Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Who are some other important women in the history of Hindu spirituality?

Ancient tradition acknowledges that some anonymous women were among the authors of the Vedic hymns. Many other women whose names we know have made major contributions throughout the history of Hinduism. Here is a brief introduction to four of the better-known women from various denominations. Antal (725-755 C.E.) was one of the Alvars, poet-saints in the Vaishnava tradition. She was most famous for poetry in which she described her relationship with Vishnu in the language of “bridal mysticism.” Seeing herself as the spouse of Vishnu she shares the spiritual longing of women mystics in other traditions who speak of total loving union with God. Devotees still sing hymns that set her poems to music. Mahadevi was a twelfth-century devotee of Shiva and a renowned poet in the Kannada language. In the temple of her village, the principal deity was a form of Shiva called Mallikarjuna, “Lord white as jasmine.” Like Antal, she thought of herself as betrothed to God alone. She was apparently forced into an unhappy marriage, and much of her poetry alludes to the suffering she experienced and her longing to be liberated and live for God alone. A late medieval holy woman named Mirabai (1498-1550) was a devotee of Krishna. She thought of herself as a gopi who had been hopelessly enamored of the dark Lord. After extricating herself from an unsatisfactory marriage, she became a sannyasi and composed love songs in Hindi, a vernacular tongue in west-central India. Finally, a woman known by the honorific title Anandamayi Ma (Bliss-steeped Mother) lived in modern-day Bengal (now Bangladesh). Nirmala Sundari (1896-1982) lived a most colorful life, often flouting strict tradition in favor of sometimes highly symbolic or ecstatic behavior. In her later years she opted for a more settled life, founding an ashram and ministering to disciples who sought her out for spiritual guidance.


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