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Bahina Bai and mystical resistance.

"The Vedas cry aloud, the Puranas shout, 'No good may come to woman.'"

Bahina Bai

Max Weber compares Western and Eastern religions in Economy and Society and concludes that the distinctive element of Oriental mysticism is the believer's ability to accept contemplation not merely as a means to something else but as the goal itself. However, for Weber this mystical contemplation, a yearning to achieve absolute unity with the one God, does not have to be a flight from the secular world: "On the contrary, the mystic may demand of himself the maintenance of a state of grace against the pressure of the mundane" (Weber 1968, 548). Weber's "him" is not merely a grammatical construction, but an accurate reflection of the cases in his work. The example of the poet Bahina Bai is useful to test whether this generalization is true for an Indian Hindu female mystic and to ask how a woman, even more so than a man, can withstand the pressure of the mundane. Here, "mundane," especially for women, evokes the strong pull by the powers of cultural authority. For Bahina must struggle to make accommodation between her earthly self and her spiritual life: between marriage and the love of God.

Bahina Bai is a striking religious figure whose poetry has made her a canonical figure in Early Modern Indian poetry. All that we know of Bahina we learn directly from her writing. This collection is divided into several major parts, beginning with seventy-eight autobiographical poems, which relate her spiritual life history up to early adulthood. Beginning the story with a description of her family before she was born, she tells how she was the first, much loved daughter of a Brahmin family. She is married to an older Brahmin astrologer who joins her family in their wanderings brought on by financial problems. A series of experiences allows her to deepen the spirituality which she had shown from childhood, but her deep reverence for the things of God causes her jealous husband to beat her and threaten to abandon her. Her absolute devotion to God and her guru, the famous bhakti mystic Tukaram, gains her the praise of others but further antagonizes her husband. Only after a mysterious illness does he finally have a begrudging change of heart. In the course of telling her own life story, Bahina also answers her son's plea to tell him the stories of her thirteen previous lives as well. Bahina's additional poems, almost four hundred of them, concern saintly life, the praise of Brahman, and the duties of wifely devotion. Beyond its religious context, Bahina's text is unique in giving us an autobiography of a woman from a time period and place when very few texts of female direct address survive. The workings of caste, the wifely devotion and submission demanded of every woman, the need to mediate through a guru, and the dynamics of rebirth are all present, displaying a remarkable intersection of gender and religion.

The poems are written as abhangas, an elaborate, regularized form of the popular Marathi "ovi" meter, which is used in the songs women sing as they grind flour or husk grain (Tharu 1991, 107). The genre is particularly associated with bhakti and the saint-poet Tukaram. Although the poems have never been translated in their entirety into English, two partial translations exist by Justin Abbot as Autobiography and Verses and by Kristin Bahadur as Bahina Bai and Her Abhangas.

Bahina follows Vaishnavism or Vishnuism which worships Vishnu as the visible aspect of God in his various incarnations, or avatars. Bhakti, her mystical approach to worship, literally means "adoration;" it seeks a direct, affective encounter between the individual and God. Vitthala or Vithoba or Pandurang are all names for the manifestation of Vishnu represented in the temple at Pandharpur, the center of worship for Bahina Bai and her guru Tukaram (Vaudeville 1999, 201).

Bhakti, in its very definition, confronts Vedic/Brahman institutional authority by providing an alternative scenario for salvation (White 1988, 116). Mandakranta Bose in Faces of the Feminine in Ancient, Medieval and Modern India emphasizes the importance of bhakti for women: "Devotional Hinduism swept through India, taking root as an ideology that offered an irresistible alternative to the mystique of Brahmanical religion and gave legitimacy to the common individual, at least in the spiritual context. It gave space to people on the margin, such as women, lower castes, outcasts. Women, powerless and silent in many domains of community life, found strength in their sense of the divine and their own voice in poetry and songs " (Bose 2000, ix). By circumventing religious institutions, bahktas value personal experience in religion and question (either purposefully or inadvertently) ritualistic institutions and the power of establishment worship. In telling her own story, Bahina follows a distinctly female form of worship that includes the narration of personal stories (Northrup 1997, 71). And the kind of story she tells has a radically nonconformist nature that often reveals the fault lines in traditional authoritative constructions of religion.

