Muktabai: Bakta saint of Maharastra


The Bhakta tradition throughout history in India being perhaps the most inclusive within Hinduism has given rise to the greatest number of female saints, ascetics, and poets. From Mirabai, to Lal Del the tradition of being in love with the divine is acceptable and encouraged. Women’s poetry exists in Tamil, Kannada, Hindi and Marathi, calling out their love in poetry and devotional songs. Many speak of their lives, their devotion, and miracles.

In 13th century Maharastra, India,  Muktabai was one of these women. Although born to a Brahmin family, her father was considered outcast, when he gave up his sanyas and returned to his wife, where he then bore four children. Because of this he had lost his caste status as a Brahmin and penalized for his choice. She and her three brothers never married or had families of their own.

She compiled 41 known abhangs (songs) throughout her life, and was considered one of the first Vakhari saints which began with her brother Jñāneśvar, who was equally respected in his own right.

One of her essential poet/teachings is the Tatiche Abhanga (The Song of the Door)

An ascetic is pure in mind and forgives the offences of people. If the world is hot as fire owing to exasperation, a sage should with pleasure be cool as water. If people hurt them with weapons of words, saints should treat those remarks as pieces of advice. This universe is a single piece of cloth woven with the one thread of Brahman, so please open the door, O Jnaneshwar.”

Muktabai’s songs are of ascension and moving beyond the maundane.

Where darkness is gone I live,
where I am happy.
I am not troubled by coming and going,
I am beyond all vision,
above all spheres.
His spirit lives in my soul.

Mukta says: He is my heart’s only home.”

As the writer Eleanor Zelliot writes:

“Using the Marathi love of colorful irony and equal love of puzzles and riddles, Muktabai put her sense of the wonderful mystery of life in these words:

the zoom art swallowed the sun

the barren woman, begot the sun

a scorpion went to the lower depths

sesha bowed to him, with a thousand heads

a pregnant fly delivered a hawk

having seen it all

mukta smiled. (1)

Muktabai not only created a voice for her own devotion, but paved the way for many women to follow her lead.


(1) Women Saints of Maharastra., Faces of the Feminine in Ancient Medieval and Modern India. Mandakranta Bose (Eds).


Lal Ded – ‘Lal the Womb’ The Naked Sufi Saint

[I was passionate]

By Lal Ded

Translated by Jane Hirshfield

I was passionate,
filled with longing,
I searched
far and wide.
But the day
that the Truthful One
found me,
I was at home.
Lal Ded, “[I was passionate]” translated by Jane Hirshfield, from Women in Praise of the Sacred (New York: Harper Collins, 1994).(
One of my favorite teachers of all time is Lal Del, or Lallaswari. A 14th C Kashmiri woman who followed her dharma and became a celebrated mystic.  Although born into a strict household, and married at the young age of 12, she saught truth, found a teacher, became a saint, and ultimately left her home at the age of 26 where she studied with the studied with the Shaiva saint, Sed Boyu (Sidda Shrikantha).
Poetry and History
Her poetry (vakyas)  survives  her to this day. A total of 258 vakhs  are attributed to her since 14th CE to present day. As it was traditional at the time to give oral transmissions, and memorize the teachings her poetry was remembered and eventually documented for future generations. Becase of this, she must have been regarded especially for her time in addition to the fact that she was a woman this is extraordinary.  Although left out of most of the Kashmiri history books that mostly concerned themselves with economic and political changes, her voice remained among the people. The award winning writer and translator Ranjit Hoskote wrote;
“Meanwhile, beneath the line of visibility set by the patriarchy, Lal’s poems were weaving themselves into Kashmir’s popular consciousness.”
She was first mentioned in a 1587account of saints in the valley of Kashmir, written by Mullah Ali Raina, and again seven years later in another text where she offered a bowl to a sultans’ son, possibly symbolizin a Tantric initiation. It wouldn’t be until 1736 that we see her life story appear again in the Tarikh -i-azami. (Ranjit Hoskote)
Her Faith
She was a contemporary to Mirabai, (also wondering bhakti saint for Krishna) and took Shiva as her muse. She was revered by Hindus and Muslims alike, as that period many religious distinctions were broken down. Discarding any need for clothes and purdha, she represented her freedom for all to see. She also danced and sang in publice which at the time

Lalla, think not of things that are without                                                                                                     Fix upon thy inner self thy thought                                                                                                               So shall thou be freed from  doubt.

Dance then, Lalla, clad but in the sky                                                                                                            Air and sky, what garment is more fair?                                                                                                   Cloth, says custom, (but) does that satisfy?

