If they see
Breasts and long hair coming
They call it woman,
If beard and whiskers,
They call it man:
But look the self that hovers
Is neither man
(Men Women and Saints 67)
The notion of the Virah or separation in love is central to the Indian Bhakti corpus. It is used in both Saguna and Nirguna traditions. Viraha explains Vaudeville, “is a complaint sung by a young woman who is separated from the one she loves” (Barahmasa 35). In Viraha Bhakti, this role play is evoked, wherein the absent Lord is seen as the husband to whom all devotion is directed to by the devotee who sees himself/ herself as the wife. This type of Bhakti which viewed God as the husband is termed as Madhura Bhakti and was seen as the highest form of Bhakti by the Vaishnava school of Bengal (Sangari 1550-51). It is interesting to study this phenomenon where Bhakti itself appears feminine in nature in contrast to the largely masculine, hegemonic Vedic tradition which was present during this time. It is my intention, through this essay to study this use of the female devotional voice in Viraha Bhakti through the poetry of two Bhakti saints: Mirabai and Kabir.
God is the only male, all humans are female:
The Bhakti tradition viewed the female condition as the universal condition of humankind (Orsini 37). But why was the condition of the woman taken to be the representative human condition in a patriarchal world? Perhaps an oral folk Urdu tale, that Orsini narrates, involving Birbal and Akbar could be useful in understanding this feature in the Bhakti tradition. Akbar asks Birbal to bring him four individuals with different traits: a modest person, a shameless person, a coward and a heroic person. The next day, Birbal appears with a woman and asserts that she possess all the four different character traits that Akbar had wished to see. Birbal proceeded to explain his stance when he saw Akbar’s puzzled face. He said:
“When she stays in her in law’s house, out of modesty she doesn’t even open her mouth. And when she sings obscene insult songs at a marriage, her father and brothers, husband, in laws and caste, people all sit and listen, but she is not ashamed. When she sits with her husband at night, she won’t even go alone into the storeroom and says, ‘I am afraid to go’. But then, if she takes a fancy to someone, she goes fearlessly to meet her lover at midnight, all alone with no weapon and is not afraid of robbers or evil spirits”. Hearing this answer, Akbar is said to have been pleased and rewarded him handsomely. (Orsini 37)
Orsini further quotes Raheja and Gold and explains that this tale expresses the stereotypical South Asian misogyny that sees the woman as “a split between virtue and sexuality, weakness and strength, essentially duplicitous or hypocritical because of its multiplicity” (Orsini 39). But it was this precise heterogeneity that was thought to be inherent (by the predominantly male population of Bhakti saints) in choosing womanhood as the representative state of the devotee. However, this depiction leads us to think that womanhood was perceived of as a site of elasticity of character traits, whereas manhood was doomed to be seen fit with perhaps two or three ‘strong’ essentialized attributes of personality: that of chivalrousness, strength and machismo.
Womanhood was also taken as a central metaphor for the helplessness and dependence felt by the devotee (symbolic of the wife) in relation to a male God (signifying the husband) who was powerful and bountiful to all his devotees in his love, an objectified application of patriarchal order that prevailed within domestic confines. In this regard, to ‘sing’ in a female voice was to confirm to the heterosexual norm. This was deemed to be safe and acceptable and suggests that for the male poet “though I am a poet named so and so, I speak to/of my beloved in the voice of this pining woman; my normal self would be inadequate to the purpose” (A Weaver Named Kabir 14). Viraha Bhakti thus comfortably accommodates all these strands of thought and allowed the devotee to center all his/her love towards a God who is forever physically absent.
Reversal of gender roles and a third gender in Viraha Bhakti:
O Ascetic, think hard
And figure it out:
Is it a male or female?
This adoption of a female voice raises significant questions about the reversal of gender roles. A.K Ramunjan states that the Bhakti tradition is a place of constitution and reconstitution—
Men may take on feminine roles, speak through female personae and yearn for the male god as women do for their lovers. Women saints may take on the characteristics of men: they leave the house questing for their personal God (not their husband’s or father’s) and a community of their own choosing, in ways that shatter rule after rule in Manu’s code book. They become the third gender of my title: men, women and saints. (emphasis mine 72)
This is especially true in Mirabai’s case wherein she rejects domestic life and her wifely duties to the Rana and refuses to ‘abandon the love’ [of Krishna] (Hawley and Juergensmeyer 45). In many compositions, Kabir seems to easily don the guise of a woman and drowns himself in this role play. Examine this pad for instance:
Ramanujan posits that saints form a third gender in this Bhakti tradition. This position of the ‘third’ gender lends itself to two interpretations. In the first instance, we can envision this space as a new, genderless terrain where preconceived notions of male and female sexualities do not exist, where gendered role reversals are the norm - essentially as a space with exciting possibilities. In the second instance, we can think of this space as being colored by androgyny – where the amalgamation of the attributes of both male and female genders and the subsequent blurring of these character traits becomes the norm. But these interpretations also pose their own problems – for instance, what sort of ideologies govern the genderless terrain and (or) the androgynous terrain? Are these spaces free from patriarchal belief systems?
