Abstract: The tradition of Bhakti which crystallised in the 12th to 16th centuries in India has several distinct features which have been identified by scholars as stages of revolt against existing social order. Unlike in the vedicupanishadic tradition dominated by the Brahminic male voice, the Bhakti tradition represented the voice of the poor masses and was largely as a protest against the dominance of priests and rulers. It would however, be erroneous to see the Bhakti movement as exclusively the religion of the downtrodden and the oppressed. Devotional literature in India as elsewhere has been practiced by all sorts of men and women. The article focuses on the character of Mira’s bhakti as it finds shape within the patriarchal assumptions of medieval Rajput states, prescriptive Brahminic texts and the female devotional voice as it develops in earlier and contemporary positions of male bhaktas.
Keywords: Bhakti movement, female devotional voice, community of mirabai, ancient civilization, Rajput, patriarchy, devotional literature
The tradition of Bhakti that crystallised in the 12th to 16th centuries in India has several distinct features which have been identified by scholars as stages of revolt against existing social order. It is argued that unlike in the Vedic Upanishadic tradition dominated by the Brahminic male voice the Bhakti tradition represented the voice of the poor masses and was largely as a protest against the dominance of priests and rulers.
The above positions emerge largely from an uncritical valorisation of Indologists definition of Bhakti as a movement akin to Xianity. In all academic works Bhakti is defined as a monotheism based on devotion to a personal God, and as the opposite pole of the Advaita stream of Hindu religious tradition which valorises the belief in an impersonal God. Bhakti is hence understood as the antithesis of Advaita Vedanta and its emphasis on Jnana
RomilaThaper sees the Tamil Bhakti tradition of the 7th and 8th centuries as partly a resistance to the power of the Brahmins under royal patronage and partly to the rise of heterodox social movements connected to expanding trade and social mobility. She treats the Bhakti Movement as an integrated phenomenon and while generalising about it and linking it with the Tamil Alwar saints of the 6th and 7th centuries reiterates the conventional approach. (Thapar 1966-68) .
Irfan Habib locates the emergence of the Bhakti in caste mobility and in the expansion of artisan groups to service the ruling classes in the 13 th and 14 thcenturies . He shows very little concern with the religio-philosophical content of the Bhakti Movement. He is therefore unable to relate the teachings of the Bhaktas whom he accepts as the leaders of the movement with factors of protest and class struggle. He has to admit that Bhaktas did not preach defiance of the existing system of exploitation and also that they were almost christian in their attitude of submission. Any appeal they had was not based on any material redemption they promised the hearers (Irfan Habib 1965).
R S Sharma describes the Bhakti Movement as a reflection of the medieval feudal order toeing the line of D DKosambi who was the first scholar to establish a link between Bhakti and Feudalism (R.S.Sharma 1974). In his book The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India he interpreted Bhakti as unflinching loyalty to God similar to the loyalty that linked together “in a powerful chain , the serf and the retainer to the feudal lord”. According to him “Bhakti suited the feudal ideology perfectly.” (Kosambi 1970)
Whatever be the theorisations about Bhakti, we should be guarded against any cohesive theory. In all the above stances there is no distinction between SagunaBhaktas who can be adjusted with the accepted notions of Bhakti and the antecedants of the Bhakti Movement though the same cannot be done with respect to the NirgunaBhaktas.
Prevailing examinations of the social and political dimensions of the Bhakti movement began with assumptions that Bhakti was a religious mode; that it had a unitary character since it was common to all medieval Bhaktas, and that Vedanta as propounded by Ramanuja, Nimbarka, Madhva and Vallabhacharya constituted the ideological base of the Bhakti movement. Closer examination of the personalities connected with the movement shows an absence of a common ideology. The metaphysical foundation of the ideas propounded by Bhaktas like Kabir, Nanak, Raidasetc do not conform to positions taken by Ramanuja, Nimbarka, Madhva and Vallabhacharya. On the contrary their views are closer to those of Sankaracharya.
