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Challenging Gender and Sexuality Norms through Devotion:

Bhakti and Sufi writings

by Srishti Nayak

The Bhakti and the Sufi traditions both focused on having a personal
relationship and union with God. The poets Akka Mahadevi, Janabai, Amir Khusro,
and Shah Hussayn believed that this divine union was achievable through complete
devotion and passion for God. These poets, who were fighting against the assumption
that God could only be accessed through some authority figure, bravely challenged
and redefined the norms on religious propriety at the time. Many of their views and
actions were considered shocking and profane, but it is precisely this juxtaposition of
the sacred and the profane; of other-worldly and this-worldly; of divine and human,
that these poets aimed to emphasize. Particularly, the use of erotic imagery was a
distinguishing feature in their devotional poetry and a recurring theme for all four
poets. In this essay I will discuss how for these poets, sexual or erotic desire is an
inherent feature of devotion and is instrumental to spiritual liberation or
enlightenment. Furthermore I will show how each poet challenges the assumed and
prescribed gender roles of the time, by breaking out of the confining stereotyped
features of their gender.
I will begin by taking the example of Akka Mahadevi, a well respected Bhakti
poet of her time. Akka Mahadevi considered Shiva, or Chennamallikarjuna, her only
lover, and rejected the idea of a human lover altogether. What she seeks is a complete
devotion and giving up of her entire self to God, and a love which affirms her very
soul and being. This entails loving God in the highest form, embracing all of her
human faculties, including the very human desire for erotic and carnal pleasure. She
feels that human lovers will only objectify her and see her as a subset of her gender,
rather than affirm her personhood and love her soul. She refers to her longing for
Shiva when she declares: If you must torment me, Chennamallikarjuna, my life, my
body Ill offer you, and be cleansed. For Akka Mahadevi, the carnal love for
Chennamallikarjuna that consumes her is central to her spiritual progression and
We can also see how Akka Mahadevi breaks out of the traditional and
expected gender role of the woman. She rejects marriage and leaves behind her family
and society to travel solitary and naked in search of her perfect love, knowing that her
naked female body is bound to be a liability. This was a very bold step for a woman
as the role for women was largely defined by the demands of patriarchy in this time.
Women were expected to be modest and to aim to get married into a good family and
fulfill domestic responsibilities. Wandering naked was not only considered extremely
inappropriate for a woman of this time, but was also easily misunderstood as flaunting
sexuality. In the vacana 'Brother, youve come', Akka Mahadevi addresses, in
frustration, the men she encounters along her travels: Brother youve come, drawn
by the beauty of these billowing breasts, this brimming youth. For her, the nakedness
is symbolic of giving up herself and her soul to Shiva, completely, in the purest form,
with nothing at all coming in their way. What she wants is to be genderless and
recognized as an unavailable person who has devoted herself completely and
passionately to God in a union of souls and not merely bodies. Im no woman,
brother she insists and states proudly that she is no whore and that all men other
than Chennamallikarjuna are faces to be shunned.
Janabai, another woman Bhakti poet, similarly devoted herself to God.
However she did not reject human lovers or sexual relationships. For Janabai, the
satisfaction of carnal desire and other this-worldly pleasures were the only way to
reach God. According to her, conservatism and social euphemisms were a hindrance
to spiritual liberation, enlightenment, and oneness with God. Cast off all shame, and
sell yourself in the marketplace, then alone can you hope to reach the Lord she
proclaimed. What she sought was complete honesty to oneself, society, and God. For
Janabai, the idea of selling her body is empowering and gives her a satisfying feeling
of rebellion and freedom. Her attitude challenges the idea that only a certain type of
people can reach God, and only in a certain way.
Janabai realizes that people perceive her actions as being non-virtuous,
unladylike, and scandalous. She satirically speaks of this in Cast off all shame: The
pallav of my sari falls away (A scandal!); yet will I enter the crowded marketplace
without a thought. She does not see anything wrong or immoral about her actions
and her attitude, and instead feels that she is not bound by socially imposed rules of
propriety she is liberated, and empowered in spite of the hardships of her life as a
low caste woman. This is reflected in the lines Let me not be sad because I am born a
woman. In this world; many saints suffer this way. She does not aim to be a virtuous
family oriented woman who conforms blindly to the patriarchal attitudes present
around her, and feels instead that this type of bound, conformist behaviour has
nothing to do with spiritual oneness with God. Instead, she embraces the idea of being
an independent person, one who only cares about acceptance and love from God.
Unlike other restricted and timid women of her time, she goes about, cymbals in
hand, a Veena upon (her) shoulder and confronts society head on: who dares to stop
me? She knows full well that her actions are not respected by most, but does not feel
that they preclude companionship and oneness with God. Implying just the opposite,
she says to God: I have become a slut to reach Your home.
The third poet I will consider is Amir Khusro, the Sufi mystic-poet. Amir
