Friday, June 26, 2009

(A Pattachitra painting of Sri Chaitanya Dev)

Lonely in the crowd

The Bhakti movement in Indian literature focused on singular devotion, mystical love for God, and had a particular focus on a personal relationship with the Divine. Given their belief in the centrality of personal devotion, poet-saints were highly critical of ritual observances as maintained and fostered by the Brahmin priesthood. Though the Bhakti movement had its genesis in southern India in the 6th century AD, it didn’t gain momentum until the 12th century in the central western regions of India. It then moved northward, coming to an end roughly in the 17th century.

But strangely enough, if we compare the gender basis participation ratio of saint-poets, we find the inclusion of women in this movement was tempered. It is also true that there is little evidence to support any type of revolt against the patriarchal norms of the time. Women bhaktas (disciples) were simply staying largely within the patriarchal ideology that upheld the chaste and dutiful wife as ideal. These women transferred the object of their devotion and their duties as the “lovers” or “wives” to their Divine Lover or Husband. Nonetheless, that their poetry became an integral aspect of the Bhakti movement at large is highly significant and inspirational for many who look to these extraordinary women as ideal examples of lives intoxicated by love for the Divine.

Andal Thiruppavai (a 10th century Tamil poetess), Akka Mahadevi (a 12th century Kannad poetess), Janabai (a 13th century Marathi poetess), Meera Bai of 16th century in Hindi and Madhavi Dasi in that century in Oriya literature were some poetesses who wrote exquisite poetry that has been passed on through bards and singers throughout India. But strangely enough, they had to face the challenge from the patriarchal society, whereas no male poets of their time had to encounter such bitter experiences. These female poets were often blamed by their husbands for acting opposite to marital practices while no evidence was found that the wives of the male poet-saints raised voices against the divine love affairs of their husbands.

Akka Mahadevi accepted her God as her husband as well as Meera. There were some poet-saints who were devotees to the Goddess ‘Shakti; or Kali, but for these saints, the Goddess appeared to them as a mother rather than a wife. The ‘Kali- Sadhaka-Poets’ of Eastern India always painted Goddess Kali as their mother but not as their wives.

But Sri Chaitanya Dev, in 15th century, started a ‘Raganuga bhakti marga’ in which the God -- Krishna-- remained male and the disciples loved him with a ‘sakhi bhava.’ In Sanskrit, ‘sakhi’ means ‘girl friend.’ As most of the disciples of Sri Chaitanya Dev were males, the male disciples had to assume themselves as a ‘female’ one and as a ‘sweetheart of the God, and strangly enough to mark that this identity, crossing and trouping of the sexual self did not touch gendering. And out of 191 devotees listed in the Chaitanya Charitamrita, a biographical reference book of Chaitanya cult, only 17 were women; five of them were members of Chaitanya's direct family.

Abhimanyu Samanta Singhar, a remarkable Oriya poet and follower of Sri Chaitanya, wrote in his poems that “whenever Goddess Radha call me, I will respond to her call as a sincere maid.” But they had patriarchal misogynist values in spite of the exalted place that it gives to a female deity, Radha, and to the feminine virtues and in spite of the fact that these disciples were highly inclined towards the feminine soul lying within them to feel themselves as “Radha’, the lover of Lord Krishna.

The Chaitanya Charitamrita, the highly Holy book of the Chaitanya Cult, which stresses the universality of devotion and deny any disqualifications based on birth, sex, or caste, seemed not to have had any influence on the status of women. The book depicts a strong belief that the role of women continues to be a supporting one and subordinate to that of men. In case of sexuality, though it denied any active association of a feminine world, it created a cultural set back in 16th century of Orissa, as the this state was the centre for such movement with Royal support. Vaishnavism started Mundane sex among the disciples of Sri Chaitanya Dev in form of both heterosexuality and homosexuality.

Madhavi Dasi was one of few woman disciples of Sri Chaitanyya Dev and remained in direct contact with the saint. She was an Oriya poet who used to write her poems both in Oriya and Braja-boli. The author Haridas Das has mentioned in his book Gaudiya Vaishnava Abhidhana (published in 1964, from Haribol Kutir, Nabadwip) that Madhavi Dasi composed a Sanskrit play about Lord Jagannath, PuruSottama-deva-Natakam. If this is true, she is a single exception as the first female playwright of India and also only female author of a Sanskrit text in the Bhakti movement tradition. Madhavi Dasi was the sister of Sikhi Mohanty, a close associate of Sri Chaitanya Dev, and was a member of Chaitanya's most exclusive inner circle. According to Chaitanya Charitamrita, as described by Krishna Das Kaviraj, Madhavi was in love with another disciple by name of Junior Haridas and they both were punished by Sri Chaitanya Dev for their activities.

