Religious Studies Essays on Andal-The Only Female Alvar

Introduction

Andal is remembered for having played a significant role in promoting Hinduism. Accordingly, she is credited with the composition of great Tamil works like Thiruppavai and Nachiar Tirumozhi that are still recited by staunch believers and in preparations for marriage and weddings. It is believed that a temple’s wreath maker found Andal underneath a tree within the vicinity of Srivilliputtur temple. The wreath maker, Vishnuchittan, was also one of the 12 saints. Upon finding Andal, he first named her Kodhai before altering the name to Andal. Andal’s poetic masterpieces have been used as vows for women who desire to find suitable husbands and to profess sexual desires with appropriate partners, including God.

Her poems are intensely emotional and highly charged because they contain sexual pronouncements that profoundly impact religious traditions and artistic imaginations among people living in South India. Traditionally, Andal depicted her character as both a devotee and a goddess. Her character continues to induce and encourage devotion in the body and soul of staunch believers. In the past, researchers delved into the life of Andal, and findings have revealed complex transformations of Andal from a poet, to saint, to goddess. She is the only saint that fell in love. The intention here is to examine how Andal changed the religious tradition that created spaces for women to participate actively in societies dominated by men.

 

How Andal is Written about and Challenges Faced

The historical sources on Andal are essential in understanding the contemporary debate of women’s entry into religious spaces and participation in a broad array of activities. Margazhi reveals that religious traditions during the period between the 7th and 12th centuries were largely focusing on devotion (44). Moreover, historical sources reveal that active involvement and participation of woman devotees were hindered by prejudice (Margazhi 47). Nonetheless, religious traditions have evolved in India to demonstrate chauvinism, exclusion, and discrimination against women. Besides, historical sources reveal a trend in which there have been relative attempts to challenge chauvinism and discrimination (Ottilingam and Tejus

229). Women have come forward to change religious structures, attitudes, and in the process, transform these traditions. Traditionally, women’s spaces in religious practices were never offered. The lack of opportunity is the core reason why, in India, women sought to challenge the practices and claim these spaces for themselves. In the process, they had to contend with resistance, though sometimes they succeeded in dealing with obstacles placed along their religious paths in their quest to force acceptance.

Historical sources place Andal at the center of personal devotion, also called bhakti. Thus, Andal is depicted as the first among women to introduce this form of devotion characterized by complete submission to God. Bhakti inspired numerous poetic compositions in praise of objects of devotion. As shown, Andal, as a Tamil saint, is portrayed as a young woman that fell in love with Lord Ranganatha (Venkatesan n.p). It is written that she sought intimate and sexual fulfillment with her companion, also described as an object of devotion (Venkatesan n.p). Although Andal did not present her body to the object publicly, she repeatedly condemned the body as being valueless and unholy. As a result, Andal is one among women saints that expressed radical content to create spaces for themselves within societies dominated by men. More historical sources show that Andal was undeterred by the social norms and professed her love and claim to enter religious spaces and paved the way for other women who came later. Andal is credited with changing religious tradition during her historical time. At the time, several women also fought for their inclusion in religious rituals. They advocated for their inclusion in the temples and synagogues. Incidentally, this philosophy is used by Andal to profess her desire to establish a marital relationship with a presiding god at Srirangam temple. It is written that Andal’s social indiscretion is founded on her sexual desires, which she yearns to fulfill with the Lord (Venkatesan n.p). The actions of Andal are regarded as one of the religious traditions transformations that later changed the structure of societies.

As indicated, these women, Andal included, faced myriad challenges. These challenges include chauvinism and discrimination. Traditionally, religious traditions sought to control the entry of women in churches and even discouraged them from establishing intimate relationships. Based on this research, these were archaic practices that originated from different historical contexts and time. The contributions of women like Andal allowed women to gain entry into the temples in ancient Indian society. Unfortunately, modern India has, to some degree, controlled entry of women in religious spaces. The denial touches on discrimination, exclusion, and deprivation. There is a need for concerted efforts to deal with various forms of gender inequality. Despite Andal playing fundamental roles in eliminating the barriers that prevented them from expressing divine and human love during devotions, women are still limited.

Traditional and Modern Understandings of Andal’s Impacts

Hinduism is a complex religion because it also envisages a way of life. The tradition allowing women to act as housekeepers has exposed them as benevolent and malevolent creatures. The sacred scriptures reveal women as goddesses of wealth during the time of prosperity, and goddesses of misfortune at the time of adversity. Venkatesan shows that due to the changing power of women, men are expected to control women’s mystic power. This argument has been interpreted by most people to signify that women are natural helpers to men and assistants to their companions when performing religious rituals. Hence, women do not have defined religious roles to play as the tradition is too harsh on them. This point is anchored on the two roles that Andal played as a devotee to God and an intimate partner to the Lord. As one of the Alvars, it is highlighted that Andal falls under the category of saints of South India, a devotee to Vishnu, a supreme god, and goddess to Krishna (Venkatesan n.p). The masterpieces composed by the saints revolved around songs of desire, happiness, and service to God. These poems are addressed to and are believed to proclaim him as the Supreme Being. Though she is the only female member of the saints, Andal is regarded as one of the most useful saints from Tamil Nadu. This is anchored on her gallant contribution to religion.