The bhakti experience offers Bahina Bai a way around three important barriers which protected authoritative hegemony: language, ritual, and gender. As a religious approach to God that appeals to the oppressed, bhakti offers a direct relationship to God that circumvents the priests and the texts that only they can read. In addition, it offers a space in which to deal with sex and power issues that cannot be dealt with either in the family or in the wider public arena. Bahina experiences both the struggle of the interior and of the exterior; in Weber's terms, she struggles to keep her state of grace against the pressure of the mundane. In the typical biographies of Hindu male saints, when the man has won the struggle with his mind, his struggle with the world follows in an easier progression (Bhavalkar 1996, 243). But even when a woman's attachment to her body is at an end, she does not easily get free from worldly life and the paradigms it constructs. Interestingly, in many cultures mysticism has been identified as a female enterprise despite the fact that it often embodies a critique of existing power structures. Recognizing mysticism's powerful potential, cultural authorities, rather than squelching diversity, often seek to serve the common good by neutralizing or mainstreaming that energy if at all possible. Bahina accommodates this process by crafting her resistance in a palatable form while maintaining the integrity of her message. She effects this canonized rebellion in many ways. She circumvents sacred language by joining into the local resurgence of Marathi; she mitigates her lack of ritual by having a gum; and she remains a good wife and mother despite her affective loyalties.

Bahina is typical of her age in her relationship to the written texts of her faith and the cultural/religious roles they assign to her. Although she is from a Brahmin family whose practice sets them apart from others and puts them under the rule of the Vedas, Bahina could not read the sacred texts. As a woman she not only is unable to read Sanskrit, but is also forbidden to have them read to her, or even to know the contents of the Vedas. The guru Tullsidasa lumped women with the lowest classes because they were both not able to read the Vedas, listen to them, or recite the sacred "OM" (Bahadur 1998, 5). Because of this, she often decries that she cannot fulfill her highest goal since she is a woman "denied access to the Vedas, and denied by the Vedas access to the ultimate Goal" (Abbott, 126). Sanskrit with its exclusivity and elaborate archaisms was unavailable and perhaps even undesirable as a medium to communicate belief in the value of personal experience (Hawley 1988, 6). But Bahina had an important compensation at hand, her own regional vernacular, which allowed her to bypass formal education's hold on official truth. Her home, Devago Maharashtra, is the area of Western coastal India that now encompasses modern Mumbai. The regional language in which she composes, Marathi, has a proud literary history, and she is writing in an important moment of ascendancy for this branch of Hindi. The years in which Bahina writes spread over the reigns of two important Moghul emperors, first Shah Jahan (1628-59) and then his successor Aurangzeb (1659-1707). Although it is often called the "Golden Age of the Moghuls" it was a bitter time for the common people who suffered destitution and famine during the building of the Taj Mahal. Strict reform measures and reprisals following the death of Shah Jahan led to persecutions of Hindus and significant religious unrest (Bahadur 1998, 1-5). Concurrent with the Moghul rule was the rise of the great Marathi chief, Shivaji. A man known for his piety, he led a Hindu resurgence movement, which was echoed by the bhakti revival, a non-Brahmanical, popular-based spirit of protest (Sarker 1973, 7). As Christian Lee Novetzke commented, all good Marathi stories from the seventeenth century begin with Shivaji, and in a sense Bahina's does too, because her use of the vernacular for religious high art was legitimized by the political climate of her time. The bhakti movement of this time is still considered a distinct and important turning point of religious history (Krishna 2000, 57). Thus, the Marathi which Bahina used for her mundane needs also serves for her veiled entrre into the public world. At the linguistic level, her language choice becomes a gesture of cultural solidarity rather than defiance.