Though the Chaitanya cult possessed misogynist ideas, the life of Chaitanya was far from misogynic. Sri Chaitanya was twice married and had a good relationship with the wives of his disciples. These females were devotees of Sri Chaitanya rather than Krishna and their high status in the hierarchy of Chaitanya's associates is due primarily to the relation which they had to him. They are considered to be eternal associates who descended with him to participate in his ‘lila’, the so-called divine play by the mentor.

Chaitanya Charitamrita, the biography of the Vaishnavite saint, described how the Mahaprabhu (as the saint was called by his disciples) overwhelmed emotionally upon hearing verses from the Gita Govinda being sung by a woman. He rushed to embrace the singer, oblivious to her sex. Only when he was tackled by his servant Govinda Das he came to his senses and realised the magnitude of what he had been about to do.

I am sure that if Madhavi Dasi have had any relationship with Sri Chaitanya, then we would find the tone of Chaitanya Charitamrita would have been changed and despite of being described Madhavi as an infidel woman, she has been described as a glorious holy woman.

Religious morality often becomes a patriarchal misogyny, where society wants to see a woman as a passive sex receptacle rather than an equal sex partner and always demands that she should not use her body for her own pleasure instead of preserving it for her husband, mentor or master. There’s a reason they use the word ‘purity’ to describe women’s virginity. What about the mentor or social guru, when he doesn’t control his own sexuality? Often, his activities are glamourised with a divine description rather than being condemned as they would be with a woman.

I think misogyny is a critical part of sexism and is always used with religion, culture, and morality, having a double standard, where the same rules have never been applied for masculine subjects.

Madhavi Dasi was a victim of patriarchal Vaishnavism. She was a victim of Sri Chaitanya Dev’s misogyny. She was also victim of her time. But very few lines have been written in support of Madhavi Dasi after hundreds of years of those events. And no feminist critic has come in support of that great writer except the one-line citation about Madhavi Dasi in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay Moving Devi.

In this article I want to attribute my support for the struggle Madhavi Dasi had to face a few centuries ago to prove her right over her own body. She was truly...lonely in the crowd.


  1. A very argumentative piece of writing on the double standards of religion towards women. I agree with you but then again women as a species are monogamous that is we like to be in a single relationship unlike men who can and most often have been observed to be able to maintain relationships with a number of partners at the same time. About the love of a women never being accepted by the society it is the same age old story but each women knows how to respond to it and perhaps MAdhavi Dasi also did it in her own way

  2. This is indeed a good approach to Oriya life.
    It could have been beter for me if I would have seen in your own literal dramatic mode and voice of expressions ( in your novel ways).
    I love reading the content.

  3. Misogyny has been derived from two Greek words (misos ‘hatred’ + gune ‘woman’)which means hatred towards women.I am not agreed to the argument that Madhavi Dasi was a victim of Chaityanya Dev's misogyny, or Chaityanya Dev was a misogynist at all for that matter. His cult was primarily conceiving God as a woman, it may be mother or wife. So we cant say that he had hatred for women in his heart.
    Madhavi Dasi however was surely a victim of the patriarchal norms of the society. I dont find time to have played any role either, as our society is still patriarchal in its judgment and ideas. Women were considered as the possession of men, so a property could not possibly have an identity , nor a freedom of may it be culture, religion or modernity, women were and continue to be victims of the male chauvinistic patterns.She was no doubt a solitary traveler in a different bridge which was so close to her heart. I could realize how measurable she would have felt when being punished for her own personal relationships.But, then I think things have not moved far for us after hundreds of years even. Today also we have a different code of conduct for women for every aspect of life, no doubt, they are denigrating, offensive and much stricter than the rules meant for men. More so, in rituals and everyday practice..We celebrate marriages where we lose our identities and have to shed up everything which were a part of our early life of 20-25 years, the dress code gets changed, the ways of interaction, our orientations...everything..Has our patriarchal and feudalistic society changed a lot for today's women? Are n't we still victims of patriarchy..? I believe, as a society, we prefer to stand still and stubborn for our women,man made laws, interpreted by men and pronounced by men.. always...the story goes on..

  4. Gavarappan Baskaran10:52 PM

    I am thrilled to go through your scholarship writing. Heard of contributions made by women of the classical Indian literature. You have traced the beautiful hidden values of the regional literatures, of course you have quoted the great poetess from tamil Andal, which so many budding critics fail to trace now-a-days. You have evidently pointed out the status of women creative artists who were not allowed to perform openly as of the male counterparts. Even now the women hide themselves or pushed behind the screens perform equal to those of men both in quality and content. I believe that the attempts taken by you would definitely open the new vistas to future women writers to register their thinking and confidence to the global reading public.

