Rethinking Femininity and Transgression in Andal

Streedharma offered a space for not just women but also men during medieval Bhakti, to reach moksha in an easy yet effective manner. Perhaps the positive aspects of streedharma largely went unrecorded in textual form until the bhakti ‘movement’ enabled oral expressions of streedharmic sentiment directed towards God.

I.  Introduction

It is now well-known that the Bhakti ‘movement’ of medieval India was initially theorized by the 19th century colonial missionaries and historians as being akin to the Protestant movement in Europe. Through this framework Bhakti was viewed as ethical, egalitarian, and monotheistic, among other things. Though this framework has been well-critiqued, it continues to be used in so far as scholars see Bhakti as at least egalitarian. So what should be the position of a non-orientalist appraisal of medieval Bhakti? To probe into this question, this paper will study Andal, the only woman among the Alvar saints and examine her life and works.

The thesis that Bhakti was egalitarian claims that women and ‘lower castes’ were given greater space to express themselves, that women saints were proto-feminists, that the saints were critical of ritualistic practices, rejected institutionalized forms of religion, challenged the sexual norms of their time or streedharma, allowed for direct access to God, were social reformist and rebellious. This thesis has been challenged in my previous work (2011) in a detailed manner by focusing upon the Virashaiva Bhakti of 12th century Karnataka. [i] I argued that there were too many anomalies in the egalitarianism thesis and that available contradictory evidence in the vachanas was overlooked because of the overbearing Protestant framework through which Bhakti has been viewed for too long. [ii] One such piece of evidence lies in the fact that Bhakti women-saints upheld streedharma. Although most historical and feminist analyses discuss questions in this regard sensitively, the contradiction that arises in the egalitarianism thesis in claiming that women were freer during Bhakti and even while they upheld streedharma remains to convincingly explained. An alternative theory is thus necessary and possible. This alternative is worked out in this paper by arguing that streedharma was not challenged by the medieval Bhaktas and that we can understand them better if we allowed for this possibility. To demonstrate the argument, a study of Andal is taken up along two lines of inquiry. First, how must we understand Andal as a woman? Second, did Andal transgress ritual and sexual norms?

The historical and feminist understanding of medieval Bhakti is problematic on many levels because it is tied to the protestant egalitarian thesis. Part of this problem arises in the form of contradictory arguments due to a lack of sources. But largely, the commitment to the egalitarian thesis, forces the historian to interpret the original works of the Bhaktas and the hagiographies along lines of where they are egalitarian and where they not and suggesting one or another instance as exceptions to the rule. In this context, scholars express anguish, surprise, disappointment and a variety of other responses at the positions taken by the bhaktas. For some, Bhakti had great potential but did not fulfil its promise; an apology is offered for the lack of a complete revolution. For others, it represents an “inadequate questioning of tradition” and its foundational concepts including patriarchy (Neera Desai, 1994, 15). See for e.g. Geeta Kapur who says:

…even with the male [bhakta] assuming a feminine persona I would like to ask the question about the relationship between the devotee who is female and the deity which is usually male, for it already introduces some kind of hierarchical relationship (Geeta Kapur, 1991, 51). [iii]

For yet others, saints like Akka Mahadevi, a female Virashaiva saint, “challenged the institutions of family” (Sumitrabai, 1997, 71) and Bhakti was definitely positive for women and other marginalized peoples. It almost goes unnoticed that ‘expectations’ out of medieval Bhakti may be derived from our anachronistic readings of the period rather than the actual preoccupations of the Bhaktas. This is especially true of feminist reclamations of the bhakti saints who recover women from the past in order to cater to the strategical, political needs of enabling and inspiring the women of today. Feminist scholars often work from the premise that all religions and cultures were fearful of female sexuality and necessarily subjugated women. Madhu Kishwar represents this problem well:

The labeling [as feminist] requirement distorts not only the present but even the past. I remembered being attacked at a seminar organized by a group of feminists at Lady Sri Ram College in Delhi University for presenting in a positive light the life and poetry of women like Mahadeviakka and Mirabai. Their argument was that these women did not talk of women’s independence and equality as they ought to have, that they merely chose to substitute the slavery to a husband with slavery to a god. In short, that they were inadequate as historical sources of inspiration for women because they could not be called feminist. Expecting Mirabai to be a feminist is as inappropriate as calling Gautam Buddha a Gandhian or Jesus Christ a civil libertarian. (Kishwar, 1990). [iv]