In resolving these differences one should bear in mind that Bhakti is a generic name signifying loving devotion or attachment. It refers to an emotive state of mind the meaning of which emerges only when the entity towards which it is directed gets specified. For example we speak of gurubhakti, desabhakti and when used in the religious context gets particularised only when the name of the deity to whom it is directed is specified. Only then does it indicate a particular theology. Thus, there exist schools of Bhakti like Vishnu Bhakti and Siva Bhakti. The term Bhakti when used without any prefix signifies devotion to God in a general sense.
It would be erroneous to see the Bhakti movement as exclusively the religion of the downtrodden and the oppressed. Devotional literature in India as elsewhere, has been practised by all sorts of men and women. It is embedded in the Vedic and Puranic tradition and cannot be restricted to a certain movement and its elements. It is not only varied but is to be found in various places and at different times. In the Indian tradition it has helped to bind together the diverse elements of India into a functional society. The profound and intense appeal that the songs of the poets of the Bhakti tradition had on the masses was mainly due to their passionate voice that broke all conventions of restraint in the rigidly ordered patriarchal structures of domination that defined and delimited the spaces of the nari-sudra sections.
It is in the context of this integrated approach that one is interested to look into the issue in a more comprehensive way. Feministic studies have evolved new paradigms of analysis which are grouped under the concept of Organic research which includes within the domain of the experiential process. For the Feminist researcher all actions are political and at their best have the power to emancipate, liberate, enliven, and energise human life and possibilities for all people, especially for those who are socially and politically disadvantaged. The truly personal and inner are in someway manifested by us in our world and if commonly shared, manifested by others. Personal and enlightened intuitive enquiries into the nature of commonly held experiences like loneliness, oppression by ideologies, the anger of suffering pain and so on are important in understanding the innermost dimensions of the human experience as well as their social and political consequences.
Central to feminist and liberationist critique is the concern to give voice to the poor and disenfranchised persons. Poetry has this faculty. Adrienne Rich expresses the liberating power of giving voice to the voiceless:
|The poet’s relationship to her poetry has, it seems to me — and
I am not speaking only of Emily Dickinson— a twofold nature.
Poetic language— the poem on paper— is a concretisation of
poetry of the world at large, the self, and the forces within the
self, and those forces are rescued from formlessness, lucidified
and integrated in the act of writing poems. But there is a more
ancient concept of the poet… which is that she is endowed to
speak for those who do not have the gift of poetic language, or to
see for those who— for whatever reasons – are less concious of
what they are living through. It is as though the risks of the poet’s
existence can be put to some use beyond the poet’s
survival.(Gelphi 1993, 194)
We arrive at vibrant territory when we come to the life and work of Mira. Mira is one of the most quoted, most sung and most discussed of the devotional poets in India. Mira was of the Marwar region and shifted to Saurashtra where her life ended. The important features of Mira’s life that stand out in the oral traditions as in the written biographies are her rejection of marriage and of the kul, the story that she survived attempts to murder her at the court of Mewar and her migrant life among the Bhaktas until her disappearance in Dwaraka.
Research on the socio-political implications of Mira’s life and poetry has, in the existing pattern delineated above, led to two polarised positions. The first position is that assumed by the feminist scholar Kum KumSangari who analyses the specific character of Mira’s Bhakti, as it finds shape within the patriarchal assumptions of medieval Rajput states, prescriptive Brahminic texts and the female devotional voice as it develops in earlier and contemporary positions of male Bhaktas. Sangari’s argument is that though the prescriptions of the Smrithis and Puranas do not survive as laws they are available as ideology which shapes the customary domain and self description among Rajput ruling groups and the breaking and remaking of patriarchal relations. Mira’s Bhakti marks a longer historic moment in which the prescriptions of the Smrithis and Puranas are selectively internalised. She further argues that there are significant differences in her ideological location when compared to earlier and contemporary male Bhaktas and finally she traces the difficulties of being original in an oral tradition and identifies the recalcitrance and precariousness of personal reflection. (Sangari 1990)
The second position is seen in the book Upholding the Common Life: The Community of Mirabai by ParithaMukta (Mukta 1994). Mukta places Mira’s memory in the socio-historical context of Rajasthan and Gujarat. She finds that Mirabai had not been sung in Rajasthan.Untilrecently her memory had been ostracised and suppressed as her life had been an open challenge to the Rajput ethos and her name was used as a term of abuse for levelling charges of promiscuity. This is in stark contrast to the image of Mira as a Sathyagrahi that Gandhiji used in the freedom struggle. The suggestion that Mira Bhakti could have been promoted by the Gujarathi middle class is not tenable as it does not explain how. Mira’s memory survived before the middle class came into being. Mukta’s significant work based on the Mewar and Sourashtra social context makes this obvious. She shows how Mira bhajans were not part of early Vaishnavite texts and traces the conditions under which Mira rose as a popular figure. Mukta draws on Raymond Williams, using the term “community” to mean (1) the immediate bhajniks (2) those people whose experiences are articulated by the bhajans and (3) the reality of the common life as it emerges around caste and class affiliations around Mirabhakti— a community which nurtures and strengthens the oppressed through the power of religious expression. In Mewar and Marwar, Mira the rebel gave strength to anti-feudal forces; in Sourashtra Mira the mendicant gives strength to the community of exiles who face deprivation. Among the Rajputs where marriages within the ethos of clan involved wars related to control of land, Mira Bhakti asserted the power of love. She undermined the patriarchal power of the husband, the prince and the clan. Mira’s denial of her marriage and her marriage with Krishna indicates her protest against the institution of marriage, a rejection of widowhood and an assertion of a life of her own.
