiences of the migrated communities that settled in parts of the then Eastern Punjab. This changed the collective memory of residents of the entire region, more broadly it has come to stand for their opinion of an entire subsect of Indian society. This gave rise to the Hindutva ideology that is dominant in the country today.
In the 2014 elections in Sonepat, the Bharatiya Janata Party won with an astounding margin of 20.3%. The BJP is infamous for campaigning on the basis of religious ideology and is closely associated with the notion of Hindutva, that promises to ‘deal’ with the ‘threat’ Muslims pose (Aloysius). Much of the legal struggle that has plagued the building and its management, has been successfully overcome by the administration in the form of huge donations by MLAs, political support and community backing.
This has been instrumental in the establishment of the Mandir which was formally done in 2005. The fact that even during when the majority of active voters in the area are now second to third generation of the refugees that settled here, it is evident that the pointers of BJP campaigning still appeal to the local masses on the deeply engraved collective memory of the partition. It shows how the remnants of partition experience are still alive in the tradition, in the silence of custom, in the repetition of the ancestral, have been displaced under pressure of a fundamentally historical sensibility but also in the oppressive ideals that are passed down the generations. This phenomenon is integral in explaining the socio-political fabric of our country.
Thus, what happened at the Badi Masjid is not just one isolated incident. Hundreds of religious sites, post-independence, have been subjected to sequestration and conversion to fit the majoritarian religion. The biggest example of this can be seen in the verdict of the Supreme Court in the Case of the Ayodhya Dispute. We see this sort of asserting of territory even in the renaming of historic cities like Allahabad and the saffronisation of history. The polarisation of Indians today combined with exploitative electoral politics has been detrimental to the pluralistic cultural heritage, which is gradually washing away the very fundamental sentiment/idea of being Indian – unity in diversity.