At best, the egalitarianist readings, whether glorificatory or apologetic are reductive of Bhakti and are more instrumentalist uses of history than they are its objective studies. These anachronistic readings of Bhakti have other effects. Such as: the construction of the historical world of the bhaktas as patriarchal, as if to suit the theory. The logic is that it must have been patriarchal, since the bhaktas rebelled against it. The rejection of worldly life by the bhaktas is seen as a direct result of patriarchy and a handful of bhakti writings indicating rejection are quoted. The the larger context is missed in these selective readings. Consider, for instance, the fact that the 13th century hagiographies of Akka Mahadevi by Harihara and Chennabasavanka describe Akka Mahadevi in their narratives as being born after her parents earnestly prayed for a girl-child (cited in Sumitrabai, 1997, 17). This instance (where the girl-child was prayed for) problematizes some of the current criteria for identifying patriarchy in a society. Bhasin (1995) sees son-preference as one of the factors for identifying patriarchy—and this criterion is not met with in the case of Akka Mahadevi or Andal. In the case of Andal, we see Vishnuchitta, the father expressing grief at the loss of Andal: “I had an only daughter and goddess-like I brought her up: the fair eyed god has taken her” (cited in Meenakshi C, 1989). Furthermore, medieval bhakti saw many women ‘convert’ their husbands into their understanding of bhakti, as queens as well as ordinary women. In the life of Andal, we see her convince her father to a marriage with Vishnu.

Histories that ignore such hagiographical and historical evidence also argue that “Many women who were otherwise marginalized as social rejects found acceptance and solace through religious involvement.” (Usha V T, 2007, 58). In contextualizing Andal and “the other women poet-saints of India” Archana Venkatesan too speaks of the Therigatha writings where “the domestic drudgery of a woman’s duties becomes an effective metaphor for life as suffering.” But such arguments are theoretically complicated by Arvind Sharma’s study of Buddhist women who joined the Sangha. Sharma shows that in a majority of the cases women became nuns because of “the positive appeal of the new religion—of its founder, its doctrines and its Order” (Sharma, 1977, 250). [v] He concludes thus: “This suggests the need for a more conscious recognition of the autonomous quality of religious behaviour…” (Sharma, 1977, 250). While in the egalitarian thesis of Bhakti and its allied understandings, patriarchy is what drives women to seek religion or God, a more complete understanding suggests that the bhaktas were practicing a form of asceticism wherein they rejected worldly attachments and yet adopted a sense of filial involvement with the Gods. In the egalitarian understanding of Bhakti, the autonomous nature of the bhaktas’ self and agency is also complicated resulting in much confusion; the same set of actions is tenable to be read as agentic and subversive or as non-agentic and submissive. Given these compounded problems, I suggest that we read Andal’s verses, “I will not continue to live if it is planned to give me in marriage to a human being” or “I will pull my her breasts out by the roots and throw them on the chest of Krishna if He continues to ignore me” as a mark of devotion and single-minded focus upon Krishna, a deity favourite and real to her. It is my argument that the anachronistically feminist and protestant frameworks we saw above distort our understanding of Andal. To supply more evidence to this claim, I approach the issues from different theoretical angles that simultaneously allow me to cover larger ground.

II. Femininity in Andal

An important feature of some of the histories of Bhakti we examined above is their genderedness. That is, they seek to write a history of gender even as they study the bhakti saints. See for instance in Uma Chakravarti’s essay on the South Indian female bhaktas:

We will draw in particular on the accounts of Andal, Avvaiyar, Karaikalammaiyar and Akka Mahadevi to consider the nature of the bhakti experience and the space it provided to women to expand both their own selfhood and conventional gender and social relations; finally, we will consider the manner in which the female body shaped and impinged upon the identity of the bhaktins. (Uma Chakravarti, 1989, emphasis mine).

Though there is nothing problematic in the use of gender as a category of analysis, the result often is that femininity is seen as a negative sign, representative of subjugation. In other words, gendered histories disallow understanding Andal as a saint functioning within the framework of femininity and take away from femininity as a possible positive force and look instead for “space …provided to women to expand both their own selfhood and conventional gender and social relations.” The domain of spirituality is essentially ungendered, but neither this nor the feminine modes of medieval Bhakti are graspable through a gender theoretical approach. A sexual difference feminism instead is more empowered for such a task, yet it’s worth depends on how it is used. Most scholars view Andal as transgressing social norms especially that of marriage except perhaps Usha V T and Kishwar. For this, their work presents interesting possibilities. However, although Usha V T asks for gender theory as well as a feminine understanding of Andal, in Usha’s work, the recognition of the feminine is restricted to the textual or the aesthetic: “She [Andal] dwells upon woman to woman relationships and feminine considerations creating a unique and more intense female space in the poems.” (Usha V T, 2013, 5). Kishwar’s understanding of Andal as a manifestation of the feminine in “Female Moral Exemplars” is accurate but could expand in order to delve into femininity at greater lengths.

Femininity in Andal is often recognized by scholars when she is viewed as the Nayika and seen as the heroine of a Kavya-like text from the perspective of traditional Indian aesthetics. However, this aestheticization of bhakti could be a reductive approach. Aestheticization results in the view that Tiruppavai or Tirumoli are examples of love poetry. But bhakti is more than just this. To attempt to understand bhakti from the perspective of human love imposes categories that Bhakti does not entirely find intelligible. Hence, I suggest that we read Venkatesan’s demonstration that “…we can no longer speak successfully of a generic talaivi [heroine or central female character] of alvar poetry” as not just as the calibration of female voices within Andal’s or the other Alvar’s works, but as a point about Bhakti utterances in general. Bhakti utterances are verbal expressions of intensely personal experiences that are unlike human love and follow markedly different protocol, with room for miraculous self-transformation on the part of Bhakta.

