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.