M.A. English IV Semester
21 April 2014
The Status of Women and The Bhakti Movement in India
Originating in ancient Tamil Nadu, the Bhakti movement in India spread to the north during the late medieval ages when north India was under Islamic rule. The movement was spontaneous and counter to the predominant caste ideology which was dividing Hinduism. The adherents of the movement had their own rendering of devotional expression. While in the south, devotion was centered on both Shiva and Vishnu (in all his forms), the northern devotional movement was centered on Rama and Krishna, both of whom are believed to be incarnations of Vishnu. Though initially the Bhakti movement was considered unorthodox due to its defiance of caste distinctions and disregard of Brahmanic rituals, it soon rose into prominence, co-existing peacefully with other movements in Hinduism.
In a time when freedom was limited to males of upper castes, the bhakti movement in India came as a means of escape to many. The saints of the movement were not idle philosophers or merely scions of the prosperous castes. They also came from the lower sections of society and worked for their living. Though sants like Meera, Chaitanya and Tulsidas were from the upper class, others like Kabir, Namdev, Nanak and Tukaram belonged to the lower communities. These saints taught that people could cast aside the heavy obligations of ritual and caste and the convolutions of philosophy, and simply express their supreme love for god. They believed that one could reach god personally and directly, without the use of temples or idol worship. Women and members of the Shudra and untouchable communities were now included rather than excluded.
Indian women in medeival India were confined within the four walls of the house and were
benighted and superstitious. They were therefore exploited and overpowered by the entire Brahmin caste. With the bhakti movement preaching that anyone, irrespective of their caste or gender, could achieve salvation, women were finally able to step out from the superior clutches of the Brahmins. Women and shudras did not have any access to religious teachings because religious books were written in Sanskrit and they were not permitted to read them. Well aware of this, the saints of the movement narrated their philosophy in local dialects and lyrical forms. They also expressed their ideologies and teachings through hymns and poems.
In contrast, while the male bhakti saints clamoured for change and protested against the injustices in society, the woman was still expected to be at the back of the home. The male bhaktas did not have any intention of including women in these changing times. One major exception to this is Nanak, who spoke for the empowerment of women. He wrote :
It is by women that we are conceived and it is from her that we are betrothed and married
It is a woman we befriend and it is she keeps a race going