An additional problem that confronts us is that scholars who do see Andal as feminine view streedharma in bad light. According to them, as Kishwar and Ruth Vanita write:

The ideology of pativrata, whereby a woman’s salvation lies in unquestioning devotion to her husband, comes into active conflict with the ideology of bhakti when the bhakta is a woman. Apart from the flouting of secular and religious authority in which all the bhaktas have, to some extent, to engage, the woman bhakta has also to flout the absolute authority of the husband and his family over her life, since she now acknowledges a higher authority (Cited in Sugirtharajah, 2001).

This is unconvincing because the women bhaktas actually uphold streedharma. Although the bhaktas left their homes and husbands, they never recommend the same to other women as a path to walk upon. See for instance, the Tamil poet Avvaiyar: “Moderation in food is an ornament to women”, “the home is truly blessed in all, where wife obeys her duty-call”, or “womanhood by chastity becomes admirable”, “Good wives, who are loyal to their husbands, have great powers because they cause the rains to fall.” But Uma Chakravarti’s gender theoretical approach disallows an understanding of Avvai’s discourse as that of femininity, and as positive. While Chakravarti presents Avvaiyyar’s bhakti as strength, she cannot accept Avvaiyar just as she is. Avvai’s stance on women becomes a minor aberration in the otherwise courageous Avvaiyar. “Her attitude to women however was conventional” writes Chakravarti (1989, 20). Instead of understanding Bhakti for what it is —as consisting of many diverse elements that demand better theorization—gender historians feel compelled to see it mainly as anti-patriarchal and pro-women. Ideas similar to Avvai’s are present in Bahinabai, another medieval woman bhakta as well. One of her abhangs reads thus: “My duty is to serve my husband, for he is the supreme Brahma, The water in which my husband’s feet are washed, is the most holy of scared waters…(cited in Ramaswamy, 1997, 217). Thus, Bahinabai has indeed merely replaced the worldly husband with God. But Vijaya Ramaswamy sees Bahinabai as defying the patriarchal norms of the 17th century because she accepted Tukaram, a shudra saint as her guru, while she herself was a brahmin. And instead of providing a synthetic formulation, Ramaswamy says of the above abhang: “There is … a clearly perceived tension between the deviance evident in Bahina’s spiritual actions and the conformism manifest in her writings.” (Ramaswamy, 1997, 217). Similarly, Usha V T says that “Andal’s conservative brahminical social attitude would perhaps have called for greater determination to break away from accepted conventions of her time and a much more acute sense of rebellion in the protagonist as recorded in the internal evidence of her poems.” (Usha V T, 2007, 68). That is, instead of explaining the feminine or streedharmic attitude displayed by the bhaktas, secondary literature on them, pitches a specific understanding of the bhaktas’ biographies against their compositions!

Interestingly, none of the women saints advices the women of their times to leave home or reject their husbands. Akka Mahadevi instead talks of women as “obstacles to knowledge.” [vi] In rejecting the world she talks of “woman, gold and land as obstacles (“obstacles that even if won over, mean nothing, until the mind awakens”), complicating fully the possibility that she was rejecting patriarchy or criticizing the ills of the institution of the family. [vii] In talking of “women” as obstacles, Akka Mahadevi may be accessing and borrowing from a long-used spiritual vocabulary of listing obstacles in which the protagonist criticized is usually a man. For Andal, marriage is not necessarily problematic; it is only when it is not with Krishna that it is unbearable. Her metaphors and dreams in her compositions assert marriage with Krishna as the only way in which she would fully unite with him. This is so real for Andal that she chooses one of the many forms of Vishnu, dresses up as a bride and travels to Srirangam where she unites with the deity. Thus, the relational matrix in which ‘woman’ was placed in medieval times needs to be discovered. In this context, viewing femininity as a framework is useful because through it, we can understand why women bhaktas upheld streedharma. We can render their voices coherent instead of speculating upon why although egalitarian, they upheld the negative concept of streedharma. In other words, I am suggesting that there is a relationship between femininity and streedharma and that streedharma taps into femininity or feminine desire. 