Just as Bahina's use of non-elite language has its own justifications, so also does her aggressive role as female worshipper. As a woman, Bahina's religious role should be passive, but her piety is stridently performative. She, however, maintains her spiritual integrity and still inserts herself in the mainstream by demonstrating her allegiance to the patriarchal and institutional underpinnings of Hindu faith. In many ways, she shatters the stereotypes of good feminine behavior in her relationships with God, but she always demonstrates how her actions were sanctioned by male authorities. Bhakti was revolutionary in that it offered a fertile ground for the growth of feminist consciousness and in turn lent power to the laity. This religious change coincides with cultural movements as well. Charles White argues that perhaps the most significant breakthrough in the northern bhakti tradition was the elevation of the householder to life to equal status with that of the holy man as far as the possibility of achieving the supreme state of the beatific vision (White 1988, 117).

Bahina shows an extraordinary religious sensibility from a young age, and her narrative documents the validation she receives from various religious sources. Most importantly, of course, God himself authenticates her holy life: "my husband had tied me up into a bundle, and beaten me, unable to endure my grief ... on the fourth day when I was on the point of dying, Vitthal performed a miracle. In the form of a Brahman, he came to me and awakened me to consciousness. My soul did awake" (Abbott 1929, 22). In addition, a number of important gurus and crowds of believers praised her. When she was about nine, news of her amazing pet calf spreads, and she becomes an object of pilgrimage. At one point, Bahina, her calf, and her family attend upon the famous holy man Jayaram Svami: "As Jayaram looked at the calf, he had a feeling of joy. On account of my prarabdha, because of my good deeds in a former birth, the kindly man called me to him. Looking intently at us, he caressed us both" (Abbott 1929, 12). On another later occasion:
 Jayaram, the great, the ocean-of-wisdom, who could
 see things through his peculiar power of vision, sent
 for Hirambhat (another respected holy man), and
 asked him about my condition. Hirambhat related to
 him all the events that had occurred at his house;
 how a guru appeared to me in a dream, in the form of
 Tukoba; how he had enlightened me in the dream.
 (Abbott 1929, 22)

Despite the meek demeanor of her story, Bahina reiterates her ego strength. About an incident when she spontaneously kneeled in worship, she records, "I acted for myself" (Abbott 1929, 12).

After this and other similar incidents, Bahina's husband, worried by her interest in unconventional bhakti, her trances and her devotion, confronts her:
 What is all this! The shudra Tuka! Seeing him in a
 dream! My wife is ruined by all this! What am I to
 do? Who cares for Jayaram, and who for Pandurang,
 My home has been destroyed! What care I for singing
 the names and praises of Hari? Even in my dreams I
 know not bhakti. Who cares for saints and sadhus!
 Who cares for the feelings of bhakti!
 (Abbott 1929, 23)

Consequently he forbids her from doing such things unbecoming of a Brahmin's wife, and she complies by internalizing her religious activities. But lest she rely then on her own undirected devotion, she put herself under the guidance of a guru. Like many other schools, the Maharshtrian saints emphasize the importance of a teacher in the spiritual quest, for "only a burning lamp can light another lamp" (Bahadur 1998, 10). Tukaram is one of the most famous bhakti poets in Marathi. A Shudra (the fourth caste in the Hindu hierarchy), his love of composing songs of worship earned him intolerance from the Brahmins and his own family. He had become an important mystic before his death at forty-one, and he was once invited to Shivaji's court (though he refused) (Abbott 1930, v-xi).

