Early Modern Period: Autobiography, Bahina Bai
This selection comes from the autobiography of Bahina Bai (1628-1700), a Hindu poetess. Most of what we know about Bahina comes from her own writings, where she tells her life story. Born into a family of the Brahmin—or priestly—caste, she was married at the age of five to a widowed thirty-year-old priest, in keeping with the practices of the time. From the age of nine, Bahina traveled throughout the villages of India, where her husband performed religious services. In one of her travels, Bahina heard the devotional verses of the Bhakti priest Tukaram (ca. 1608-1650) recited in the vernacular—not the Sanskrit of the Brahmin—and therefore accessible to all. Bahina’s encounter with Bhakti devotion, which advocates pure devotion over ritual, changed her life. She broke away from the traditions of her caste, choosing instead to follow Tukaram, who was of the lowest caste, the sudra. However, Bahina’s ability to choose her preferred method of worship did not mean a complete break with the traditions and views of her time. Rather, as the excerpt below shows, her views regarding the role of women did not change, remaining instead conservatively traditional.
This source is a part of the Women in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800 teaching module.
…My husband was a religious mendicant by profession, but a man of very angry disposition. He rushed up to the house. He seized me by the braids of my hair, and beat me to his heart’s content. . . . All this happened to me when in my eleventh year. In what duty to my husband had I failed? . . .
What am I to do with my Fate? I must bear whatever comes to my lot. I am not one who is possessed. My body is not subject to demonic possession. Therefore, holding to my own special duties, I will give my mind to listening to the Scriptures, and the winning of God. My duty is to serve my husband, for he is God to me. My husband himself is the Supreme Brahma. The water in which my husband’s feet are washed has the value of all the sacred waters put together. . . . If I transgress my husband’s commands, all the sins of the world will be on my head. The Vedas in fact say that it is the husband who has the authority in the matter of religious duties, earthly possessions, desires, and salvation. . . . I want my thought concentrated on my husband. The supreme spiritual riches are to be attained through service to my husband. I shall reach the highest purpose of my life through my husband. If I have any other God but my husband, I shall have committed . . . a sin like that of the killing of a Br_hman. . . . My husband is my means of salvation . . .
Listen, my dear ones, to the law regarding the duties of a wife. Blessed is the home-keeper of noble deeds! By merely listening to this, one’s soul will gain the final release. Without a husband, one does not keep God in mind. Blessed is she who knows herself as a dutiful wife. She carries along at the same time her household duties, and her religious duties. Such an one bears the heavens in her hands, she who understands that duties performed are Brahma, and that Brahma is the performer of duties. And she whose mind constantly contemplates God, she is recognized in the three worlds as the dutiful wife. She who holds no anger or hatred in her heart, she who has no pride of learning, she who does not associate herself with evil, she, who obedient to law, puts aside all sensual appetites, and in whom is not seen the selfish spirit, she who is ready to serve saints and s_dhus, and fulfils her husband’s commands, she indeed is a blessed dutiful wife. She who keeps the peace, who is forgiving and kindly, and compassionate towards all creatures, keeping in mind her husband’s character, she to whom her husband’s words are like nectar, blessed is her birth, blessed her mother and father! . . .
She who in everything accepts her husband’s wishes in a noble spirit, and though it might mean even death will not violate his command, blessed is she in this present world, blessed is her caste, her gotra [family line] and her family. For her comes the summons to heaven. In body, speech and mind she submits herself to her husband, and the knowledge of Brahma play at her door. Without enquiring the right or the wrong of it, she is willing to give her very life to fulfill his wish. She serves her husband as prescribed by religious rites, and is ever at his side like a slave. Says Bahin_, ‘Such an one has saved both family lines by the power of her observance of her duty to her husband’ . . .
Blessed in the three worlds, and to be praised, is the dutiful wife. She works out her own good. And if one meets such an one, one’s sins are quickly destroyed. She who recognizes her husband’s image in her heart, blessed is she in this world, and in the three worlds. In her listening it is only of his voice. In her contemplation she sees him only, and in that contemplation finds her happiness. Her thoughts differ not in the least from his. Her comfort lies always in the happiness of her lord. If such is the state of a woman . . . blessed is that dutifulness of wife. . . . Says Bahin_, ‘Blessed is her birth, and her praise is spread through the three worlds.’
Bai, Bahina. Bahina Bai: A Translation of Her Autobiography and Verses. Translated by Justine E. Abbot. Poona, India: Scottish Mission Industries Co., 1929.