In the final quarter of the 13th century and the first half of the 14th, there lived in Pandharpur a maid called Janabai. “God my darling," she once declared, “do me a favour and kill my mother-in-law." “I will feel lonely when she is gone, but you will be a good God, won’t you," asked our poet wryly, “and kill my father-in-law" too? The sister-in-law also made it to Janabai’s roster of relatives to dispatch, for once they dropped dead, she would at last be free. Picking up a bowl with which to beg, she could take off from her life of domestic drudgery. Or, as she proposed to the almighty, “we will be left alone, just you and me."
The great irony of this particular composition by our Maharashtrian poet-saint, of course, is that she was never actually married—her words express merely frustration with the shackles that bound women in general to men and that hallowed institution called family. Janabai herself was an orphan, and a servant in the house of Namdev, the tailor-saint of somewhat greater celebrity.
One legend relates how she came to Pandharpur as a pilgrim and refused to budge from the gates of its great temple; her family departed, and she became a maid. Another version has her father receiving a divine command in a dream: He was to take his blessed daughter to the home of Namdev’s father, for it was there that she was destined to spend the rest of her days.
Much of Janabai’s identity, in fact, is tied to service under Namdev. “Only by being Nama’s dasi," she once wrote, “could I see Vitthal," their deity. Referring to herself as Namdev’s Jani, she expresses elsewhere a desire to forever remain his disciple and attendant—even if it meant rebirths as “a bird, a pig, an animal, a beast, or a cat!"
Part of this devotion was, perhaps, a consequence of her context—she was 7 when her family sent her to work at Namdev’s house, and this was the beginning and end of the world she knew physically. In terms of her own identity and her relationship with God and society, however, Janabai offered ideas that recognized no geographies and acknowledged limits only she set for herself.
Given her position as a servant, everyday plodding is a constant in much of her poetry. Even God, when he makes his appearance, descends to help Janabai with her duties. As the chronicler Mahipati’s hagiography—the Bhaktavijaya—relates, one day the deity is asked why he is sore. In response, Vitthal states: “It has taken Me from early morning to finish the grinding for Jani…. I took her water jar and carried a great amount of water for her. As the maiden Jani swept, I filled a basket with the refuse and threw it outside. I washed the clothes with my four hands and pounded rice for her." Such is her bhakti, in fact, that God helps pick lice from her hair and rinses kitchen vessels too. And, in the course of time, Janabai finds in Vitthal her mother, father, child, friend, lover, and even domestic assistant—indeed, she even tells him off for his “false pride", asking God to behave.
But as with most other Bhakti poets, dialogue and exchanges with the divine mask larger ideas and messages for society itself. As the scholar Rajeshwari Pandharipande notes, Janabai did not present a grand, radical message to lift up everyone who was poor and weak—her principle, in fact, was simply that everything was divine, and every being had value. She was a mere scullery maid with little standing in the world, for instance. And yet it was to her that the deity came, leaving behind, in one episode, even his jewels, and, in another, protecting her from execution and death. She suffers, certainly, and remains a maid—but that does not mean she cannot express devotion and other thoughts couched in chants of the divine name.
For Janabai, women were not handicapped in any way from seeking a world beyond that which was prescribed for them. “Let me not be sad because I am born a woman in this world," she wrote, for “many saints suffer" by thinking of their sex as a weakness. God comes to eat leftovers with her, and if she is polluted, so is he. But there is the occasional desire, behind everything, to escape her life and liberate herself fully. Idealizing public women, free from the chores she must endure, in one verse Janabai says: “Cast off all your shame, and sell yourself in the marketplace…. The pallu of my sari falls away (a scandal!), yet I will enter the crowded marketplace…. My Lord, I have become a slut to reach your home." If, in other words, to reach God (or, more broadly, her goal) she must endure a slap to her reputation, so be it, she seems to say.
In the end, though, unlike a Meerabai, who actually smashed norms and set out singing songs in praise of God, Janabai never took such a controversial step. She continued to sweep, and she continued to serve, but also refused to succumb to fatalism and helplessness. On the contrary, by the close of her life and career, she openly identified God with her, and herself with Vitthal. “I eat God, I sleep in God, I breathe God, I feel God, I speak God, and I give God and take God." Vitthal was everywhere, and so she was everywhere—feminizing Vitthal into Vithabai, she saw herself in the divine. By the eve of her death around 1350, in fact, she even perceived herself as beyond her original patron, Namdev—the kitchen maid had become one with God, and God was one with the kitchen maid.
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