There was once a little girl called Bahina, whose calf had a coat as dark as coal. And wherever the little girl went, the calf was certain to follow. It drank only if Bahina poured it water and ate only the grass she held up before its nose. So close was their bond that the calf would not seek even milk unless the little girl led it by the neck to its mother. It slept by Bahina’s mat, and she loved it like none other.
A wise man declared theirs a spiritual connection: “The calf is her guru; the calf is her means of salvation." Others believed the animal to hold within it a pious soul, a bhakta reborn in bovine form. To Bahina, either way, the calf was an extension of herself—when they were separated, her anguish was unparalleled. Bahina wept, and the calf eventually died. And with it, something inside Bahina also perished.
This is one of many tales left behind in the autobiography of the 17th century Maharashtrian Bhakti saint, Bahina Bai. While much about it can be discounted as creative excess—the calf, for instance, unexpectedly recites a shloka (verse)—the episode is the first in a sequence of many that shook this poetess to the core. When she was born in 1628, ironically, astrologers made grand announcements of promise and success. “She will be one to possess good fortune. The cord of her life shows great strength." Strength Bahina Bai certainly cultivated, but “fortune" for her had little to do with its conventional manifestations. Where others saw wealth and power as marks of fortune, for Bahina, this would come through the pursuit of salvation for the spirit.
The pantheon of female Bhakti poets is dominated largely by women who questioned the status quo, their voices challenging norms designed by men. The 12th Lingayat saint Akka Mahadevi, for instance, rejected even clothes, while Meera opposed what was expected of her as a Rajput widow. Bahina Bai too faced moments of frustration. “The Vedas cry, the Puranas shout," she lamented, “that no good can come of a woman. I was born with a woman’s body—how am I to attain the Goal?"
“I may not say ‘Om’, I may not hear mantras’ names," she cries elsewhere. How, then, would this Brahmin’s wife find the almighty? Yet, unlike Mahadevi and Meera, who walked out of their homes, Bahina Bai made her peace with the world. “A woman’s body is a body controlled by somebody else," she concluded. How, then, could she dream of finding her own way?
Bahina Bai was only 3 when she was married to a man of 30. Her father, a bureaucrat, found himself facing prison when she was about 7—bailed out by his son-in-law, “a man of very angry disposition", the family left its home. They settled eventually in Kolhapur, often begging their way through. Before long, little Bahina was showing an inclination for the teachings of Bhakti saints, attending a discourse once with her calf in tow. The guru there, in the course of events, blessed both by placing his hand on their heads—an action that upset Bahina Bai’s husband. “He seized me by (my) braids…and beat me to his heart’s content." Her parents watched, and the girl later asked, “In what duty to my husband had I failed?" It was now that she was forcibly separated from her calf, soon losing it forever to death.
In her grief, Bahina Bai had a vision of her contemporary Tukaram, already a famous man. Deeming herself his disciple, the adolescent was quickly absorbed in bhakti. Her husband, predictably, did not approve. He thundered, “Who is this Sudra Tuka, who appears in a dream?" As an orthodox Brahmin, he could venerate the Vedas but not voices of Bhakti, which often bent tradition. More injurious to his pride was witnessing Bahina Bai win admirers. “People will bow to her. To her I’ll seem like a piece of straw," he feared. “Look at the people come asking for her…. Who cares about me with her there?" When she was pregnant, therefore, the man decided to discard her. An illness—and Bahina Bai’s dedication while nursing him back to vitality—led to a change of mind, and the husband too prostrated before Tukaram.
But for Bahina Bai this opened up a larger question: how to reconcile the expectations placed on her sex by the shastras with her individual spiritual yearnings? Her answer, after she passed through a suicidal phase, was to combine the two and eschew radicalism. “My husband’s the soul," she wrote, and “I’m the body…. My husband’s the water; I’m a fish in it." Why would she think of domestic, conjugal life as a barrier if this became her attitude? She, who first questioned shastric injunctions against women, became more accepting of the scriptures. Indeed, if someone rejected the Vedas and assorted texts, “know him to be impure within and without", she declared.
Bahina Bai did, however, try to gently question caste without upsetting the apple cart. Birth, she argued in a style still fashionable, could not make a Brahmin—wisdom alone did. Mere learning too did not mark anyone as special. “All castes," she felt, “are able to explain words and sentences and even poetry…. Even Muhammadans exhibit learning. But who regards these as truly Brahmins?"
So, while she accepted rules laid out for her after a period of crisis, Bahina Bai attempted a quiet compromise. It does not make her a powerful example for our standards today, but, as Anne Feldhaus notes, “Bahina Bai realized a powerful Hindu ideal." By the time she died in 1700, she had “achieved something not achieved either by the many dutiful wives who did not become saints, or by the saints who were not good wives." She became, instead, that voice of Bhakti who espoused the middle path—one that upset nobody even as it delivered her the thing she craved: oneness with god.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015)and Rebel Sultans (2018).
He tweets at @UnamPillai