III. Femininity and Streedharma

The framework of femininity allows us to view streedharma as not necessarily negative, but as a possibly positive force through which moksha can be attained. In some discourses, this form of service is said to be the easiest way to attain moksha. References to such ideas are available in the Bhagavatam (dated 10th century). But the idea that streedharma is a path to moksha, equal to ascetic practices is available in epics like Mahabharata that precede medieval Bhakti. By viewing feminine desire in Andal as akin to streedharma, we begin to unravel the path she adopted to reach moksha. What follows from this is that Andal may not be ‘transgressive,’ though agentic. The understanding of streedharma as a path to moksha allows us to comprehend the gender role reversal practiced by the male Alvars as well. It also helps us understand that sexuality had to play a role in this path, because within streedharma it is a valid aspect of surrender and service. Hence, it is but natural for Andal to compose verses such as this addressing Kamadeva:

Coax Tiruvikrama [Trivikrama, because Vishnu as Vamana measured the three/tri worlds]

who long ago measured the worlds,

to caress this delicate waist and these broad breasts

and great will be your glory in this world. (Nachiyar Tirumoli 1.7, Venkatesan, 149)

Thus, through the framework of femininity, Andal, Akka and Meera could be seen as streedharmic and pativratas (note the vrata in the term pativrata), not as the rebels they are usually portrayed as. That Andal’s Tiruppavai is used as a ritual aid to young girls’ procurement of good husbands and happy marriages is no coincidence and adds to the strength of thesis proposed here. [viii] By proposing such a thesis, we will be different from scholars who say the following:

Through her words and actions, Andal presents an alternative lifestyle to what many dharmashastras perceive to be the role of women; she showed contempt at the idea of marrying a man and instead, gathered her friends and observed rites (vratas) to obtain Vishnu. (Narayanan, 2006, 33)

Women see in her a person who attained salvation, not by worshiping her husband as God (as Manu would have it), but by approaching God directly and wanting a union with him. (Narayanan, 2006, 38)

While Narayanan would say that: “Andal, then, functions as a role model for all human beings who seek moksha, not as a model of stridharma.” (Narayanan, 2006, 38), we would be arguing that streedharma too is a model for reaching moksha. Our position would also differ from scholars claiming that women needed to reject family life in order to walk the spiritual path (A K Ramanujan, 1999). Instead, we would suggest that the women bhaktas were adopting streedharma in the spiritual realm. This understanding is further strengthened by the Virashaiva bhakti philosophy of sharana sati, linga pati that is the Shaiva tradition of medieval bhakti that developed in Karnataka. Here, devotees who were married, both male and female, believed that the Linga (a form of Shiva) was their husband and that they themselves, the devotees were satis (wives).

In Archana Venkatesan’s analysis, that Karaikkal Ammaiyar’s husband releases her from marriage is seen as a “move away from the normative social order…marked by a radical transformation…” (Venkatesan, 2010, 7). Meera too is seen as rejecting “wifely and royal duties.” (Venkatesan, 2010, 9)  But the Manusmriti, a text that upholds streedharma asks women to remarry if the husband deserts her. In other words, streedharma or wifely duties are deeply engrained in the life of men and women before medieval Bhakti and is not as conservative as it gets portrayed. So, the radicality or transgressive-ness of Bhakti needs to be re-thought.

The understanding of streedharma charted above can make us view the following in new light:

For Andal and Akka Mahadevi, their bodies and their sexuality are no embarrassment or impediment to them. The body is the instrument, the site, through which their devotion is expressed. Their relationship with the lord is set within the framework of bridal mysticism. Andal’s devotion quickens her body; she awakens early to the beauty of her body, through her singleminded meditation upon the lord. (Uma Chakravarti, 1989)

The recognition of beauty herein can also be seen as an aspect of the streedharmic sensibility. [ix] Andal’s compositions are full of descriptions of Krishna’s physical strength and valour, portraying him as masculine, while Andal herself is portrayed as feminine.[x] Thus, she is able to say:

Proud Kōtai of Viṣṇucittaṉ,

master of Villiputuvai

maiden with dark arching brows

that surpass the curve of his bow,

sang of her intense yearning and love

for the radiant beacon of Āyarpāṭi…(Nachiyar Tirumoli, 13.10, Venkatesan, 2010, 185)

There are yet other aspects we can explain through the concept of streedharma. Let us see how. Usha V T finds it ironical that Andal offers Krishna “a whole host of worldly riches” in exchange for his conch, the Panchajanya. But viewed through the streedharmic sensibility, it is possible to see that worldly possessions can be offered up for barter. [xi] Andal is fashioning herself here as a simple girl who treats her conch bangles and other trinkets as precious, much like the typical Indian housewife is known to harp on her gold jewelry. However, viewed in more spiritual terms, Andal’s actions can be seen as a sacrifice of her worldly possessions in order to gain Krishna.

That there is an appropriation of Andal into a streedhramic framework by either women’s group music mandalis or hagiographies/legends only strengthens my thesis. And we can agree with and view positively, what Chakravarti actually proposes as a critique:

It is significant that, despite its uninhibited expression, Andal’s sexuality poses no threat at all at any point in the legends that have built up around her. Her unfulfilled longings are undeniably frank and expressive but they are neatly containable within the framework of an impending marriage. The sexuality of Andal is the sexuality of a young girl who will become a bride, the wife of the lord. It is thus set in the mode of legitimate love and it is this which makes it possible to incorporate Andal’s hymn in the rituals of women. Young girls in particular sing it to get good husbands and make happy marriages. Andal’s experience of love is socially contained within the sexuality of the wife. (Uma Chakravarti, 1989, emphasis mine).

