We seek to amplify the teachings and artistry of the shamanesses, the fringe-walkers, the not-so-known contributors to the traditions of Bhakti and Tantra. Inclusivity and equity are driving forces for the vision of our school and fundamental to how we offer our work in the world. Through our own research, we aim to raise awareness and centre the teachings of mystics from all genders and classes. Limited by our access to these teachers through the depiction of translators, here are three female voices–of so very many–that we wish to honour and celebrate.
Karaikal Ammaiyar – Tamil Bhakti Mystic (c. 550-)
I aspired to only one thing.
I settled on that one thing and left the rest.
I kept inside my heart only that one thing;
the lord who bears the Gaṅgā
the lord whose locks are adorned with the sun and the moon
the lord whose palm holds the flaming fire;
and I have become a servant to him.
– Ammaiyar (translator unknown), Aṟputat Tiruvantāti “Sacred Linked Verses of Wonder,” verse 11
“The Revered Mother of Karaikal” is one of the three women amongst the 63 Nayanmars (Shiva saints) and one of the greatest figures of early Tamil literature. Devoted to the dancing Lord of Tiruvālankādu, she believed in the supremacy of personal love for the Divine over the formalities of ritual and protocol of the orthodox religious culture.
Ammaiyār rejected the norms of beauty and domesticity in favour of her devotion. It is said that she begged Shiva to take away her attractiveness so that she could be set free from the trappings and expectations of society. In her book, For the Love of God: Women Poet Saints of the Bhakti Movement, Sandhya Mulchandani describes that Ammaiyār “came to identify herself as a pey (a ghoul) or Shiva’s gana, the impish, grotesque creatures who were part of His entourage.” She was renowned for her severe austerities, and the power of her songs, written in her mother tongue, that conjured up visions of Shiva dancing. Her bhakti vision is distinctive in that she foregrounds the cremation ground in her poetry; a liminal space viewed by Tantrik successors as an access point for the Divine.
In this fearsome burning ground
the heat bursts the tall bamboo
popping its white pearls
and desiccated pey
clamor as they gather to feast on corpses
while the enchanter dances
beheld with wonder
by the daughter of the mountain lord.
– Ammaiyar (translator unknown), Tiruvalankattut Tiruppatikam, “Sacred Hymns on Tiruvalankatu,” verse 8
Akka Mahadevi – Kannada Poet, Saint, Mystic (c. 1130-1160)
Don’t hold me. Don’t
Stop me. Let go
Of my hand, the hem
Of my sari
Guru became kin,
Linga, the bridegroom
And I, the bride
The whole world knows
Chennamallikarjuna is my husband,
No one else can be my man.
– trans. H. S. Shivprakash
Akka, or “Elder Sister” was a poet of the Virasaiva Bhakti movement. The Virashaivaites name means “heroic” or “strong” worshipers of Siva. These lingam-bearers were social and spiritual revolutionaries in Karnataka, known for their rejection of the caste system, elaborate temple rituals, the emphasis they placed upon the rights of women and departure from classical traditions of orthodox Hinduism and local folklore.
Akka Mahadevi was born in a village called Udatadi in Karnataka raised a Jain, in a family of Siva devotees. “According to legends, she was a beautiful woman and Kaushika, the Jain ruler of the region, fell in love with her. However, some accounts suggest that despite Kaushika’s proposal to marry Akka, the latter not only refused, but when forced, renounced her family, discarded her clothes and left the village covered only in her long tresses.” (https://feminisminindia.com/2017/09/14/akka-mahadevi-essay/)
As a wandering, unclothed, aesthetic, she wrote poetry in local vernacular, in the form of vacanas, a literary form that arose in protest to the belief that Sanskrit was the sole divine language. The word vacana means “to give one’s word” or “to make a promise or commitment.” Her writing focuses on the concepts of alienation, societal expectations, separation, and adulterous love with Chennamallikarjuna, her beautiful Lord, pure as jasmine. Her pursuit of enlightenment led her to a community in Basavaklyanda, where she resided and learned alongside other non-conformists. Akka will be remembered for her stark rejection of female modesty and worldly constraints and her unbridled intimacy with the Divine.
male and female,
blush when a cloth covering their shame
When the lord of lives
lives drowned without a face
in the world, how can you be modest?
When all the world is the eye of the lord,
onlooking everywhere, what can you
cover and conceal?
– trans. Vinaya Chaitanya
Lal Děd – Kashmir Mystic, Poet, Saint (c. 1317 – 1373)
You made a promise in the womb.
Will you keep it or won’t you?
Die before death can claim you
and they will honour you when you go.
– Lal Děd, trans. Ranjit Hoscote
Lalla was born into a Brahmin family in the northernmost region of the Indian subcontinent either in Sempore or in Pandrenthan. Married at the age of twelve, she was given a new name, Padmāvati. It is said that the conditions of her marriage were hostile, filled with cruel treatment from her husband and brutal behaviour of her mother-in-law. At the age of twenty-six, she renounced the safety and security of home and family to become a renunciate under the guidance of Siddha Śrīkāntha. She was trained in the mystical traditions and spiritual practices of Kashmir Śaivism.
“Braving the trials and humiliations that came her way, Lalla grew in stature to become a questor and a teacher. Lalla was a wanderer who deliberately de-classed herself, used the demotic rather than the elite language, and refused to found a new movement or join an established order” (Ranjit Hoscote, I Lalla, the Poems of Lal Děd).
In her writing, she juxtaposes the mundane with the eternal, ripping, clawing, and wrestling with consciousness, itself. Lalla’s poems were composed in a form called vākhs, from the Sanskrit word, vāc, meaning speech or voice. These ‘utterances’ were among the earliest known pieces of Kashmiri literature created in the common language of the region. Her work has been circulated, her life made legend, and her poetry grows deep roots in the hearts of many aspirants on the path of yoga.
Shiva’s the horse and Vishnu’s at the saddle,
Brahma’s cheering at the stirrup.
Only the yogi, artful in breath and posture,
can say which god shall mount and ride this horse.
He who strikes the Unstruck Sound,
calls space his body and emptiness his home,
who has neither name nor colour nor family nor form,
who, meditating on Himself, is both Source and Sound,
is the god who shall mount and ride this horse.
– Lal Děd, trans. Ranjit Hoscote