This poem translated by Ranjit Hoskote sums up her simple realitiy of life.

Don’t think I did all this to get famous.
I never cared for the good things of life.
I always ate sensibly. I knew hunger well,
and sorrow, and God.
Lalla paved the way for other female saints creating the legitimate space for futrue generations.

Khema, the arhat, the teacher, the nun, and the consort to the King

Khema was another nun of the Therigatha. She was mentioned in the texts as becoming an arhat immediately; at the time the Buddha showed her the inevitable demise of her beauty. In doing so, she surpasses many male disciples.
Little backstory is given in the texts about her history, as is true for many of the women around the Buddha that are mentioned from time and again. She comes into light already as a beautiful Courtesan to King Bimbasara, the King of the mahapada (kingdom) of Magadha. The largest city in that mahapada.

What happens is that one-day, she is coerced to come and dance for the Buddha. She is a skilled and talented dancer, a quality of many courtesans at the time. In the garden, where she meets him, she has an awakening. The Buddha has tricked her. He has created a fabrication of a women that is much more beautiful than she. Given that Khema has never seen a woman so beautiful she is taken back. Then, before her eyes the beautiful sight is transformed. She begins to age, and her beauty then falls away. She becomes hollow, a shell of her former self. Khema watches this in shock. It’s this moment where she had as complete realization. What is written in the texts is that she became an arhat. She spontaneously had a revelation and was enlightened.

This story leaves out some details about Khema that happened before her. One is that she becomes instantly enlightened, but this tells us little about her before hand. How did this awakening actually come about? In the later Mahayana sutras, we find out that this was not her first rodeo. She, like the Buddha and other ahrats and other lifetimes. In this lifetime the causes and conditions were ripe for her realization in this one.

But what was it that she saw? Impermanence. No-self. True awareness. It was the perfect storm of her own merit and what she needed to become awake.
Khema earned the title of one of the first awakened disciples of the Buddha. She became a leader among the theri, a teacher, a mentor and skilled adept.

Many of these women in the earliest days of Buddhism had similar stories. So why did the Buddha decree that by his letting women to enter into the sangha, increases the likelihood of demise of Buddhism to 500 years? Why even suggest that knowing what tremendous spiritual feats these women are capable of? Many scholars think the answer to this contradiction lay in the time it took to codify the stories of the Pali Cannon (over 100 years after the Buddha’s death) and the political atmosphere at the time. Perhaps at the time, there was a reason for blaming or even pushing women out of their place among the sangha.



Dhammadinna, the Introduction to the Therigatha, and Their Importance

In whom desire to reach the final rest

Is born suffusing all the mind of her,

Whose heart by lure of sense-desire no more

Is held – Bound Upstream:- so shall she be called.

Psalms Of The Sisters – Caroline Rhys Davids

In the work of the Therigatha, the collection of first hand poetry from the first ordained nuns (theri = nuns, gatha = song/story) is evidence of their teachings. This the only text dedicated to their teachings. This blog will be exploring many different nuns from text.

One of the greatest women teachers in this and in reference to other texts in the Cannon is Dhammadinna. Dhammadinna appears in both the Majjhima-nikaya and the Culavedalla-sutta. One of the reason she of her importance is that she is one of the first women, and in fact one of the first disciples to have been said to become an aharat, the highest form of spiritual accomplishment.

The story varies in each of these texts. In each she is asked questions from a man named Visakha. In texts he is her husband, or husband to be, in others possibly another female disciple. Such is the nature of texts that have been compiled at different times over long expanses and history. When her husband approached her after they had separated, wondering what she had learned after she had gone off to live in the vihara, (the monastery) she answered all of his questions thoroughly and without hesitation. For the complete teaching from the Majjihma Nikaya  go to this blog from James Ford.

Why is this Important?

What’s even more unique about the conversation between Dhammadinna and Visaka is that they are  teaching for the intended audience. So those of us listening or reading  that story are being taught by a women, teaching a man. Almost unheard of in 6th C BCE. Which indeed is a conscious choice of those compiling the original suttas. The mere thought that there was a women in this position was an indication that there were probably more like her.

Then in the same vein, as if there was any doubt, Visaka goes to the Buddha himself to tell him, and in doing so verifies that Dhammadinna’s answers were indeed correct. To which the Buddha replied that they indeed were. He celebrates Dhammadinna right there and then having the gift of dharmavocana, “the speech of the Dharma”, and in doing so says she has also achieved arahthood. She went on to teach both women and men, and was applauded for her mastery of the Dharma.