Also significant is the fact that the mandalis emerge and function from within the framework of streedharma when they claim their space in rituals. As Narayanan rightly notes “In temples, special groups (like the adhyapakas and araiyars, the traditional male cantors) have the religious and often the legal right to recite and pray; in household rituals a man may officiate; but through the singing and dancing, the women communicate directly with the deity” (Narayanan, 2006, 37). [xii] The singing and dancing here is with reference to the recitation of Andal’s compositions in mandalis.

IV. Is Sexual Desire Transgressive?

Compared to other women bhaktas, Andal’s transgression is almost solely located in her sexual frankness in the Tirumoli. [xiii] In the case of others like Akka Mahadevi or Meera, transgressions are seen in the acts of walking out naked or rejecting the husband. But the framework of streedharma proposed herein problematizes the understanding that Andal was being transgressive in speaking of her sexual love for Krishna. Such feminine sexual desire is unproblematic and well within the bounds of streedharma. Perhaps there would have been a transgression of sorts if desire expressed was only about the body or only about sexual desire. However, we see a desperate and different kind of love in Andal for Krishna. Andal is not merely expressing feminine desire. There is a method to it all; she seems aware that streedharma too is a path towards moksha. C G Diehl recognizes this aptly when he, defining matal as a “desperate way of expressing one’s feelings of frustration and disappointment in love” says that this is also the sadhana or method in bhakti, especially in Andal’s (Diehl, 220). He cites Krishnaveniammaiyar, a traditional scholar, to argue that there is knowledge that the “Lord is said to be impressed by such signs of desperate love…” and that in the end “Andal’s matal was successful” (Diehl, 223). Also, the signs of desperate love displayed by Andal through self-deprivation and denial resemble ascetic practices. In other words, instead of breaking the myth of ascetic practices as superior to streedharma, we can also view ascetic practices as an aspect of streedharma, as being practiced in medieval Bhakti. Andal’s self-deprivation takes the form fasting, loss of interest in adornment, loss of a sense of shame, distress and suffering:

My body is filthy, my hair unkempt

my lips are pale and I eat but once a day…(Nachiyar Tirumoli 1.8, Venkatesan, 2010, 149)

My bones melt and my eyes

long as spears

resist even blinking.

For days now, I am plunged into a sea of distress

and I ache to attain

that great boat, Vaikuṇṭha

but I cannot see it. (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 5.4, Venkatesan, 2010, 160)

I am ashen, my heart is despondent.

I have lost all shame. My lips are pale

I cannot eat, my mind is weak

I have grown frail. (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 12.7, Venkatesan, 2010, 181)

Quickly bring me the dust from his footsteps

smear it on me and prevent my life from fleeing. (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 13.6, Venkatesan, 2010, 184)

The fire of desire has invaded my body

I suffer. (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 8.2, Venkatesan, 2010, 168)

In some analyses, Andal’s references to sexual love are over-emphasized. We see this especially in the interpretation of neeratal (bathing in the water) by Vidya Dehejia and Dennis Hudson as symbolic of sexual union. However, Andal’s verse actually refers to the mythological Krishna who took away the clothes of bathing gopis insisting they surrender to him completely by raising both hands.

My friend and I each will raise a hand

and bow to you.

Please return our clothes to us. (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 3.1, Venkatesan, 154, 2010)

So how do we understand the interpretation of neeratal to mean sexual union? Perhaps as an anachronistic understanding of sexuality, given prominent notions of Victorian morality current in our times. In other words, that neeratal could mean sexual union is emphasized because our practices of the self and sexuality have changed since Andal’s time. Scholars are usually overcome with a feeling of shock at the openness of sexual love and attribute to it the same features of a sexual revolution in the west which was accompanied by liberation and freedom for women. This is definitely one of the reasons why Bhakti has been seen as liberating for women. Instead, what we see in Andal is arguably a greater freedom for the expression of sexuality within the streedharmic sensibility. We are unaccustomed to crediting streedharma with any kind of freedom which makes such conclusions sparse. Interestingly enough, in tandem with the above proposed freedom within streedharma, new ethnographic work by Venkatesan and Narayanan suggests that there is no embarrassment in the public performance of Tirumoli, as was earlier suggested by Dehejia. Both Venkatesan and Narayanan suggest that the Tirumoli is popular and widely sung, with teachers setting them to ragas and groups of women practicing them over varying lengths of time exhibiting, at times, remarkable commitment.

V. Other Transgressions

Andal’s language is often seen as transgressive. For instance, Chabria says: “I think she didn’t bother with any social conventions or rules – except those of poetry.” (Priya Sarukkai Chabria, 2013). Yet, given the tradition of poetry writing by women in the Sangam era, Andal’s own compositions do not seem to be breaking ground in so far as a woman is writing or is writing about love. Andal simply states that she is using Sangam Tamil. This is done in the most nonchalant manner of traditionally stating the chandass or metre, a brief description (the length of the verses, either ashtotthara or as Andal mentions, thirty verses) the name the sage who is composing a work and other specifications at the beginning or end of a work. Her identification in her verses is as follows:

The pattar of lovely Putuvai

Who wears a garland of pure, cool lotuses—

his Kotai,

sang a garland of thirty songs

in Cankam Tamil… (Venkatesan, 2007, 5).