  5. "Thy Voice is heard". Your trace of the playwright of the yester years is thrilling and at the same time it guides people like me to trace the regional values in literature. Devi, the oriyan woman had much to share, perform, portray, and sing to the tunes of freedom and identity to women. You are right in presenting the lesser known or heard playwright of the 16th century and the patient suffering of the women of those years. though it is a story like, it has claimed the readers' attraction towards the message. I believe that your posting of the playwright would open new opening to the budding critics to extend further the faithful contribution of an Indian.

  6. Thanks Mr.Baskaran, your kind words made me enthusiastic.

  7. There’s a reason they use the word ‘purity’ to describe women’s virginity. What about the mentor or social guru, when he doesn’t control his own sexuality? Often, his activities are glamourised with a divine description rather than being condemned as they would be with a woman.
    I think misogyny is a critical part of sexism and is always used with religion, culture, and morality, having a double standard, where the same rules have never been applied for masculine subjects.
    you are write. your article has research ground. are you working any research in oriya literature?

  8. I feel Dr Sarojini Sahoo is battling against male hegemony by depicting the example of double standard characters of even our dharam gurus.No intellectual will deny to accept the truth of such behaviours . Still there are no fixed ethics for any religious movement. Only dominant society ,say,patriarchal played a role to set out the norms for acceptability for specific spiritual purpose. Really Dr Sarojini is a brave writer to extract the exactness of our culture logically giving the example of Madhavi Das ,the poetess and Sri chaitanaya Mahaprabhu. Thanks a lot !

  9. It is nice that you thought about Madhabi Dasi. Perhaps I have seen one of her poems some where. Do you know what happened to Chhoto Haridas who were supposed to have affair with her? He once brought some fine rice from Madhabi Dasi for Sri Chaitanya Deva. He knew from some one about that.. He was very angry about that and rejected Chhota Haridas for his "Prakriti Sambhasana", that means communication with Prakriti, means ,woman. Though he knows Madhabi Dasi was a spiritual aspirant still He said that. And There was one devotee Bada Hari Das. Chaitanya Deva told ' If Bada Haridas will do" jabani Sangam "means., even if he has intercourse with a Muslim woman then also he can be forgiven but not Chhota Haridas. Perhaps he knew that Chhota Haridas was had some weakness for her. Poor Madhabai Dasi gave the rice for Her master so that Sri Chaitanya will love to eat it with joy. .
    Chhoto haridas tried to beg forgiveness but not granted-- so he went and committed suicide. Imagine the plight of Madhabi after that.
    In the history of Spirituality .. all Masters were against woman. Buddha denied women His disciples were strictly forbidden to beg from womenand not to look at their face. Sankaracharya with his immense knowledge and spiritual Siddhi wrote " Nari naraka sya dwaram"' Woman is the door to the hell.' He could have written "To indulge in flesh is against spiritual attainment:"

    Islam denies woman to pray in the Musjid, Christans became more progressive in the later stage but remember in the Bible.. when some people were throwing stones at a woman who committed adultery Jesus, after exposing all the men there forgave the woman and said " Woman, go and do not commit any sin again.' Even he considered it a sin.
    With Swmai Vivekananda women got liberation in the field of spirituality. he brought them in to this fold He gave them proper value , he was crying fr Indian women,. he was agonised because of this kind of treatment. And with Sri. Aourobindo.. it is immensely improved.
    But still women suffer, even in this age of liberation. What can we do except bringing awareness as you are doing now with your involvement and good articles?

  10. A great well researched blog. Society should become gender neutral. Wish I would live to see the day.

  11. Indeed it is a great reading for me. I enjoy all your article both in oriya and english. I don't want to give my comments on any topic with my limited knowledge towards the character choosen by you. Only I shall ask you one thing What are the sourses you know the hidden story of all those pepole? Thank you mam!

  12. very long but very informative article. thanks for it.

  13. Didi,

    I love this one , can you post some stuffs to Balaram Das related to Jagannath Culture ?


  14. I have started exploring Indian culture, Hinduism, vaishnavism. so I would like to recommend this site vaishnavism. where you can find information and scriptures about Hindu beliefs.

  15. I want to express my admiration of your writing skill and ability to make reader to read the while thing to the end. I would like to read more of your blogs and to share my thoughts with you. I will be your frequent visitor, that’s for sure.

  16. It's interesting to see that most of the work are related to Vaishnav religion..Thanks

  17. Anonymous12:43 PM

    Very interesting posting. Are the poems of Madhabi Dasi available today, either in Oriya Language or translation? Why are not Odissi musicians and dancers taking up her poetry (as the poetry of Andal has been taken up in Carnatic Music/Bharatanatyam; or that of Meerabai in Hindustani music/Kathak?)

    If you know of any examples please share? Thanks in advance! S