Tukaram becomes Bahina's mentor and male authority figure, who legitimizes her unusual female role. It is not clear if they ever met, but Tukaram is often mentioned in Bahina's autobiography and poems, although she is not mentioned in his. He takes her as his disciple in her dream vision during her seventh day of an illness:
 I began to experience great sorrow in my heart. Why,
 O Vitthal, have you forsaken me, I am all in a heat
 from the three fevers of life. What matters it, let me
 die! But just then on the seventh day, repeating aloud
 the names and praises of God, Tukaram appeared in a
 vision before my eyes, and said: "Remember the first
 lines (of the calls shloka). Do not be troubled, I am
 beside you...." he placed his hand upon my head and
 whispered a mantra in my ear. I then placed my head
 on his feet. He gave me a book called the Mantra
 (Abbott 1930, 19)

As an upper caste woman, she defies social norms and shocks the orthodox by taking initiation from a low caste saint, Tukaram, and does it publicly. In one exceptional devotional moment, Bahina has her visions of Tukaram confirmed in the presence of the Swami Jayaram:
 As he sat on his accustomed seat quietly, and with his
 mind brought to a state of peace, suddenly a thing
 happened that had never occurred before. Tukaram
 appeared to him. Jayaram joyfully made him a
 namaskar and embraced him. To me also he gave a
 moment's vision of himself, and placed a morsel in
 my mouth. He said to me, 'I have come to visit
 Jayaram, but I recognize your desire also. Do not
 remain any longer in this place. Do not let pass the
 opportunity for attaining self-knowledge and
 (Abbott 1930, 25)

Both language and religious practice are somewhat fluid in Bahina's day and straightforwardly addressed. But the intersections of the categories "mystic" and "wife" are the most difficult for Bahina to negotiate. Bahina accommodates herself enough to be counted in the Hindu canon by stressing her compliance with the important social roles of wife and mother. Hindu society requires a total submission on the part of the wife--especially, as in Bahina's case, a Brahmin wife. For the devout woman whose husband is her god, religious practice is not strictly required, so that Bahina's desire to connect directly with Vitthoba and her intimate visions of her guru Tukaram demonstrate an exercise of her own will and fly in the face of her husband's authority over her. The following verse from Manu, one of the authors of the sacred law codes (4-5 century CE) states: "By a girl, by a woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house. In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent" (Gupta 1991, 194). A late medieval book on the duties of women declares that the ideal wife should busy herself with the affairs of her husband and his family and should not even visit a temple (Leslie 1984, 5). The theology of the Vaisnava sects, especially, did not give women autonomous power. Iconographically, Vishnu's Lakshmi is almost never depicted alone or in a terrifying form because she is the idealization of the model Hindu wife (Gupta 1991, 195).

The life narratives of other female Hindu religious from roughly the same time demonstrate that her success in reconciling the two codes is unique for Bahina. While her early dedication to God is somewhat expected, it is in marriage and motherhood that she stands virtually alone. Other famous female bhaktas leave home, deny marriage, or get rid of the undesired husband early in life (Ramanujan 1989, 316). Only Bahina has children, only Bahina lives a long life of dedication and dies an ordinary death, and only Bahina stays within an active marriage. In doing so, she attempts to accommodate the many conflicting demands of her life between her duties to her husband and her devotion to God and His saints. For Bahina Bai, the struggles are between duty and devotion, dharma and bhakti, marriage and the love of God.

