Devotion, Freedom and Desiring Bodies
My earliest memories of you are fictionalized glimpses of you swaying along the temple on the sea shore of Dwarka. I taste the salt in my mouth and your melodies, mere to giridhar gopal, dusro na koi (Mine is only Giridhar Gopal, no one else is mine) (Jairam) start ringing in my ears. In my imagination, you are rejoicing in a freedom I don’t recognise as real, somehow I didn’t believe you were real in history until my middle school textbook revealed your name under the Bhakti movement. The syllabus covered your devotion to Krishna, and how your resistance was a source of liberation against the caste and gender hierarchy of the time. My mind wandered to ponder upon your devotional desire for Krishna, in all its erotic underpinnings, and I questioned if it was a desire for your own self?
Now, I wonder about these contradictions as I squint my eyes to a foggy autumn morning half a millenia after you walked around these paths. I notice the whistlewoods chirping in the garden, merging with the shrill Pooja (prayer) bell ringing in the corner of the room. Nanima is chanting her prayers in slight whispers so as to not wake us up. The first plate of Vaishnav Bhojan (Satvik food) for the day touches Krishna before the first rays of sunshine. He is fed in private, a veil marks the decorum of respect afforded to the child God. The morning ritual begins with bathing Him in milk and ornate attires, and halts at the bhojan (food).
I grew up listening to tales about the purity of your devotion to Krishna, and only recently likened it to that of my Nanima. I was first struck by my grandmother’s devotion when she refused to travel to another part of the country without her little Krishna idol despite her worsening health. It became clear very quickly that He was as much a part of her as the limbs in her body, and separation from Him would be an act of violence. Your love for Krishna inspired Bhakti traditions throughout centuries. While idol worship is not a tenet of the Bhakti movement, striking out Nanimas’s devotion from Bhakti would be unjust. Your transgressions for Krishna compelled you to break boundaries of caste and gender to leave your Rajput aristocratic home for a life of a saint. When women were considered impure and unworthy of attaining respect in the spiritual realm, you broke all norms to enter the metaphysical realm (Sharma 302). You sang songs in your Bhakti for Krishna, in gatherings that were not permissible for women from upper caste upbringings. Your melodies carry on through the voices of artisan and peasant communities, your songs, a resistance for Bhakti traditions against caste-based hierarchies (Ansari).
When I read legends about you, I learnt that you withstood accusations of promiscuity, immoral femininities and shaming routinely, but were rescued by divine intervention which protected your moral femininity ((Varghese and Rath 614). As you broke the chain of ordinary morality, humming the beats of the nisan¹ drum (Sharma 303), you entered the spiritual economy only reserved for upper caste men, inviting people across caste lines to move closer to God (Varghese and Rath 615). Your social acts of subversion were simultaneously personal and political, you could do things in Bhakti that were impermissible otherwise – you traveled alone, refused Purdah/ghoonghat, sat with male saints, sang poetry aloud in public, and became a saint for your followers (Priyamvada). While these acts of defiance could often seem deliberate if one were to consider them as social acts of rebellion in a rigid patriarchal society, you expressed complete indifference to the world around you. It was this peculiar characteristic that drew me to try to understand you and through you, my grandmother.
Your birth in the Rajput household dictates your social position of constricting moral, upper caste femininity in the medieval period. Your refusal to assimilate into your social and gendered position was to be understood as an immoral act, and yet, there was a distance between your roles and actions and your body’s movement and poetry in your life. You often mention this distance when you sing, “I’m a leaf with the sickness of late autumn” (Barnstone 153). There is a deep inner world within you that you reveal in your poems. You sing that “people notice me, point fingers at me”, “call me a lunatic” (ibid), your words reveal the awareness of the shame that is cast upon you and your social transgressions. Somehow, you are able to metabolize and transcend this shame through your desiring body. Your devotional desire for Krishna creates a distance between your spiritual, inner self and your social, public self ; cultivating a gap between the social and the self. You experience your world through this distance, and gain legitimacy in your maddening desire through the sanctity of religion and Bhakti. Which desires are deemed legitimate and which are forbidden in India is rooted in our Brahmanical and colonial histories.
While the tethers of Bhakti managed to stay knotted in the lands of northern India, could your own bhakti perhaps have taken shape to fulfill other impermissible desires? I attempt to look diffractively at your life to see my own grandmother, her flirtatious history with freedom and devotion.
My Nanima spent most of her adolescent years in Andrews Ganj, Delhi, until her early and sudden marriage, which transported her to a small village in Garhwal. She spent her initial years of marriage birthing two daughters and working hard at the farm in the village. Her position in the family declined alongside the years she lived without bearing a son, until her body finally complied. The relief and happiness of a son was short lived and upon his tragic demise in two years. Her life and family unraveled quickly. Life gave her a second chance upon my grandfather’s passing, and she faced widowhood amidst loneliness, broken and failed femininity, and faint glimpses of an unfamiliar freedom. For the first time in her life, she was no longer bound by gender roles. Was it then that her desire for her self led her to discover devotional desire towards Krishna? Was it her desire for a male child that was restored in her embrace of little Krishna? Could it be that her desire for self and surrender intermingled to finally present her with the legitimacy to experience autonomy?