Some of Mira’s songs can be said to be rebellious because of its attacks on established social order. For instance, she refuses to accept widowhood because she refuses the reality of her marriage with a mere mortal. She states:
However, did the break away from patriarchal order give Mirabai the freedom to choose a path of her own making which was free from the patriarchal belief systems that she was fleeing from? Kumkum Sangari argues, “Patriarchal structures and religious belief are not inert but subject to constant remaking – it appears that they even are interdependent and mutually generative” (1465). Thus, the world of religion and spirituality that Mira escapes into is composed of patriarchal values and has in its center, a male God. The world that she enters only reinforces patriarchal ideals in the articulation of devotion – the role playing that operates within this space is that of power hierarchies: the master and servant, husband and wife (Sangari 1478). She accepts these roles that sainthood thrusts on her but she could have done little else during the times in which she lived in. Sangari further argues that Mira only creates a space for ‘spiritual mobility’ but not for real opposition to patriarchal hierarchy or the feudal systems of the Rajput state (1484).
In the case of Kabir, there is a strong subversion against caste structures, brahmanical order, ritualistic religion through the voice of the Virahini, but no direct challenge to patriarchal structures. He uses Sati as a constant metaphor in his songs—
The death which the world dreads
He depicts ‘Maya’ as a woman and views her as an obstacle to achieving union with God. As quoted in his poetry: “Maya is a harlot,/Who sets her snare in the market place.. .” (qtd by Vaudeville in A Weaver Named Kabir 345). Sangari once again reminds us that in Kabir’s compositions, “Maya becomes the conceptual basis for differentiating between various kinds of women along a typological plane” (1465).
Thus, if we are to talk of androgyny, can we talk of it as being applicable to both male and female saints? Ramanujan cites that androgyny in sainthood – “like that of Ardhanarisvara, the form of Shiva is a male phenomenon” (67). Only male saints are given the complete freedom to don the guise of the female personae in Viraha poetry and they slip back into the real world at will. As earlier mentioned, it is distinct how through the voice of the Virahini, poets like Kabir have reinforced patriarchal systems of belief like Sati. For the female saints, their rebellion with the domestic sphere is seen to be the dominant ‘masculine’ trait – yet the voice of Mira in all her compositions is that of a woman. Sainthood for women (at least during the Bhakti movement) did not make any more allowances than this. As Sangari states, “When a male bhakta uses the female voice, e.g. Kabir it is only one voice among other available voices – while a woman must sing as a woman” (1475).
Ramanujan’s third gender then is neither one of androgyny nor one of pure gender role reversals but is predominantly a gendered space that privileges masculine ideologies of spirituality and sainthood.
The female voice and the definition of ‘desire’.
I’ll make desire into my fuel,
I’ll burn my mind to ashes,
Nameless, I’ll be reborn. (qtd. in A Weaver Named Kabir 94)
The Virahini in these lines is portrayed as the desiring subject and God as the desired object. The devotee longs for the divine gaze and seeks to enclose it, to “trap” (Hawley and Juergensmeyer 205) it to attain salvation. However, the dynamics of the gaze within the space of Viraha Bhakti is complex: the gaze of the devotee could be singular but that of God forms a matrix – for the beloved. For instance, in the case of Krishna, he equally divides his attention amongst all his devotees (the Gopis) and like the earthly husband, he is polygamous. In this polygamous framework, how do these Bhakti poets depict their longing to merge with God? Does Mira articulate her desire in explicitly feminine terms than Kabir who only dons a female voice?
In Mira’s compositions, desire is a ‘maddening’ force and accelerates her wish to consummate her love. She says,
In this context, Daud Ali says, “The terminology of desire is covalent with broader conceptions of affiliation in society and some of its key dynamics reflect the preoccupations of that society with dependence, attachment and autonomy” (qtd. in Orsini 38). Therefore, in a society in which the tenets of Manu Smriti were followed with zeal, desire of any kind was not approved of. Kama or sexual desire was one of the ten vices that the ‘good’ king must refrain from (Sangari 1465). But desire was legitimized within the space of Viraha Bhakti because it promoted images of ‘illicit wifehood’ and desire (Sangari 1465).
As mentioned earlier, even in the wifely metaphors that Mira used in her ‘illicit’ relationship with God – she is the helpless slave whose fundamental duty is to serve Krishna, her immortal husband. Perhaps the one poem that is different from most of Mira’s compositions which expresses her frustration and desire to be united with Krishna is the following composition because of its unusual violent imagery:
Hey love bird, crying cuckoo,
Don’t make your crying coos,
For I who am crying, cut off from my love,
Hey, I am my love’s and my love’s mine.