The religious position of Andal is displayed through her poetry that inherently portrays the erratic nature of her religious devotion. The religion that Andal depicts in her poems is, to an extent, unstructured. However, Sushumna reveals that most religious traditions are fluid and unstructured most of the time (152). However, Andal’s self-expression of her devotion shows the gallant roles that women played in promoting Hinduism religious tradition in the past. Andal used devotion to express her assigned responsibilities. Through her poetry, it is revealed that Andal expresses her intense suffering and the experiences she had to endure because of separation from God, as well as her intimate relationship with the Lord (Ottilingam and Tejus 375). The way Andal speaks about her passionate relationship with the Lord is surprising, considering that at the time, women were prohibited from professing love to men of the temple. As highlighted, Andal is both a religious saint and goddess to the Lord. Her followers prefer to emphasize one role over the other. Andal has created complex dynamics in which believers find it interesting in positioning her influence in the broader religious tradition.

Andal contributes to religion by introducing erotic expression in devotion. The way Andal expresses her intense desire to marry and stay in a union with Krishna demonstrates a committed devotee. This has been a common practice in modern religious practice where believers feel the presence of a Supreme Being and desire to establish a lasting, eternal relationship. Though it is highlighted that Andal lived as a human on earth, her intimate love and life were purely dedicated to establishing a relationship with Krishna (Ottilingam and Tejus 378). The form of devotion that Andal contributed is well-represented in her poems that consistently use erotic imagery in communicating with devotees and her followers. Across the world, religions are characterized by different traditions and practices. The erotic devotion introduced by Andal is quite common in modern Hinduism, where believers erotically articulate their desires and requests to the Supreme Being. Perhaps, the reason why sexual imagery prominently features in Andal’s religious recitation is that it is the best technique to articulate desires filled with passion and intensity to foster a cherished union with God. Based on this, it is safe to say that Andal’s contributions to devotion are unmatched as she introduced a new method of devotion previously missing in Hinduism religious tradition.

Feminist Interpretations

The feminists are wary of the considerable collapse of the link existing between the expression of sexual urge and devotional desires. Feminists are concerned that there is a need to interpret the overlap of the two concepts introduced by Andal. According to interpretations by feminists, at its best, the accurate understanding of physical, sexual intimacy is an experience that supersedes normal life and touches on divinity (Farley 231). In this case, the religious revelation comes through spiritual power and not their bodies. Based on feminist interpretations, it should be understood that when a woman believer professes her undying love for the Supreme Being, it does not mean that he/she desires to have physical contact but is presenting herself to be used as an instrument of revelations. In theology, human intimacy exists in the erotic professions of divine love for humanity. In other words, Andal’s definition of erotic devotion is seen as a way that women intercede on behalf of others.

There is a distinction between physical love and devotional intimacy. Modern understanding of erotic devotion has attracted the interest of philosophy and theology. According to philosophers, desire is an integral method of reaching out to a Supreme Being (Ottilingam and Tejus 232). Thus, desire is essential in eliciting critical reasoning about the existence of divine power. Notwithstanding, Andal’s introduction of devotional desire has been lauded by feminists who are encouraged to use their earthly desires to pursue divinity strategically. However, feminists caution the need to take control of desires because it may transcend the divinity horizon. This means that modern believers should be able to understand what constitutes divine and human desires. It is even more troubling if believers violate the limits acceptable between human and divine love.

It is not a fallacy to state that selfless love often weighs profoundly on woman devotees who may deviate from the original intention of intercession. A woman’s sense of self-expression of love may diminish as she participates in devotions and proclamation of sacrificial love towards partners, lovers, dependents, and entities that lay claim on them. From the above feminist interpretations, Andal’s devotional love has attracted debates regarding the distinction of divine and human intimate desire. The struggle to create a boundary between the two was not the primary intention of Andal. Unfortunately, the attempt to delink divine and human love when women are involved in religious activities is profoundly blamed on the diminishing religiosity that has potentially reached its horizon in modern practice.

Conclusion

Andal is one among women who fought for recognition and created for themselves spaces that were previously unavailable. Through her poetry masterpieces, Andal created a new form of devotion involving erotic expression. Most of Andal’s poems have been interpreted to signify both human and divine love in modern society. They are recited by women believers who desire to find good husbands. This is anchored on the modern interpretation of equating Andal to human brides in modern weddings. However, in religious tradition, these brides are seen as devotees of the Lord. The intimate desire of Andal towards Krishna made her a role model among many believers and devotees. In essence, Andal’s fervent commitment is an inspiration to young brides who struggle with lives regarding the establishment of long-lasting intimate unions. Andal’s poems and historical representation of Andal is an encouragement that people need unwavering commitment directed towards the achievement of desired passions. When it comes to religious tradition, the feminist interpretations continue to advocate for the need to distinguish between human and divine love during devotions.

 

Works Cited

Ottilingam, Somasundaram, and Tejus, Murthy. “Alvars of South India: A Psychiatric Scanner”.

Indian J Psychiatry, 59(3), 2017, pp. 375–379.

Ottilingam, Somasundaram, and Tejus, Murthy. Manimekalai: The Ancient Buddhist Tamil

Epic, its Relevance to Psychiatry. Indian J Psychiatry. 58, 2016, pp. 229–232.

Sushumna, Kannan. “Rethinking Femininity and Transgression in Andal”. Journal of Vaishnava

            Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2014, pp 147-166.

Venkatesan, Archana. “A Woman’s Kind of Love: Female Longing in the Tamil Alvar Poetry”.

Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, Vol. 20, Article 8, 2007, https://doi.org/10.7825/2164-6279.1383. Accessed December 1, 2019.