Khusro had a great love, devotion, and erotic longing for his pir Nizammudin Aulia,
and this was a central theme in much of his devotional writing. His relationship with
Aulia can be considered symbolic and metaphoric for his relationship with God, and
we find much of the desire for union, togetherness and acceptance that was present in
Janabai and Akka Mahadevi, in his poetry. In Khusro's qawwalis we not only find
declarations of love and devotion as in I am sold on your beautiful face, Nizam, but
also the poetic communication of erotic desire, possessiveness and jealousy. Some
examples of these features can be found in the following couplets:
Beloved, if at night I put my lips to yours dont ask whose mouth this is.
The language of my beloved is Turkish would it not be wonderful if his tongue
were in my mouth.
Dont tie a band around your waist, let me wrap my hands around instead.
Oh cruel one with your words of love whom are you seducing now?
This element of eroticism and desire for some sort of tangibility and physical
connection goes hand in hand with his spiritual devotion for Aulia, and through him,
for God and enlightenment.
In many of his qawwalis, Khusro redefines the gender identity norm by
identifying himself as a woman. Although this was common in Bhakti and Sufi
writings, and we shall see it again in Hussayns work, Khusros example is slightly
different in that he retains the use of his own name, while addressing himself as a
woman. Khusro has given himself to Nizam. He declared me his matchless female
disciple. This is possibly a direct reference to the fact that Nizamuddin Aulia
recognized that Khusro identifies himself as a woman. In the qawwalis, many such
references are made to his femininity and womanhood. In this way, he openly goes
against the assumption that someone born a man must identify with the male gender,
and also goes against the hetero-sexism present in his society. He is aware of ridicule,
but continues to honestly express his love and devotion to his pir, and continues to
challenge the conventional social views on gender and sexuality. I exchanged
amorous glances with my beloved. Let the women and girls say what they like.
Lastly I will discuss the sufi mystic Shah Hussayn, and how erotic and
physical love formed a substantial part of his idea of spiritual enlightenment. Hussayn
was deeply in love with the young Brahmin boy Madho Lal, and this is the main
theme in many of his writings. Hussayn spends a long and hard time trying to seduce
Madho, and convince him to take a holiday alone with him. It is revealed later that
these seductions were for (Madhos) own salvation, and that Hussayn had a secret
way to lead him to God. The notion of spiritual enlightenment being passed on
through bodily fluids was common in Sufi thought, and this is depicted in Hussayns
poetry in the descriptive erotic play between Madho and Hussayn. Hussayn sums this
up: The lovers engaged in a play of passions, demanding and acceding, teasing and
refusing in this duet of beseeching and tenderly replying, the two friends made love
with each other. In this way, Hussayn brings Madho to God. In his own words,
Hussayn is training Madho from the depth of his soul, how to pass along the mystic
path to Truth. It is plain here that physicality and erotic play is instrumental to the
process of enlightenment, and is a significant aspect of the love that Hussayn and
Madho share.
Hussayns relationship with Madho also challenges heterosexism and his followers
idea of religious propriety. However unlike Khusro, Hussayn uses spirituality to gain
legitimacy for his homoerotic feelings and actions. He defends himself by saying that
there is a greater purpose to the sexual intimacy between him and Madho, and that the
play of kisses are ripples from the ocean of guidance, not from selfish lust.
However, Hussayn goes on to live permanently with Madho, and neither of them ever
marries. Furthermore has not been known to have engaged in this erotic play with any
of his other disciples. We can infer that Hussayn was indeed in love with Madho and
that in acting in accordance with this love, he has managed to fight off the convention
of heterosexism. We also find that Hussayn frequently cites the Punjabi romance of
Heer and Ranjha as a representation of divine love, and in these references he
analogously relates to Heer, the woman. However, he does not always refer to himself
as female, as we can see in his defense: When you look at these two true men
embracing dont think that you are witnessing a sin. This shifting around of gender
identity in his poetry goes against the assumption that gender identity is constant and
exists in strict categories.
In this essay, I have discussed the works and lives of Akka Mahadevi, Janabai,
Amir Khusro and Shah Hussayn. Particularly, I have discussed the poets views and
choices regarding gender and sexuality and shown how this played a big role, and was
an important aspect of their personal relationship with God. Furthermore I have
shown how each poet challenges the gender assumptions of their time by breaking out
of the stereotype assigned to their genders. Even though the authors wrote and lived in
different historical periods, they all shared a brave and rebellious nature and did not
feel a pressing need to conform to society and its prescribed rules. All four of them
seem gifted in their strength and confidence to do this publicly, given their status in
society and the fact that they were rebelling against the dominant social ideas of
orthodox religion. For these poets, and many other Bhakti and Sufi poets and saints,
this empowerment and courage to rebel came from passionate love and devotion to
God, and from the willingness to give themselves up, wholly, to spiritual progression.