Understandings that see Andal’s writing in the following terms: “In their very act of speaking out in a culture that silenced and marginalized the woman’s voice, the woman mystics were revolutionary in their outlook” is suspect because male Alvars were composing bridal mystic works before Andal and she only seems to be conforming to and continuing the tradition (Usha V T, 2007, 67). 

Andal’s act of presenting the worn garland to the temple deity is seen as a ritual transgression on her part. However, this can be seen as an act of innocence and ignorance. After all, Andal was very young even when she left her body as Vishnu’s bride; merely sixteen. More importantly, we see an assertion of the performance of rituals and vows and ritualized patterns in Andal’s Tiruppavai. The final phala shruti verse in Tiruppavai and the many phala shruti verses in Tirumoli are proof for this. [xiv] Her very act of garlanding is an act steeped in the ritual offering made to the Gods. There is also a verse in the Tirumoli that seeks forgiveness for any overstepping. [xv] This is typical of many rituals performed across traditions, typically known as the Aparadha Kshamapana stotra; it is recited at the end of all poojas and homams, in homes as well as temples. For Andal, fasting too is an important aspect of her method. Andal also endorses mantric practice of the ashtakshari, “Om Namo Narayanaya.”Streedharma is itself a path of ritualized actions towards moksha. In the Tiruppavai, there are references to “a sand image of the goddess constructed by young girls on the riverbank, early each morning, as part of a religious observance which probably originated in a fertility rite. The ritual, performed on every day of the month of Margazhi (December-January) by fasting girls, is supposed to bring abundant rains to the land and good husbands to the girls.” (Meenakshi C, Manushi, 1989, 36). Andal’s verse on this is especially relevant:

Rain will fall thrice a month

throughout the land,

and no evil befall.

Paddy saplings shoot up apace,

Fish merrily play,

Shining bees sleep on

blooming flowers,

And healthy cows, when approached


Each udder, when held steadily and


Will fill the pitchers with never

diminishing wealth,

O girls, O my friends! (Meenakshi C, Manushi, 1989, 36) 

These examples show that Andal was only participating in a tradition of bhakti and allied paths and may not have been criticizing rituals as Bhaktas are often thought to be doing. [xvi]

Medieval Bhakti is predominantly theorized as anti-Vedic in nature. For instance, Rekha Pande argues: “Throughout history there have been various independent reform movements which questioned the authority of the Vedas and created an alternative religious space through different modes and means and we find a great representative in the Bhakti movement.” (Pande, 2010, x). However, this view is changing in recent scholars; they are beginning to note the problems in proposing such theses. Scholars who view medieval bhakti as a continuation of earlier forms of Bhakti are acutely aware of the inconsistencies such theses produce. The thesis that Bhakti is anti-Vedic needs to be understood as a result of the egalitarian thesis of Bhakti rather than possessing any truth or fact value to it. Although A K Ramanujan too argues that Bhakti is anti-Vedic, he also admits that the many images in the vachanas are taken from the Upanishads. The vachanas make allusions to the Vedas and even quote from them. Akka Mahadevi in her vachanas praises her beloved deity Chennamallikarjuna as the essence of ‘vedopanishad gayatri’. [xvii] Other bhakti saints such as Kabir also hold the Vedas in high-esteem. Kabir says: “O weaver! Weave the name of God on whom the Gods, men and sages meditate; To secure the warp there is a post, and the four Vedas are the spinning wheels”. [xviii] As for Andal, she has a remarkable number of verses that mention the Vedas in positive light.

…If there is even talk of offering my body

to mortal men, then I cannot live.

It is equal in violence to a forest jackal

stealthily entering and sniffing at the sacrificial food

the learned Brahmins, the holders of the Vedas,

offer the gods in heaven. (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 1.5, Venkatesan, 149, emphasis mine)

Those who master

this garland of words

strung by Kōtai of Viṣṇucittaṉ

chief among priests

and king of Putuvai

city where the four Vedas are sung—

will always chant,

“Namo Nārāyaṇa” (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 5.11, Venkatesan, 163, emphasis mine)

O flowers climbing high into the sky

stretch past the high heavens

and place me beside those dear to him

who do not scorch

just like the blazing flame he holds aloft in his right hand

that one, the light who is the essence of the Vedas. (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 10.2, Venkatesan, 174, emphasis mine)

he who is the embodiment of the four Vedas.

