"An ant swallowed the sun" : women mystics in medieval Maharashtra and medieval England

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2015-05

Authors

Sinha, Jayita

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Abstract

This project examines mystical discourse in medieval India and medieval England as a site for the construction of new images of women and the feminine. I study the poems of three women mystics from western India, Muktabai (c. 1279-1297), Janabai (c. 1270-1350) and Bahinabai (c. 1628-1700) in conjunction with the prose accounts of the two most celebrated women mystics of late medieval England, Julian of Norwich (c. 1343-after 1413) and Margery Kempe (c. 1373-after 1438). My principal areas of inquiry are: self-authorizing strategies, conceptions of divinity, and the treatment of the domestic. I find that the three Hindu mystics deploy a single figure, the guru, as their primary source of spiritual authority. In contrast, the self-authorization of Julian and Margery is more diffuse, for the two mystics record testimony from a variety of sources, including Christ himself, to prove their spiritual credentials. The texts under scrutiny offer variously gendered models of the divine; three of the five mystics show preference for a feminized god. Julian and Bahinabai invest their deities with physical and mental attributes that were labelled feminine, such as feeding and nurturing. However, both women accept God’s sexed body as fundamentally male. Janabai is the most innovative of the mystics in her gendering of the divine; her deity Vitthal’s sexed body can be either male or female, although (s)he typically undertakes chores that were the province of women. Janabai is not the only mystic to attempt a reconciliation of the domestic and the spiritual. As narrated in the Booke, Christ expresses willingness to help Margery with her baby, although the text is silent about whether this offer was accepted or not. In addition, Margery undertakes domestic tasks for God and his family, thus investing them with a new dignity. My study demonstrates that as the mystics address questions of women’s relationship with the divine, they go beyond binary frameworks, positing fluid boundaries between male and female, body and spirit, and mundane and spiritual. Thus, these texts can be harnessed to engage creatively with the model of inclusive feminine spirituality expounded by feminist thinker Luce Irigaray, particularly in Between East and West (2002).

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