Incredible Indian women in the Middle Ages
What do we know about Indian women in the Middle Ages? We form our knowledge from literary and artistic monuments, and often this knowledge doesn’t correspond to reality. In vast majority medieval text sources like fiction, epic, puranas and even in collections of religious laws we find such an ideal image of woman as devoted wife, mother and hostess. We also know how beautiful and sublime this image could be remembering innocent Sita, touching Yeshoda or gentle queen Maya. But at the same time we find different models of women lifestyle, which often contradict the former. These models include the temple servants called devadasis, which were in great respect in medieval society, had a high social status and a huge number of benefits, though they had never got married. Besides that, there were women ascetics, which often left their family and householder duties in turn on their own spiritual self-realization.
The best known ideal image of «mother and wife» had been formed under the influence of brahmanical norms in obedience to which a woman is a dependent element, whose freedom and activity depends on will of a man. According to a traditional religious right a woman is forbidden to study scriptures, to accept independent decisions and even to walk to the temple without a husband’s permission. However, it is known, that in reality these rules were not so strict and they were often broken, moreover they were first of all addressed to the highest varnas. Thus, there was a paradox in Indian medieval society – women from the lower castes often had far more freedom than women from the higher ones. Moreover, the Indian culture at the medieval period had been forming during the interaction between both external and internal (local) cultures. That’s why in no way a brahmanical ideal of woman could be the only one. Besides that, in brahmanical culture there are also alternative variants of the feminine, for example, the Vedic goddess Ushas, the Mahabharata character Draupadi, the Kalidasa’s drama personage Shakuntala, gopis – the friends of Krishna, and many others.
The turning point of the history of femininity began in the V-VI centuries. It was the time when Shaktism (the special Hinduism movement that focuses on worshipping the female deity – Shakti or Devi) was emerging headily. At this time the major work of Shaktas Devimahatmyam appeared in writing form, which fundamentally transformed the attitude to the feminine in Indian culture. The main character of Devimahatmyam (“glorification of the Goddess”) is completely self-active and creative female deity – the Great Goddess (Mahadevi) who destroys the evil in the name of good of the whole universe, and taking various forms (Mahakali, Mahalakshmi, Mahasarasvati, Durga, etc.). Here female deity reaches its absolute value: there is nothing superior to the Great Goddess, who is the root of the universe and the source of everything. The Goddess no longer appears in a pair with her heavenly husband, on the contrary, she has no need of a husband because she is the Mother of all being, and she is the essence of all deities both male and female (their Shakti). Such an idea of the feminine wasn’t inherent in Vedic culture, where goddesses typically manifested as the feminine aspects of gods. However, it is worth mentioning that the idea of an absolute Mother Goddess probably existed in pre-Vedic civilization (there was found a huge number of female figurines in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro!), when India hadn’t been yet conquered by the Indo-Aryans.
Near the VIIth century the special non-Vedic texts appeared in India, which reflect the ideology close to Devimahatmyam. These texts are called tantras. However, they got an ill fame because of some rituals, which were shocking for traditional society, and distorted interpretations of the tantric knowledge in the U.S.A. and Europe, which spread around the world. Since that time in the West tantra is associated mostly with sexual practices, while tantric doctrine is much deeper, especially many of these texts don’t contradict Vedas. In addition, many tantras have no reference to this kind of rituals. By virtue of shakta tantrism women abundantly had been provided with an opportunity to devote themselves to a spiritual practice, which was almost inaccessible until that time.
In Shaktism and in some tantric schools every woman is the embodiment of the Goddess (Shakti). In addition, in many Shakta and tantric works we find the information that in every human body there is a special female energy – Kundalini, through which human beings receive their self-realization, that’s why the spiritual development should be open to everyone despite of gender. Like a powerful explosion of volcano the ideology of Shaktism and tantric practices of yoga with their revolutionary ideas had spread so rapidly and become so popular that they had penetrated in the main directions of Hinduism (Vaishnavism and Shaivism), as well as in Buddhism and Jainism. As a result the whole Indian philosophy and mysticism found themselves under the influence of these movements.