Bahina struggles with the power structure of the family--instituted and maintained as a central cultural force. It not only blocks, but sometimes forbids her religious expression, although her own guru, Tukaram, teaches that it is necessary to renounce the world in order to reach God. Unlike Tukaram himself, Bahina is not free to renounce social life and its attachments. She then mediates these forces by conflating her love of God and husband. She does not give up or mute the intensity of her religious devotion, but she cloaks it, almost laminates it, with dutiful expressions of spousal piety: for Bahina, "she who conducts her household duties and her religious life equally--only she catches the heaven" (Abbott 1930, 29). Bahina identifies service to a husband as the duty of a woman, adherence to duty as the teaching of the Vedas, and disregard of the Vedas as the surest way to miss the ultimate Goal. Thus she cannot renounce the world; for her strategy is to remake the world into a duality of God and husband. In her poems on the duties of a married woman, Bahina expands on this topic:
 My duty is to serve my husband, for he is God to me.
 My husband himself is the Supreme Brahma. The water
 in which my husband's feet are washed has the value of
 all the sacred waters put together. Without that holy
 water, (all I do is) valueless. If I transgress my husband's
 commands, all the sins of the world will be on my head.
 The Vedas in fact say that it is the husband who has the
 authority in the matter of religious duties, earthly
 possessions, desires, and salvation. This is then the
 determination, and the desire of my heart. I want my
 thought concentrated on my husband. The supreme
 spiritual riches [paramartha] are to be attained through
 service to my husband. I shall reach the highest purpose
 of my life through my husband. If I have any other God
 but my husband, I shall have committed in my heart a
 sin like that of the killing of a Brahman. My husband is
 my sadguru. My husband is my means of salvation.
 This is indeed the tree understanding and determination
 of my heart.
 (Abbott 1929, 48)

Bahina's conflation of husband and God does not take place without a struggle, though. The subtleness of her approach is shown in the fact that while male commentators such as Justin Abbott praise her compliant nature in the text, modern female readers emphasize the poems' conflicts between Bahina and her husband. Her rebelliousness and her insistent refusal to abandon her aspiration for the truth, despite male-imposed obstacles, make her a multivalent role model (Tharu 1991, 107-9 and Feldhaus 1982, 593).

Bhakti, because it supposes a person and a personal lord, encourages the believer to see herself as an individual with an interior life (Dumont, 252). But it is not really the inner self that Bahina's husband seeks to control, but rather the seeable, public aspects of their lives:
 The people thought all this as very strange, and came in
 crowds to see me. My husband, seeing them, gave me
 much bodily suffering. He could not endure seeing the
 people coming to see me. And moment by moment his
 hatred increased. He exclaimed, "It would be well if
 this woman were dead. Why do these low people come
 to see her? I wonder what next we shall see in her of
 demoniac possession!"
 (Abbott 1929, 27)

Because he is a Brahmin and by hereditary occupation an astrologer, the husband has no sympathy for her devotion, which bypasses his professional competency. Bahina makes clear her husband is not religious in a devotional sense, but rather in a pragmatic one. His threatening to leave alerts her, she realizes that she had neglected him, and she decides that serving him is more important than devoting herself to (another) god. At this point a Brahman dream vision appears to reconfirm her status. He says to her husband:

"'What are your reasons for wanting to desert your wife? First, think in your own heart what wrong she has committed, and then if true, give yourself into the hands of anger. If you wish to live, accept her. If she has conducted herself without regard to her duties, then only you might abandon her, you idiot! She is one who has no worldly desires. She is truly a bhakta of Hari." (Abbott 1929, 29)

The husband changes and mends his ways. It becomes clear that because she and her husband have different codes of religious life, she can satisfy him with simple outward obedience. In this telling of her story, she doubly confirms her superiority first with the pronouncements of the guru and second by turning her husband to God.

In addition to her devotion to wifely hierarchies, Bahina also validates herself through her role of motherhood. The ideology of motherhood is pervasive in India and legitimizes a woman's existence. Bahina's guru, Tukaram, wrote extensively, describing the actual mother-child relationship in glowing and interdependent terms, and he also used the bond in an allegorical sense. For him, the Mother-child equals God-bhakta: "No child likes a celebration, if its mother is not present. It is the same in my soul without you, o Panduranga." Sins of rebuke are directed to women who do not want to give birth or who give birth to children who are "dregs." Thus a woman should produce offspring: that is what promotes her to the rank of "Mother"--the one who gives birth to bhaktas. Being thus promoted, she automatically becomes an embodiment of the ideal relationship. Without this role to fulfill, however, women in his poetry appear capable of breaking, violating or destabilizing the supreme goal: "No company of women is needed." The wife prevents the bhakta from breaking away from the web of worldly life. In sum, Tukaram presents all types of women in an exclusively negative way, if there is no child to prove their motherhood (Glushkova 1996, 253-261). We know of only two of Bahina's children from her text. Her first child, a girl named Kashibai, was the soul of her calf reborn. Her son has become equally famous in literary history for being responsible for recording and preserving her text. In reproduction, she has acquitted herself.