Suspicious Death of Dhammadinna

What happened to Theri Dhammadinna is not clear. In one sutta, she is killed by Devadatta, as she tries to stop him from entering into the vihar with dirty feet.

Is it possible what was behind this story of the murder of a nun was due to her power as an influential teacher? Was it dangerous for women to have any authority in the sangha in the early days of Buddhism? We cannot know for sure, but if there is any indication –  even today it is unsafe in many Buddhist communities for women to be strong leaders and teachers.

The Feminine Voice of What?

Dharma: What do we even mean by this?

As in any lexicon, words shift and shape into multiple meanings. Lets unpack the origin, and evolution of a word or phrase we use interchangibly and effortlessly, throughout this blog.

ध: Dha

Firstly, the aspirated letter is “A name of Bhrama” or “Virtue, moral merit.” This is the first place to begin. With the word, concept, and noun.

According to Monier-Williams, dharma was first seen in the Rig Veda, as “that which is established or firm, steadfast decree, statue, ordinance, law”…moving into a usage that is more about “customary observance, or prescribed conduct, duty; right, justice.” Then moving along in the Atharvaveda becoming “Law or Justice personif(ied) sic.” So in the early days, pre-Buddhist the term, was more concerned with law, and interaction with one’s duty. In an Upanishad it then starts to become more of “associating with the virtuous; religious abstraction, devotion.” This is were we see the confluence between law, and religious devotion, and virtuousness. As in, ‘following the spiritual path as personal duty’.

With the formation and codification of the Pali Cannon, the term ‘dharma’ becomes; “the law or doctrine of Buddhism (as distinguished from the sangha or monastic order).” So when speaking about “The Dharma” it becomes “the teaching” of the Buddha, that one then takes refuge, (“the Dharma, the Sangha, and the Buddha”).

This blog concerns itself with the women in history that have studied, practiced and taught “The Dharma” of Buddhism, in addition to those women who have followed their dharma, spiritual purpose, or personal law to their fullest extent. In this context, we all have our dharma, as included in the universe of things. The universe itself has its own dharma, and we are also included in that. Neither of which are mutually exclusive of each other

Hopefully, as we move forward it now that makes more sense. Ultimately, there is a lot of wiggle room here for us to explore within this context as we learn about these insightful and dedicated women, and a ways to go to learn from them, hopefully in their own words.


Happy International Women’s Day

Happy International Women’s Day!

I’ve taken the opportunity to launch this blog on this auspicious day for two reasons.

  • It’s a day to celebrate women from all over the world, and the population of women who have dedicated their lives to the dharma is incredibly global.
  • It’s also a day that we have the opportunity learn something about the lives of women we may never had previously known.

Now that it makes sense, why this blog?

There are many academic circles discussing the topics that I want to address here in this blog. There are a few that even cover the same topics. The Sakyadhita blog ( is a great place to go for more information) but few commentaries on this topic are written in a way that is accessible to everyone.



Women have always been the corner stone of both Buddhism and in Hinduism. Form the beginning of Buddhism, women were lay practitioners, benefactors and supporters of the movement. Then when the Buddha finally allowed women to become ordained, and did so giving eight more rules for them to abide on top of the rules for monks they became teachers, and prominent among the laity.

We see similar stories among women who dedicated their lives under a Hinduist, spiritual philosophy or belief. (I use the phrase Hinduist because of the incredible diversity which fall under Hinduism, and prescribe to types of philosophies.) Of course there were women who shaped these thoughts and beliefs as saints, and mystics. The issues here are the lack of awareness about these women, and the sets of constraints they encountered from the beginning leading up until this day.

I hope to uncover these obscurities, bringing their voices forward from the ancient to the modern, from the sidelines into the front. As we scholars learn more about the roles that women did play, it informs the culture and these roles moving forward. That’s the story that I want to tell here.

Its amazing how little is known about the rich history of spiritual achievement and contribution that women throughout thousands of years (thousands yes!). When I teach classes on this topic, students are always blown away by this. My hope is that you will join me in this journey too.

Political and Social Ramifications

Another reason for this blog is to bring to light some of the complexities in the discussion around women and these two religious domains. In both contemporary women who have followed in the the footsteps of these amazing predocessors still don’t receive equal respect, or economic support, as their same male monastics. This inequality has been exposed and will continue to be exposed, but the basis is rooted from the ignorance that women never played a role. In order to change the embedded inequality we must first uproot these  antiquated notions. Women have always been there along side men, teaching, supporting, making spiritual strides as devoted practitioners, and adepts. 

Female Juna Acara at the Maha Kumbha Mela 2012 Photo by the author