This poem also demonstrates an underlying strain of jealousy and playful anger that Mira feels because of Krishna’s polygamous character. Jealousy, which was also thought of as an essentially ‘feminine’ trait colors many of her compositions. Krishna spends all his time in Mathura, ‘frolicking’ with other women, and to punish her – he frequently ‘abandons’ her. This pain of Virah “inflames her heart with insufferable love” (Hawley and Juergensmeyer 225). Mira’s articulation of desire is thus authentically feminine and safe – it can be erotic and sensuous because it is directed towards one man namely Krishna.
In the poems of Viraha, the attributeless God of Kabir assumes Nirguna qualities. He frequently refers to this God as ‘Ram’. Kabir longs to be a servant to God like Mira but he acknowledges that his voice is representative of a community of Bhakts; interestingly, there seems to be no sign of jealousy in the sharing the attentions of a polygamous master. He says,
The bed has become my enemy,
We are your maids O Lord,
Kabir Das says, Viraha is increasing
Sangari identifies two types of femaleness in Kabir’s poems. The first one is Stridharma or the accepted ‘pativarata’ form of femaleness emerging in his Bhakti compositions; the second one is strisvabhav – which is representative of fallen femaleness. The model of the pativarata, Sangari adds “represents a channeled sexual desire” (1472). Kabir sings of the faithful wife thus in the ‘pativrata’ tradition:
Immediately this figure is contrasted with the figure of the promiscuous woman. He says, in the same poem:
Kabir, dawn is long passed,
Setting her mind on man after man,
If a wife, betrothed to her spouse,
If she cherishes another in her heart,
Indeed, the recognition of women as saints or harlots in Kabir’s poetry underscores the patriarchal belief systems that were strongly rooted in the collective consciousness of the time period that allowed the devotee to identify with these misogynist and patriarchal images.
Viraha and Female voice as bounded:
The use of the female voice to praise God in a time where Vedantic and Brahamanic ideals held sway over Indian society is certainly rebellious. But this is an escape from the real self and Viraha gives the space for devotees to indulge in this vocal masquerade, which would otherwise, in real life would be considered blasphemous. But, as the main goal of the essay, the question arises again, that is, whether this masquerade is unique or is it bound by tradition? Is there space for the articulation of individuality and subjectivity in the female voice? These questions are problematic and do not hold any clear definite answers. First of all, when we talk of authorship in the Bhakti corpus, we enter a contested terrain where hypothesis is the norm. The poet in Bhakti poetry is usually identified through his/her signature at the end of the composition. Whether the signature was authentic can only be speculated. Hawley states that in the case of Mira, signatures could have been added by her followers. He adds, “What happened was that the signature itself, like the rest of the poem became something to be composed. In the absence of a historical Mira, she too had to be created” (Hawley 21).
Secondly, we have to confront the problem of translation. Again, we can only speculate how much of it has been transcreated or lost through translation. Thirdly, but most importantly, it is important to note that the very fact that Viraha became incorporated into the acceptable, established canon of Bhakti testifies to the fact that this was a familiar and a popular genre that the public of the time could relate to. As we have already noted, Viraha Bhakti also confirmed to the dominant patriarchal belief system of the times. Thirdly, the poet here is only a voice, a representative devotee for the human community – he/she is the archetypal human whose model others in the society must follow and conform to, if they were to attain salvation. Thus, within the space of Viraha Bhakti there was little space for experimentation and new creative expression. It was a ground that ‘nurtured’ strains of rebellion - for instance, we have in Mira an example of a female saint, and in Kabir a saint who was from the lower caste who blurred the religious distinctions between Hinduism and Islam through his teachings.
But the space within Viraha Bhakti is also clearly demarcated; a poet could not have been allowed to cross boundaries since that would have implied poor reception from the audience. Thus, Mira could have only described her self in relation to Krishna after breaking her bonds with domesticity (Sangari 1473). She has to enter the company of sadhus to be seen as a respectable woman for “their company is a sanction, an alternative to the custody of the family” (Orsini 39). Orsini also states that Mirabai becomes a model of female sainthood because “princesses and respectable women after Mira could worship and imitate her in composing songs without challenging or abdicating their social statuses” (39). Similarly, in the case of Kabir, to ascribe him to the role of a reformer would not be justifiable because of his stance on patriarchy.
Gender is a complexity whose totality is permanently deferred, never fully what it is at any given juncture in time. An open coalition then, will affirm identities that are alternately instituted and relinquished according to the purposes at hand; it will be an open assemblage that permits multiple convergences and divergences without obedience to a normative telos of definitional closure. (Butler 23)
Butler’s statement here is extremely useful to examine gendered identities within Viraha Bhakti that I have explored in this essay. Identities within Viraha Bhakti were used and instituted for the purposes of devotion that wanted to subvert authoritative Brahamanism within which there was little space for ‘convergences’ or ‘divergences’ for which credit has to be given to. But within this context, the latter part of Butler’s statement does not hold because Viraha Bhakti ultimately demanded definite boundaries that confirmed and reinstated its obedience to the “normative telos” of the patriarchal ideology.
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