The little-known Srivaisnava sect in Tamil Nadu is among the few religious traditions in India that treats women on par with men
The status of women in Indian religious traditions has for long been a hotly debated and highly contentious issue. Since religion still plays an important role in the life of most Indians, what different religions have to say about women has a crucial bearing on women’s status even in our own times. Few Indian religious traditions have accorded women rights equal to that of men. Among these is the little-known Srivaisnava sect in Tamil Nadu.
As its name suggests, the Srivaisnava community has Vishnu as its principal deity, particularly in his form as Krishna. What sets apart the Srivaisnavas from other Vishnu worshippers, is the corpus of Tamil devotional poetry written by a series of ancient saints known as the Alvars which, collectively, are considered to be the Tamil equivalent of the Vedas.
The devotional texts of the Srivaisnavas date to early medieval times – between the seventh and ninth centuries AD. Of the twelve major Alvar poets of the Srivaisnavas, the leading figure is that of the female mystic saint Antal. Antal (literally ‘she who rules’), who is regarded by her disciples as a goddess, composed a number of devotional hymns addressed to Krishna, peppered with strains of strong social protest against the oppression of women and the lower castes. These hymns form the core of Srivaisnava liturgy.
Because of the central role of Antal in the development of the Srivaisnava community, the sect accords a status to women that is in marked difference from classical Brahminism. As it came to be developed over the centuries, Brahminism emerged as a rigidly patriarchal tradition, consigning women to the position of servants of their husbands who were to be treated as little less than gods themselves. Thus, for instance, in the Manusmriti and Yajnavalkya, classical sources of Brahminical law, women were classed along with Shudras as low and contemptible. They were denied the possibility of liberation (moksha) and it was held that they could only attain salvation upon being reborn as men in a future life.
Through their mystical writings, the Srivaisnava Tamil saints registered a strong protest against this Brahminical oppression of women. They held out the possibility of salvation for all, men as well as women, including even those belonging to the so-called low castes. Salvation was attainable not simply through knowledge and recitation of the Vedas or the performance of elaborate sacrificial rites, as in the case of Brahminism, but through complete devotion and surrender to Krishna or Krishna Bhakti. This strong egalitarianism in early Srivaisnavism is best exemplified by the fact that besides the female Antal, among the Alvar saints were Tiruppan, an outcaste, and Nammalvar, a Shudra.
The Srivaisnavas believe the writings of the Alvars to be the Tamil Vedas and unlike in the case of classical Brahminism, allow women, too, access to them in order to gain the spiritual insights that are considered the first stage on the path to salvation. In the Tenkalai branch of the Srivaisnavas, salvation is seen as simply an expression of God’s own grace or prapatti. In this regard, the example of Draupadi is often quoted who, while being violently disrobed by the Kauravas, simply uttered Krishna’s name and was saved by him. In fact, the medieval Tenkalai scholar Pillai Lokacharya noted that at that time Draupadi was saved despite being in a state of menstruation. Thus, in sharp contrast to the orthodox Brahmins who believed that menstruating women were a source of great ritual pollution, Srivaisnavas hold that women can gain access to God at all times. Indeed, so important a status did Pillai Lokacharya grant women that he wrote that just as the word ‘mother’ (amma) comes spontaneously to a person when in trouble, so, too does the Vedic mantra Om. Thus, all, including women and low castes, can repeat it in order to gain access to God.
Since, unlike in classical Brahminism, all persons, no matter what their station in life, can attain salvation, the Srivaisnava saints stressed that there was no need for one to renounce the world (vanaspratha) and become a yogi so as to acquire moksha. By thus transcending the divide between yogis and non-yogis, Srivaisnava women who have surrendered themselves to God, enjoy a status equal to that of yogis in the Brahminical tradition. What is more, women’s relationship with God is also often seen as paradigmatic for male devotees themselves. Since salvation can be had only through an intense bond of love between the believer and God, male devotees often assume the fe
male role in this divine love relationship. It was perhaps this that induced the later Srivaisnavas to turn Antal into a Goddess. Her relationship with God came to be seen as a model for male worshippers to emulate.
The relatively high status of women in the Srivaisnava tradition is not limited simply to the spiritual sphere alone. Rather, in their own personal, family and social lives, Srivaisnava women enjoyed a status considerably better than under orthodox Brahminism. Thus, although sati was common in Tamil Nadu, the Alvars condemned it sternly. Srivaisnava widows, unlike other Hindu widows, did not have to shave their heads. In fact, they were considered, in some sense, to be auspicious rather than as a sign of bad luck, for their deceased husbands were believed to have joined God in the supreme heaven, vaikunth. While in Brahminical Hinduism the birth of a daughter was thought to be a great misfortune and a son was considered necessary to propitiate the ancestors to ensure their entry into heaven, the Alvar saints taught quite the contrary. In the words of the Srisandiliya Vishita Parama Dharmashastra, an important Srivaisnava devotional text:
"For the sake of a son, he a Srivaisnava male may not marry another woman, for the yogis have (only) karma (good deeds) as their son. A person who performs karma, though without a son, reaches the Supreme, and another who is not a karmi does not, even though he possesses an exalted son."
The higher status enjoyed by Tamil Srivaisnava women may actually be a reflection of a strong matriarchal Dravidian tradition protesting against the imposition of rigidly patriarchal Aryan Brahminism. At a time today when resurgent Brahminism, in the garb of aggressive Hindu nationalism, is fast on the ascendant, auguring ill for all Indian women irrespective of religion, the woman-positive religious traditions of the Srivaisnavas of Tamil Nadu assumes particular relevance.