From one viewpoint, Bahina seems a conventional religious figure, a submissive wife and mother from a comfortable strata of society--yet she remains a powerful spiritual voice in her culture. She fulfills Weber's paradigm of an eastern mystic who can sustain spiritual life in the mundane. And while her narrative presents her as conformist in that commonplace world, in reality she is more contentious and challenging. Nancy Partner's description of western female autobiographies is apt here; she has produced a text that is "culturally sanctioned, culturally constrained, culturally defined (300). Bahina fashions her vernacular use, her non-ritualistic practice, and her gender contravention into a form acceptable to cultural authorities. She confirms Catherine Mooneys' observation that female mystical discourse uses a "double-edged idiom of self-effacing self-aggrandizement" (Mooney 1999, 185). A final reason for Bahina's acceptance by the mainstream lies with her audience. In Ecstatic Religion, I. M. Lewis observes that:
 however ambivalent male attitudes of such troublesome
 spirits [female religious worshippers] may be, men at
 least believe in them in general, so here too it is
 obviously essential that both superior and subordinate
 should share a common faith in the existence and
 efficacy of these mutinous powers.
 (Lewis 1971, 113)

Despite the fact that some of Bahina's proto-feminist actions create what Georges Bataille might call "unthinkable paradoxes" (89) within patriarchal Brahmanism, the fact remains that she was accepted and promoted by the established religious authorities because of the genuine power of her message.


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--. 1930. The Life of Tukaram. Delhi: Motilal Barnarsidass.

Bahandur, Krishan. 1998. Bahina Bai and Her Abhangas. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

Bataille, Georges. 1986. Eroticism, Death, and Sensuality. Trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Light Books.

Bose, Mandakranta. 2000. Faces of the Feminine in Ancient, Medieval and Modern India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bhavalkar, Tara. 1996. "Women Saint-Poets' Concept of Liberation." In Images of Women in Maharashrian Literature and Religion, ed. Anne Feldhaus, 239-252. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Feldhaus, Anne. 1982. "Bahina Bai; Wife and Saint" Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

Glushkova, Irina. 1996. "The Concept of Woman in the Poems of Tukaram." In Images of Women in Maharashrian Literature and Religion, ed. Anne Feldhaus, 253-265. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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Lewis, I. M. 1971. Ecstatic Religion. London: Penguin.

Mooney, Catherine, ed. 1999. Gendered Voices." Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Northup, Lesley. 1997. Ritualizing Women. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.

Novetzke, Christian. "Indigenous Religious Authority and the Influence of Print In-between Cultures in Colonial India". p_Novetzke.pdf. Accessed Sept. 6, 2003.

Ramanujan, A. K. 1989. "On Women Saints." In The Divine Consort, eds. John Wawley and Donna Wulff, 316-321. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sarkar, Jadunath. 1973. Shivaji and His Times. Bombay: Orient Longman.

Tharu, Susie and K. Lalita, eds., 1991. Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Present. New York: Feminist Press.

Vaudeville, Charlotte. 1999. Myths, Saints, and Legends in Medieval India. Delhi: Oxford University. Press.

Weber, Max. 1968. Economy and Society. Trans. Ephraim Fishcoff, et. al. New York: Bedminster Press.

White, Charles. 1988. "Indian Developments: Sainthood in Hinduism." In Sainthood." Its Manifestations in World Religions, eds. Richard Kieckhefer and George D. Bond, 99-140. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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Author:Ho, Cynthia
Publication:East-West Connections
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Date:Jan 1, 2004
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