Mira Bhakti was affirmed among the dalit communities like weavers, leather workers and sweepers. Mira’s guru Rohidas was a chamar (leather worker) himself. Mira Bhakti was located with the rising artisan classes and later with the peasant communities. Men identified themselves in Strivacya and were tied to each other by a distinct voice that affirms simple life uncorrupted by wealth and privileges. Vairag for Mira implied renouncing privileges and living close with people. Her bhajans are sung by ascetics as well as by the common people to whom poverty is an everyday reality. The singing of the bhajans by communities of beggars, mendicant and itenerant singers and the poor low-caste communities who sustain them can be seen as a process of recreation of the communities which sang her bhajans. They show the centrality of Mira in cementing alternative bonds to create a collective political and deeply personal bonding.
The position taken by Sangari is very much in the tradition of Marxist scholarsip of linking the Bhakti Movement to feudalistic social order wherein there is no sensitivity to the voice of protest in Mira’s poetry Sangari is more keen to emphasise the processes of internalising the structures of patriarchy in Mira whereby the social structures are left untouched. Considering the extensive pervation of Mira Bhajans and the enchanting symbol of Mira in the minds of the masses cutting through the distinction of caste and class, this theoretical stance seems untenable. Also it seems to ignore the process of arriving at autonomy precisely by the outward acceptance of established social structures. Hence though not identified or acknowledged, the implicit notion of the autonomy and space gained by the Bhakta cannot be ignored. One may read into this position Michel Foucault’s notion of the Care of the Self where he argues for ascetics operating as aesthetics expressed through a style of living that is totally alien to the notion of material gain and where the quality of life is judged by internal structures of autonomy.
The latter study is more in the traditon of feministic scholarship of the integrative type for it is also an ethnographic enquiry taking into account the specific responses of several communities to the Bhajans of Mira. The impact of Mira Bhajans on the dalits is spelt out. The empathy and participative analysis lend rich rewards.
Thapar, Romila. A History of India, Vol.I, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1966.
Irfan, Habib. “The Historical Background of the Popular Monotheistic Movements of the 15th-17th Centuries,’’ paper presented at the seminar on the History of Ideas held at Delhi University in November, 1965, quoted in Krisna Sharma, Bhakti and the Bhakti Movement: a New Perspective, Delhi MunshiramManoharlal Publishers, 1987.
Sharma, R S. “Problem of Transition from Ancient to Medieval in Indian History,” The Indian Historical Review, 1974.
Kosambi, D D. The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India, New Delhi: Vikas,1970.
Gelpi, B C, &Gelpi, A, ed. Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose, New York: Norton, 1993.
Sangari, Kum Kum. Mirabai and the Spititual Economy of Bhakti, 1990 .Mukta, Paritha. Upholding the Common Life: The Community of Mirabai, n.p.1994.
M.S. HEMA. Is the Principal , IAS Coaching Centre of the SC / ST Department. She has published articles in research journals. Her Ph. D was on Literary theory on the topic “Rhetoric of Swami Vivekananda.”