So, in VII century in India more alternative scenarios of women lifestyle appeared. Among them there were various female ascetic practices which were found rarely before this time. As we already noted, the way of deep spiritual development in traditional society was reserved mostly for men.
Discovering of the divine by medieval woman was difficult and sometimes dangerous adventure, as she had to go contrary to the traditional standards, break the connections with householdership and abandon the role of an ordinary wife, indulging at the mercy of a single heavenly husband – the God.
Among the most prominent figures of women asceticism in the Middle Ages there were Shaiva saints Akka Mahadevi, Lalla Ded, and also Vaishnava saints Antal and Mira Bai. These women were Brahmanis by birth, but they became famous as holy-poetesses, whose poetry inspired lots of people. The lives of these women were full of challenges, which they overcome desperately and boldly.
Antāl (near VIII A.D.) was the only woman among 12 alvars – the holy poets, followers of the god Vishnu. She was grown by one of the alvars called Vishnuchitta, who was the one of the main priests of the city. Her name is shrouded in mystery by many legends. One of them says that she refused a marriage proposal from worldly man and gave him an answer that she would be the wife of her beloved Krishna (one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu). Dressed as a bride in one of the temples dedicated to Krishna she married his image. Once, people in the temple became witnesses of the miracle. Looking at the statue of Krishna with the great devotion, Antāl suddenly dissolved in it, disappeared in the stone.
Akka Mahadevi (XII A.D.) left her husband, the Jain king, who was amazed by her incredible beauty and forced her to marry him according to legends. The king broke the main promise that he gave to Akka – do not touch his wife without her permission. His betrayal when happened at the third time made Akka escape from the palace, leaving behind luxury, power, and even her clothes. But the stubborn king pursued his wife until the time before she opened his eyes to the illusion of jealousy that possessed him. Since then, King became her disciple and faithful follower.
Lalla Ded (1320-1392) was married with a Brahmin, but she was unhappy in marriage. The mind and soul of this woman wanted to understand its true nature and leave behind the family worries, which rooted her in samsara. Lalla started practicing Kundalini yoga and discovering the inexhaustible supply of divine love. Legends retell that holy woman had reached such a high level of understanding the divine that she could not anymore separated herself from the God. Lalla had the life of enlightened master who realized that she is guru for herself. Lots of truth seekers gathered around her. She was in high respect among Shaivas and Sufis. Because of the incredible miracles that she demonstrated, Lalla was accused in witchcraft. On the other hand extraordinary life that Lall Ded had aroused admiration and veneration of people.
Mira Bai (1498-1547), the Vaishnava poetess and saint, probably suffered from the most severe oppressions of the society. She was born in the royal palace Chitor in the family of Vaishnavas. At the age of five she received the statue of Lord Krishna as a gift from the holy man, and suddenly she fell in love with the image of God. From the very childhood the family had been prepared Mira for the role of princess. At the very young age Mira was married with a prince, who soon died in the battle with the Muslim conqueror Babur being very young too. Mira did not want to become a widow at her twenties, so she decided to devote her life to Krishna, as Antal did, and to live in the temple dedicated to this god. However, after the death of the king, who was her father-in-law, Mira met strict threats from the new king and his mother, who wanted to return the princess to the king’s palace. She even had an attempt upon her life by the new king, who was also her brother-in-law. The king was offended by behavior of princess when he saw how she was going through trance, singing songs and dancing in the streets. However, Mira holds her own, and at any price she did not want to come back, but when the lives of her parents were in danger, she had to return to the invidious palace. With the help of powerful connections Mira got an opportunity to avert the threat from her parents, and after the fall of the royal dynasty and Merta city, which was tying her hands, at the first time she felt herself free. Mira went to Vrindavan, the great center of the followers of Krishna, and her last years elapsed in the temple of Krishna in Dvaraka.
In the same time, in addition to strict asceticism, on which only a small number of women was dare, from the VII century by virtue of Shaktism with its idea of active creative female energy (shakti), women are able to accept dedication in esoteric rituals, practice yoga and other spiritual techniques, study the scriptures under the guidance of a guru, and even to become spiritual teachers by themselves. Moreover, often these things don’t necessarily have to break away from worldly affairs and abandon earthly love, marriage or motherhood.