“Poetry, Passion, and Power: The Lyrics of Andal-Goda and the Music of Goda Mandali,” Vasudha Narayanan”Mirabai: Inscribed in Text, Embodied in Life,” Nancy M. Martin-KershawThis is a summary and reaction to the above articles, both of which have similar foci in that they each discuss different female Hindu saints. These Saints, though women, have life histories that do not exactly fit into the prescribed gender roles of current modern India.
Interestingly, in an India where men dominate and female virtue is based on passivity and sacrifice for one’s husband, these holy women, who never married (officially) and show no sign of passivity, are widely excepted and widely revered as examples of holy righteousness. Because of this, the saints can be viewed as alternative role models for women in India who do not readily want to submit themselves to the rule of men. The articles focus on this seemingly contradictory phenomenon of the incorporation of these female saints in Hindu mythology, first giving hagiographic details pertaining to the saints and then siting examples of various followers attracted to them. In the first article, Narayanan shows how the only female alvar of Tamil hymns, the Saint Goda (pupularly known as Andal), can be seen as an alternative female role model-one that showed contempt for marrying a man. Andal, or “she who rules,” is an eighth century poet saint who is worshiped in south India by adherents of the Srivaisnava faith.
We see, however, that although Andal is and has been worshipped throughout south India in temples for centuries, her poetry and contribution to religious worship have largely been ignored in Hindu scholarship. Narayanan’s article really drives the point home that, although many scholars have ignored Goda, the reality of Andal in the Shrivaisnava faith is very strong, which makes the fact that she has been ignored all the more peculiar. It certainly is not because Andal lacks sufficient hagiography. Narayanan mentions three different hagiographical traditions describing Andal’s discovery by her father in the garden and her later refusal to marry, preferring to marry Visnu instead. For Andal, however, this is no mere fantasy and when she is brought to Srirangam upon Visnu’s request, she is unified with the Lord both physically and spiritually, thus marrying Him.Apart from biographical stories, Andal is also survived by her two Tamil poems, which are recited daily in Srivaisnava temples.
Also, inline with the recent emergence of women bhajana groups that sing the poems of the Tamil saints, several such groups have developed that are devoted specifically to the praise and worship of Andal-Goda through the singing of her poetry. It is interesting to note as well that these mainly female Bhajana organizations attract members from outside of the Srivaisnava community, as only about 10% of their membership come from this group. Narayanan mentions two different groups devoted to Andal. They have women members, meet twice a week, and frequently give performances also appearing on television, radio. It seems that these groups gathering in praise of Andal are drawn in perhaps not only by religious piety, but also out of the attraction that such a powerful female role model provides. Certainly the model of Andal inspires a hope of a different sort of role for women that traditional Indian society does not provide.
The second Article by Martin-Kershaw focuses on another female saint, Mirabai. She is described to be “the embodiment of absolute devotion to Krsna.” Mirabai lived in the 16th century and was a member of the Rathor royal family. She seems to have been a true rebel and is seen as a “defiant lover of God who ignored all social expectations for a royal woman in order to daily live out her limitless devotion for God.”Martin-Kershaw next goes on to give us hagiographic details pertaining to Mira’s life. It is said that she was forced to marry a Rana, but immediately she gets into trouble with this new family because she refuses to bow down to the family’s Goddess.
She refused because her only God was Krsna. Angered, the in-laws said that she was useless and ignorant and she was next made to be isolated in a separate palace. The in-laws later tried to poison her, but when she drank the poison, first offering it up to Krsna, she becomes even prettier and more vibrant. The stories go on, but what we see is that Mira is painted through these tales as a true hero. First we see that her intense devotion begins as a child. Then she has to deal with a forced marriage when she only has love for God.
She is able to escape the marriage, however, by later denying its validity as she only had thoughts of Krsna during the ceremony. During the marriage, however, she is forced to deal with resentment from her in-laws and several attempts at her life because she does not fit into the paradigm of meek feminine virtue. After the marriage as an independent woman, she has to deal with the lusting of other men and the intense testing done by the male religious authority. Marin-Kershaw points out Mira’s uniqueness. First, she is a woman.
She is of high caste and royal status, but at the same time rejects the expectations placed upon women of such birth. Also there are Mira’s heroic qualities: she has intense devotion to the Lord in the face of all opposition, she is defiant to all worldly social norms, and no one but Krsna can command her allegiance. Mira, however, is different from Andal-Goda in that she does not become affiliated with any official religious group and her songs are not sung by any particular group. Since her tradition is so free and only requires the devotion to God, it resists any kind of formal incorporation. Marin-Kershaw, for instance, mentions the Vallabhacarya who, much like Mira’s in-laws, have denounced her three times for not ever having accepted their Guru as an incarnation of Krsna.
Indeed, Mira, independent as she was, never accepted a Guru of any kind. This simplicity is perhaps what has attracted the few devotees who try to emulate Mira. Just as Mira is a rarity amongst saints her followers are also rare, but these devotees are nevertheless a well-known and recurring phenomenon throughout India. Kershaw, in her article, gives examples of several different “Miras” that she finds in India.
They tended to be reclusive, never married, would sing songs and dance for Krsna, and compose poetry. Like Andal, Mira seems to present a very attractive alternative role model for women, especially for those who feel cheated by the system of oppression, with which they deal in their daily lives as women. Mira is the perfect example of devotion in the case of immense opposition. She is admired by everyone, and since her devotion is so total, it leads her to ignore all social obligations based on gender. Thus, it appears that in a seemingly dead end world for women, Mira offers a way out, albeit, the “way out” is a far cry from the goals of the modern feminist and more akin to the life of a monk. Martin-Kershaw, makes an interesting point also that there is a danger in using Mira as an example of womanhood because it is a two sided coin.
She explains how it can be used either as a way for women to fight social oppression or as a way for women to accept it. While defiant Mira can be seen as fighting against the traditional roles of womanhood, a widow may also be encouraged to be more like Mira in that she should demand nothing else but to live the life of an ascetic. Some, Kershaw points out, have interpreted Mira as a good wife whose devotion flowers in womanhood. It is important to note that both of these saints, Andal and Mira are, because of their status, seen as people whom one should try to emulate, and through that emulation become closer to God. As women, they were strong and did not submit to the meek status of the typical Indian female; therefore, in the eyes of the oppressed Indian they represent heroes and hope for the possibility of a different reality for women.
On top of this too, they represent the diversity and flexibility of Hinduism. For instance, as social change for women becomes more and more apparent in India and the paradigms of virtue are shifted and broadened to include more opportunities for women, a justification within the Hindu mode of thought will also be required. In regard to female social paradigms, the flexibility of Hinduism can be seen in its embodiment of such seemingly contradictory examples as Goda-Andal and Mirabai, which appear to go directly against the grain of normative Hindu teachings in regard to femininity. Thus Goda-Andal and Mirabai can be viewed not only as heroes who fought against the system, but also as cornerstones of feminist ideology imbedded within ancient Hindu scripture.
And it is precisely such cornerstones as these that provide hope for future generations that change is indeed possible and well within the scope and conception of Hindu philosophy. Bibliography:”Poetry, Passion, and Power: The Lyrics of Andal-Goda and the Music of Goda Mandali,” Vasudha Narayanan; “Mirabai: Inscribed in Text, Embodied in Life,” Nancy M. Martin-Kershaw