Your own personal and spiritual relationship with Krishna took many forms – teacher and disciple, lovers, savior and refugee and also experiences of being abandoned – but all with the underlying expression of total surrender. When in your compositions of Krishna as a Yogi (Sharma 306), you express the pain and loneliness of writhing in Krishna’s love, I am moved with anguish. You talk of the world with complete indifference, a distance that materializes itself against the deep attachment with the image of Krishna, with your complete devotion to only Him. Your Krishna has his own distinct attributes, attributes not afforded simply to the collective image of Krishna, but your own personal one. When you are “worn out from making love”, you and Krishna are one, yet “you are wiped out, gone” (Barnstone 154) . Your Krishna is deeply passionate and immersive, but He is inseparable from you. Your Krishna is the “redeemer of outcasts” (Mirabai) that frees the beggar, He protests and sides with the subaltern, He resists authority and hegemony with you, your surrender to Him is paramount to your own self. While some say that you gain your legitimacy not from your own feminine devotion but from His masculine divinity, you create your Krishna in your own image, as your companion, is it not then a creation of the self through which you create Him? When traditional femininity and shame is considered to be a destruction and annihilation of the self, is it not simultaneously a creation of the self through which you create Him? When you surrender to Krishna, you desire oneness with Him, a desire that is self-determined. Could you derive your autonomy not through Him, but with Him, as you and Him are inseparable entities, co-evolving through your desiring relationality?
What I am proposing is the duality of freedom within surrender, of creation within annihilation, bending social and gender norms despite the problematic of feminine surrender to the masculine authority. In the Bhakti-Sufi tradition, the secret of the annihilation of the self is to be present when the self is no longer there. Or to be absent in the presence of the self. In my grandmother’s complete surrender to little Krishna, she creates her son and caters to his every need. She knits his woolen clothes, undergarments and socks for the winter, stitches his light cotton summer clothes and cradles His idol like her own baby on Janmashtami and special occasions. In her own devotion and desire for a son, she knits the legitimacy of her desire through the webs of permissibility and taboo in Indian society, spiritually birthing a son in the form of Krishna. She experiences her complete annihilation of the self through the presence of Krishna’s love. Her Son finally gives her the ability to overcome the feminine shame of not birthing a son and taking the family name forward. Her other desires, of travel, of wearing jewelry and makeup, all impermissible for widows, transform into permissible routes for women to undergo in the form of religious pilgrimage. She travels across the country, to visit temples of Radha and Krishna, and lives the life she was denied. Surrender for her allows her to regain autonomy and agency, a refuge she could not find in familial or social relations. Desire seethes over devotion to result in a freedom sought across centuries, your devotion too brings refuge in a life made free through indifference.
In your poetry, you declare that you are His maidservant, and you have taken refuge with Krishna, surrendering yourself to His feet, asking Him to act as a redeemer to save you. In seeking refuge both you and my Nanima create conditions that allow for your own voice to find a space in the symbolic order; devotion and desire paving way for possibilities of agency in patriarchy. For centuries women have devoted themselves to Krishna, the God becoming a desiring vehicle for many women and widows. My grandmother would not have received the social permission to live her life of freedom as a widow without Krishna. Could her and your own desire for Krishna be a way to subvert the shaming mechanisms of Indian brahmanical patriarchy to experience freedom through perceived distance and societal indifference?
¹ Nisan drum, also known as goga dhol, is a folk drum of Madhya Pradesh.
Ansari, Maria Uzma. “Singing Mira: The Erasure of Caste from Mira’s Poetry.” Feminism in India, 6 Sept. 2020, feminisminindia.com/2020/09/07/mira-bai-poet-caste-bhakti-movement/.
Barnstone, Willis. To Touch the Sky : Poems of Mystical, Spiritual & Metaphysical Light. New Directions, 1999.
Jairam, Vani. Mere to Giridhar Gopal. Meera, Shemaroo,
Mirabai. “Keep up Your Promise by Mirabai.” Allpoetry.com, allpoetry.com/Keep-Up-Your-Promise#
Priyamvada, Pooja. “Mirabai: A Tale of Simultaneous Devotion and Subversion | #IndianWomenInHistory.” Feminism in India, 8 Mar. 2018, feminisminindia.com/2018/03/09/mirabai-devotion-subversion-bhakti/.
Sharma, Sunita. “Mira Bai in History and Hagiography.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 78, 2017, pp. 302–10.
Varghese, Ritu, and Akshaya K. Rath. “Mirabai in Public Spheres.” Women’s History Review, vol. 32, no. 5, Taylor & Francis, Jan. 2023, pp. 611–31.
Simran Thapliyal is an MA Gender, Media and Culture student at Goldsmiths University of London. Previously, Simran served as the Vice President of Communications for an international non-profit serving the Himalayas. Simran is a Young India Fellow from Ashoka University and holds a Bachelors in Economics from Ramjas College, University of Delhi. Simran has spent her professional life advocating against gender based violence and human trafficking across the India-Nepal border in international and government forums. Her research interests lie in gender and embodiment, affect studies and feminist science studies. Her current research focuses on long term effects of trauma and its intersection in illness and gut health. She is a Kathak dancer and loves to swim in her spare time.
Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.