Now he claims my very life. (Nachiyar Tirumoli ,11. 6, Venkatesan, 2010, emphasis mine)

The lord who is the essence of the four Vedas

the beautiful lord who saved the wild elephant

lord who abides in the hearts of the lovely women of Āyarpāṭi

If he should come here,

Fall together, O kūṭal! (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 4.10, Venkatesan, 2010, 158, emphasis mine)

Virtuous Brahmins sang the Vedas and chanted sacred verses

they kindled the sacrificial fire with perfect dry twigs and encircled it

with grass

My lord of great prowess, that mighty elephant

clasped my hand and circled the fire.

Such a vision I dreamed, my friend. (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 6.7, Venkatesan, 2010, 164, emphasis mine)

Thus, the thesis that there is transgressive-ness in medieval Bhakti and in Andal, requires rethinking, perhaps even rejection. Andal’s pro-Vedic reflections demand a more synthetic thesis on medieval bhakti that does not overlook available data.

VI. Conclusion

We have seen instances of the egalitarian thesis of Bhakti distorting our understanding of it on the whole. The femininity-streedharma framework proposed, on the other hand, helps resolve contradictions emerging from the egalitarian thesis and indicates that a re-theorization of many different aspects of Bhakti and especially the Alvars is necessary. In conclusion, I propose an alternative to the following formulation, “The Bhakti movement, despite all the initial social ostracism it faced, provided an opportunity for the marginal groups including women to express themselves” (Usha V T, 2013, 6). The alternative would read thus: streedharma offered a space for not just women but also men during medieval Bhakti, to reach moksha in an easy yet effective manner. Perhaps the positive aspects of streedharma largely went unrecorded in textual form until the bhakti ‘movement’ enabled oral expressions of streedharmic sentiment directed towards God.

The framework of femininity and streedharma also helps us relate the Bhakti yoga of The Gita more easily to medieval Bhakti. Krishna elaborates here on the notion of service and his availability to women and shudras, those performing service, equally if they take shelter in him. That is, the framework of streedharma provides greater intelligibility and historical location to medieval Bhakti. The gender-neutral nature of service to God and spirituality in Indian history becomes apparent through my reading and provides an explanation for the male bhaktas’ adoption of a feminine personae and notions of service, typically undertaken by women as streedharma. That is, we can understand why Alvar bhakti appears to be, as Friedhelm Hardy notes, “a highly sensuous and sensual world of human experience.” [xix] Additionally, we may become more open to alternative research programmes that questions current understandings of caste in the Indian past. One such alternative is available in the work of Alf Hiltebeitel whose ethnographic study of the traditional reception and retelling of Mahabharata among non-Brahminical communities shows that viewing the text as an ideological vehicle for upholding brahminical supremacy is almost impossible. Also, our understanding of women and streedharma since Upanishadic times finds a deepened connection in Bhakti. The large gap between these two historical points seems somewhat bridged; the dharmashastras too can be approached with less intolerance. That is, the application of streedharma in the times of Yajnyavalkya’s two wives, Matreyi and Katyayani (each following a different model of womanhood) can be seen as taking a different turn within Bhakti (streedharma is available as a model leading towards moksha for men too). By rejecting the protestant theory of Bhakti, and its residual forms—the transgressionist and the egalitarian thesis—we are able to examine interesting aspects of the Indian traditions that medieval Bhakti brought to the fore.


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[i] PhD Dissertation titled “Akka Mahadevi, a rebel, saint and poet?:  A Study in ‘Tradition’ and its Feminist Understandings.”

[ii] Blake Michael, a scholar of Virashaiva traditions also argues for a difference between Protestantism and the bhakti tradition of Virashaivism:  “… Virashaiva religious patterns fell short not only of the actual protestant forms but also of the idealized protestant norm that have been prominently noted.” (Michael, 1992, 14). He continues by saying: “Although many have attempted to claim for the Virashaivas, something identical to Weber’s notion of the Protestant ethic of hard work, frugality and capital investment, the economic ethic which appears in the present Virashaiva texts at least is somewhat different from that notion.” (Michael, 1992, 44).

[iii] Usha V T argues the same and uses the word “phallocentric” instead of hierarchical relationship.

[iv] Madhu Kishwar’s own general appraisal of bhakti writing is somewhat balanced: “…[bhakti poetry] is not protest literature as the term is understood today … [and does not] carry an easily decipherable social message for other women. Most of it is a celebration of an individual choice … [and does not] contain a call for an overall gender equality. To say this is not to view it as somehow inadequate. The idea of gender equality as a desirable and obtainable social ideal is a relatively new idea in human history, although in some societies it was occasionally envisaged much earlier in utopian writings. To look for its expression in contemporary terms by these women would be to do both the past and the present an injustice.” (Kishwar, 1990)

[v] “…by and large, the would-be theris became bhikkunis because they wanted to become bhikkunis” (Sharma, 1977, 250).

[vi] All the vachanakaras, in fact, prescribe filial piety. For more on this, see Veeranna Rajuru (2001).

[vii] “Is he a virakta, who has given up women, gold and land and lives in the forest? No!…” (My Translation). In another vachana she states that those who use all their senses to experience woman, gold and land are performing bhakti of a despicable kind.

