A summary of exemplary females from history in the Vaishnava tradition.
The world, in its entirety, cannot be complete without considering the importance of women in almost any aspect of life. When it comes to spirituality, their influence is even more so as it is women who sow the seeds of goodness in the family, which slowly spreads out into society. Mother is the first teacher of every living entity and that is why women play a vital role in moulding the spiritual journey of an individual.
Following the Vaishnava tradition is generally (wrongly) conceptualised to be extremely difficult with loads of restrictions and lesser flexibility in living one’s life. Reality is far from this. Vaishnava tradition opens up the doors to ultimate bliss, by simply rendering your senses into the path of devotion to the Lord instead of materialistic flickering gains. Visiting a Vaishnava temple during a festival is living proof of this. The abundance of décor, arts, music, dance, foodstuffs, clothing and so many blissful faces is direct verification of the permanent ecstasy that devotees experience. Be it noted or not, it is the great women following the Vaishnava tradition who are the very pillars of support behind this abundance. Ranging from décor to music, nothing would be complete without these prodigious ladies who not only enjoy the aroma of delight in Vaishnavism but also spread it to places far and wide.
Another wrong perception is that devotion cannot be practised in the household, especially by the ladies. Devotion can never be bound by rules of how it should be practised. Surrendering to the Supreme can be done anywhere and at any time. Since time immemorial, whenever the Lord decided to appear in human form, he did so among his household devotees who were sincerely engaged in his devotion. Renunciation from the house has never been a necessity for devotion. The essence is to orient your whole house towards the Lord in such a way that renunciation of materialistic issues come just as normally as any other chore. This article sheds light on some distinguished but less discussed Vaishnava ladies of the recent past who maintained a high level of devotion within the household. Not with an intention to overlook the illustrious saintesses who gave up the world, but just to highlight the ones who have held Vaishnavism in high esteem even at home.
Firstly, discussing devotion while in the world, we shall look at Queen Ganeshdei of Orchha – the rightful wife of King Madhukar Shah. Just like her husband, she was candidly engaged in devotion of Lord Vishnu in the form of Rama. Spending time among the saints and devotees of Lord Ramachandra was among her daily duties which did not come in the way of the care that was supposed to be given to her citizens in general. She maintained prosperity in her house through righteousness. Once, she travelled to Ayodhya for a festival and continued to stay there for days even after the completion of festivities. The king mockingly sent a message asking her, “Do you intend to bring Lord Rama with yourself, and then only return back?” The queen then decided to make this happen. She sat on the banks of the river Sarayu and pleaded her heart to her Lord. Lord Rama, knowing her chastity, came to her in the form of a Shri Vigraha and offered to travel and stay with her forever. Such was the devotion of Queen Ganeshdei who successfully served as a queen to her empire, a wife to her husband and a devotee to the Lord. The Ramalala temple of Orchha still stands at heights and speaks of her greatness.
It is often misunderstood that only people living a comfortable life are inclined towards devotion. The divine characters of Shri Banka ji do away with this concept. Banka ji was the wife of Rankaji. The couple was indefinitely devoted to Lord Panduranga and lived a life of extreme simplicity and hardship. They daily collected wood from the forests, sold it and somehow managed to have a meal. Looking at their state, Shri Namdevji requested Lord Panduranga to assist them. Abiding by this request, Lord Vitthala once dropped a bag of gold coins on their way to the forest. Rankaji was walking ahead and thought that maybe my wife might be carried away by seeing gold and thus he began to cover it up with mud. After walking a distance, Rankaji asked him what he was covering and he truthfully conveyed the scene. Listening to this, the virtuous Banka ji exclaimed, “that was someone else’s money, it is as good as mud! You need not cover up mud with mud!” Hearing this, Rankaji was filled with immense pride for his wife. Seeing his assistance neglected, the Lord decided to further try by picking up packs of wood and saving his devotees some physical work. When they saw wood packed up in stacks, the couple thought that these stacks have already been collected by another wood picker and it will be totally wrong to steal his hard work. Such was the renunciation of the two, who maintained their devotion while keeping up with ultimate loyalty to one another. The beautiful poems of Maharashtra still claim Vitthala to be the beloved Lord of Shri Ranka and Banka ji.
The heart-touching legend of Nanibai, the daughter of Narsi Mehta speaks volumes of how devotion can help one even through the turbulence of this material world. Married off in a well to do and established rich house, she was tortured for being the child of a hermit. Living with a family who did not support her, she stood unperturbed in her devotion and managed to cross through so many hurdles that came her way, eventually giving her the honour she deserved. On the occasion of her daughter’s wedding, the in-laws of Nanibai demanded huge amounts of gold, silver, clothing and other gifts from her father’s house as per the ritualistic mayra which is done in Gujarat. Having Lord Krishna as her brother, she appealed to him to keep her honour. The Lord generously responded by coming as a brother and loading her house with gifts of such massive volumes that could not be handled by the entire village. Exemplary was her devotion which stood firm in the stormiest situations and even emerged victorious!
These wonderful and heart-warming examples are not limited to married women. Manjula, the girl of a flower picker in Guruvayur won the hearts of all devotees through her unconditional love for Lord Guruvayurappa. Each day, she affectionately made flower garlands for the Lord and brought it for offering at the temple. On a particular day, she was late and by the time she reached the Banyan tree on the temple pathway, the temple doors closed. Depressed and guilty, the young girl began to cry. Poonthanam, a devotee of the Lord saw her and told her that the Lord is omnipresent and therefore she could offer the garland at the tree itself and it would be accepted. Trusting his words, she placed her garland at the roots of the tree and went back. The next day, when the priest was taking off the garlands from Lord Guruvayurappa, one of the garlands would not move! However much he tried, the flower garland remained stuck on the Lord until Poonthanam came and recognised that this was indeed Majula’s garland which the Lord accepted from the banyan tree. Devotion can mature at any stage and any place as proven by the tender offering of Majula which is commemorated even today at the same banyan tree.
These few personalities shed light as to how devotion in Vaishnavism can be celebrated and followed in any stage of life, without any restrictions. There are many more such devotees who continue to allure the Lord even today and there is so much to learn from them & to try and absorb a tiny fraction of their subtle goodness!