[viii] That verses of Nachiyar Tirumoli are “sung at the time of Vaishnava weddings even today…” (Nandakumar, 2013) with Sri Vaishnava brides dressed as Andal, only supports my thesis.

[ix] Celebration of beauty by application of kohl to eyes is not recommended by Trayambakayajvan in the absence of the husband in his work Streedharmapadhhati. That is, the streedharmic prescription is for a celebration of beauty when in the company of the husband. For a deeper analysis of this text, see: Kannan, Sushumna. “On the Streedharmpaddhati of Tryambakayajvan.” International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vol 2:1, June 2013pp. 73-94.

[x] Andal’s posture; that of the tribhangi, is said to indicate beauty as well as receptivity. Both these are aspects of the feminine. Krishna too holds this posture, of course. He too represents beauty and receptivity.

[xi] “Bracelets, shoulderbands, earrings, eardrops,

Anklets, and all ornaments;

Dresses new, and after that milk-rice

Heaped up, covered with ghee which drips

Down our elbow as we eat—

And the delight of being together with you! (Tiruppavai, v. 27, cited in Usha V T, 2013, 4)

[xii] Traditionally, women’s roles in rituals seem to be confined to making preparations for the rituals. The justification for this could be that streedharma is already a path that leads towards moksha. In the Streedharmapadhhati of Tryamabakayajvan, women can, apart from preparation for rituals and household duties also listen to puranas and kathas; singing these is the tradition in many parts of India.

[xiii] Tirumoli “is transgressive, sensual, and bold” (Venkatesan, 2010, 10)

[xiv]Those who sing this soft song of plea

will remain forever at the feet

of the supreme king of the gods. (Nachiyar Tirumoli 1.10, Venkatesan, 2010, 149, emphasis mine)

So sang Kōtai of Viṣṇucittaṉ,

master of Villiputuvai,

city resounding with learned men chanting the Vedas,

Those who master these verses of Tamiḻ,

will certainly attain Vaikuṇṭha!” (Nachiyar Tirumoli, 2.10, Venkatesan, 2010, 153, emphasis mine)

[xv] “If through our innocent love

We have nicked your name, taken liberties

Don’t be angry with us, Lord,

Nor withhold your gracious drum. (Tiruppavai, v. 28)” Cited in Usha V T (2013).

[xvi] Scholars like Blake Michael argue that Virashaiva saints like Basavanna were only criticizing ritual impropriety and not rituals per se. Ramanujan argues however: “Ritual, superstition, sacred space and sacred time, pilgrimage and temple-going, offerings to god and priest, prayers and promises-all forms of ‘making’ and ‘doing’ –all of them are performed to get results, to manipulate and manage carefully the Lord’s universe to serve one’s own purposes, to save one’s soul or one’s skin. Salvation, like prosperity, has a price. It can be paid—by oneself or by proxy. The ‘great’ and ‘little’ traditions organize and catalogue the universe, and make available the price-list. But the vachanakaras have a horror of such bargains, such manipulations, the arrogance of such predictions. The Lord’s world is unpredictable, and all predictions are false, ignorant, and worse.” (Ramanujan, 1973, 12). Arguably, such manipulation is a characteristic of Gods in the Indian traditions; they are neither omnipotent and omnipresent nor all-powerful. In my previous work (2011), I argue against Ramanujan’s reading of the vachanakaras by showing inconsistencies in them and agree with scholars who argue in the following manner: “Even Basava’s rather poignant complaint against the vacuity of ritualism was not a rejection of ritual worship per se but an attempt to rid that worship of its mechanical hypocrisy and to imbue it with a pervasive inner spiritual intensity…” (Michael, 1992, 130).

[xvii] See vachana no. 15 in Shivasharaneyara Vachanasamputa, 2001, Vol 5. Mukatbai too is seen as being “rather uninspiring and…prone to didactism” because there is an “imitation of Vedic imagery” in her compositions (Ramaswamy, 1997, 218). Muktabai writes: “Hari resides in the body but is aloof, the sun is reflected in water jars, you think it is near but cannot catch it, God resides in the heart but is not graspable, till one day you yourself become Hari” (cited in ibid, 218). This corresponds to the notion of the hidden self, available in the Vedas.

[xviii] Internet source: Accessed on September 12th 2011.

[xix] Cited in Usha V T (2013, 2).

This article first appeared in Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring 2014, pp 147-166 and has been republished with permission.

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Sushumna Kannan has a PhD in Cultural Studies from Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore, India. Her research on the Indian intellectual traditions and feminist epistemology focused on the medieval saint, Akka Mahadevi and her vachanas. She received the BOURSE MIRA, French research fellowship in 2006 and 2007 and the Sir Ratan Tata fellowship for PhD Coursework and Writing in 2003 and 2007. She has published her research on Bhakti, dharmashastras, ethics, literary works in Kannada and English as well as on translation in journals. She is currently working on a couple of book projects. She translates fiction between English and Kannada and is Adjunct Faculty at the San Diego State University, San Diego, USA. For more of her writings, visit: